As with everything in 2020, the reality of COVID-19 permeated our entire road trip. Virus precautions and closures changed much about how we traveled and what we experienced. Compared to an ideal trip, we ate at minimal restaurants, visited only two (limited capacity) museums, and saw fewer friends and family. More subtly, the culture of camping and visiting national parks that I remembered from my childhood was different. We rarely interacted with anybody else in our campgrounds or while hiking. All-in-all, the trip was focused on seeing natural sites and maximizing outdoor activities.
That being said, you can’t avoid the culture of a place you visit, even if you don’t interact with strangers at length. Gas stations, driving habits, restaurant types, store hours, and many other subtle things change as you traverse the states. And one of the most interesting side effects of the trip was seeing the way the COVID-19 precautions, and COVID-19 impact, changed as we traveled across the country.
It’s worth noting that we came from New York City, the first COVID-19 hotspot in the country. Michael and I didn’t see each other for over two months when the virus first hit. We sat at home in our rooms and listened to ambulance sirens scream past our windows night and day for weeks. Although many other places have seen peaks since then, I don’t think anything can quite match the horror and the unknown of those first few weeks in NYC – we didn’t know, then, how it was spread, or even that masks were helpful. Everything was mysterious and scary and people were dying around us by the thousands.
Perhaps as a result, NYC is one of the strictest places I have been in terms of virus precautions. There are exceptions, of course. In general, though, when we left in August New Yorkers weren’t even walking around outside without masks. Joggers mostly wore masks. There was no indoor restaurant service and gyms had not yet reopened.
As we moved west, this all changed slowly. In Ohio and Illinois, indoor eating was allowed but most people weren’t doing it. Folks walked around outside without masks until they got near each other, and then masked up. In Minnesota, people at our campground only wore masks when they entered the restrooms.
Then came South Dakota, where at our first gas station stop we were the only patrons wearing masks, and a family of four stared us down until we left. Our campground seemed to be hosting a convention of unmasked and unrelated people. It was easy to stay far away from them, but the cultural shift was striking. When Michael ordered a drink at a coffee shop in South Dakota, the woman working the counter said, “What was that? I couldn’t hear you through that muzzle.”
Later, in Arizona, we drove through the Navajo nation. I have very fond memories of driving through this area when I was a child, stopping by roadside Indigenous food and jewelry stands and following Navajo tour guides to see petroglyphs and dinosaur tracks. Though I wish Native people were not forced to survive off the money of passing tourists, I was ready to support the Navajo people however I could by patronizing these businesses on our way through.
Unfortunately, I could not. Driving through the nation, which is larger than West Virginia, was like driving through a ghost town. Cheerfully painted roadside stands stood empty, markets closed, and stores shuttered. I don’t think we saw a single person on our 1.5 hour trip through the territory. It was scary and sad, if not entirely surprising. The Native American community has been decimated by the pandemic. The mortality rate among Native people is almost twice as high as that among white Americans. These rates are even higher in the Navajo Nation, where as many as 40% of households don’t have access to running water.
The Navajo nation wasn’t the only Indigenous community taking the pandemic seriously. As we drove from Arizona into western New Mexico we also passed through the Pueblo of Zuni. As we crossed the state border we were stopped by two men who were blocking the road. They asked us where we came from and where we were going. When we explained that we were heading to El Morro, a small town just outside the pueblo, they nodded, asked us politely not to stop inside the pueblo at all, and let us pass. Although it was unnerving, it made sense. This was an oppressed community, already vulnerable to crisis, doing the only thing they could to prevent spread from Arizona’s relaxed precautions. (Side note: If you’re interested in helping Indigenous communities through the second wave of the virus, I have included several links at the end of this post on how you can support right now.)
The entire state of New Mexico proved to take the virus more seriously than most other places. But as we moved back east through Texas, Arkansas, and Alabama, the rules loosened again. Although most people wore masks in public spaces, and nobody was as hostile as in South Dakota, indoor eating was the norm and almost all businesses were open. In Bentonville, where we took a COVID test before seeing an old friend, we visited our first museum of the trip: Crystal Bridges. Tickets to the famous spectacle of American art and architecture were strictly limited and timed. We were rarely in a room with more than one or two other people at any point in the museum. In contrast, the next weekend in Hot Springs, Arkansas, we walked into (and out of) a hotel that was bursting with drunk people singing karaoke.
Perhaps the most telling example of cultural attitudes that I saw was a sign on a restaurant outside of Asheville, North Carolina. When we were there in early November, masks were not required in all public indoor spaces, but they were required in restaurants. In big letters the sign read: “Masks Required.” Underneath, in smaller letters, it said “Or we will lose our right to serve you.” This half explanation, half apology seemed to acknowledge that the business risked alienating half its customers no matter how it approached the pandemic.
Why did it go down like this?
The conflicted sign was a fitting metaphor for the way this country has responded to COVID-19. This pandemic didn’t have to be a political issue. By most logical reasoning, public health is an issue that affects everyone. But between the systems of profit-driven mass media, reactionary social media, de facto racial and class segregation, and a polarized two-party political system, the United States was set up to fail this test. As soon as one personality or region seen as representing a political bias took a stance on how to deal with COVID, the other side had no choice but to decry the response. So when the pandemic began first blowing up in left-aligned urban centers such as NYC and Seattle, the pre-determined response of the Republican party and right-leaning media was to call the lockdowns overkill and an infringement on personal rights. And the entire population of the country developed their opinions from there.
The reality is that it takes a lot more than individual idiocy for a person to put themselves and their loved ones at risk of death. It could only be a side effect of systemic brainwashing for such huge portions of the country to reject scientific guidance on how to reduce pandemic risk. It’s evidence that the information bubbles we live in are so opaque, our polarization so complete, that most individuals have no reason or opportunity to break out of them at any point in their lives.
And why should they if they never meet people who think or behave differently from them? When I was in New York, I only knew of two realities: the very strict community I was living in, and the highly publicized anti-mask/anti-lockdown rallies. It wasn’t clear to me that there were people in between, and communities in between, until I started traveling through them. We are completely isolated from each other’s realities. Though our country has performed abysmally in the fight against this virus, I don’t think we can blame the people eating in restaurants in Texas, or walking around unmasked in Chicago, or even staring down mask-wearers in South Dakota. They are reflecting the culture they inhabit and the information sources they consume.
Our leadership has failed us greatly in this fight, and I could never downplay the lives that the Trump administration has cost us this year. But we were not going to do well no matter who was leading the country. The same forces that led thousands of people to storm the Capitol earlier this month because they knew the election was rigged drove patients in South Dakota to deny the existence of the virus as it killed them and liberal America to be blindsided when Trump did well in both 2016 and 2020. And while the virus will be gone in the foreseeable future, this is a problem that is going to continue damaging our elections, our policies, and our national dialogue for years.
How You Can Help
If you haven’t been financially impacted by the virus, consider donating some (or all!) or your recent government relief check to Indigenous communities, many of which have received less or no government aid.
Donate to the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund or one of these smaller local funds to help community members purchase and deliver food, water, and other supplies to Indigenous families in Arizona. You could also donate to Dr. Michelle Tom’s medical supply fund for the Navajo Nation, which is hosted through United Natives (scroll about halfway down the page).
If you would like to find out how to support Indigenous communities where you live, first find out what occupied lands you are on by using this map. You can then search for any mutual aid funds that may be serving that community on this directory of Indigenous mutual aid or on Google.