Desultory musings

It’s a big letdown to be imprisoned at home again in Raleigh after a glorious week on the ocean at Topsail Island.  Still no air travel!

On the plus side, we were not on the coast for the arrival of Hurricane Isaias, which thankfully moved through North Carolina like a rocket, leaving minimal wind and water damage in its speedy wake.  This caricature says it all (misspelling aside):

Mask fashion flair

I am a dutiful mask wearer, both to protect myself and others.  But, you know, it’s not that much fun. At all. 

If we have to wear the damn things, then why not have a bunch of interesting masks and rotate through them? Like these babies (among ten or so I use routinely).

I list these in functional order, meaning in order of which masks stay on my face best:

Scottish plaid, made in Hanoi.

Tasteful Scottish plaid, an ironic design since it was made and purchased in Hanoi by me some years ago.  Plaid designs are popular there; such masks are everyday items on the streets to combat air pollution and to ward off sickness due to constant intermingling of human density in that fascinating city.  This mask is simple and easy to keep clean, and yet its subtly contoured design hugs the parts that bulge out on my face better than any other mask.  Bravo to the Vietnamese; they knew what they’re doing.  I think I paid the equivalent of two or three dollars for it (and probably overpaid at that). Yet it’s the best.

South African flag, made in China

Loving the Kruger National Park as I do, I had to have one that boasts the South African flag.  It’s made in China and was shipped to me from there (took five weeks).  Like the Vietnamese model, very well-made and benefits from China’s long tradition of mask-wearing to fight SARS and traffic fumes (not in that order) by having been sewn well and being form-fitting over the facial contours of chin, mouth, cheeks and nose.  Also came with three robust washable filters.  Pretty good for $20, delivered.

With thanks to Norwegian Expressionist artist Edvard Munch

“The Scream” mask from Redbubble.com – Clever and trendy, created by independent artists and originated in Melbourne, now with offices in San Francisco and Berlin, featuring products of 700,000 artists. You can pass an entire afternoon browsing their stuff.  Not cheap at about $18.

Science doesn’t care what you believe

Science is real! Another great Redbubble design, and one guaranteed to trip someone’s trigger wherever it’s worn. Be prepared to fight, run, or argue.  I love the designs, but the Redbubble masks are not contoured to fit the jutting angles on my face.  Works, but less well than the Vietnamese and Chinese masks—the Asian-made masks are the optimal designs to fit properly and stay on. Again, about $18.

Can I help you with your groceries?

Plain green, which seems to be standard grocery store employee issue.  Sturdy and has at least some contour-sensitive features to make it stay on my face. Free.

I’m so sorry for your loss

Conservative plain black with classy discreet U.S. flag to show it was made in America for Joe Brancatelli’s joesentme “wall of business travelers”!  Great for funerals and to sport at presidential candidate rallies of either party. I loved it from day one, but is much like the Redbubble designs in wanting to slip off my nose. About $10.

Artisan-made in Raleigh

Kind of paisley plaid made locally in Raleigh; comfortable and sewn with contours, but missed the mark a bit.  The mask tends to slip off my nose over time.  $22 is steep, but I bit to buy local and support art.

A whole lot of not much

Washington Post hosted a live broadcast called “The Path Forward: The Airline Industry with Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian” that was free to anyone who signed up.  I get the WaPo through Amazon for cheap since Bezos owns both companies, and was thus alerted to this one hour discussion.

Bastian was, as always, nattily attired and coifed to look like a million dollars, which he certainly is and more (net worth over $60 million as of late last year, which, even pandemic-shrunken, is vastly more than I have).  He nearly sparkled.  Though I give him credit for not looking like a sleaze and without the whiff of a mafia boss, as do some other airline execs.

The face of Delta pronounced firm, no-compromise stances on masks (wear them or get added to the no-fly list) which I liked. He predicted 2024 or later for a return to pre-Covid levels of business flying. 

Mr. Ed repeated the Delta empty middle-seat mantra (well, at least through September, though he hinted that might get extended, depending…), and he talked about upcoming pilot furloughs that look likely.

Most interesting to me was a glimpse into Delta’s acceleration of long-term fleet plans: lots of Airbus A220s, the A320NEO aircraft, and the 737 family.  However, he failed to mention the retirement of the 777 fleet and the new dependence upon the A350 models for international routes, including the A350-900ULR to be deployed ATL/JNB/CPT/ATL. Neither did he say what was to become of the ubiquitous 757 and 767 airplanes.

Mr. Bastian was strictly replying to questions from the WaPo host, but I was still disappointed that no mention was made regarding the future of customer loyalty.  I wanted to ask how Delta plans to differentiate service to very frequent flyers and multi-million milers like me (5.4 million) as we return to the road now and in the post-pandemic flying environment.

Or maybe now “how” but “if” Delta is planning any customer differentiation to survive the plague.

Video highlights here.

Even a little road trip can be exciting

A friend sent me a picture yesterday of his midday chow at Nashville’s Loveless Café, a mainstay since 1951, saying “it never disappoints” and including a note describing his meal:

  • Fried Chicken
  • Mashed taters
  • Fried okra
  • Biscuits
  • 3 flavors homemade jams
  • Sweet ice tea
  • And of course
  • Coconut cream pie saved for pre-departure

And he ended with this critique:

  • The menu was quite reduced yesterday
  • Breakfast menu was typical
  • But Supper menu was seriously reduced
  • Supper starts at 11:00 AM
  • Tables very reduced
  • But the food and service were excellent
  • Worth a trip if you’re into southern food

Having been born and raised in Eastern North Carolina (Kinston), I’m a big fan of southern comfort food. Never learned to like collards or Brunswick stew, but most else is okay, especially finely chopped southern-style slaw, mashed potatoes, fried okra (not the frozen stuff), southern biscuits, cornbread, hush puppies, chopped pork BBQ, fried chicken, BBQ chicken, fried chicken livers, fried flounder, fried oysters, fried shrimp, fried scallops, crab cakes, deviled crabs, and soft shell crabs.

And pass the biscuits back again, please, along with the butter and blackstrap molasses.

I like that supper at the Loveless starts at 11:00 AM.

Not the road to Morocco

To celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, my wife and I had a grand trip scheduled for two weeks exploring all over Morocco in mid-July.  The novel coronavirus, naturally, quashed those plans.

After Delta refunded our business class tickets, we decided to direct those not-insubstantial sums to rent oceanfront houses at Topsail Island, NC twice (two different weeks) and to make each week a family vacation.

We are halfway through the first week (the second will be over Labor Day), and I’m so glad we came.  It’s only 2 hours, 15 minutes from Raleigh, but it seems, well, so exotic.  Not Morocco-exotic or Rarotonga-exotic, but compared to being imprisoned in Raleigh for nearly five months, this beach is sheer paradise.  If I squint in the ninety-plus degree heat, it could almost be The Maldives.

Okay, no palm trees or Frangipani, but the whitest white sand and a glorious surf tame enough to swim in without drowning, and with tropical-warm water.

Literally tropical, because the Atlantic Ocean washing up on the beach in front of our house is warmed by the Gulf Stream, which meanders very, very close to the North Carolina shore in summer. 

To add to the fun, the car trip down from Raleigh was an unexpected adventure.  It was 97° F. all the way, then dropped to 91 on the barrier island. But it felt like 110. Late in the day it cooled off to the low 80s, a welcome contrast.  Nights have been high 70s to low 80s.

On the drive along I-40 from Raleigh, I’ve never seen such speeding. The NC Interstate limit is 70 mph, and I set the cruise on 75…and then passed not a single vehicle. That made me the slowest car on the road. Scores and scores of beach-bound cars, roughly half with out-of-state plates, flew past me. Many had to be going 100 or more. Yet I didn’t see a single one pulled over.

Friends in high places say many state highway patrol agencies have been told to take it easy on speeders during the pandemic. I’m no prude and have a heavy foot myself; however, routinely driving such very high speeds is dangerous. I-40 to the beach has always been a racetrack, but I’ve never seen speeding like we encountered on Sunday. Both the sheer numbers of offenders as well as the average rate.

I had read about speeders during the total shutdown back in early spring, but assumed that was a quirk and about over.

Maybe not.

We arrived on Sunday afternoon during what might be called “shift change.”  Saturdays and Sundays along the NC coast are characterized by heavy outbound and inbound traffic as weekly rentals typically end those days. 

Because Topsail Island still had a 60 year old drawbridge over the busy Intracoastal Waterway, weekend traffic on and off would get snarled up every time the bridge opened, a nightmare. To fix that problem, NCDOT built a new high bridge to replace the old swing bridge.

Seemed like the right solution, but the traffic engineers designed the bridge ends with two utterly dysfunctional roundabouts, the worst I’ve ever seen. Rather than keeping cars moving, the two circles back up traffic in all directions.

Having lived and worked in the U.K. and on the Continent, and in cities like Hong Kong, and therefore having navigated hundreds of roundabouts, I’m a huge advocate. But the ones here must have been designed by idiots. On the positive side, finally reaching our own oceanfront house was made that much sweeter.

This beach house, in downtown (such as it is) Topsail Beach, is not fancy, but comfortable. With blasting air-conditioning, supplemented by lots of spinning overhead fans, and with a decent kitchen, this will do nicely for a week. Very relaxing.

Mostly free of politics as well.  One Trump 2020 flag flutters across the street, and a lone Black Lives Matter sign sits by the street a block away.

Most local places of business have signs advising customers to wear masks, but our observations indicate about half ignore the admonition.  However, the two big grocery stores hereabouts, Food Lion and Publix, routinely enforce the mask rule, as does even the little IGA Supermarket.

