I’ve just begun listening to a podcast called Fiction/Non/Fiction, and browsing through the catalog tonight, I chose Episode 10, called “Coronavirus and Contagion.”
Though it aired on February 13 of this year, the episode was recorded on February 9 — two days after the death of Dr. Li Wenliang and two days before the virus received it’s name: Covid19. The number of deaths at the time was 800, almost all in Asia, and I believe the number of cases their guest, Lauri Chen, cites is under 40,000, worldwide. Four months later it’s like listening to an audio time-capsule.The discussion is serious, but there is yet a sense of the academic about it, with the American hosts discussing a phenomenon that is happening on the other side of the world.
I have fallen far, far behind in terms of pandemic updates, but for the record, the number of worldwide cases is just shy of 7.5 million, and the number of deaths is more than 400 thousand.
Telling people you are planning to drive from one end of the country to the other in the midst of a pandemic gives rise to some questions. Do you think it’s safer to drive than fly? The answer is “maybe.” We have to make more stops, but we won’t have the hours of sharing air with strangers in a confined space. Also, we’ve brought our car to Florida and need to get it back to LA, along with all of our stuff, so it’s attractive to feel like driving is the safer option. Do you think an AirBnB would be cleaner than a hotel? Not really. I feel like the cleanliness of individually-owned properties is less predictable than a hotel that is part of a chain. In New Mexico, where we’ll spend our second night, the occupancy for hotels is capped at 25%, so it will be almost empty, and I figure I can wipe down surfaces and touch points in a single room with less error than in a house.
On the flip side, we’ve also made the decision to spend the first night with my uncle, who lives deep in the country heart of Texas. Because my uncle is not one for phones, emails, or plane trips, and because he is still recovering from a badly broken leg several months back, my family worries for him, and would like me visit. Paul is not a fan of this; he worries because he doesn’t want to be responsible for making him sick. I don’t either, but, I reason, we’ve been sequestered for several weeks, my uncle’s house is fairly large so we can spread out, and as an essential worker, he has been going to work, so he’s being exposed to some outside people already. Of course, the flip side of that is that we are also being exposed to him. Either way, though, we’ll need to do two week quarantine when we get back to Los Angeles. When I tell Paul my family is in favor of us going. He asks “are they okay if we go and then one of us gets sick and dies?” This is a fair question, so I call my mother and uncle and ask: They all say to go for it, and think it is weird that I should ask. Apparently, if something tragic happens, my husband may blame me, but my family will not.
April 24, Friday –Pre move plans always include going to bed early and getting up mega-early the day of the move… and never really work that way. Still, we are loaded and on the road by sometime between 8:30 and 9am. In addition to the bag of snacks we had on our way east, I’ve put together another bag, containing rubbing alcohol, a roll paper towels, a roll of toilet paper, and a container of Clorox wipes A small container of hand sanitizer sits in the center console, along with the cloth masks my mother has sent.
It should take about eleven hours to get to my uncle’s house. We have one “fun” item on the the itinerary, which is stopping at a Buc-ee’s filling station and purchasing brisket sandwiches for lunch after we cross into Alabama.
Our last planned stop in Gainesville is the Starbucks for Paul, but as we near it, we see the the drive-through line — the only line since there’s no in-store service — extends down the street. We keep driving, planning to find a sugary caffeine drink on down the road.
Two hours later, it’s time for our first bathroom break. Since restaurants are closed, the choices are gas stations and state rest areas and I think rest areas are the way to go. The bathrooms are spacious and, with few people traveling for leisure and mostly-male truckers, I’m guessing not crowded. When we arrive, I enact for the first time the routine I have planned: using a Clorox wipe to open every door handle, latch the stall door, and, after perching the wipe on the top of the door while I use the facilities, using it again to exit the stall, push on the faucet handles and activate the dryers. I wipe each touch point I pass as as a little act of service to whomever uses it next.
In Tallahassee, where we went to grad-school back in the day, our pre-pandemic plans had been to see friends, reach out to professors, revisit old haunts. Our new plan is to drive straight through. But outside of town we decide we can each text one friend, and offer to drive by and wave. Twenty minutes later we have a short ten-year reunion with our friend Susie, with us parked at the end of her driveway and she standing eight or ten feet away. She tells us about her kids, the birds in the backyard, working from home and painting designs on furniture.
She is in the middle of her workday, and we are still ten hours from our destination, so after fifteen minutes we are on our way. We make another spontaneous detour to see the graduate student housing where we lived for three years, only to discover the university has razed most of the buildings, including the one where we lived.
The line for the Starbucks in Tallahassee is even longer that the one in Gainesville, so we continue to the highway.
