Week 21: Pandemic Road Trip

August 20, 2020

I-5 through the Central Valley, smoke from NoCal fires in the air

There have been times during this pandemic when life seems to inch along at a glacial pace, everything so slow and so much the same that you can’t even remember which month it is, let alone which day.

Today is not one of those times.

I left Los Angeles yesterday, the minivan packed full of Liam’s bags and his bike, my eldest son next to me in the passenger seat. At home, Eli was awaiting a call from his friend, Emma, who lives in Sacramento but whose dad just happened to be visiting relatives this week in Michigan. Eli and his buddies found out Tuesday afternoon that Michigan State University would not let them move into the dorms, and now they were frantically trying to find a house together off-campus. Emma’s dad said he would stop by the prospective rental houses and check them out for the kids.

The drive up I-5 was uneventful until we descended the Grapevine and landed in Central Valley farmland, where the air was white with …. something. Liam insisted it was smoke from the Northern California fires. I refused to believe it. All the way in southern Kern County? It must be fog, I said (rather absurd, since the Valley is far inland), or dust kicked up by all those tractors.

We had to stop at a gas station near Kettleman City, and when I got out of the car, the acrid smell of smoke settled the question. But that wasn’t the end of the adventure at the gas station. I went inside, to pay and use the restroom, only to find myself greeted by a mask-less clerk with a big, goofy grin. I turned heel, paid at the pump, and waited on a bathroom until we got to the rest stop at Coalinga.

By the time we got to Coalinga, the air had turned from white to brown, and it stayed that way all the way to Livermore, on the edge of the Bay Area, where blue skies appeared again. I found this mystifying, since we were actually closer there to the fires, but perhaps the smoke in that area is blowing out to sea, while the Valley traps it? Who knows.

Meanwhile, Eli called with updates. One of the two houses had already been rented by the time Emma’s dad got to the Lansing area, but he’d toured the other. It was down a dirt road, with a lake on the property, and everything inside was decent but on the edge of falling apart. It seemed like a heavy lift for a group of kids who up until the day before thought living on their own meant a dorm room and a meal plan. But! They had a lead on an apartment.

Where Eli goes to school, there is Lansing, the state capital, which has good neighborhoods and neighborhoods where you wouldn’t want to walk alone at night. And then there is East Lansing, a separate city, where Michigan State is located, and which is fairly prosperous. The falling-down house was in Okemos, a bedroom community of East Lansing. The apartment was in downtown Lansing, which Eli assured me was a safe neighborhood, but I wasn’t convinced he knew that for a fact. Anyway, wouldn’t they be at risk of getting kicked out once the neighbors tired of their practice schedules?

We hung up the phone as we arrived in Berkeley. Liam moved his things into his fraternity house and I slipped inside to take a look at his room, then raced back out again. I didn’t race out because I was worried about the virus. The boys who lived there this spring and summer got tested on campus all the time, and so far, no outbreaks. I raced out because the house is so so gross, and his room was littered with other people’s things. He has a job on his hands that I do not envy. I don’t understand how any of them can live that way.

But not my problem.

We decided to take a short stroll around Berkeley, and it was as dispiriting as I’d anticipated. Berkeley is a town where it’s usually impossible to find an apartment near campus for rent the week before school starts. And yet, nearly every building had a “For Rent” sign up, right in the center of town. We walked the campus. All the beautiful libraries were shut up tight. Sproul Plaza, always jammed with students and visitors and protesters and people trying to get you to vote for something or sign up for something — was empty. No one hawked cheap earrings from stands on Telegraph Avenue. Nobody sold falafel or ramen from trucks parked on the curb alongside the south end of campus.

Pro tip: don’t visit a town you love during the pandemic. If you want to travel, go somewhere new, or at least, a place where you lack a strong emotional attachment. Otherwise, the full force of the quarantine will hit you like it is March all over again, and you will remember that even though good things have come of this time, at the core of it is a loss and a sadness that is impossible to describe or quantify.

Onward. We drove east to Orinda, just over the mountains from Berkeley, where we spent a lovely, socially-distanced hour in the backyard of my college roommate, Deborah, and her husband, Dan. Liam and I were both excited about this visit, me for obvious reasons and Liam because her husband is an avid bicyclist. Liam and Dan now have plans to ride around the East Bay together. This was something I’m pretty sure neither Deborah nor I pictured when we shared a room with apple-green duvets in our sorority house (a building two streets and a world of cleanliness removed from Liam’s current place of residence).

Because of Air Bnb snafus, we ended up renting a house for the night in Concord, thirty minutes east of Berkeley. The place turned out to be lovely, and the carne asada I ordered from a local Mexican place was one of the best carne asadas I’ve ever had (in a Bay Area suburb half an hour east of Oakland? go figure).

At 10 p.m., Eli called. Nothing was working out. He was going to have to stay home for the semester. He said he was okay with that, but it sure didn’t sound like it.

I went to bed early because I wanted to be rested for my long, lonely drive home the next morning. But I woke up at 4:30 a.m. and couldn’t fall back asleep. Finally hit the road at 9 a.m., after picking up lunch for later at a Whole Foods, and dropping Liam at the frat, and hugging him twice because I don’t know how long it will be until I can hug him again.

The drive was as smoky as the day before. My throat still feels raw. Eli called when I was eating the sandwich at the Coalinga rest stop (no more Central Valley gas stations for me!). The music department at MSU was hoping to make practice rooms on campus available to them, which meant maybe they could take an apartment, and guess what? They’d found one three blocks from campus.

By the time I got home, around 3 p.m., Liam had learned that someone commandeered his old bed, but he’d managed to purchase a mattress from a newly-minted graduate (and frat brother) for $40, and he was at Bed Bath and Beyond buying sheets. Eli was signing a lease on the three-blocks-from-campus apartment, listing me as a guarantor.

The dog was frantically happy to see me. I figured she found my leaving stressful. But then I happened to walk by her water dish. Bone dry. I refilled it, and she drank and drank and drank.

Now Georgie is all hydrated and settled. I’m trying to get resettled too. It’s been a long week, and it’s still only Thursday.

3 thoughts on “Week 21: Pandemic Road Trip

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