A Long, Strange Trip

by Barb, posting for the first time in 2020 from Portland, Maine

Regular readers know that my husband, Bill, and I spend January through March every year in Key West. We live in a rental property there. It suits us fine. We’ve owned a lot of houses over the years and something always needs fixing. With the rental we simply call the office and help is on the way. They don’t even like us to change light bulbs.

As March marched on and the news got worse, we assessed our situation. I assumed that if the country or the whole east coast shut down, we’d be able to extend our lease. The people scheduled to move into our house in April were the owners. I reasoned if we couldn’t leave, they couldn’t arrive, so we could hold tight. The second week in March we called the rental agency to make sure this was true. They assured us that even if the owners did arrive they had plenty of (unexpectedly) empty property.

Sloppy Joe’s shuttered in Key West on St. Patrick’s Day 2020. Photo by Bill Carito

You’ve probably read a lot about Florida’s response to the pandemic. Our local governments, the City of Key West and Monroe County, were pretty on top of things. The Coast Guard controls the port and the last cruise ship left the city on March 14. The city closed down bars and restaurants at 5:00 pm on Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17, foregoing a lot of revenue. Those spring break photos you saw in the latter part of March weren’t from Key West. On March 20, the county closed the hotels, B&Bs and all short-term rentals. We were in a long-term rental, so I wasn’t worried. I neglected to read the fine print.

On Monday, March 23 we called our rental agency to see what our options would be. We’d already received one hotel cancellation for our originally planned trip home. I was antsy about finding food, restrooms, gas, and places to stay along the way. At that point we were informed that we couldn’t stay even if we wanted to. The county had also banned the extension of all long-term leases. We were going to have to leave.

That was my personal low point. Just knowing we didn’t have an alternative. But I also understood. Key West Hospital is small and the city didn’t need us overburdening their healthcare system. It was time to go.

We planned our trip, 1800 miles, for 3 days and 2 nights. We normally travel at a much more leisurely pace, visiting along the way with our son and his family in Virginia, my brother and his wife in Pennsylvania, and our daughter and her family in Massachusetts. All those visits would be skipped and we’d drive 600 miles a day in an effort to minimize the time on the road and the number of hotel stays.

We left Key West on April 1 at 8:00 am.

From the beginning of our trip, traffic was light. It wasn’t unexpected, but it was very strange. Our first stop was in Marathon at Mile Marker 59 on Route 1 (fifty-nine miles from Mile Marker 0 in Key West) for a Dunkin Donuts coffee and the public restrooms at a Winn Dixie supermarket. As we would every time we returned to the car for the next three days, we wiped down the inside and outside door handles, arm rests, seat belt buckles, steering wheel and gear shift and then hand sanitized.

Not much trafic on Seven Mile Bridge, April 1, 2020

At Mile Marker 112, there was then and still is now, a roadblock. Only full-time residents, property owners, trucks delivering essential supplies and people doing essential jobs are allowed to enter the Keys, creating, as some have said, the largest gated community in the world. From the other side of the road, the stop looked to be well-run and orderly and didn’t cause a significant jam of the much diminished traffic.

Florida rest stops were open and clean– for restrooms, the little market, and gas only, attended by people with masks and gloves.

Rest stop in Florida

We passed the stop at the Florida/Georgia line at around 5:00 at night. Like the one in the Keys, it appeared from the other side of the road to be well-run and orderly, but of course it was much bigger. All cars coming into Florida were diverted to a rest-stop. I know there are roadblocks for drunk driving and when dangerous criminals are at large, but to see something like this with all these state police cars at the border between one state and another, felt very odd and uncomfortable. Shortly after we left the state, Florida’s governor declared at statewide stay-at-home order to go into effect in two days time.