Before leaving, I asked the Facebook what music we should listen to on our trip, and got a handful of responses that includes Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on A Gravel Road, Weezer’s Blue Album, and Step Inside this House by Lyle Lovett, so we’ve downloaded these, along with an album I’ve been hearing about all week, Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters. These all seem a little less “basic” than the music we listened to coming the other direction– Paul’s choices of Taylor Swift, Maroon 5 and the Hamilton soundtrack.
We play the Lucinda Williams, and I’m getting into it — I’ve always had an affinity for raspy female recording artists — but four songs in, Paul says “I don’t think I can do it.” He hits the control on the steering wheel that I’ve never gotten the hang of, and next thing I know, we’re listening to “Memories” by Maroon 5, which, I have to admit, is catchy. I’ve always had an affection for the earworm masterpiece that is Pachelbel’s Canon in D, and that affection transfers to this pop song that borrows heavily from it.
After a little while, Paul starts Weezer album, which I think I remember liking. Now, though, high-hat cymbal feels constant and grating and tinny — but I don’t say anything. It’s good to listen to an entire album and experience it as a whole, I tell myself.
At 2:15pm, Kelly Clarkson plays as we discuss the new Heidi Klum-Tim Gunn show Making the Cut, trying to break down precisely what it means to have a taste problem, what it means to feel more expensive, and how each of these might translate to both the entertainment industry and life. “I think maybe we’d be better off,” says Paul, “if I felt more expensive to people.”
By this time we are already passing billboards for the Buc-ee’s, even though we’re still 100 miles out. For those who don’t know, Buc-ee’s is a Texas-based gas-station chain. A Buc–ee’s generally has at least a couple dozen gas pumps (one location has 100), and a convenience stores the size of a small Costco. Each store has a deli, a fudgery, a meat carvery, a desert case, and lots of branded tchotchkes. Fans wax poetic about the signature chopped brisket sandwich which, in case you don’t get the chance — tastes like a heightened McRib’s with pickles on it.
As we cross into Alabama, we can see some congestion going the other direction, at a checkpoint going from Alabama into Florida. There’s no checkpoint in our direction. For us, the only slow-down is the line of cars entering the Buc-ee’s.
I’m a bit ashamed of how much social environment affects my perspective. I’ve found myself wearing the mask outside when there’s no one within a hundred feet. Based on my reading and common sense, I know this is unnecessary, but everyone else is doing it, so I do, too. In Alabama, outside the Buc-ee’s, the opposite is true. People are hanging out by their vehicles, and those entering aren’t wearing masks. For a moment, this seems reasonable. The store is as big as a theme park– we’ll be able to social distance easily, right?
But as soon as we walk through the sliding glass doors we realize this is not right. The lines at the two checkout stands are spaced in six foot increments, but because of this the lines extend down main aisle of the store — the same aisle that every customer needs to traverse to get to the contents of the store. While customers have space from the person in front of them in line, they are also within two feet of every customer entering the store .. like us.
Paul and I look at each other and in unison don our masks.
All around us, people without masks dart away from each other, like bumper cars, or like people with no umbrellas trying to dodge the rain. “If we come home with the virus,” I joke to Paul, as we grab our foil wrapped sandwiches from the bustling carvery, “it’s probably because we had to gett sandwiches at Buc-ee’s.” It wasn’t that funny of a joke.
We eat our sandwiches in the car. We’ve reached what I’ll come the “depressing part of the day.” Which is that time you are thinking you should be almost done driving, but according to the GPS you have five or six more hours to go…
Woke anxious this morning, and it makes sense. Today is the day we need to clean our whole apartment and pack all our things. Packing always makes me edgy, and today we have a few added elements.
One is that, although my back is feeling largely better, the way we packed the car to come east didn’t allow for any adjustment of the seats, so we’re trying to change that situation by transferring the contents of two large bins to trash bags (my least preferred way to pack!), and then Tetris-ing those bags into the trunk to leave some room behind the passenger’s seat to recline if needed.
And of course, the need to recline the seat is related to the fact that our 40-hour drive will have few breaks due to the pandemic. With some trepidation, we’ve made arrangements to sleep in beds for two nights; but the days will be long: with dining areas of restaurants closed and the friends in isolation, there’s not anywhere to be but the car. We’re unsure whether there will be waits or issues at the reported checkpoints on the borders between states. Overall, it feels safest just to make good time and get home.
In a way, being in Florida has allowed us to compartmentalize the pandemic — to imagine that all the strangeness was just part of our trip, and that when we get home, things would be normal again, but of course that is not the case.