A cross-country trip during COVID-19, Arizona to Maine

Thu, 05/21/2020 - 7:15pm

    Mid-April the Arizona news outlets began speculating about when states would re-open and people would be out and about again after a couple of months sheltering in place. We knew it was time to look into traveling back to Maine from Tucson and started pondering about the best and safest way to do that with a 17-year-old dog in tow.

    Airplane travel was out of the question as images of the virus flew through the air, landing on seats, arm-rests, anything a passenger would inevitably come into contact with.

    Traveling on the narrow back seat of the car would probably be catastrophic for Annabelle (the dog); her arthritic joints wouldn’t do at all well during such a long drive. We also would be dependent on public restrooms and markets for food along the way, not to mention having no idea whether there’d be motels open that would be safe places to stay the night. Most campsites and state parks were closed enroute.

    We knew it was a 3,000-plus mile trip with approximately six days traveling at six-hours of driving/per day and so began researching companies that rented Camper RVs with a toilet, shower and stovetop.

    We decided on Cruise America because we’d be able to pick up the RV in Phoenix and drop it off outside of Boston. A friend offered to pick us up in Boston and take us the rest of the way to our home in Midcoast Maine.

    Easier said than done!

    After initially deciding a departure date and paying the deposit, we got word that we wouldn’t be able to “get there from here” on our chosen date. It turned out that many others had made similar plans and at the end of April there was an overflow of RVs at drop-off sites along the eastern corridor.

    The “fleet” of RV’s were stuck at the end of the road with little indication that folks would rent going the other way - especially since temperatures were beginning to climb into triple digits in Arizona.

    Fortunately, persistence with daily phone calls paid off and we picked up the smallest camper RV on the lot on May 2.

    We packed that night, said farewell to our dear friends in Tucson and headed to New Mexico on the third. It felt safe in our Anti-Covid Capsule; we had everything we presumably needed — food, water, a WC and a place to sleep. Annabelle was thrilled to be able to be between the two of us as we drove.

    The first indication that this was not an ordinary cross-country trip was when we drove through Hatch, New Mexico, a town well known as being the “Chile Capital of the World” and a place that’s been traditionally our first stop in the past in order to wander about the village and go to Sparky’s burger joint for lunch.

    This time we drove right through, not stopping for anything and feeling like we dodged a potential bullet. People were out and about, no masks in sight and happily oblivious at what I perceived were targets on their backs. I felt a mixture of envy and horror while observing them lingering at the shops and walking down the streets which only magnified as we drove through Texas and Oklahoma.

    We needed to stop for gas frequently in this vehicle and were clearly in the minority as my husband put on his mask and gloves to pump gas, wiping down the credit card and religiously washing his hands before getting back in the RV.

    I counted 23 people happily going into the Quick Mart at a Love’s Truck Stop in Joplin, Missouri, without any kind of protection. I wondered how many of them would get sick. How many of them would expose others in the meantime. A friend commented that “it’s a Democrat/Republican thing.” It astounds me that a pandemic that provides daily data from all over the world about the amount of people who have sickened and died from this virus would not take it seriously and protect themselves and their families.

    This big country of ours is extraordinarily beautiful. Leaving the fierce beauty of the Sonoran desert, we drove past salt lakes in Vaughn, New Mexico, and into the spring-green of Oklahoma.

    It was encouraging to see recently planted fields in Illinois after a barren season last year at this time. Each state has its own calling card and historically I’ve written “notes to self” about where to stop during future trips. This time, the signs on the side of the road — each marker and historical landmark — were off limits or closed.

    Love’s Truck Stops across the country provided the resources we needed to keep the RV going as well as a place to sleep. We parked in between huge trucks and listened throughout the night as they arrived and departed. The rumbling of generators was each evening’s soundtrack and we felt quietly supported by the truckers who inhabited the huge parking lots adjacent to the Quick Marts.

    One night we were serenaded all night long with a recording of “Please keep your distance, wear masks, be safe” on a loop in the store. If that wasn’t lodged in my consciousness before, it is now.

    One of the utter JOYS during this trip was experiencing the drive through Connecticut and into New England with absolutely no traffic.

    We flew down Route 84 with few cars in sight and made it to our drop off point in Lakeville, Massachusetts, in record time. A friend picked us up and after wiping down handles, seats, etc. and getting the dog situated, we were on our (masked) way back to Maine. We are happily getting re-acclimated back to our forever home and look forward to quarantine ending in a week.

    Reflections from the week-long journey across this beautiful country of ours includes the isolation we experienced while we drove through the cities and communities along the way. We remarked at the significance of what we used to take for granted during these trips; stopping for a coffee or a walk in a new town, chatting with folks at motels and restaurants and going for hikes at state parks all contributed to connecting the dots of our vastly different regions.

    Most importantly, we observed how fractured our country is; the acknowledgement of this pandemic varies greatly from state to state and without a unified response I fear it will be a long time before we get to the other side of this crisis.

    One of the gifts corona and quarantine has brought us is daily gratitude. Gratitude for lovely spring mornings. Gratitude for the markets that deliver food to the door. Gratitude for my daughter’s friend who dropped off a coffee from a beloved local cafe. Mostly gratitude for our family’s health and well being.

    We are blessed here in Midcoast Maine to be able to shelter in place with such a supportive community. Let’s continue to “act locally and think globally” as we eventually enter the post-Covid world; there is much work and healing yet to be done.

    Frannie Wheeler-Berta is a long time resident of Camden and has returned home after working as the Clothing/Donations Coordinator at Casa Alitas, a shelter for Asylum Seekers in Tucson, Arizona.