I was reading a post recently from a very successful travel blogger. I’ve never followed his blog but he gets mentioned a lot in the travel blogging industry, and I occasionally read a post or two of interest. Something led me to his site- I can’t even remember what- but the thing that caught my eye was a post on his experience traveling in the US during the pandemic.
He road-tripped this summer, mostly along the east coast, and his conclusion was that he probably wouldn’t do something like it again (not during a pandemic, anyway). There was some fear about catching the virus in places where cases were spiking, but overall, his assessment seemed to be based more on the closed attractions, not being able to be a last minute traveler, not getting the chance to interact with and meet people, feeling lonely.
These are all perfectly valid reasons to not have a great time on a trip, especially if the kind of travel you’re used to is flying by the seat of your pants, lots of interactions with locals, seeing the popular/major sites, etc.
But my initial reaction was to want to come to my own blog to write about my impressions of what it was like to travel the US during COVID-19, because so much of what I came away with was very different.
I wrote just one post about my road trip, and it was filled with imagery more than anything, and short on specific details. While my trip wasn’t perfect, while it wasn’t all I had once imagined it could be, while there are things I would have done differently… I had a really good time. And since I haven’t written much about this trip, I thought this would be a good time to talk about what it was like, and why I maybe had a much better time exploring the US this summer than this top travel blogger.
I think, in some part, it was about expectations. We’re in a pandemic, so just the decision to travel at all took a lot of time, and thought. I weighed it all: what was my risk, was it possible to travel and mitigate my risk based on my itinerary, my activities, my route? Should I travel alone, should I travel with others? Should I visit friends and family? When should I go?
Not everyone would make the same decisions that I did. Some wouldn’t have traveled at all, some would have done a smaller trip. Some would have done a bigger trip, or done things differently: hit the more famous National Parks, stopped in on friends.
But for me, it was about deciding what I was comfortable with, and then I let that guide how I was going to build my trip. I lowered my expectations. I let go of the idea that this (almost) cross-country trip would ever come close to what I had been imagining for so many years.
Because this trip has been a long time in the making. It goes back to when I was a kid, to when I read the Little House on the Prairie books and dreamed of what it would be like to cross the prairie in a covered wagon.
My image of this trip has grown larger and larger over the years, and it’s taken on many versions: the Little House pilgrimage, but also a tour of Major League ballparks, a tour of the National Parks, staying with friends and family as much as possible, hitting the most off-beat roadside attractions, eating a slice of pie in as many diners as possible.
There have been so many versions of the trip in my head that, even in non-pandemic times, I never would have been able to do it all.
But even in limited circumstances, I decided I wanted to give it a go, and see what I could see. I reduced it down to that: to a road trip, a chance to get in my car and drive for thousands of miles, and see where the road would take me. I would see what I could see.
I did some research, I planned out a route, I checked to see what might be open, I gave myself a theme. I might not be able to see a baseball game or visit friends on the West Coast or hike in the biggest National Parks, but I would do a Laura Ingalls Wilder pilgrimage, focusing on the mid-west.
This was a good plan. Aside from one small museum in De Smet, Little House stuff was open, the attractions were all there: the dugout on the banks of Plum Creek, the cluster of cottonwoods that Pa planted for the family, the surveyor’s house and schoolhouse in De Smet, Pa’s fiddle, Pa’s hand-dug well, Laura’s writing desk, a ride in a covered wagon. From Minnesota to South Dakota to Kansas to Missouri, I saw (almost) all.
My sister joined me for the first part of the trip, and most of the Little House stuff. I’d initially intended to do the trip alone, but having my sister with me for the beginning worked out perfectly. At the end of the trip, I stopped at the beach in North Carolina to spend a few more days with family, but otherwise, I stayed solo. I got so many messages and texts from friends as they saw my posts on social media, offering to meet up, offering me a place to stay. I was deeply touched by these invitations- some from friends that I’ve never even met before (a few a result of this blog!)- and if there wasn’t a pandemic raging I would have absolutely made the effort to visit people. But I made a rule for myself- only family- and this felt good.
It wasn’t an easy decision, but I think it made me feel more settled in doing a big road trip. COVID was always on my mind, but by staying mostly solo, I felt like I could keep my risk down (as well as not risk others!).
