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Driving through COVID

The trip left me with a vivid picture of the extended impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
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Last weekend I drove home from Fort Myers to Detroit. The trip left me with a vivid picture of the extended impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Fly or Drive?

I’d been in Florida since the end of December, except for a short, pre-coronavirus flight to Michigan and back in January. The pandemic stranded me in Florida, with my wife locked down in Detroit.

We fretted for weeks about when and how I should return. Every day made it tougher as the pandemic spread and the uncertainties about good travel strategies piled up.

If I flew, would the flight be empty or packed? Would the plane be sanitized, and how would I know what that meant? What if all flights were grounded just before my departure?

The driving option dawned slowly. I do like road trips. But driving nonstop for 20 hours singlehandedly was not going to happen. Should I bring sandwiches and plan on sleeping in the car? If I checked into a motel, would that be any safer than checking into a flight?

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What about timing? While my wife and I dithered, Detroit was turning into a pandemic hot spot. Did that make returning a dumb idea? But southwest Florida was rapidly turning into a hot spot of its own. Should I leave before it got worse? Wait until it got better? Did it matter?

Finally, we gave up on the prospect of making a rational decision. I opted to drive, getting more excited about going home—and more apprehensive about the perils of getting there—by the minute.

Hitting the Road

I-75 runs uninterrupted between Fort Myers and Detroit, and beyond in both directions. When I hit the road early Saturday morning, a sense of tranquility immediately washed over me. Much of it was the simple relief of making a decision, good or bad, and getting on with it.

Off I went, resolving not to turn the radio on or listen to music for the entire trip. Instead, I hummed tunes. “Country Roads” came to mind.

The passing scenery soon lulled me into thinking everything out there was okay. Spring was turning to summer in the South and soon would be doing the same in Michigan. A season of renewal and regeneration was playing out right there in front of me.

But there was no escaping reality. I saw reminders everywhere that it was definitely not okay out there. I was beginning to feel a subtle and far deeper emotional appreciation about the scope of this disaster than was possible by watching the breathless, ER-focus of the daily crisis coverage on TV.

The impact didn’t fully hit me until the day after I got home. On the road, it was first-things-first: working out the mechanics of fueling stops, food breaks and the uncertainty perils of an impending motel stay.

But from the first hour of my trip, the true magnitude of the pandemic’s disruption to life as we know it began to seep in.

Road Mix

Traffic was very light, which made the driving itself unexpectedly pleasant. This, I mused, must have been what long-distance driving was like in the 1950s, when the interstate system was coming into being and there were far fewer cars than today.

Clearly, many people were taking the stay-at-home orders seriously, in spite of gasoline selling for as little a $1.37 per gallon in parts of the South.

It was especially pleasing to see so few big trucks on the road. As anyone who has used I-75 knows, it’s a major artery for long-haul commercial hauling. The backups when those big rigs make their slow-motion passes are the bane of civilians just trying to make good time. Having fewer of them around felt good.

Then I started thinking about why truck traffic was so thin. We’ve seen news stories on TV about truckers risking their health to keep us supplied with food and other necessities. Those drivers were still out there. So who wasn’t?

I quickly saw an answer. There is a far larger group of men and women in the trucking profession who literally have nowhere to go because the factories, retail stores and other businesses they normally supply are shut down. I was beginning to feel a little presumptuous about enjoying the uncluttered, open road.

I also started thinking about who else was out there with me on the highway. Their license plates told me they were locals, not just passing through as I was. I got to wondering, did they still have their jobs? Were they okay? No telling from a passing glance at 75 mph.

Billboard Disconnect

Soon I began to notice something strange along the side of the road. There was an unusually large number of billboards with the same message: “Your ad would look great here!”

No doubt, but what’s this all about? My first thought was that maybe those billboard owners need better sales people. Then I connected the dots. What’s the point of advertising to empty highways? Outdoor advertising is another industry knocked off its feet by the steps needed to control the spread of the coronavirus.

I began to pay more attention to what the other billboards were saying. It was the signs about sit-down restaurant chains that figuratively knocked me off my feet. The messaging wasn’t new. But its sunny optimism was suddenly and painfully poignant: “Always Open! Buses welcome! Kids eat free!”

Not now, and maybe never again, I thought. How many of those establishments are open at all, even for takeout? Each time I pulled off the highway to refuel and took a look around, the answer was bleakly obvious: next to none.

It was the same with billboards for motels. They declared pools, free hot breakfasts and themed eateries. Maybe so in February, but certainly not now. Sure, the motels themselves were still operating. But was there anyone to stay there, even if they wanted to?

I got my answer that night when I pulled into a familiar chain’s four-story motel in Tennessee. There were only 14 other cars in the huge parking lot.

Inside, the place was so quiet, I had to ask if it was open. It was, the reception clerk assured me. He was standing behind a front desk defended by a long table, pushed up against it, that offered mints, brochures and copies of USA Today (had they been sanitized?)

It dawned on me that the table’s primary function was to keep guests and the clerk apart. And sure enough, there was no breakfast, hot or cold, free or otherwise. Vending machines stood in for such amenities. I felt the allure of sandwiches and a muffin packed in a cooler in my car.

The room was pleasant and my stay uneventful. I never saw a single guest, ever. I couldn’t wait to get out of there and into the cocoon of my car.

On the Road Again

Crossing borders from one state to another, I was reminded—as if I could forget at this point—that there is an invisible threat all around me. Each state has its electronic traffic signs rigged to dispense variations of the same COVID-19 advice: Stay home. Wash your hands. Keep your distance.

My home state offered sterner advice. If you plan on staying in Michigan, the electronic welcome sign warned, please quarantine yourself for 14 days. I guess that includes me, the returning native son.

We’ve all been encouraged to wear a face mask when out in public. Not happening along I-75.

Through my entire 1,200-mile trip, I saw exactly two people wearing any type of face covering. Both were employees in gas station convenience stores. None of the fellow travelers I saw bothered. (I had a scarf-like arrangement ready to go, but a voice in my head whispered “holdup in progress” each time I used it.)

Almost Home

Re-entering Michigan and getting close to home after months away, I was struck by how those familiar environs hadn’t changed a bit.

Well, maybe not the hard points: the roads, the buildings, the lay of the land.  I thought again about all the people already affected one way or another by this health disaster, and the ones who will be affected before it’s all over. They will soldier on, as we do in disasters.

But we’re not the same, and maybe we’ll never be quite the same again, whether we are among those who get sick or part of the far larger group of victims who don’t.

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