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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.

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