Roadblock at the Florida/Georgia line

We spent the first night at a Hilton Garden Inn at the Savannah airport just off 95. There were more people than I would have thought given the lack of traffic on the roads. Takeout options were available from local restaurants but we opted for sandwiches from the hotel store. While Bill wrangled the luggage, I clorox-wiped every surface in the room, including the light switches, phone and remote.

The next day in South Carolina and North Carolina there were very few personal vehicles on the road just giant trucks. At the rest stop on 95 where we ate our pb&j sandwiches in the car, every vehicle was a huge truck or car with a license plate from a northeast state with two tense-looking snowbirds inside.

Truck stops were orderly. Places to wait to pay were marked out. In a men’s room North Carolina Bill came upon two truckers spraying down the sinks and faucets, saying they ALWAYS sanitize everything when on the road so this is nothing new.

We spent the second night at a Hilton Garden Inn in Winchester, VA. We planned to take Route 81 to Route 84 through Pennsylvania to avoid New Jersey and New York City. The hotel was more like what I had expected. Very few people and long empty hallways. It felt like The Shining or an episode of The Prisoner. But there was room service available. The chef told Bill they served 3 meals that day total. I was amazed they were still able to offer it.

Our last day we sped through ten states, though three at only glancing blows. We crossed Connecticut on Route 84 in an hour and twenty minutes. For years we lived in Boston and my parents lived in northeast Pennsylvania and every time we crossed Connecticut I wondered how we could be stuck in a little, tiny state for so, so long. It turns out, when there’s no traffic, you aren’t.

We made it home safely, figured out how to get food and our mail, and have now quarantined for thirteen days. We both feel fine. It was an epic trip. We traveled through fourteen states, from summer to spring to winter, from one end of the country to the other. Every person we met was polite and respectful and doing their absolute best. I wouldn’t want to do the trip in that way again, but I am glad we did it.

Readers: What about you? Any epic journeys you can tell us about? We’d all like to be armchair travelers right about now.

51 Thoughts

  1. Welcome back home, Barb!
    Yes, I will definitely remember my last few days in San Diego after Left Coast Crime was abruptly cancelled after Day 1 on March 12.

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    1. So weird…now I can post and it did so after the first sentence! San Diego gradually shut down non-essentials each day. All museums and tourist attractions were shut down from March 14. Dining in restaurants was shut down from March 16. I flew back to Ontario on March 17, the same day the province issued a State-of-Emergency and shut down all non-essential businesses and travel. Since the travel bans were just starting, San Diego airport was still pretty busy and both my flights were 80-90% full. And connecting via Toronto and lining up at customs, we did not employ any social distancing.

      I arrived @10:30 pm at Ottawa airport. I took a city bus to the nearest LRT (Light Rail Transit) station. Eerie…I was the only person on the bus and they had started their distancing rules with rear door boarding only and the first of the bus blocked by caution tape. The LRT train was pretty empty and I arrived at my downtown station which is normally busy with bars and restaurants. Remember, this was St. Patrick’s Day but every Irish bar and restaurant was closed. So weird walking down the empty streets and seeing no one except for a lone taxi and some homeless people.

      I have no idea when/how I got sick with COVID-19 but I was disagnosed 4 days later.

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      1. Thank you, Sherry. Recovery has been slower than I had hoped (almost a month now) but I am making progress. COVID-19 is a persistent virus, that’s for sure!

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  2. That was epic, Barb! So glad you made it home safely and are both healthy. Did you have masks to wear when you got out of the car?

    I did a couple of epic solo driving trips in my late twenties: Indiana to California. IOn the west coast I picked up a couple of friends so I had company driving back. I discovered there are no radio stations worth listening to in parts of Texas and exactly one gas station in Wyoming open all night. In that era I also drove from Indiana via Michigan to Quebec and back, also solo. I was driving a ten year old 1970 Volvo sedan with a huge steering wheel and a huge trunk. I had a jar of instant coffee in the car. I’d stop for a chocolate milkshake, stir some coffee crystals into it, and be good to go for another few hours!

