Our first stop was Great Shakes, the legendary milk shake emporium in Palm Springs, Calif. Our last stop was one of the northernmost Waffle Houses, in Elkton, Md. I don’t think the Food Channel will be offering us a show any time soon, but — yes — a family member and I just spent 11 days driving from California to Boston through the United States of COVID-19.
My relative was moving to the East Coast, and my wife was anxious to get me out of the house. It was a delightful adventure, and a true guilty pleasure, knowing the hardship and suffering the coronavirus pandemic inflicted on everyone during the past year. I think the decision to travel was a prudent one, although many friends urged me not to go.
I am not a risk-taker, and we took as few risks as possible on this trip. I had one vaccine shot inside me, and I knew my companion was prudent as well. Flying didn’t concern me. After UMass-Dartmouth biology professor Erin Bromage published a much-shared commentary on COVID-19 risk in May, I asked him about air travel. “Modern planes have amazing filtration,” he answered. “You could not ask for cleaner air in an enclosed environment than a plane.” Airports, he warned, are perforce less safe.
Throughout our trip, we continued to be very careful. We were never unmasked in public settings; we aired out rooms we intended to sleep in, and we never ate indoors.
It’s a big country, and our behavior was hardly the general default mode. We shared a bed and breakfast in Tombstone, Ariz., with some ATV riders who had zero interest in any precautions. While we ate breakfast on a sunlit patio in the high mesa air (elev. 4,539 ft.), one of the elderly guests explained her theory about acquiring COVID-19 “immunity” by refusing to wear a mask, ever. The B&B owner assured us that “The Town Too Tough to Die” had experienced only one COVID death, “and that might have been heart failure.” (The mayor of Tombstone declined to comment.)
Driving across the country, it seemed as though Corporate America, perhaps for liability reasons, was quite COVID-conscious, but the populace at large less so. When ordering takeout, we would often enter a chain restaurant with “Masks Required” signs on the door and find a very different level of compliance inside.
It was an odd time to travel, and the pandemic made many decisions for us. The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe was closed (it has since reopened), so we discovered the fabulous Museum of International Folk Art atop Museum Hill, which affords a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains. Rowan Oak, the William Faulkner home in Oxford, Miss., was closed, but the grounds were open and completely deserted. We had the place to ourselves. The Dollywood theme park was closed, so we took our Dolly Parton hit via Jad Abumrad’s entertaining podcast, “Dolly Parton’s America.”
If we needed any further reminding that nature was not going to be our friend, the Texas snowstorms blew us off our itinerary. My fellow traveler wanted to visit the artists colony of Marfa, where some cool kids have posted an “Everyone Here Hates You” sign (talk about a Boston welcome!) to flip off the tourists, and I wanted to patronize Larry McMurtry’s famous bookstore in Archer City. Evading Texas, however, we instead settled for a toe-touch in Clinton, Okla., home of the Route 66 Museum, which we did not visit.
Alongside tense moments, like asking unmasked strangers to please back away, there were magical experiences, including a solitary, sunset walk among the dunes in the White Sands National Park. I also had my first encounter with the Mississippi River in many decades (in Memphis, under a post-snowstorm boil-water order). Of course, we long for a time when trips like this feel normal again, and not worth writing about in the daily newspaper.
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.