Ruby O’Riordan had plans for her retirement. Travel, home improvement, playing with grandchildren, and then more travel. In her work as a management consultant, she had traveled by air or train to most states, all of Europe, and several countries in eastern Asia, advising corporate clients on how to streamline their personnel processes. Her husband Teddy, a writer who controlled his own work schedule, was able to join her on many of her business trips.
Now that she was no longer tethered to her corporate expense accounts, she wanted to take different roads. Literally. She bought a Prius for long-distance driving, taught Teddy how to work the ignition, and started planning a road trip from their northern New Jersey suburb to Key West during the cold months.
“Why Key West?” Teddy asked.
“I’ve never been to Key West,” she said. “You can get your Ernest Hemingway jones on and I can waste away in Margaritaville.”
Ruby settled on the last half of March. Teddy arranged to write a series about this trip for Lifehacker.
As she and Teddy made final arrangements and started to pack, they also started to pay attention to the news of the expanding coronavirus outbreak. The phrases “social distancing” and “self-quarantine” became ubiquitous.
“Hon, maybe we should think about staying home and hitting the road once this whole thing has blown over,” Teddy said over dinner a few days before their planned departure. “I don’t need to deliver my series any time soon.”
“Just remember that the president said it was a hoax,” Ruby responded, “and that the government has contained it.”
“Hmmm,” Teddy responded.
They finished dinner, and Teddy washed the dishes while Ruby selected a movie they would watch on Netflix.
“How about ‘To Catch a Thief?’” she yelled into the kitchen. “Cary Grant and Princess Grace. I’ve never seen it. You?”
“Nah. Yeah, let’s watch it.”
In the morning over breakfast, Ruby handed Teddy a 3×5 notecard on which she had written:
5 Reasons to Drive to Florida Now
- We would be leaving a densely populated area for less densely populated areas;
- While traveling, we would be alone in our own vehicle, not traveling with others on a train or a plane;
- We should be able to almost entirely avoid people;
- We will follow the recommendations of public health experts; and
- President said “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
“You got any objections now?” Ruby asked.
“Then we’re good to go!”
They had already made some adjustments because of the coronavirus. They changed their first stop, a friends’ home on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The man’s wife had called the O’Riordan’s to say that that he was sick and vomiting.
“He never gets sick,” she said. “I don’t know if I should let him work through it or take him to the hospital.”
“The hospital,” Ruby answered.
“But the hospital says they’re full.”
Teddy and Ruby also decided not to post any photos of their trip on Facebook.
“I can just hear your sister Toni,” Ruby said to her husband. “How dare you leave home! How dare you have fun! How dare you put yourself and others as risk!”
“Look, worst-case scenario: we get tested,” Teddy said. “The president just said that anyone who wants a test can get a test.”
They drove all day, pulled into a rest stop, and ate a lunch that Teddy had packed.
“Have you noticed the traffic headed north opposite of us?” Teddy asked.
“Hmmm,” Ruby responded. “We’re traveling just fine, but the backups headed north are just crazy, as if there’s an accident every 10 miles.”
They arrived in Ocean City, Maryland, and drove directly to a time-share complex on the beach, which was mostly unoccupied. They did not share elevators with others. They wiped everything down with disinfectant wipes in their suite. They washed and sanitized their hands repeatedly. They walked along the deserted boardwalk. They ordered takeout and ate dinner in their suite in front of the TV, where the president said, “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.”
They had interacted with two people that day, the desk clerk and the restaurant host.
On the second day, they drove to the Outer Banks in North Carolina, ate Subway takeout lunch in their car, and stayed in a national chain motel in Kill Devil Hills. There were no people on the beaches, in the parks, on the streets. They didn’t touch anything. They wiped everything down with disinfectant wipes in their suite. They washed and sanitized their hands repeatedly. They ordered takeout BBQ and ate dinner in their room in front of the TV, where the president said, “I’ve always known this is real, this is a pandemic.”