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  3. When my niece was 9, her father and I drove to down to Virginia while her grandmother (who had custody of her since she was 2…don’t ask) and mother drove up from Georgia. It was supposed to be a long trip to begin with but it was even longer when we got lost. We didn’t have GPS at the time.

    We got lost in Maryland and stopped for directions. Even after being told I wanted the quickest route to get back on track, he sent us the “scenic” route. Given that I hate travel by car and could care less about looking to see what I can see on the side of the road, I wanted to go back and kill the guy. There’s only so many cows, empty fields and road construction projects one person can take I tell you!

    Going back home was a long trip as well. And I refused to do it again so my co-worker at the time found cheap airline tickets so I could fly with my niece directly back to Georgia when she went home 2 months later.

    As for armchair travelling, I’ve been posting the cover art to various live albums I’ve been listening to on my Facebook page and adding “I travelled to…” and fill in the blank as to where the album was recorded. So far I’ve been to Long Beach, California, Rio de Janeiro and Dortmund, Germany. I might be visiting Hamburg, Germany today. This also doubles as a means to vicariously experience a live concert again since it appears that my entire summer concert plan is going to be wiped out.

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    1. My pre GPS days involved a lot of fights in the car and map reading that did no good when you had no idea where you were. Love the idea of traveling via albums.

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      1. Edith, it was Iron Maiden’s Rock In Rio live release. It is entirely possible I deleted the post. As I type this reply, I’m visiting Hamburg.

        Tomorrow I’m headed to Amsterdam most likely. And it is a good bet that I’m headed to London after that.

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  4. Glad you had a safe trip, Barb.

    I think the only epic road trip I ever took was when I was in college. Three friends and I drove to Milkwaukee, straight through, to see our men’s basketball team play Marquette in the second round of the NIT. We grabbed a couple hours sleep in a Red Roof Inn (paid for by my one friend’s mom, who insisted we needed some sleep) and drove back to Olean, NY. Fourteen hours, give or take, each way (I say give or take because we crossed a time zone and that always messes me up for figuring out how long a trip took).

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      1. Not too many points. My son-in-law went there and his dad teaches there. His parents gave us a wonderful tour of the campus when we visited on the (long) way to Bouuchercon in Toronto. My grandfather was born in Orlean in 1897.

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  5. Friends had scheduled a trip to drive from NJ to Florida, but canceled when they became unsure what facilities would be open on the highways. They were unaware of the road blocks. Glad you made the trip safely!

    While I lived in Texas, I made a few cross country trips to both coasts in the Mustang, taking photos along the way of places I’d never been before. I kept a cooler stocked with food in case restaurants were closed or non-existent on the route. I had my trusty AAA maps as well as guide books listing hotels. I calculated the driving time each day based on the distances between the hotels with breakfast served, elevators, late arrival guarantees, and vacancies. Amazing experiences. I will admit that the first time I pulled out of the driveway on that first trip, since I had always had a fear of getting lost, I stopped the car and thought, “I’ll be fine. If I go too far west, I’ll reach the Pacific. Too far east? I’ll get to the Atlantic.” I only got lost once, and that was the section of the trip when I wandered upon a fascinating village recreating life in the 1800s – authentic foods, clothing, and housing. I spent several hours in that idyllic spot.

    I fly a lot, but there’s nothing like a road trip to really see the country, meet the people, and sample the area cuisine. My hope is that life gets back to normal sooner than later, so that we can embrace our neighbors near and far again.

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      1. It still has that feel, Barbara. I’m not sure I could ever find the village again, even though I can see it in technicolor glory in my mind’s eye. A bit of Brigadoon, as it were. I have photos, but none of them show the name or exact location.

