Thousand mile drive in the surge

December 16, 2020

Readying to embark on a road trip of 1,100 miles to Iowa to see our son perform his senior piano recital in normal times would entail thoughtful planning; during the present Covid surge, however, it is especially tedious.  I am being extremely careful, nearly to the point of paranoid obsession, to minimize and mitigate known risks of catching the virus en route. 

Thanksgiving reports of big crowds at airports alarmed me, leading to our decision to cancel our flights and drive instead.  The alternative is to drive.  While that prospect doesn’t thrill me, I know from recent experience that it’s not so bad. In May I drove our son to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa to retrieve his belongings which he, like all students, had been forced to leave behind when the first lockdown took place.

From past long excursions by automobile I developed a personal set of best practices and followed those planning for this one:

  • I’ve learned to rent a car with unlimited mileage instead of driving our own.  It’s cheaper in the long run than putting the wear and tear on ours, and ensures replacement should a breakdown occur along the way.  I also can tailor the vehicle to meet our needs.  On a long trip to visit colleges several years ago up the east coast, I rented a minivan for our family of four.  On the upcoming trip to Iowa, given the possibility of inclement freezing weather in the Midwest this time of year, I’ve reserved an all-wheel-drive SUV.  Total rental cost is $339, including taxes and fees from Avis booked through the Costco Travel portal (Costco Travel usually had great rental car deals).
  • I take along plenty of caps to shade the sun.  Also layers of coats, sweaters, jackets, and such for cold weather.  I include rain jackets and several towels.  Amazing how often a towel comes in handy.
  • Electrical and electronic stuff: I always a good flashlight or two. Another necessity are recharging cables for phones that fit available slots in the rental car (these days usually a USB outlet, but sometimes I need a cigarette lighter adapter plug). Smartphones are always with us, naturally.
  • Even before the pandemic I made it a habit to carry plenty of snacks and liquids: water, soft drinks, juices, and so on.  Sometimes prepackaged energy bars, cheese, sometimes bags of nuts and such that I prepare at home.  For this trip we will bulk up the food options to include meal substitutes, including premade sandwiches, in order to bypass restaurants.
  • A cooler with ice for perishables is a no-brainer. 
  • Along the way I always search the dial for interesting local radio stations to give me local flavor, news, and weather.  I can listen to Spotify any time at home, but I can’t get the all-Christmas-music-all-the-time station except driving through Kentucky (I hope it’s still on the air).

That’s the pre-plague list.  For this trip I’ve paid attention to news reports with advice like this Washington Post story.  Most reinforce what I already learned from my May trip to Iowa and back, namely:

  • Avoid rest stops and rest rooms in gas stations and restaurants if possible, because of the increased risk of aerosolized virus particles in the enclosed spaces.  I definitely was wary of public bathrooms on the long May drive and will try again to keep away from them this time.
  • Use paper towels or similar disposables when opening doors. Also to handle gas station pump handles. I did before and will again.  I am taking extra paper towels for just that purpose. 
  • I’m taking wet wipes and hand sanitizer to supplement hand washing at all stops.
  • Except in rural developing countries, I’ve never taken along my own toilet paper to a public facility, but we will this trip.  And our own paper towels, as I mentioned, for both hand drying and door opening and for touching surfaces.
  • I have a face shield attached to a hard hat and will use it to cover my face and mask for extra protection at stops, including filling stations.  No doubt I’ll get some quizzical looks from folks.  I was thinking of putting a sticker on the side of the hard hat that read: “Mask it or casket!”  But my wife dissuaded me.
  • For two en route overnights in hotels—one going to Iowa, and one night returning—I’ve opted for Hilton properties that let me bypass the front desk entirely by checking in online and using my phone as the electronic key.  I wrote about the vanishing hotel front desk in December, 2019.  Since then I’ve used the option several times, and it works well.  I can choose the room I want when checking in, too.  Hotel free breakfast is just a pathetic snack bag these days, which we will grab when leaving the properties.  Thus, zero staff contact.

That may not be enough, but that’s all I can do short of sleeping in the car and using forested areas for a toilet to elude most human contact.  The risk of catching the coronavirus will still haunt us, but taking these measures should reduce our chances of getting sick. Perhaps akin to the folklore of garlic and a crucifix warding off vampires.  Except that Covid-19 is real, and has already killed over 300,000 fellow Americans.

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