Covid Travel: My Pandemic Road Trip

Fear and loathing in the age of quarantine

Life during Covid is introverted and boring. So am I, for that matter. But even I need to get the hell out of Dodge once or twice a year or I start to go bonkers. Unfortunately, 2020 made that quite difficult. While I whiled away the shutdown for most of last year, I quietly prayed for an escape.

So when I spoke to my sister in late November and out of the blue she asked, “When are you coming up for Christmas?” I thought for a moment and replied, “Yes.”

She lives on Vashon, a hippie island north of Tacoma, Washington. It’s 800 miles away. 

Because she’s preggers and nursing a 17-month-old rug rat, she set very strict rules for my visit. She required me to quarantine for two weeks prior to leaving and to get Covid tested four days before leaving. My truck is old so I needed to rent a car for the journey—she ordered me to spray disinfectant in the rental and air it out before getting in. Furthermore, she forbade from riding in someone else’s car to pick it up, from using public bathrooms on the drive north and from entering any buildings whatsoever—other than my house—for the duration of quarantine.

I’m not high maintenance; I’m Gen X. My idea of vacation under the best of circumstances is dressing in Mad Max costumery and parading around the Painted Desert with my friends Ghost Line and Yeti in dune buggies in the blistering sun for a week at a time.

So my only real concern was, could I drive 800 miles without going No. 2? And if not, what would I do?

Because there’s a way. There’s ALWAYS, usually, a lot of the time, a way. After all, I survived my childhood.

So, I did due diligence. Starting on Dec. 9 I went into quarantine, in anticipation of leaving on Dec. 23. It wasn’t difficult; like I said, I’m an introvert. Besides, frightening stories of spiking Covid cases filled the news. Winter might kill us all. What more motivation could I have to stay safe? Yes, I missed going to Retrograde Coffee Roasters and then walking Sebastopol’s back alleys in the mornings. Instead, I made my own drip coffee and took walks down the local back country roads. I also ate a whole lot of home-cooked food, worked on my ETSY store and read a lot for two weeks. If nothing else, I saved money.

The day before I was scheduled to leave, I borrowed my neighbor’s electric bike and rode the 12 miles to Enterprise Rent-A-Car in 40 minutes without pedaling once. Then I fumigated my new Nissan pickup truck, aired it out, drove it home, placed two gravel-filled sandbags in the bed and loaded it with a folding shovel, tire chains, a case of water and a zero-degree sleeping bag. Because one never knows what weather Southern Oregon will present this time of year. I then loaded my clothing, books and food, and went to bed at 9pm.

I hit the road at 4:45am, after saying goodbye to my cat. I was very un-stressed—I relished the opportunity to get away, anywhere, for any amount of time. Is 800 miles a long drive if a person has absolutely nothing better to do and also gets to see their delightful little sister and her sweet family? I think not.

The first couple of hours were blissful. I made good time in the predawn darkness, driving Route 116 to Route 37 to Interstate 80 to Interstate 505.

Dawn loomed as I drove north up I-5. The Central Valley is, in many ways, a blank space. It lacks visual appeal. The small farm towns are quietly forgettable, as is the straight-line interstate. But I can, and do, find beauty in most things. Barns, old sheds, feral cats in roadside fields, rice paddies—all were a breath of fresh air.

Mount Shasta appeared in the distance, white-capped and majestic. The mountains north of Redding brought welcome relief to the monotonous driving. Up I drove, crossing Lake Shasta and passing the tiny river town of Dunsmuir.

Mount Shasta loomed ever larger. There is a much smaller, cone-shaped mountain next to it, along I-5. It’s called Black Butte, and it reaches a paltry height of 6,325 feet, in comparison to Mount Shasta’s own 14,820-foot peak. My sister tells me that for many years she mistook Black Butte for Mount Shasta, quietly wondering what all the fuss was about. Knowing her story, I, too, quietly pondered the volcano-shaped dirt pile as I drove by it.

