Our Rides: Pandemic Road Tripping – A Retrospective

Paul Bunyan and Babe The Ox in Bemidji. Photo by Randy Stern
Paul Bunyan and Babe The Ox in Bemidji. Photo by Randy Stern

As we enter the third year of the pandemic, there are plenty of reminders on how our travel patterns continue to evolve. From mask mandates to proof of negative tests and vaccinations, we have accepted the challenge of traveling during these uncertain times. 

At the onset of the pandemic, we felt compelled not to jump on a plane and fly across the ocean. Some of us did, for a purpose. We faced lockdowns, travel and local restrictions everywhere we went. We saw services at the airport, on the plane, at hotels, and restaurants were limited—or rather, eliminated altogether. 

When some restrictions were lifted, we either saw a green light to go somewhere or a yellow light to take a lot of precautions when doing so. In the past two years, we rode on a roller coaster between video conference calls and actually seeing our loved ones over the holidays. 

Roadside along US Hwy 71 near Wadena. Photo by Randy Stern

Even in the face of the pandemic, the travel bug never left me. 

As I look back at the last couple of years, I found that traveling by automobile was much better for the soul. If you ask me, it was the best way to go anywhere. 

Think about the freedom you have when you’re in control of your journey. You don’t have to hurry up and wait—unless you’re in traffic. You are on your own schedule. You can stop whenever you want and not worry about blocking aisles or waiting to use the restroom—unless you’re at a convenience store or a gas station. 

Club David, Sioux Falls SD. Photo by Randy Stern

These past two years were spent trying to see what it was like to travel in a pandemic by automobile. I have some observations I wanted to share from these road trips. 

Back in 2020, you were able to stay in hotels at the onset of the first shutdowns. There were some significant changes you had to deal with. You had to be let into the lobby, rather than just walk in and check into your room. You found that not everything was available to you. There was no in-hotel dining or room service. Some pantries were bare or had a few things available to you. You even saw that some services were held back, such as room cleaning and use of the pool and gym. 

If rooms were to be cleaned, they were done so with disinfectants and other agents to ensure that touch points were free from anything contaminated. Hilton and its other hotel brands went as far as to put a seal on the door when you first arrived at your room. 

Bemidji. Photo by Randy Stern

When you were visiting a city or town, you found that not a lot of places were open. The restaurants that remained open asked you to either pick up your food there or have it delivered. At the stores that remained open, you had to take precautions to shop in them. You still do today, to some extent. 

As time went on, more services returned to the hotels. More restaurants returned to serving customers inside. More stores returned back to business. It had been a difficult past two years. 

To show you the contrast, I spent a night out in Chippewa Falls, WI, in June of 2020 in a new Volkswagen Passat. I found that there were no services available at the hotel. You only had take-out options by the hotel. If you wanted something for your room, the nearby Kwik Trip sufficed for the night. 

Orpheum Theater, Sioux Falls SD. Photo by Randy Stern

When I drove up to Bemidji a month later in a Volkswagen Tiguan, it became more hit or miss when it came to dining and shopping. I noticed that some restaurants downtown had outdoor dining only—from what I saw. Luckily, the restaurant attached to the hotel I stayed at was open. I stuck around the area of the hotel by the lake without knowing what would be open or not. 

When we got into 2021, there seemed to be a settled pattern in terms of restrictions. You can go in with a mask or not, depending on what state you’re visiting—or what part of Minnesota you were traveling in. On a road trip I took into Sioux Falls, South Dakota last March in a new Volkswagen Arteon, I saw that no one was wearing any masks everywhere I went—except for restaurant and store staff, of course.

An interesting note, when I visited Vermillion—the home of the University of South Dakota—I stopped in a couple of places and noticed more mask compliance than in Sioux Falls. 

Grand Marais. Photo by Randy Stern

A couple of weeks later, I drove up to International Falls and Grand Marais—both day trips out of the Duluth area. There was mask compliance in most places. At least you could assume they were following Minnesota’s guidelines.

There was also something I observed on my road trips during this pandemic: Closures. Not just restaurants and stores. I was surprised how many Starbucks locations were closed on my travels. One such location was in Wausau, Wisconsin. It is a location that I usually stop at after a visit to Road America in Elkhart Lake. That really surprised me a lot.  Should I have been surprised given how much of a challenge businesses had to keep the doors open during these two years?

Roadside near Hudson, WI. Photo by Randy Stern

One thing I keep on coming back to in my travels is how much this state and region continues to be a way to observe how everyone else lives outside of your own routine. You also get to see more of our land by automobile. It is the people you meet, the places you encounter, the change in scenery, and the memories you bring home with you. 

That is why I enjoy taking road trips. There is nothing like bringing home the experience of the journey and the destination. 

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