John and I left the U.S. on April 2, 2019 and visited 26 countries over 344 days of travel, landing in Houston on March 11, 2020. We later learned that Wired Magazine published an article called An Oral History of the Day Everything Changed – and that day was March 11, 2020 – the exact day we returned.
The Wired article chronicles the mood of the country on March 11, somewhere between disbelief and panic as, one by one, events were cancelled that no one believed could be cancelled. In Austin, the South by Southwest festival was cancelled, the NBA announced cancellation of the remainder of their season minutes before a game after a player was discovered to be ill from COVID-19, Italy announced that large parts of the country would close, flights to the U.S. from Europe would be discontinued. And of course, the COVID-19 virus was officially named a pandemic. We had been hearing news reports along the way as the spread of the virus intensified. As our travels took us in the direction of home, from Australia, to New Zealand, then Hawaii, we felt that doors were slamming behind us.
First order of business: Buy a Car
We sold all of our vehicles before leaving on our travels, so we knew that we needed to buy a car first thing. In the weeks before our return, John spent evenings in our hotel rooms researching cars and identifying CarMax and Certified Pre-Owned models of interest in or near Houston. On March 11, we set out to find a vehicle. As we entered car dealers, the salesmen, trained in the amenities of greeting customers, put out a hand for a handshake, and we, in response, awkwardly offered an elbow to bump and then made a joke of it. The home we returned to looked a lot like the one we had left nearly a year ago, but that would soon change. On March 11, the interstates were packed with cars, and people were everywhere. Just over a week later, states would begin to issue stay-at-home orders. And then, in the blink of an eye, the activities that define our lives: school, work, church, sporting events and concerts, and socializing, all moved to Zoom or went away entirely.
Our plan on returning home had been to spend this year travelling in the U.S. and Canada. We were going to make a swing through Louisiana to see family and friends. John and I would finally get to see his four (yes, four!) grandbabies born in our absence – triplet girls to one family and a baby boy to another – then move on to Atlanta to see my kids. After that we were going to North Carolina for a niece’s college graduation, and then we planned to make our way out West and up to Canada. None of that has happened or will happen, we realize. An employee reunion at Glacier National Park, where I spent a summer working in college, was postponed from late August to the summer of 2021.
Fast forward to the present
People ask if we are glad that we took our year around the world, and our response is a resounding ‘yes!’ We are especially glad as we realize that it may be some time before it’s possible to travel in this way again.
So, what are we doing now? For the past two months, we have been sheltering in place in a little vacation rental apartment that is in a lovely neighborhood with tree-lined streets. It’s close to lakes and nice places for walking and bicycling and we have friends in the neighborhood with whom we bicycle three times a week. On most other days we take long, ‘government approved’ walks. The exercise helps keep the ‘Quarantine 15’ at bay and we’ve been lucky that we have had a nice extended spring season in the Southeast, so the days have been relatively cool all the way to Memorial Day.
The kitchen in our little apartment is small, but well equipped, and it’s been fun to get back cooking after such a long time away. There is a farm about an hour away that, typically, sells most of its produce to restaurants, however, with restaurant business temporarily down, the farm now offers big boxes of fresh produce for sale once a week. The set-up is drive-through style, in a local parking lot. We buy a box every Saturday and enjoy the bounty all week. So far, we’ve received strawberries, blueberries, potatoes, tomatoes, purple radishes, lettuce, sweet corn, kale, leeks, Swiss chard, onions, piles of cucumbers, and several varieties of summer squash.
We have a weekly, social distance visit on the lovely patio of a friend whose age puts her in the ‘vulnerable population,’ as are we, truth be told. We enjoy a nice glass of white wine and a little lunchbox-sized bag of Cheetos at our weekly visits. We so look forward to these afternoon calls and the luxury of having time to enjoy conversation with a friend.
We’ve also watched Metropolitan Opera broadcasts (free for now), gotten through all the seasons of “Ozark,” read books, and played Scrabble. I ‘namastay at home’ by taking yoga classes by video – the list just goes on.
Someone I rode bikes with yesterday referred to the two of us as ‘Pandemic Appreciators’ – which sounds odd, except that he and I had discussed that we are a little embarrassed to admit that we are actually pretty happy with the pace of life in quarantine. We are fortunate to be able to enjoy the ease of a slower schedule, the luxury of – dare I say it? Boredom. I recognize how hard this has been on so many: those who have lost jobs, have been sick or have lost loved ones, or have suffered in many other ways. But, if I’m honest, it suits me well.
Be safe, y’all.