I’ve never considered myself a germaphobe.
I lived in New York City for several years, took the subway every day and did so, hand sanitizer free. Back then, when I was a professional ballet and contemporary dancer, there were times that I even ate my lunch while riding the train because it was the only break I had in between rehearsals — you’re horrified by that thought, aren’t you? I am too, as I look back on my 20-something self.
Fast forward to earlier this month, when I find myself staring at a sign on the door to a Baskin-Robbins off I-70 in eastern Kansas.
“To be extra safe…we’re temporarily suspending ice cream sampling and advertised sampling events,” the sign read. “We apologize for the inconvenience.”
Inside, I could see a handful of people sitting at tables, eating bowls and cones overflowing with scoops of ice cream, smiling and laughing. Pretty normal looking stuff.
But the sign went on to explain that the abandoned ice cream sampling, in addition to diligent hand washing and disinfecting of surfaces, were measures implemented to prevent further spread of the novel coronavirus causing the COVID-19 disease. Which is why I, with a disinfectant wipe clenched in one hand, stood on the other side of those glass doors, paralyzed with anxiety about touching a door handle that had been touched by so many other people before me. Some of whom were grouped at tables contrary to pandemic guidelines.
It’s not that my younger self was totally laissez-faire about germs and microbes. I’ve long been a big fan of washing your hands on a regular basis. But I cannot remember a time in my life, probably even in science class, that I have been so conscious of the living things that I cannot see.
So, why was I at a Baskin-Robbins in eastern Kansas mid-March at a time when health experts and politicians were telling us all to stay the heck home?
My family and I were on day two of a three-day road trip, moving myself, my husband, our one-year-old and our dog from Denver, Colorado to Louisville, Kentucky to begin my job with Louisville Public Media.
A day or so before we were slated to leave Colorado, officials advised against nonessential travel. Which had me asking the obvious question, is moving essential travel?
I wasn’t sure, and still don’t know the correct answer. We talked about postponing our move, but had concerns about getting stuck in Colorado. In the end, we decided to get on the road, feeling a bit like fugitives, as we quietly packed up our cars early one morning to begin our trek to Kentucky.
Before we left Denver, the pandemic had already escalated in Colorado and grocery store shelves were bare of toilet paper, paper towels, baby wipes and hand sanitizers. Family members scrounged together a small but coveted supply of on-the-go sanitizing items and paper goods. They gave us whatever they already had on hand and felt they could sacrifice for us to take on our road trip — shout out to my sister-in-law who gave me black cherry merlot scented hand sanitizer. We stocked up on food to limit stops at facilities used by the public and to avoid introducing new objects to the vehicles along the way.
Our goal was to make it to Hays, Kansas that first day. Caravan-style, my husband and I drove separately, he chauffeuring the dog and me with the toddler. I followed his pick-up truck along I-70, at times joyously watching the bouncing silhouette of our dog, Truman. We communicated throughout the drive via phone about when to stop and to how to handle our public interactions.
I had heard on an NPR science podcast that you should treat every surface like it could be contaminated.
When we stopped, I’d spray sheets of paper towels with disinfectant — a luxury to have these supplies, I know — and used those soaked pieces to avoid directly touching gas pumps, door handles, anything really, as much as possible. We washed our hands, singing “Happy Birthday” twice, in the station’s restrooms and then applied another dose of hand sanitizer, upon my insistence, before getting back into our cars.
We didn’t bring our son into any of the facilities. He’s been cutting some molars lately, so in addition to being a drool machine, he puts everything into his mouth, making him a major germ liability. So my husband and I took turns watching the kid/using the facilities, and all of my son’s needs, including a bit of play time, were tended to in the car.
I kept my distance from other travelers, even at times delaying entering or exiting a building to avoid close contact. We’d also park the car as far from other vehicles as possible so we could all step out, stretch our legs, let Truman do his thing and get some fresh air.
Every travel center we stopped at had signs similar to the one I saw at that Baskin-Robbins, politely apologizing for the “inconvenience” of having to do business differently. What looked like fairly new containers of hand sanitizer were mounted near gas pumps and bathrooms. I might have been the only one refusing to touch a surface with my bare hands, but I didn’t see a single person pass on the community hand sanitizer.
As my husband checked us in at our hotel in Hays, the woman working the front desk, who wore disposable gloves, told him that the university had closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak and things had been slow.
Slow indeed. While social distancing at a hotel in Columbia, Missouri, I peered out our room window to find a parking lot nearly empty.
Every evening, when we arrived at our destination, I’d go into the hotel room first and wipe down everything with disinfectant. I’d also spray disinfectant in our cars overnight or early in the morning before we got back on the road (sometimes both). The smell of “Clean Linen” Lysol will forever make me think of this road trip.
Yet, despite me wandering around with a roll of paper towels in one arm and a can of disinfectant held out like a weapon, a lot of things seemed business as usual as we traveled along the interstate from Colorado through Kansas, Missouri and southern Indiana. There was a fair amount of traffic as we went through the bigger cities. Many others didn’t seem nearly as suspicious of surfaces as me — I see you, door handle smudged with fingerprints. One person even appeared offended when I moved away from him to put six feet between us.
It rained much of the trip, which I found soothing amidst all that was going on. And the scenery along the way was gorgeous: the towering, slow spinning windmills dotting the highway in Kansas, the areas of Indiana dense with trees and green vegetation. I felt lucky to get to see so much lovely landscape when others were cooped up at home, as we all wrap our brains around how this is changing everything we understand to be normal.
I’ve moved cross country a handful of times. While I normally love seeing the country from the windows of my car, I was really grateful to see that “Welcome to Kentucky” sign and get into a place where I could relax a bit on the disinfectant routine. And I’m very much looking forward to eventually getting to see the city from outside my car.
When I accepted this job, my husband and I talked about how we would do less screen time when we moved to Louisville. We’d go see lots of shows, explore all of the museums and local eateries, take our kid and dog to the park.
Well, that resolution will have to be put on hold a bit longer because right now the screen is the best way to connect with my new coworkers, the artists and organizations I’ll be covering, and I’ve had a few virtual coffees with friends of friends as we start to build our new social network.
It’s a strange way to start anew, but in these strange times, we’re all having to adapt. And on Friday we already have plans for “dinner and a show,” with some takeout from a local establishment accompanied by a streamed Kentucky Shakespeare production of “Much Ado About Nothing.”