I am in the Catskills in a charming, tucked-away treehouse of an inn. My room, walking distance to hiking trails, overlooks a waterfall. Morning coffee and evening vodka-tonic are taken on the deck where the temperature clocks in at a marvelous 75 degrees. Owls hoot. Birds chirrup. Wind tickles my legs.
During the coronavirus lockdown in Chicago, I dreamed about getting away to this leafy utopia. What I did not envision was the hell of crossing the country by car.
During difficult times, I always plant a light at the end of the tunnel: a bright and shiny experience to make the tough moments more tolerable and a positive attitude more attainable. Even for those lucky enough to keep their jobs and their good health, the pandemic has been a very difficult time.
To get away, to blunt the anxiety that this disease has wreaked upon us, I wanted a change of scenery. Since I couldn’t get to the Amalfi Coast and wouldn’t board a domestic flight, it was easy to buy into the hoopla surrounding the All-American Road Trip. I wasn’t looking for an exotic vacation, just a temporary reprieve from compulsive news-watching and a dose of in-person fun with family and friends.
Once I committed to the getaway, I felt excited for the first time since mid-March. I was escaping! To multiple destinations! And I was going alone! My husband, Peter, was busy with work and my teenage kids wanted to hang out with their friend pod outside by the lake. Fine by me. The prospect of leaving behind routine and responsibility — meal planning, specifically — was heavenly.
The itinerary was ambitious. Peter would drive with me to Pittsburgh, where we would stop for the night and pick up my rental car. I would then continue to Washington, D.C., to visit my sister, on to a friend in Connecticut, over to the Catskills and end at a lovely retreat in the Hamptons. All of us had taken the lockdown seriously and agreed to social distance during my visit.
Would it be too much driving? Peter asked. He knew how badly my back throbbed after even a quickie flight to New York. I’ll just bring Thermacare, I replied breezily, knowing full well that he was right. I was not going to let an annoying detail like chronic back pain get in my way.
I planned to cruise along scenic byways to a soundtrack of Bob Dylan, Miles Davis and Journey. I would stop for adorable farm stands and pastoral picnics. I would stretch in the shade of giant sycamore trees. Like me, the other travelers would be respectfully clad in masks.
The first whiff of anxiety came as I gathered my hygiene arsenal, a go-bag filled with gloves, masks, Clorox wipes and multiple purse-sized Purell bottles. There was a deadly virus out there and I could be exposed to it. Was I being reckless? I tossed Emergen-C packets and a quart-sized plastic bag filled with vitamin supplements into the bag. A strong immunity system was another layer of armor.
Chicago to Pittsburgh
When it was time for Peter and me to hit the road, my left brain did not compute that the first 462 miles would be on toll roads with scenery about as thrilling as a Boca Raton office park. Bathroom breaks were an even greater obstacle. For coffee-lovers, hours in the car means endless pit stops. My preference would have been to skedaddle behind a tree. But even if you did risk pulling over, it turns out that these toll roads are lined with barriers with few tree-shaded nooks. So on the hour, we pulled the car into a rest stop and I donned my mask and gloves, speed-walked into the ladies room, flushed with my foot and sprinted out of the stall holding my breath.
Somewhere in Indiana, I got the brilliant idea to exit the highway in search of an iced latte and more glamorous toilet. This detour ended at Cracker Barrel, which was a nicer option but not worth the 30 minutes we then spent idling at a broken tollbooth. Lesson learned.
Pittsburgh to Washington
After eight hours we made it to Pittsburgh, where I picked up a Toyota 4Runner equipped with an E-Z Pass and not much else. Car rental companies claim an increase in coronavirus cleaning protocols, but my car had what looked like blueberry muffin residue caked to the gears and in the seats. When I pointed this out, the cleaning crew took another pass. I still wiped every surface down with Clorox, encased the driver’s seat with a seat cover (I use these on planes, too), and placed a towel on the passenger seat. I didn’t notice the dank Marlboro scent or broken Bluetooth system until I had driven away.
This was not part of the plan. Even when I plugged my phone into the car and pressed “go” on the maps app, no audio could be heard from the car speakers. Would I have to drive the next 246 miles, without voice-guided navigation? That would not be good for me. I could, however, access Siri’s dulcet-toned directions when the phone was not plugged in. So, I’d drive with the phone on speaker and deal with a drained battery every 80 minutes or so. To preserve power, I’d need to swap my classic rock playlists for local radio. Another crack in my fantasy.
However, this first leg of solo driving wasn’t bad, save the music situation and the undercurrent of anxiety I felt each time I had to use the bathroom or fuel up. I was off the dull, never-changing Midwestern roads. Pennsylvania rest stops were shaded and pleasant. Each hour, I whipped out my elastic workout band to stretch. In four hours, I was at my sister’s house, and the next few days were spent hiking, cooking and singing karaoke to 1980s songs.
