Last month I and a friend ventured out for a road trip to see the sister national parks of Yellowstone and Grand Teton. After being hunkered down for months on end, we needed to do something to fend of stir craziness! We drove 2980 miles in 7 days, and loved every minute of it.
I should begin by saying that this is not the first pandemic I’ve been around to experience. In 1968-1969 an influenza pandemic (referred to then as either the Hong Kong Flu or the Asian Flu) swept the globe. According to the CDC, there were an estimated 1,000,000 deaths worldwide and 100,000 in the United States (at a time when the population was just over 200 million). I was 10 at the time, so I do have some memories, mostly just hearing about the “Hong Kong Flu.” My family was living in Pakistan at the time, but we did read newspapers from the US that mentioned it, mostly in passing.
This is also not the first pandemic during which I have traveled. During the H1N1 pandemic of 2009, I traveled between the China and the US a couple of times, in addition to a trip to Hong Kong and Taiwan. My main memory of that pandemic was landing in Beijing on a flight from Detroit and being greeted by staff in hazmat suits who boarded the plane and pointed digital thermometers at our heads. Then, for two weeks after my arrival, someone from my district health office called my home every morning at 8 to ask me if I had a fever. I didn’t. I also remember seeing more people wearing masks, something that had already become much more common in Asia since the SARS outbreak in 2003. According to the CDC, there were an estimated 60.8 million cases in the US between April 2009 and April 2010, and 12,469 deaths.
As we all know the novel coronavirus that made its entrance into humanity early this year has wreaked havoc on society worldwide, with most countries imposing some level of restrictions to social and economic life that range from total lockdowns to mask mandates. At least in the part of the United States where I and my travel companion live (me in Minnesota, she in Nebraska), restrictions have loosened, so when we had the opportunity, we hit the road.
What follows are my random observations of travelling during this particular pandemic.
1. Americans are travelling (at least they were in September). We saw no evidence of decreased traffic on the highways, and especially near the national parks, NO VACANCY signs were the norm. Parking lots and campgrounds in the national parks were full. Further evidence that Americans are on the move came from our “license plate game.” In the 7 days we were on the road we spotted cars from 48 states (no Delaware or Connecticut).
2. The RVers remain out in force. This was interesting because they tend to be an older demographic, the ones who are being told to stay home.
3. It is a plexiglass world. So much human interaction in public spaces now takes place with a giant piece of plexiglass between the two interlocutors. Sometimes it is hanging from the ceiling. Sometimes it is affixed to the counter with Velcro. Sometimes it looks bolted on, as if to day “I am now a permanent fixture of your life. Deal with it!” Kind of makes me wish I had bought stock in a plexiglass company in March.
4. Regarding masks, by and large most people seemed to be very tinghua (听话). That’s a Chinese term meaning obedient, or doing what one is told. Ting = listen; hua = speech. (It’s one of my favorite Chinese words). On they go when entering an establishment; off they go when stepping outside. The etiquette on a hiking trail was a bit murkier. Some wore them while they hiked; others put them on hastily when approaching other hikers. Everyone had a good-natured look that said “who knows what the rules are?” I do look forward to the day when conversations aren’t muffled!
5. Masks are the new t-shirts, places to announce your favorite home town sports team or alma mater or preferred political candidate.
6. There’s a lot of creativity out there, in terms of spreading the message about establishment or local regulations. Here’s a slideshow of some of the better examples:
It was good to disconnect from the news (especially the pandemic and political news) and experience life as it is being lived, not as it is being told to us. Turn off the TV and social media, and one discovers that Americans are an amazingly adaptive, creative, and congenial people, even during these “uncertain times.”
For the two of us, whose pre-Covid life consisted of near non-stop travel, the chance to grab a suitcase and hit the road was a real treat.
Truth be told, I’m ready to go again!