Road tripping in the time of pandemic

You can tell the photo above was taken early in the trip by the amount of stuff in the van. For example, you can still see the seats. That’s more difficult now.

The seats are covered by sleeping bags and travel pillows, hoodies and beanies, small coolers and bag chairs and other necessary items purchased along the way, mostly at Sam’s and Goodwill.

No matter where you go in this beautiful country, there is a Sam’s and there is a Goodwill nearby.

Goodwill is by far my favorite. It’s so much more interesting. Give me a tent with a little bit of history. Preferably with all the tent poles, though. That’s the trade-off for interesting. You might get a story, but you might also get a lopsided tent. You have to decide if you’re okay with it.

I didn’t mean to start talking about our road trip — which has been epic, challenging, and deeply profound, at least for me — by talking about buying stuff.

How typically 21st century and typically American and typically fill-in-the-blank. But our stuff tells a story about us: what we value, what makes us feel comfortable, what forms our identity.

When you’re living in a van (with your entire family) for a few months, the stuff you choose to take along is even more significant.

Each child has made a little nest of basically the same ingredients: sleeping bag, blanket, small pillow, backpack, clothing bag, a few personal items. Despite the sameness of the ingredients, the end result is as unique as they are, with varying degrees of organization and clear priorities.

Joe drives 99% of the time, and has the most unpersonalized area. Even with a bare minimum, though, there’s a story: phone, cable, earphones, and battery pack for learning, listening, and connecting. Hat and sunglasses. Current book on the dash, notebook and atlas tucked in the door. Hoodie over the seat. Iced coffee in the cupholder.

In fact, the “bare minimum” is him: staying light, unencumbered, agile, leaving space for the new.

Meanwhile I have turned my area into a vestibule of recording, remembering, analyzing, understanding. And napping. There’s a pile of books on one side and a pile of pillows on the other. A “mobile work station” and water bottle at my feet. Almost always, there’s a cup of coffee in the holder, which I often forget to drink. It’s a security blanket. I don’t need to drink it, per say; I just want to have it near me.

We’re in our 22nd state — South Dakota — and we’re getting the hell out. It’s beautiful, but there’s a winter storm warning. It’s the first week of September. We are not prepared for cold-weather camping.

Time to move on.

We don’t have much of a route planned. We’re headed to Minnesota. Then we can drop down through Iowa and into Missouri, where we started: have a rest, see family, turn in the van, get rid of the gear, buy tickets, fly home.

Or we can keep going.

We didn’t start this road trip with the idea of visiting all 48 states in the continental US but here we are, almost halfway there.

Maybe we keep going. Maybe we zip into North Dakota, scoop down for those Midwestern states we missed, zigzag up by the Great Lakes and down the East Coast. How long would it take us? Another month?

48 states in four months would be cool.

Then I think about waking up in my own bed in Puerto Rico. Making coffee in my own kitchen. Sitting on the porch and staring at palm trees and listening to the sounds I know and love, familiar sounds. The magical rituals of everyday life. The exquisite treasure of routine, of familiarity, of known faces and places.

It’s easy to take those things for granted: I know I did, especially after three months of quarantine. I couldn’t get on a plane fast enough. Contrast has a way of making us see what we overlooked.

Notice. Take it in. Appreciate it all.

My literal perspective has changed daily for the last few months. When you’re traveling, you don’t look out the same window twice.

The landscape rolls by. I watch in wonder. It changes. I change. Where is the line between me and this world I am experiencing? Where does the “I” end and the experience begin?

Driving through desert, I feel expansive, unlimited, open. Driving through mountains, I feel a depth of grandeur and purpose, wildness and power. We are visiting new places and I am meeting new versions of myself in every place. It’s exhilarating and overwhelming.

I don’t want it to stop, but I’m not sure how much more I can take.

Today there’s a cold rain and gray skies. We drove by Mt. Rushmore and assumed it was still there, under the fog. I took a photo of the kids in front of the Mt. Rushmore replica at Wall Drugs, then we ate a donut.

Sometimes you don’t get to see what you think you’ll see. You can wait, or go back, or experience something different instead. You have to decide if you’re okay with it.

I don’t think they have donuts at the real Mt. Rushmore, so I’m okay with it.

I thought I would write more than I have. I’ve kept a journal, made notes, logged places in my calendar, and taken a million photos. I’ve written, some, but not nearly as much as I anticipated.

Maybe I was too busy taking it in to write it out.

I have been wandering the States like a giant Pac-Man, munching up sensations and emotions. Maybe I was malnourished and now I feel full and ready to share. Maybe things needed to ripen.

All I know is that I have stared for hours at endless beauty and not tired of it. The empty cities have their own kind of glory. The highways weave together wide-open spaces and tight-knit towns, a giant thread running up and down and across our country. Nature is different from one curve of the road to the next.

People, though? People are the same everywhere.

Moving like satellites in unspoken orbits, longing for connection, unaware of our glory. Whether the face is masked or unmasked, the eyes are the same. We are the same.

Whatever stories we are being told about each other, let us listen to the larger, deeper, better story.

I can hear it. I have been hearing it. From one side of this country to the other, from Florida to California, from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, I have heard it. Version after version. Fear and love and hope and despair, layered. A fronting of suspicion over a core of warmth. A self-conscious, uncertain introduction moving awkwardly into a dialogue of genuine concern.

We get lost in the sub-plots, confused by the footnotes. The story is simple.

Step back from the drama. Take a closer look at the characters, and you’ll catch the plot again: you and me and the rest of us, making our way together.