Fear & Bison on the Post-Pandemic Trail (Part 1)

Pausing for Gridlock

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.

And by drugs, I mean the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

A few weeks after receiving our second shot, I headed out with my wife, Julie, for a three-week road trip through the western United States. Having been relatively cautious throughout the lockdown, we were more than ready to emerge from our constrained empty nest. We’d been talking for some time about seeing more of America, a hangover of the how-the-hell-did-this-happen liberal bubble befuddlement of the past four years, and I’d also hoped that the new scenery might inspire me to get back into a bit of writing, which had been slow-going since publishing a book last year, just weeks before the pandemic arrived on our shores.

And while the breathtaking scenery of the vast West failed to unleash the clichéd Great American Novel, or even the Passably-Decent American Short Story, the countless hours on the road at least freed up some time to ruminate randomly on everything from politics to travel to Post-Covid America.

***

I suppose for many people, a lengthy expedition is hardly remarkable. But in our nearly 30 years of marriage, Julie and I had never spent this much time away from home, much less out on the open road. Our kids had the usual tightly-packed schedules, limiting us to whatever time we could fit in during school vacations, while invariably running up against soccer tournaments, band practices, and the like. Additionally, with our parents living far from our suburban San Francisco home, most trips were spent visiting family, leaving a leisurely road trip off the agenda.

Still, most of the fault was my own. My legal career had been antithetical to significant time off, and even when technological advancements made it feasible to manage my cases while out of the office, my personal neuroses made it nearly impossible to disengage from work for more than a few days at a time. But more than that, I am an unabashed homebody. I’m generally happiest when surrounded with the familiar, and can be perfectly content on a stay-cation, poring through my vast music collection, puttering around the house concocting inconsequential DIY projects, or grabbing a bite at the same local sports bar we’d been frequenting since our kids were toddlers. So this was kind of a big deal for me. Indeed, my kids had apparently wagered on when they’d get the call that I’d backed out and called the whole thing off. Not sure who collected on that one.

***

Death Valley, where it’s… well, pretty damn hot.

After a loop through California’s Death Valley, a place one visits largely to quickly excise the obligatory expressions of but it’s a dry heat, we made an overnight stopover in Vegas. That’s where we had our first real reminder of the psychological toll the pandemic had taken. While not a gambler, I actually enjoy walking the Vegas Strip, darting in and out of the smoky casinos, taking in the gaudiness and the excitement and the human desperation; if you’re an avid people-watcher, it really stands alone. But Julie and I had no desire to set foot indoors. From the overflow crowds flooding the sidewalks, it was obvious that the city was back at pre-Covid capacity, and even with ongoing masking requirements, and our faith in the blessed Pfizer, it still felt like a bridge too far.

It naturally made we wonder if we’d ever return to feeling totally safe in large crowds. I suppose I’ll find out soon enough, as the half-dozen concerts for which I had tickets last summer are gradually being rescheduled for the months ahead. But with the anti-vax nonsense holding sway over a sizable portion of the populace, and lingering questions about the efficacy and longevity of the vaccination, at minimum a background concern about the risk is sure to preoccupy any rational person for the foreseeable future.

However, after a long day on the road, we were starving for something beyond protein bars and almonds. Desperation for anything near our hotel with outdoor seating led me to forsake my pledge never to patronize a certain casual dining franchise. And while I don’t want to criticize the place by name, let’s just say that, although I was willing to endure the endless loop of Jimmy Buffett concert clips on the video monitor, you really have no business putting margarita in your name if you’re serving tall glasses of sour lime juice. Nonetheless, dishwater margaritas and undercooked cheeseburger-in-paradise aside, the steady flow of half-naked male and female strippers posing for photos within arm’s reach of our table offered a sort of antidote to the shut-in sensation of the past 14 months, so let’s just call it a wash.

***

Can I just point out how badly people are driving since the pandemic? I don’t just mean driving fast — I’m no shrinking violet on the highway, and admittedly pushed triple digits a few times on our trip. I’m talking about serious, self-absorbed recklessness — relentlessly tailgating, running red lights, racing to fill the gap when someone signals a lane change. My suspicion is that a lot of folks got used to the lighter traffic during the shutdown, and have no intention of easing off just because the roads are teeming with cars again.

I was surprised to find this particularly egregious during our side-trip to Chicago. Having grown up in the Midwest, I’ve always embraced the stereotype of folks in the region being just a bit friendlier; but this trip disabused me of that notion, at least once they get behind the wheel. Look, I get it, making the drive from the ‘burbs to downtown in 20 minutes at the height of a quarantine was kinda awesome; but thinking you can pull that off in bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic is delusional.

