I’ve written this blog post in my head a dozen times, usually while walking or running through my Petworth neighborhood or in Rock Creek Park. But every time I’ve sat down to try to actually type the words on my laptop, I’ve frozen. I’ve stared at the screen, wondering what was the “right” thing to write. How should I be feeling right now, as 75% of Americans are under some sort of stay-at-home order and countries around the world are under complete lockdowns, all in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, a virus that none of us had even heard of four months ago?
I fully admit, I didn’t pay much attention to the coronavirus through most of January and February. I recall hearing about it for the first time while I was in India in late January. My friend Kevin, who I was traveling with, was flying out of India on Air China through Beijing. We wondered what his experience would be like and what kind of screening he might be subject to, both transferring through Beijing and landing in California. But then I flew back home via Paris and thoughts of the coronavirus quickly left my mind, not to return until early March.
I can’t say I remember my thought process, or what triggered me to start paying attention, but I clearly was by the first week of March. Ironically, on March 6, I both shared an article on Facebook about how the country was botching its coronavirus testing and launched the group for my annual March Madness pool. On March 7, I shared my experience traveling in West Africa during the Ebola crisis in 2014 and what happened when I returned to the United States and bemoaned the fact that we didn’t seem to be taking any of the same precautions against the coronavirus. But even then, I was moving ahead with plans to fly to Las Vegas on March 13, hike in Death Valley and drive down to Palm Springs for the Indian Wells tennis tournament. I booked flights to Chicago for the following weekend to reconnect with friends I met doing improv almost a decade ago and run the Shamrock Shuffle. I exchanged emails with someone in Bosnia about my plans to hike the Via Dinarica trail later this summer.
Around the same time, the university where I work had brought students home from studying abroad in a handful of countries and started discussing plans to keep students off campus for the two weeks after spring break, which was the week of March 16. The Indian Wells tennis tournament became the first high-profile sporting event in the U.S. to be cancelled, but I planned to go ahead with my trip, spending my time hiking in Death Valley and Red Rock Canyon instead. Then, on Wednesday, March 11, my boss directed our division to plan to work from home starting March 18 (as staff, we got a couple days off as a mini-spring break). That night, I devised a new plan to still fly to Vegas, spend a few days hiking and then rent a car to do a several-day road trip to Chicago while working remotely. In my mind, it would be safe. I’d be far away from people while hiking in the desert. I’d cut out two flights from my original plans. And even if the events I planned to attend in Chicago were cancelled, I could spend time catching up with old friends one-on-one or in small groups.
I cancelled flights, changed hotel reservations and updated my car rental. Then I popped onto Twitter and saw the news about NBA player Rudy Gobert testing positive for Covid-19, followed shortly by the announcement that the NBA was suspending its season. I saw images of Nebraska basketball coach Fred Hoiberg hunched over on the bench during a Big Ten tournament game and read he’d been rushed to the hospital after the game. I realized if Hoiberg tested positive, the Big Ten tournament would be off and most likely all Big Ten teams would be out of March Madness. When word came back later that he *only* had the flu (but still, don’t get me started on how irresponsible it was of him to try to coach in that condition!), it seemed like maybe the Big Dance would be safe.
And then, on Thursday, March 12, shit got real.
For those of us who lived through 9/11, I feel like there will always be the United States pre-9/11 and the country after. For me, being overseas at the time, I can still remember landing back in Chicago two weeks later and feeling like I had landed in a different country.
I can’t help but wonder if years from now we will look back at March 12, 2020 in a similar light: the country before Covid-19 disrupted our daily lives and put an abrupt end to the pastimes that typically bring us together, and the country after. News poured in throughout the day: The Big Ten tournament cancelled. Other tournament games stopped mid-game. March Madness cancelled. Major League Baseball cancelled. The National Hockey League cancelled. And then, around 4 p.m., I stood in a colleague’s office and somberly watched Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announce public schools would close immediately, large gatherings were banned, and he activated the National Guard. As we filed out of the office that day, we said goodbye, unsure when we would see each other in person again.
I got home that evening and cancelled everything. It was overwhelmingly clear that I should not be getting on an airplane to go anywhere. I spent Friday “working from home” while glued to the TV, watching the constant updates from across the country and bemoaning the abysmal response from our federal government. By that night, I knew I needed to get away for a few days for my own sanity, so I booked a rental car and made plans to drive to Shenandoah National Park on Sunday to spend a couple days offline and away from people. I considered it “extreme social distancing” although since then, I’ve seen the parks discourage exactly what I did.
While I was in Shenandoah, hiking for up to 10 hours a day, I started thinking about writing again. Long-time readers of this blog know that I’ve had a few stops and starts since I came back from my career break trip in 2012. As the travel blogging industry evolved and as I got pulled increasingly back into “normal” life, it became more of a challenge to keep up with my writing and do everything I needed to do to have a “successful” blog. On top of it, I wanted to throw myself into finally writing a book about my career break trip and I just didn’t have enough in me to both write the book and keep up the blog.
Now, that all looks very different. Without the endless distractions of sport to watch, work events and social obligations, I have more free time than I’ve had since I was traveling the world back in 2011-2012. I am still spending my 9 to 5 every day working (mostly), but my evenings and weekends are suddenly free of any commitments for the foreseeable future. I know I am very lucky in that regard. I want to try to take advantage of that extra time and start writing again on a regular basis. Not only do I have a draft of my book to revise, but I have tons of past trips that I would love to write about. I also sort of hope that writing about my past travels will be therapeutic at a time when I have no idea when I’ll be able to travel again.
So consider this the first of what will hopefully be many blog posts to come. I’m not sure yet if I’ll try to pick up where I left off, writing about my trip to Africa back in 2017 or if I’ll start with my most recent trip to India in January, but whatever I write, I hope at least some of you will find it enjoyable or helpful as you dream of what you might do and where you might go when this is all over. In the meantime, stay safe and stay home!