I talk to my friend, Catrina, in Houston every other week. Starting in early February, I remember each conversation having a “so what do you think about this coronavirus thing?” And each time we’d agree that it didn’t seem that bad, just like the flu.
And then everything changed. Seemingly overnight.
The Workcation Plan
We were in Arizona for the sunshine and our friend, Krystin, was getting married on March 21. My husband, Callum, was photographing the wedding. Our work for Pilot Solutions is remote and we had always wanted to spend the winter in Arizona. This seemed like the perfect opportunity.
We made the 5 day, 3,500km drive in late February and settled in for our 5 weeks of workcation.
Apart from workcation being a very tough balancing act, the first couple of weeks were great. We went on adventures with our friends in the mountains and spent the workweek struggling to get things done with slow rural desert internet.
We rented an Airbnb house that was in the San Tan Valley, down a dirt road. The closest store was a Walmart, a 10-minute drive away. We saw considerably more horses and cows than we did people during our time there.
By our second week, it felt like something big was starting to happen. The people around us were going through life like was business as usual.
No One Plans for a Pandemic
On March 7, we went grocery shopping, got lunch at Chipotle and took our dog to a dog park. Life seemed so normal.
It was starting to be clear that coronavirus was going to be big. But no one was doing anything differently.
On Monday, two days later, we went to a group run. People were shaking hands and hugging and I remember thinking, “is this really okay?” But no one seemed to think anything of it.
Then we started getting new notifications that everything was being canceled – NBA, Baseball Spring Training, etc.
On Wednesday, we had coffee with an internet friend. I arrived at this empty coffee and it’s the first time I remember worrying about whether the tables were clean. Kathleen, who we were meeting, said she had decided not to do handshakes any more. It was a relief. But we sat across a two-foot table from her.
This was before social distancing was a thing.
On Thursday morning, Callum said that he’d been reading and we needed to go to the grocery store, get at least a week’s worth of food and then just stay at the Airbnb.
We found chaos at the grocery store. People buying 100 packets of ramen and 30 bags of chips. Families with multiple giant American sized grocery carts overfilling. People fighting about bottled water.
At some point, one of the employees ran up to me and said, “what’s with this toilet paper thing?” I told her I had no idea. We bought our week of groceries and left to go back to our rural house on the dirt road.
That’s when it became clear that things were getting serious and we were still 3,500km from home. Everything was starting to shut down.
On Friday, Prime Minister Trudeau said it was time for Canadians to return home. We started getting lots of texts and messages from our friends asking when we were coming home.
We still had to be in Phoenix in 8 days for our friend, Krystin’s, wedding.
Late Friday, we got a text from Krystin that the venue had canceled. She had decided to have a smaller wedding in the mountains followed by a backyard BBQ instead. It seemed like a decent compromise at the time.
On Saturday morning, we went running in the San Tan Mountain Regional Park. Callum and I had a beautiful 10 mile run through the blooming cacti with perfect desert conditions. During our run, we talked about our plan to leave.
We were supposed to leave Arizona on March 26th and then spend 5-6 days driving home. It was clear that we needed to leave as soon as Krystin’s wedding on the 21st was over. Our plan was to work from Monday – Thursday and then get ready to leave Friday, go to the wedding Saturday and leave early Sunday morning and drive straight back without stopping anywhere overnight. Airbnbs and hotels seemed too risky.
When we got back from our run, we received a text that Krystin had decided to cancel the wedding.
We looked at each other and said, “now what?”
Do we leave now? Do we wait and leave tomorrow or on Monday?
The New Plan
We decided that we should leave early the next morning.
We still had our week of food and a considerable amount of packing to do after being there for weeks.
We cooked what we could and unfortunately threw a lot of food out. We shoved our stuff into bags and stuffed those bags into the car. We went to bed knowing that we needed to try to get a decent night of sleep because once we started driving, we would just be driving.
We left the Airbnb at 6:10am PST. We watched the sunrise over the mountains one last time as we started our 3,500 km drive home. The car GPS said that we would arrive at 7:35 (it doesn’t specify am/pm or day) so we joked that we’d be home in just over an hour.
As we started driving, we agreed on rules. We wouldn’t let anyone touch our dog. We would not enter the car without washing our hands first. Problematically, we had no way to wash our hands and only a small container of sanitizing wipes.
We stopped in Payton, AZ to buy water and soap (and coffee because how else were we going to make it through). The grocery store was for the most part, business as usual except the empty aisles where the water and toilet paper should be.
We washed our hands and got back in the car.
This is the most beautiful part of the 3,500 km drive – through the mountains into northern Arizona on the way to New Mexico. I sat there, watching the mountains and enjoying a view I knew I wasn’t going to see again soon.
There was an accident that caused a traffic jam near the New Mexico border in eastern Arizona. We sat there for almost an hour and Callum tried to feed a crow dried berries. That traffic jam was one of our longest stops on the trip.
