I just returned from my first post-COVID road trip. I hadn’t seen my family in Carolina since Christmas. Overall, it was a pleasant experience because we reconnected on a limited basis with loved ones. The road trip was also a very strange experience.
If you’ve traveled I-95 a lot, you know the hectic pace of the traffic and the density of it. Traffic wasn’t as heavy when we first moved to Florida years ago, but as tourism and relocations increased, that traffic got a whole lot heavier. One slowdown could add half an hour, sometimes even an hour, to our six-hour trip. We pivoted by mapping different routes on back roads. This pleased me greatly. I love back roads. My husband doesn’t. He does like the scenery, especially once we get to South Carolina where, in my opinion, there is some of the most beautiful country on the planet. He doesn’t like the constant slowdowns when you go through small towns where revenue from speeding tickets helps fund yearly budgets.
As soon as we got on the road, it was obvious travel is down. I already knew that because of information in media about Florida. My adopted home state has been hit hard by the COVID shutdowns, as NPR and others reported:
“In the second quarter of the year—April, May and June—the state’s tourism agency estimates 60% fewer people traveled to Florida compared to the same period a year earlier. That’s a decline of almost 20 million visitors.”
Ahead of the trip, I worried about protocol. We had to take aggressive measures to protect my elderly mother. I certainly didn’t want to pass along any virus to her, much less COVID. We decided to visit with her first and then catch a couple other family members on our way back home.
I packed rubber gloves for pumping gas, and extra masks. I packed wet wipes to clean Bear’s paws after we walked him. He’s older now, so he can ride for a fairly long time without stopping. I packed tons of hand sanitizer and also our food so we didn’t have to get fast food. We limited contact with others as much as possible including others walking their dogs.
I had a bizarre experience just after we arrived in the town where my mom lives upstate. My husband went into the Love’s truck stop to grab some milk and a couple other items. I decided I’d give Bear one last walk before getting to Mom’s house. So I decided to walk him along the grassy area on the side of the property and a young woman pulled into the space beside our car.
She was walking a fairly large dog—it looked like a German Shepherd mix. The dog was pretty and appeared non-aggressive. Bear is completely non-aggressive with other animals, and when he saw the dog that outweighed him at least five times over, Bear wagged his tail. Then the young woman surprised me by approaching us.
“Hey,” she said, “Can they meet?”
I wasn’t sure what that meant. But I knew a 9-lb. dog versus a roughly 100-lb. dog potentially wouldn’t got smoothly, especially since the two canines were complete strangers.
I told her, “No. That isn’t a good idea because they don’t know each other and we don’t know how they’d react.” I’m paraphrasing, by the way.
Then I walked up to the front of the business where a couple policemen were standing. Just in case. I still can’t figure the benefit in two strange dogs meeting in a truck stop parking lot.
Everywhere we stopped on the way up and the way back home, business appeared off in comparison to trips in normal times. Truck stops were fairly busy because of truckers, not tourists. Their bathrooms were clean and thankfully there were none of those hot-air-blow-your-hands-dry-and-spread-germs contraptions—paper towels were plentiful. During the trip, not once was anyone else in the restroom when I used it. That reminded me tourism is, indeed, down all over in these parts.
The same went for I-26, the bane of every trip we take. That highway is so bad we usually try to completely avoid it. This go ‘round, as we prepared to get off I-95, we decided to take I-26 instead of our usual back roads route. Traffic was light.
We got about 30 miles from my mom’s house and there was a serious slowdown. Conflicting road work signs were up, with one telling us the right lane was closed and the other telling us the left lane was closed due to road work. It took us roughly half an hour to go a mile.
When we finally got past the slowdown, I was furious. Not one road worker was in sight. There was one highway truck crawling along the emergency lane. I have no idea why they’d deliberately slow evening traffic down without a reason. We both vowed to never travel I-26 again.
It was the strangest and most wonderful moment to see my mom. That 9 months is the longest I’d ever gone without seeing her. We both teared up, and I was just so grateful that she is doing well and we could spend some time together. I felt the same way when I saw my brother.
On the return trip, we stopped to see my husband’s sisters and their husbands. I savored the normalcy of the visit despite the fact we limited it to four people and we didn’t get to see any of our nephews or their families.
When you’ve self-quarantined for 9 months, returning to the world at large is a strange experience. Traffic was off and obviously people aren’t into traveling for fun right now.
The busiest place we saw on that whole trip was the local hamburger stand Zesto. It’s been there since I was a girl. My husband went there twice because they have real homecooked burgers.
I had a salad—every piece in it was fresh.
By the time we crossed the Carolina line and entered what I call Georgia marsh country, I was already missing the hills back home.
(Kay B. Day/Sept. 28, 2020)
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