The United States of COVID

The United States of COVID in 35 Hours (Give or Take)

This past week I drove cross-country with #3 son so he could begin his sophomore year at college. His university has been vague as to whether there will be any campus activity no less in-person classes, but we decided to roll the dice. Here’s hoping they don’t come up snake eyes.

In their defense, the situation with coronavirus is fluid; some colleges have already had to walk back plans after outbreaks. It defies reason to believe kids — yes, they are kids — would social distance after being away from campus, in my son’s case, for five solid months. So, I was not surprised when clusters emerged.

We had discussed all possible options — return, gap year, or stay home and continue online — before deciding to sign a lease with four other guys for the school year. Since he was to live off-campus, I felt he needed a car thus the 2,240-mile drive from the east coast.

Curiously, this was not the longest father-son drive we had undertaken; he reminded me we traveled 2,258 miles on his southern college tour two years ago when we visited 10 schools in seven days, none of which made the cut. This trip was, however, the first time I had driven a vehicle west of Indiana. And the first time in a pandemic.

Back in 2016, I undertook a similar albeit much shorter ride to install #2 son at his school on the western edge of Ohio for his second year. Like 2020, 2016 was an election year and we all know how that ended. When Trump won, I was gobsmacked but my boy was non-plussed. “Don’t you remember, Dad, when we drove back to school? All we saw were Trump signs!”

He was right and, no that sad fact had slipped my mind. As such, this time around, before we crossed the Delaware, I placed my youngest on high alert. “Be on the lookout for signs, bumper stickers, t-shirts, anything political.” He replied, “Yeah, whatever.” And so our journey began.

We traversed PA, OH, IN, IL, MO, NE, and WY as well as bits of NJ and UT. We briefly passed through Iowa as well. All of these states choose red in 2016 except NJ and IL. So, what did we uncover? Not much, as it turns out.

We did not see a single political sign of any ilk until over 900 miles had passed and we were half-way across Illinois. It was a giant MAGA banner in the middle of a cornfield. We saw five more signs in Missouri, much smaller and a blur if we hadn’t been on notice. That was it. Not a single bumper sticker. Or a hat or shirt at any of the dozen rest stops we visited. And zilch for Biden. Nothing. Nada.

I’m not sure what to conclude. I’ll be the first to admit our little experiment would hardly stand up to the rigor of peer review. But there is something to the nothingness, I just not sure what. We did see some yard signs in Cheyenne, WY, as we met a local friend for dinner, but these were for a city office. Nothing approaching national and very difficult to discern party affiliation on a one of them. So, I’m a bit stumped.

The other bit of analytical data we were trying to divine were masks. As in, are people wearing them? Again, our data points were relegated to truck stops and not much else until we reach Salt Lake City. Survey says? As you might have guessed, the further west we traveled, the fewer mask wearers we saw. In fact, in our brief foray at a Hawkeye State rest stop, masks were practically non-existent.

Some of this is clearly due to population density, or the lack thereof. WY is over 10 times the size of NJ and holds six Wyomingites for every 100 Garden State residents. And it looks it! Nothing but horizon for miles. So, I could forgive folks for being sans mask as we sipped our beers — outdoors, natch — at Danielmarks (indoors smartly required a mask).

Hotels were another matter — strict enforcement of mask rules and rooms were immaculate and sanitized for our protection. Some even sported seals ala CSI, the breakage of which would yield some level of comfort. And it did… I actually enjoyed housekeeping, or the lack thereof. Not once did they knock on my door.

Now the fun part and stop me if you’ve heard this one. On Day 2 of our journey, through the endless corn stalks, #1 son, whose been living and remote working from our NJ home, felt ill. He had just spent two weeks in the Hamptons with 11 other friends and we briefly crossed paths before our 8 am Sunday departure. And so off he went to his NYC apartment to sequester while we all scrambled to get ourselves tested.

As expected, he was positive as were 10 of his housemates. The sole exception? A young lady who had the virus back in March. Fortunately, he is tolerating it well and after a brief visit to the ER to check vitals, he’s on the mend. As for the rest of my family, we all came up negative so after extending my stay a few days awaiting results, I was finally able to fly back to EWR.

Again, masks are a requirement in airports and in tin cans but I can firmly state from experience that they are terribly uncomfortable worn in long stretches. Another reason to give kudos to our healthcare professionals! But mostly everyone — except the guy next to me in the middle seat — abided. So maybe there’s a glimmer of hope that we can through this thing if we just stay vigilant.

As for using my eyes to predict a winner this fall, not a chance. My worry is people are so beaten down by four years of scandal, they’ve thrown in the towel. Or the mask, as it were. So do us all a favor and vote like your life depends on it. Because it does…

Originally published at on August 24, 2020.