By Amy Tara Koch
July 24, 2020
I am in the Catskills in a charming, tucked-away treehouse of an inn. My room, walking distance to hiking trails, overlooks a waterfall. Morning coffee and evening vodka tonic are taken on the deck where the temperature clocks in at a marvelous 75 degrees. Owls hoot. Birds chirrup. Wind tickles my legs.
During the coronavirus lockdown in Chicago, I dreamed about getting away to this leafy utopia. What I did not envision was the hell of crossing the country by car.
During difficult times, I always plant a light at the end of the tunnel; a bright and shiny experience to make the tough moments more tolerable and a positive attitude more attainable. Even for those lucky enough to keep their jobs and their good health, The pandemic has been a very tough moment.
To get away, to blunt the anxiety that this disease wreaked upon us, Since I couldn’t get to Amalfi and decided that I wouldn’t board a domestic flight, it was easy to buy into the hoopla surrounding the All-American Road Trip. I wasn’t looking for exotic vacation, just a temporary reprieve from compulsive news-watching and a dose of in-person fun with family and friends. to blunt the anxiety that this disease wreaked upon us.
Once I committed to the getaway, I felt excited for the first time since mid-March. I was escaping! I’d go to multiple destinations! And I was going alone! My teenage kids wanted to hang out with their friends, and my husband was busy with work. Fine by me. The prospect of leaving behind routine and responsibility –specifically meal planning — was heavenly.
The itinerary was ambitious. My husband, Peter, would drive with me to Pittsburgh, where we would stop for the night and pick up my rental car. I would then continue to Washington, D.C., to visit my sister, on to a friend in Connecticut, over to the Catskills and end at a lovely retreat in the Hamptons.
Would it be too much driving, Peter asked, knowing how badly my back throbbed after just a quickie flight to New York? I’ll just bring Thermacare, I replied breezily, knowing full well that he was right. I was not going to let an annoying detail like chronic back pain get in my way.
On the road, I planned to cruise along scenic byways to a soundtrack of Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, and Journey. I would stop for adorable farm stands and pastoral picnics. I would stretch in the shade of giant Sycamore trees. Fellow travelers would be respectfully clad in masks.
I felt the first whiff of anxiety as I gathered my hygiene arsenal, a go-bag filled with gloves, masks, Clorox wipes, and car and purse-sized Purell bottles. There was a killer virus out there and I was about to expose myself to it. I quashed that thought: Hiding at home is no way to live. Exiting the lockdown bubble was required to get back to a semblance of normalcy. With that conviction, I tossed emergen-C packets and a Quart-sized plastic bag filled with supplements into the bag. A strong immunity was another layer of armour.
Chicago to Pittsburgh
Time to hit the road. Though I had consulted Google Maps to gauge distance, my left brain did not compute that the first 462 miles would be on toll roads with scenery about as thrilling as a Boca Raton office park. A greater hurdle was peeing. For coffee-lovers, hours in the car means endless bathroom stops. Now to do my business, I had to slap on a mask and gloves, and also worry about the flush. (Epidemiologists have suggested that toilets could activate a plume of aerosol droplets three feet high. Droplets from a previous and infectious bathroom user could conceivably linger and lodge themselves in my lungs. Great.)
With this in mind, my preference would have been to skedaddle behind a tree. But even if you did risk pulling over to the side, it turns out that toll roads are lined with barriers with few quaint tree-shaded nooks.. So on the hour, we pulled the car into the rest stop andI speed-walked into the ladies room, flushed with my foot and sprinted out of the stall holding my breath. Somewhere in Indiana, I got the brilliant idea to exit the highway in search of an iced latte and more glamorous toilet. This detour ended at Cracker Barrel. We then spent thirty minutes idling at a broken toll booth. Lesson learned.
After eight hours we made it to Pittsburgh, where I picked up a Toyota 4runner equipped with the coveted E-Z Pass and not much else. Car rental companies claim an increase in age-of-Covid cleaning protocols, but my car had what looked like blueberry-muffin residue caked to the gears and in the seat creases. When I pointed this out, the cleaning crew took another pass. Still, I wiped every surface down with Clorox, encased the driver’s seat with a seat cover (I use these on planes too), and placed a towel on the passenger seat. I didn’t notice the dank Marlboro scent or broken Bluetooth until I had driven away.
Then I plugged my phone into the car, pressed “go” on maps and…nothing. I could read the directions but no audio could be heard from the car speakers. Would I have to drive the next 246 miles, without voice-guided navigation? After consulting Toyota’s website, I deduced that my phone would not sync with the car’s Bluetooth (shockingly, the car also did not seem to have a built-in navigation system). I could, however, access Siri’s dulcet-toned directions when the phone was not plugged in. So, I’d drive with the phone on speaker and deal with a drained battery every 80 minutes or so. To preserve power, I’d need to swap my classic rock playlists for local radio. Another chink in my fantasy.
However this leg of the trip wasn’t bad, save the music situation (when I could not find suitable tunes, I turned off the radio. Silence was preferable to the news) and the undercurrent of anxiety I felt each time I had to use the bathroom or fuel up. I was off the dull, never-changing Midwestern roads, and Pennsylvania rest stops were shaded and pleasant. Each hour, I whipped out my elastic workout band to stretch. In four hours, I was at my sister’s house, excited for a few days of hiking, cooking and 1980s-themed D.I.Y. karaoke.
