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East Through the Pandemic 

Reflections on a 2,800-mile drive across America

I had not been more than 10 miles from home since March as, like most of us, my family has adhered to the protocols and shelter-in-place restrictions aimed to reduce the spread of COVID-19. I was stunned as I drove up State Route 299 along the Trinity River by how alive everything felt. Despite living through spring and getting outside with frequency for walks, hikes and bike rides – I had somehow missed the bigger picture of the changing landscape. I found myself several chapters ahead in the book of summer. The river was swollen with spring flow and adorned with dancing light, and the world appeared to have an elevated vibrancy. I wondered if the amplified beauty was a result of my imposed limited, albeit beautiful, radius of landscape, or if the natural world had taken significant advantage of the decreased traffic and impact — and turned it up a notch. It was spectacular.

In her later years, my mom has become what some call a "snow bird," a resident of the north (in her case Michigan) who migrates south to avoid the harsh and potentially dangerous winter months. In her 10th year of traveling to the small town of Port St. Joe in the panhandle of Florida, she has developed a community of friends that keeps her returning. In October of 2018, Hurricane Michael leveled Mexico Beach and destroyed much in that coastal region. Close to this time my mother's breast cancer recurred and she remained north braving not only the weather but a combative course of radiation. This past fall she migrated south again to be with friends and support the community she has grown to love. She was happy to be back, even amid the reminders of the hurricane's destruction that wreaked havoc only a year before.

We all recognize that our senior population is vulnerable to COVID-19 and my mother, as she nears 80, is among them. She is incredibly tenacious and youthful in spirit but, by virtue of being a cancer survivor with a diagnosis of COPD, we feel particularly protective of her. She was in Florida during the shelter in place and, as phase two of reopening moves across our states in different incarnations, the realization was clear: She needed assistance packing and getting home safe. She has close friends who usually help with the trip but, with the risk of air travel, that didn't seem like an option.

The Plan

Rent a car at the Arcata-Eureka Airport, drive to mom and drop the car at Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport in Panama City. The car needed to be a mini-van that I could sleep in and big enough to carry the food and water necessary for the journey. (I highly recommend the Chrysler Pacifica for such an expedition. The seats fold flush into the floor and the car has all of the latest features for a long haul.) The idea was to limit any interactions that could potentially risk exposure to the virus. Perhaps I was being extreme, maybe some would say paranoid, but I felt if I didn't stay in hotels, eat in restaurants or shop in stores, then I could minimize risk to my mother's well-being. I planned on sleeping in the visitor parking areas of hospitals. It felt like a safe idea. Then George Floyd was murdered by former police officer Derek Chauvin with his knee to Floyd's neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Three other former officers were charged with aiding and abetting second degree murder.

White Privilege

In planning my trip I'd felt nervous. Was it essential travel? Would I find safe places to sleep along the way? Would it be too hot? But not once did I wonder if I would be profiled, intimidated and potentially in danger because of my skin color. When I thought of encountering the law, I assured myself that I could merely tell them what I was up to and they would understand. Taking care of our parents is relatable right? On May 25, our country was shown, again, the violent, ugly and horrific reflection of a deeply systemic issue. Action and anger filled our communities, and demonstrations followed — some volatile and some peaceful, but all of them expressions of the need for change. This is our responsibility. This is up to every one of us. A truism of white privilege is knowing none of us are "there" or done with the work. The reflection shown to us, with all of its historical and present oppressive qualities resonates deeply across the world. I saw an image of a mural of George Floyd on a war torn wall in Syria, a symbol of a global issue that unifies and sadly can polarize, too.

One of the primary steps of addressing racism is the deliberate unlearning of one's own inherent bias and examining how inherent bias contributes to inequities. May 25 didn't present an isolated event. Rather it broadcasted further evidence of a deep and vast societal fracture requiring deliberate and committed action. This weighs on all of us.

Protections

Initially I was going to follow a southern route east that would have taken me through the Bay Area and Southern California. My older sister left me a tearful message, regretfully saying that if I stayed with her and her wife in Albuquerque, they would need to quarantine for 14 days because they are health professionals. She was heartbroken over it. She also reminded me that Navajo Country was among the hardest hit by COVID-19, and that U.S. Route 40 went right through affected areas. She also said El Paso was having an uptick in cases and that she was unsure how it would be driving across Texas and Louisiana. Then the civil unrest hit. My priority was to get to my mother home as swiftly and safely as possible. I decided on the northern route to minimize urban areas and cut out the Bay Area and Los Angeles. I also considered the heat. My journey east started on 299.

From the 299 I proceeded on 44 down the Lassen Peak Highway to Susanville. From there it was the arid drive down U.S. Route 395 to Reno, where Interstate 80 West ushered me into the Midwest. When I dropped into Reno, I saw casinos and hotels with full parking lots. I knew phase two of reopening was underway but I was not aware of the extent and how different it would look along the way. From Susanville to Florida I saw eight people wearing masks during my necessary stops. Granted my vantage was mostly limited to gas stations with convenience stores along the highway. Many restaurants appeared full and the marts at the gas stations were busy at times. In Wyoming, virtually every hotel had a full parking lot but once in Nebraska the hotels looked empty — were they like the ones in California only allowing essential workers to patronize them? I still don't know but the difference was stark. Even after a short time in places where masks weren't being used, at least from what I could see, I began to wonder if I was being overly vigilant. I have heard of people wearing masks and being sneered at or comments being made. I did not experience this, though I found myself self-conscious at times, wondering what others thought. But I was committed to remaining vigilant and determined to hold my self-imposed standard to the end.

I arrived to Port St. Joe just in time to avoid the heavy winds and rains forecasted by the Tropical Depression Cristobal moving up the Gulf of Mexico. After almost three months of quarantine, my mother was very relieved to have the company of family and I was relieved to see her safe and sound. I didn't see one mask being worn in Florida, except when I returned the rental car to the airport in Panama City. There, perhaps 20 percent of the people in the terminal were wearing them. On scenic drives prior to our migration north, my mother and I drove by overflowing bar and restaurant patios, with patrons eating oysters and congregating. I picked up food to go once and was the only person wearing a mask in a surprisingly full bar and grill. Florida is one of the states seeing the sharpest increase of cases and hospitalizations, though not in Gulf County where we were.

It is so hard to make sense of the "new normal" when it appears to have such varied interpretations. "You're the next contestant on Choose Your Reality, come on down!" No matter your behavior or decision of how to move through this world right now, one thing is for certain: It is different everywhere. Regionally, in Michigan the grocery stores I went to require masks and social distancing, and staff were wiping down every cart between customers. The realities continue to shift, as does the level of concern.

A theme of the week is protections. Protection of our elders, protection of our children and schools, protection of commerce, protecting each other from illness. And of highest importance, the protection of all people through real and informed change. Black Lives Matter doesn't discount the importance of anyone's life. It is the dire need to address systemic racism, white privilege, violence against Black community members, oppression and the urgent necessity to advance a society that is equitable, unified, responsive and just.

It is a tenuous time in the world with many uncertainties, so much pain and, thankfully, so much love. May we move through this with careful self-examination. May the head align with the heart, the truth reside in justice, and may safety for us all advance with time.

Take care and be well.

Dr. Peter Stoll is a credentialed school psychologist and administrator, and prefers he/him pronouns. He is a program director for the Humboldt County Office of Education and the Humboldt-Del Norte SELPA.

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