How I Stayed Alive (and a Little Bit Sane) on my Cross-Country Covid Trip
My husband’s and my mission was clear. We had to make it 2,623 miles from New Jersey to California in a Mini Cooper packed with two months of our stuff and an anxious cattle dog while avoiding contact with all other human beings.
Just like everyone else, Saul and I have spent the majority of the last year inside the same four walls. We’ve been lucky. I’ve been able to work from home and keep my job, so we’re both grateful. But we were beginning to go slightly mad. My only time outside the house was my weekly trip to the grocery store wearing two masks.
When we got an offer to rent a friend’s house in Palm Springs, we surprised ourselves by saying yes. But how in the world would be get there?
We knew we couldn’t fly. I’ve tried to teach Saul not to “emotionally engage” with maskless people but have failed disastrously. If a fellow airline passenger pulled their face covering even a centimeter below their nose, I’m pretty sure the ensuing commotion started by my husband would bring the entire plane crashing to a fiery end.
So, we plotted our course across country from one Airbnb to the next. Saul triple-checked to make sure each place had “contactless check-in” so we could arrive on the West Coast without coming within six feet of anyone on the continent.
“We’ll be like Francis McDormand in Nomad Land!” I said excitedly. I had not seen the movie yet, but the trailer looked dreamy and romantic. What could possibly go wrong?
DAY ONE: LAMBERTVILLE, NEW JERSEY TO SALT FORK NATIONAL STATE PARK, OHIO
The first thing I had to do was pull Saul away from our two orange cats, Luke and Finn, who are the center of his universe.
We had considered taking them with us but were fairly certain cats hate road trips. We asked our friend Jamie, who they adore, to stay with them
“What if they forget us?” Saul said sadly as I gently shoved him out the front door.
“It’s only two months,” I reassured him. “They won’t forget us.”
Spoiler Alert: From the many videos, pictures and Facetime calls with our cats being affectionate with Jamie—it’s quite clear they have completely forgotten us.
The weather on the road was awful. There were no glamourous road trip shots to be taken for Instagram but that was just as well. No one likes “Life is an amazing adventure!” pictures during a plague. It’s important to be able to read the room.
Our first stop was a remote cabin in a state park in Ohio that I knew about from producing a series called Finding Bigfoot. Apparently, it was overrun with Sasquatches, but as long as they stayed socially distanced, I didn’t care.
Saul was grouchy from missing the cats, driving in bad weather and the long first day. I didn’t intuit this. It’s hard not to notice a cranky husband when you are stuck in a Mini Cooper with him for ten hours. I tried to cheer him by offering to help unpack the car, but when the cabin door slammed shut behind me with the door key locked inside with our dog Alife, I noted his mood turned even darker. After we waited a very long hour outside in the bitter cold someone finally showed with a replacement key.
That evening I learned that saying to your husband “Boy, you would never make it as a pioneer crossing the country in a covered wagon” isn’t something that is taken well in times of stress.
Day Two: Salt Fork State Park, Ohio to Villa Ridge, Missouri
This was the worst of the weather. The temperature stubbornly stayed at exactly 22 degrees.
We started listening to the audiobook Diana: Her True Story about Princess Diana. Even though I knew better, I found myself hoping somehow things would end well for her.
Day Three: Villa Ridge, Missouri to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
We had to make a last-minute change the day before we were to arrive in Oklahoma. Our Airbnb cancelled due to inclement weather, so we had to scramble to find a new one at the last minute. We finally located a house outside of Oklahoma City that looked extremely quaint in the online photo.
Here is the thing I learned from my terrible bout with Zillow addiction last year. Houses can look great in a picture when they are shot at an angle that doesn’t include the toxic dump or crack cocaine den five feet away from its front door.
We first knew we were in trouble when we turned onto the street and saw all the boarded-up windows. It seemed to be the only road the city had not removed snow from, probably because the snowplow operator correctly feared for his life. We were relieved to find our house was at least the only one not covered with graffiti.
“Maybe it’s cute inside?” I suggested.