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  6. Several years ago, a group of my cousins, friends, and I decided to drive from Dallas/Fort Worth to Breckinridge, Colorado to go skiing. The usual route is to drive across Texas, north through New Mexico, and into Colorado. The day before we were going to drive home, we heard that a big snow storm was forecast for the route we usually took and, being from Texas, none of us were experienced driving in snow. We decided to drive east through Colorado, across western Kansas, then south through Oklahoma and back home. The drive through western Kansas seemed never ending…fields and fields of wheat. I was so glad to get back to Texas.

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  7. I’ve been on many epic road trips. The first was between second and third and the second between fifth and sixth. My parents were teachers. My father usually worked part time jobs in the summer, but those two summers my parents saved up. The first trip was the western tour Colorado, Arizona, California, and Nevada. The second was the eastern tour Michigan, Niagara Falls, New York City, Washington DC, Jamestown, Charlottesville. On the way home we were hit by a car in Kentucky and spent a week at a motel by the airport. And of course as an adult we’ve done many cross country trips moving from base to base. None under the harrowing and tense circumstances you experienced.

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    1. Isn’t it interesting how you went to all those amazing places on the east coast, but the one that will always stick in your mind is the motel at a Kentucky airport? The unexpected on trips are the things that stand out.

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  8. Glad you made it safely home, Barb, without any disasters along the way.

    I love to drive long distances and have made cross country trips alone more than once. I live in Lancaster, PA, and drove to Denver for a wedding. My daughter who lives in Phoenix asked if I could “swing by”. Uh, only an extra 1,000 miles. Sure. So I did. Along the way I stopped at friends’ houses, lots of roadside attractions, anything that grabbed my attention. I had a ball. And whenever I wasn’t staying at a friend’s house, I slept in the car (which was about every other night). No disasters except the inconvenience of a dead battery one morning. Easy to deal with. I would love to do it again.

    And one time I was in a hurry to visit our daughter and drove nearly 2500 miles in 3 days. Again, I slept in the car whenever I got real sleepy, but other wise just kept going. Didn’t see as much on that trip, but it was a real adventure, too. I would do it again, too.

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  9. Wow, that was harrowing to read – not so much as to live though, I am sure. Still, I am so, so heartened to hear that places were open for you to sleep and find food (and restrooms). Also, that people were uniformly calm and kind. Thanks for sharing your epic journey.

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  10. Barb, I’m so glad you made it back safely! What an experience.

    We’ve driven so much between my husband’s duty stations and home in CT, I have to admit seeing that picture of a pristine and empty rest stop blew my socks off.
    One of the most memorable car trips I’ve had was when we drove cross country with the kids pre-in car entertainment systems (we’d stop in bookstores and pick up the next installment of the Series of Unfortunate Events books and I was the designated reader. I had laryngitis from Salt Lake City to San Diego). The trip went smoothly, but every time it was my turn to drive something “interesting” would happen – buffalo blocked the road, I managed to join a parade of motorcycles, a mini tornado spun up around us in South Dakota.

    But we didn’t have to worry about a pandemic. You are so right about CT traffic – it’s always bad. except now, of course.

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    1. I love this sentence. “buffalo blocked the road, I managed to join a parade of motorcycles, a mini tornado spun up around us…” I’m sure it wasn’t funny at the time, but picturing your with kids in it surrounded by motorcycles is really funny now.

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    2. Oh, I love all the unexpected experiences you had while driving. That’s why driving is so superior to flying.

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  11. Love the Keys and Key West. We did same return trip Key West to NH several times through the 1990’s in a small motorhome, 600 miles/day, nearly same stops Georgia, Virginia, home. Have you ever stopped on the way at Amelia Island, Florida with Victorian historic town and Ft Clinch State Park? A fun respite before pushing north.

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  12. Hi Barb,

    What an epic journey! If I’m honest, I’d be terrified to be traveling at this time. Much less from fear of the virus, but of being unable to find a place to sleep when I became too tired to continue driving safely. I realize that you weren’t making the trip from choice, and I’m guessing those are the only circumstances that could get me on the road now.

