Buckling into the car seat in early August, I felt excitement and dread. After so much time in my own backyard, I was looking forward to seeing new landscapes, but wary because once we crossed the Minnesota border, we would be road tripping exclusively through red-zone states.
In late July, the White House’s coronavirus task force had slapped that label on all the places we would be driving through because they had more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people. Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana were now beautiful, bucolic — and deeply worrisome.
Headed to New Orleans for a college drop-off, my family was among millions of Americans taking a road trip this summer — AAA forecasts that Americans will take 700 million trips by car from July 1 through Sept. 30. But in this case, there was no safety in numbers. I would have preferred sharing rest stops and drive-through windows with fewer people. So we did our best — and we learned a few things on the way.
1. Money doesn’t buy safety. Research had led us to the River Inn of Harbor Town, a boutique hotel in Memphis, for our overnight stop on the way down. We’d booked, lured by the promise that the room would be unoccupied for 24 hours ahead of our stay and that its windows could be opened. We wanted the fresh air that can dispel and disarm the coronavirus.
Before we got to the room (via stairs, to avoid the stagnant air of elevators), my husband checked in at the surprisingly busy hotel lobby that doubled as a route to a popular restaurant. He was asked to sign a receipt with a pen dug from the pocket of the clerk.
Once inside our room, we opened the windows, sat down to a dinner we had brought and were soon accompanied by mosquitos and other insects. By trying to air out any possible unseen coronavirus bugs, we’d invited bugs that were all too easy to see. Yes, the windows opened — but, no, they did not have screens. If only we’d had the foresight to ask that question among our many coronavirus- inspired queries.
On our return trip, we stayed at a Sonesta ES Suites near St. Louis. The cost: about one-third the price of our Memphis boutique experience. The safety protocols: far superior.
At check-in, I encountered a wide table that put at least 6 feet of space between me and the clerk, who was masked and behind plexiglass. On the table, a container held clearly marked sterilized pens near a basket for placing used pens. I swiped my own card. As with the first hotel, the room had been vacant for 24 hours. But this one had a seal on the door indicating that no one had entered since the cleaning service had left. The room was accessed from the outside — no interior stairways required.
2. Get creative at rest stops. We tried to minimize our stops, but opted for roadside rest areas over busy restaurant bathrooms. We noticed that people seemed to take an interest in the landscape, ducking behind trees and sauntering into prairie grasses — unless something else was going on? When a family stepped out of its minivan, unfurled a pop-up privacy tent the size of an outhouse and took turns sitting on a bucket inside, others in the rest area looked on with envy.
3. Stock up like never before. We brought the usual array of goods for a road trip: snacks, novels, pillows. But we also brought extra water and biodegradable Castile soap for washing our hands, a refreshing change from hand sanitizer, which we also packed. We had a few face masks per person. We had face shields and should have used one at the drive-through windows, but forgot. An ice chest held food and drink. Disposable rubber gloves gave us peace of mind at gas stations.
4. Plan ahead. Research hotels so you are assured of a safe place to rest your head. Decide how you’ll handle food so hunger doesn’t pull you into situations you deem unsafe. And check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where a page devoted to coronavirus and U.S. travel includes a link that shows the number of new cases by state, which you can use as a planning tool or a warning. Find it at tinyurl.com/y4so6s5h.
On our New Orleans trip, we stayed healthy and had fun. Another road trip might be in our future, and it’ll be even better for the lessons learned.
Kerri Westenberg • 612-673-4282