We are not much bothered by maskless folks because we mostly stay in our house on the ocean, enjoying the sand and surf and cooking our own meals during this Covid-time.

Speaking of food prep, after settling in, we spent a frenetic two days of cooking:

  • 7 lbs boiled shrimp
  • 2 signature shrimp dipping sauces
  • Fried flounder
  • Fried red snapper
  • Thai yellow curry fish
  • Jasmine rice
  • 2 blueberry pies (my own recipe with lime zest, lime juice, and cinnamon)
  • Whipped heavy cream (with vanilla and sugar, of course)
  • Clam chowder (old family recipe)
  • 2 kinds of pasta
  • Croissants w/ cured ham and Swiss cheese
  • Not to mention mundane breakfast dishes and numerous cocktails
  • Also salads and fresh fruit (grapes, blueberries, cantaloupe) and vegetables (local tomatoes, etc.)
  • 15 soft shell crabs await frying, perhaps tomorrow afternoon, accompanied by green beans, other veggies. 
  • Oh, and my wife made a killer gazpacho, too.
  • And more food I’ve lost track of…but it’s all in the fridge. Yum!

Now, with the heavy cooking done and stockpiled, I have time to swim in the surf and to read until Sunday.  Punctuated, of course, by the odd G&T in the afternoon.

Over Labor Day week we’re coming back to Topsail to stay in a much bigger place in Surf City, again right on the beach. It’s a splurge to rent for 2 weeks, but the kids wanted this, too, after being cooped up in the house for months.

With apologies to Crosby & Hope, we had to skip the road to Morocco this year. Instead, I did my best Burt Lancaster impression to my wife’s Deborah Kerr as we kissed in the surf like they did in From Here To Eternity to celebrate 25 happy years together.

Surviving 50′ waves at sea

My life has been a series of great travel adventures, not all of them by air. The scariest experience I ever had was working on a ship at sea, and it is a bona fide business travel story. We hit a rogue wave at least fifty feet high, and I was scared out of my mind, as was every other occupant on the boat, including our Norwegian master, whom I will call Captain Berg.

Later, we hit another wave that big.

It was April, 1974, and I was employed as an Ordinary Seaman aboard Duke University’s Research Vessel (R/V) Eastward.  We were returning to the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, NC after three months of scientific cruises that took us all over the Caribbean and off the coast of South America, including into Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela (which is actually a bay, not a lake).

If my memory serves, R/V Eastward was 132’6” in length and real beamy.  She was designed after a tuna boat with a deep draft (16 feet, I think) bolstered by keel-set seawater ballast tanks to keep her stable in rough weather. The bridge was about 32’ above the water line.

Cruises generally ranged from 7 to 21 days at sea.  They had been booked and funded by NSF (National Science Foundation) for marine scientists from all over the USA, the most famous of whom was geologist Dr. Bruce Heezen, who was first to map the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. 

About two-thirds of the scientific cruises were geologic, which utilized piston corers with 1,200 lb head weights.  The long hollow cylindrical pipes were allowed to freefall on heavy cables to collect ocean bottom sediment samples when the core spear buried itself by gravity.

We also often dragged a type of sonar or hydrophone array from the stern-mounted hydro-winch at a considerable distance that allowed scientists like Professor Heezen to map the ocean floor by echo patterns collected by electronic equipment. Those instruments were typically run by the inevitable gaggle of grad students scientists brought with them, always twice as many as they needed, since roughly half of any group would become so seasick that they’d never leave their cabins.

The remaining one-third of cruises were biologic, usually involving collecting water samples at depth using Niskin bottles and Nansen bottles attached to hydro-winch cables.  We also did occasional small mesh net trawls. Bio results were analyzed in the well-equipped wet lab just below the bridge. 

Geology analysis tended to be handled from the more compact, but adequate, dry lab, where slices of piston corer samples were carefully cataloged, examined, recorded, and stored.  Some slivers went through a spectrometer for identification of silt materials.

Our final long cruise was due north out of San Juan into the heart of the Sargasso Sea and what is called the Bermuda Triangle.  We had beautiful weather and smooth sailing all the way north and had completed several missions not far from Bermuda (705 miles offshore Beaufort, NC). 

We were preparing to return to Beaufort when we got a USCG radio signal asking us to stand by the QE2 which had stalled close to Bermuda.  I can’t remember how that was resolved, but we were eventually “released” from standby duty and told by the Coast Guard that we could resume our homebound course. 

But that rescue standby delayed us 12-24 hours.  Again, I don’t remember how long, but that was April 3, and we would have been many nautical miles closer to Beaufort had we left when we were scheduled to.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us, a terrific “super outbreak” of nasty spring weather was sweeping eastward across the US on April 3, 1974.  It was the storm system’s tornadoes that destroyed Xenia, Ohio (see here and also here).

By the time we were 100 miles or so west of Bermuda that system was sweeping offshore and blowing up the most enormous swells I’d seen in the nearly four months I had by then been aboard the Eastward.  Wave heights, already an impressive twenty feet, increased to thirty feet and then stayed at thirty feet. 

Thirty foot swells are gigantic and very scary.  The laconic and humorless Captain Berg, a chain smoker, sat on the bridge inhaling fag after fag and staring out into the raging mountains of water, occasionally ordering slight course deviations to make sure the boat was angling into the waters rather than encountering them bow-on.  This caused us, naturally, to take a zig-zag course, which would lengthen our homebound journey.

Berg was always loath to any course deviations, as he had been hammered on for years by Duke to keep the operating costs of the Eastward’s cruises to a minimum.  Lesson learned, he hated using too much fuel. 

For the same reason, Captain Berg NEVER ordered the ballast tanks filled, no matter how bad the seas.  Because of that, the Eastward tended to bob like a cork.  It was famous for its wild pitches and rolls, one reason so many grad students stayed seasick.  The crew called it “feeding the fish” as the students vomited over the side pretty much nonstop for days on every cruise, even in relatively “good” weather (the sea is rarely calm).

Normally, I wouldn’t question the master’s judgment, but I was sorely tempted to plead that we flood the ballast tanks to keep us stable.  The clinometer on the bridge was showing 50 degree rolls when we’d encounter a particularly confused set of swells that put us partly side-to to the wave frequency.  Being a tuna boat design with deep draft, we were used to seeing 40+ degree rolls and knew the ship would roll to, but not 50 degrees. 

It was so unnerving that the First and Second Mates asked Berg about the ballast tanks.  Didn’t we want to fill them to stabilize the ship? 

No, he said, sourly and scowling, and went back to chain-smoking and staring. It was at times raining so furiously that the marine rain spinners couldn’t keep a clear view—and this was during the day, although the heavy overcast made it appear to be dusk.  

Berg was already agitated because the zig-zagging was costing us time and money.  He was not then a young man and had spent his entire career in Norwegian sea service around the world on all but the Southern Ocean.  To a man with an unlimited tonnage Master’s License and four decades of life on the water, the 30’ seas were a mere nuisance.

To the rest of us, though, the swells looked and felt like sheer terror.  The scientists and grad students had been ordered to stay in their cabins, and the crew ordered to stay below decks.  Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches had been pre-packaged and left in a galley fridge—very unusual as the galley crew were expert cooks and had never missed preparing a meal. 

I talked to the permanent crew (I’d been hired only for the annual winter Caribbean cruise), and they were worried.  Not even the boatswain’s mate, a man with 10 years of experience on the Eastward, had ever experienced seas this rough.

So we pitched and rolled like a toy boat in a hurricane westward into those howling winds and rain and high seas all day long. 

Late afternoon I had just come on duty as the lookout on the bridge when we hit the first 50’ wave.  Nobody saw it coming due to the blowing rain and dim visibility.  Keeping the helm at the proper course up a 30’ swell and down the other side was not easy, and no one was looking for the wave behind. 

I sure didn’t see it coming, as my attention was elsewhere.  We were shipping water routinely over the bow with every wave as we pitched into the troughs, and I was worried that the heavy (1,200 lb) piston corers, which the boatswain’s mate and I had double-lashed to the port and starboard foredeck as the storm worsened, were going to come loose. 

I could see the huge head weights moving a few inches with every pitch and roll.  I knew from experience that any piece of equipment on board the ship that moved even a little was eventually going to be a problem.  I had become well-liked by the permanent crew because I exercised extreme care in securing items, and I was thinking how we could get out there on deck in the storm to reinforce the lashings. 

The Eastward was under command that afternoon of the Second Mate, a cheerful fellow from Harker’s Island (North Carolina).  He was young, but he had long since earned my trust in ship-handling. Harker’s Islanders are all natural-born seaman, having descended from Cornish pirates. 

I remember being alarmed when he suddenly exclaimed, “Oh, shit!”  The man wasn’t given to profane outbursts on duty.  I looked up from my study of the fore-deck to see a literal wall of water looming up immediately before us.  I remember thinking in a flash that we were all going to die, that the ship was going to sink, this was it. I have never been so frightened, before or since. 

I recall Captain Berg getting up from his perch on a secured stool and hunching over to grab some railings.  His eyes were wide—an unusual show of excitement for someone so ordinarily devoid of emotion—and his jaw grimly set.  He had let his cigarette fall to the deck—he was never without one burning—and it was rolling around, trailing a little smoke plume.  An odd observation, I remember thinking, for someone (me) about to die.

The next moments were terrifying.  The ship struggled as it pitched out of the trough—sluggishly lurched, really. The bow followed the steep swell upwards until the screws couldn’t keep up, and we stopped. The wave then smacked the ship like the hand of God. I remember the ship shuddered and shook as we were all thrown around on the deck of the bridge.  It’s a miracle that no one suffered a concussion or broken bones or at least a bloody gash or two.

