Traveling Across the US During the Pandemic
By Jeff Rasley
When my wife Alicia and I began our annual road trip from Indianapolis to Los Angeles on March 12, 2020, the Coronavirus pandemic was still considered a “China problem”.
There were cases in Washington state, but it seemed likely the virus would be contained within the Seattle area.
A few days before packing the car to head west, I hiked the Starkey Park Trail along Eagle Creek in Zionsville, Indiana, with my hiking group.
No one wore masks or washed their hands before we set out. “Social distancing” was not yet in the national vocabulary.
China began reporting deaths in January due to an epidemic in Wuhan. But news of a new virus on the other side of the Pacific Ocean seemed no more relevant than routine reports of epidemics, pestilence, and wars in other parts of the world.
We would drive nowhere near to Washington State on our planned route and Seattle is over 1,100 miles from LA.
Pandemic…Surely Not Here!
Surely the virus would be contained by quarantining anyone coming to the States from China. Nevertheless, we added two surgical masks, a large container of disinfectant wipes, and bottles of hand sanitizer to our baggage.
Our first destination was Kansas City. News reports on the radio about the spread of the coronavirus were a little worrisome as we drove across Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri. But traffic on I-70 was normal.
No one seemed to be particularly concerned about the coronavirus at the gas and food stops we made along I-70. There was an outdoor concert in the Power and Light District that night we planned to attend. When we arrived, we discovered it was canceled.
But the restaurants in downtown KC were open and no particular precautions were being taken by servers or patrons.
We stopped in Manhattan, Kansas, the next day for a walking tour of Kansas State University. The University opened in 1863. The 19th Century castle-like limestone buildings in the center of the campus gave Alicia and me an eerie feeling.
Not because of the architecture, but because we were the only people walking around the campus. All the buildings were locked up. It was spring break, but campuses don’t become ghost towns during a normal break in the academic calendar.
As we drove west, the scenery changed from the flat and rolling farmlands of the Midwest to the Flint Hills of Kansas and then the high plains of eastern Colorado. When the Rocky Mountains in central Colorado came into view it looked like we were driving into another world. We were disappointed to find the 19-mile Pikes Peak Highway closed.
Santa’s North Pole near the entrance to the highway was also closed, so we couldn’t ride the highest (elevation 7,500 feet) Ferris Wheel in the world. No signs explained the closures.
But in Colorado Springs, Downtown and Old Town were happening places. Lots of people were walking the streets, shopping, hanging out in coffee houses, and dining out.
The University of Colorado campus at Colorado Springs overlooks the Garden of the Gods Park. Its architecture is uniform, modern, and attractive.
Notices around the campus stated that classes were temporarily canceled to reduce the risk of spreading the virus, but many students were walking around and hanging out on campus.
The dining center, Café 65, was open to the public and serving food cafeteria-style. A poster at the entrance urged diners to wash their hands to reduce the risk of infection.
That warning prompted Alicia and I to begin washing our hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer every time we touched anything outside of our car. And we repeatedly washed every surface of the car that we touched with disinfectant wipes.
Cottonwood Hot Springs
We spent the night at Cottonwood Hot Springs and Spa outside of Buena Vista, Colorado. The Spa had several overnight guests and even more visitors with day-passes to soak in the hot springs. Fear of the virus floated away while I gazed up at a starlit sky suspended in a 110-degree spring-fed pool.
Yet, for the first time on the trip, I felt reluctant to be physically close to a stranger. I remained on the other side of the pool while sharing tales of trekking and climbing in Nepal with a shaggy-bearded old hippie.
After a morning soak in the hot springs, we drove by Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado at 14,439 feet. It is one of a cluster of fourteeners around Leadville, the highest city in Colorado at 10,142 feet. Leadville is historically important to the labor movement, because of the violent miners’ strike in 1896-97.
Gun battles killed strikers and strike-breakers. The strike ended when the National Guard was called out and union leaders were arrested.
It’s now a funky tourist-town. Radio news reported an outbreak of the virus in Colorado, but stores and restaurants were open for business in Leadville.
Alarming Reports on the Radio
News channels on our car’s radio broadcast increasingly alarming reports about the virus spreading to New York and other states outside of the Northwest. Still, Alicia and I felt safe from exposure driving through White River National Forest and Glenwood Springs in our Nissan Altima.
We pulled off the road for several scenic views of pristine trout streams with white-capped peaks in the distance.
We made a picnic lunch on the bank of the Colorado River. Late in the afternoon, we hiked the Serpent’s Trail in Colorado National Monument.
We drove toward a pastel sky of orange, then red and violet as the sun sank behind distant hills on the way to Moab, Utah.
Social Distancing at the Diner
Cars and pedestrians were out on Main Street when we arrived that evening. We walked around town for a while and settled on the Moab Diner for a late dinner.