Washington to Connecticut
Next up: the Connecticut town of Sharon. Google Maps had the 321-mile leg at five-and-a-half hours, which I rounded down to five hours (I tend to speed). When I hoisted myself into the driver’s seat, I practically retched. The humidity had intensified the car’s rank smell and despite the burning heat, I had to roll down all of the windows. Thankfully, a decent rock station helped me deal with an hour’s worth of traffic as I left Washington, but then MapQuest directed me to change highways in what felt like every few miles. Through Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and New York the ride required hyper-attentiveness, something I had in short supply since my sister’s smoke detector had gone off at 2 a.m.
After two hours, even with Salonpas pain patches affixed to my shoulders, I felt the telltale spasm at my scapula. It would inevitably explode into migraine-like waves of pain radiating from my neck to my tailbone. When it did, I had to pull over.
I washed down three Advil and fished out the tennis ball I use as a massage tool and jammed it under my shoulder. On top of this pain, my phone drained every so often, forcing me to plug it in and glance down at directions while driving, something I don’t recommend. This happened precisely as I hit a busy interchange outside New York City. Major Deegan? Cross Bronx Expressway? I-87? I-95? One wrong turn and I’d be caught in an off-ramp cycle for hours. Here, I was grateful for the surprising glut of cars. The traffic gave me just enough time to glance down and scan Siri’s directive.
Finally, I noted signs for Connecticut. Almost there, I told myself. Just as I started to relax, I saw that I was back in New York. I pulled over to consult the G.P.S. Had I spaced and made a wrong turn? I hadn’t. Sharon is in the northwest corner of Connecticut so there is a crisscross situation at the states’ borders. I arrived at my friend’s home looking — and smelling — as if I’d run a marathon. The drive had taken seven hours. Thankfully, she had chilled wine at the ready.
Connecticut to the Catskills
A few days later, relaxed and revived, I got back into the car (this time I had wisely left the windows open overnight) and headed north to the Catskills, an easy hour’s drive that took me past the bucolic farms of Dutchess County and into the Hudson Valley. When I got to Woodstock Way Hotel, it was just as I’d remembered: a perfect hideaway.
I hiked and dined with my cousins. At the farm of my oldest friend, Marcey, I had a glorious picnic alongside ripening tomatoes upon socially distanced blankets. I had swaths of time to read and write. Things felt almost normal, save for the very odd bits like watching my martini being shaken by a masked-and-gloved bartender, and the 7 a.m. wait for coffee with masked, socially distanced locals outside a rural bakery. As usual, once I began moving around, my back pain receded. I was tempted to book a massage, but decided that good old yoga and my tennis ball would suffice.
I axed the Hamptons from my trip. I could not endure the five hours it would add to my return drive to Chicago. Ever the thoughtful friend, Marcey snipped a bouquet of lavender, mint and lemon balm and plopped it in the Toyota’s cup holder, a farm-fresh flourish to combat the car’s malodorous funk for my last long drive.
Get Me Home
On the day of my departure, I took an early hike through the Ashokan Rail Trail and hit the road by 11:30 a.m. It drizzled as I was leaving New York. Mother Nature waited until I was in the Pocono Mountains to send golf-ball-size hail to crash down with such intensity I thought the windshield might crack. This was terrifying, even though I was used to driving in blizzards in Chicago. I flicked on the hazard lights and made my way to the side of the road. Visibility was zero. I waited for 30 minutes, using the time to charge the phone and down a bottle of water spiked with Emergen-C, something I knew would increase my intimacy with rest stops along I-84.
Though scenic, this drive was supremely boring. My thoughts invariably shifted to the state of the world. Would my daughter Bella be able to attend college, as planned? What would that look like with pandemic parameters? Would my other daughter, Brette, have a normal high school experience with remote learning? Would the virus reach its tentacles deep within 2021? Was a vaccine forthcoming? Who would win the election in November?
The speculation and angst was tiring. The Connecticut leg had primed me for at-the-wheel exhaustion. This time I was prepared. I had picked up a facial mist spray and spritzed it on my neck and cheeks every few minutes. This and iced coffee kept me alert, though the stabbing back pain remained a constant companion.
At 7 p.m., I staggered into the hotel oozing eau de Tiger Balm. I was thrilled to see my husband after 10 days and relieved to bid adieu to the driving ordeal. The next day’s trip back to Chicago was uneventful. I mostly reclined and slept.
Was it worth the schlep? Yes. FaceTime and Zoom are not substitutes for spending quality time with friends and family. I was lucky enough to be in a position to visit them, while staying within health guidelines, something I know not everyone can do. The in-person connections — and putting the darkness of lockdown in the rear view mirror — gave me the reboot I needed. But driving across the country alone is a one and done experience. Hypervigilance was draining. That night and for the next three nights, I slept for 10 hours.
Now, should you need to find me anytime soon, try me in Chicago. I’ll be in reading (cocktail in hand) on the deck, or fine-tuning my back at the acupuncturist.
Amy Tara Koch, based in Chicago, writes about travel, style, food and parenting.
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