Floods of water washed over the bow, the deck, and then up to and over the bridge.  I realized afterwards that we had made enough progress up the side of the wave that only the top half or so of it engulfed the ship.  If we had hit the wave while still in the trough of the previous swell, I am certain it would have ripped through the bridge and drowned us all.

The Eastward then plunged down the back side of the monster wave—we had never heard the term “rogue wave” in 1974—and we pounded hard into the next 30’ swell—almost as hard as the big one.  By the second swell after the fifty-footer, the ship seem to settle back into its previous routine—slowly but steadily going west.

I’d like to say we let out a cheer or at least a sigh of relief.  But we were all traumatized by what we had just seen and been through.  I recall the cold look of fear in everyone’s eyes, as I am sure we were all thinking the same thing:  Was that just the first of more giant waves to come?  I know that’s what I was thinking, my heart pounding like an anvil in my chest.

Several things then happened at once to distract our minds.  We had had no time to warn anyone else aboard of what was happening—the thing just came out of nowhere, with no warning—so now the comms and phones started buzzing.  The Second Mate took the engine room call first, explaining what we had witnessed and warning them to make doubly sure that everything below decks was well secured because, well, because it might happen again. He reported the engine crew was mighty upset.  I understood; it was like hell down there, and with no visibility while on duty.  It was so cramped, loud, and depressing that I hated going there even on bluebird days.

Then he let the rest of the crew, including the scientific party, know what happened and warned them all to stay below and never to go out on deck, not even the bridge deck usually high above the water.

Suddenly we simultaneously noticed an acrid odor coming through the air circulation vents.  It was unmistakably formalin. 

Many five-gallon containers of formalin were stored in the wet lab to preserve biological specimens, and unlike the rest of the ship, we depended upon the scientists and their grad students to secure supplies. So we never checked to see if that lab stuff was put away properly except in port between cruises.

It was obvious that, due to the extreme forces on the ship’s superstructure by the big wave, one or more of those containers had been dislodged.  We now had five or more gallons on formaldehyde sloshing around the wet lab deck, the fumes from which were already threatening to choke us.  Our eyes were burning and lungs hurting. 

The storm was raging, but we cracked open the wing hatches on the bridge to get some fresh air before we were overcome.  The boatswain’s mate and I were dispatched below to clean it up and ordered to enter through the main deck secured hatch in order to avoid being killed by the poisonous fumes. That meant we’d be exposed out in the storm.

I remember grabbing some sort of outdated and practically useless breathing apparatus and tying ropes around the mate and me before venturing out on deck.  There we were immediately drenched by the heavy rain and seawater pouring over the side.  Ocean water sloshed around up to our waists with each pitch and roll before draining out the scuppers. 

The mate and I had to slowly tie ourselves off a few feet at the time along the lower deck to reach the portside hatch to the wet lab.  More than once I was totally immersed momentarily by water as the ship pushed through another 30’ wave.

On finally reaching the hatch, we tied other ropes to the hatch door handle and carefully released the heavy dogs before moving out of the way to let the hatch swing wide when we rolled to port.  If it had hit us in the violent pitching and rolling, it could easily have smashed our skulls.  As the hatch flew open, we quickly snatched in the slack on the ropes we’d tied to the handle in order to hold it open and keep us safe from its dangerous swinging. 

He and I then alternated again the slow and tedious (and dangerous) process of tying each other off to move into the lab to survey the damage and get it cleaned up.  Like all ship’s hatches, it was built with a high lip to keep seawater out.  Though the ship continued to move wildly in every direction as it navigated the stormy seas, the lip was enough to keep a lot of the water out.  

We stepped over the lip and into the lab with our crummy breathing masks on and were relieved to find the screaming winds had acted to draft out the worst of the fumes.  The mate and I found the loose and mostly empty five-gallon plastic container of formalin; it had a big rupture in the side.  We tossed it out onto the deck.  We then somehow got the formalin on the lab floor mopped up (mostly) and tossed the mops onto the deck as well.  Later we threw the container and the mops into the ocean.

The fumes were still pretty bad, so we tied off the starboard side hatch, too, and left them both open—one of us on each side—long enough to clear the air.  The Eastward’s air circulation system had naturally blown the fumes into every nook and cranny of the vessel, and opening both hatches, though risky due to the potential of flooding, was the only recourse.  The next day he and I were hailed as heroes by the entire crew and scientific party.  They all thought they might perish from the poisonous fumes, but were wary of opening a hatch.

After carefully re-securing both wet lab hatches, we made our way back to the bridge.  That whole lab process took an hour or two.  By then what little light we had in the overcast storm clouds was fading.  It was late afternoon.  I had the presence of mind to look again at the two heavy-as-hell piston corers on the foredeck, and one of them was now swinging back and forth a good foot with every pitch and roll.  I alerted the boatswain’s mate again, and we found more rope and chains and went back to the main deck. 

Once more we had to slowly and methodically tie ourselves off along the deck to keep from being washed overboard in the storm, but eventually made it to foredeck positions we had discussed would let us coordinate safely (well, more or less safely) getting ropes and chains around the piston corer. 

Thinking back on our operation the next day, I realized that one or both of us could and would have been killed if the twelve hundred pound cylindrical weight on the head of the piston corer had come free as it was working to do.  As it was, we had to work in near-dark conditions, in pouring cold rain, and with torrents of seawater drenching us while we tried not to slip on the deck. 

We also had to move in rhythm with the ship’s attack of and recovery from each 30’ swell, and thirty feet of ocean wave looks even bigger at near water level.  My adrenaline kept me going; I remember being excited and highly focused on not getting killed.  I wasn’t scared; I didn’t have time to be.  The job needed to be done urgently, and that’s what we did.

We were a good team of two.  The boatswain’s mate and I used up a lot of chain and rope to get the corer firmly back against the port foredeck transom.  Once done, we moved to the starboard side to add more chain and rope to those corers, too.  We were assuming the first fifty footer wouldn’t be the last and later joked that we had wanted the boat to go down with everything shipshape and secured.

It was pitch dark by the time we finished.  Might have taken an hour, maybe two.  I lost track of time, and I was soaked through, numb from the cold rain, the cold seawater (we had not yet reached the eastern edge of the Gulf Stream), and the incessant gale-force wind.  The rigging was not just singing, but howling, which I was told only happened when the wind exceeded 45 MPH.  My legs were like rubber from the constant need to keep my balance on the violently rolling deck.  But the danger and excitement kept me going, and we were just as slow and careful roping ourselves back along the starboard main-deck as we had been going out.

I remember shivering uncontrollably when we reached the bridge.  The Second Mate had towels ready for us, and everybody was by then giddy because we were still alive.  We all knew that one big wave wasn’t likely the only one out there, but we had rescued everyone from asphyxiation and from dangerous heavy objects that might have caused a lot of damage.  The work had been so dangerous and exciting that it took the edge off the sheer terror I had felt when we hit the rogue wave. 

I devoured a sandwich or two, and my relief came to the bridge.  I went below because I had no choice once off duty.  I was exhausted, mind and body, anyway.  As the lowliest seaman aboard, my tiny little bunk was in the forecastle adjacent to the anchor locker, so I usually couldn’t sleep in rough weather due to the constant pounding of the anchor against the hull.  But I fell into a deep sleep that night.

About 12:30 AM I was startled to consciousness as I was thrown from my bunk over the bed board onto the steel deck as the ship was pounded by a second rogue wave.  Once again the ship shuddered and vibrated like it was going to come apart. 

My heart racing again, I remember listening to see if we would recover and tried to sense whether the Eastward was righting itself.  It did, slowly, and kept going, just like before.  I crawled back into my bunk in a cold sweat as the terror returned.  I was pretty sure it was only a matter of time before the ship went down. 

I’d been out on the deck working and knew I could not survive the cold water even wearing a life vest.  I didn’t sleep until 4:00 AM when my shift began (we worked 4 hours on, 8 hours off, 7 days a week and periodically rotated shifts). 

Things still looked bad at four, but by eight that morning, the seas were noticeably abating—by then down to about 20’ swells—with the cloud cover thinning.  It was only when I went off shift at 8:00 AM that I thought we probably would not die and slept a solid seven hours even though it was daytime.  But I was nervous all the way into Beaufort.

That episode has stayed with me.  I’ve never felt so alive as when I stepped onto the dock at Piver’s Island, home of Duke University Marine Lab.  It was the last act in a nearly four month adventure of a lifetime that included a lot of other adventures.

Like breaking into the captain’s cabin to commandeer penicillin to treat a shipmate’s gonorrhea that he contracted in San Juan. (No, it wasn’t me; that old colleague is now a grandfather.)

Flying from San Juan to St. Thomas with a beautiful woman on an Antilles Air Boat Grumman “Goose”.

Getting so drunk on Singapore Slings in some port I don’t even remember that I passed out on the bar stool and fell backwards onto the floor.  My shipmates carried me back to the gangplank where I was supposed to be standing watch and did, after retching a time or two.  

Seeing the most astonishing bio-luminescence over the entire ocean on a moonless night in the Sargasso Sea. 

Riding a motorbike around Nassau to pristine Bahamian beaches that I am sure have long since vanished into resort hands.  

Chipping rust and then red-leading every square inch of steel on that damn boat, the R/V Eastward.

Walking the boat deck at dawn every morning that we were in the tropics to collect buckets of big fat flying fish that had collided with the hull and giving them to the cook to fry for breakfast.

