August 4, 2020

SONG | Witnessing the Pandemic Across 18 States

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In some ways, traveling across the country was exactly how I pictured it would be: a black Jeep rumbling from the coasts of Florida to the vineyards of California, long nights fueled by Slim Jims and one dinky motel after another. But on this particular trip, there were also floor-to-ceiling face shields in hotel lobbies, prairies swarming with wildlife in the absence of humans and long lines for lottery tickets to enter national parks.

I began my journey on March 28 in a passenger seat next to my boyfriend, eating our last CTB sandwiches as we veered onto the freeway. Over the span of 18 states, 5,500 miles and four weeks on the road, we would witness COVID-19 evolve from its first beginnings to a country-wide pandemic, manifested in distinct ways from one state to another. But as we rushed out of Cornell that evening, we knew only a few basic facts: We had grandparents residing in both of our homes, and we needed to avoid flights at all costs. We decided to drive home instead, making it a rule to maintain social distancing, wear masks and sanitize frequently on the road.

As the air turned from New York’s brisk chill to the swampy humidity of the South on our first drive, the newly-quarantined country was hardly recognizable. We were the only guests in a massive Best Western on the first evening, and the next day, we wandered into an abandoned beach town, where the trinket shops had all drawn their curtains. On a warm Georgia night nearing the trip’s end, we stopped on an empty freeway, which was dark enough to spot fireflies in the surrounding forests. They blinked quietly, a solitary source of light among the thick brush, reminding us we were the only humans in a several-mile radius.

Four days after leaving Ithaca, we arrived at my boyfriend’s home in Florida. Two months and a socially-distanced graduation picnic later, we were on the road again in early June. This time, as we headed to my home in California, we brought a film camera to document the flitting scenes. On the first leg of the trip, the snapshots transformed from Atlantic beaches speckled with sharks’ teeth, to whiskey superstores in Tennessee, to corn stalks fading infinitely into the Missouri horizon. Scattered in-between were less endearing shots — entirely abandoned Walmart parking lots, surreal ratios of cows to humans in empty towns, and fast food joints with massive drive-thru lines but no customers sitting inside.

The Jeep quickly became our own bubble of isolation in a quarantined country, where we suddenly found ourselves channeling our social energy toward just one person, a stark contrast from the expansive community of friends we left behind at Cornell. But we slowly learned to find solace in one another’s company, and on days when we needed to escape the confusion of the world, we found refuge in nature. We hiked among aspens in the Rocky Mountains and watercolored the distant towns visible from the summits. In Utah, we spread our picnic blanket at the edge of Bryce Canyon, stargazing alone on the red rocks. The Milky Way stretched in a bright, glimmering belt above our heads.

But it was difficult to feel alone for long — during chance encounters in every town, we interacted with locals who seemed to share the same itch from isolation. In an old bookstore by the freeway, a bookkeeper eagerly showed us his collections, which were covered in dust after months without visitors. A few days later, we stumbled upon an ice cream shop, which was nestled in a roadside town with a population of 18. The dairy farmers gave us a free scoop for being their first customer in days. And a receptionist at a bed-and-breakfast, located in a recently-turned ghost town, greeted us with the same enthusiasm when we ambled in at 3 a.m. Her staff was still playing music despite the hour, grooving as they mopped the floors. They motioned for us to join in; we danced together, six feet apart.

As we met locals across the map, it was increasingly clear that the attitude toward the pandemic was distinctly different from one state to another. In the early days of quarantine, before the road trip, we had already begun to see a split in the country’s urgency to enforce safety measures. In Florida, for instance, we were dining inside restaurants again by early May. Meanwhile, in California, my family reported that hardly anyone had left their backyard for months. There seemed to be a wide gap between Florida and the West Coast’s reactions to the pandemic, with the middle of the country remaining even more of a mystery.

As we traveled through countless communities, we quickly began to discover the nature of that gap for ourselves. At a grocery store in rural Tennessee, for instance, ladies at the register leaned across the counter without masks. And when we stopped for fried chicken in a Kentucky pub, the waiters cast puzzled glimpses at our seating choice, which was deliberately far from other customers. But the further West we drove, the more the protocols tightened. When we wandered through my parents’ alma mater in Lawrence, Kansas, we observed stricter precautions being taken among students. And while Kansas’ bird sanctuaries were still open for visitors, every national park west of Kansas required a reservation weeks in advance.

By the time we reached California in late June, the change in atmosphere was almost shocking. The Santa Monica Pier creaked in utter abandonment, and families were spread in sparse clumps at the Los Angeles beaches, sunbathing with their masks on. As we drove toward Northern California, the rules became tighter still, with restaurants pulling back even outdoor seating. When we finally arrived in San Francisco, it was as if we had entered an entirely different world, where even the joggers and bikers wore masks.

As I enjoyed stability under the West Coast sunshine at last, I reflected on the people and places we had encountered on our trip, from rural farmers in Illinois to glassblowers in Montana. Thinking back on these communities, I was reminded just how much people are influenced by their local environments. Depending on geographic location, the attitude toward COVID-19 changed drastically: It seemed that while the country’s West and Northeast cracked down on the pandemic with strict rules, in most of southern- and middle-America (where towns had tiny populations and low numbers of projected cases, as locals explained to us), precautions for the pandemic were almost nonexistent.

In every city we passed through, however, one sentiment persisted time and time again: Everyone desperately missed human interaction. And in some cases, almost too eagerly. But as I came to know different individuals, whether it be the Denver antiquarian who specializes in first-edition cookbooks, or the eldery woman who makes salt water taffy at the base of the Rocky Mountains, I realized how integral each person is to their community — and not only in the midst of a pandemic. We all have a personal duty to protect those around us, especially during these difficult times, even if our individual communities handle the pandemic differently. As for my boyfriend and I, who fell in love with each colorful, distinct town we passed through, we certainly hope to find everyone healthy and happy again during our next trip.

 

Kelly Song is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at ksong@cornellsun.com. The Songbird Sings runs every other Wednesday this summer.