- Mary Kearl is a professional writer and digital marketer who spends time travelling the world with her husband and young child.
- In mid June, Kearl and her husband decided to leave California and set out for her parent’s house in Maine to be together to wait out the coronavirus pandemic.
- Over four days, they drove 3,190 miles across 18 different states, only stopping for gas, food, and hotels, and were careful to stay safe and avoid close contact with strangers.
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Like nearly everyone else on the planet, I wasn’t prepared for the current global health crisis. At the start of the pandemic, I was so busy trying to absorb what was happening that I couldn’t imagine relocating in the midst of so much uncertainty.
And yet, 91 days after sheltering in place, that’s exactly what I, my husband, and our toddler set out to do – travelling 3,190 miles and 48 hours across the country.
The fact was, my family’s circumstances, like millions of others, changed dramatically between the start of the year and the spring.
My dad lost his job, and, with hiring freezes across the board, another one wasn’t likely to be in sight for some time. Up until losing his job, he was planning to help us be able to buy our first home by cosigning for our mortgage, since we as freelancers otherwise would otherwise have to show two years of income to apply for bank financing – and we only have one year to show. Instead, after losing his job, my parents ended up seeking relief for their own house payments and are now in mortgage deferment – with their monthly mortgage payments delayed until the fall.
While we never intended to move during the middle of a pandemic, that’s ultimately what we ended up doing – putting our plans of buying a home in southern California on hold to wait out the uncertainty with my parents – and help them with some of their living expenses as they too wait out their own uncertainty.
Since I hadn’t ventured outside our neighbourhood, let alone the state of California, since mid-March and had only been inside another building other than where we lived a total of five times over those three months – possible thanks to being a full-time freelancer – I had no idea what to expect.
Would the roads be crowded? Would we be able keep a safe distance from others? Would people wear masks? What would it be like staying in a hotel again?
With the community we were leaving, Kern County, California, having reported 3,281 known cases and 53 deaths as of the day we left, and several states across the country experiencing rises in cases, we were very mindful of the risk of potentially unknowingly spreading or catching the virus. We took every precaution to avoid exposing anyone or getting exposed.
We planned everything so our toddler would never come into contact with anyone but ourselves the whole trip, something my husband and I were successful in pulling off by taking turns going to the bathroom at rest stops, only one of us picking up food from restaurants, and only one of us checking in at the hotel lobby. (Of course this was possible to do since our child is not yet potty trained, and we handled diaper changes in the back seat of our car.)
Here’s what we experienced while driving through 18 states – or 36% of the country – and the breakdown of the roughly $US852 we spent on this road-trip-meets-move over the course of four days.
Total trip costs: $US852.07*
- Pre-travel expenses: $US100 on snacks, toilet paper (just in case), and cleaning supplies
- Travel expenses:$US752.07
- Hotels: $US329.04 (three nights)
- Food: $US131.36 (dinner each day, over four days)
- Gas: $US229.78
- Tolls: $US13.50
*Because we had already been living as digital nomads, travelling through South America and throughout the US in 2019 as I launched my freelance career, we didn’t have any typical moving expenses. Since we had already donated or gifted our furniture and friends and family were already kindly storing some of our personal items (like our bikes, photos, and other keepsakes), all we had to do was transport ourselves, our car, and the suitcases we’d been living out of for over a year and a half.
Day 1: Kern County, California to Grand Junction, Colorado
Distance travelled: 800 miles
Total spent: $US205.87
- Hotel: $US112.65
- Food: $US29.98
- Gas: $US63.24
On our first day on the road – Sunday, June 14 – one of the first highway signs we passed read: “Your actions save lives. Stop COVID-19.” We also passed through one of the world’s biggest creators of wind-powered electricity, the Tehachapi Mountains, known as the birthplace of wind power on this continent and home to some 4,731 wind turbines.
The next stretch of the drive, we saw more Joshua Trees than people. As we hit Las Vegas, which officially opened for business June 4, we expected to see more cars.
