THROUGH A TOWNIE’S LENS
By Jock Lauterer
On the kitchen table sprawls a Rand McNally map of the United States, the size of a college dorm room poster. Across the map, a squiggly green highlighter traces the route as it meanders from Blue Heaven, our home in Chapel Hill, all the way to Seattle, Washington.
From there, a bright orange takes over as the road reverses and leads Back East, cross-country to Blue Heaven — from whence another highlighter takes over, this one bright blue, streaking north to Maine and back to the Old North State. And finally, a third highlighter, screaming hot pink, leads to Newport, R.I., and back.
We are road warriors in the time of Covid.
After being grounded for 20 months of self-imposed exile (hunkering down, sheltering in place, shopping remotely, not hugging grandkids) we burst out in late summer with a flurry of road trips to satiate our pent-up wanderlust. We’re like two latter-day teenagers sneaking out of our bedroom windows to take a transcontinental joy-ride.
In three months, Lynne and I, fully vaxxed and masked, drove through 34 states, covered over 12k miles and visited dozens of people — kith and kin and beloved friends, all fully vaxxed — a far safer travel agenda than crowded museums, tourist spots, art galleries or even national parks.
The first trip to the Pacific Northwest focused on visiting grandkids in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The second trip, a sojourn to Boothbay Harbor, Maine, was a vacation originally planned for 2020 but delayed a year by Covid. And the third trip, one to Newport, R.I., to attend a family memorial service, should have been an easy flight on Southwest Airlines, but of necessity turned into a driving event thanks to the airline’s well-publicized meltdown.
To be sure, venturing out on the road during this dangerous Covid era is an altogether different process than in pre-Covid days. Although I’m no Rick Steves, the travel guru, here are our key tips and take-aways from our pedal-to-the-metal wanderings.
- Before you leave, to maintain domestic tranquility and preserve the marriage, negotiate a “pre-nup” agreement regarding choice of AC/heat, windows up or down, music, news, audio books (or not) — and yes, even silence.
- Splitting the driving equitably allows you to cover more ground and arrive at your destination with a minimum of road weariness; agree on pilot-navigation shifts. For instance, I took the morning driving gig with Lynne navigating, and after lunch, we switched (allowing me my hallowed post-lunch 20-minute “power nap,” so long as it was safe for the “navigator” to snooze off.
- That in the time of Covid, the safest way to travel is by car.
- That masked and vaxxed folks of the Mid-Coast region of Maine had their wits about them – unlike a vast majority of the folks we encountered in the red Mid-Western states, who almost universally (and alarmingly) ignored masking up inside restaurants and hotels — in spite of businesses posting requirements to do so. Yikes!
- That wearing NK-95 masks and dining outside are effective tools for mitigating the disease’s spread.
- That Panera has the cleanest restrooms.
- That the Sturgis, S.D., Motorcycle Rally, where masks were a rarity, did cause a predicted spike in cases. Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that many of the bikers looked like they just walked off the set for “Mad Max Beyond Thunder Dome,” two very rough looking bikers politely obliged my request for a posed photo beside their rumbling hawgs.
- That we encountered a number of folks exhibiting a depressing lack of individual accountability or civic responsibility. When asked why they weren’t masked up, the response invariably was, “because I don’t have to.”
- In the West where community is a verb, we were touched by the residents of tiny Dubois, Wyo., who shut down the entire main street business district to attend the funeral of a beloved elementary school teacher. You just imagine Charles Kuralt (“On the Road”) covering that story with a loving touch.
- We found the roadsides of the American West to be refreshingly litter-free — and it was only when we returned to our native South that we encountered pervasive roadside littering. Why is that, y’all? Will someone please explain to me why many Southerners think nothing of tossing litter out their car windows?
- If you don’t already have a set of heavy-duty battery charging cables to jump-start your car, get a set. Keep them in your car. Period. Full stop.
- Pack light. It’s a safe bet you’ll wear only one quarter of the clothes you bring.
- While GPS is a fabulous tool, you doggone better have an honest-to-gosh Em-Aye-Pea MAP on board — for there are large swaths of the U.S. that are “bar-free” and you are left to your legacy devices and dead reckoning for navigation — “The Revenge of Analog,” as author Anthony Sax calls it. There is simply no substitute for “the National Geographic Road Atlas.”
Yes, it’s old school, big and clunky and it will save your trip. You can thank this certified map geek when you get back.
- Also handy, a couple of pint-sized Mason jars for biological emergences if you’re caught in the boonies sans rest stops.
On the last leg of our final trip, we couldn’t figure out how to turn off Google Maps — and as we turned into our little lane and saw our “last homely house” (a la J.R.R. Tolkien), the tiny yellow car icon crawled across the iPhone screen on a street we know so well and “Lucy,” the Google Maps voice, announced with satisfaction, “You have reached your destination!”
Finally, after leaf-peeping literally from one end of the country to the other, to find that the single most flamboyant tree was a spectacular tupelo/sour gum…you guessed it — in our own backyard.
As we pulled up into our own driveway, a line from that old Johnny Cash tune came unbidden into my mind’s jukebox: “I been everywhere, man. I been everywhere…”
Jock Lauterer began selling newspapers for Jim Shumaker and Roland Giduz on the streets of Chapel Hill at the age of 8. For the last 20 years, he has served as a senior lecturer and adjunct professor at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, teaching photojournalism and community journalism.