We were greeted by an overwhelming smell of Glade Plug-In Air Freshener. I tried not to dry heave as I raced around unplugging them. We had been warned the faucets needed to stay open so pipes wouldn’t freeze, but didn’t quite realize that meant hearing persistent echoing dripping from every part of house including what sounded like a rushing stream behind a door with a large DO NOT ENTER sign.
There was another locked room in the house where I thought I heard shuffling and became convinced several people were being held captive. I checked the backyard with Alife and found our fence leaning against an old building with several broken windows. The only thing that made me feel relatively safe was that Alife suffers from extreme Stranger Danger. It’s an exhausting, complicated process introducing new friends into our home as a result, but it does make him an excellent guard dog.
The three of us found ourselves up the next morning at the crack of dawn. Saul and I had never packed the car so quickly. As we sped away, Saul read on his phone we were in the county with the highest crime rate in Oklahoma.
I couldn’t wait to get as far away as possible. This state was nothing like the Rogers and Hammerstein musical named after it.
Day Four: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma to Albuquerque, New Mexico
Finally, no snow. The temperature even inched above 22 degrees.
Princess Diana had separated from Charles and was finally beginning to love herself.
Alfie got to see the Rio Grande.
Someone should write a Broadway musical about New Mexico.
Day Five: Albuquerque, New Mexico to Snowflake, Arizona
Saul rented us a cool cabin in the middle of nowhere. There seem to be no real forests in Arizona, so it basically was in the middle of nothingness. It was the kind of place that is cozy but a little murder-ish. Twice in the middle of the night a car slowly crept past our place on the only desolate road for several miles. At 4:00 AM, Alfie needed to go outside. I stood with him in pitch dark where the only sound in the dead quiet was an owl ominously hooting. Alfie’s ears pricked up and he looked like he about to charge after something in the blackness beyond. “Whatever it is out there Alfie, it will probably kill you,” I whispered to him. He put his tail between his legs and followed me back inside. Alfie’s a smart dog.
Day Six: Snowflake, Arizona to Palm Springs, California
We were almost to our destination–but first we were stopping at Saul’s mom in Sun City West, Arizona for a backyard visit. As we entered her well-tailored community, I suddenly felt the strong urge to pee. For Covid safety we weren’t going inside his mom’s house, and it didn’t seem polite to relieve myself on a neighbor’s lawn. Luckily, we had brought Traveljohns. They had been recommended by a friend, so we’d ordered several on Amazon. You could do your business and discreetly dispose of them without anyone being the wiser. They are perfect for covid.
Unless they spring a leak.
It was like a water balloon with a tiny hole spraying all over the entire car. Saul frantically drove seeming annoyed as if I were intentionally trying to sabotage the visit. I desperately held the defective TravelJohn out the window as I tried to avoid being the target of its spray. It was not the most calming way to prepare to see my mother-in-law.
A few minutes later, a found plastic bag solved our dilemma. We arrived at Saul’s mom’s and the visit went well considering I was extremely self-conscious about the slowly drying spots on my jeans and t-shirt as a result of the TravelJohn debacle. For once I was grateful for masks and social distancing.
When we safely arrived in Palm Springs later that night, I breathed a sigh of relief.
As we unpacked, I thought back to our first night in that cabin in Ohio when I truly wondered if we would make it to the end of the trip. Right after we had gotten the replacement key for our cabin, we had received alerts on our phones about yet another snowstorm heading our way. We were far from the highway and concerned about getting stuck, or worse. We called the only local restaurant for miles and asked the pizza lady about our chances of getting out safely in the morning.
“Oh, I’ve been travelling these roads for years,” she replied matter-of-factly. “Sometimes things get treacherous, but if you don’t panic, you’ll figure it out. Most the time it’s not as bad as you think it’s gonna be,” she added. “And if you do land in a ditch and are still alive, you’ll eventually get out one way or another.”
Saul and I looked at each other and smiled. It was very good advice–both for our road trip and for life.
About the Author: Keith Hoffman is a writer, producer, and former spokesperson for TravelJohn