A Post Vaccine Road Trip
In March 2020 the plug got pulled and a dark cloud of pandemic pain enveloped the planet. In March 2021, with a fragile flicker of light appearing at the end of this once-in-a-century tunnel, Lori my wife of almost four decades, and I took our vaccinated selves on a two-day drive from New York City to South Carolina.
Don’t get nervous. I didn’t wake up and see Alexis DeTocqueville staring back at me in my bathroom mirror. I am just a retired 68 year old with the Moderna vaccine on board, who headed south across state lines for a week in a beachside condo on Kiawah Island SC. For the first time in a year we stepped outside our bubble and hit the road to take a look around through fogged up glasses above our masks.
Just after sunrise on March 5 we emerged on the other side of the Hudson River, passed the endless parade of city-bound commuter busses, and headed south in the outbound canyon of towering 18 wheelers.
To melt the miles, we clicked on the 12 hour audiobook of Michael Connelly’s “The Law of Innocence”. In an unexpected coincidence the book, released late last year, laces in the pandemic as a parallel thread of rising tension.
It’s now four months after the election yet we saw more than one full size highway billboard sign festooned with eagles and a flag proclaiming PRESIDENT TRUMP. It was a sobering reminder that close to 40% of Americans had taken the Murdoch off ramp from the Reality Freeway.
600 miles and 5 hours later we walked around Colonial Williamsburg, a tourist reconstruction of the first British colonial capital that we forgot to take our kids to when they were little. Buildings are closed but masked staff in period costumes stroll down Duke of Gloucester Street which leads to The College of William and Mary built in 1693 by order of the King and Queen.
On the morning of our second day a 15 minute car ferry across the nearby James River took us from Jamestown to Scotland, VA and then onto small local roads.
Somewhere near Waverly,VA, (population 2,149) we spotted a Trump 2020 yard sign with Pence neatly razored out. As the sign faded into the rear view mirror, I had a daydream image of determined young Freedom Riders staring silently out the window of a southbound Trailways bus on a road like this one in 1961.
Chatting with strangers along the way gave us a small, slice of life, glimpse at the Covid Diaspora. A young dad was loading his kids into a car with NY plates parked next to ours on Kiawah Island. He had driven down from NYC last summer, moving his family into his father’s beach home while work and school in New York — 800 miles away — continued remotely.
We had dinner on the terrace of the Kiawah Island Golf club. Surrounded by well-heeled golfers drinking and eating around us, it was a “which of these things is not like the other” Sesame Street moment. Our 32-year-old waiter described the derailing of his career plan to become a Banquet Captain. His biggest fear last year was that the virus might stop him from ferrying meals and supplies to his sheltering at home grandparents.
In a reserved one hour pool time slot, a young woman watching her children nearby told us she was an infectious disease doctor. I asked about the calls for advice she must have gotten from family last year. She told us that relatives had stopped calling early on when she was unable to tell them not to worry. I asked if she was feeling hopeful now? She said “yes”.
The next day we listened to Walter Isaacson in an NPR interview discussing his new book “Code Breaker” about the Nobel Prize winner whose work on gene editing made the Covid vaccines possible. I thought about that young physician by the pool and the lives she and her generation of docs will now be able to save with bio-engineered meds.
2020 was also the year of George Floyd, Breonna Tayler Black Lives Matter and a President telling white supremacists to “stand by and stand down”. Throughout Virginia and the Carolinas there are frequent reminders that beneath the surface of every big issue in America today is the gaping open wound of our racial history.
Charlestown’s antebellum architecture and monuments are an ever present reminder of that city’s prominent place in America’s turbulent history.
One plaque marked a spot where an Ordinance of Secession was signed in December 1860, one month after Lincoln was elected.
On a walking tour of Charleston we chatted with a couple, in our age bracket, from Chicago on their way home from a Florida rental where their two adult children joined them. One daughter living in Brooklyn is a journalist covering white supremacists and domestic terrorism.
A monument by the Charleston harbor, erected in 1932, honors the “Confederate Defenders of Charleston”. It’s a tribute to the insurrectionists who attacked the Federal military base at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, launching a war to preserve the right to enslave people.
Our guide told us about an angry confrontation last year at the site between Black Lives Matter protesters and defenders of Confederate monuments. Her otherwise plain vanilla account hit a small speed bump when she used the word “heritage” in describing the motives of the defenders.
I suggested to the parents of the reporter on the white supremacy beat in Brooklyn, that their daughter is writing the next chapter in the same history. They heartily agreed.
We also stopped on the sidewalk across from the Waring Federal Courthouse. Federal Judge J. Waties Waring was a son of Charleston with Confederate ancestors, whose dissent in a school desegregation case became the foundation of Brown v the Board of Education in 1954. He faced hostility and social shunning that forced him to leave Charleston and live the rest of his life in New York City.
The courthouse had originally been named after long term South Carolina Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings. In 2015 Hollings asked that his name be removed and the building re-named to honor Judge Waring.
The Boone Hall Plantation, an hour north of Charleston, offers the disconcerting experience of touring a working plantation that dates back to 1681. A sanitized story of slavery is told on the walls of preserved brick slave houses with the master’s mansion in the background.
The tour guide in the mansion is white and on a tractor ride around the plantation a white guy gives a bubbly narrative that not once included the word “slavery”. An older black man silently drove the tractor. A brochure tells visitors that they offer plantation weddings. Apparently there are couples opting to exchange vows at the scene of a crime against humanity.
On the way home we stayed in Richmond Va., the city that replaced Williamsburg as the state capital in 1780 and became the capital of the Confederacy in 1861.
Our hotel was buzzing with the energy of kids in town for a soccer meet and a cheerleading competition. Watching exhausted parents wrangling those girls was a reminder that the childhood of an entire generation has taken a hit. It was also hard not to worry that people were jumping the gun on returning to normal.
We are back home. The downward curve of the national infection rate is creeping back up. The country is in a desperate race between herd immunity and the new variants. The beginning and middle of the pandemic story has been written. The ending is a real time work in progress. It feels like an old horror movie where the werewolf ravaging the countryside has been wounded by the townsfolk with pitchforks and torches — but not killed.