Life on the Road in Pandemic America

Life on the Road in Pandemic America

Life on the Road in Pandemic America

Life on the Road in Pandemic America

What happens when a dream car is for sale in Florida, you live in Oregon and a pandemic is gripping the country?

These obviously weren’t ideal conditions for a road trip, but my husband, Andy, and I flew late last month to Fort Myers, drove back to Portland in our new-to-us right-hand-drive 1994 Mitsubishi Delica van, and saw a country coping in extensively different ways with an outbreak that has killed tens of thousands of Americans and put many millions more out of work.

We made our way west through 13 states in six days, and awareness and preparedness varied widely among the people we encountered.

Nerves accentuated our travels, which took longer to plan than it took us to cover 6,374 miles, half in the air and half on the road. Well stocked with hand sanitizer, masks, wipes and disposable gloves, we began our journey.

On our flights east, masks were required for boarding, but some people immediately took them off once seated; others had only their mouths covered. Still, we got to Florida with little incident, and turned our attention to the task at hand.

Kellyn Karr owns Karr Automotive, a repair shop in Fort Myers. Although he specializes in regular vehicles, he also imports and sells Japanese domestic market Delicas as a hobby.

“I’d travel to Canada often as a kid and teenager because my father was still a dual citizen,” Mr. Karr said. “I’d see all kinds of J.D.M. vehicles there because of Canada’s looser import restrictions.” He got hooked.

He meticulously prepped the van for the cross-country haul. “The people who buy these vans come from some of the coolest walks of life, and the stories seem to be endless,” he said. “This part I absolutely love.”

The pandemic has changed Mr. Karr’s business. “We have asked people, that are waiting, to wear masks,” he said, adding, “You have to call when you want to come to the shop.” Before returning the cars to their owners, Mr. Karr wipes down door handles and steering wheels and lets the cars bake in the sun.

Florida’s motor vehicle department remained closed the day the van’s vehicle identification number was to be verified and its title completed; we left with nothing other than the import paperwork, a bill of sale and prayers.

No registration meant no license plates. A temporary trip permit we had arranged from Oregon hadn’t arrived, either; it was still en route to Florida.

Before we had even left for the airport in Oregon, we called the highway patrol headquarters of every state our fastidiously planned route would take us through, to ensure we could legally be on the road with our paperwork. Varying degrees of acceptance were noted, but most troopers were lenient on D.M.V. matters, considering the pandemic had shut down many offices.

That was the easy part. With keys and import papers in (sanitized) hand, the more intense part of our journey began.

Joanna Holston, a long-haul truck driver, offered us advice via Instagram. “Just be careful, be mindful of distance and wear P.P.E.,” she warned us. She also shared tips about sleeping at truck stops, and what to look out for when boondocking at such places.

Ms. Holston was carrying a load of personal protective equipment from Minneapolis to Atlanta for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She, too, made sure to keep well stocked with masks, hand sanitizer and gloves.

Florida: 50,859 cases and 2,236 deaths to date. Georgia: 41,344 cases, 1,902 deaths.

The pandemic has hit states in different ways, crippling some and glancing others. As of May 24, roughly 24,000 people had died in New York State. Many of the states we passed through have, so far, been spared the worst.

Our takeout food venture — our first in over two months — was at a kind of food hall. We were met with jubilant moods, high heels and party dresses. Masks and social distancing were scarce. We felt isolated and awkward wearing our masks and gloves.

In Georgia, as well as Kansas and Colorado, electronic interstate signs flashed warnings about the virus: Wash your hands, cover your cough, avoid groups of 10 or more, safer at home.

Love’s Travel Stops were a home away from home, plentiful on these stretches and reliable. (The back of a Delica is perfect for car camping.) Most workers wore masks and stood behind newly hung plexiglass. At the Love’s in Waco, Ga., employees declined to be interviewed, but when asked about the virus one said, “We’re working through it.” Customers chatted about the day’s happenings, some wearing masks but most without.

Truckers dashed in and out, grabbing food and necessities before a night of truck stop solitude.

Alabama: 14,986 cases, 566 deaths. Mississippi: 13,731 cases, 652 deaths. Tennessee, 20,960 cases, 339 deaths. Arkansas, 6,180 cases, 119 deaths. Oklahoma: 6,137 cases, 318 deaths.