Exploring the mangrove marshes of the Caroni Swamp in Trinidad to witness thousands upon thousand of Scarlet Ibises, a sight one never forgets.

It was all glorious, made more so because I survived two fifty foot walls of water.  I grew up going out on the ocean fishing and hunting and crabbing, and even some shrimping.  I’ve seen weather change from sunny to stormy in 15 minutes, almost before I could react and get my boat to safety.  But seeing what the ocean is capable of pushing up to kill you makes me glad I didn’t make my living going offshore.  Once was enough.

It was, however, good preparation for what was to come in my life: many millions of miles in the air.  After surviving rogue waves I’ve never been a nervous flyer.  Even in the worst turbulence, I can sleep like a baby on airplanes. 

Travel seals my marriage

Today, 15 July 2020, is my 25th wedding anniversary. 

A quarter of a century ago this morning my bride and I overslept because of a faulty alarm clock setting and almost missed the first of two flights that would take us to Seattle to get married at Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic National Park near Port Angeles.  By then (1995) she and I had tightly bonded over two years while traveling over the world. Twenty-seven years after meeting, travel remains the hallmark of our friendship. 

Being obsessive-compulsive about arriving early to airports, I was nearly apoplectic  by the time we got to the gate at RDU Airport on our wedding day. We lucked out with a short queue at security (it was a pre-9/11 Saturday). Naturally, I’d booked us in First Class on Delta all the way. The airline had been alerted that we were en route to marriage, so gave us a special welcome aboard. The Delta flight attendants on the Atlanta-Seattle leg even slipped us a bottle of champagne to celebrate, a generosity not uncommon in 1995.

After a glorious alfresco ceremony in the national park—a deer tried to nibble my wife’s wildflower bouquet as we said our vows—we took the ferry from Port Angeles to Victoria, B.C. for a honeymoon at the exquisite Empress Hotel and strolled the gorgeous Butchart Gardens.  Then the rushed return flights to RDU, where I repacked and shot off on other flights to my consulting client at the time.

I didn’t get another break from consulting until December, 1995, at which time we winged down to Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Paraguay, making some rich memories in the process. Who can forget drinking mate de coca in the plazas of La Paz to combat altitude sickness? Or the interminable takeoff roll, due to thin air at the airport, which is among the highest on earth at 13,200 feet?

We had met two years earlier in 1993 and quickly discovered our mutual love of travel.  A few weeks after our first date she and I flew First Class on United Airlines frequent flyer awards to Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, San Francisco, and New Zealand.  I was between consulting gigs and had the time. Lord knows I had the frequent flyer miles then, too, as I was routinely flying for business several times weekly.  She burned a couple of years of vacation time.  

We had a grand time everywhere, making lifetime memories in those few weeks.  I still yearn to return to the South Island of N.Z., though my battered knees certainly couldn’t propel me up part of the Milford Track the way they did then.  Good traveling companions are rare as hen’s teeth, and we found we were highly compatible, which led to marriage, which led to two wonderful kids. 

Since then we have enjoyed each other’s company around the country and the world.  We never tire of the American West, especially our wondrous national parks, monuments, and wilderness areas, such as Olympia, Yosemite, Sequoia, Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Canyon de Shelly, Monument Valley, Saguaro, Chaco Culture, Zion, Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Absaroka-Beartooth, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier.

My wife and I love snorkeling, a hobby which has taken us to many tropical islands, such as The Maldives, St. John (U.S. Virgin Islands), Mo’orea (Tahiti), Rarotonga (Cook Islands), Boracay (Philippines), Koh Chang and Koh Lipe (Thailand), and Ha Long Bay (Vietnam). Along the way we have enjoyed the oceanside grandeur of port cities like Cape Town, Rio, Hong Kong, Vancouver, San Francisco, Singapore, Sydney, New Orleans, Venice, Istanbul, L.A., Aukland, and New York.

We have camped among lions, hyenas, and elephants in the open wilderness of Botswana, roamed both sides of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and Zambia, and many times savored the wildlife and natural splendor of the Kruger National Park in South Africa.  We have explored China’s Yunnan and Guangxi Provinces together, and toured Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), England, France, Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Austria, and Slovakia hand in hand. She and I have been entranced by the exotic nightlife in George Town, Penang Island, technically part of Malaysia, but which feels like long-ago India.

And more, and on and on.  She and I never became jaded about traveling, instead have savored every glorious moment together.  We have not yet been everywhere. We still aim to go to Morocco together, and one day to the Kingdom of Bhutan.  I’d like to take her to see Namibia with me, something I did only once before in 1991 before we met.

Truth be told, she’s fun anywhere (except when she hasn’t eaten), but her passion, like mine, is to travel.  She’s my best friend as well. It’s been a sweet three-decade ride.  I am the luckiest man in the world that she chose me to share the world’s wonder with, and I can’t wait for the next twenty-five years together!

Coping with ambivalent wariness

July 6, 2020

Thanks to the novel coronavirus, I’m a prisoner in my own house. Fur-lined and luxurious to be sure, but prison, nonetheless.  Like all of us, learning to make do with uncertainty:  How long before we have a vaccine? How does it spread, really?  How effective are social distancing and masks?  How paranoid and careful should I be, really? Not knowing is as bad as hiding in my cave.

Is it safe to have one or two friends over to sit six or more feet away on the screen porch for drinks?  Should I turn on the overhead fans on the porch to mitigate the heat, or does that spread the virus? 

Do my risks rise significantly when I go to the grocery store or to a gas station?  Why does medical and scientific awareness about Covid-19 seem squishy and indeterminate?

It’s not all doom and gloom.  As I explained in early April, one silver lining is that my wife stopped complaining that our house is too big.

However, the biggest unanswered question remains, What degree of disciplined care is proper to live by now?  I honestly don’t know where the guardrails lie. 

Sure, I always wear a mask in public, and I carry and routinely use hand sanitizer.  I keep extra masks in our cars in case a family member forgets one. I keep my distance from folks.  But are those sufficient measures to keep risk low?

I’ve discovered that my friends fall into two camps: either super-cautious and never leave home or vigilant but willing to carefully make forays into normal routines, save perhaps not going to the office.  I seem to fall into the second group.

I understand other Covidtime-camps exist, such as virus-deniers who go to places like Ace Speedway, brazenly flaunting North Carolina rules prohibiting such mass, maskless gatherings.

And of course the throw-caution-to-the-wind youth who collect cheek-by-jowl in bars to drink and howl at the moon.  But I personally don’t know anyone in those genetic-pruning camps, and if I did, I wouldn’t let them cross the threshold.  No sense inflating my risk by letting someone fool enough to have exposed him- or herself to the virus inside our door.

As it is, just like everybody else I can’t go anywhere any more without fretting over it.

Or can I?  The uncertainty is maddening.

Though I strive to stay busy, the days tend to lack variety and merge into one another, like a series of disconnected, unending, but meaningless dreams. 

I get excited by little things, like my wife saying we need something from the grocery store.  Anything for a change of pace.

I volunteer to drive to the hardware store for a bag of potting soil, or even to fill up a car.  I enjoy taking the dog for walks like never before.  I fight to take out the garbage.

I’m not alone in going stir-crazy, either.  When I alerted friends to the fact that I had planned another trip to the Kruger National Park in South Africa for February of next year in order to keep my sanity, 23 people expressed interest in going with me, some of whom had been with me before. 

It was heartening to grasp the collective excitement.  However, that large number got whittled down pretty fast as wariness over the future trumped their zeal.  I’m currently down to six still seriously contemplating the trip. All are coping with the inability to plan our future with certitude, even a half year out. 

Ambivalence be damned, I have bought my plane tickets and paid for my Kruger accommodations. It’s spiritually uplifting to have made the commitment.

Capricious COVID-19 trip costs

June 24, 2020.

Three months into safe, but dreary pandemic confinement, preserving my sanity requires that I have a travel adventure to look forward to. I’ve decided to head back to the Kruger National Park in late January and early February, 2021. 

Planning the trip is nearly as exciting for me as making the journey, and I’m a master at making the arrangements.  Given the devaluation of the South African Rand against the U.S. dollar and the long shutdown of all leisure and business travel to South Africa—including to the Kruger—I expected travel costs to have declined.  To my surprise, however, almost no prices have changed.

Well, except for one big one: Delta’s business class fare to Johannesburg has dropped precipitously from Raleigh/Durham, as I will explain.

The COVID-19 lockdown began just a few days after I returned March 13 from my umpteenth visit to South Africa’s Kruger National Park. The Kruger became one of my favorite places on the planet after my first trip there in 1991. I always miss it the moment I leave and usually return every 18-24 months for one or two weeks.  But this time I am going back just 11 months after my last trip because quarantine has taken its toll on me.

(I’ve lost count of how many trips I’ve made to the Kruger and have written extensively about many of those trips at my Allen on Africa blog.  See here for pictures and narrative of my March, 2020 trip, including the spectacular variety of wildlife.)

AIRFARE RALEIGH TO JOHANNESBURG

Since air is usually the most expensive component, I start by checking fares, being agnostic about dates until I ascertain the best deals.

On Delta I was able to get $2,900 round trip RDU/JNB in their decent Premium Economy cabin going on the DL nonstop ATL/JNB and, astonishingly, returning in business class on Air France from Jo’burg to Paris CDG and then connecting to Delta’s nonstop CDG/RDU. 

That’s really cheap for premium cabins.  I think I paid $2,300 and change for Premium Economy in both directions for my March, 2020 flights on Delta. And Delta’s business class fares for the same late winter period were over $6,200.  So the same fare (PE going and biz class returning) was around $4,850 on Delta last year.  That’s nearly a two grand price drop.

