GALLUP, N.M. — Sliding off Interstate 40 about 100 miles west of Albuquerque presented another in a seemingly endless series of decisions during a 3,900-mile, 11-state journey. On one side of the east-west artery was a bustling truck stop. On the other, a decaying gas station that likely encountered its last mop during the Reagan administration.
No brainer. Choose the path less traveled or, in this case, bathroom less visited.
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In the car, my 82-year-old mother, Bea Winters, and 87-year-old stepfather, Ted Winters, remained patiently wedged between boxes and clothes hangers during a 10-plus-hour stretch from their snowbird enclave in dusty Apache Junction, Ariz., to Amarillo.
They grew up in the same neighborhood on the east side of Des Moines, Iowa — our eventual destination with more forgiving summer weather and a broader family support system. My mother lived next door to Ted's grandmother with just the length of an alley separating them. After my father, Bruce, died of lung cancer, they reconnected and married. It will be 25 years in September.
Ted, a Korean War veteran, briefly went AWOL because he waited until my mom returned from vacation before reporting to his unit.
"He lost a stripe or something for it," she said. "He always told me it was worth it. We've known each other since I was in diapers."
Precious cargo, indeed — especially in these uncertain, uncharted days. Every gas pump nozzle, a danger. Every hotel doorknob, a potential threat. Simple food packaging, suddenly menacing.
As coronavirus realities changed, so did our plans.
I purchased a flight from San Diego to Phoenix, where I would hop in their SUV to drive them to Iowa before flying back. As airports and airplanes emptied, however, it seemed unwise for me to navigate public places before jumping into a long, close-quarters drive with a pair of octogenarians. Plus, I'm a Type 2 diabetic on another drug that weakens my immune system. That amounts to a couple of strikes on my own coronavirus report card. So I started the trip with a drive to Apache Junction.
The overarching concern, though, was Ted. His pill sorters need sorters. He takes 11 a day at last count to go with four insulin shots, holding heart trouble, diabetes, potassium demons and other health bullies at bay. He uses a nebulizer and BiPAP machine. In 2003, he nearly died from an abdominal aneurysm.
The rock-steady guy worked as a "setup man" at the Ford plant in Romeo, Mich., positioning assembly lines to crank out vehicles. He's big, quiet, and until health and age unleashed its inevitable one-two combination, never needed to depend on others. He was the one you depended on.
Mom remains the unrelenting spitfire she's always been. She retired as a small-town postmaster, but once worked as the only female welder at a manufacturing plant. Leave her unattended for more than 10 minutes and she'll clean your house. If she's missing, you don't call the police. You look in the backyard, since she's probably weeding flower beds.
Eighty-two is 82, though, so we stayed on alert and diligent. I donned gloves and a mask to handle as many duties along the meandering drive as possible.
We celebrated her birthday at a 127-room Hampton Inn in Amarillo with three cars in the parking lot. We cleaned every conceivable surface with disinfecting wipes, joking that the room probably was cleaner than a surgical suite. I felt like cinema's ultimate cleaner, The Wolf from "Pulp Fiction."
Hotel guests used to worry about black-light tours of the sheets. Now, every inch of a room can cause pause.
We used wrapped, paper coffee cups for a "party" with brownies and salted caramel ice cream snagged at Moosie's in Kensington. Candles remained in the bag, since the only other guests were smoke detectors. Plastic utensils snagged at a barbecue joint down a cratered dirt road snaking alongside a cow pasture served as fine flatware.
There we sat, fighting for a sliver of normalcy as we dodged invisible viral snipers.
The drive would be safer — and far, far stranger.
STERN WARNINGS, SECRET HOTEL
As we gobbled the miles — through the soft-peach sunrise over the windfarms of rural Texas, the gently winding concrete of Oklahoma City, the controlled burns along the Kansas prairie — a question lingered.
Had we entered a time warp? Was this 1980? Signs for $1.30 gas and $49 hotel rooms whizzed past.
Stopping to fuel up provided subtle reminders of a world flipped on its experiential axis. When a prompt urged me to "protect your pin" while using a debit card, I reflexively cupped a hand. I grinned as the realization sunk in.
"Who am I protecting this from?" I thought. "I'm the only one here."
