Taking a Masked Road Trip


(this post originally appeared on Why Is This Interesting, the newsletter started by Noah Brier and Colin Nagy)

My wife and I just drove 3000 miles across the US, during the pandemic. With our two kids and dog.

What could have been a 6-hour flight to be with family turned into a 6-day road trip. Of course, few people consider such a thing even in normal times, but during a pandemic, this necessary trip felt like experimental spaceflight. After digesting the CDC guidelines on travel, off we went.

Why is this interesting?

Road trips are deep-sea freediving for the mind. They’re difficult, yet return countless benefits for the hours put in. Somehow I’ve never really enjoyed day-long road trips, which always tend to render you tired and in constant anticipation of the destination. On the other hand, multi-day trips are so cartoonishly long that they invite mind-wandering, boredom, and detachment. Absolute bliss.

Last week’s trip was done under the added weight of COVID-19, which turned my wife and me into a nervous NASCAR pit crew. Stops were limited and tensions were high. I hoped our blended sense of honor and hysteria for the virus would rub off on our 3- and 6-year-old children. At the end of the first day, I overheard: You just walked around OUTSIDE and now your shoes are TOUCHING my pant leg.” I beamed.

Our planning was typical for traveling with children (snacks, iPads, snacks) fortified with the masks, gloves, and sanitizer we take as default now. My 3-year-old son can go to the bathroom in any remote wooded area now; he might actually prefer it. A few oblique strategies which we found invaluable:

What we found out there on the road was…nobody is wearing masks. Only food service workers and hotel employees are wearing them reliably, and then only at the big brands. A truck driver in Grand Junction, Colorado scoffed at me and my mask like a Reddit comment come to life.

Common assumptions could not be trusted and rearranged the very idea of highway travel. Restaurants often closed their bathrooms, even for their own customers. Food courts closed or went down to only one pitiful option (even the big, clean ones on the Ohio turnpike). Small, off-the-map diners you’d read about were closed or generally had no safety protocols.

Big national brands were the only things we could reliably trust for supplies—Starbucks, Holiday Inn Express, Shell. This created a road trip almost devoid of locality and place. Blur a few hours down the road, get your things, keep going.

Some of the key safety mechanisms of big food brands I noticed consistently throughout the week:

Outside of supplies, our activity stops were devoid of people and selected for their isolation. We found wonderful fluffy grass in Iowa, icy ridges to climb in Nevada, throw-it-at-your-sister snowpack in Colorado. All out of sight from anyone and everyone, where we could finally take off our masks. Our kids probably think of America as a string of Taco Bells or wide, empty spaces.

Later this summer I will return to California and do this trip all over again. It will be another airlocked and streamlined trip across the country—us, our masks, and probably a few Chalupa Supremes.