“It’s starting to feel like that movie ’28 Days Later’ when the guy wakes up from a coma and there’s no one there,” Teddy said.
“That’s what you get for watching those kinds of movies,” Ruby responded.
In their room, Ruby and Teddy kept up with the news on TV and the internet and asked themselves if they were doing the responsible thing by taking this trip. They heard a disturbance down the hall. Peering out their door, they witnessed another guest being wheeled out to an ambulance. The way the medics were treating their patient, it was clear that the guest had died. No one who worked at the motel would tell them what had happened.
“Yesterday, it felt like we escaped the zombie apocalypse into a virus-free zone,” Teddy said. “Today, it’s starting to feel like maybe we’re in that zone.”
“Look, if either of us starts to feel ill, we will turn around and race home,” Ruby said. “I pray that we do not fall victim of hubris.”
“The President just said that we are very close to having a vaccine,” Teddy answered.
They had interacted with five people that day, not including the dead guest: the day shift and night shift desk clerks, the two sandwich artists at Subway, and the BBQ host.
At breakfast in their room on the third day, Teddy looked up from his phone while eating Cheerios they had brought with them.
“I read that San Francisco has adopted shelter in place: stay home, distance yourself socially, get outside and exercise,” Teddy announced.
“Well, for us, the trip is motel room, outdoor activity with social distancing, drive in the car,” Ruby responded. “Our version of shelter in place, only the place moves.”
They went on a long hike through the empty beach dunes. The temperature was in the mid-40’s, and the wind was whipping them. They almost had the beach to themselves. Almost. They had watched a man about 200 yards down the beach strip off all his clothes, run into the ocean, climb out of the ocean, and calmly walk off the beach without picking up his clothes. He was screaming repeatedly at the top of his lungs: “People are fungible!”
When they returned to the motel, the desk clerk told them that the island where they were staying was being closed off in three hours. They were stunned.
“I think we should consider heading back home,” Teddy said.
“Not yet,” said Ruby. “Let’s wait to make the decision until we drive off the island and get to I-95. Then we can either turn right and go back to New Jersey or turn left and proceed to Charleston.”
They were on the road within the hour. On the way to I-95, they stopped at a very small-town Food Lion to look for additional disinfectant wipes. “Sorry, still out!” the clerk told Ruby. She bought new paper towels and some disinfectant spray. Feeling newly empowered, they decided to turn left at I-95 and drive towards South Carolina.
An hour later, they witnessed a northbound, unmarked tractor-trailer lose control, hit three cars, enter the wide grass median, and flip over. Since they were travelling at 70 mph, the accident quickly faded from their rearview mirror. Thirty miles later, they saw emergency crews tending to two northbound cars that had collided and caught fire. The line of backed-up traffic stretched 10 miles; Teddy and Ruby witnessed half a dozen fights among stranded travelers, including a shooting.
They stopped at South of the Border just to take photos and ate McDonald’s for dinner again in their Prius. They arrived in the historic section of Charleston around 10 PM, just as the city declared a state of emergency. The state of South Carolina is starting to close things down. No more dine-in for restaurants and bars: takeout only. They turned on the TV to hear the president state, “I don’t take responsibility at all.”
“It is starting to feel that the situation for travelers is very different from a week ago,” Ruby admitted. “I am wondering if things will become more difficult with more closures and cancellations or if we will even be welcome as we travel further south.”
They had interacted with four people that day, not including the naked man: two motel desk clerks, the McDonald’s employee, and the Food Lion clerk.
In the morning, they emerged from their motel room to find mostly deserted streets in what should have been a bustling tourist district. A man seated on the curb rose and staggered toward them. “Social distancing is bullshit!” he yelled. “People are fungible!” He then stumbled and fell motionless on the sidewalk.
Teddy and Ruby crossed the street.