And despite being alone for a lot of the trip, I didn’t feel lonely. It helps that I like to travel solo, that I already have a lot of experience with it. And maybe, again, it was about expectations: I didn’t expect that I would meet people and make new friends (not that this couldn’t have happened, I just didn’t expect it), and so having a mostly solo trip didn’t disappoint me. I had some really nice interactions along my way, but it was no big deal to keep mostly to myself.
Little House was the theme, but I incorporated other stuff, too: a couple of National Parks, Mount Rushmore and Devil’s Tower. The Field of Dreams movie site, Buddy Holly’s Crash site, a Frank Lloyd Wright house, hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
There were a few things that were closed. The Surf Ballroom, for instance, the site of Buddy Holly’s last concert before his plane crash, was closed (despite the website saying it would be open). My sister and I would have loved to go in, but it was okay: we took pictures outside, had lunch on a bench with a view of Clear Lake, and then a beautiful drive through cornfields to find the crash site. The Frank Lloyd Wright house was closed, too, but this wasn’t even on our radar! We’d just been driving to our next destination and saw signs for Cedar Rock and decided to detour. We were still able to hike out to the property and stop by the visitor’s center and I think this was a highlight for both of us.
Maybe I had a really good time because I didn’t expect to be able to do it all. Maybe I had a really good time because the whole point was the road.
And oh, what a road!
Is the United States not the very best place in the world for a long road trip? You don’t need open attractions for a road trip. You just need a car that runs and eyes that are open to the wonder that’s all around. The pandemic doesn’t stop an eagle soaring through the sky, it doesn’t stop a sunrise from shining through the doorframe of an abandoned building. In my case, it didn’t stop me from drinking bad gas station coffee, or an ice-cold coke from a styrofoam cup, or a couple of beers on the porch of a little white cottage in Kansas. It didn’t stop me from hiking through the mountains or picking wildflowers or walking through tall prairie grass or seeing a field full of bison.
I wrote this reflection about one of my favorite moments of the trip, just after I’d say goodbye to my sister in Rapid City, SD, and continued on towards North Dakota:
“My sister heads home and I continue on, now just me in my little white car and the great stretch of open road. I’m in the very northwestern corner of the state and it seems like there is nothing up here, nothing but the subtly rolling land and I think that I can see forever. The window is down, the sun shines in through the passenger side and warms my right arm. Gas station coffee and Tom Petty’s ‘Wildflowers’ playing and there isn’t another car or person here but me. Then a fox in the field to my right, and five minutes later, soaring in the sky to my left, a bald eagle. I let out a great and loud cheer when I see the eagle and it feels incredible: there are eagles and foxes here? I see deer, maybe mule deer and one stands close to the road, with great big horns. A small one darts out in front of my car but passes to the other side unscathed. After miles and miles of nothing, a small building on the side of the road. A little country diner. I walk inside and the woman running the place asks what I want for breakfast. She goes in the back and fries up an egg, and some sausage, and toasts an English muffin and it might be the best sandwich I’ve ever had. I ask her about the fox and the eagle, still wondering if I’d imagined them, but she confirms that you can see them up here. “You can see a lot of things here,” she says, “if you look closely.” “
All told, I traveled a little over 6,000 miles in 21 days. My route: Pennsylvania -> Ohio -> Indiana -> Illinois -> Iowa -> Minnesota -> South Dakota -> North Dakota -> Montana -> Wyoming -> Nebraska -> Kansas -> Missouri -> Kentucky -> Tennessee -> North Carolina -> back home to Pennsylvania. A couple states- Illinois and Kentucky- I just passed through on the way to the next stop.
This map doesn’t show the exact route I took, but it’s pretty close.
With regards to COVID-19, overall, I felt relatively safe. I think the worst experience was towards the very beginning of the trip; after I picked up my sister in Cleveland, we did a big day of driving in order to move ourselves west. The plan was to drive through the rest of Ohio, then Indiana, Illinois, and well into Iowa before stopping for the night. I’d looked at the map and thought a nice place to stretch our legs would be Indiana Dunes National Park, which sits on stretch of shore along Lake Michigan. Our timing was bad: it was a Saturday and we arrived at the park around lunchtime. Everyone was out. It was a summer day during a pandemic and finding a green spot or, better yet, a little stretch of sand along a big lake was what everyone had in mind. Really, it was one of the only things to do! My sister and I headed towards the start of a small trail just as it started to rain, and it truly felt like there was a mass exodus of people leaving the beach. We weaved in and out of groups of people, dodging beach chairs and inflatables, trying out best to keep our distance. I would say the majority of people weren’t wearing masks. I remember that my sister and I looked at each other and wondered if this trip was a good idea.