Another option was to route myself on Delta to Amsterdam and then SkyTeam partner KLM to Johannesburg.  That was $4,100 in business class both ways, but the $1,200 difference gave me pause.

When I pointed out the Delta/KLM joint fare, Delta offered to match it using the direct ATL/JNB flight—in other words, to discount their inviolable Business fare on the nonstop for the first time ever, to my knowledge.

In coach, RDU/JNB was as little as $887 round trip on AA connecting to Qatar, and about $990 on Delta.  Roughly the same on other airline partnerships.

I opted to go with the Premium Economy out, Business Class return fare and had it held while I checked other trip costs.  I was pretty heady about the great Delta fare and hoped to find more bargains.

OVERNIGHT HOTEL COSTS IN JOHANNESBURG

Delta’s nonstop from Atlanta gets to Johannesburg in late afternoon, too late to connect to Skukuza.  Being stuck until the next morning requires a one-night layover in Jo’burg. A lot of hotel options are offered around the JNB Airport, but I prefer the convenience of just walking 8-10 minutes to the City Lodge OR Tambo International Airport since it sits on top of the airport car park garage. 

When I checked for late January, 2021, rates at the City Lodge were the same as always before COVID-19: $110/night.  No discount on account of the pandemic or exchange rate, but it does include an enormous breakfast.

Okay, a huge breakfast, but no bargain overall. 

AIRFARE JOHANNESBURG TO SKUKUZA

Delta only gets me to Johannesburg, so I must book a separate air ticket from JNB to Skukuza (SZK) Airport, the gateway to the Kruger Park. I found that SA Airlink, which has a monopoly flying ER-135 airplanes on the JNB/SZK route, is exactly as last year at $267 cheapest, up to around $330 (both round trip). 

Unlike South Africa National Parks, which quotes accommodation prices in South African Rand, SA Airlink shows fares in the currency of the country booking the itinerary, in my case, of course, dollars.  Since the Rand is so low against the dollar right now, I wondered if domestic SA Airlink fares shown in Rand are lower.  But I couldn’t test my thesis quickly, so accepted the $267 fare.

Again, though, no bargain compared to before the pandemic.

RENTAL CAR RATES IN THE KRUGER NATIONAL PARK

Then I needed to reserve a rental car for driving in the Kruger, and Avis has a monopoly there.  Rates at SZK airport were quite reasonable for January, 2021. I chose $170/week all-in for a small SUV/van (a Toyota Avanza, which I always try to rent), the low cost due to the depressed R17.32 = $1.00 exchange rate. 

That’s about $25/week cheaper than I paid in March for the same car, so no great savings there, either.

KRUGER ACCOMMODATION COSTS

Kruger accommodation rates were about the same as last year at the equivalent of $110/night for a deluxe perimeter (by the fence) or riverside-river view single bungalow. That means SANP (South African National Parks) has raised rates to account for inflation and currency devaluation.

Well, again, no savings.

BOTTOM LINE

The upshot is that I’ll pay about the same overall cost for my Jan-Feb, 2021 Kruger trip as I did for my Mar, 2020 visit.  The only difference is that my ride back home next year will be more comfortable in Business Class than Premium Economy was this past March (and it wasn’t bad).

A CLOSER LOOK AT DELTA’S BUSINESS CLASS FARES TO JOHANNESBURG

After Delta offered to match the Delta/KLM $4,100 fare round trip in Business on their connecting nonstop ATL/JNB, I decided to dig deeper to understand Delta’s sudden discounted Business Class pricing strategy to Johannesburg.  For as long as Delta has flown to Jo’berg, fares for Business have been sky-high in money or award travel costs, such as last year’s 960,000 SkyMiles for a round trip RDU/JNB in Business. (I didn’t bite.)

It sure looks like RDU catches a break with $4,100 round trip.  The lowest biz class from Atlanta round trip on the same nonstop flight to Johannesburg is over $6,200.

I checked Business Class to JNB from Orlando and from New Orleans and found they are also $4,100—the same price as from RDU.

Looking even harder at the discounted fare from Raleigh, I discovered that, officially, the DL biz class fare round trip is just $2,100, but Delta adds a $1,829 “luxury surcharge” plus 12 different taxes to get it to $4,100.

Made me wonder why Delta doesn’t just increase the fare rather than add a bogus luxury surcharge.

I’m guessing it’s because if a big company’s corporate travel department negotiates a discount on the Delta biz fares, then Delta probably claims the discount is only on the base $2,100 fare and will not discount the “luxury surcharge”, resulting in a smaller discount on the total for large corporate customers.

Naturally, I’m glad I found a good deal for this particular trip, though that doesn’t happen often.  I don’t know how anyone these days can navigate such volatile airline fare structures.  It’s a maddeningly unpredictable and illogical landscape. 

When can I fly safely?

Screen Shot 2020-06-14 at 1.45.54 PM

If I squint real hard, I like to imagine that’s me standing at the very top of the stairs above.  I am ready to go again!

But when?

That is, when will it be safe to fly? As I wrote last week, my first four CV19-era flights left me fretting that it’s still not all that safe to fly.  Many unknowns persistent, and medically-proven facts are in short supply to delineate flying risks. An objective decision about flying is, as yet, impossible.

Meanwhile, our daughter, a rising high school senior, needs to schedule college tours this summer and fall to several universities that require flying.

She is also hoping to travel with her classmates in Latin language studies to Italy at the end of the 2020-21 school year. That’s next summer, but will it happen?

Our son, a rising college senior, needs to schedule his flights back to school in Iowa, and our family is anxious to reschedule our own flights to attend his senior piano recital.

My wife and I had a glorious trip planned to Morocco to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, flying via Paris on Air France, which we look forward to rescheduling in 2021, but when?

Friends in New Orleans and in Tampa await my visits after April flights to see them were canceled.

I am behind on a journey planned to Olympia, Washington via Seattle.

An open invitation to catch up with an old colleague in Sonoma also awaits, but when?

It’s nearly impossible right now to put together another two weeks in South Africa to take friends to the Kruger National Park, and that was planned for February, 2021.

The biggest annual transit and land use conference, Rail-Volution, which I’ve attended for six consecutive years, canceled its September event in Miami this year.  I was going, and now I wonder if I’ll be able to fly to the conference in 2021.

It’s the uncertainty of it all that has me flummoxed.  Disregarding the White House fantasy that the pandemic is behind us, it’s widely and reliably reported that novel coronavirus cases and deaths are still on the upswing in the USA.  South Africa’s largest health insurance provider, Discovery, which also operates in the UK, is forecasting the pandemic’s direct effects potentially lasting into 2022.

Point being, no one knows yet when it will be safe to fly again.

I hope those people pictured on the air-stairs brought lunch.

I’m staying home for now

June 10, 2020.

What I witnessed along the way during my recent four-day, 2,200-mile road trip Raleigh to Iowa and back, and what I observed at three airports and on four long flights Raleigh to and from Billings, Montana, left me conflicted about traveling again so soon in this vaccine-less period of the novel coronavirus.  It’s nobody’s fault but my own that I went; I shoulder personal risk responsibility for deciding to make the trips, risks I thought were balanced by the need and want to go.

Now that the journeys are behind me, and admittedly based entirely on my personal experiences, I’m not so sure the risk-reward ratio was favorable. I am frankly surprised at my own angst reflecting on my choice to go.

Who knows what is the right choice?  The coronavirus threat, due to the nature of its stealthy asymptomatic spread, makes my risk perception existential and hard to process.  Is my desire to return to pre-CV19 normalcy so strong that I, perhaps like many Americans, am interpreting the risks subjectively, and thus inaccurately?  If I and many fellow citizens are operating in a fantasy of denial, then it’s going to be very, very ugly for me and for all of us if we travel and mingle too soon.  That’s my worry. 

Heightened risk was concerning even on the road trip.  Every time I grabbed a gas pump handle, pushed my credit card into a reader, shoved a gas station door handle, or entered a rest stop toilet, I wondered who had touched what before me.  I tried to use disposable gloves and wipes and such, but it’s literally impossible not to come in contact with multiple surfaces.  Even using the squeegees to clean my windshield made me uneasy.

The same apprehension accompanied overnight hotel stays. I hoped the housekeeping staff had not been sick and had thoroughly cleaned rooms between guests. But I had no firm proof of either.

Experts on CV19 advise avoiding the “three C’s” – closed spaces, crowded places, and close-contact situations like up-close conversations.  Yet that’s the very definition of air travel, and all four of my planes were full to the last seat.  Too, all three airports (RDU, DFW, and BIL) were crowded—not necessarily everywhere, but we were definitely packed in as usual at the gates being used for the few flights being operated. And all of us routinely, unavoidably brushing up against strangers frontwards, backwards, and side-to-side when boarding and deplaning.

It felt unsafe to be packed into full flights as if nothing was wrong, wearing only a flimsy mask.  Though masks are a proven deterrent to spreading the virus (Spain has already made mask-wearing mandatory pending a vaccine), sitting in such close proximity to one another on flights with only a mask is unlikely to protect me absolutely from the virus.

In hindsight, I think using the airplane lavatories greatly heightened the risk of contracting the disease.  The mask wasn’t much protection in that tiny and cramped space. No amount of hand washing and careful use of paper towels to touch door latches and other surfaces voided the risk of coronavirus spread via shared airplane toilet use.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not averring that airports and flights are back to normal.  Statistics indicate air traffic in April of 2020 was 96% below April, 2019.  Even now (June, 2020) I realize that airlines are running half or less of their pre-coronavirus schedules, with average load factors of around 40-50%.  Delta, Alaska, and JetBlue have pledged to keep some seats empty to promote on-board social distancing as well.

