TravelRoad Trip

‘We are living in a different world’: Scenes from a drive across America

On a 2,500-mile road trip, I saw a nation grappling with a pandemic and social change.

Photograph by Mabry Campbell, Getty Images
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Crossing the United States in mid-June, I encountered reopening cities, anxious Airbnbs, a desert wildfire—and the country’s singular beauty.

Photograph by Mabry Campbell, Getty Images

It took some doing, but I jigsawed most of my house plants into the front seat of the moving truck. The hardier ones had been relegated to the back, along with the rest of my possessions.

I’d emptied my Washington, D.C. apartment the day before. The pandemic had brought the world to a halt, killing hundreds of thousands and destroying livelihoods. It had also presented me with the opportunity to change my life, and I was seizing it. While I’ve taken plenty of road trips, I’d never moved myself 2,500 miles across the country in the middle of national protests and a global pandemic. Tucson, Arizona—where my partner and my dear friend were waiting—was my destination and my future.

In another time, I would’ve made this a leisurely drive, filled with roadside attractions, scenic byways, nowhere diners. But these are extraordinary times. I was driving solo. My vehicle was a mobile quarantine I was loathe to exit. I wanted to know: How much of the country could be seen from the road? In D.C., I’d grown used to mostly masked neighbors and daily racial justice protests. Would I see such evidence of our national crises on my journey—or no evidence at all?

UNITED

STATES

N

FINISH

Tucson

ARIZ.

Albuquerque

N.

MEX.

UNITED

STATES

TEXAS

Tulsa

OKLA.

ARK.

TENN.

Knoxville

Harpers

Ferry

W.VA.

VA.

MD.

START

Washington, D.C.

Wilmington

ROSEMARY WARDLEY, NG STAFF

MD.

Wilmington

UNITED STATES

Harpers

Ferry

DEL.

START

Washington, D.C.

W.VA.

VA.

Knoxville

Tulsa

TENN.

OKLA.

N. MEX.

ARIZ.

ARK.

Albuquerque

FINISH

Tucson

TEXAS

ROSEMARY WARDLEY, NG STAFF

Moving from my home in Washington, D.C., I drove north to Wilmington, Delaware, to tell my family goodbye. Then it was a straight shot across the country to my new home—Tucson.


The road ahead

Day one: 590 miles to Knoxville, Tennessee. On the road, it seemed that at every other mile electronic marquees spelled out dire near-haiku: “If out and about / do your part / social distance.”

The truth is that I was doing nothing but distance—from my friends, my family, every place I’d ever called home. Soon enough, the road became less a road and more a string of visions: buzzards bobbing in the ditch like bathers; a deer flicking her white tail; sunlight texturing the trees in a deep brocade.

This was still country I knew. I passed friends’ hometowns; my family’s vacation spots; the overlook where my partner and I began our relationship, just a few months before they moved to Tucson. Even the landscapes I didn’t recognize were familiar in nature, stitched with creeks and runs and rivers that empty into the Chesapeake Bay, that massive estuary I’d used to identify myself to strangers all my life. Would I know when I left the bay’s watershed, I wondered. Would it matter?

Traffic slowed to a crawl at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where rehabbed school buses ferried kayakers and rafters to launch spots along the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. Looking for evidence of the pandemic, I saw none. Mask-less recreationists grouped around cars parked in bustling roadside lots. My own face covered, clutching disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer, I ducked skittishly into a gas station restroom. Outside, business continued as usual.

I met my friend Erika Engelhaupt and her husband, Jay Gulledge, in Knoxville’s Market Square, normally a lively plaza with all the character one would expect, given its unorthodox revitalization story. Although the state was in a phased reopening, crowds hadn’t fully rebounded. “That’s as dead as I’ve ever seen it,” Erika said later.

