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.


2 thoughts on “Pandemic road trip

  1. Holds like an interesting trip.

    In terms of highway trivial, before I-95 was rerouted to the PA and NJ Turnpikes (to close the gap that existed in NJ), you would be traveling on I-95 North (heading east) and at the point I-95 North ended, the road became I-295 South.

    This had some interesting on ramps to the highway — next exit To I-95 North, I-295 South (said out loud the ‘to’ and ‘two’ could be quite confusing).

    Other fun one is how many roads can you drive all four compass directions heading one highway direction. For example I-287 North heads west initially, than north, than north east, than east and finally from White Plains, NY to Port Chester, NY – South! It’s basically a 35 miles circle around NYC.

  2. “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?”

    – Yes. Between Emeryville and Richmond, California, I-80 east and I-580 west are one road – and the direction of travel is north. I-80 from San Francisco ends up in Teaneck, New Jersey and I-580 from a junction point with I-5 south of Tracy crosses the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and terminates in San Rafael. Common distance is about five miles.

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