Crossing a COVID Country

I’ve now driven over ten thousand miles during COVID, all while trying not to die. Or, worse, be a murderer. I picked up a few tricks and I’m here to share them.

I should probably start with a gloss. Hot take: COVID bad. It’s spread primarily by exhalations, so the best thing you can be is alone. Failing that, you need to stay more than six feet away from anyone; twice as far from anyone not wearing a mask outdoors; and if someone is not wearing a mask indoors, do not go in that door.

This doesn’t eliminate risk. It reduces risk to what I consider to be an acceptable level – to what it would be if I was at home and living even a minimal COVID-life. At home, you’re usually alone in your house. On the road, you’re usually alone in your car. The difference is trivial.

This is advice, then, on how to keep it that way – to minimize the amount of time you need to spend out of your car, and to maximize your safety when you do. I’ll break it down into specifics, and then I’ll end with some general advice.

On a roadtrip, one generally leaves the car for five reasons: gas; food; bathrooms; lodging; and leg-stretching. You *could* fill your trunk with jerry-cans and water-jugs, relieve yourself in some godawful way, sleep snuggled up in the passenger’s seat, and thus interact with the world not-at-all. That sounds indescribably unpleasant. Here’s how to do better.

1] GASOLINE

This one’s pretty much unavoidable. It’s also provides the most minimal exposure. Getting gasoline is a solitary, out-of-doors activity. Pay at the pump. Fill up. Be on your way.

Your tolerance to outdoor company might be lower than mine. If the pumps are are all occupied, don’t be afraid of waiting a few minutes for the traffic to thin out – or driving away to find a less popular station. This doubly so if the pumpers don’t tend to be masking up. Many don’t.

I keep a pair of gloves in the car, and use them whever I’m going to be gripping the pump that a thousand other people have gripped that day. But a bit of hand sanitizer is probably just as well.

This is not a wonderful time to get your gas pumped by an attendant. Some places (Oregon) do not have self-service available. Fortunately, all attendants seem to be excellent about mask-wearing. Pay them the same courtesy.

Don’t fill up more than you have to – but neither risk running out of gas!

2] FOOD

The easiest thing is to bring what calories you need. Don’t forget water. Don’t forget caffeine.

Next to that, visit a drive-thru – the national chains seem to be imposing PPE use well beyond what is now being generally seen in The Not-Coast.

Next to that, I do believe that it can be safe to enter a market. I enter markets here at home – we are too rural an area for grocery delivery – so the risk is, though nonzero, no higher than what I would be experiencing anyway. The problem, here, is that some markets will be full of the unmasked.

A high-end chain place (e.g. Whole Foods) will impose mask use no matter where it is located. A regular chain is more sus. A local place is ultrasus. A truck-stop along a major interstate will probably see full mask use among the staff and predominant mask use among the patrons. Still, it won’t be one hundred percent.

Finally, you can search for patio dining. This just requires a whole lot of careful Googling. Not an activity one can undertake while driving. Pulling over to do research on this really breaks the flow of an anabasis.

I will say that this is an excellent time to own a backpacking stove – and a truly marvelous time to own one that can burn gasoline. What with the international fuel-canister shortage. (MSR XKG-EX, anyone?)

3] LODGING

The best thing one can do is sleep in one’s vehicle.

A van or truck or SUV makes this pretty easy. I can’t imagine it’s really possible in a Miata. I drive a current-gen Honda Civic and I found it to be… possible. But it took me a while to figure it all out.

First up, the geometry of it all.

I am a side-sleeper. If I was a back-sleeper I could just put down my front seat and drift right off. Likewise I am a few inches too tall to stretch out in my back seat. I have to get a bit more creative.

First, I put down the rear seats opening the trunk to the cabin or the car. Then I move about my luggage such that there is a clear space from the back seat to the trunk. Because of my height compared to the size of my car, there’s only enough room for me if I lay at an angle. Then I pad this space with my inflatable sleeping-pad – I use the NeoAir X-Lite that I use for thruhiking, but for car camping, any ol’ thing will do. Then I crawl in. Feet in the trunk, head behind the driver’s seat. Which is kind of like drawing oneself into the sleep capsules from 2001 but, hey, the price is right. As is the exposure risk.

The worst part about this all is juggling luggage. To make room for my pad (and self), I would have to move a fair amount of my cargo out of the trunk and distribute it about the rest of the vehicle… every night. And then, in the morning, move it back. On this most recent trip I was carrying so much assorted hiking gear that I would to put some in the driver’s seat. Meaning I would have to move it out, first thing in the morning, before I could so much as get behind the wheel. A bloody hassle.

The way around this all is to either pack lighter, or get some roof racks, or buy a larger car – more storage space, more sleeping space. (There’s a reason that I’m currently shoping for a pickup.)

It can be hard to find a place to situate your car overnight. As you get used to it, you realize that you can basically park anywhere and nobody will bother you. I have slept in my car at highway rest stops, in Wal-Mart parking lots, at little pull-offs on country roads, parked behind truck stops, and even just pulled behind random buildings – with my alarm set so that I could be on my way before dawn.

A more commodious alternative is to find a bit of quiet rusticity for the night. State and national parks come to mind. Most any trailhead is suitable for leaving a car unattended for several days – so an attended car can park there for a night without causing an eye to blink. In the PNW, Sno-parks are all but designed for summer car-camping. The same goes for lake- and ocean-shores. Finally, https://freecampsites.net/ is a marvel of a wonder of a miracle. Use it well.

I would also argue that “NO CAMPING” signs apply to the establishment of camp-sites, such as tents, or at least the parking of large RVs. A small vehicle, self-contained an unobtrusive… well it’s yet to get me arrested. Do with that what thou wilt.

