Life on the Road in Pandemic America

What happens when a dream car is for sale in Florida, you live in Oregon and a pandemic is gripping the country?

These obviously weren’t ideal conditions for a road trip, but my husband, Andy, and I flew late last month to Fort Myers, drove back to Portland in our new-to-us right-hand-drive 1994 Mitsubishi Delica van, and saw a country coping in extensively different ways with an outbreak that has killed tens of thousands of Americans and put many millions more out of work.

We made our way west through 13 states in six days, and awareness and preparedness varied widely among the people we encountered.

Nerves accentuated our travels, which took longer to plan than it took us to cover 6,374 miles, half in the air and half on the road. Well stocked with hand sanitizer, masks, wipes and disposable gloves, we began our journey.

On our flights east, masks were required for boarding, but some people immediately took them off once seated; others had only their mouths covered. Still, we got to Florida with little incident, and turned our attention to the task at hand.

Kellyn Karr owns Karr Automotive, a repair shop in Fort Myers. Although he specializes in regular vehicles, he also imports and sells Japanese domestic market Delicas as a hobby.

“I’d travel to Canada often as a kid and teenager because my father was still a dual citizen,” Mr. Karr said. “I’d see all kinds of J.D.M. vehicles there because of Canada’s looser import restrictions.” He got hooked.

He meticulously prepped the van for the cross-country haul. “The people who buy these vans come from some of the coolest walks of life, and the stories seem to be endless,” he said. “This part I absolutely love.”

The pandemic has changed Mr. Karr’s business. “We have asked people, that are waiting, to wear masks,” he said, adding, “You have to call when you want to come to the shop.” Before returning the cars to their owners, Mr. Karr wipes down door handles and steering wheels and lets the cars bake in the sun.

Florida’s motor vehicle department remained closed the day the van’s vehicle identification number was to be verified and its title completed; we left with nothing other than the import paperwork, a bill of sale and prayers.

No registration meant no license plates. A temporary trip permit we had arranged from Oregon hadn’t arrived, either; it was still en route to Florida.

Before we had even left for the airport in Oregon, we called the highway patrol headquarters of every state our fastidiously planned route would take us through, to ensure we could legally be on the road with our paperwork. Varying degrees of acceptance were noted, but most troopers were lenient on D.M.V. matters, considering the pandemic had shut down many offices.

That was the easy part. With keys and import papers in (sanitized) hand, the more intense part of our journey began.

Joanna Holston, a long-haul truck driver, offered us advice via Instagram. “Just be careful, be mindful of distance and wear P.P.E.,” she warned us. She also shared tips about sleeping at truck stops, and what to look out for when boondocking at such places.

Ms. Holston was carrying a load of personal protective equipment from Minneapolis to Atlanta for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She, too, made sure to keep well stocked with masks, hand sanitizer and gloves.

Florida: 50,859 cases and 2,236 deaths to date. Georgia: 41,344 cases, 1,902 deaths.

The pandemic has hit states in different ways, crippling some and glancing others. As of May 24, roughly 24,000 people had died in New York State. Many of the states we passed through have, so far, been spared the worst.

Our takeout food venture — our first in over two months — was at a kind of food hall. We were met with jubilant moods, high heels and party dresses. Masks and social distancing were scarce. We felt isolated and awkward wearing our masks and gloves.

In Georgia, as well as Kansas and Colorado, electronic interstate signs flashed warnings about the virus: Wash your hands, cover your cough, avoid groups of 10 or more, safer at home.

Love’s Travel Stops were a home away from home, plentiful on these stretches and reliable. (The back of a Delica is perfect for car camping.) Most workers wore masks and stood behind newly hung plexiglass. At the Love’s in Waco, Ga., employees declined to be interviewed, but when asked about the virus one said, “We’re working through it.” Customers chatted about the day’s happenings, some wearing masks but most without.

Truckers dashed in and out, grabbing food and necessities before a night of truck stop solitude.

Alabama: 14,986 cases, 566 deaths. Mississippi: 13,731 cases, 652 deaths. Tennessee, 20,960 cases, 339 deaths. Arkansas, 6,180 cases, 119 deaths. Oklahoma: 6,137 cases, 318 deaths.