We did come across the first traffic jam of the trip, as drivers headed in the opposite direction slowed to a stop, a sign we took to mean that – since it was on a Sunday around noon – weekenders from visiting from LA and southern California were heading back home, after the area’s second weekend of being open for tourists.
Fifteen miles outside of Vegas, we stopped on the side of the road for a bathroom break – a precaution to avoid the crowds we’d just passed.
We passed through Arizona and entered Utah before taking our next rest stop in Beaver County, which, when we visited, had had zero known cases of COVID-19. It was like travelling back in time, seeing workers and patrons in both a local gas station – with about a half dozen guests and a restaurant with about 15 dine-in guests with no masks on.
When we made it to our final destination, a Holiday Inn in Grand Junction, the hotel front desk agent wore a mask and avoided touching my husband’s ID and credit cards. Our toddler and I went into the hotel through a side entrance to our first-floor room to avoid encountering anyone in the lobby and the need for taking the elevator.
Day 2: Grand Junction, Colorado to Topeka, Kansas
Distance travelled: 781 miles
- Total spent: $US178.16
- Hotel: $US107.28
- Food: $US19.59
- Gas: $US51.29
One of the first signs of the morning told us, “Stay home, save a life.” On day two, we climbed up (and up and up) among some of the most popular mountains of Colorado, reaching a peak of nearly 11,000 feet elevation, with the area’s ski resort towns’ tourists largely replaced by road construction that caused traffic from outside Vail to Denver to come to a grinding halt for nearly two hours. Fortunately, Google Maps suggested an alternative route for us, and we were spared the addition to our already 11-and-a-half-hour-long drive.
We stopped to use the bathroom and get gas car among the ski towns in Summit County, CO, where the area had had 265 cases and one death recorded as of the time of our arrival. At the gas station where we stopped, everyone wore masks.
By the afternoon, my parents were texting us asking if we could stop somewhere along our route to get tested for COVID-19, because if we (and they) didn’t want to self isolate for 14 days, per Maine’s travel guidelines we would need to have negative test results that showed we don’t have the virus.
We’d told them we didn’t want to get tested while on the road because, from what we’d read, if we were to get infected while travelling, it could take about three days from the point of that exposure to COVID-19 for the virus particles to actually reach the levels needed to be detected.
In other words, if we wanted to really know if we’d been infected at any point on our trip, we should wait until three days after our arrival. The catch was that tests in Maine were only available to state residents with symptoms.
Our second stop of the day was in Thomas County, Kansas, another county that had had zero known cases at the point of our arrival. Here, about half the gas station customers wore masks and the Burger King where we got drive-through food was closed to dine-in service.
We spent $US19.59 on two Impossible burger meals and a side of tater tots for dinner; we ate food we packed in a cooler – muffins, hard boiled eggs, yogurt, string cheese, fruit, nuts, and chips – for our breakfast and lunch every day.
We had our first sighting of gas for under $US2 a gallon in Thomas County, Kansas.
For the rest of the drive to our hotel, a Holiday Inn in Topeka, Kansas, we pushed through 23-mile per hour winds so strong that our Ford Fusion Hybrid swayed from time to time, and I slowed every time I passed one of the many truckers out on the road.
This hotel had just opened for the first day since the pandemic, and first floor rooms weren’t available as they were slowly opening up the facility to guests. We took the stairs to avoid the elevator, and didn’t run into anyone along the way up or down.
Day 3: Topeka, Kansas to Cambridge, Ohio
Distance travelled: 803 miles
- Total spent: $US219.71
- Hotel: $US109.11
- Food: $US43.60
- Gas: $US63.50
- Tolls: $US3.50
Crossing into the eastern part of the country, we encountered a new point of potential contact with people on the road – toll booths, where we had to stop and pay cash to an attendant, since we didn’t have a way to make an electronic payment, like an E-Z Pass.
