Driving into Georgia in my Jeep Patriot, with my little dog, Ozzie, riding shotgun, something caught my attention up ahead of me. It was a school bus, stopping to let kids off! Not far from there, I saw a group of young kids in uniform playing soccer on the field next to their elementary school. I didn’t know what to think. On the one hand, I thought about all the kids back home in Washington State wishing they could see their friends at school and play soccer, but on the other hand, were these kids being exposed to the virus and risking their lives?
I drove through nearly thirty states during my six-month road trip, and the laws surrounding the Coronavirus changed from place to place, sometimes in just a matter of miles. You would hardly know there was a pandemic in some states, and in other areas, it looked like a post-apocalyptic ghost town!
Before starting my trip across the county, I was like most people, hunkered down inside watching the news, doom scrolling, and waiting for the pandemic to pass. My yoga business had screeched to a standstill, and my dream of opening a mindfulness center was now in the distant past. I felt myself sliding into a depression. I lived alone and couldn’t see my friends, and I went from teaching about 12 yoga classes per week to none.
I was miserable, and I knew that I needed to find a new sense of purpose for my own mental health. I had to find a healthy way to occupy my time. I love teaching yoga, writing, and travel. Those are my passions, but even my writing clients were putting my assignments on hold. I knew I couldn’t travel internationally, but the road was calling me. So, I took matters into my own hands, rented out my home for six months, and hit the road on September 1st.
I got all manner of reactions from friends, family, and strangers. Some people were angry that I wasn’t following the “Stay home” order. Other people were afraid I might get stopped and detained if seen in another state with Washington plates. Many people thought I was crazy, and yet others thought I was courageous. I’ve never been one to care much what other people think of me or my actions, so I carried on, unsure of what I would encounter and if I was doing the right thing.
My route was only conceptual. I didn’t preplan much because I didn’t want to feel rushed. If I liked an area, I would stay a few days or longer. I never made reservations and just took one day at a time. At first, I headed north into the Olympic Peninsula and the North Cascades. Only a week or so into my trip, my back went out. Then, my Jeep broke down! I also dropped and smashed the screen on my mobile phone, and on top of it all, my laptop crashed! I must admit, I began having some doubts. Maybe the trip wasn’t such a good idea. But, it was too late to change my mind. My tenants had moved into my house, and I needed to honor the contract. Fortunately, I spent a week or so with friends to regroup and then continued on my journey, determined as ever to see it through.
My first goal was to enjoy some “leaf peeping” in the Northeast. I had always wanted to see the fall foliage in New Hampshire and Vermont. So, I headed east following Highway 12 across the most northern part of the United States. Idaho and Montana were mostly open, with few people wearing masks. When I wore one at the gas station or into a store, I got “the look.” It was as if they thought I was strange for wearing a mask, while I thought they were taking unnecessary risks for NOT wearing one!
I was bummed out when I showed up at Glacier National Park and was told by a rather grumpy park ranger that I could only drive in a few miles to see Lake McDonald, and the rest of the park was closed! I soon realized that was the reality of taking a road trip during the pandemic. Many State and National Parks were closed, which means I had limited opportunities for camping. I encountered many closed tourist destinations and figured out pretty quickly that I had better call ahead of time to confirm they were open. For example, I really enjoy hot springs, but most were closed. I’m not someone to dwell on the negative, so I just focused on what I could explore during the pandemic and hoped for the best.
It didn’t take long for me to get into the glorious colors of autumn. It was around mid-October, and the deep magenta and burnt orange mixed with an array of pinks and yellows to create a feast for the eyes and a pallet for the soul. From the top of a lookout somewhere in the White Mountain of New Hampshire, I looked down upon the tops of a colorful forest that reminded me of looking into a bowl of Fruity Pebbles when I was a child.
As I continued my journey east, I was invited by some Facebook friends to comes stay with them. It was a welcome but unexpected invitation. In all, I stayed with three Facebook friends that I had never met before: a fun lesbian couple in Chester, Vermont, a sister in spirit in the Appalachia Mountains of Tennessee, and a fellow “bad-ass ex- motorcycle chick” with a lovely home in Dallas, Texas. Diversity is one of my core values, and I enjoy having friends from all walks of life.
They were all gracious hosts, and I will always be grateful for their hospitality. It was a stark and surprising contrast to some life-long friends (and even family) who were unwilling to have visitors in their homes during a pandemic. I had to come to grips to realize that everyone is dealing with the pandemic in their own way, and we must honor each other’s choices and feelings surrounding COVID.