But it’s the full flights on other airlines, including American and United, that give me pause. 

And not even Delta, Alaska, and JetBlue have a risk-reduction strategy for common lavatory use. Nor do data exist to support the degree of safety of keeping center seats empty.

When 511 epidemiologists were asked by the New York Times when they expect to fly again, only one in five felt confident about traveling by air this summer (expressed in percentages):

THIS SUMMER3 TO 12 MOS.1 YR.+NEVER AGAIN
Travel by airplane204437<1

A separate NYT article, in attempting to answer the question, Is it safe to fly again?, reported uncertain conclusions, such as “none of [what airlines are doing to reduce risk] is consistent. And it’s unclear whether the measures are enough.”  Former American Airlines CEO tough guy Bob Crandall didn’t mince words.  He called the suggestion that onboard infection is unlikely “nonsense, since atmospheric inhalation is the primary means of transmission.”

 Not reassuring, any of it. 

Except for a week on the ocean in a private beach house that’s an easy two-hour drive from Raleigh, I do not have any further travel plans by air or road on my calendar.  Period. That’s a lifetime first for me.  I’m always on the go.

But cases are rising in the USA.  Given the uncertainties and the eye-opening experiences on my recent two trips, the risk of becoming infected with the novel coronavirus while traveling feels too high.

There it is: the unknown, the existential monster in the closet fighting with my will to do what I want to do.  I suspect that many of my fellow Americans are fighting the same internal battle to either accept the harsh facts in the scientific data or to throw caution to the wind and pretend everything is like it used to be. 

As Shakespeare said in Julius Caesar (Act I, Scene III, L. 140-141): ”The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”  Survival is a personal choice, and I’ve made mine: I’m staying home for now.

Flying in the time of CV-19

Flying in the time of CV-19

When I returned from Africa in March, the COVID-19 shutdown was still a few days away. Three subsequent air itineraries to Tampa, to New Orleans, and to Minneapolis were all scrubbed on account of the pandemic crisis.

It wasn’t until the very end of May that I braved another flight. I wrote these notes below in real time as I made the journey with my wife and daughter from Raleigh (RDU) to Billings, Montana (BIL) on American Airlines via DFW.

My principal takeaway from the experience of flying for the first time since the shutdown? Uncertainty.

Uncertain risk at airports and on board planes, a risk which exacerbated by packed airports and airplanes as if everything was normal.

But it’s not normal. Because of the unseen viral menace, flying is scary.

Here’s how it happened, from end to end, exactly as it happened.

GETTING TO THE AIRPORT
Ordered an Uber Friday night for 450am pickup Saturday for our 700am departure RDU/DFW. Wanted to be sure to be there early in case of temp checks, other delays. 

UberX was on time at 450am. Driver was chatty, a New Yorker with 7 siblings from Queens. We were masks; he didn’t, explaining that he didn’t need to because he’d had COVID-19 in January while visiting his family in NYC and doing contract driving for healthcare workers. 

Said his brother, age 54, also had it and was on a ventilator for a week, is now okay, but weak. This was all disconcerting, felt a little like a sci-fi film being with a guy who’d been sick with the deadly disease. He talked nonstop to the airport and drove very fast.  I checked the Uber app once at RDU, and it claimed our driver had been rigorously screened and was well. I hope so…

Left home 450am, arrived RDU 505am.

CHECK-IN AND SECURITY 
We checked in online Friday as usual and so proceeded directly to the security portal. Hardly anyone at the airport, but busier than the visit I’d made to RDU just to see what it looked like 3 weeks ago. And now the Pre line has thankfully reopened. No queue in the regular line, however, both because of the hour (by then 510am) and because of so few flights departing (see photo of anemic arrivals and departures). TSA now behind plastic barrier; scanned my own boarding pass, but still had to hand my drivers license to agent and remove mask for ID. 

No temperature check and no mask requirement signs posted. Some travelers among the few going through security not wearing masks. Most were.

AT THE GATE
Few places were open along the walk to our gate, but Bruegger’s Bagels was. Gate area somewhat crowded for the single flight to DFW (or anywhere), but people spread out. 

We are in first class and boarding passes say the usual “Group 1” but I expect American will bypass its usual process and board rear to front. We will see.

BOARDING
I was wrong to think the boarding process was changed. The usual Concierge, then Group 1 (first class), etc. Flight is oversold and completely full. So, so glad I opted for first class. The usual sardine class. This cannot be safe despite everyone being told face coverings are mandatory. Alarming. 

Everyone, first class included, was issued a “snack bag,” which is pathetic: a bag of pistachios and a small bottle of water. I asked the front cabin FA if that was all first class cabin would get, he said, yep, but maybe some beverages. No more boarding drinks, however.

Looks like you don’t get anything in first class any more except a bigger seat. Can’t even get a Bloody Mary. 

The usual crowding in the aisle during boarding. Zero distance between people in the conga line to find their seats.  Every freaking seat full. I’m depressed if this is the new level of flying. 

IN-FLIGHT
Couldn’t understand why every seat was full except the starboard side two seats in the first row of first class. Got my answer when one of the flight attendants sat in the aisle seat for takeoff and climbout. She was still there 20 minutes after takeoff. 

Looks like AA has eliminated two front cabin seats to accommodate more spacial separation for the cabin crew. Fewer first class seats for us flyers to compete for, but given the low-grade service now offered, maybe it doesn’t matter, except symbolically. 

If they don’t at least offer beverages to first class, I won’t fly AA again until pre-Covid service levels resume, if ever they do. It was bad enough before. 

[20 minutes later]

The new AA drill in first class has been revealed: beverages on request, but customers have to ask. Nothing offered proactively for flights under 2,200 miles. Over 2,200, meals in first are served all at once to limit FA back–and-forth movements, but you still have to request a beverage, whether water or something stronger. 

I asked for a Bloody Mary (hey, I’m on vacation), and it came in a plastic glass, which I expected. No limes, though, which I didn’t anticipate, as such small extras are not catered any longer for “safety” (?)–another cost saving, no doubt under the guise of ensuring our health. 

No limes, for God’s sake? A Bloody Mary without a lime is not civilized. Pitiful.

Minimalist enough for first class. Coach gets nothing, however. Well, except the same tiny water and bag of nuts we got in first (see photo above). And if this flight wasn’t 2 hrs, 30 mins and 1,000 miles, then no nuts, either. Not in coach or first. 

We left the gate 30 minutes behind schedule due to a maintenance light in the cockpit of this newish 737, an 800 series, I think. What spectacular irony if this Boeing product went wonky like the MAX planes and smashed into the dirt, all of us aboard instantly dissolved to dust while safely wearing masks and me imbibing a lime-less Bloody Mary in heavy coronavirus air service sacrifice mode. At least I would have gone down in first class with a stiff drink in my hand. How humiliating it would be to die like that in row 44 with naught but a minuscule water bottle.

A bit later, I politely asked for a 2nd Bloody Mary and got it from the cheerful young flight attendant. I think he was happy to hold sufficient seniority to be working and to get paid. Thousands of layoffs in his profession loom on the near horizon, it seems. Hopefully, I will doze off before I finish the repeat order. I laid off alcohol this week because I had too much work. Nice to relax now. 

Even better, the flight attendant found some shriveled lime pieces for my 2nd drink, likely long aged, when I bemoaned the incivility of a Bloody Mary without citrus overtones. The itty-bitty lime slices could be a year old, but now, at least, if we go down screaming, I’ll be meeting my maker in style, with head held high. 

I always feel more optimistic after a cocktail, so I’m going to stop complaining about the dearth of service in first class. 

That is, until the buzz wears off.

Truth is, something I’ve recognized in myself for years: if the airlines give me a comfortable seat with reasonable space sideways and frontways and a couple of adult beverages and don’t kill me, then my basic needs are met. 

Forgot to mention in boarding that there were no restrictions whatsoever on carryon. The 1 bag + 1 personal item rule remains. At least on AA.

One more late observation is that a microscopic squirt of Purell is included in the “snack bag” hidden at the bottom. Not edible, but thoughtful. 

CONNECTING AT DFW
We made up the lost half hour and then some to land at DFW 848am CT. Allows ample time to get from D20 to B2 for our flight to Billings, which boards at 1015am. 
How many times have I connected at DFW over the past four decades? Surely over a hundred. Dallas/Fort Worth is always wall-to-wall packed.

Though not so much today, I was still surprised at the airport terminal foot traffic, especially given what I gather is AA’s greatly reduced schedule. Lots of folks here even so. See shots of crowded AirLink train and pedestrian congestion in the B terminal. 

The Admirals Club in the B terminal is open, not sure about other clubs. Most retail places are open and crowded. 

My conclusion so far from RDU and DFW is that the airports and airlines are operating on a business-as-usual basis other than requiring masks and on sub-normal frequencies. So much for the coronavirus. Pandemic? Wear a mask, and keep in truckin’!

DFW/BIL – THE PLOT SICKENS
Embraer 175, a “big” regional jet with 1-2 seating in first, 2-2 in the back. 

On AA.com we had selected the 3 seats in row 1 when we booked. But we were told at the gate that row 1 had to be kept open for flight attendant social distance safety because of the row’s proximity to the forward door jump seat. 

Yet the flight attendant up front admitted that when AA booked such E-175 flights full that they would assign even the three first row seats despite the dictum not to. So if it suited the airline to endanger the flight attendant for a few extra dollars, well, then…

Okay, but the gate agents didn’t keep us together, and I had to argue to get us two seats in row 2 and one in row 3. Once we boarded, the gentleman in 2A kindly switched with my wife in 3A so we could be together again.

