The Great American Pandemic Road Trip

Marooned in Florida just as coronavirus was about to overtake the country, I only had way back home to Southern California — drive cross-country with my Boomer mom

Waking up in the panhandle of Florida in late March as a killer virus spread across the Sunshine State felt a lot like being in a blockbuster zombie movie, just with a Jimmy Buffett soundtrack. I came to Pensacola to visit my grandmother, who is now in her 90s, that age when well-meaning people say things like, “We don’t know how much longer we’ll have with her.” So that means when my mother, who will not fly, asks me if I’ll drive cross-country with her so she can see her own mother, possibly for the last time, how can I say anything other than, “When do you want to go?”

When we left L.A., there was talk on the news that this novel coronavirus had the potential to become a pandemic. One month later, though, it was no longer talk. Which kept me wondering, “Is driving back home in the middle of a full-blown killer pandemic a smart idea?” Every horror film definitely says no.

The problem was, it felt like I was in more danger if I stayed. For weeks, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis had decided not to close any state beaches, businesses or limit the economy in any way. Even worse, it was impossible to persuade anyone in my family that COVID-19 was anything more than a bad flu. (I’m related to a number of FOX News viewers, whose fears are both riled and asauged by talking haircuts like Jesse Watters.) 

Luckily, on the other side of the nation, my home state of California had moved aggressively to shutter all non-essential businesses and enforce a shelter-in-place order for its citizens. This proved to be the smarter choice, although it was called “Draconian” by cable news pundits (a la Watters) at the time. 

But again, how to get back to safety and sanity? 

Even if my mom did fly, it seemed insane to get on a plane in a viral outbreak of a respiratory infection. After all, a plane is just a metal tube of recycled air. The same for a bus or a train. In a practically hermetically sealed car, though, you can greatly reduce your exposure to viral load.

And so, for me and my Boomer mom, this meant the most epic of road trips was really our only option.

Day One: Wednesday, March 25, 2020

On the radio, a local NPR host puts the number of diagnosed COVID-19 cases worldwide at just over 41,000, a number that sounds small and manageable. (In a week, there would be more than 1,000,000.) Thus, my mom — in true Boomer fashion — dismisses me when I point out that this number isn’t an accurate representation of the spread of the virus and pushes to take a scenic approach on our journey from Floribama to Southern California, ignoring my pleas for a much quicker, pedal-to-the-metal route. In particular, she wants to check in with the Gulf Coast communities of Alabama and Mississippi.

We proceed her way, moving through blue-collar beach towns and more wealthy enclaves like Pascagoula, Mississippi, where the trees and coastal rental homes have finally come back post-Katrina. (When many Americans hear Hurricane Katrina they think only of New Orleans, unaware that it was also a hellstorm for the Mississippi Delta and the gulf towns of Mobile, Alabama, and Gulfport, Mississippi, too, which 15 years later are just now finally recovering.) But as we arrive in Gulfport, the city once again looks abandoned. Only workmen are outside, construction crews of four and five. There are roofers, road builders, ditch-diggers and the men paid to ride a lawnmower and attend to great expanses of yard in plantation-style rental properties. Other than that, however, the streets are like avenues of ghost towns waiting for tourists to return. 

In another town called Pass Christian, we stop to grab lunch. Nothing but gas station snack shops seem to be open. But we get lucky — I spot a pizza place in a wealthy corner of town that’s open for curbside pickup and delivery. Three guys are working. Each is friendly in a genuine, very Southern way, and their faces are surprisingly optimistic. This isn’t their first economic devastation. They know this too shall pass. 

Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” plays on the pizza shop’s speakers. It’s a tad too on-the-nose given the moment. Still, when I ask if we ever found out who did start the fire, everyone laughs, even though it’s not particularly funny. Thankfully, the pizza is soon ready. We also buy a shirt. It’s my mother’s idea. She insists, promising it will be a lucky souvenir and a good way to support the shop. Everyone wishes each other to stay safe. 

My mother and I debate whether to drive through or around New Orleans. When I say debate, I mean she voices an opinion, I offer a counter-opinion and she ignores it. I’m a big fan of New Orleans, so of course I want to see it, even if we can’t really stop or get out of the car. But my mother, a former public health director, is steadfast against it. She vacillates back and forth about the threat of this virus depending on how it aligns with what she wants to do. 

Per usual, I relent. Meanwhile, on the radio, the governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, is holding a press conference, urging people to stay home to flatten the curve. He says the hospitals will soon be overwhelmed. The road out of New Orleans surges with traffic. As with Katrina, it looks like the locals with means are fleeing as fast as they can. Along those lines, in city after city, in the parking lots of the motels that encircle them, I spot the familiar orange stripe of U-Haul trucks. 

On the eastern edge of Texas, we pass through a town called Beaumont and wrap around Houston, after which we decide to stop for the night. Unless you’re hopped up on some extra-strength trucker speed, it takes a normal human being two days to drive across Texas as the state is 879 miles from east to west. Not to mention, we’re both tired. In fact, we look exactly as tired as the Black man whose hotel room we walk into by mistake — a look that’s quickly replaced with shock and surprise. I hold up my room key that just opened the door to his room and explain that the hotel must have made a mistake. The long-haul trucker, standing there in only his boxers and undershirt, laughs it off. 

It seems the hotel manager typed the wrong hotel number when she programmed the electronic key. Everyone’s already extra stressed. And this is just the beginning of the pandemic.

Day Two: Thursday March 26, 2020

“Texans love their independence.” 

That’s a guest on the local Texas NPR station explaining why it will be difficult to get Texans to stay home in a pandemic. The host reasons with the guest, pointing out, “We have community spread in Texas; we need a statewide response.” 