Passing the tiny town of Weed, north of both mountains, I was reminded of a young man I met 20 years ago. He drove from Los Angeles to Weed on a moped, taking Route 1 as far as possible. Turned out we were both signed up for the same week-long primitive skills class at Headwaters Outdoor School on the outskirts of town. He wanted to learn some survival skills before he hit Southern Oregon to hunt for Sasquatch. While his name is now lost in the dustbin of history, I remember that, sadly, he didn’t encounter any cryptids in remote Oregon.

I didn’t believe in Sasquatch back when I met the Sasquatch Hunter from L.A. My conversion happened quite recently, after I read a book about cryptids and stumbled upon the only rational explanation for countless Bigfoot sightings coupled with a total lack of any physical evidence besides possible footprints: they are interdimensional beings. Yes, I believe in wearing masks AND in Bigfoot. Chew on that, America.

My favorite stretch of I-5 is the high-desert range surrounding Yreka. There is something about that stretch that makes me very happy. The golden fields stretch off through rolling hills to the forested horizon, filling me with a sense of freedom. I can only think of potential as I traverse that length of highway. Beauty stretches from horizon to horizon. Then, Oregon.

My afternoon sojourn up I-5 past Ashland solidified my newfound belief in Sasquatch. The dense green forests pressed against the highway from each side. It’s only fitting that hairy monsters should inhabit woods this cold, this deep, this impenetrable, I mused. On a less oppressive note, there was no weather to speak of, and my paranoid snow preparations—chains, water, shovel, etc.—proved unnecessary.

During this whole time I ate modestly—a hard boiled egg, some cheese, some chocolate. My decision to ration water to one hefty sip every half hour proved an intelligent way to stay hydrated while avoiding the need to pee. But eventually I had to pull over at a rest stop, where I relieved myself in an olive orchard far from the madding parking lot.

The rest of the drive north was pleasantly forgettable. Portland traffic was heavy and slowed me down. I eventually hit up another rest stop, where I peed in a quiet patch of forest.

No. 2 never happened; whether through sheer willpower, coincidence or some kind of generational Gen-X magic, I’ll never know.

I met my sister and her family in downtown Olympia at 6pm, about the same time I began to lose cognitive abilities. Somehow we ate tacos at a Jack-In-the-Box drive-thru, caught the ferry at Point Defiance in Tacoma, and arrived at her house on Vashon at 7:45pm. All in all, 15 hours behind the wheel. A beer and two incoherent whiskeys later, I fell asleep.

I awoke feeling hungover and stayed that way all day. My nephew had grown exponentially since I’d last seen him—no longer a rug-rafting squirmer, he now walked. I took one look at his tiny, adorable toddler form and immediately nicknamed him Pumpkin Eater.

Life settled into a peaceful routine. We went for drives on the island. The many treehouses, yurts, tiny homes and small farms appealed to my West County sensibilities. Back roads wound through forests and along hillsides, past abandoned greenhouses, a cidery and a cattle farm. Some roads turned to dirt. Some ended in clusters of vacation cottages.

We played Monopoly. We worked on a 1,000-piece puzzle. We watched movies.

I received daily cat reports from my cat sitter. Kitty missed me, he didn’t miss me, he played hard-to-get, he decided to be friendly, he was angry at me, he would never forgive me.

We went on walks, winding through redwood groves on country lanes. Some of the houses were clearly inhabited, while some were vacation cabins. Some were abandoned. We walked on the local beaches.

We day-tripped to Seattle. The ferry is always invigorating. Georgetown, Fremont, Ballard, Gasworks Park, the Cut—we hit upon my favorite parts of town.

At night I lay on my bed on the couch and listened to the rain drum down and relished the coziness of it all.

In the background, on the news, the UK viral mutation was identified and began to spread. Covid cases continued to spike throughout the United States. We continued to use caution whenever in public, always wearing masks, always wiping down any purchased items, including food wrappers. My most recent Covid test came back negative. We were all in good health.

