Lysol-Wiping Paranoia on the Open Road
I pulled up to the makeshift take out line to pick up my large pepperoni pizza from the top-rated yelp pick in Hot Springs, Arkansas. A high school-aged girl with bleach blonde hair bounded over to my car nonchalantly.
The anxiety in me started to rise immediately as she got closer to my window.
“What’s the name?” she asked as she practically stuck her head inside of my window.
I gripped my bottle of Lysol with white knuckles as if it was an assault rifle and I made a joke about her lack of face mask.
She shrugged as she typed my name into her iPad sensing my obvious discomfort but brushing it off with a quick assertion about there not being many COVID cases in the area yet.
I felt like a vampire coming out into the daylight after being in quarantined isolation for seven weeks. I never planned on moving across the country during a global pandemic. But in a truly dramatic twist of fate, I somehow found myself here.
It was as if I was in a weird modern-day version of The Oregon Trail; rationing the last of my disinfectant wipes and hoping that COVID wouldn’t wipe me out before I reached my new shiny life full of opportunity.
The two months leading up to my move were a whirlwind of emotions. My original moving date happened to be the day my future employer was forced to shut down business and temporarily lay off the entire staff. I received the email exactly 16 hours before I was scheduled to leave.
I found myself in a limbo for seven painstaking weeks, trapped in my seven hundred square foot apartment with my ex, not knowing if I still had a job or if I was even moving at all.
Other than grocery store runs and a last minute trip to see my best friend before I left town, I had seen no one else for seven weeks so when I found myself finally moving two months later, I felt like a stranger to myself in a world I no longer recognized.
The twenty three hour cross country road trip was originally intended to be a bonding experience between my younger brother and I, in which we stopped to see friends and cities along the way. However, given the circumstances I now opted to take the trip solo and spent my time planning the safest and efficient pit stops.
The day I left Austin was clear and quiet. My ex and I spent the morning crying, feeling a deep bond that only surviving a pandemic together could elicit.
I drove past the familiar skyline of downtown Austin, the highway I had come to know and hate so well was all but deserted. My tears poured hot and fresh at the sight of the empty city and the JW Marriott lit up with a giant heart and “ATX”.
As I drove, I strategized for hours over how I could avoid stopping in public places as much as possible.
How can I time my empty tank and my pee to coincide perfectly? How many bottles of water would it take to throw off my projected algorithm?
With my bladder on it’s last leg, I went through my mental gas station bathroom rolodex to consider the potentially cleanest ones and landed on the Texas staple “Buc-Cees”.
More like a redneck department store than a gas station, there was something comforting about the smell of boiled peanuts and the sight of overpriced hats with rhinestone sayings. It took the edge off of the anxiety I felt as I weaved my way through the throngs of partially-masked people and tried not to touch any door handles. I took a timed selfie in my mask in front of the Buc-Cees sign for documentation that I survived.
When I arrived in Hot Springs, Arkansas to stay the night, I was met with a town of mostly maskless-people. What I envisioned to be a picturesque stay in the middle of a national park had turned into a frantic last minute airbnb rental in the basement of a dingy house that smelled like sewage.
My airbnb hosts neglected to tell me that they had rented out the upstairs of the house until I was an hour away. Typically a “go with the flow” person, I was definitely NOT chill about that. Sorry Mike and Leyla.
I spent the night lysoling door knobs and wrapping the already-lysoled remote in a bath towel so I could watch Netflix. It was reminiscent of the Don’t touch the lava game my siblings and I played as kids, except the lava felt like everything around me.
After a restless sleep, I found out the hard way- through my Starbucks app; that I hadn’t correctly calculated coffee availability during a pandemic. Starbucks with no drive throughs weren’t an option, and even some of those were closed. When I finally found coffee, it was four hours into my drive and the Starbucks sign felt like a mirage in the COVID desert.
It was in Tennessee when I stopped for coffee that my anxiety started to fall away. Maybe it was induced by the bump of caffeine or the beautiful weather that morning, but Memphis was so full of soul and grit, it immediately charmed me. The silenced streets were eerie, the boarded up windows of once-bustling barber shops illuminated in blue and pink hues from flashing neons of neglected jazz clubs. The family-owned smokehouses made my mouth water as I imagined how good those homemade BBQ sauces must’ve been. It occurred to me that I was seeing this city in a way that I never would have otherwise.
It was as if I could feel and appreciate the essence of the city itself. Had all of the normal noise and distractions been present, I would have probably had a much more superficial experience. I realized the road trip itself felt that way as well.
COVID had given me an invaluable gift. Whereas I had been working sixty five-hour weeks prior to quarantine, I had now been unemployed for two months with literally nothing to do but sit in my discomfort. I had been forced to surrender to the unknowing and give up the attachment I felt to expectations of how my life should look.
This trip, which two months prior had a packed itinerary and would have afforded me a mere 2 days of settling in to my new life before starting work full time, had taken on a different tone. It had provided me complete solitude for the first time in years. It had pushed me to sit with fear, anxiety, grief, and the loss of control over my circumstances. Most importantly, it had given me the space to reflect and process the ending of a very significant chapter of my life.
By allowing myself to sit with the complex and intense emotions evoked in me over the last several months, I felt as if I could enter into my new life with more space, clarity, and deep gratitude. It was like a Marie Kondo’ing of my emotions.
As I drove into the Blue Ridge Mountains, I rolled the windows down and breathed in the maple and pine trees. Reflecting on the last several formative years of my life and the person I had become as a result, suddenly brought a deep sense of peace and inner knowing. Although everything felt uncertain and chaotic around me, I knew where I was heading.
I felt the longing for home begin to dissipate as my body recalibrated to the familiar feeling of quartz beneath my feet and humidity in my hair. Like a time-reel in real time the memories poured into me: growing up in the foothills of North Carolina on sticky summer nights. Eating honeysuckle and capturing lightning bugs. Sweet Tea and Fried Chicken. Autumn and Bluegrass music. It all settled back into my body as if I never left.
Silent deserted roads, leading me home.