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In the weeks since I visited, Knoxville’s coronavirus case numbers have started to climb. Wearing face masks and social distancing are “the best [ways] right now to support local businesses and the community,” says Erika Engelhaupt, a science writer and editor who’s lived there for four years. “We can do better, and we need to—for each other.”

The two proved excellent tour guides. We stopped at local favorite Cruze Farm Ice Cream, where gingham-suited staff—complete with gingham masks—whisked us through a one-way, socially distanced queue. Masked once more, we strolled past some highlights of the city’s booming beer scene, each at some tentative stage of reopening.

Knox Pride banners on the lampposts of Gay Street reminded me of my own community. Like Knoxville—and most places—D.C.’s Pride parade had been canceled. This was the first year I’d missed celebrating since my partner and I started dating. But I’d made my own one-woman parade out of a moving truck and the small flags tucked in the front seat to keep me company on the way to a new home, a new community.

The long haul

Day two: 800 miles to Tulsa. Traffic swept past me; near cities, the bright cars were thick as sequins. Long-haul truckers were my constant companions: We played slow games of leapfrog, passing each other on rural roads.

At Memphis, I soared over the Mississippi River, a broad brown expanse that snuck up on me. Arkansas announced itself with sunlight that fell on fields as precise as dioramas. At some point it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen a mention of COVID-19 for hours.

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I’d chosen to drive solo, unwilling to ask loved ones to expose themselves to risk of viral transmission—and to decrease the chances of exposing people in the places I’d stop. Instead, house plants kept me company.

At a fuel stop—already accustomed to the routine of pumping gas wearing a mask and gloves—I spared a bit of gratitude for the pandemic-lowered cost of filling up a truck with the fuel efficiency (but not the style) of a 70s Corvette. On my drive, gas cost about $1.60 per gallon—roughly a dollar less than the year before.

I watered my plants at a rest stop in the Ozarks as dusk warmed the pines. Crossing into Oklahoma after dark, I encountered a new challenge: toll booths, which required fumbling for change with one hand and a mask with the other as the (masked, gloved) booth attendants waited.

Late that night, I walked into the bungalow I’d rented through Airbnb. Since the pandemic began, Airbnb has lost more than a billion dollars in bookings. In April, the company provided hosts with an optional cleaning policy that included a 72-hour buffer between guests to prevent the spread of the virus; in June, the policy was expanded. But uncertainty remains for both hosts and guests.

“April and May were rough,” said Dani Widell, my Tulsa Airbnb host. As the pandemic took hold in March, Widell’s six units hosted college students and stranded travelers who’d chosen to drive rather than fly home. As time went on and bookings remained low, she was forced to lower prices to net enough visitors to keep her housecleaning company employed.

I’d chosen Tulsa to visit a friend—and because I knew I’d be arriving in a singular moment. On the heels of the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, the city was preparing for an ill-fated presidential rally widely criticized for its originally planned date of Juneteenth. Though the city had seen largely peaceful protests for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, several people were injured weeks before when a truck drove through the crowd.

“I have had guests inquire if the city is safe for travel,” Widell said. “My answer is that we are living in a different world today.”

The next morning, I met my friend Andrea Leitch for breakfast at Queenie’s. We waited as masked waitstaff cleared the distanced patio seating for unmasked customers. It was the first time I’d sat down at a restaurant in months. I ate with my mask dangling awkwardly from one ear.

Over pancakes and bacon, Andrea told me that daily attendance at the popular Oklahoma Aquarium, where she’s the chief marketing officer, has dropped during the pandemic to about 60 percent of its normal summer volume. Guests are “strongly advised” to wear masks, she says, and the aquarium’s floors are marked with six-foot intervals to help maintain social distancing.

When I passed through, Oklahoma was starting to see an uptick in cases. Two weeks later, the number reached a record high. A week after I visited, Queenie’s switched to curbside service only when a worker tested positive for the virus. Oklahoma isn’t alone: As states reopened nationwide in early and mid-June, cases began to climb, and the U.S. now far outstrips the European Union in the number of new cases. At the time of publication, CNN reports, more than half a million people have been killed by coronavirus; a quarter of them were American.

