Travel in the Time of COVID
I’m going to hit the road
In the time of COVID, driving is the only way to go. That’s fine by me; I’ve always wanted to hop in my car and head across the county.
Now, after being basically housebound for the better part of a year, that urge is growing. I go to the computer to grade papers or find a recipe and soon I’m scrolling through the sites of national parks instead. Or I’m mapping out routes that follow good weather. Or shopping for a hotel on wheels to get me around.
I’ve decided on a Ford Transit, but do I want a passenger van or a cargo van? A high, low, or medium roof? I haven’t chosen my chariot yet, but I’ve identified some of the features I want — blind-spot monitoring, a backup camera, a tow hitch so I can pull my boat (I don’t have one) or a concession trailer to use as a kitchen. WiFi would be nice, but is it necessary? What’s the downside of relying on the hotspot from my phone?
Clearly, I’ve got more research to do, but some of my decisions are made already. They’ve been made for a long time. Whatever I buy, once I’m behind the wheel, I know I don’t want to rush, the way I do when I travel to visit family, anxious to get there, anxious to get home. I want a leisurely, stop-whenever-you-want-to, let-your-heart-lead-the-way kind of trip from border to border and coast to coast.
When I’ve imagined this trip in the past, I saw myself stopping at coffee shops along the way, sipping from a ceramic cup while my stream of consciousness poured out onto the page. I wanted to travel the way Natalie Goldberg did when she was writing down the bones, with a destination in mind but my focus on the journey.
I wanted a trip that would give me time to get to know the country, to get to know myself. I wanted to be yanked out of my comfort zones, unburdened of my routines and surroundings, unfettered by my past. Going on the road would help me to deepen, or so I imagined.
It would broaden me as well. I’d see the local sights and taste the local cuisines.
I’d get to know the country by getting to know its inhabitants. I would develop a feel for who I might have been if I had come to age as an Iowan or a Rhode Islander, if I’d been born on an Indian reservation, or had lived for a time in the middle of nowhere, grown my own food and communicated with spirits no one else could hear. I wanted to try on other lives, the way you try on clothes when you’re shopping, so you can see how you look in them, so you can tell how they feel. That was my vision of the traveling life.
Then COVID. I haven’t set foot in a restaurant, a coffee shop, or a store, much less a hotel, for almost a year. If I hit the road now, I’ll be getting my coffee at a drive-through window instead of a hotel lobby. I’ll be camping out instead of checking in.
Hobnobbing with strangers has been wiped off my to-do list. As an introvert, I feel some degree of relief about that. I’m interested in people, but since I quit drinking, I no longer have that drive to join a party or, if there is no party, to throw one.
In some ways, having a reason to withdraw from the world has been a good thing. It’s given me a chance to honor my true nature by turning inward, directing my energy toward self-care and creative pursuits, tending my home and garden, and reconnecting with my dreams. Maybe that’s why my old fantasy of a long, meandering trip keeps bubbling up and tugging at my sleeve.
Or maybe it’s nostalgia. As I age, I look back more, as old people tend to do. The jingle about seeing the USA from a Chevrolet was the soundtrack of my youth. Then, families rarely flew the way we do now, the way we did before the virus. Instead, they traveled together in wood-paneled station wagons to Grand Canyon, to the beach, or to Disneyland and Busch Gardens.
I mean, we didn’t do that; but we knew people who did. Most years, the closest we got to a family vacation was going to the lake to sit in a boat and watch my father fish. We resented him for our discomfort and boredom, then grieved for him when he left us and moved across the country.
Now, I’m grieving for him again. The deaths of people we love remind us that time is running out. It runs out for us all. We better do now what we always said we were going to do or resign ourselves to settling for a life of unfulfilled desires.
Jungian analyst Robert Johnson said that unlived life goes rancid within us. The dreams that never come to fruit don’t just disappear. They create dissatisfaction, moodiness, disease. In the end, ignoring our desires or pushing them away will rob us of our vitality. Our unlived life will crush us to death.
That is not how I want to die.
A few years ago, I wrote a book about overcoming the fear of travel. It was part self-help, part case study, and part memoir. That kind of cross-genre books typically don’t sell very well, and mine was no exception.
But that didn’t matter.
Its value was in the writing, in the documenting of the paths I’d taken to vanquish my own fears about stepping outside my comfort zone. Flying was the most specific one then, and today, I can get on a plane.
I mean, I could. Before COVID.
Aside from the virus, my biggest travel fear today is financial. The economy is precarious; employers are being encouraged to suspend the taxes that fund social security; my retirement accounts contain less than the millions of dollars the pundits say I’ll need.
Vans and RVs are expensive. So are camping fridges, electric inverters, solar panels, and composting toilets. After cutting my spending to the bone last year, the thought of all that outlay is scary as hell. But at the end of the day, the thought of my unlived traveling life going rancid inside me is even scarier.
I’m feeling the FOMO that characterizes our age. But it’s not a fear of missing out on the events that everyone else is attending. It’s not a fear that I won’t get to go where everyone else has gone, see what everyone else has seen, take the photos that everyone else has taken, and post them on Instagram for everyone else to see.
What I fear missing out on is something more personal than that. It’s the experience of a fully lived life.
That’s why I’m hitting the road. I’ll send you a postcard.