By Robert Kroll
During the past six weeks, my wife and I and our 15-year-old Shih Tzu snaked our way through a virus-laden northwest passage, crossing over a dozen state borders, from California to New York City.
We are Brooklynites, who found ourselves sheltering for three months (since March 15th) in the Bay Area of California. We were stuck with the choice of returning to New York City as it became the epicenter of the pandemic, or becoming temporary refugees in (then) the less viral San Francisco—Berkeley area. We chose the latter.
After New York City flattened its COVID-19 curve in mid-June, we were ready to return home. With little more than a few changes of underwear we ventured north and east from San Francisco Bay to the Napa Valley. We loosely mapped out a simple curvy line from Berkeley, California to Brooklyn, New York…on a motorcycle…with two adults, one dog and three small travel bags, a longing for our New York home, and high hopes for survival.
We were well aware of the risks of travel during the pandemic. We looked at the national viral maps circulating on June 18th and plotted a route designed to avoid the “hot spots,” the COVID-19 transmission nodes that were then centered in the South and Northeast. We would adjust our path if the virus migrated.
We arrived in Brooklyn 44 days later, with around 4,000 miles under our belt-drive Harley motorcycle. Our strategy to stay safe—keep out of the large cities and stay in hamlets and small towns—had worked. The two-star motels, where the staffs are said to be trained how to disinfect rooms between guests, were nearly empty. We stayed and slept in 40 different towns, 40 different motels (including two B&Bs). One motel in Alturas, CA emailed us a door unlocking code to let ourselves into the empty motel, get our room key, and stay in our room without security of any kind.
Today, several weeks since we left the West Coast, and after a week’s quarantining in our Brooklyn studio, we are healthy and happy. We’ve not been tested as yet, and prior to the coast-to-coast trip hadn’t had good reason to do so…we are healthy and feel good. Zero symptoms. We were masked and distanced, with oft-sanitized hands. We were either on our motorcycle or in our motel room, except to walk the dog. We plan to take an antibody test to see whether we had the virus.
Our trip had three purposes: to get us back home; to get our new (used, 2005 model) Harley to New York; to do an informal unscientific survey of how the northern states (Oregon, Idaho, Montana, North and South Dakota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio) and the eastern seaboard were adapting and adjusting to this novel coronavirus.
The take-away from the trip: small town and rural residents of northern states are far less concerned about the virus than coasties. They are, and have been, eating in restaurants indoors since around April or May. Masks are rarely seen except on the waitresses and cooks inside eateries. There is an undercurrent of resentment, in nearly all age groups, at the suggestion that a mask is necessary. There is a half-hearted willingness to socially distance oneself, as long as it is not inconvenient. Unsurprisingly, government is the perceived problem, not the solution, in rural America, even during a health catastrophe. In some sense, they are correct in this case.
The primary evidence that the pandemic exists is in the silence of these towns. Most of Main Street is largely closed, or the store fronts are “for lease.” At mid-day, the sidewalks are bare—with hardly a pedestrian in sight. In Cresco, Iowa, at the Con-ection (sic) ice cream parlor, four women sit on the counter stools and kibitz, unmasked. One woman tells us, “We haven’t seen a case yet.” She confided that she supports Trump and said, “If he wins, there will be fighting in the streets. If he loses, we will be goose-stepping down the street.”
American flags and Trump/Pence 2020 signs were plentiful throughout the small towns of the northern U.S. Biden signs were not in evidence except in cities like Akron and Toledo. Confederate flags were also seen regularly. Not surprising, but confirmatory.
It should be noted that as white folks in their mid-70s we were treated with the utmost respect by everyone, regardless of whether we wore masks, distanced, or brought our Shih Tzu into a café to soak up the cool air. Our politics were a subject of some quandary. Surely, we didn’t believe anything we read in the newspapers.
These rustic northern states’ attitudes toward the virus’s spread has, one by one, come back to bite small-town people. In the main, they have fewer hospital beds per capita, less PPE, fewer ventilators, health workers, ambulances and morgues. Though we wore masks to the extent possible, we and other travelers and visitors could have been spreaders. Our small-town brethren may have to adjust their attitudes and perhaps experience the epiphanies of the new normal that most coastal people did last spring. Otherwise, COVID-19 could supplant opioid overdosing as a major cause of death in the hinterland. We can only hope that does not come to pass.