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Scaling Zion’s Angels Landing

One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that it made Julie and me into avid walkers. With most indoor activities curtailed and our health club shut down, taking long walks became our daily ritual; it was also our primary social activity, meeting up with area friends for socially-distanced hikes. As the prototypical soccer parents, we’d never had much free time to explore the Bay Area’s offerings when our kids were growing up, and only in the past year did we come to appreciate the fantastic trails available just a few minutes from home.

Still, nothing could prepare us for the majesty of Utah’s Zion National Park. We took great pride in hiking the Narrows, the challenging trek through a knee-high (and occasionally waist-high) ambling river within a steep gorge. And on something of a dare from our son, who had visited the park a couple years back with some college friends, we scaled the treacherous Angels Landing trail, mounting the dozens of switch-back “wiggles” until Julie’s iPhone informed us we had climbed the equivalent of 100 stories. Setting the tone for the trip, we established our objective as making it at least to the point where we were the oldest couple still trudging along — a goal we reached maddeningly early on multiple hikes, more a testament to our advancing years than our endurance.

Before the trip, we’d stocked up on gear from REI, the almost cultishly-revered outdoors retailer we’d until then managed to avoid. And if there’s one thing I learned to appreciate from our preparatory shopping spree, it’s the importance of good socks. I mean, there we were, some 1400 feet up Angels Landing, at least a half-hour beyond the last comparably middle-aged couple we’d encountered, and my immediate reaction was, wow, these socks feel great.

***

Trying to keep our eyes on the road

Our most intense negotiations during the trip involved the audio selection. I had looked forward to the countless hours in the car as a chance to renew my relationship with music, revisiting the furthest corners of my collection; for Julie, whose musical taste leans towards whatever was popular at the time of her Bat Mitzvah, this was a non-starter. As a compromise, I downloaded several podcasts based on the recommendations of friends, a potpourri of programs touching on current events, history, culture, and relationships. I also finally got around to using the Audible credit our son and his girlfriend had given us a few Hanukkahs ago, downloading the recent Barack Obama memoir, narrated by Obama himself.

Alas, I found it unexpectedly difficult to focus on spoken-word narratives while navigating the twisty mountain roads and numbingly hypnotic desert plains that alternatingly dominated our trip. I could be attentive to the road while also soaking up the often visually stunning scenery, but adding an information-dense podcast to the mix proved too distracting. For all the talk of multi-tasking we men-folk like to toss around, I think anything beyond dual-tasking is pushing it. So we wound up playing music most of the time (and yeah, I could devote an entire article to my observations on Sirius XM’s classic rock playlist, but let’s just say — “Bohemian Rhapsody” again? Seriously?).

Nonetheless, we made our way through a couple hours of the Obama book along the way. It’s quite moving, though I could listen to that sonorous voice read my credit card terms and conditions and be riveted. But for all its lofty intent, the book made for a depressing soundtrack. How did we go from those beautifully-stated aspirations for the promise of America to rants about injecting disinfectant and the very fine people on both sides of a Nazi march? I found myself drifting off into internal lamentations about all that had transpired over the last half-decade. And drifting off when you’re barreling down a cliff-side highway at 80 mph is problematic. So, yeah, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” again.

***

Bryce Canyon

After a few days of hiking and ogling unforgettable vistas in Zion and Bryce Canyon, we headed further southeast. Now, if you ever need a startling illustration of just how badly we shafted America’s indigenous people, just head into northern Arizona and New Mexico. We’d be driving through the most beautiful topography, full of striking red rock formations, and as soon as we passed the last massif jutting crazily from the surface and all that remained was a flat, barren, desolate area — yep, that was the land we parceled out to the Native Americans. The one exception was Monument Valley, apparently one of the most iconic sights in all of America, which rests on Navajo territory. However, because Covid had so badly ravaged the Navajo community, the park remained closed to visitors and we didn’t get to see it. So there you go.

Stopping in Santa Fe, we spent a few hours sightseeing at the galleries along Canyon Row. Alas, art is another area where, as with music, my wife & I occupy barely adjacent circles in a Venn diagram. My taste leans towards the surrealistic, psychedelic, and just plain tacky, while Julie’s preferences are unfailingly tasteful and inoffensive. Left to my own devices, our home would look like the fever dream of a 1960s acid casualty, while Julie’s abode would resemble a realtor’s carefully-curated model home arranged for maximum curb appeal.

