We were supposed to enjoy our last month on the east coast, to take advantage of the one month of spring weather we would get during our six months in Boston. We were going to go to Cape Cod, maybe head to Maine for a weekend. We were going to have an awesome visit with my parents during their spring break, exploring the historical sites like Lexington and Concord and the Boston tea party museum. I was going to soak up the last bit of time with my dear friend Madison, who I’d been seeing twice a week ever since arriving in the Boston area. Our trip west was going to be so much better than the drive east, which had been stressful and exhausting. We were going to leave on April 30th. We were going to see Niagara Falls, and then stop in Chicago to visit Gonza’s cousin. We were planning a visit to Montana to spend a few nights with my aunt and to check out Yellowstone, and then to spend some time in Seattle on baby Eva watch with my sister’s family before finally meandering down to Patterson mid-May, just in time for Gonza’s May 14th flight to Quito. It was going to be grand.

Instead, we packed up everything in 48 hours and left in a hurry.

“Elizabeth, as states so very near you are told do not travel even domestically, have you considered coming home now? If you wait it might be too late to come out here.”

Such was the text I received from my dad on Sunday March 29th that changed all our plans. My dad had been paying close attention to the news, and given the severity of covid-19 in New York, New Jersey, and even Massachusetts, he wondered if we should just cut our losses and head back to the Central Valley immediately. With cities shutting down, we wondered if roads might eventually close, too.

Gonza needed no convincing; as an employee of Trader Joe’s, he was already concerned about his level of exposure each day at work. I, on the other hand, wasn’t quite so certain. We had already paid a full month’s rent for April. I loved our little apartment. I was working from home anyhow. I was holding out hope that things would return to normal more quickly, and that we could maybe do some of the final explorations we had planned. But with how quickly things were changing as to travel recommendations and restrictions, we ultimately decided to forgo our last month in our Brookline apartment and head to California as quickly as possible. Gonza headed out to resign from Trader Joe’s, and I started packing.

Eliminated from the plan were the fun tourist activities, the visit to my aunt’s home, and the nights in Seattle. Instead, we made a beeline for Patterson, with a quick break in the Chicago area to see Gonza’s cousin. Driving across the country during a pandemic was an unusual experience, to say the least. But that could really be said of anything happening during this strange time of covid-19.

Screen Shot 2020-04-12 at 12.20.12 PM
Our route, and where we spent the nights along the journey

For starters, this was possibly the most car-heavy road trip ever. I say that because we were confined to our car or our hotel room the entire time. No restaurants were allowing eating in: everywhere we went, we had to order online. The food would then be brought to our car window by the staff, and we’d lunch in the car before starting off again. Even the landscape itself was desolate: there was almost nothing to see except flat, dry land until we got to Wyoming.

Basically all of our meals looked like this

Many rest stops were closed. Common tourist destinations, as the highway signs warned, were not available to the public, or had limited hours. The road was empty as few cars were circulating. On our first night, we had been thinking of staying near Niagara falls, which was still open during limited hours, but ultimately decided to avoid staying the night in the state of New York given its high percentage of covid-19 cases. Our first motel, in Erie PA, was eerily quiet. Ice machines and morning coffee were no longer available. Signs were posted asking guests to stay six feet away from one another and staff members. Gas stations had closed off their self-service coffee kiosks, and had staff members serving tired drivers instead. One of the motels we stayed at was wiping down key cards before giving them to us and having guests drop their keys in a bucket at the end of the stay.

Selected sinks and air driers were shut off in some rest stops to promote distancing
One of many road bulletins dedicated to virus signage. This one gave us a chuckle
Seen in Chicago, a sign of solidarity and reminding us all to stay indoors and keep to ourselves.

But there were some bright spots, too. Our visit to Chicago to see Gonza’s cousin was one of them. Gonza spent four years living in Chicago, from when he was 10 until he graduated from 8th grade. He hadn’t been back since. Driving into Chicago together, and seeing some of the places from his childhood–from the school he attended when he first arrived, to the store where he got his first job to support his family, to the very apartment building he and his mom lived in next to their Syrian friends’ bakery–was so special. It was a reminder of where he had been for him, and for me of how he and I ever ended up meeting in the first place: because he spoke English, he became an English teacher at the university where we met. During our two nights there, Gonza stayed up late drinking whiskey and reconnecting with his cousin after not having seen him for a couple of years. He even tried Chicago style deep dish pizza for the first time, which was a tasty treat.

And then, 20 minutes outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming, after the longest stretch of drive through seemingly unending, forever flat, phone-signal-less Nebraska, an indicator light went on in our car. Checking the manual, it suggested that the light meant brake problems. We hurried into the city and headed to a brake shop. Because it was 4 pm on a Saturday, they weren’t able to do a full revision of the vehicle, but one of the guys did a quick check and said everything looked okay. He put in a bit of brake fluid just in case, and sent us on our way. We hit the road again with plans to make it to Salt Lake City late that night. But 15 minutes out of the city heading onward, we felt something change in the car. Pulling over on the side of the highway, just in the shadows of the mountains in the west, we discovered that one of our front tires had blown. Cursing, I tried to call the car insurance company, but had no signal. I walked a few hundred meters back towards the city to find signal with my dying phone battery, but the insurance agent told me, after collecting a seemingly ridiculous amount of information, that the tow truck driver would likely not be able to transport any passengers because of covid. “What should we do then? I have my husband and dog with me”. “Call an uber or a taxi?” he hesitantly offered. Knowing that this was no solution, I called my parents. Neither Gonza nor I had ever changed a tire, so I figured we would have to try on our own with some directions from my dad. When I returned to where the car was parked 20 minutes later, a white truck was pulling over.

