As 2020 dawned, my travel calendar filled with big plans. The St. Olav Festival in Norway, gorilla trekking in Uganda, and truffle hunting in Croatia were among the adventures scheduled for the coming months. Sadly, those plans came to an abrupt halt thanks to COVID-19.
With so much uncertainty looming over the travel landscape for the foreseeable future, those of us eager to get back in the game have been forced to seek out other avenues. For me, road trips stepped into the spotlight.
During my teenage years, road trips occupied a solid spot on our family’s summer itinerary. We’d load up the cargo van complete with 70s era shag carpeting and bean bag chairs (customized by my do-it-yourself enthusiast of a father) and hit the open road. I credit my present-day wanderlust to those early cross-country road trips. I suppose you could say that in 2020, I’m returning to my roots.
The Road Trip Escape
Having spent 12 weeks in COVID-19 inspired lockdown, my husband, Greg, and I were understandably ready to escape New York City. As a motorman for the New York City subway system, Greg’s vacations are scheduled well in advance. With his holiday fast approaching, we mulled over our options. We often drive upstate on the weekends to hike—maybe we could extend that? Somehow, it just wasn’t enough.
My parents live in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Pre-pandemic, we had planned a multi-generational family trip to their home. To say we were disappointed it had to be canceled is an understatement. Both Greg and I survived COVID-19, so we decided to consult with our doctor to see if a visit was feasible. Antibody tests relayed we had both recovered from the virus and we were told that—at least for now—we had immunity. Speaking with my parents, we revealed our plans and urged them to get approval from their doctor just to be safe. The doctor’s words to my mother, “They’re probably the safest two people you could be around right now.” It’s all we needed to start planning our getaway.
Admittedly, getting approval to visit my parents isn’t usually on my “to do” list before embarking on a road trip. But that was just the beginning.
The New Normal
As we started planning our route, I checked all the states we’d be driving through to ensure we could travel freely. Fortunately, there were no bans, so we preceded as planned.
Driving west through Pennsylvania then south down Interstate 81 in Virginia, we couldn’t have been more delighted to be on the road again. Things were different on this trip. Traffic was much lighter than usual and the Virginia Highway Patrol—normally out in full force on I-81 in search of speeders—was virtually absent.
Although basic fast food places seemed to be open along the major highways, we didn’t want to take the chance of getting stuck somewhere without better food options. Instead, we packed sandwiches, fruit, and other snacks for the road. We also filled up a cooler with bottled water. It’s a new normal we’ll probably maintain for subsequent trips since it’s much healthier than McDonald’s.
Arriving in Chattanooga, we greeted my parents with a wave in place of hugs. That in itself may have been the hardest thing for me to do. But we were simply happy to be with them and out of New York for a week.
Reflections of Travel During Crisis
While we knew we’d be escaping the USA’s epicenter of the coronavirus, we couldn’t have predicted we would be out of New York City during a week of unrest. The peaceful protests of the Black Lives Matter organization began just after we exited New York. As an interracial couple, we fully support the movement and the call for an end to systemic racism. However, as is often the case, outlying groups began looting sections of the city, which resulted in a curfew declaration by Mayor DeBlasio. A lot was happening back home and in the world.
We monitored the events in New York and were also quite aware of local happenings. Chattanooga had a few protests, but most were peaceful. And, on the way home, we spent a night in the small town of Winchester, Virginia, where we were surprised but also pleased to see signage condemning racism as well as a memorial to George Floyd.
Should You Road Trip Now?
Deciding to travel during these unprecedented times remains a personal decision. First and foremost, monitor your local travel advisories as well as the latest information from the World Health Organization. The situation is constantly evolving and it’s imperative to stay informed and abide by the advice of experts.
Obviously, you need to gauge your health and wellness issues to determine whether or not any exposure to destinations not practicing proper social distancing will affect you. Always remember, you can choose to do the right thing even when those around you don’t. Wear your mask inside stores, order take-out or choose outdoor seating in eateries, and look for hotels where proper cleaning protocol is a priority. It takes a little more research and planning, but for us it was worth it.
Restoration and Hope
We chose to meander home along the backroads between Tennessee and New York. Along the way, we spent time in nature hiking portions of the Appalachian Trail in the Shenandoah National Park. As John Muir wisely observed, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”
Personally, I received a renewed spirit. Returning to New York as things gradually begin to reopen, I’m optimistic that we’ll adjust to our new normal over the coming months. And I truly hope those big plans I had for far-flung adventures in 2020 will return to my calendar in 2021.
As for the continued fight against systemic racism, my hope remains that this time things will be different. This time there will be lasting change.