Each one we came to, we’d slip on our masks, hand over the cash, get change, and use hand sanitizer as a precaution. The toll booth workers all wore masks and gloves.
For our first stop of the day, we came to Greenup, Illinois, which had only reported 10 known cases in the whole county and zero deaths. At the gas station where we stopped, none of the handful of customers wore masks, but the store did have plexiglass and distancing signs set up on the floor.
We stopped again before the border of Indiana and Ohio in Wayne County, Indiana, where there were 100 reported cases and six deaths.
We stopped before the border of Indiana and Ohio to order Indian food for curbside pickup
We stopped again before the border of Indiana and Ohio in Wayne County, Indiana, where there were 100 reported cases and six deaths.
We ordered curbside pickup online from a local Indian restaurant, and ate it to go using our own bamboo utensils to avoid potential exposure to plastic wear.
We spent the night at another Holiday Inn
I entered the hotel from a side door on the first floor with my child to avoid passing by anyone. We wore masks wherever we went and sanitised our hotel room surfaces using disinfecting wipes upon entry.
Day 4: Cambridge, Ohio to Knox County, Maine
Distance travelled: 853 miles
Total spent: $US148.33
- Food: $US38.19
- Gas: $US51.75
- Tolls: $US10
Our longest leg of the trip was almost 14 hours. We planned our first and second stops strategically to avoid what had been major outbreak areas, with our first break in Plainfield, Pennsylvania, an area that had recorded 584 cases and 46 deaths as of the time of our visit – less than other counties in that state that we would also be driving through.
The gas station where we stopped had a sign that stated the state’s regulation requiring customers to wear masks
If someone wasn’t wearing a mask, the sign said employees would assume it was for health reasons. Several people I passed were not wearing masks.
The food court area had chairs blocked off to reduce the capacity of the indoor dining, though no one was eating inside when I was there. In the bathroom, signs were placed on stalls and certain stalls were closed to reduce the capacity.
We made it to Connecticut by dinnertime, and ordered pizza for curbside pickup
For our next stop, about four hours later, we selected a county in Tolland, Connecticut that had seen the second lowest number of cases in that state (the county with the lowest number of cases wasn’t on our route).
When we got gas, the sign posted outside told us that only two customers were allowed inside, but the bathroom was located outside so we didn’t have to go inside. For our meal for the night, we ordered pizza from a local restaurant online and got curbside pickup to go.
To minimise contact, toll booths were closed in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York — they will bill us later — but we had to stop to pay tolls in New Hampshire and Maine
Highway signs in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine directed arriving visitors to isolate for 14 days.
Our last stop of the trip was at a rest stop in Kennebunk, ME, part of a county with 469 total known cases and 11 deaths.
After finally making it to Maine, we are now quarantining at my parents’ place.
My parents’ home is in Knox County which has had a total of 24 known cases and one death. We are maintaining physical distance and wearing masks around my parents as a precaution until we are out of the potential window of being contagious – just in case we did get exposed.
Travelling across the country during the pandemic is not a decision we made lightly, but we hope we did our part to minimise contact with others and limit the potential spread by wearing masks, washing our hands often, and using hand sanitizer. All told, we only came into momentary contact at a distance of about six feet with ten different people, seven of whom were wearing masks: three at our various hotels, four at restaurants, and three at toll booths.
In the end, we don’t know how long we’ll call Maine home, but we’re grateful for the chance to be together with family to get through this time — however long it may be
Mary Kearl is a professional writer and digital marketer with over 11 years of experience. A graduate of NYU with a BA in journalism and of Baruch College Zicklin School of Business with an MBA in marketing, she’s written for AOL, Forbes, HuffPost, Target, Zillow, and many other publications, websites, and brands. As a digital and social marketer, Kearl has worked for Adobe, the New York City Marathon, and other startups and small businesses. Follow her remote work/travel life on Instagram @SeetheWorldParents, learn more on her website, and connect with her on Twitter @marykearl and LinkedIn.