Culture | Habits | Travel

The New Clumsiness of Travel

What happens when, having spend your adult life mastering the art of traveling, you pause said travel for months at a time? Other than one memorable trip to Ohio last fall I haven’t traveled since March 2020. So I eagerly packed my bag for a brief regional trip Monday morning, wondering what the road might offer me this time.

This one was supposed to be simple. Drive four hours south to New Jersey, spend a night and meet with some folks on Tuesday, then drive up to Connecticut for some other meetings. But I noticed the rustiness right away. It started with leaving my laptop at home. I realized it at a gas station just down the road – no harm, no foul. Just time counted against me. Time that would stack up as traffic built in front of me, adding proposed route changes and a distinct feeling that the drive would be much longer than anticipated.

Welcome back! Connecticut said, throwing orange greeting cones up for me in celebration at my return. And I embraced the lane closure as a stoic ought to. Such is fate. This used to grind me to dust, now it’s a reminder of what I’d gained during the pandemic: time and perspective. I watched the angry desperation of drivers cutting ahead of three cars just to feel some measure of control over the situation and turned the air vent back towards me for the breeze. No, none of this was all that important.

The rules are ambiguous. Signage states to wear a mask in some places, and I slip it on as I walk in the door only to see half the people inside not wearing a mask. I keep it on anyway, respecting the sign on the door, or more specifically, the person who left it up. Not very hard, this mask thing, but so bloody divisive for a population that can’t handle anything remotely inconvenient in their march towards oblivion. What’s a mask but a sign of regard for our fellow humans?

The tavern I choose for dinner is empty and anticipating company that never comes. A help wanted sign waves in the hot breeze outside, trying in vain to get people to embrace working for a living once again. The bartender fumbles for her mask when I walked in, I told her not to worry about it with a simple word: “vaccinated”. And this is where we are in the world, uncertain greetings and understaffed small businesses trying to scrape survival out of the days after COVID.

I return to my hotel room, largely alone on the entire floor but for a family on the far end who will use the hallway as a daycare until well into the evening. I might have been bothered by this two years ago, but it’s nice just to hear signs of life in this quiet hotel. They might be at 20% capacity, based on the cars in the lot.

Dozing off thinking about an early start, celebrating the awkwardness of being back on the road again, I’m jolted awake by what I believe to be the fire alarms going off. It turns out to be a tornado warning pushed to both of my phones simultaneously. Turning one off, I acknowledge the other and open the blinds for some of the most brilliant lightning streaks I’ve ever seen dancing across the sky for the next hour. Thankfully no tornadoes touching down at the Doubletree.

Do you know that old cliché about never forgetting how to ride a bicycle? Travel now feels this way. You just plug yourself back into the travel routine, brush off the rustiness and go. The routine is largely the same, only traveler has changed.

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