Baby Steps…

After sixteen months of Covid isolation, we were ready to hit the road. I never imagined it would be a difficult or complicated decision but times change. In January of 2020 Marilynn arranged a summer house trade in France. By March we were in lockdown. All travel plans on hold. By May it was canceled. 

For years we hopped on airplanes and traveled as far as we could. Before the pandemic, we combined our overseas trips with leisurely explorations of America. We drove across Texas (El Paso to Austin), the Southwest (Tucson, Four Corners, Mesa Verde, Moab), the South (Charleston, Beaufort, Savannah, St. Simons Island), the Northeast (Rhode Island and the Berkshires, including Tanglewood). But, there are still great expanses of America for us to cover.

Now, with America opening up and us fully vaccinated there are new considerations. We’re immunized but the rest of the world isn’t. We’re protected, but the experts don’t know how long the protection lasts. Caution is the byword. Baby steps… We decided a driving trip to visit friends in the Bay Area would be our shake down cruise.

Only one problem—we’re out of practice.

Here’s what happened: with the car fully packed, bikes on the roof rack, motor running, Marilynn suggests we check the mail one last time before hitting the road. Not a bad idea – except that it was. In fact it turned out to be a not-so-good-very-bad idea.

Down the driveway to the underground garage where our mailbox is located. Then… the C-R-U-N-C-H!!! Low clearance. Aluminum and steel are no match for concrete. Exploding rear window and gut wrench. Bike rack ripped off its mounts. The bikes back were pushed and shattered the sloping rear window. The bikes were fine, but the car was a mess. A million splintery shards everywhere. Three days later, $10 worth of shard vacuuming at the carwash, $100 deductible, a temporary car rental, some fast talking, and we were back on the road. This time without the bikes (roof damage to the rack mounts). 

The rest of the trip was uneventful, all things considered. Luscious rural scenery along streams and wooded glades as we wound our way through the Cascade and Siskiyou mountains. Our first night was in Eugene, home to Sweet Life Patisserie our favorite French bakery. 

Here we began to notice a difference. Except for a dedicated Phoenix Suns fan doing construction work in Eugene, we were alone at Trev’s Brew Pub. The Suns fan was waiting to watch his team play the Lakers on Trev’s big screen. We had a burger and beer and left–25% occupancy strictly enforced. Washington is opening up. Oregon is still locked down. The next morning, it was one customer at a time at Sweet Life. Our leisurely coffee and pastry a distant memory. The nearby park full of blue tarp tents.

And so it went down through Oregon – Roseburg, Medford, Ashland – all locked down. Lots of cars and too many big trucks on the road but no serious inside dining. More blue tarp encampments. Small town restaurants closed or nearly empty. Long lines at McDonald’s drive-thru.

California was better, but an empty Lake Shasta and triple digit temperatures told us it’s going to be another year of drought and fire. On the Covid side, the Golden State is not as open as Washington but not as depressingly shutdown as Oregon. The world is creeping back toward normal, but people are wary and rules are confusing. Yes to masks inside, not so many outside. No leisurely coffee at Peet’s or Starbuck’s but socially distanced dining OK at most restaurants. Hotels far from full.

We felt almost normal having dinner with a law school friend and his wife on the deck at Sam’s Café in Tiburon but blanched when we paid $4.49 a gallon for regular gas the next morning. Over the next three days we had lunch or dinner with three other law school classmates – two at their homes in San Francisco and Berkeley and one at a restaurant in Oakland. It was a treat to be with friends we’ve known for so many years. All of us relieved to feel the shackles loosen.

In Berkeley, where some of my best days were spent and best friends made, we saw more of the pandemic effect. It’s always a mixed bag. I love it but found the changes upsetting. Homeless in doorways, encroaching blue tarps, trash in the streets, and plywood covered store windows. Signs of the time.

All in all it was good to get out of town, to see how the world looked post-Covid, and visit old friends, but hotels and restaurants were suffering from staff shortages. In Ashland the “hostess” turned us away from an almost empty “open” restaurant because the kitchen was backed up and she was alone. A bartender in Portland told us he couldn’t find anyone to cocktail, and two different hotels told us staff shortages limited services. Another sign of the times.

But, despite these things, the drive back was pleasant – George Saunders’ latest book on Audible, great lattes at Hot Stuff Espresso (a real old-fashioned, no drive-thru, espresso stand in Ashland), an alfresco lunch at McMenamin’s in Eugene, nice accommodations (especially Marriott’s trendy, efficient, slimmed down, super modern, small-is-better Moxy Hotel in Portland), and shrimp tacos waterside at Katie Downs in Tacoma on our last day.

Before the pandemic stopped us, we spent a month or two every year in a different European city – Paris, Rome, Berlin, Palma de Mallorca – where we had time to get the flavor of daily life in a foreign place. We’re anxious to resume the practice but not quite ready to cross the ocean in an airplane. Maybe next year. London? Barcelona? Lisbon? Stockholm? Or will we go back to places we’ve already enjoyed? As Rachel says, “Watch this space.”

It was an eye opening trip. Great to see old friends but the “new normal” is not normal. As our younger friends say, “No worries.” Baby steps…


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