Snaking our way into the Ralph’s market in Santa Barbara that Thursday I realized the world was changing. It was chaos. Stressed employees shouted orders at frantic shoppers pressed shoulder to shoulder in checkout lines that meandered in every direction. For the first time I saw entire aisles of empty shelves – my introduction to toilet paper hoarding. And to think: We should have been lying on a beach in Mexico right now.
The day before, March 11, I’d started packing for our getaway to Cabo San Lucas. Celebrating my birthday on a beach had become an annual tradition that’s included Thailand, Barcelona, Costa Rica and Hawaii. Along with the typical beachwear, I’d packed a few upscale tropi-casual outfits for the posher spots and my birthday dinner on Friday the 13th.
When Mary got home from work though, she was spooked. COVID-19 was now officially a pandemic. Colleagues had expressed concern about travelling, especially outside the country. “What if they close the border? We’ll be stuck there.” Not a horrible proposition, to be stuck in paradise, but I could see she was serious. The risk of contracting the virus while traveling, by the way, was not a source of great concern at the time.
As Mary does in these situations, she revved up her favorite internet travel tools to see about rerouting our plans. A lot of money had already been invested — and re-booking on the eve of a travel day during spring break was an expensive proposition. I suggested instead a roadtrip. The destination mattered less than the prospect of travel, something that had bonded Mary and me early on. We’ve logged many miles of open roads in our day, but a sandy beach was still a requirement.
And so on the morning of the 12th, we loaded the SUV in Silicon Valley and headed south, destination undetermined. We hung by the coast starting in Monterey, eschewing the quicker, straighter inland highways. I’d owned this car for only a few months, and it now became clear it was engineered perfectly for the twisty, curvy, hilly thrill that is Route 1, the Cabrillo Highway. Mary, however, was not thusly engineered. The view and proximity to the steep oceanic oblivion racing outside the passenger window conjured some familial friction: slow down. That was a fine excuse to stop for lunch at Nepenthe, a restaurant attraction with spectacular, stationary views of the coast.
Over lunch, high above the Pacific, we hashed out an itinerary. By now, we’d decided we’d be in Santa Monica for my birthday the next day, but should we push through tonight or take a break along the way? We decided we’d overnight in Santa Barbara; lovely. While I motored the car along the coast passed San Simeon, San Luis Obispo, Pismo Beach, Solvang and other familiar-sounding towns, Mary booked us a room in the heart of Santa Barbara.
The skies in the distance were growing ominous and finally broke with rain. Passing through NPR hotspots, we heard increasingly alarming reports about the virus, including words from the president and his team. It still felt very far away.
The Ralph’s sits across the street from The Kimpton Canary Hotel. We braved the light rain, as Californians do, to run over to grab some water, wine and snacks for the room. The scene inside the store was surreal, but now we understood this to be reality. And yet, we still didn’t appreciate its gravity. The next morning, undaunted, we steered the car toward Santa Monica.
The radio reception was steady along the 101 into Los Angeles. We learned that theme parks and malls were closing, concerts and TV tapings were being postponed (only for a couple of weeks, at that point). And still we drove, down the 405 to the 10 and west to our hotel on the beach.
We spent that night and the next day having a pretty predictable Santa Monica visit, albeit a rainy affair. A fine birthday dinner, some shopping on 3rd Street and along Abbott-Kinney. I bought a new backpack for the office. Mary bought a chi-chi purse. Everything felt normal and bustling, at odds with the gloom coming across the airwaves.
We made plans to have drinks with friends on Saturday and a family brunch on Sunday. This is what travel is all about – the freedom and the connection, the familiar and the new. Soon enough the friends reached out to question the plan. “Are we really going to do this,” they asked, “go ‘someplace’?” It was chilling. They were the first people we knew who were taking it seriously and choosing to isolate. There’s a word that’s taken on new meaning.
By Sunday morning, the mood of the place seemed to have turned. I said to Mary, we need to go home, like, now. She agreed. What we encountered at Ralph’s on Thursday had now festered into a low-grade panic, though it was still tame compared with what would come. We arranged for an early check-out and let the family know brunch was off. We loaded the car, filled the tank and raced north to home.
We’ve been here ever since, with very few exceptions. Looking back, I feel a tinge of guilt – we were being reckless. At the same time, there was virtue in doing what we love, to travel and explore and experience. Who knows when we’ll be able to do something so reckless – and virtuous – again.
Our last weekend out in the world taught us to make more of the next weekend we can be out there. To savor every twist and turn, every gray day and empty aisle. Me with my new backpack, Mary with her too-cute purse. Soon, I hope.