I’ve traveled from Burlington, VT to Washington, DC’s Maryland suburbs several dozen times in the past thirty years. In those trips, I’ve traveled by plane, train, bus and automobile. Although my preferred mode of transport is the train, Amtrak has suspended service between Burlington and New Haven, CT. for the time being because of COVID-19. Likewise, Megabus has also suspended most of its service from Vermont and I just don’t feel safe in an airplane just yet. Since I don’t drive, A couple family members took me to Maryland this past weekend due to another family member being sick. Although the trip was questionable in relation to the current rules regarding travel, it was a journey my siblings felt was necessary and one I needed to make for my own peace of mind.
Once we left Burlington, we drove straight through to suburban DC, stopping once for gas and a bathroom break. The roads we traveled included Vermont’s Route 7, I-87, and I-83. In addition, we traversed several local roads and state highways as we made connections from one major throughway to the next. The weather was perfect for traveling—sunshine and around 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Not having been much of anywhere in the past six weeks—and certainly not on any highways—I was curious to see what the American road looked like almost two months into a disease-imposed quarantine. As we approached Albany, I expected to see at least one or two traffic slowdowns, given the nature of the road design in and around that once great city. However, we sailed right through. The number of vehicles was small, even for a Sunday.
As we continued south, the trees and surrounding countryside became greener and the air remained fresh. Traveling on I-87 to the west of New York City I couldn’t help but be impressed by how blue and unpolluted the skies to our east appeared. Although there were more vehicles on the road in this part of New Jersey than there had been so far on this trip, the numbers were way down compared to previous journeys on the same stretch of road. Indeed, we never stopped because of traffic. It was only the occasional traffic light that forced a halt in our southerly motion. The lanes going north seemed equally unencumbered by slowdowns or traffic jams. When we finally did stop somewhere around Morristown, NJ, it was at a rest stop on the interstate. There were fewer than twenty vehicles in a parking lot capable of holding over a hundred. Drivers were parking and leaving several parking spaces between their car and the other vehicles in the lot. Every single individual was wearing a mask as they entered the building to use the restroom. Inside the men’s restroom every other urinal was covered to prevent it being used; the intention was to enforce some sort of social distancing. In the other part of the building only one of four restaurants were open. It was a Roy Rogers hamburger joint. The other three shops, including a Starbucks, were locked down tight. Across from the Roy Rogers a shop selling prewrapped sandwiches, magazines, candy and soft drinks was also open. Neither open shop had many customers taking the bait. The employees looked bored but no more bored than how fast food workers usually look.
Not long after our stop, we turned west into Pennsylvania. Our route took us on a state highway that passed by Easton, PA., home of the Crayola crayon factory. The countryside was showing signs of spring; fields were plowed and tractors were planting. Cows and other livestock lay in the afternoon sun. Being Sunday, the towns we passed through were mostly shut down. This part of Pennsylvania seemed relatively untouched by the pandemic ravaging economies, communities and bodies only an hour or two away to the east. I couldn’t help wondering whether this complacency would spell a coronavirus crisis in the months ahead. Would the virus find its way to rural communities around the world once it finished its destructive path through the urban worlds across the planet? Would its appetite for human cells and yes, human lives, compel it to travel into communities where medical facilities are not only fewer, but often less sophisticated than those in most urban areas? I don’t mean to be flippant when I answer my question with a cliched “Only time will tell.” After all, that is the truth. One cannot predict a future when one has no data to use in such a prediction.
It wasn’t long after Lancaster, PA. that our drive headed into its home stretch. We reached our Maryland destination around 7:00 PM. I was dropped off at the house of my family member and was greeted with a can of cold IPA. The family member whom I had traveled to see is recovering from the more drastic aspects of his illness. Overall, his mending is progressing in a positive direction. His treatment involves the typical mix and match drug prescriptions as the doctors figure out how to manage his particular combination of syndromes and systemic breakdowns. My siblings and I focus on his emotional and mental state, trying to both keep his mind off his situation while simultaneously ensuring that he is mindful of it and the limitations to his previous lifestyle it creates. I am dramatically reminded of this scenario being replicated in hundreds of thousands of households in this time of COVID.
In another week I will retrace my journey back to Vermont. And self-quarantine before returning to my job—a job whose permanence is as uncertain as the path of the coronavirus.