There was our unlikely saving grace: Doug, from Idaho, wearing a hunting hat and sporting a 70’s mustache, pulled over to give us some assistance. Gonza had unpacked the car to unearth the donut tire while I was making calls, and Doug took it on himself to give us guidance and assist us with changing the tire. Not only did he help us, he even recommended moving the good back tire to the front and putting the donut tire on the back; he knew our car was front wheel drive, and said it would be safer that way. He told us that he had a ranch in Wyoming, and that he worked on an oil rig in Colorado, and that he was driving back home to Idaho when he saw us and wanted to help. And half an hour later, when I tried to give him $20 for his assistance, he said “You don’t get to heaven by taking peoples’ money”. Even though he had just told us he was likely to lose his job because of covid-19, he still wouldn’t take a tip.

Safely back on the highway returning to Cheyenne, I started making phone calls. Though we had the donut tire, we certainly couldn’t continue our drive west without a real replacement. But it was Saturday evening, and many calls went unanswered. The truck stops only have tires for semis. Walmart tire centers, which would be open in non-covid-19 times, were all shuttered indefinitely. Worse, there were zero tire stores open on Sunday, meaning we would be stuck in Cheyenne and lose a full day plus on the road.

One of the dozens of calls I made was to a “24-hour” towing company. The guy who picked up was named Chris. I told him hurriedly, “Hi are you guys still 24 hours? I’m moving from Massachusetts trying to get to California and my tire blew and I’m hoping to get back on the road again as soon as possible”. He paused for a moment, and then said, “Look, everything is closed tonight. I might be able to get you a tire tomorrow though. Let me know if you can’t find one by tomorrow morning. I’d try Sam’s Club or Walmart, too”. By bed time, none of the other possibilities had been successful, so we went to bed hoping Chris would pull through in the morning.

At our motel in Cheyenne

Next morning, I called Chris and give him my tire specs, and he searched for me, but to no avail. Gonza and I went out for breakfast. We found this little diner offering take out, and Gonza was making conversation with the lady attending to customers outside. She heard we needed a tire, and told us to text her the tire specs and she might be able to help us out. Moments before our food comes out, Chris messaged to tell us he found us a tire after all, and that we had to go to the address he provided ASAP. As it turned out, he knew the owners of both Big O Tires in town, and was able to get one of them to open especially for us on a Sunday. By noon, we were back on the road to Utah.

Big O is even dog friendly. They let me eat my breakfast inside and bring Gaby!

After it was all said and done, Gonza and I sat in awe of how many people jumped to help us. Doug, who risked his own health by getting very close to Gonza to teach him how to change the tire. Chris, whom we never even saw, who called everyone he knew trying to help us find a replacement tire even though he got nothing out of it. Sherry, the local woman from the diner, calling around to her friends and family, to see if anyone had the right type of tire. The two gentlemen who came to open Big O tires for us, one of whom was from Florida and the other from Wyoming. Everyone was so eager to assist us. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit surprised, for a couple of reasons: one, because of the virus, and two, because we were in…well, conservative country, and my husband is brown. I thought that people who likely voted for Trump might not be willing to assist a Latino guy. But that wasn’t the case at all, and it was a lesson in not making assumptions about people. I realized I had just done what I assumed the locals would do: judged them based on their appearances. What a humbling moment. Suffice to say, it served as a powerful reminder that we are so much more than our states of origin and who we (likely) vote for. Kindness can come from all types of people, anywhere. It was really a beautiful thing to see so many people supporting us during our own time of crisis, even during the nationwide pandemic.

The rest of the drive was uneventful as we made our way through Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California. We found a lot of joy in the scenery in Utah, which was stunningly beautiful the entire drive.

The reddish mountains near the Wyoming side of Utah and the snow-capped mountains around Provo; neither of these photos do justice to the beauty. As Gonza exclaimed, “This place is like a brochure!” We definitely want to come back for a vacation here.

Safely back in Patterson, Gonza and I are now self-isolating until next Monday, when we will be moving in with my parents for a few months. There is more to say about our time in Boston and moving to California, but I’ll save that for another post. For now, we are enjoying spring in the valley and feeling grateful that we are out of a city and in the peaceful countryside near family during this strange time.

Turning Gonza into a country boy with our morning and evening walks

Posted by:Elizabeth

Wandering Californian living in Seattle. Nature-loving, thrill-seeking weekend adventurer. Storyteller.

2 replies on “An Inopportune Road Trip and an Uplifting Reminder of Human Kindness

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