driving in California
Magu Directors/istockphoto

I Drove Cross-Country During the Pandemic — Here’s What I Learned

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driving in California
Magu Directors/istockphoto

Leaving a COVID-Free Cocoon

Unlike many feeling cooped up and antsy during quarantine, my family adjusted so well that we felt almost guilty. My husband and I have been lucky to keep our jobs and be able to work remotely with little difficulty. Having the kids home threw a few wrenches into our workdays, but they had no problem with mandatory online schooling. With supplementary online courses through sites such as Outschool, my sixth-grade son learned how to cook with an Instant Pot and my second-grade daughter is now a Barbie fashion designer; they even took some French classes together. We had settled into our routines and, most important, we felt safe ensconced in a COVID-free cocoon, from which we emerged only rarely — armed with masks, surgical gloves, and plenty of hand sanitizer — for the occasional trip to the grocery store.

Then my husband and brother cooked up a cockamamie cross-country odyssey taking us from our home in Southern California to a small town cradled on the Chesapeake Bay. In the process, we’d leave our comfort zone far behind ... and travel through several of the hot spots that make up the great uncharted uncertainty that is America during the coronavirus.

Related: 41 Things to Do to Before Lockdown Ends

Kid's Map of America
Suzanne Schneider

What Was Our 'Why’?

What would make us embark on a journey? My brother is diabetic, and therefore at high risk for complications should he contract COVID, so he had packed up his family and fled New York in March to hole up at my mother’s Maryland beach house. An expected couple of weeks’ stay had morphed into five months in the middle of nowhere, with no end in sight. His wife was bored, his 12-year-old daughter was lonely, and poor Mr. Bubble Boy was feeling bummed out and burdensome.

My husband argued that an extended visit might take some of the suffering out of their solitude. A cross-country trip would be an adventure, the cousins could have a summer to remember (in a good way), and our family could see the East Coast again — we hadn’t been back since moving from New York City two and a half years ago. Who knows when airline travel will ever really open up again, or when else my usually office-bound husband would be able to put in for a monthlong vacation? What can I say, “now or never” takes on particular resonance when a loved one is a serious COVID risk.

packing car
Suzanne Schneider

How We Packed

Just in time for Fourth of July weekend, we loaded two kids, one French bulldog, and everything but the kitchen sink into our four-door sedan. Correction: Into and onto our four-door sedan — we had to buy a last-minute cargo carrier for the roof. Pandemic road trip packing is no joke. (I even fit an inflatable pool in there! My husband said I was out of my mind. Turns out I was absolutely right to anticipate overcrowded beaches.)

Planning to be away for a full month already made it challenging to pack light. Couple that with all the COVID-related precautions we would have to take to get there safely and not infect my brother on arrival, and our list was more than a little sprawling.

So, what exactly did we bring?

Covid 19 Travel Essentials
Suzanne Schneider

Packing: COVID Prevention and Monitoring

We put together personal kits of two triple-layer cloth face masks with filter inserts for each family member (eight total, to be washed nightly and alternated); one pack of 10 disposable face masks (just in case); a box of disposable surgical gloves; personal-size hand sanitizer for each family member and two large bottles for refills; a thermometer; and a pulse oximeter. I threw in some immune-boosting vitamins for good measure.

Related: Everyone’s Buying These Pulse Oximeters — Here’s What They Don’t Know

Coronavirus Cleaning Supplies
Suzanne Schneider
Road Food
Suzanne Schneider

Packing: Care and Feeding

We had to take into account that many hotel food services are halted, and we wanted to limit our exposure on the road, which meant no unnecessary lingering or food purchases at rest stops. So we packed cereal and boxed milk for five days of travel; bread, lunchmeat, and sandwich fixings; fruit and snacks; drinks (including premixed coffee cans and boxed wine for nighttime unwinds); and a soft-sided cooler with ice packs to store all perishables (refilled with loose ice daily).

Coronavirus Travel Restroom Pack
Suzanne Schneider

Packing: Public Restrooms

These loomed large. Planning a five-day odyssey across barren stretches of land would be daunting under the best of circumstances; the inherent risks of public restrooms during a pandemic made it worse. But I managed to put together a “pee-pee pack” I’m rather proud of.

In addition to the requisite gloves and hand sanitizer, we pre-portioned toilet paper bundles into individual zip-close bags, refilled nightly. We packed these with hand soap and hand sanitizer into a small tote to take with us into each public bathroom. We’d wear a glove on the hand used to touch door handles or bathroom fixtures — such as toilet lids, which we closed whenever possible before flushing to avoid “plumes” that can spread coronavirus. (If encountering an unlidded toilet: Flush and run while crying on the inside.) The ungloved hand was used to touch clothing and for, ahem, wiping. Before leaving the restroom, the ungloved hand was washed with soap; upon leaving the building, the glove was disposed of and both hands treated to a thorough rubdown with sanitizer.

No Name Rest Stop
Suzanne Schneider

Packing: Bathroom Emergencies

I also bought an in-car mobile potty for emergencies, along with a rather crazy contraption made to help ladies go while on the go. And I packed comfortable, easy-access dresses such as this one for each day of our trip just in case.

Thankfully, we never needed to take emergency measures, although it was close: We called off our first bathroom break when we found unmasked crowds waiting shoulder-to-shoulder, dozens deep, to squeeze into tiny porta-potties.

French Bulldog In Desert
Suzanne Schneider

Pet Travel During COVID-19: Lodging

Traveling with a pet during a pandemic added its own set of concerns — and expense. Not only were pet-friendly hotel options limited, but we paid a king’s ransom to have the aptly-named Louis V join us for this journey: Hotel pet fees were $50 to $75 nightly, in some instances more than half the cost of the room itself.