Next up: The Connecticut town of Sharon. Google Maps had the 321-mile leg at 5-and-a-half hours, which I rounded down to 5 hours (I tend to speed). When I hoisted myself into the driver’s seat, I practically retched. The humidity had amplified the car’s smell into the rank-o-sphere. Despite the burning heat, I rolled down all of the windows. Thankfully, 100.3 had Jackson Browne playing with no static (a minor miracle). I belted out The Load Out and managed to maneuver the massive Toyota from my sister’s alley without incident. After an hour of traffic getting out of Washington, Mapquest directed me to change highways in what felt like every few miles, through Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, which required hyper attentiveness, something I had in short supply since my sister’s smoke detector had gone off at 2 am and I had been up half of the night. After two hours, even with Salonpas pain patches affixed to my shoulders, I felt the tell-tale spasm at my scapula that would inevitably explode into migraine-like waves of pain radiating from my neck to my tailbone. When it did, I had to pull over.
I washed down three Advil and fished out the tennis ball I use as a massage tool and jamminged it under my shoulder. On top of this excruciating pain, my phone drained every often, forcing me to plug it in and glance down at directions while driving, something I don’t recommend. This happened precisely as I hit athe busy interchange outside New York City. Major Deegan? Cross Bronx Expressway? I-87? I-95? One wrong turn and I’d be caught in an off-ramp cycle for hours. Here, I was grateful for the glut of cars. The traffic gave me just enough time to glance down and absorb to scan Siris’ directive. Finally, I noted signs for Connecticut. Almost there, I told myself. Just as I started to relax, I saw that I was back in New York. I pulled over to consult GPS. Had I spaced and made a wrong turn? I hadn’t. Sharon is in the northwest corner of Connecticut so there is a criss cross situation at the states’ borders. I arrived at my friend’s home looking –and smelling– as if I’d run a marathon. Thankfully, she had chilled wine at the ready. The drive had taken seven hours.
A few days later, relaxed and revived, I got back into the car (this time I had wisely left the windows open overnight) and headed north to the Catskills, an easy hour’s drive that took me past the bucolic farms of Dutchess County and into the Hudson Valley. When I got to Woodstock Way Hotel, it was just as I’d remembered, a perfect hideaway.
I hiked and dined with my cousins, had a glorious picnic alongside ripening tomatoes at the farm of my oldest friend, Marcey, and had swaths of time to read and write. Things felt almost normal, save for dystopian bits like watching my martini being shaken by a masked and gloved bartender at an outdoor bar and the 7 am wait for coffee with masked, socially distanced locals outside a rural bakery that permitted only one customer in at a time. As usual, once I began moving around, my back pain receded. I was tempted to book a massage but decided that good old yoga and my tennis ball trick would suffice.
I axed Hamptons from my trip. I simply could not endure the five hours it would add to my return drive to Chicago. Ever the thoughtful friend, Marcey snipped a bouquet of lavender, mint and lemon balm and plopped it in the Toyota’s cup holder, a farm fresh flourish to combat the car’s malodorous funk for my last long drive.
On the day of of my departure, I took an early hike through the Ashokan Rail Trail and hit the road by 11:30 am. It only drizzled as I was leaving New York, Mother Nature waiting until I was in the Pocono Mountains to send for golf ball-sized hail to crashing down with such intensity I thought the windshield might crack. I was used to driving in blizzards in Chicago. But this was terrifying. I flicked on the hazard lights and made my way to what I hoped was a decent-sized shoulder. Visibility was zero. I waited for thirty minutes, using the time to charge the phone and down a bottle of Emergen-C spiked water, something I knew would increase my intimacy with rest stops along I-84.
Though scenic, the drive was supremely boring. My thoughts invariably shifted to the state of the world. Would my daughter Bella be able to attend the University of Michigan, as planned? What would that look like with pandemic parameters? Could my other daughter Brette have a normal high school experience with remote learning? Could Covid reach its tentacles deep within 2021? Was a vaccine forthcoming? Could Trump possibly win in November? The speculation and angst was tiring. The Connecticut leg had primed me about at-the-wheel exhaustion. This time I was prepared. I had picked up a facial mister in Woodstock and spritzed it on my neck and cheeks every few minutes. This and iced coffee kept me alert. Of course, sitting for such long periods brought on the stabbing back pain. At 7 pm, I staggered into the hotel oozing eau de Tiger Balm. I was thrilled to see my husband after ten days and relieved bid adieu to the driving ordeal.
The remaining hours back to Chicago were uneventful mostly because I reclined and slept. The highlight: when Peter reached into the cooler to surprise me with a sack of cherries, my favorite summer fruit. (There is a reason my husband is referred to as “Saint Peter.”)
Was it worth the schlep? Yes. Facetime and Zoom are not substitutes for spending quality time with friends and family. The in-person connections, and putting the darkness of lockdown in the rear view mirror -gave me the reboot I needed. But driving across the country alone is a one and done experience. Once I was at home in my bed, I realized just how unnerving the trip had been. Hypervigilance was draining. That night and for the next three nights, I slept for ten hours.
Should you need to find me through the remainder of summer, I’ll be reading (cocktail in hand) on the deck or fine- tuning my back at the acupuncturist.
This story originally appeared in the New York Times on July 24, 2020.