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I think everyone remembers the moment when the pandemic, for them, finally crossed the threshold from abstract to imminent threat. It happened to me on March 12, 2020. I was in my car, pulled over to the side of the road in Portland, Maine, reading a joint announcement from the Boston area’s four biggest museums, declaring an abrupt, coordinated closure, starting immediately.
Hindsight being 20/20, the depths of my personal denial are crystal clear. Just hours before, I was sitting in a restaurant downing noodles when my phone pinged with news that New York’s Metropolitan Museum would close the next day for a “thorough cleaning,” with plans to announce next steps a few days later. “Interesting,” I wrote, forwarding the press release to my editors. “It’s the biggest and busiest museum in the country, in its densest city, so it makes sense.” Whatever was happening there wouldn’t happen here, I reasoned. Museums, with their capacious galleries and mostly solitary experiences, were built for this. I used the phrase “abundance of caution,” I think for the first time, hopped in my car and went about what would be the final minutes of normal life.
Everyone knows what happened next: Widespread lockdowns, lives interrupted then lost by the hundreds and thousands.
Tamping down the panic, I thought about ways to be useful, to give readers escape from the grim world closing in around them. A sleepless night — one of many — yielded an epiphany: Could I seal myself in the capsule of my car — packed lunch, water bottle, coffee thermos — and navigate an increasingly dangerous terrain of the world out there? If we couldn’t see art on walls, I thought, we could track back to its source in the land and sea and sky, and see what artists, now beyond our reach, saw in the world around them.
Thus Pilgrimages, my weekly pandemic road-trip project, was born. It was a shot in the dark, but from the very start it worked. The series felt lost and untethered, like so many of us, but hopeful all the same. My first trek was to Cushing, Maine, to walk the soggy fields above the Saint George River to Andrew Wyeth’s grave, which sits almost exactly at the perspective of his absurdly famous “Christina’s World.” I limned the broad shores of Long Sands Beach near York, Maine, where Georgia O’Keeffe would retreat to paint when things with her husband got too heavy in New York. I peeled back layer upon layer of the rich artistic history of Cape Cod, visiting Helen Frankenthaler and Bob Thompson and Edward Hopper. And I ventured into New Hampshire’s White Mountains, where Albert Bierstadt nurtured his painterly vision of the illusion of Manifest Destiny.
When museums opened again, the burden lightened; here, at last, was something semi-normal. But it also heightened the simple fact that I’d been living in two worlds: The world Out There — the vast, lonely luxury of it — and the world in here, my family and I locked up tight, all of us biding time that, until the November vaccine announcements, seemed endless. (I write this in my basement home office, usually a refuge that over these many months has become more like a prison.)
A year later, freedom beckons, no longer an abstract tease. I’ve had a taste — more than most, and I’m grateful for it. But it’s been piecemeal, fleeting, and far from complete. Patience. It will be.