Pet Travel Essentials
Suzanne Schneider

Pet Travel During COVID-19: Doggie Bag

The likelihood of coronavirus transmission between humans and animals is said to be low, but having the dog snuffling and lolling about on suspect hotel room carpets, then sidling up with my kids in the car for hours, was another risk factor. We added a large pack of doggie wipes to our packing list and slotted morning and nightly “sponge baths” into our list of daily road chores.

Man With Dog In Car
Suzanne Schneider

Pet Travel During COVID-19: Pro Tip

We didn’t have space for a crate in our overflowing car. But when traveling with pets (or at least small dogs) during a pandemic, consider crating them during hotel stays. They’ll be shielded and in a familiar setting, and better safe than sorry.

Coronavirus Hotel Cleaning
Suzanne Schneider

Hotels Stays: Peace of Mind Is Priceless

Despite pet-limited lodging choices, I think it’s fair to say we became coronavirus hotel connoisseurs during the course of our trip. Our overnight stays ran the gamut, from oh my god, gross to thank god for a sorely needed good night’s sleep.

While all the hotels we booked assured us that they were taking necessary precautions, including keeping rooms empty at least three nights between visitors, what passed for “COVID clean” varied widely. From staff who reluctantly or sheepishly donned masks upon our approach to a flashing “change filter” light on one room’s HVAC panel — and, the pièce de résistance, what appeared to be human vomit on the elevator floor of a short-staffed, hipster-haven boutique hotel—the nights in hotels were more harrowing than the restroom stops (at least those lasted 10 minutes, tops). Each day’s check-in was followed by a 30-minute cleaning spree employing every product we’d packed.

Coronavirus Hotel Sanitation
Suzanne Schneider

Hotels Stays: Hilton Wins

We stayed at a Hyatt, that to-remain-unnamed boutique hipster hotel, a Holiday Inn, and a Hilton. The Hilton was the last stop, and stepping into that safety-sealed room felt like crossing over into Shangri-La. The hotel chain has been aggressive in trying to assuage concerns about the coronavirus, partnering with Lysol and the Mayo Clinic to develop a branded cleaning program. Even the remotes were wrapped in specially printed notes touting their recently sanitized status, and pillow mints were replaced by even more enticing squares of individually wrapped disinfecting hand wipes. With our requisite cleaning chores dramatically reduced, we even found time to stream “Hamilton” on the room’s Roku TV.

The fact that we’re alive is a miracle ...

Las Vegas
Suzanne Schneider

Lessons From the Road: Pick Your Poison

We took a gamble on a northern route. My husband had charted it out carefully, weighing pros and cons. Although our goal was to get there as quickly as possible, with longer days on the road we’d have to worry about not only fatigue but more public restroom stops. We also had to think about hotel food scarcity and restaurant shutdowns. Arriving late in a strange town might mean sending our kids to bed hungry — which almost happened after a 10 o’clock arrival in Denver on the Fourth of July. We also had to consider the sociopolitical landscape in each state and county: What coronavirus narrative did each subscribe to, and how high was each scoring on current case meters?

Sharp Turn In The Road
Suzanne Schneider

Lessons From the Road: Be Prepared to Pivot

It’s a pandemic, people. Expect a few curves to be thrown your way.

We had initially settled on Chicago for our final stop, but the night before our departure, that city issued an emergency travel order requiring a mandatory 14-day quarantine for visitors from 15 states, including California. With “just passing through” suddenly not a possibility, we panicked. Then we rolled up our sleeves and got to work recharting half of our trip. A pot of coffee, several hours, and much cursing later, we had subbed Chicago with Columbus, Ohio. The rerouting that made that switch possible necessitated two other city swaps, cut a day from our entire trip time, and increased daily driving significantly.

On The Road In America
Suzanne Schneider

Lessons From the Road: Some Hot Spots Can't Be Avoided

Driving through Vegas was a crap shoot I’d never like to take again. The disease-be-damned holiday surge stuck us in bumper-to-bumper desert traffic for two hours. Our inaugural night’s stay was in Utah, where avoiding epicentric Salt Lake City put us in a St. George hotel seemingly hosting multiple parties. From there we headed to Denver, through Kansas City, Missouri, on to Columbus, and finally to the edge of the Chesapeake Bay. Moving west to east, it felt like each mile put us closer to safer shores, to states where masks are worn, social distancing is taken seriously, and quelling coronavirus spikes is a higher priority than haircuts, beach visits, and bar crawls.

Beach House View
Suzanne Schneider

Where Do We Go From Here?

It’s lovely where we’ve landed. The cousins are all happy as clams. My brother is a heck of a lot less sullen, and his wife seems grateful to have more adults in the house and a bit more laughter to break the monotony.

True, we’re pretty isolated in this tiny seaside town. With my brother’s vulnerability to coronavirus we might have contracted on our travels, we sleep sequestered on the top floor and wear masks at all times when we descend. Meals are eaten outside on the patio, with fans ensuring the air keeps flowing and potentially infectious concentrations of droplets don’t settle. Hugs are on hold until our COVID test results come in. Still, our slightly expanded family pod is feeling like a perfect, if tight, fit. If our cross-country trip taught me anything, it’s that in the age of coronavirus, sometimes only quarantine feels like home.

And who knows if we’re going back to Cali. With coronavirus cases skyrocketing in Southern California since we left, we’re wondering if we actually dodged a bullet and are here in Maryland, safe but stranded, forevermore.

RV Owners At Rest Stop
Suzanne Schneider