The loneliest road trip: I drove across the country during coronavirus. Here’s what I saw.

It takes about 75 steps to walk from the entry of my studio apartment to the back of the bathroom. That’s the farthest I could possibly walk indoors. I know because I must have made the trek thousands of times trying to hit my smartwatch’s step goal while shutting out the coronavirus outbreak.

My career brought me to Washington, D.C., from New Mexico, and I had lived there for three years. But cramped in a 350-square-foot studio with the nation in lockdown, I felt marooned from my family, which was already one member short.

My stepfather had died unexpectedly in December, two days before his 60th birthday.

Dodging cars on my bike while riding to work, seeing movies with friends, or even letting my dog loose at the dog park, these things had kept me distracted.

Then coronavirus hit. 

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The sun stayed in the sky longer, but the days felt exponentially longer. I had all the time in the world to ruminate on the virus spreading and on the loss of my stepfather. Not even “Deadwood” could distract me.

So I decided to go home.

If the world was in turmoil, I wanted to help my mother and two younger brothers however I could. And I needed them.

Getting there would involve a three-day road trip, trying to give strangers as much distance as I could while feeding and watering my 15-pound canine charge. 

Quiet highways, deserted hotels 

I found America is still functioning, but on a skeleton crew. That much is evident on the nation’s highways. 

Traffic signs warned against non-essential travel. Construction vehicles sat alone next to the highway. Even the radio commercials had changed. “Alone, together,” the jingle chimed on the radio somewhere in Tennessee.

Outside Little Rock, Arkansas, I pulled into the parking lot of my hotel. It held only one other car.

No one was at the front desk. I started to question whether the hotel was even open. Eventually, someone showed up to check me in, with a warning that the complimentary continental breakfast was no longer available. 

I saw only two other people that night. We danced around each other as they tried to wheel their luggage out of the hotel. 

At my Tennessee hotel, the front desk was blocked by tables holding multiple bottles of hand sanitizer. After I checked in, the attendant frisbeed my room keys to me.

Gas is cheap, if you’re willing to touch the handle

The coronavirus continues to rip across the country, with more than 582,000 confirmed cases and 23,600 deaths as of late Monday night. Some models have been recently revised to predict lower death counts, but social distancing remains the norm. 

My trip ran from April 1 to 3, largely along Interstate 40. The journey took me through Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. Most, but not all, had some form of stay-at-home order or restrictions.

Semi-trailers still lumbered along open roads next to smaller vehicles, some of them hauling storage units. Periodically, I passed a billboard or a sign thanking the truckers for keeping the country going.

When I stopped to free the dog from the backseat, no one approached to pet him. 

Gassing up was both a delight and a mild terror. On one hand, I had to work a handle that had been touched by an unknown number of people. (The virus can live for up to 72 hours on stainless steel and plastic.) On the other hand, I don’t think I have ever paid so little for gas in my adult life. At no point did I pay more than $2 per gallon. The rental car was equally cheap. A three-day trip before insurance ran only $90. 

 At one gas station restroom, the soap dispenser squeaked as I pumped it in vain. The place smelled like it hadn’t been cleaned since before the outbreak – which I took as a good sign, since one symptom of the virus is a lack of smell.

Some travelers were much braver than I. At a one roadside stop, an intercom announced at steady intervals that public showers were ready.

In line for trail mix or a Diet Coke, most people kept their distance, but some would stand just inches behind me. 

I almost always gave up the spot. 

Hungry? Try McDonald’s, again

Drive-thrus were the main options for meals. Most of the roadside diners have shut their doors.

That includes the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, Texas. Co-owner Bobby Lee described it as a three-ring circus that happens to sell steaks. It’s earned a reputation for its 72-ounce steak challenge. (It’s as it sounds, and then some.)

Amarillo, Lee said, is not a destination town, and most of the restaurant’s traffic usually came from commuters along the interstate. 

“These people come through, and we have a responsibility to be open 365 days a year regardless of the weather condition because it serves as a kind of a lighthouse,” he said.

But no one is eating – or trying – giant steaks these days. 

Since March 30, the Steak Ranch has been closed for social distancing. That hasn’t stopped people from pulling into the parking lot and peering through the windows.

What else is open? Not much. A Walmart in Lonoke, Arkansas, stayed busy on April 2. Store employees had constructed a makeshift barrier of carts to stem the flow of traffic into the store. A nearby liquor store was also open, though signs in the store encouraged customers to practice social distancing.  

I avoided exploring too much.

In my hotel room watching “Law and Order,” the prosecutors stood way too close to the defense attorneys for comfort. 

Back on the road, I almost enjoyed watching the green hills streak past, or watching a light rain make a lake dance. Then I would pass a traffic sign warning of COVID-19, and I’d press a little harder on the accelerator.

And when I finally made it home after a 12-hour day on the road, the first thing I did wasn’t hug my family. First, I washed my hands.