On the Road, Spring 2020

Moving cross country during the pandemic

The road looked exactly as it had four months earlier, but everything had changed.

It was overcast and humid when I pulled onto Interstate 80 in Oakland, California. In my four months living there, I had only seen a handful of gray days. The sun was always bright and cheery, a perpetual spring, but now it couldn’t compete with the suffocating darkness of the pandemic. Bright patches of sky mixed with deep purple as I rolled east, alone, through the green fields of the Central Valley.

My Subaru Outback, the odometer reading 120,000 miles, had gotten me here. I hoped it could get me home. I planned to sleep in my car for three nights, maybe four, at truck stops along the highway.

In Colfax, at the foothill of the Sierra, I donned my mask and gloves to buy a quart of oil and windshield-wiper fluid. I complimented the cashier’s electric blue nail polish. She smiled. “Isn’t it fun?” she said. “Since the salon is closed, my nail stylist came to my house and we just had the best time.”

Back on I-80 eastbound, crawling up through the pine forest, I remembered descending this pass a few months earlier. It had felt like a new beginning. I bid my fiancé farewell on the East Coast in pursuit of a temporary job in Oakland, which seemed like a promising stepping stone to the career I imagined. In June, I’d return home and we’d get married, surrounded by loved ones and wood-fired pizza.

Alta, Emigrant Gap, Yuba Pass, Truckee. Rain turned to snow, then hail. Sand, that artifact of snow plowing, was piled so thickly beside the highway that only a few intrepid shrubs grew. My own plants were wedged into the passenger-side footwell between two bags of groceries.

Descending near Donner Pass, my departure from California felt premature. My office—and most everything in California—was closed and wouldn’t be reopening anytime soon. It was foolish for my fiancé and I to be living on opposite coasts, each working remotely, paying rent on two apartments. So I shoveled everything I own into my station wagon and prepared to move home.

There had been no closure, no final visits to my favorite coffee shop or bookstore or running trails. One friend gifted me a bag of homemade chocolate chip cookies and a Lysol wipe; another smiled through his mask and gave me a box of cookies with a note that read, “Have a safe trip.”

Reno, Winnemucca, Elko. The desert felt familiar, until I saw a hearse at a rest stop. In Wells, Nevada, I parked for the night near the McDonald’s drive-thru at a truck stop. A “CASINO” sign glittered, its “A” extinguished. I chewed on a granola bar, then laid on top of a pile of clothes in the car and pulled on a JetBlue eye mask. Pickup trucks streamed through the drive-thru all night.

I rose at dawn and went inside for coffee. The self-serve drinks and food section of the truck stop had been cordoned off, and an energetic employee was serving coffee. Lizzo’s “Good As Hell” came on the loudspeakers, and the young man started singing along, bobbing his head and shaking his hips. The coffee was on the house.

I drove into the long rays of sun that spilled across sagebrush and into my smudged windshield. By Salt Lake City, I had chewed nine of 10 fingernails. It was Saturday. Caravans of trucks towing dirt bikes and ATVs sped west, and I felt a brief pang of jealousy for their weekend adventures.

Most nights on the road were below freezing.

Uinta-Wasatch-Cache. Ashley. Medicine Bow-Routt. The snowy National Forests were always in the distance, just out of reach. Snow drifts were piled high behind the highway wind barriers, relics of the days before the invisible enemy had swept the nation.

And it did feel invisible. State after state, I was the only person wearing a mask at truck stops. Blue tape on the floor indicated the suggested six-foot distance, and many cashiers stood behind plexiglass shields. I felt newfound respect for the truckers streaming east and west.

Gas was $0.99/gallon in Laramie, Wyoming. I leapfrogged across the state with a car with Alaska plates, passing under electronic signs every hundred miles or so that read, “COVID-19: Get the Real Facts at” When we ended up at the same gas station outside Cheyenne, I learned that the couple was returning home to Tennessee after two years of mission work in Alaska. They tut-tutted the fact that I was alone. But alone seemed the safest way to be. It wasn’t fair to ask anyone to make the journey with me.

Mountain Time. Central Time. Daylight waned quickly. A rest stop employee in eastern Nebraska, Cheryl, cheerfully fetched me coffee. A bubble of snot hung from her nose, threatening to jump into my cup. We laughed about the Reeses Peanut Butter flavored coffee creamer on offer, and I assured her that plain cream was just fine.

Industrial beef. Small-farm beef. Grass-fed beef. A jet-black calf romped playfully in the warm April dusk. My ribs felt like they were sinking into my stomach, like 12 hours of driving had compressed my spine. I slept in my car at a truck stop in North Platte, Nebraska, where every parking spot was full with folks doing the same.

Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio. I listened to a podcast series about the dismal response to Hurricane Katrina, then drove in silence. It felt true what they say, that history repeats itself. Somewhere around Davenport, Iowa, I chewed off my 10th fingernail.

Eighty miles west of Chicago, a group of children gathered in a neighborhood adjacent to Interstate 80. They pumped their arms, hoping a trucker would notice and give them a honk. Some 150 miles later, a blank billboard had been spray painted: “Thank you truckers.”

It was cold overnight. In the morning, the sun shone through the car windows made icy by my breath. Suddenly, in Ohio, people wore masks. In Cleveland, after more than 2,400 miles on Interstate 80, I veered onto Interstate 90.

Eerie, Buffalo, Rochester. Lake Eerie was bright and quiet. Rest stops were desolate. The thick stench of cow manure was almost as jolting as the vast road work; neither ceases during a pandemic.

Winding through the Adirondacks, where the towns are called hamlets, the smell of pine forest and thawing ground drew me closer to home. The shadows were long. A grey heron waded in a pond by the road. Three and a half days later, I was 3,000 miles from where I had begun.

Rounding the last bend on Interstate 87 south of Plattsburgh, the one that always signifies I’m nearly home, I felt weary but light. The late afternoon sun warmed the blue mountains, those silent markers of time that point us home while reminding us where we’ve been.

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