The Good Life: Trip home an eerie, antsy journey
Are people elsewhere in America hunkered down during the coronavirus pandemic?
Mostly. That was our reaction after ending our perennial winter season sojourn in Apalachicola on April 9-10. My wife and I have dipped our toes into Apalachicola's culture and social life as well as the Gulf Coast waters for the past seven years.
We had intended to go back to Pennsylvania on March 31. The changing, confusing lockdown picture delayed us for those additional sun-splashed days, but eventually we had to head back to western Pennsylvania.
Along most of the 1,200-mile northward drive, there were relatively few cars and pickup trucks. Tractor-trailers were as ubiquitous as ever, but without the smaller vehicles, they did not clog interstate roadways.
The Atlanta area, however, was the exception.
The shelter-in-place message was bluntly conveyed on South Carolina's large black-screen programmable billboards dotting Interstate 83:
Carolinians north and south seemed to be cooperating. Non-commercial vehicles seemed to be half as numerous as was the case Feb. 1 when we went south to escape winter weather.
In former years, we had deliberately avoided interstate highways with their convoys of trucks and snowbirds in large motor homes, or hauling lengthy, sway-prone campers. Generally, that had been a good idea.
This trip, we changed tactics, using the interstate highways. We banked on having less traffic overall to speed up the trip. That, too, panned out.
In the pre-dawn darkness of April 9, we got a valedictory wave from a sheriff's vehicle parked at the western entrance to Eastpoint. Was its occupant looking for us, with our out-of-state license plate? Probably not. In any event, we were outward bound, not visiting the Forgotten Coast's towns or closed beaches.
Interstate 75 headed north toward Atlanta was the choke point. For an hour, we fought traffic that moved along at 40-50 mph, but in lane-clogging volumes.
That surprised us. Georgia, Albany in particular, had been stricken by COVID-19 hotspots. We didn't stop Atlanta-area travelers to ask, "Why are you out and about?" But the volume suggested widespread disregard for shelter-in-place tactics designed to slow the spread of the dangerous, too often deadly, disease.
Every cloud, it is said, has its silver lining. Our silver lining was what we did not see: Police cars checking speeders.
I don't blame them. I would be less than eager to handle someone's driver license and registration, lean in past an open window and exchange possibly COVID-laden breaths. Police and other first responders must get even closer at scenes of accidents, crimes, fires, tornadoes, etc., where lives are saved or lost in minutes. In good weather and with light traffic, less strict enforcement makes sense.
I took advantage of their lessened presence, somewhat sensibly. I traveled the 70-mph speed limited roads at about 85 mph, but paid due attention to vehicle intervals, smooth lane changes, etc.
Our GPS had said the first 700-mile leg should end at 8 p.m., drive time. We stopped twice for gasoline. Happily our Ford F-150 has a 36-gallon tank, reducing the need to refuel. We ate brought-along meals inside the pickup truck, only leaving it for wary trips to restrooms.
We saw take-out restaurants open all along the routes. Wary of the chance of COVID within hotels, we arrived at the home of a relative with spare bedrooms on a separate floor — at 8:10 p.m., nearly spot-on with the often-inexact GPS arrival time. That was another sign that people were staying near home.
We chatted with our relatives from 10-15 feet away. We slept. We left early Friday.
On normally clogged Interstate 81 headed toward Pennsylvania, a normal flow of trucks kept the roadway half-full. But cars were about 25 percent of normal.
As we entered Pennsylvania, traffic thinned even more. Few trucks traveled Interstate 99 northward past Altoona, and fewer still were along Interstate 80 from Woodland westward to our Brookville destination. Cars? I guesstimated about one car/ SUV/ pickup per mile. Some had to have been driven by health care workers, grocery store employees, others who traveled from need. Casual travelers were definitely less observable.
From Woodland westward to Brookville, traffic near 6 p.m. got thin, thinner, thinnest. And eerie.
We live along a secondary state highway, a popular shortcut. While doing work outside, I usually wave at a passer-by about every 10 minutes. Last week, I saw one or two per hour.
For those who must travel distances, the trips themselves are no longer jolly. Gone are the chirping children and smiling adults of families in restaurants and rest areas. Mall parking lots and those for factories and offices stand all but deserted.
A new wariness is replacing the traditional gregariousness of America on the move. I was masked as I replenished groceries after a two-month absence. I began greeting people with my usual "Hiya." Soon, I stopped, and just nodded. Even the not-masked shoppers seem grimmer, more focused, less chatty. Store workers, now elevated in my esteem for supplying our necessities despite the risks, are courteous but careful about what they touch and when they disinfect.
This is not the America we knew.
But it is the America we still have, thank God.
Denny Bonavita, a former editor and publisher at daily and weekly newspapers in western Pennsylvania, winters in Apalachicola. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org