Repeated announcements at the gate and on board stressed that NO SERVICE AT ALL, neither food nor beverage, would be available on this flight “temporarily” (with no direct reference to the virus), so buy your own or do without. 

Even in first class? I asked the forward cabin FA once we found our seats on board.

She sternly said she would provide first class customers with drinks “only if asked” once airborne. No boarding beverages, not even water. 

Why no service on this particular flight? I asked.  Due to its duration, she replied.  I let it go because it would have been a no-win argument. 

However, I considered pointing out that Dallas to Billings is 1,084 miles compared to 1,061 miles Raleigh to Dallas, a flight which warranted at least a “snack bag”, shockingly meager though it was. 

So why didn’t American even provide a bottle of water for folks to pick up at the gate as they boarded on this longer flight? I put it down to typical airline “down the rabbit hole” insanity.

Certainly not the flight attendant’s decision. Although her attitude needed improvement. 

We had heeded the warning and obtained an apple fritter and some pretzels before boarding. So much for the 57,500 miles per person I spent to be in American Airline’s classless first class: “Here’s your whole lot of nothing. Hope you enjoy it ’cause we aim to do our best to make your flight with us a great experience. Have a nice day.”

Once in the air, the forward FA disappeared with her personal water bottle to the back of the plane to socialize with her companion. I had to ring the call button to get anything for the three of us. She seemed annoyed to have had to traipse all the way back to first class and that we needed anything, despite a conversation she and I had at the gate about us wanting drinks after takeoff. Like I said, poor attitude. She obviously had not listened.

Perhaps most Covid-era air passengers just hunker down and resign themselves to getting nothing despite having paid in dollars or miles the same steep price for first class as before the crisis when, up front, we all got some sort of food and lots to drink. 

After getting us drinks, she scurried rearward again to hang out with her cabin mate. We never saw her again until almost to Billings. 

Good riddance, I thought, but then what’s the big deal about keeping the first row empty on account of social distancing to benefit the forward cabin FA if she is never there except for takeoff and landing?

This is only my second flight since lockdown, and I’m already getting real tired of American’s hypocrisy justified around COVID-19. 

They haven’t reduced fares a penny, nor reduced AAdvantage awards a mile.

They stuff people onto planes until full, including (of course) center seats, with every row already scrunched uncomfortably close together.

They board same as always, with people literally touching each other as they crowd the gate podium, the aircraft aisle, and as they brush by those already seated.

AA can’t even throw first class a water bottle or keep to their own rules about when to provide a “snack” and when not to.

I see this for what it is: American using the pandemic crisis to their own AAdvantage (misspelling intended).  Their only sop to the deathly pandemic is making face coverings mandatory. 

Gotta wonder how Concierge Key and Executive Platinum customers are taking this crummy attitude and abysmal service. 

For me as a lifetime frequent flyer it’s another nail in the airline loyalty coffin. Customer service differentiation gone the way of the Dodo.  I intend to try Delta, JetBlue, and Alaska to compare. Forget United with its sewer service. 

I don’t expect to be showered with Bollinger R.D. Champagne on those or any carriers, just to feel I’ve achieved fair value for the premium I’m willing to pay in exchange for a better product and service.

ARRIVING IN BILLINGS
Exiting BIL airport security, National Guardsmen are taking everyone’s temp, mandatory. I wondered that good were the temperature checks if one of us had contracted the stealthy virus en route due to the incessant close contact with strangers in the airports and on full flights. Had CV-19 infected us, none would show symptoms for up to 14 days.

Inside Billings security, a few wore masks, and I saw people crowded together as normal at a small food retailer.

Outside security, almost no one wearing a mask. I guess the coronavirus scare was all fake news. 

Picked up our Alamo Rental Car which I reserved through Costco at a discount, a new Jeep Cherokee. Car rental counters across from the BIL luggage carousels were pretty busy, and, again, no one wore masks. Lines marked on the floor indicated appropriate social distancing, but were mostly ignored.

POST-FLIGHT REFLECTIONS
I was suprised at my feeling of relief as we walked out of the Billings Airport terminal to the rental car lot. I didn’t realize how tense I’d been since entering the RDU terminal.

Pandemic road trip

Our son, a junior at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, had to drop everything and abruptly leave when the country shut down in March.  Just as did all university students nationwide.  So he flew home with his laptop and the clothes on his back, leaving his dorm room with all his stuff.

Over the past several weeks his college has been scheduling students to return in carefully orchestrated, socially isolated waves to collect their things and vacate the dormitories for whatever the fall semester brings.  Our son was given a three-hour window (9:00 AM until noon) on a Saturday recently to get his things and clear out his room, and he and I agreed to go together.  He was given only a week’s notice to get there, 1,103 miles from Raleigh.

Though our son has routinely flown to and from college via Minneapolis to reach Decorah in northeast Iowa, I was leery of getting on an airplane yet, especially given the fluidity of airline spacial separation policies in this uncertain time.

Not only that, but airfares were priced as if planes were full.  No matter how I played with dates, Delta’s fares were $600-900 on both direct and connecting itineraries, their pricing system apparently biased on near-term proximity to flight dates, and not on load factors.  I was reading that planes were running near empty, yet Delta fares were set as if things were normal and planes full.  Whatever the cause, it was a big disincentive to fly Delta, the only carrier with nonstop flights, and connecting airline pricing was no better.

Besides this, we knew we would need a vehicle to remove boxes and bags.  I could have rented a car at MSP, but the sky-high airfares blunted my appetite for flying.  We decided instead to drive our Toyota Sienna van and make it a four-day road trip with three overnights.  Eleven hundred miles is an 18-hour drive.  I put together an itinerary of 14 hours from Raleigh to Galesburg, Illinois the first day, overnight at a Best Western on the Interstate, then the final four hours Galesburg to Decorah the second day.  That would give our son the afternoon to visit friends in nearby Rochester, Minnesota (90 minutes from Decorah and home to the Mayo Clinic and Hospital) for some much-needed socializing after living under a rock in Raleigh for over two months.  The drive to Galesburg would seem like 13 hours after gaining an hour when we hit the Illinois border (Central Time).

Then a night at an AirBnB in Decorah run by two retired Luther College professors and literally across the street from campus.  The third morning we would clear out his dorm room, move it to yet another retired professor’s home (by pre-arrangement) until the fall, and then start back to Raleigh not later than noon.  I planned to keep the pedal to the metal for a good eight or nine hours from Decorah to the west side of Indianapolis so that we would be positioned for the final push the fourth day back to Raleigh.  That was a Sunday, and our son had a final exam scheduled for 8:00 AM Monday.  I wanted to be home by 6:00 PM Sunday in order for him to be well-rested for the following morning’s final.

The following is the four-day, 2,200-mile road trip reports I wrote in real-time, with apologies for the length of this post:

Road trip Raleigh, NC to Decorah, IA – Thursday, May 14 (day 1)

Young Will and I embarked this morn on the 1,100-mile road trip from Raleigh, North Carolina to Decorah, Iowa to collect his belongings from his college dorm room.  Like all students across the nation, Will was told to abandon his things and to go home immediately in March when the shutdown began. His college is now allowing students back at intervals on a strict socially isolating schedule to remove their stuff.

So today he and I began that journey. We drove 911 miles in 14 hours counting slowdowns in rain and stops for gas, food, toilet breaks, and to stretch a bit. And through North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

Left Raleigh at 455am Eastern Time and arrived at the Best Western Hotel in Galesburg, Illinois at 601pm Central Time. We drove 5-7 mph over the posted speed limits whenever circumstances permitted, a cheat law enforcement seems to forgive in the U.S.

The Google map on my phone gave us a route via I-40 to Winston-Salem, then north to Virginia on I-77 to the far western tip of the state past Rural Retreat to Abingdon, then NW to Wise and into and through the heart of Kentucky on mostly non-interstate highways. So far west in Virginia that we bypassed West Virginia entirely.

In Virginia, I-77 North and I-81 South merged and ran due west as one road for a few miles before diverging in the direction of their designated compass points. Is there anywhere else in the system where you can drive north and south simultaneously while heading west, or something like that?

Routed through Hazard in Kentucky coal country where we passed a number of derelict coal tipples served by rail; the ladder tracks were half removed amidst coal spills. That part of Kentucky looked bleak and dirt poor, the antithesis of the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Research Triangle area.

Emerging from the hard times subsistence of folks in the hills and valleys of central Kentucky to the relatively prosperous, suburban Ohio River region from Louisville and Danville to Georgetown and Cincinnati seemed like a different world.

Somewhere in rural Kentucky, an FM radio station broadcasts Christmas music 365 days a year. I usually tune it in when I pass through, but I missed finding it today.

Then to Indianapolis where heavy rain fell for most of two hours as we crept along in stop-and-go traffic around the southern side of the city to reach I-74 West, our route for the remainder of the trip in the WNW direction to Galesburg.

I was disheartened to see that roads are crumbling everywhere, not just in the mountain hollows of Kentucky. With the exception of I-40 in NC, the many Interstates we traveled on today need rebuilding. That need, of course, predated COVID-19. So where was and is the political will and commitment to fix them? Good roads aren’t a partisan issue; good roads are a core American value.

To my astonishment, truck and car traffic was heavy everywhere along our 911 miles, and congested in several places, such as north of Winston-Salem to Tobaccoville, in western Virginia, all around Indianapolis, and along the entire the I-74 Illinois corridor from Danville to Champaign-Urbana to Bloomington-Normal to Peoria to Galesburg. A steady stream of big rigs was seen everywhere. You’d never know we are in the midst of a pandemic and the worst economic downturn in modern history.