The day began and ended at a Love’s Travel Stop. In between, the lush trees lining Alabama’s interstate invited us to forget about the pandemic. Still, we never let our guard down. At small-town fuel stations, where few people wore masks or gloves, ours drew some looks.

We were well stocked with protective gear: vials of sanitizer in the glove box and cup holder, with more in reserve, and a new neck buff or bandanna to cover our faces for each day. Mask on; get fuel, food, drink (forgoing normal impulse buys like chewing gum and Tic Tacs); return and sanitize everything. Repeat.

Mr. Karr received the Oregon trip permit. He scanned and emailed it. Thanks to the Love’s Travel Stop in Tuscumbia, Ala., we printed and taped the permit to the lift gate. A sense of relief!

While most states were in various stages of reopening, Arkansas never had an official stay-at-home order. On May 4, Arkansas movie theaters, bowling alleys, arenas and other large outdoor venues reopened. Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that restaurants would resume limited dine-in options on May 11. Coronavirus cases have been rising since then.

Hungry, we stopped at a restaurant for dine-in service, our first time in 11 weeks. In Germantown, Tenn., Commissary BBQ stayed open while many shut down. Kandyce Cheairs, a server, kept working, too.

“We never really closed for carryout,” she said. “We’ve been opened for dine-in for the last three weeks, and it was really slow.”

  • Updated June 12, 2020

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


Although servers’ tips were lacking, she assisted carryout orders to keep money coming in.

“I won’t say it’s been too much of a struggle,” Ms. Cheairs added, but there had been days when she thought “I might have to leave here and go find something like a warehouse job or such that I can make some money on.”

Kansas: 9,350 cases, 205 deaths. Colorado: 24,775 cases, 1,393 deaths.

Day 3 was yet another 12-plus-hour push, ending at a truck stop, this time a Sinclair station in Dumont, Colo. High-elevation crispness greeted us. But our van’s electric sliding door latch mechanism stopped latching shut. With a quick Google search and a manual override, we slipped the door shut and locked it from within. Easy in-and-out camp access was gone until after we arrived home.

On Day 4 we slowed down to take a breather, ending at the Steamboat Lake campground in Colorado after just three hours on the road, with a stop in Frisco for some souvenirs.

The owner of the Sunny Side Up Studio in Frisco, Ashlie Weisel, said she had learned the power of positive thinking when her stores were shut down. One closed permanently and the other temporarily.

Ms. Weisel was sitting on 20 boxes of colorful sweatshirts she designed that say “mountain mamas.” “It made me sad,” she said. “We need to get these to those who need them the most right now.” So she cut the price in half, sold them on Facebook in a local group for mothers and drove around the state to deliver them.

She has sold nearly 2,000 sweatshirts, finding a way to keep her business afloat. “We are united by cozy,” Ms. Weisel said with a tearful smile. “I’m a purveyor of positive.”

Credit…Mercedes Lilienthal

Wyoming: 876 cases, 15 deaths. Utah: 9,274 cases, 107 deaths.

In heavy drizzle at a rest stop, we were met with friendly faces in a Subaru Outback. After a quick query about our van, the driver handed us a book about viruses. She wasn’t selling anything, but spreading the idea that global viral outbreaks were most likely man-made and created for pharmaceutical profit.

Temperatures were climbing into the 90s. Suddenly, there was no power to the van’s 12-volt accessory plug. GPS and phone batteries dwindled. After a stop near Dinosaur, Colo., we discovered that a 15-amp fuse had blown in the in-fuse panel. We dashed to get fuses at a Napa auto parts store, and the van headed home, powering gadgets from a rear plug. A short in the front plug would have to wait.

Idaho: 2,804 cases, 82 deaths. Oregon, 4,131 cases, 151 deaths.

Sixteen tanks of fuel and five nights later, we were in the homestretch.

Our journey across 13 states highlighted a nation on edge, some people more apprehensive than others. Some were dressed in hazmat-type suits with goggles to avoid the virus; others claimed the pandemic was a farce or a political stunt. Most appeared uneasy, with reserved expressions. Laughter seemed in short supply.

All, however, were finding their way through an unpredictable new world.


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