For the first time on the trip, we experienced something truly out of the ordinary at a restaurant. A handwritten poster requested patrons not to sit next to a table occupied by other diners. We complied.
Other than that slight inconvenience, in four days of travel we encountered no problems booking motels, fueling the car, purchasing any needed items, and dining in restaurants. That changed on March 16.
We spent the morning driving and hiking around the other-worldly Arches National Park. The Park was crowded with vehicles, hikers, and bike riders. There were no warnings at the park entrance about maintaining a distance from other hikers. But, after listening to hourly reports about the spread of the virus, we instinctively stepped away from other people on the trails.
I climbed a few boulders on one of the trails and then wondered whether other hands could leave the virus on rocks I touched. I carefully washed my hands before returning to the car and then cleaned the door handles, steering wheel, and controls with a disinfectant wipe. I also began to be very careful not to touch my face, wipe my eyes or nose, unless I first washed my hands.
We drove back into Moab for a late lunch. That’s when the relative normalcy of our journey ended. Every restaurant in Moab had closed to inside dining while we were exploring the wonderland of Arches. For the first time, we were forced to order takeout. Customers were still allowed to enter and order inside restaurants, but you were not allowed to eat inside.
On to LA or Back to Indy?
Alicia and I debated whether we should proceed on to LA or return to Indiana. We were asymptomatic and there were no reported cases in Indy when we left home.
So, we felt confident we were not infected. We could not just end the journey, because we were 1,500 miles from home. We decided to drive on, but to be even more vigilant in taking precautions to protect ourselves and others as best we could.
We spent that night in a cabin at the Whispering Springs Motel in Hanksville, Utah (population 219). Stan’s Burger Shack was open and serving food without any restrictions. Alicia and I chose a table distant from the hand full of other diners. Before we tucked into our order of burgers, fries, and shakes, we wiped the bag, wrapping, and paper cups with disinfectant.
Butch Cassidy’s Hideout
We learned that Hanksville’s claim to fame is that Butch Cassidy used it as one of his hideouts. Driving along US-89 later that day, we serendipitously noticed a historical marker for Butch Cassidy’s Childhood Home. It is a very modest one-room log cabin just off the highway near Circleville, Utah.
The Visitor Center at Capitol Reef National Park was closed, but a petite ranger with ruddy cheeks and blond hair greeted visitors and handed out brochures about the park.
She cheerfully opined that being outdoors in a national park was one of the best places to be during a pandemic. “Visitors to the park can avoid groups of people and it’s good for your mental health!”
One of the most interesting areas in Capitol Reef National Park is the ghost town of Fruita. It was a Mormon settlement established in 1880. The settlers planted and tended orchards of cherry, peach, and pear trees, which are still tended by rangers.
The settlers hung a box on a huge cottonwood tree on the trail near the entrance to the settlement. The 200-year-old Mail Tree, which served as Fruita’s post office, still stands.
Alicia and I are not gamblers (maybe with life, but not money), so we are not really “Vegas people”. But we thought it would be interesting to see what was happening in Las Vegas in that early stage of the pandemic. The Strip and Downtown were lit up as if nothing had changed. But on March 17, the day before we arrived, all of the casinos closed.
Still, cruisers on The Strip backed up traffic for a mile the night of March 18. Some strip clubs refused to close but adapted their illuminated signs to advertising “hand-sanitizer nude wrestling” and “coronavirus-free stripping and table dances”.
We arrived in Los Angeles on March 19 to spend a few days with son Andrew, daughter-in-law Halima, and puppy Link in their new apartment in Brentwood before we moved into our rental condo for a week in Venice Beach. Mayor Eric Garcetti issued an order that night closing most businesses.
No Fatalities Yet in LA
It felt like the cascading effect of the virus was chasing us across the country. There were no reported fatalities yet in LA, but around 100 people had been infected. Plans to make side-trips to visit friends Brooks and Maggie at their vineyard in Santa Barbara and Jeff and Pam in Lake Tahoe were canceled.
Dinners and a beach party with cousins David and Melissa and friends Glen and Jay were canceled. Enjoying LA would require more creativity than dining out.
Each of the eleven days we were in LA, Andrew, Halima, Alicia, and I took long walks. We walked around the campuses of UCLA, USC, and Santa Monica College and the Walk of Fame in Hollywood.
We walked the beach in Venice and Santa Monica, and Andrew and I rode bikes on the 8.5-mile trail from Venice to Manhattan Beach. We hiked the trails and marveled at the 40-foot Paradise Waterfall in Wildwood Park, Ventura County.
Venice Beach is ordinarily a weird and wonderful place to hang out. Homeless dumpster divers mix with TV and movie stars.
Commercials, music videos, and scenes for cinema productions are routinely shot along the boardwalk or on the beach. Gorgeous Instagram models, surfer dudes, and famous athletes pose or amble along the boardwalk from Muscle Beach to Santa Monica Pier.