The furthest northeast point on my trip was Acadia National park in Maine. The dramatic rock cliffs and sheer slate-like expansive stretches of coastline were breathtaking! Although it was getting chilly out, I took an hour to practice yoga and meditate on a cliffside and connect with nature. It was something I often did during my trip and always made me feel grounded. The gratitude I felt at that moment for my health and our nation’s beauty moved me to tears. I was falling in love with America again.
My drive down the entire east coast was stunning! I particularly enjoyed all the various lighthouses. I was continually Googling “lighthouses nearby” in my Google Maps app, and if there were any on my route or close to it, I made a point of seeing them. Once, this got me a bit of trouble. I don’t remember where it was. Many of these places have blurred together since I’ve returned home. But, I was on my way to visit a lighthouse and came upon gates to enter a U.S. Coast Guard military base. It turns out the lighthouse was inside the base and not open to visitors (presumably due to COVID). The guards at the front were quite stern with me, asking me all manner of questions about why I was there and my intentions. I’m in the Coast Guard Auxillary, so once I showed them my Coast Guard Auxillary ID, they eased up and directed me off the grounds.
It occurred to me then that it was probably my Washington State license plates and the fact that I looked homeless with all my crap packed up past my Jeep’s windows that made them suspicious. I think throughout my trip, many people thought I was probably homeless. I could tell by the sideways glances when I was digging for something in the back or having to re-organize for the hundredth time. Real homeless people often approached me for pocket-change, and I saw many people sleeping in their cars and large families living in cheap motel rooms. It was obvious that they lived there, especially around Christmas when they decorated their motel windows or put up small plastic Christmas trees with no presents underneath them.
There were times I felt guilty for being selfish and traveling the country during a pandemic. I was “houseless” by choice, and these families weren’t. It was clear that America was hurting, from the “Closed Forever” signs in store windows to the gigantic commercial building (like car dealerships) boarded up with graffiti on the plywood covering the window. It was a little depressing. But when I felt sad or lonely, I would refocus on the excitement of seeing new places or return to counting my many blessings.
About halfway through my trip, Oz and I stayed for five weeks in the Outer Banks of North Carolina because it felt a lot like my home on Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula. The barrier islands are narrow and long, and the towns range in size from tiny (like Avon) to large (Nags Head). It was nice to take a break from driving every day, and I made a few new friends during my stay.
I usually make friends quickly, but it was more challenging during the pandemic because you can’t see people smile under their masks and many folks stopped making eye contact. The OBX (what locals call the Outer Banks) was the first place I could attend in-person yoga classes on my trip. We had to wear masks during class, which took some getting used to, but the feeling of being in a live class gave my spirit hope.
For the most part, North Carolina was open for business as usual. Masks were required, but restaurants were open for indoor dining. I even joined the YMCA while I was there. Every other weight or cardio machine was blocked off, but aside from that, there were still classes and people eager for a workout. Other tourist activities were also open. I even signed up for hang gliding lessons on the OBX with Kitty Hawk Kites in the same area where the Wright Brothers took their first flights! What a blast!
I left the OBX on January 1st as my renters back home gave me notice that they were moving out on March 1st. I continued down the east coast and was shocked to find out that from Georgia Southward, there are only a few dog-friendly beaches. Feeling annoyed, I just kept driving and Googling “Dog-friendly beaches nearby” until I found Sombrero Beach in the Florida Keys. We stayed there for ten days. It went by way too fast, and I look forward to returning to the warm turquoise water of the Gulf Coast someday. The highlight of my there was a close encounter I had with a couple of manatees in a lagoon in my friend’s backyard.
I spent the final month of my trip driving through Texas, Arizona, and up Highway 101 of the coast back home. I spent a few days with my friends that live next to Big Bend National Park in Texas. Even though I’m not a big fan of the dessert, I enjoyed the unique beauty of the red rocks, sagebrush, cactus, and expansive views. Luckily, I got out of Texas just in time to miss the giant snowpocalypse! By that time, I was staying with other friends in Yuma, Arizona.
Looking back, I can’t believe how quickly six months went by. All those hours I spent listening to podcasts and NPR in my Jeep helped pass the time, but it’s the people, experiences, and the natural beauty of this country that I’ll always carry with me. I fell in love with America once again. Despite our problems, it’s still beautiful and free!