Diane's Voice

The Vacation Thief

My last post was supposed to be written in late July, but Katie Riegel was kind enough to fill in for me because I was on the first out-of-state vacation I’d taken since February of 2020 and I’d left my computer home. While I try to look on the bright side of things and review all the many ways Covid has changed my life for the better, I will always resent the way it has limited my travel with my husband and teenage daughters. In summer 2020 and summer 2021 B. was 16/17 and C. was 14/15. I wanted to take them to Europe, to cities with vast museums, deeply historic buildings, and amazing food. But as I started planning our summer vacation in March, the only travel I could justify in my risk-averse mind (C. had still not been vaccinated) was to take us all on B.’s college tours. When things started to open up in May and June it was too late to plan anything else, as every other place I wanted to go was fully booked.

B.’s advisor recommended she apply to a university in North Carolina and I thought a mountain vacation might be a good change of pace. Slightly cooler weather than our torrid Florida summers, land more than 10 feet above sea level, grassy fields instead of sandy beaches, but plenty of space for social distancing. We could drive to avoid crowds, stop in Savannah on the way there, then spend a couple of days touring the university and the Blue Ridge Mountains before heading back to Savannah and then on to tour one of the major Florida schools. Not my dream vacation, but something.

When we got to Savannah we stayed at a lovely hotel on the waterfront, took a walking tour of the city, saw the Juliette Gordon Lowe house from the outside (both of my girls were Girl Scouts for awhile and I was their leader). We shopped at a little toy store. We were all vaccinated and walking around without masks. I could see the smiles on my kids’ faces as they laughed and joked, read historic signs and walked ahead of us almost holding hands to make sure they stayed together. It wasn’t Europe, but it had a lot of history, and as B. had just finished AP American History we all had a lot of fun seeing real places and putting the historical timeline together. 

The next day we left for the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. B. had decided when we left home that she was going to tally Trump 2024 signs and flags, religious signs, and Confederate flags. I would have been relieved the religious ones won if so many of them hadn’t been about hell. My younger child, C., decided to read aloud her summer reading book to us. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is set in Germany during the Holocaust. It’s narrated by Death. 

As the drive through South Carolina dragged on endlessly, Death’s narrative about Hitler’s Germany and the little girl who read books to the neighbor her family hid in her basement kept me not only awake but riveted. Despite the absolute desolation of interesting places on the Interstate, my family decided we should pull off to buy a lot of snacks and drinks, which caused more stops because everyone in my family has squirrel bladders.

These driving breaks unfortunately gave me time to scroll through my phone, where I learned that Covid cases were on the rise in Florida again. My heart clenched. Surely, I thought, it was going to be okay, though. Most of those I dearly loved were vaccinated. I told myself to breathe, to be in the moment. “The only reality is the present. Everything else is imagination.”

I calmed, cultivated detachment, accepted my powerlessness, and traveled on. B. kept tallying roadside signs. C. kept reading, as Death told how many of the character’s lives would have turned out better if they had made different choices.

When we finally got to North Carolina we had been driving for over eight hours, despite the fact that it was only supposed to be a five hour drive. My eyes were exhausted from watching the road, the voice of Death was running through my head, and even though I had been longing for the mountains since March I couldn’t drive another minute. All I wanted to do was eat a meal with vegetables in it and sleep. 

The next day’s university tour was amazing. The campus was beautiful and we had time afterwards to take a nice drive to a place that had a mountain walking trail less than a mile long. As we drove on the winding Blue Ridge Mountain Parkway a groan from the passenger and right rear seats reminded me two people in my family are prone to car sickness. As we crested a majestic peak and curved along a mountain edge bordered only by a railing, a squeak from the left back and another groan from the passenger seats reminded me two members of my family are terrified of heights. My poor daughter B. was carsick. C. had her eyes closed so as not to look down. And my husband was doing both. I was the only one enjoying the ride. 

I pulled off at the parking space that led to the trail.  

“I don’t have jeans on and I’m going to get ticks and lyme disease,” said C. 

“We didn’t put on any bug spray,” said B. 

“Isn’t the path kind of dark? I mean, is it really even a path?” asked my husband. 

This is why I wanted Europe. My family are not nature-lovers. Despite the fact that all three were some mix of ill and terrified, all preferred getting back in the car instead of walking that trail. So we did, and of course I made a wrong turn heading back to the hotel, which took us 20 minutes out of our way before I could find a place to turn around. 40 extra minutes on a really high, long, winding road. This was, in restrospect, perhaps not the best family vacation idea.

Our abrupt end to my mountain sightseeing plans left us back in our hotel room. I had nothing to do except read news accounts about Florida’s 4th pandemic wave, the increased transmissibility of the Delta variant, and breakthrough infections. During the next day’s drive the Covid stories percolated in my mind despite C.’s excellent narration of The Book Thief‘s conclusion. They haunted me as we arrived in Savannah to learn our Airbnb apartment access required an elevator and a stairwell. All I could think was, “avoid tight, poorly ventilated spaces.”

I told the kids to wear a mask. 

My husband, who had been sleeping rather than doom scrolling the night before (like a normal, mentally healthy person) had no idea what was going through my mind. He gave me a quizzical look. “We’re vaccinated and there’s no one here,” he said.  

“There could have been people breathing in this elevator,” I replied. 

“Well, I hope they were breathing in the elevator otherwise that would make this a lot worse for us.”

I glared at him. “Wear a mask.”

He rolled his eyes at me. “It’s fine. We’re fine. We’re vaccinated.” 

My stomach clenched like it was 2020 all over again. Pandemic anxiety started slowly creeping back in to my consciousness.

The second college tour was amazing, and launched that locale to B.’s top choice. I should have been teary-eyed. I should have been proud. When she said, “I don’t want to get my hopes up about this place” at the end of the tour the moment should have been bittersweet. Instead, I kept slipping back into pandemic mode. After the tour, back at the Airbnb scrolling Facebook, I became one degree of separation from five different people hospitalized with Covid.

So instead of celebrating in the city my daughter may one day think of as home, we got take-out, went back to the house, and packed to hit the road early the next morning. I wanted to be home. For the first time since vacation planning in March, I was grateful rather than resentful we weren’t vacationing in Europe. I don’t know how I would have made it through the confined space on the flight home, or the worry about having to seek medical treatment in a country where I don’t speak the language. 

Yes. I know. I can’t live my life in fear. My catastrophization is still getting out of hand. I have a lot to work on, mentally and emotionally this year as I prepare to let my daughter fly away, and processing my thoughts during this vacation is part of it. But here’s the thing: when I told Katie I couldn’t write my post last month, I believed in my heart this month’s post was going to be about being the mother of a high school senior, the college search, getting ready to let go, escaping the heat, and vacationing post-Covid. By the end of the vacation I realized, instead, it would be about driving up and down the southeast coast with the voice of Death in the backseat, wondering if this pandemic will ever be over.

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