I’d brought a box of hemp joints, and one day my brother-in-law and I camped ourselves on an old concrete piling at the beach and lit up. They were harsh smokes, but not as harsh as 2020. If only we could collectively cough the whole year away.

I am an adept dishwasher, but my brother-in-law is a better cook. He served eggs every morning, but dinners were best. We ate spaghetti carbonara, with out-of-this-world bacon—the kind that smells so good, even uncooked, that you drool. His Brussels sprouts were exquisite. On Christmas day he cooked up buttermilk-marinated chicken … it was to die for.

It was the first Christmas my sister and I had ever spent away from the rest of our family, and our first Christmas since our father died. It was much better than spending it alone. We opened presents in the morning and watched Pumpkin Eater have the time of his little life. The taco blanket I gave him went over well. We skyped other family members later in the day.

Only the thought of my kitty cat back home kept me from staying indefinitely. As it was, I postponed my return trip not once, but twice. Vacation stretched from seven to 10 days.

I watched my sister interact with Pumpkin Eater and felt very happy for the sweet little guy. And I came to understand the importance of the boob. It is the panacea for all things. One evening I mused that sentiment aloud and she replied, “He just sucked on it for 40 minutes. There’s nothing left.”

She was exhausted, three months pregnant in addition to being a first-time mom. Morning sickness and motherhood were a full-time job.

I could only hope that my presence made life for her family easier, for the few days I was there. It was the best Covid break I could have asked for. In times like these, the warmth of family and friends is what keeps us going. It’s the most important thing. Yes, Gen X-ing the pandemic is probably easier than Millennialing or Gen Z-ing or Boomering it, given that we X-ers tend to sit things out without asking for much. But the truth is, it’s hard on us, too, damn it. 

And then, abruptly, it was time to leave. I caught the 6:20am ferry off of Vashon on New Year’s Day, making excellent time on the near-empty interstate.

The drive home is always easier, especially if you’re headed south. Why? It’s easier to fall down the side of the earth than to climb up it. This is a scientific fact. The car moves so much faster. So what if I had to use the brakes more? It was a rental, and the mileage was great.

It rained in Oregon, but again, no snow. Again, I ate and drank frugally. I didn’t have to be quite as careful on this trip, I only had a kitty—a precious kitty, yes, but a kitty nonetheless—waiting at the end of the line. I allowed myself the use of public bathrooms. Again, No. 2 never happened. I’m going to bravely assert it was, in fact, due to Gen X generational magic.

I arrived home in Sebastopol at 8pm, 14 hours hours after I started the car. Kitty appeared to have no idea who I was, but also warmly snuggled me like never before. We slept all the next day, curled together, both of us purring like mad, and then I sat down to write, and here I sit now.

So, was driving 800 miles in one day each way to see my sister and her family during the pandemic lockdown worth it? Absolutely. In fact, I recommend it to anyone who feels up to the challenge. Do it, but play it safe. Be paranoid. Plan for snow if you head through snow country. WEAR YOUR MASK. Bring hand sanitizer and wipes, and use them. Bring drinks and snacks; don’t expose yourself unnecessarily on any level. Don’t go to restaurants, don’t go to a hotel. It’s not worth it. Wherever you stop, be it a gas station or a rest stop, you are sure to encounter someone not wearing a mask. 

But more importantly, wait til you’ve been cooped up for at least nine months before going on your car trip. Stretch that bowstring way, way back before letting it fly. Because the sheer joy of being on the road will carry you halfway to your destination. And for God’s sake, don’t make the journey by yourself—bring your significant other or your best friend or even a perfect stranger for that matter, split the driving, catch up with each other and relish your time together. Unless, of course, you’re a Gen Xer.

Mark Fernquest lives and writes in West County. A Mad Max fan from way back, he spends his free time roaming the wasteland at post-apocalyptic desert festivals. He also travels, gardens and runs an eclectic ETSY store at www.etsy.com/shop/GasTownWest. He loves all things mysterious.

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