Gas stations, truck stops, and rest stops are open, and so are their (very unclean) restrooms. But no one, customer or staff, was wearing a mask except me. I saw a mask hanging from one employee’s neck as she made change for me at a filling station. Will and I did a lot of serious hand-washing at every stop.

The Best Western Galesburg, our home tonight, sits forlornly adjacent to I-74.  Truck noise is incessant. It looks and feels past the time it rightly earned the certification the brand name implies.

Oh, never deluxe, of course, Best Western hostelries were always modest, but squeaky clean, a place you’d take your family without hesitation.

Don’t get me wrong; this property doesn’t have scary giant spiders or bothersome bedbugs, and it’s as clean as it can be made, I think. It’s just a bit rundown, outdated, and worn out: Outside doors to the building’s interior hallways don’t lock at night, the lock on the patio door to our room was busted (I found a way to secure it), some door fittings are loose, the HVAC in-wall unit rattles and groans, the little fridge sighs and hisses, one meager soap bar sits in the bathroom, the TV remote doesn’t function, and so on.

Now that I think about it, nitpicky stuff that only I would probably notice after a literal lifetime staying in hotels worldwide.

On the plus side, room lighting is bright, which gives the Best Western an edge over even the fanciest Marriott. Water pressure is good, too, and the beds are firm. At least we HAVE a refrigerator. Free parking here as well, and plenty of it, a fact that may not entirely be due to the pandemic. I don’t think this hotel gets a lot of love.

But I paid just $69 (senior rate) for a pretty big room with 2 queen beds for 2 occupants (bumped up to $78 when burdened with various Illinois taxes). So why am I griping?

Tomorrow we drive the remaining 200 miles in about 4 hours, with luck, aiming to reach Decorah just before noon. It’s already been a great road trip with my son. But, then, any time I spend with him doing anything is memorable.

Iowa, the heartland (day 2 of road trip Raleigh to Decorah, Iowa)

Gorgeous 4-hour drive this morning from Galesburg, Illinois northwest to the Quad Cities (Rock Island, Moline, Davenport, and Bettendorf), then across the mighty Mississippi River into Iowa on extremely busy I-80 before turning north of US Highway 61 (think: Bob Dylan) to navigate through the northeast quadrant of the state leading to Decorah. We skirted Dubuque and then traversed mainly rural state roads through one pastoral farming community after another, hugging the west side of the Mississippi along much of the way. The spring planting has begun on the Great Plains here.

The very rural route took us through downtown Luxembourg, Iowa with a lovely Catholic Church set upon a hill as the village’s centerpiece. Before that, we passed through New Vienna, which boasted an equally impressive Roman Catholic church for such a tiny burg. The next town was Guttenberg. Think there could be a Germanic influence?

We paralleled the Mississippi River near Gutenberg, Iowa, with Wisconsin on the east side.

I love seeing Iowa farms on the Great Plains, the heartland. These tough, agrarian lifestyles are the foundation of America.

We arrived at our destination of Decorah, Iowa just before noon to a spacious AirBnB room in the home of two retired professors across from the Luther College campus. The refrigerator was full of water, juice, milk, and carbonated beverages, and the huge bathroom included a bidet and a gigantic shower. There is also a big deck and wine to savor. Young Will and I are living in high cotton tonight!

This afternoon while Will visited his college friends in Rochester, MN, I walked the Luther College campus and admired a large Norway Maple near the college bell, with the beautiful Center for Faith and Life in the background. 

This is a wholesome region.

Tomorrow morning we remove Will’s stuff from his dorm room and store it by former arrangement with another retired professor close to the school. Then we start the long journey home not later than noon so that we can reach a Hilton Hampton Inn on I-70 east of Indianapolis at Greenfield, Indiana by 10pm. That’s Eastern Time, so we lose an hour; it’s a nine-hour drive. That will ensure an early Sunday morning launch for the final nine hours to Raleigh by late afternoon so that Will gets a good night’s rest before a final exam scheduled for one of his courses at 800am Monday.

This trip is a great experience for us both. Nothing beats a road trip.

Clearing out the dorm room & starting the journey home (day 3)

Will and I couldn’t get into his Luther College dorm room until 900am. When we did, it took 90 minutes to pack everything into three groups: stuff to be stored at the home of an ex-professor until the fall semester, things to go home with us, and bits to be returned to the college, such as keys, then headed home to Raleigh. That was around 1130am.

Before leaving Decorah, however, we stopped at the Whippy Dip soft ice cream store for a “tornado” milkshake. The one-off, locally-owned Whippy Dip has been a Decorah tradition for generations.

Before long we were passing beautiful Iowa farm country again, nicely tilled and planted.

We again drove directly adjacent to the Mississippi River, which we paralleled south to I-80 at Davenport, Iowa. 

In one town, we passed a graveyard directly by a big feed mill: life and death cheek-by-jowl on the prairie. I believe that was just outside New Vienna, Iowa.

Crossing the Mississippi on I-80 from Iowa east to Illinois, we were again surprised at the heavy traffic.

My observations today reconfirm that life doesn’t appear to be much changed in the hinterland due to the pandemic. Warranted or not, folks in the rural areas don’t seem overly concerned about their chances of catching the virus. We stopped a number of times for gas and food, and I saw one person wearing a mask. No one at the Whippy Dip had a mask except the staff. There are signs posted, and people are politely distancing a bit, but the parking lots of shopping areas are crowded, and lots of cars and trucks ply every road. It looks like people are quietly going about their business.

Tonight we’re staying in a Hilton Hampton Inn 15 miles east of Indianapolis off I-70. I was happy that Hilton’s ‘digital key’ feature was available at this hotel, which enabled me to check in online, choose a room, and go directly to it on arrival, bypassing the front desk. My phone works as the digital key to unlock the room. No staff contact required.

Judging by the empty rooms showing when I chose ours online, and the empty parking lot, I would guess occupancy to be 10-20%. But it’s a Saturday night, the least busy night of any week for most hotels, and thus hard to gauge the negative effect the coronavirus has had on bookings.

Tomorrow I’ll check out online and get a receipt by email. No human contact at all. We pick up a breakfast bag to go on the way out in lieu of the usual hot breakfast served at all Hampton Inns.

Ten and half hours of driving starting at 800am should get us back to Raleigh, with luck, by 630pm. Hoping Sunday on the Interstates will not be congested.

This continues to be a memorable journey for father and son. I’m enjoying the time with Will immensely.

Final leg Indy to Raleigh (day 4)

Leaving the Hampton Inn this morning, I glanced at the GPS navigation on my Samsung smartphone. 10 hours, so said Google. And we were off.

However, I wouldn’t advise taking I-70 east of Indianapolis to get to anywhere, as it’s a construction site for nearly 100 miles to the Ohio border, with the speed posted at just 55 mph with lots of one-lane sections.

The slowdowns were a pain, but at least Indiana is making the investment to rebuild the Interstate. Lord knows America’s roadways need refurbishing.

How many states did we traverse? Nine, I guess: North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and since young Will drove to Rochester to see friends, we have to add Minnesota.

Our Toyota Sienna van averaged 22 MPG going 65-75 MPH. Not great, but it’s a big vehicle, comfortable to drive, good visibility, spacious, stable, and quiet.

Left the hotel at 748am, arrived home 600pm on the dot, 606 miles in 10.25 hours. That’s an average of 59 MPH, not bad with the four stops we made for fuel, food, and bodily functions. Especially considering the astonishing volume of traffic everywhere today.

Total mileage from Decorah to Raleigh was 1,119. Going there was 1,109.  So just over 2,200 miles round trip. Good thing I had the Sienna serviced before we left. It performed flawlessly, reinforcing my faith in Toyota’s reliability.

A quick comparison of all-in accommodation cost for 3 nights: Best Western, Galesburg, IL (Thu-Fri), $78: Airbnb, Decorah, IA (Fri-Sat), $76; Hilton Hampton Inn, Greenfield, IN (Sat-Sun), $98. Outside big cities, one can still find bargains in America.

Traffic everywhere looked like pre-virus normal, as I’ve said every day. But today’s drive was the most eye-opening. Car traffic was extremely heavy along our entire route through Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina. Trucks, too, of course, but I expected that.

In places we stopped, most faces were bare. I saw no one in West Virginia wearing a mask, for instance, save one Sheetz gas station cashier. The first southbound rest stop on I-74 in North Carolina was wall-to-wall people, and we saw just one person other than me wearing a mask. I have nothing but my personal observations to go on, and I sure didn’t take a poll, but I think people are in denial. Pandemic? What pandemic?

Young Will and I conversed and laughed between long intervals of silence. I let him lead on subjects we talked about. He has a vicious sense of humor and had me guffawing at his ironic observations regarding poor drivers.

I’d programmed the navigation to avoid tolls, and so Google led us through the back roads of West Virginia from Charleston in order to skirt the tolled West Virginia Turnpike. Will and I took great pleasure in experiencing rural areas of the state we would otherwise have missed. Lots of derelict coal mines and railroads and tiny hamlets, including the Virginian Railway bridge in Deepwater, West Virginia. That railway disappeared in the 1950s, so the bridge was probably last painted 65 or 70 years ago. (For a bit of Deepwater history, see here.)

Home, young Will spent time playing the piano after he unpacked, his first opportunity to hit the ivories since Wednesday night. Altogether, a memorable and productive road trip. We accomplished our mission. After nearly 40 hours of driving over 4 days, though, it was nice to quietly walk with our dog around the neighborhood after dinner.