Our disagreement is probably a good thing; given the outrageous cost of original artwork, our inability to agree on much has saved us a lot of money over the years. So Santa Fe was mostly just me pointing at ridiculous paintings and sculptures while Julie alternately rolled her eyes or admonished me, fine, but it goes in your home office — the latter being of little use given that my home office is already overstuffed with concert posters, framed record covers, and other schlocky ephemera deemed unfit for display in the living room.

I eventually exited the gallery district with only a small plastic replica of one of the gaudy metallic kinetic sculptures that had caught my attention.

It’s in my home office.

***

The fluid masking situation along the route proved endlessly fascinating. To some extent, practices broke down along predictable blue state/red state lines. New Mexico remained relatively strict, requiring masks in hotels and restaurants, while in Utah and Wyoming it could very well have been 2018, with few hints of the ordeal the nation had just endured.

A number of establishments sported prominent signs stating that masks were optional for patrons who had been vaccinated. Needless to say, these sites were almost entirely mask-free. Which means that, based on current statistics — at the time of this writing, only about 50% of American adults have been fully vaccinated — half the people we saw were lying. Although I tried to resist the urge, I generally found myself running mental exercises (based on admittedly elitist biases), trying to guess which of the people brushing up against us were potential viral menaces.

It all served as a constant reminder of how ridiculously politicized the act of wearing a mask had become over the past year. In a nation where the very right to vote is disappearing, where the impact of systematic racism continues to be seen on a daily basis, being asked to wear a thin piece of fabric during a deadly pandemic that has killed over 600,000 Americans is the grave threat to liberty that some people are worked up about? (And don’t get me started on politicians who demand forced birth for women and girls but, when it comes to vaccines, insist that it’s my body, my choice.)

I’ll admit that at times I felt the act of wearing a mask was as much a political statement for me as gleefully refusing to do so was for others. Donning a mask upon entering a restaurant, even though I would be stripping it off momentarily, felt like Covid theater, something I did more as a political expression than because I thought that 60 seconds of covering up served any public health purpose. And at times this simple act felt almost confrontational. Stopping for coffee at a roadside Dunkin’ Donuts/casino in Nevada (because Nevada), we both felt particularly self-conscious as we walked among the unmasked road warriors perched at the slot machines eating donuts and smoking cigarettes, all of whom seemed to be glaring at us and our socialist face-coverings.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t mind being able to breathe a little more freely, and by the end of the trip, even Julie and I were growing comfortable with forgoing our masks in some public places.

That said, when we made the obligatory fridge restocking trip to Safeway upon our return home to California, where masks remain mandatory, it came as something of a relief to slip the elastic bands over our ears without worrying about whether we were making some sort of statement.

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Ooh, horsies!

We decided to go horseback riding at Ghost Ranch, the rugged desert oasis between Santa Fe and Taos where Georgia O’Keefe used to hole up to paint landscapes. We were paired up with two other guests, a youthful-looking 60-something woman and her son, a gregarious man with Down syndrome celebrating his 40th birthday who happily chatted up the wrangler for much of the 90-minute ride. And can I just say what a blast we had? Neither of us had been on a horse in at least 40 years, and we both regretted putting it off for so long. Of course, hoisting yourself onto a horse and holding yourself erect while navigating the rocky, hilly terrain takes a very different toll on your body at 54 than in your early teens. Still, I found that a 90-minute horseback ride was a perfect opportunity to discover how much I loved a 60-minute horseback ride.

***

Oh, hey, quick side note before the break: You know what really makes a road trip better? Ice machines. Most mornings began with a brisk walk to the hotel’s ice machine to fill up the cooler and a couple water bottles. Having cold water on a long hike in the baking sun was essential, as was having a few chilled bottles of Diet Dr. Pepper for a six-hour drive. I’d gladly trade other hotel amenities for a reliably fully-loaded ice machine.

Speaking of hotel amenities… one casualty of the pandemic appears to be plastic laundry bags. Over a lifetime of business and leisure travel, I’ve become accustomed to grabbing a bag from the hotel room closet for dirty laundry, shoes, souvenirs we pick up along the way, whatever; but nearly every hotel room we stayed in on the trip offered us a bare closet. It’s like the hotels got together and decided, you know what? After the last year, people are so desperate to get out of the house they’ll never notice that we’re not giving them laundry bags any more.

Though I was willing to overlook it as long as there was enough ice.

***

Continued in Part 2 of 2.

Marc is a semi-retired securities lawyer and the author of the rock music love letter Jittery White Guy Music. Visit him at http://www.fagel.com.