The great alternative to car-camping is out-of-car camping, viz. tenting. I myself have lain down my sleep-roll next to my car many a time, and fallen asleep with the wind on my face and starlight on my eyes. In many parks, the prescription is that one may only practice “dispersed camping” – park slang for “camp half a mile away from any road or trail, so as not to cause the hoi polloi to realize that they didn’t need to actually register and pay for a spot in the campground.” So long as your campsite isn’t visible from a road or trail, nobody will notice you. I’ve cowboyed a single sand dune over from my car and none of the thousand cars that have passed by have been the wiser.

The next alternative would be to actually get a spot in a campground. This generally requires a level of human interaction which I find unnecessary – and an expense which this piece of hikertrash would fain endure. But ya surely could.

Finally we come to hotels-during-COVID. A curious conundrum! My overarching advice is that they can be quite safe. Here are some tips to find one the actually is.

Indoor lodging generally implies: entering a lobby; going to a room; checking out.

For my money, the lobby is the most dangerous part of all this. There is staff. There are people. If they aren’t wearing masks, this is the danger zone. To assure that the proprietors are wearing masks, and probably requiring of the guests, you can do four things. One, stay in hotels in sane blue states. Failing that, stay in hotels that are, two, expensive; three, part of national chains; four, close to major interstates or urban centers. An Embassy Suites new New Roc city will assuredly be practicing safe breathing; a maw-and-paw methmotel in Upper Fuckall Junction is not. These days, you really do get what you pay for.

The next item is the room. The ideal situation is that of a motor-lodge where your room is in its own little cabin, and you can come and go without having to pass through a building. The former guarantees you won’t be breathing recirculated air from other guests; the latter, that you won’t have to share an elevator with Typhoid Mary. But if you have to take the stairs and stay in a big hotel-tower, I doubt it poses a major risk to life and limb. Just – be careful, okay?

Finally there’s check-out. Don’t check out. Leave your key in the room and go. Don’t get coffee. Do not stay for the buffet breakfast, for the love of Mike. Check out and go.

And ah, I wouldn’t spend too much time in the sauna, okay?

4] BATHROOMS

C’est ma bête noire.

There are bathrooms everywhere: every gas station, every McDonalds, every highway rest stop. They are all, I believe, your single biggest risk for catching the Coronavirus.

(Some places have begun erecting Port-o-potties outside. This is, alas, more common in the Coastals, where mask use is less of a problem. Natch.)

In point of fact, the best part about getting a proper hotel-room for the evening, is that you will have uninterrupted access to a private bathroom for twelve hours. This might be enough to justify a hotel. Comparative risks: #2020.

In between, I might recommend the ancient and noble art of going outdoors. It’s quite impressive how easy this is, once you get the hang of it – and once you leave the greater population density of The Fly-to. A thicket here. A cornfield there. Under a bridge, behind a building.

Alternatively, there is a certain semi-outdoor-ness achieved by going, not to bathrooms, but to privvies. These are commonly found in hiking areas – at trailheads, in parks, in BLM campgrounds. They are enclosed, but not so enclosed that air is trapped in them. Which makes the masklessness of their previous patrons somewhat less bothersome. Just bring your own hand sanitizer. (And toilet paper – they tend to run out.)

If you wanted to remove the stress from a trip completely, you could find such a location every (say) 200 miles, along the entirety of your route. Otherwise you will have to get off the highway every few hours and spend fifteen minutes driving around, with one’s willingness to trespass increasing in lockstep with the pressure building in the bladder. Or you could suck it up and pee inside McDonald’s. Your life, your choice.

5] STRETCHING YOUR LEGS

Don’t plan on going anywhere. Don’t plan on doing anything. And don’t plan on seeing anything outside of large outdoor spaces, such as a mountain or state park. Confine your leg-stretching to the rear of gas station parking lots and bits of random roadside. It won’t be fantastic. But it will suffice – and if you go in with no other expectations, you shan’t, at least, be disappointed.

LASTLY]

Here are some general observations, ideas, etc.

-Nobody gives a damn about a parked car. If you’re sleeping in your vehicle, you can really do it absolutely anywhere.

-State parks are often just, like, empty patches of land. No gates. No fees. Lovely camping. Go bloody wild.

-The parking lots at trailheads for stock trails are always empty at night. They also tend to have the best privvies in the Universe. Because horse-people.

-A local organic market will either practice the best mask safety, or the absolute worst. Horseshoe Theory on fullest display.

-Of all the chain restaurants, the most consistently protected and sanity is Chic-Fil-A. Their politics might be just shy of Boko Haram but they take care of their (invariably seventeen-year-old white blond female) workers.

-Bring a ton of water – I recommend a gallon a day. It just makes it easier.

-Bring everything you need to repair your vehicle, within your competene to accomplish this. For me this meant a tire-patch kit, a jumper battery and cables, a jack, extra washer fluid, and a liter or two of spare gasoline (if you have the funnel to get it into your gas tank).

-I’d also recommend a roll of paper towels and a bottle of Windex, to keep the windows clean (inside and out). A Squeegee or water-blade wouldn’t hurt neither, especially as many gas stations have stopped providing them.

-The only small towns that are doing good about masks, are tourist towns, or old hippie retiree towns. Taos NM had A+ mask discipline, as did Angel Fire. Whereas the Oklahoma Panhandle was generally at F-.

-In the Midwest and West, the best mask use is on Native land. This is because the reservations got hit very, very hard at the outset, and so they responded as was needed. Whereas Pickup McFreedomface is only starting to see it up close, and has yet to step up – if, indeed, he ever will.

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