On the return trip in a rental through Littleton, Colo., I idled in front of a Costco gas station for minutes because there was not a single car in sight. I assumed it had to be closed, since those places normally resemble a mosh pit at a thrash-metal concert. NASCAR races sometimes seem less perilous.
An employee cleaning carts nearby stared at me with a confused look. I had to look like a bull, frozen in place as I considered whether to charge. When the gas eventually flowed, I shrugged my shoulders. We're all learning as we go these days.
There is no single American approach to all this, obviously.
In Durango, Colo., at the stately Strater Hotel known for prolific author and guest Louis L'Amour, each front-desk employee wore a mask and gloves. Another buzzed around the lobby cleaning and recleaning surfaces, bouncing from spot to spot like a pollinating bee.
At 7:30 on a Saturday night, the normally vibrant city's 11-block main drag stood eerily empty. I ordered takeout from a downtown restaurant, clutching a screw top bottle of Malbec they threw in with gloves, walking in the street like a scene from a zombie apocalypse movie.
Revolving conditions and expectations fascinated. Entering a busy Kansas rest stop, everyone stared at our masks and gloves. Here, time had not stopped. Here, the virus was not an ever-present monster. Here, comforting routines had not become strangers.
In Colorado, stern signs warned against entering Mesa Verde National Park. In New Mexico, the famed Four Corners was gated shut. In Utah, traffic was routed away from the entrance to Monument Valley. In Flagstaff, Ariz., fishermen swarmed the shorelines of Upper Lake Mary. In nearby Sedona, golfers walked a course as if it was, well, 2019.
The return trip through Colorado captured the contrasts.
On the zig-zagging mountain route along Highway 285, a resident parked a mannequin in hazmat gear at the end of a driveway with a giant sign proclaiming, "HOAX." Down the road in the historic gold mining settlement of Fairplay, the town of about 750 at nearly 10,000 feet delivered a far more cautious message.
Owners of the Brown Burro Cafe explained that a local ordinance prohibiting out-of-towners from using the hardware store recently had been lifted. Those who purchased second homes in the area were required to self-quarantine for two weeks on arrival.
A sign along a mountain pass warned that nonessential travel into the city of Gunnison was illegal. Anyone attempting to pull into the Collegiate Peaks overlook learned those living outside the county were asked to go home.
One night, I booked a room at a boutique hotel along the Arkansas River. The online check-in and a phone call with an employee indicated things were operating normally — or at least as normally as things get these days. When I arrived, however, a man scrambled to meet at the door and hustle me into the building.
"If anyone asks you, be super low key," he said. "We're not supposed to be open. Tell them you're camping."
No mention of the situation on the website. No whiff of that major complication in the phone call. They were happy to take the money before explaining the covert maneuvering required.
Each stop offered a new adventure — and in many cases, a new and unexpected reality.
ROAD TRIP DANGER, DODGED
When we pulled into the home I own in Des Moines, mom and Ted unloaded after another long day. We chewed up 11 hours to reach Iowa and avoid another night in a hotel. The predawn start finished near dusk.
Later, we learned of the shifting health sands underneath our trip.
Friends who live in the same Arizona retirement park as my mom traced our route on the way to their home in Minnesota. When they tried to pull off in Gallup, N.M., they found every interstate exit blocked. The city's exhilarating days as a rugged location for John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn movies, perched on historic Route 66, had long faded.
Now, Gallup faces an alarming present.
Fewer than two weeks after we weighed the safety of our gas station choices there, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham closed down the city under the state's Riot Control Act due to an unsettling spike in cases. The New York Times reported recently that the area has produced the third-highest rate of infection of any metro in the U.S., trailing just New York City and a prison cluster plaguing Marion, Ohio.
Unknowingly, we had sidestepped the medical mayhem.
By journey's end I had driven more than 3,900 miles, or about 1,000 more than a trip from Lisbon, Portugal, to Moscow. The floorboard of the rental car for the return lap became a mix of red dirt from southern Utah, gravel from Colorado stream beds and melted snow from peaks along the way — a unique American road map at your feet.
Coronavirus has scrambled so much in our lives. It mangled our daily routines. It altered how we interact with others. It rescripted how we protect those closest to us.
The Great American Road Trip, potentially changed forever.