Thank God for Dairy Queen, La Quinta, and Quality Inn, because otherwise the alphabet game (the one where you find letters on signs and license plates) would be well-nigh impossible. Also much appreciation to all the lawyers who post billboards that start with “Injured?” because that J comes in handy.

Why, after three and a half years of driving around the country, I decided to start playing the alphabet game during this trek, I do not know. But in the past two weeks, I played it for hours and hours and hours, and I would like to never play it again. I did get very good at it, though. My fastest game was about 2 minutes in the San Jose area; my slowest was about 5 hours across the Arizona desert. Pro tip: J & Q are the hard letters, while X and V are surprisingly easy because of Exits and Vehicles.

Next random thought, I prefer positive gratitudes to negative gratitudes. And if our vocabulary had better emotional granularity, we would have two words for the feeling of gratitude, one for the happy, content gratitude inspired by appreciating a cup of coffee or some beautiful flowers — the gratitude of small delights — and another for the resigned gratitude of, “At least this situation isn’t worse.” I’ve had a lot of the latter gratitude in the past week: I’m grateful not to be worrying about feeding six children; I’m grateful not to be in an ICU struggling to breathe, etc. But I highly, highly recommend not living in a van during a pandemic. Just FYI.

On that note, how is it that homeless people aren’t dying of dehydration? And how is that despite my awareness of the importance of water, developed over the past four years, that thought never occurred to me before this week? It speaks to my privilege, I think — and probably all of our privilege — that we just don’t worry about where our clean water is going to come from. Until we’re homeless, I guess, and/or living in a van during a pandemic.

Moving on to some actual story-telling: On Monday morning, I decided I was enough healthier that I should start looking for someone to fix my propane. I thought it would probably take me a few days to get an appointment or I would discover it was impossible, depending on how Arizona was handling non-essential needs. As it happened, the second person I called was willing to take a look that afternoon, if I could meet him in between jobs. I warned him that I’d been sick, but was feeling better, and we agreed to practice excellent social distancing. Then I got off the phone and started packing up the van.

A side note: according to the CDC, people can stop home isolation post-covid-19 after 72 hours fever-free, other symptoms have improved, and at least 7 days after their symptoms started. I don’t have a thermometer, but Friday was the day I started feeling better, which was 8 days after my coughing started, so whether it was a cold or covid, Monday was my CDC-approved day to stop isolating. Obviously, I still practiced my very best social distancing/clean hand obsession throughout the day. I am truly terrible about touching my face, though.

Anyway, about three hours later, the propane was fixed, more or less. The repair guy somewhat strongly suggested I order a replacement emergency cut-off switch from Winnebago so as to have it on hand for the next time my propane fails. I don’t think he was optimistic about the long-term success of his fix. But it’s working for the moment, so I’m not complaining.

Post propane-success, I decided it was time to tackle the water issue. I have four gallon jugs for drinking water, plus the tank on the van for water for washing & flushing. Three of the jugs were empty and the tank was down to 1/4 left. I could have (should have!) stopped at the RV Pit Stop in Quartzite before I left to fill up, but at the time I was focused on the propane and it didn’t occur to me. Water didn’t feel like a big deal. Two closed campgrounds and three stores with empty shelves later, with one measly half-gallon jug to show for my labors, it felt rather more important.

With minimal water and campgrounds closed or closing, I was torn: back to Quartzite to restock and practice social distancing with my Facebook friends, or head to Arcata? And if Arcata, how to go? Leisurely, up through Nevada, stopping often, and waiting out the weather if there was snow in the mountains, or the most direct route, which would make me go through the San Francisco Bay Area?

I think the empty shelves in the grocery stores supplied my answer: I understand all the logical reasons why the shelves are both empty now and won’t be empty for long, but that doesn’t mean it’s not anxiety-provoking to see that all the rice except for the arborio is gone, ditto all the Campbell’s canned soup. Only mildly so, as I quite like Arborio rice, and I can’t eat most Campbell’s soup anyway, but still… It felt like a very good time not to be traveling. Straight to Arcata it was.

By 9 PM, I was across the border and settling down for the night at the campground at Chiriaco Summit – Patton Museum. The campground was very basic — no amenities, just a row of nicely spaced out campsites — but also free and for free, it was very appealing.

The museum was, of course, closed, but I got to admire the collection of tanks while walking Z in the morning. She didn’t care about the tanks, but she was extremely bouncy. I think she liked the weather, which was cold enough that I deemed it time to hunt for my eggplant coat.

A couple of the tanks at the war museum
Two of the tanks at the War Museum

After our walk, I made some coffee, and by 7:30 AM, I was on the road. I told myself I’d write morning words and check my email at a rest stop. But instead I drove. And drove. And drove.

I was not alone. For plenty of the time, I wondered who all the other people on the road with me were and why they weren’t staying home. All the highway alert signs said something like, “Avoid Travel, Stay At Home to Stop COVID-19” and every time I saw one I felt guilty, but at least I was actually in my home, even if it was moving. When I got to Oakland, though — familiar territory to me, because I used to live there — it became obvious how actually empty the roads were. I think I drove through Oakland-Berkeley in about 10 minutes, never going below 60MPH and that’s just unthinkable. It definitely felt surreal.

More tomorrow!