(Title translation at the end of the story)
When we returned home last October we didn’t expect to be homebound in the new year. We are quintessential Midwest snowbirds but life events kept us home in early winter and then pandemic closures clamped down on travel for the rest of the year. In a typical year we would have racked up several thousand miles already. We’d planned a 2- 3 month Summer tour of the Pacific Northwest but like everyone else, cancelled our plans in the midst of shutdowns and uncertainty. Our first trip of 2020 commenced on the day I started writing this post, August 1.
When it comes to notions about the pandemic, friends and acquaintances expressed a continuum of opinions from outright denial to hibernation through 2022. Any advice they had for us on conduct and safety reflected their particular outlook. A great number told us they planned to wait until the time when the pandemic was “over,” to do anything approaching regular activity. Six months into the official start of the pandemic we’ve come to believe that the sickness it brings will be with us for a very long time regardless of whether a vaccine is found next week or next year—or maybe never. An RV is a very large and expensive yard decoration and we faced a choice of either selling the RV and using the savings to renovate the kitchen or figuring out a way to be travelers in the time of plague. Biological science defines adaptation as the process by which a species becomes fitted to its environment. I am no scientist but if I had the right to classify the two of us, we would be homo sapiens viatorem; humans inclined to roam. We are also at a point in life where there isn’t a lot of time left for roaming. There’s a line in a Bonnie Raitt song that goes “life is mighty precious when there’s less of it to waste.” When you’re close to or squarely in your seventh decade, waiting out a year might turn out to be your last opportunity squandered. We decided we’d adapt to the new reality of our world, be as safe as we could and hit the road.
Safety is an illusion; nothing is truly “safe.” You can evaluate and plan to minimize risk. Redmond O’Hanlon is one of my favorite travel writers, and if there were a poster child for assessing tremendous risk and going ahead regardless, it would be he. He has written several books. In his excellent book Trawler he talks about continuing to travel in his old age (he was 51 at the time he wrote about his experience) and the certain dangers of disease, injury and death. He ruminates about aging and making a choice between staying with your family or thrashing around in some dangerous place where a misstep could cost you your life. In this story, he joins a trawler crew who fish in the frigid treacherous seas off the coast of Scotland. Among many other preparations, a concerned friend loans him a specialized military-grade “life suit” to protect him should he be swept off the boat, and a crew member is tasked with keeping Redmond alive at all costs during his time on the trawler. It’s a hilarious and harrowing story and I highly recommend the book. Actually, I highly recommend any of his books. Unlike O’Hanlon we don’t have a life suit or a designated protector and we face a less tangible set of risks. Still we have made provisions. We’re armed with hand sanitizers, cleaning/disinfection concoctions, cloth and paper masks (I now have a 14-mask wardrobe), and lots of hand soap. As a bonus I happened to have a box of plastic gloves in the RV. The fact that I have gloves has nothing to do with pandemic purchases. I hate touching raw meat so I’ve always had a box in both my kitchens. Being squeamish has unexpected benefits.
We decided to reprise our last trip of 2019 to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, to Sault Ste. Marie and Munising. It’s far enough away to feel like the effort was worth it, but close enough to make it back to home base in a day and a half.
Road tripping and camping turns out to be the preferred mode of travel in these times. and campgrounds are packed, but I managed to secure sites. I planned by collecting the usual destination information and added research for state and county COVID-19 data including infection rates, travel restrictions, quarantine requirements, public regulations and the like.
We headed north accompanied by dozens of trailers and RVs. As the miles ticked by, change was everywhere. At truck stops and rest areas we saw only a handful of people not wearing masks. LED signs flashed reminders that motorists should wear masks and keep a distance from others when they leave their vehicles. Rest areas are open but visitor centers are closed. There are no opportunities to chat with the help desk people and collect brochures or maps, something Ben very much likes to do. Billboards and signs for tourist attractions are amended with stickers proclaiming “Safe, Clean Service,” and “We Social Distance,” or “Closed, Thank You for 30 Years of Patronage.” There were quite a few of those.
Travelers have ethical responsibilities, like respecting the environment and culture and so on, but first and foremost is you don’t carry pathogens to the places you visit and in turn don’t bring them home, especially now that we know how that can be accomplished. As we approached the Mackinac bridge I looked at the license plates of the cars around us. Florida, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and Minnesota all heading north with us. Presently the Upper Peninsula has one of the lowest COVID infection rates in Michigan. I find myself wondering what kinds of decisions my fellow travelers made.
We approached the bridge toll booth. There is a sign informing the driver that a mask is required to interact with the toll booth representative. Ben dons his mask and hands over the required $14.00 toll; a quick squirt of sanitizer and we’re off on the last 50 miles to Sault Ste. Marie. I hope we are all learning to adapt.
About the Title: I started messing around with one Latin word, viatorem (for Traveler) and got carried away with the power of the internet. According to Word Hippo's Latin translator, "adapt and travel" loosely translates to "aptet et itinerantur" If you're a Latin scholar and find all this to be the pretense of a plebeian writer who confuses her audience with esoteric titles leave me a comment, but I don't care. I have no shame. Playing with dead languages is fun.