We drove 3,209 miles the first week in April from the San Francisco Bay area to Lewes, Del. We met exactly eight people.
Seven were hotel clerks.
The eighth was a woman who worked at the Burger King drive-through in Vernal, Utah. As she slid our chicken sandwiches toward us on a tray, she asked us not to touch the tray, please.
We had planned this move for months, opting to be closer to our children on the East Coast. It took weeks to load the Pods outside our house, washing our hands constantly as we honored shelter-in-place rules. With the house finally empty and the clock ticking on our leased condo in Delaware, we hit the road to see what an empty America looked like.
It was not the great adventure we initially planned. Visits to national parks, trying new breweries and coffee shops — none of that happened, of course.
Instead, we hunkered down in a different hotel room each night — but only after thoroughly wiping down all surfaces with the Clorox foaming bleach spray we brought in a bucket of cleaning supplies.
To our family and friends isolating in their homes, the trip was a curiosity — what the heck is going on out there, they asked.
What we can tell them, and you, is that the country is an odd place right now. People, for the most part, are staying in, wearing masks, and trying to be gracious to strangers. Just like everywhere else, you make sure you get what you need — food, gas — without getting too close.
But still. You make eye contact across the Flying J gas pumps in Nebraska and wonder whether they are checking out your out-of-state tags. You’re oddly paranoid, though you’re doing nothing illegal — moving was designated an essential activity. But sure enough, a few miles down the road, a trooper pulls over a car with California plates. Were we next?
After meeting the woman at the Burger King drive-through, we decided ordering through DoorDash to our hotel room was probably better for everyone involved. We never saw the delivery people. They would leave the food outside our room. We’d unpackage it and take the trash outside.
We spent a total of $143 on food over eight days, not counting the bag of snacks in the car. Most of our meals were from fast-food restaurants. In Louisville, we splurged on a local BBQ place, and it was worth it.
For gas, we spent $200. Gas was $1.39 a gallon in Wyoming. We haven’t seen that price for 16 years, since we moved to Northern California, where gas soared as high as $5 a gallon and typically was about $3.50.
Our traveling companions, Bailey the dog and a large monstera plant we rooted from a leaf in California, gamely stuck with us on the road trip, even when we had to water both by the roadside.
We worked, too, as we headed across. Since everyone is working remotely, is it really so strange to join a Zoom meeting as a passenger in the car, using a hot spot on your phone? A couple months ago, that would have been ridiculous. Now, we’re working in different time zones to accommodate everyone on our teams. Folks are joining work meetings with babies in their arms, while others join from the hull of the boat where they are sheltering in place.
We’re all just trying to do our best.
For both of us, it was the first time driving across the U.S., and we’ll never forget it. We made it across so much more quickly than we expected. We’d like to do it again some day and get to know middle America.
But for now, we’re grateful to the eight people we met. They showed us hospitality and also reminded us that we’re all in this together. As long as we were careful not to bring the virus with us to their communities, they would be careful not to share it with us.
Across the United States, we found that we’re all just trying to do our best for each other. And that’s why this will work.
Mary McInerney is a magazine editor, and Kevin Keane is a public affairs consultant.