It was looking to be a full but typical year of travel. Spring and fall are the busiest times for a travel writer, and headed into the year, 2020 seemed to be no exception.
Plans were set for spring travel to California in early March, Virginia in April, Alabama in May, a visit to Erie, Pennsylvania, followed by a train ride to Toronto in June, and a dream trip -- a women’s fishing expedition in remote Alaska -- for July.
Like most people, I had my eye on the coronavirus situation early in the year. As the trip to California approached, I asked my sister, who was traveling with me, if she thought it was safe. At that time, confirmed cases in the U.S. were few. It still felt like a distant possibility. Neither of us brought facemasks or hand sanitizer as we packed for the eight-day trip.
Three days before we departed, on February 25, San Francisco’s mayor declared a state of emergency. I searched maps of outbreaks and news sources to see if there was an increase in cases, but everything I read said the declaration was a precautionary measure -- a matter of preparation. So, off we went, not realizing that this trip would occur during the tipping point of the outbreaks in the U.S.
You would never have known we were on the precipice of a major pandemic. For eight days, my sister and I dined in top restaurants, met family in San Francisco, rode the ferry (packed to capacity) to Sausalito, took the train to Monterey for a food tour and walks along the beach, then visited Carmel-by-the-Sea for more beaches and wine tastings and some of the best meals I’ve ever tasted.
Perhaps because we were traveling, and I was working -- conducting interviews, taking notes, updating photos, and making social media posts -- I didn’t follow the news. Everything I could see was “fine.”
Only a couple times was I reminded of the pandemic and the impending situation. On the train from San Francisco to Monterey, a woman sitting across from my sister and I had an odd cough. It was like she was clearing her throat, but it continued the entire trip. I wondered if it was a nervous tic or if she was ill. Then, while touring a resort where we were staying, the person who was originally supposed to show me around canceled because he was sick. Another woman took his place and when I stuck my hand out to shake hands, she simply looked at my extended hand. I realized in that uncomfortable pause that I’d made an error and wondered if the situation was getting worse without my knowing. Keep in mind that at this time, the virus was still predominately in China.
However, cases were increasing in California. A few people I interviewed -- chefs, hotel owners, tour operators -- thanked me for getting the word out that it was safe to travel in California. In Chinatown, we took a tour with tourists from Sweden, Germany, and a group of students visiting from Pennsylvania. The area was bustling with shoppers and the virus still felt very far away.
Then, on the flight home, we started to see more masks. My sister was in the window seat and I was in the middle. We both watched as the man sitting on the aisle fastidiously wiped down his seat, table, and monitor. Since I hadn’t been following the news, I thought it was just caution. But when I sneezed (airplane air always tickles my nose), I made a point of sneezing into my elbow, toward my sister instead of the other passenger.
I returned home to an empty refrigerator, so I made a trip to the grocery store to refill my supplies. In just a little more than a week, the situation in Kansas City, Kansas, had changed. I found crowds of shoppers filling their carts, walking in a daze, faces white with fear. Many food items were already sparse, so I grabbed what I could find. There wasn’t any toilet paper to be found, but I did buy a couple boxes of tissues. It was surreal to leave California and its food and shopping and beaches and return to Kansas which, at the time, had just gotten its first confirmed case, but where people were near panic in their preparations.
I had already decided when I returned on March 6 to self-isolate for 14 days, just to be cautious. After just one week of my self-imposed isolation, the number of cases in Kansas multiplied and quick action was taken: Schools closed through the end of the school year. Restaurants and bars closed except for carryout and curbside service.
My two weeks of self-quarantine passed, and now the entire Metro is isolated along with me. I’ve found new ways to entertain myself. Instead of traveling, I’m taking online classes, watching free concerts, and utilizing the free classes the YMCA has online to stay active. I’m also taking walks, working on essays I haven’t had time to write, and dreaming of when I will travel again.
Travel, for me, is stopped until the situation improves. I watched as other travel writers debated whether to continue. Some argued for their right to travel; others say it is irresponsible to travel now. I canceled all my upcoming trips but one.
In July, if possible, I plan to attend the fishing expedition in Alaska. It’s a remote area and the lodge only holds 16 people. There will be plenty of opportunity for hiking and boating and fresh air away from large crowds. All I can say at the moment is, “We’ll see.” But dreaming of future travel keeps me sane during this unprecedented time, so I will continue to plan and wait for future trips.
Back in San Francisco, the night before our flight home, we stayed at the Grand Hyatt located at the airport. Inside our room was a pair of binoculars for watching the planes land and viewing the cityscape and homes nearby. My sister took a photo of me looking through the binoculars. The photo is symbolic for me. It shows my back as I look out, to what lies ahead. I feel like that is my destiny for now, to stay in yet look out toward what is to come.
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