They ate lunch outside a bistro with two small tables outside (outdoor seating was allowed). They watched as a man in a cheap suit and cheaper shoes passed them while talking on his cell phone. Five minutes later, he passed them again walking in the same direction. For the remainder of their lunch, every five minutes, the man on the phone passed them, walking in the same direction. As they paid their bill, he put his phone into his suit pocket.
They visited a restaurant that had been recommended for dinner and spoke with the owner. His employees voted to not even offer takeout. “If there is such a thing as a claim on grief,” he said gloomily, “they are way ahead of me in line.”
Ruby and Teddy spent the day wandering along Legare Street, King Street, Meeting Street, along the waterfront, then renting bicycles to expand the radius of their tour. When weariness set upon them, they drove to Seabrook, Kiawah, and Isle of Palms. Everything seems as it should, minus the crowds of tourists and the noise they generated.
That night, downtown Charleston seemed dark and quiet. A man approached them. It was the same man they had seen collapse earlier in the day. He seemed to have restored his composure. He stopped about 10 feet away from Ruby and Teddy, and asked them, “Life is just shit, interrupted by moments of transcendent beauty and joy, don’t you think?”
Without waiting for an answer, the man strolled past them whistling the tune from the “Andy Griffith Show.”
“Hmmm,” said Teddy.
“It is heartbreaking that so many people dependent on tourists and discretionary income will shortly be out of work,” said Ruby. “What will happen to them?”
Before they retired, Teddy says, “I am pretty sure that our travels south will be coming to a premature end.”
“Hmmm,” Ruby responded.
They had interacted with three people that day: the bistro waitress, the restaurant owner, and the whistling man (twice).
In the morning, they planned on driving to Savannah in the morning, then turning around and traveling to Columbia. The following day, they would drive home.
Theyarrived in Savannah two hours later and parked near Forsythe Park, where they ate takeout lunch on a bench. A young, very attractive woman sat opposite them, scrolling on her phone. She sported a tight-fitting t-shirt emblazoned with the Confederate flag and a motto: “There is no such thing as happiness.” She started to laugh, then cry, and she then walked away from them and threw her phone into a large fountain.
They then hit the road to Columbia, where Ruby had graduated from college in the late 1970’s. They arrived to a nearly empty campus, took photos, and talked about life in Columbia before Lou Holtz became the football coach. While walking around the state capitol, they pass a well-dressed man who loudly whispered, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Teddy, recognizing the quote, responded, “Faulkner.”
The man seems surprised. He said, “People are fungible.”
Teddy and Ruby exchange a glance that says, “what the heck just happened?” and laugh. It’s the kind of laugh they share at absurd shared experiences. A laugh that informed them that the truth is overrated.
They drove toward Charlotte, but decided to stop in Greensboro for the night, where they get takeout pizza for their motel room and watch the president discuss his performance during the coronavirus crisis on TV state, “I’d rate it a 10. I think we’ve done a great job.”
In the morning, they drove around the university campuses in Chapel Hill and Durham. While driving on Duke University Drive, they were nearly side-swiped by a campus police car, which then careened into an empty bus. The police officer staggered out of his cruiser, walked up to the bus, pulled out his service revolver, and emptied it into the air. The bus driver, a woman, limped out of the bus, removed her shirt and bra, and started doing jumping jacks.
Teddy turned to Ruby. “Hmmm.”
They drove back to New Jersey, arriving late that night.
Before going to bed, Teddy said, “I believed last week that life was going to be different, that we would have to become intentional about so many aspects of everyday life that we had taken for granted. This week, because the situation seems to worsen each day, we believe that life will be different in more ways that we can anticipate or envision. We are losing some measure of control over our lives.”
“Hmmm,” Ruby responded.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Uninfected,” Ruby said. “You?”
“I don’t know,” Teddy said. “People are fungible.”
Before they turn off the television, they heard the president say, ““I get a lot of credit for having closed our country very early to a very heavily infected country, China. Unfortunately, China, I wish China would have told us more about what was going on in China long prior to us reading about it.”