It went uphill from there (quite literally, ha!). We found our trail and climbed up a long series of stairs and because the light rain had scared most people away, we had the trail mostly to ourselves. At the top we looked out over the lake to a hazy view of the Chicago skyline, then continued on the loop to get back to where we started. We had to walk for a short stretch on the beach, and this, too, felt harrowing: hundreds of people were crammed onto a tiny stretch of sand. Going from months of isolation to a scene like this was jolting.
This was the only time on my trip that I felt like I was around far too many people. A few other spots had a lot of people, but they never felt too bad. At Mount Rushmore, there was plenty of room for people to space out, and my sister and I quickly moved past where people were lingering and to the much more quiet and spacious Presidential Trail that loops around under the mountain sculpture. Wall Drug (in Wall, SD) is a huge general store/shopping/eating area, and while I don’t regret stopping, I think because of the pandemic I didn’t quite feel at ease. Too many people there for the free ice water and 5 cent coffee (myself included)!
But in general, I think the theme of my trip suited a pandemic: a pilgrimage to the prairie, walking and hiking in wide open spaces. It was difficult to not want to keep driving west, especially when I hit Montana/Wyoming, and I could feel- strongly- that I wanted to see the mountains. 5 more hours and I could have been in Yellowstone! But I decided to stick to smaller, lesser known parks, and it was a good decision.
A highlight of the trip was Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It’s a similar landscape to Badlands (maybe not quite as dramatic, but still so beautiful), but with far less people. At times I felt as though I had the park to myself!
I mostly stayed in hotels, along with a couple of Airbnbs (I’d planned to do some camping, but without a camp stove and after long days of driving, I often just wanted to find a cheap hotel and not have to worry about setting up a tent). I’d had a little worry over what it would be like to stay in hotels on this trip, but again, overall, it was fine. You could add an extra layer of caution by cleaning/wiping down surfaces in the hotel rooms yourself, but I never did. I’d say the biggest downside to staying in hotels during a pandemic is that most of the amenities weren’t available: namely, breakfast! It’s nice to be able to fuel up at the hotel before starting the day, saving both time and money. Some hotels that typically have breakfast available didn’t have anything to offer, most others handed out a brown bag with a piece of fruit, bottle of water, and a granola bar (Nature Valley, always Nature Valley!). It was something, but it certainly wasn’t a hot waffle.
Masks were another thing that were practically nonexistent. The further west I went, the less masks I saw. Most business owners wore them, but often I’d walk into a gas station being one of the only people wearing one. Even though this was back in July, it seems like not much has changed in some parts of the country with regards to mask-wearing. There are big stretches of the States where people don’t believe in the risk of COVID-19, or else don’t believe it will ever reach them.
Sometimes, I questioned whether I should be out there, traveling at all. Sitting here back at home, months later (and with the world still very much in the thick of this pandemic), I’m glad I decided to go. I tried to make smart decisions and stay careful and safe: washing hands, sanitizing, masks in public, takeout dinners back in my hotel rooms, solo hikes in the great outdoors.
I think about where we might be in summer 2021, and as much as I want to say that I’ll be in the middle of a Camino in Spain, followed up by a few weeks in the mountains of France… I’m not sure. I’m hopeful, but it’s too soon to say. What I do know, however, is that if I can’t travel to Europe or somewhere else further afield, there’s still so much more exploring to do in my own country.
I’m still dreaming of travel, but now- in addition to planning long walks in Europe- I’m adding more US road-tripping to my list: Rt 66 and the Southwest, the vineyards of Northern California, a rim-to-rim hike of the Grand Canyon.
But for the time being, I’m sitting tight. It’s time to ride out this next wave of the pandemic and stick to local explorations. But I do wonder what my next trip will be like, if it will be another masked and socially-distanced road trip, or if it might feel a little more like the summers I’m used to: walking down a long path in Europe. Is anyone else dreaming about trips in 2021? Where is the first place you’ll go when it feels safe enough to travel?