    When I was a child, we drove all over California and the surrounding states. At one point, we toured all the missions in California and I have many fond and funny memories of that trip.

    One of our favorite things to do was to find offbeat roadside attractions. My favorite was on the outskirts of Fresno, if my memory serves correctly. We were traveling in the middle of summer, and the weather was horribly hot and dry. I think the temperature was almost 110. We stopped at The Underground House, “built” by one man over decades. He dug deep into the ground and made himself a multi-story deep home. As we descended, the temperature dropped 35 degrees. There was no air conditioning, just the natural insulation of about 60 feet of earth. The guides told us it was a constant 65 degrees, year round. What a respite it was for us!

    I also remember our trip on Highway 1 down past Big Sur on our way to see Hearst Castle. If you’ve ever driven that portion on Highway 1, while it’s incredibly beautiful, the barrier free road which abuts steep cliffs is terrifying on the southbound drive. I had just turned 15-1/2, and had my learner’s driving permit. I was EXTREMELY miffed that my mother wouldn’t let me drive at all on that section of the road. After all, I had been certified by the State of California as legally capable of driving with another licensed driver in the car.

    Looking back on it, it’s difficult to realize how oblivious I was. Looking back, I’m amazed my mother was willing to drive that road at all. As an adult who is only slightly less oblivious these days, there’s no way I’d allow anyone else to drive me on that road … and we’d need a crowbar to pry my knuckles loose from the steering wheel at the end of the day!

    When I was older, I took my first big cross-country drive. I left Sacramento on my own. Stopped in Santa Fe, New Mexico to pick up a friend who drove with me to New York City. I remember being surprised by two things. First, driving through Pennsylvania, we had showers, the likes of which we never see on the West Coast. I literally could not see the front of my hood. The showers would last a minute or two and would then end. Five minutes later, there would be another. Amazing to this California boy!

    The other thing that surprised me was the beauty of the Delaware Water Gap in New Jersey. I pictured New Jersey as an industrial slum from one end to the other, and seeing this breathtakingly beautiful spot forced me to recognize what a trap preconceptions can be.

    The final thing that surprised me on that trip was how kind, generous, and helpful New Yorkers can be. It was my first night in New York City. I’d gotten into town just barely too late to see a Broadway show that evening, so I spent it wandering amidst the crowds in Times Square. Right at the corner of 44th and Broadway, I dropped a contact lens. While I got down on my knees trying to find it, the other pedestrians formed a large circle around me so that no one would accidentally tromp on my lens.

    So yes, I agree with you, Barb, that car trips offer opportunities for many memories, and the unexpected ones are often the ones that stick with us the longest!

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  13. Barb, so glad to know you and your husband made it back north okay. What a weird trip that must have been.

    My middle daughter lives in Boulder, but she and a friend recently bought a home together in Portland, Oregon, partly as an investment, and partly to provide a pied a terre for her, as she travels there most weeks, anyway. The closing was a month ago, and she decided to drive there instead of flying. It turned out to be a good choice, since she’s stuck there now for the foreseeable future. She also had a harrowing drive, but could luckily call friends and family members, including her worried mom, via her Bluetooth headset.

    My husband spent over 20 years lecturing for the Audubon Society, and has driven to every corner of this country. I’ve also driven, with him and alone, to 49 states. It’s a lot better to travel with a pal, most of the time.

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      1. I agree that something has changed with WordPress. I can also post comments without moderation for the first time in weeks!

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  14. Back in 1986, a bunch of us drove in a van from our college in Vermont (St. Michael’s) – along with some kids from The University of Vermont – to St. Louis to attend a convention. We drove straight through, singing along to Bon Jovi songs. In Ohio, I remember taking a picture of a Sohio gas station – I thought the name was so funny – and a picture of a HUGE American flag on top of a building – it was either Cincinati or Cleveland – that was pretty cool. It was a great road trip – I got a boyfriend out of it!

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