It has a carnival ambiance with buskers playing guitars, artisans hawking their wares, and hustlers selling CDs. Boomboxes blare and strangers give each other high and low fives as skateboarders and roller-bladers whiz by. But not the week of March 22, 2020.
Surfers and Bikers
A few surfers were in the water every day. A fair number of people walked, biked, or skated on the boardwalk and beach path, but numbers were well down from what I’d experienced in previous visits. The paddle tennis and basketball courts and skatepark were open and in use until March 27, when crime tape was put up to prohibit play.
The shops along the boardwalk were closed, except for restaurant take-out, a marijuana dispensary, and a vaping store. Some of the street artists, who live in tents on the boardwalk, had no place to go, so they remained, but were not allowed to sell their works. There is a famously significant homeless population in the Venice area.
Many people live in tents or under make-shift shelters in alleys and some sleep wherever. The numbers were down from what I’d seen in the past, but there were still quite a few people living rough.
Muscular joggers, drag queens, and raggedy bums still roamed Venice Beach, but everyone carefully stepped aside rather than acknowledge a fellow human being with a smile, wave, or handout. Fear of infection drove the fun-loving spirit off the boardwalk and beach path.
The Drive Home to Indiana
What we experienced on the 2,200-mile drive back to Indy was similar to the last two days before arriving in LA. Motels and gas stations were open as were restaurants for takeout. We spent a night in Tusayan, the village just outside Grand Canyon National Park, and spent a day hiking the Rim Trail and driving through the park. Alicia and I had one of the most awesome sights on the planet almost to ourselves.
We tried to visit Petrified Forest National Park, but the gate was closed. We stood on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, and made stops in other towns along Rte. 66, like Holbrook, Arizona, and Tucumcari, New Mexico, that look like movie sets from the 1950s. The gate to Cadillac Ranch, just west of Amarillo, Texas was chained, but we could see the line of upended Cadillacs from the highway.
Visiting the Alfred P. Murrah Building Memorial in Oklahoma City is an emotionally-charged experience. On a previous visit, Alicia and I shared the experience with a crowd of people praying, crying, or placing mementos. This time, we shared the space with a security guard and a solitary duck.
The last scenic stop we planned was Garden of the Gods Recreational Area in the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois. Its rock and sandstone formations were created 300 million years ago. It looks more like Utah than the Midwest.
The gate at the park entrance was closed. But a backpacker walked around it, so, while Alicia guarded the car, I jogged the 1.5-mile hilly road to the scenic Observation Trail. Three miles of speed-walking and running felt good after so many hours in the car. The views were well worth the calorie burn.
Indy a Hot Spot
Before we arrived home on April 4th, Indianapolis was designated a “hot spot” for COVID-19 infections. By then, the virus had already killed 125 Hoosiers, and 4,400 had tested positive. Fatalities and cases were increasing, not leveling off. On the road, Alicia and I were rarely in close contact with other people.
After restaurants closed to inside dining, the only time we were in an enclosed space with a bunch of people was during a grocery run to Whole Foods in LA.
Because we developed strict protocols, we felt safer from infection driving across the country than we did doing “essential” grocery shopping at that Whole Foods store in a “closed city”.
We washed our hands before and after touching anything handled by another person, including takeout orders, motel keys, and gas-pump handles. We wiped with disinfectant every surface we thought another person might have touched, including restaurant and motel door handles, counter-tops, and faucets.
On hikes, we avoided close contact with other hikers. We carried synthetic gloves, scarves, and sterile masks for use as needed. When we were traveling, much of our time was spent sheltered-in-place within our 4-door Altima.
Back in Indy, we are “hunkered down” by order of the Governor. Yet, potential carriers of the virus shop in grocery stores, pharmacies, hardware stores, liquor stores, cigarette shops, deliver mail and packages and other “essential” businesses.
A contractor and his worker are in our house to replace our kitchen. Construction work is exempt. If we thought there was any chance either of us had been exposed to the virus before we began our journey, we would not have risked exposing others by taking the road trip. That would have been immoral. But back home in Indiana, we feel less safe than on the road.
The sanitation protocols we followed gave us confidence that we could risk completing the great American road trip, despite the cascading effects of the pandemic.
The Pandemic Out the Car Windows
Driving by picturesque farms, winding rivers, and rolling hills, crossing the mighty Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, feeling the desolation of the Flint Hills and the Mojave Desert, passing by sparkling trout streams and through the majestic Rockies, and gazing across the awe-inspiring Grand Canyon – just looking out of car windows on an American road trip is a fantastic experience.
It was a wonderful antidote to the depressing statistics and personal losses caused by the pandemic.
Jeff Rasley is a retired lawyer from Indianapolis, who has taught courses on ethical philanthropy at two universities. He serves on five nonprofit boards and is the US liaison for a Himalayan adventure-travel company. Jeff has ten books and over 70 articles published over the years. Visit his website