So far, it’s been up to a makeshift task force of the mayors of the seven largest cities in Texas (Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth, El Paso and Arlington) to lead the state’s response, urging their citizens to social distance and quarantine, since Governor Greg Abbott prefers to follow the president’s lead, which means he too is hoping for the best. 

Geographically speaking, between Houston and San Antonio, the state is a sea of brown. What was once green and lush with the help of thick humidity, grows dusty as the air turns arid and dries out your throat. I’m convinced any dryness in my trachea is fine and normal due to this dusty air, but every time my mother dry coughs, I check the price of oximeters and thermometers on Amazon. (If I order one now, it should be delivered by… May.)

To that end, at every gas station we stop at, I make sure to pump the gas, get the receipt and open any doors. It’s a vain attempt to convince my mom to take this pandemic a little more seriously. While she did want to avoid New Orleans, she still wants to stop at roadside souvenir stands and is constantly surprised to find that they’re closed. I tease her that in retirement she’s apparently renounced all that she once held sacred as a public health director. 

Of course, as much she understands this crisis, she still can’t seem to believe it isn’t just another Trump-made crisis. I find this dichotomy fascinating, but obviously worrisome. I also wonder how much longer she (and the rest of the Boomers) can go on thinking like that. 

Day Three: Friday, March 27, 2020

The freeway has grown as sparse as the scenery. There are no longer any cars at all. It’s merely my mom and I and the big-rig trucks hauling life-sustaining deliveries across Texas (and the country)

When we hit El Paso, there’s finally a bit of traffic. My mother points out, as she always does, that you can see across the border into Mexico. We soon arrive at the Border Patrol checkpoint — their search of our vehicle consists of walking up to the window, while not wearing a mask or any other PPE, and casually asking us if we’re Americans. Given that neither of us looks like we speak Spanish, they almost immediately wave us through, busying themselves with us just long and close enough to pass infection.

We stop for the night in Las Cruces, New Mexico. I buy a six-pack of beer at a gas station, careful not to touch anything or stand within spitting distance of anyone. Everyone eyes each other warily. There are just six of us, but a man who appears violently disheveled by alcohol and circumstance is arguing with the counterperson about the price of a bag of chips. People stand in line, the appropriate six feet apart, nervously eyeballing each other like they may be a threat. For me, a Black man in America, these looks are familiar — virus, or no virus.

Back at the hotel, sitting under the wide Western sky, cozy beneath a blanket of stars after a night of storms across Texas, it’s a nice moment to relax for a second. The moment, however, quickly passes. A young man on a bike rides up. His face is covered by an American flag bandana, which is wrapped around his head like he’s some kind of beach-cruiser-riding desperado. He gives me the hard eye. I nod and sip my beer. It’s 11:30 p.m. Before he sizes me up once more and (eventually) rides off into the night, I tell myself this Purge-looking motherfucker is just the beginning.

Day Four: Saturday, March 28, 2020

The next morning, I’m back in the same spot in the hotel parking lot, this time smoking a joint with my morning coffee. My mother will be driving, so I’m preparing to be a relaxed passenger. But again, a man interrupts me. I recognize him from inside the hotel. In his work shirt, shorts and flip-flops, he’s clearly a blue-collar guy trying to give his family a memorable spring break — pandemic or no pandemic. 

He tells me that they were headed to Disneyland from New Orleans, but by the time they got out west, Disneyland had closed. So they camped a little, and now they were headed back to New Orleans, since “it looks like the whole country’s closed for this flu, or whatever.”

He bought and fixed up a van for the trip, a 12-person stretched number. He’s not pissed about the virus, but he’s irritated by the response: “Everywhere I go, people look at us like we’re diseased. Wild, isn’t it? Everyone all scared. People back home, they’re freaking out. My idiot cousin called me two weeks ago. He wanted to check on me. He said, ‘I just wanted to see if you’re okay, since I know you drink a lot of those Coronas.’”

He laughs hard. “My hand to God,” the man continues, “he said it. My idiot cousin. I was like, ‘Yeah, maybe I’ll get the Lyme disease, too. Hear they go well together.’” He laughs again, but he can see I’m not exactly laughing with him.

He starts fresh: “It’s bad, I know it is. But it just seems like people are freaking out. It’s just a flu. Sit on the couch, watch TV, eat you some soup, get you some ginger ale, all that grandma shit. You know? I guess it’s good it’s not bad because if it was bad, we’d be fucked.”

With that, he goes back into the hotel to rally his family for the last day of their spring break. In unison, we tell each other to “stay safe.” 

My mother and I spend the morning crossing the desert wasteland of Arizona. She compares this to when the nation was shut down at different other times in her life. Like, when JFK was assassinated. Or how, when she was supposed to graduate from college, her university was shut down because the National Guard shot and killed four young Americans at nearby Kent State in Ohio. She tells me she never got to walk for graduation. In this tragedy, she also sees shades of 9/11. I don’t want to tell her she’s wrong, but I do suggest that this moment is like nothing any of us have ever experienced, and that nostalgia and overconfidence in American exceptionalism won’t likely help us much.

She, however, doesn’t appreciate my response and tells me she’s done talking for a while.

When we finally cross the Colorado River at the California border, it feels good to be home. But also strange. In California, everything seems much different than Florida. But also the fear is much more palpable. People are on lock. Tight. Their shoulders sit up high next to their ears. Eyes thin. Still, after crossing 2,000 miles of an unsteady, uncertain country, there’s enough familiarity to bring comfort. 

More largely, as we merge with the thickening L.A. traffic, I spot a freeway-side mural near downtown that nearly brings me to tears. The building-size portrait is an action shot of Paul George advertising a Clippers season that’s since been postponed. It features just three words. But they’re both enormous and prophetic: Home over away.

That, it seems, is how things are going to be for a very long time.