Last March, my wife and I embarked on a road trip in a camper van from our home outside Washington, DC. Our intended destination was Key West.
As we began driving southward, we listened on the van’s radio to the worrisome news about the coronavirus, the seeming lack of federal government response, and states scrambling to fill the leadership void to provide guidance to their citizens. We heard about shelter-in-place practices being instituted in the San Francisco Bay Area and checked ourselves: through Virginia and the Carolinas, we stayed to ourselves when outside and avoided crowds, sanitized our hands, and sheltered in our van or hotel rooms, which we cleaned with Clorox wipes. We ate takeout either in our car or hotel room.
However, by the time we reached a nearly deserted streets of Charleston, South Carolina, the news on the radio had become grim, worsening by the day. Closure announcements increased and governors’ voices took on ominous tones. We decided to turn around and head back north to hunker down at home while the federal emergency and health care infrastructures responded to the national crisis.
Back at home, we adopted the principle that every time we left the house, we were managing our risks, whether grocery shopping, taking daily exercise out of doors, or visiting our friends and children at a socially responsible distance. We learned new behaviors, followed guidelines from trusted public health officials and actual scientists, and eventually learned to embrace the mask.
We watched the pandemic spread across the country. The faces of Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx became familiar. In late summer, we cancelled a trip intended to fly across the country to show my daughters and their partners the Grand Canyon. Visits to my elderly father, who lives in an assisted living facility, abruptly came to an end, as the staff who cared for him wrestled with all the attendant challenges of keeping their vulnerable residents healthy and alive.
Birthdays, Thanksgiving, and Christmas celebrations arrived and passed over Zoom. Church? Zoom. Cocktail parties? Zoom. Talk to your kids? Zoom. Committee meetings? Zoom.
Zoom! Zoom! Zoom!
Life During Wartime
Some commentators describe people as having put their lives on hold during the pandemic. I prefer to think that we learned new ways to live our lives.
Some of us nurtured our relationships (perhaps more intentionally). Others tried low-carb diets, yoga, or other ways to nurture their bodies. We read more books. We worked on learning a new language. We indulged ourselves in writing, photography, and other arts. We doomscrolled. We made sure to watch all the amazing (and sometimes not-so-amazing) television and movies on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO, and Peacock. We got involved in political campaigns. We planted things and learned to cook them. We volunteered however we were able.
Some of these activities I actually did. Some of these activities my wife actually did. The rest? I learned about them in those cloying lifestyle features in online journals or television programs.
We imagined what we would do when we emerged from this crisis. Some of us hewed to the creed that no crisis should go unwasted.
My wife and I began to toast to “another day” over dinner, feeling lucky that the grip of the coronavirus had not invaded our loved ones.
And through this, we also managed to take place in Black Lives Matter vigils along 16th Street in the District. We learned when and where to ride our bicycles in a safe manner. We visited Black Lives Matter Plaza, strolled along the National Mall, and even walked through a Smithsonian Museum before it was closed.
All of these activities involved managing risks with new behaviors.
Driving Across America During the Pandemic
What I am about to describe is not intended to inspire others to follow our path.
My wife and I decided to drive across the country in the new year so that we could winter in Tucson, Arizona (that very same Arizona, which was portrayed by the darkest of dark reds on the New York Times map indicating rates of COVID-19 infections). We planned to form a pod with my wife’s family, who live in Tucson and had remained healthy.
This road trip took us through large cities, small towns, national parks, and vast swaths of emptiness. Along the way, we saw the beauty and majesty of this country that left us feeling as though we were the last living human beings on the planet. From the safety of our moving vehicle, we also saw bachelorette parties, bar crowds spilling out onto sidewalks, and other risky behaviors.
We saw deserted streets that were bustling a year ago. We saw businesses that should have been thriving closed down or just barely scraping by. We saw a lot of people working hard to serve us and hold things together on their end.
All along the way, we avoided crowds, kept our distance from people in general, and wore our masks. We adopted double masks. We were hyperaware of our surroundings. We cleaned our hotel rooms with Clorox wipes. We sanitized our hands. We kept moving and did not stay in any one place too long. We ate takeout in our car, hotel room, or separated from other people outdoors.
After about a week of driving, we arrived in Tucson, safe and in one piece. We had managed our risks by using the new behaviors we had adopted as we learned more about how to protect ourselves and those around us. We plan to get tested regularly while in Arizona and – fingers crossed! — get vaccinated when we return to the East Coast.
Looking Back, Looking Forward
If there are any lessons in these notes, one is retrospective and one is prospective.
In retrospect, I ruefully ponder what could have described the current status of the pandemic had our fellow citizens begun avoiding crowds, stopped hugging their loved ones, washed their hands, and wore masks in public in April. Remember this headline from July?
“CDC says U.S. could get coronavirus under control in one to two months if everyone wears a mask“
You can [re]read this story here. We can all come to our own conclusions, but I believe the country would be in a very different situation had more people taken seriously the need to properly manage risk posed by the pandemic every, single time they walk out of their homes.
Prospectively, I wonder with some trepidation how we will respond to the next public health crisis. On our road trip, I saw evidence that too many people still have not learned the lesson that they need to manage risk every, single time they walk out of their homes in the middle of a national emergency.
Will this road trip to the other side of the country and back be worth it? Stay tuned.