The day began and ended at a Love’s Travel Stop. In between, the lush trees lining Alabama’s interstate invited us to forget about the pandemic. Still, we never let our guard down. At small-town fuel stations, where few people wore masks or gloves, ours drew some looks.

We were well stocked with protective gear: vials of sanitizer in the glove box and cup holder, with more in reserve, and a new neck buff or bandanna to cover our faces for each day. Mask on; get fuel, food, drink (forgoing normal impulse buys like chewing gum and Tic Tacs); return and sanitize everything. Repeat.

Mr. Karr received the Oregon trip permit. He scanned and emailed it. Thanks to the Love’s Travel Stop in Tuscumbia, Ala., we printed and taped the permit to the lift gate. A sense of relief!

While most states were in various stages of reopening, Arkansas never had an official stay-at-home order. On May 4, Arkansas movie theaters, bowling alleys, arenas and other large outdoor venues reopened. Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that restaurants would resume limited dine-in options on May 11. Coronavirus cases have been rising since then.

Hungry, we stopped at a restaurant for dine-in service, our first time in 11 weeks. In Germantown, Tenn., Commissary BBQ stayed open while many shut down. Kandyce Cheairs, a server, kept working, too.

“We never really closed for carryout,” she said. “We’ve been opened for dine-in for the last three weeks, and it was really slow.”

Although servers’ tips were lacking, she assisted carryout orders to keep money coming in.

“I won’t say it’s been too much of a struggle,” Ms. Cheairs added, but there had been days when she thought “I might have to leave here and go find something like a warehouse job or such that I can make some money on.”

Kansas: 9,350 cases, 205 deaths. Colorado: 24,775 cases, 1,393 deaths.

Day 3 was yet another 12-plus-hour push, ending at a truck stop, this time a Sinclair station in Dumont, Colo. High-elevation crispness greeted us. But our van’s electric sliding door latch mechanism stopped latching shut. With a quick Google search and a manual override, we slipped the door shut and locked it from within. Easy in-and-out camp access was gone until after we arrived home.

On Day 4 we slowed down to take a breather, ending at the Steamboat Lake campground in Colorado after just three hours on the road, with a stop in Frisco for some souvenirs.

The owner of the Sunny Side Up Studio in Frisco, Ashlie Weisel, said she had learned the power of positive thinking when her stores were shut down. One closed permanently and the other temporarily.

Ms. Weisel was sitting on 20 boxes of colorful sweatshirts she designed that say “mountain mamas.” “It made me sad,” she said. “We need to get these to those who need them the most right now.” So she cut the price in half, sold them on Facebook in a local group for mothers and drove around the state to deliver them.

She has sold nearly 2,000 sweatshirts, finding a way to keep her business afloat. “We are united by cozy,” Ms. Weisel said with a tearful smile. “I’m a purveyor of positive.”

Wyoming: 876 cases, 15 deaths. Utah: 9,274 cases, 107 deaths.

In heavy drizzle at a rest stop, we were met with friendly faces in a Subaru Outback. After a quick query about our van, the driver handed us a book about viruses. She wasn’t selling anything, but spreading the idea that global viral outbreaks were most likely man-made and created for pharmaceutical profit.

Temperatures were climbing into the 90s. Suddenly, there was no power to the van’s 12-volt accessory plug. GPS and phone batteries dwindled. After a stop near Dinosaur, Colo., we discovered that a 15-amp fuse had blown in the in-fuse panel. We dashed to get fuses at a Napa auto parts store, and the van headed home, powering gadgets from a rear plug. A short in the front plug would have to wait.

Idaho: 2,804 cases, 82 deaths. Oregon, 4,131 cases, 151 deaths.

Sixteen tanks of fuel and five nights later, we were in the homestretch.

Our journey across 13 states highlighted a nation on edge, some people more apprehensive than others. Some were dressed in hazmat-type suits with goggles to avoid the virus; others claimed the pandemic was a farce or a political stunt. Most appeared uneasy, with reserved expressions. Laughter seemed in short supply.

All, however, were finding their way through an unpredictable new world.

As seen on nytimes Image Credits nytimes

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