On our drive to Arizona, we didn’t see a single Canadian license plate until we got to Phoenix. On the highway out, a third of the cars had Canadian license plates.
The GPS was slowly counting down the 3,500 km drive. I knew the only way to mentally get through the endless drive was to break it down like you running a 100-mile race. You never think about running 100 miles, you run to the next aid station. We weren’t driving home, we were driving to the next gas stop or the next time we needed to switch drivers.
We stopped in Albuquerque and took the dog for a quick hike in the Sandia mountains. It was business as usual at the mountain with the parking lot so packed that we parked on the street.
The Starbucks in Albuquerque was the first sign that business wasn’t as usual. It had all its seating closed and you could only buy a drink and then leave.
Everything else we saw was open.
We stopped at a McDonalds somewhere in Texas at 10pm. We bought coffee and fries. The server closed the lid by putting his palm on it. No one was wearing gloves. We thankfully had our own to go coffee cups that we would transfer each drink into and then throw out the cup we were given and sanitize everything.
As we would all come to see in the very near future, sanitizing everything someone else touches is a huge pain. We weren’t sure if this was necessary or we were being overly cautious but we decided overly cautious was better than infected.
The Endless Night
Oklahoma was the worst part of the drive to Arizona. You drive straight across the entire state and its hours of staring at the plains on a two-lane highway. Thankfully, on the way back we drove through it during the night. It poured rain all night.
Ironically, on the way to Arizona, we had only sunny days for the entire 5 day drive. The drive home was all grey weather with pouring rain on and off.
We stopped at 1am for an hour at a gas station to sleep. We didn’t even get out of the car. We had to make constant decisions about whether the risk of getting out of the car was worth it for whatever we were stopping for.
We kept going after our hour break. Callum drove while I slept for a couple of hours. When I woke up, it was raining so hard that you couldn’t see the car in front of us. I would have pulled over but Callum was determined to get us home.
The combination of driving through new time zones, dark stormy weather and only sleeping for a couple of hours made for an endless night.
There are large parts of this drive that I have no memory of.
After 24 hours of driving, it turned into a routine – drive for two hours, stop to pee or walk the dog or get gas and then sleep for a couple of hours while Callum drove.
We stopped at a rest stop in Missouri just as it finally was getting light out to let our dog run around. We changed our clothes and brushed our teeth and at least felt like semi humans again.
Everything was Business as Usual
The first time we bought food on our trip was at a Chipotle in St. Louis – 30 hours into the drive. The Chipotle was completely open. There were people sitting down eating. We got our burritos and went back to sanitize and then eat in our car. We talked about how we were so confused about these people just sitting there having lunch.
After a day and a half in the car, we started scanning the radio for something different to listen to. We were in southern Illinois when we heard that Trump announce that coronavirus was a real threat. It was March 16th, almost 100 people had already died from coronavirus in the US. For the rest of the drive, we listened as the US news took this “news” and ran with it. The difference between what we were hearing from the Canadian and US governments was astounding.
We bought noodles for dinner near Indianapolis. The seating was closed, and this was the first time I saw staff wearing gloves. I waited for our noodles trying (unsuccessfully) to stay 6 ft away from everyone else waiting. There was a man on the phone talking about what an overblown inconvenience this pandemic was since it was “only killing old people who were going to die anyway”.
This attitude is what we heard throughout our drive. We constantly had trouble with people not staying far enough away from us when we would buy coffee or food.
We left our noodle stop at 5pm EST – 32 hours after we left. We had a little party when we got to less than a 1,000 km of driving. Now we were down to 800km of driving.
The Last Leg
We arrived at the border in Detroit just after 10pm. We had bags of groceries from our sudden departure which in normal times would have caused trouble. This time, the border officer only asked us if we had any coronavirus symptoms. We told him that we didn’t. He wasn’t wearing gloves or a mask.
He told us that we needed to go home and quarantine for 14 days. We were asked to repeat back to him that we understood. We did.
Almost 40 hours later, we were back in Canada! My mom had been staying awake to make sure that we made it across the border. The first thing we did was call her and you could hear her relief.
We still had a 3 hour drive from Windsor to Hamilton. I don’t remember much of it – it was very dark and took seemingly forever.
We got back to our house just before 2am. Around 40 hours after we had left Arizona.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to be home!
The drive was filled with questions about whether we were being overly worried about washing our hands and staying away from people. Did we stay in Arizona for too long? Did spending an extra hour somewhere on our drive home matter?
Within 48 hours of arriving home, the borders were closed to everything but essential travel. Could we have still driven home? Most likely. But each day it would have become harder and harder.
One day, this will be a really great story to tell our kids but for now, I just feel relief. We’ve been home for 28 days and I wouldn’t change any of our decisions.