Mindful in Middle America


I’m a road-trip guy. In 2019, I drove my way through 11 states–for all sorts of reasons. I bought a car in Pennsylvania. I visited an old pal in Colorado. I went to Chicago just because it’s Chicago. But 2020 was decidedly different.

Duh. And was 2020 normal for anyone? It wasn’t—and we’ve all made concessions that are beginning to feel like a “new normal.” For me, road trips were quick to slip through the cracks. I was able to skip to Chicago again in February, back when COVID was a new vocabulary word—certainly nothing that would impact American life in any meaningful way…

And then the wave of COVID crested on our lives. Unnecessary travel was halted and borders were locked to travelers. Other than a quick summer trip to Cross Lake, MN and a day trip to Duluth, I was all but parked. Something had to give.

In Late December, I decided I could safely plan a road trip. I was desperate for a change of scenery and all too eager to chew up some miles. I packed up my weekender bag, grabbed my photographer friend and headed toward the Rocky Mountains. We wanted to see life in middle America, from a safe distance—we wanted another take on the pandemic.

We were deliberate about taking different routes to and from Colorado. We wanted a big slice of American pie—COVID-style. We headed south toward Iowa and into Nebraska, with our first overnight in Omaha, Nebraska. Our (chain) hotel had strict guidelines in place, including limited housekeeping and a nixed breakfast buffet. I don’t tend to use either of those during a typical hotel stay, so for me, everything was A.O.K.

And I guess that was sort of the theme for our overnights: Everything was fine. We stayed at four different hotels, at varying price points, and we never had an issue with health safety. Everyone was on board. The drive saw a slightly different, possibly more interesting outcome.

I would say for the most part, the gas stations we went to were compliant with their local regulations. But not all. A few times, including once in southern Minnesota, we pulled into gas stations where zero precautions were observed. Maskless clerks and patrons wandered cramped convenience stores as if the news hadn’t reached their exit on the highway.

Luckily, those stops were easily avoided. We paid at the pump and minimized our snack shopping, relying on drive-thru windows instead. The stores we entered had COVID-compliant employees and patrons. Those stores made up the majority of what we saw.

Ultimately, we learned that the pandemic is being handled dynamically, and on a micro-level. States might have sweeping regulations in place, but the reality is: city by city, town by town, the response is completely different. In one small town in particular, it looked as if no one even owned a mask. The next was limiting customers in its small, mid-mountain grocery stop. It was a total roll of the dice.

And it was endlessly fascinating. Who knows when I’ll get to see a slice of life like that again. Hopefully never. But I am glad I took the chance when it presented itself. I’m glad I had a reliable friend to travel with—and I’m glad for the memories we made along the way (which I’ll share in the next issue if Lavender). We’re heading into 12 months of repeated bad news—and I had to know what that looked like in other places; I needed to see how the times had manifested across middle America.

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