No place like home

Day three: 650 miles to Albuquerque. Somewhere in western Oklahoma, I realized the dirt had turned red. It wasn’t any kind of ominous portent—just a different type of soil, darkened by iron-rich deposits. It made me feel far from home.

Wind farms bracketed I-40, the turbines’ size absurd up close. The wind buffeted me as I stopped for gas about an hour outside Amarillo, Texas, on a stretch of old Route 66 parallel to the modern interstate. I took in a surreal two-lane road lined with what might have been gas stations half a century ago. Beyond them stretched miles of flat, flat land. I thought, More astronauts should come from here. I imagined people—imagined, because I didn’t see any people—nursed on a mid-century belief we’d one day make a home in the stars; people who’d grown under a sky so huge and close they might have been wicked up into it if they’d only stretched a little taller.

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Texas produces more wind power than any other state; if it were a country, its production would rank fifth globally. I’d seen wind turbines before, but never so many—nor so close.

I listened to The 1619 Project, a New York Times series investigating how “no aspect of [America] has been untouched by the 250 years of slavery” that followed the first arrival of enslaved Africans on these shores. By then I was passing through the Texas panhandle: land taken from the Plains Apache, the Comanche, the Kiowa, the Cheyenne, and the Arapaho. Deep in this heat-hazy heartland, it seemed a mythic America could materialize any moment—one unblemished by slavery or colonization, one that had never committed centuries of injustice. But that wasn’t reality.

Just before I pulled into Albuquerque, New Mexico, a friend in the city had texted. She wanted to know where I was staying that night and if I’d be safe: A protestor had been shot in the attempt to take down the statue of Juan de Oñate, a Spanish conquistador.

Fire on the mountain

Day four: 450 miles to Tucson. By my last day, a seven-hour drive seemed like a cakewalk. Leaving Albuquerque, I headed south, turning away from I-40 for the first time in more than a thousand miles. The pandemic had reappeared: Road signs read “COVID risk remains high. Wear a mask. Protect NM.” At a rest stop that afternoon, a new danger: “Beware of rattlesnakes.”

The desert sky was flat as tin. I saw a distant purple thunderhead, its belly filled with lightning—a sure sign someone was being rained on somewhere. An hour later, that someone was me. The sun caught each droplet so it hit my windshield like a diamond.

I skirted disaster in the barren stretch between Hatch and Deming. I had an eighth of a tank left, and I hadn’t seen a single thing in 40 minutes except solar and wind farms. I gnawed at thoughts of how to hitchhike in a pandemic. At last, I coasted into a gas station specially designed for long-haul big rigs.

A little over an hour from Tucson, I realized that what I’d mistaken for clouds was actually the smoke of the lightning-sparked Bighorn Fire, at the time more than 15,000 acres and spreading across the Catalina Mountains north of the city. For the next hundred miles, I watched the pink-yellow plume take on the texture of cotton candy.

Driving into the smoke’s shadow, I realized there’d been fires of one kind or another everywhere I’d traveled. The virus was a sort of inferno, made visible through PSAs on roadside signs and people wearing masks—though I saw fewer than two dozen of them across 10 states. It wasn’t the only firestorm whose heat I’d felt, as tension seeped from cities grappling with a public health crisis and seismic social change.

I’d seen other things, too: the friends who loved their homes and wanted to keep them safe. The masked woman guiding her masked, elderly mother through a rest stop, who thanked me for wearing a mask myself. A single Confederate flag. The cars with handmade Black Lives Matter signs taped to their windows. I’d seen more than two thousand miles of a land so beautiful I almost didn’t want to stop driving.

I pulled up to my house in Tucson, where my loved ones were waving by the mailbox. “Welcome home,” they said. I left the boxes in the truck for another day.