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Road trip in the time of plague and fire

Early June, we just had to get outside: the weather fine, the parks just one state away open for camping. And now we’re out here again: a car spewing PM 2.5 like any other affordable vehicle, tracing down the 101 while fires rage and, after six or seven months of quarantine, still skirting six-foot circles around masked strangers.

These are times I hope to keep as only a legend from memory: remember that one year when the world went mad? It has to be either that, or the very beginning of a curve on which we all learn to get much more communitarian and creative.

A sign in the rest stop bathroom entreats passersby: "Flush with your hand. Not your foot. It breaks. We have soap." It puts me in mind of diagrams at refugee camps insisting people who've squatted their whole lives must now press bare flesh to a seat shared with hundreds of strangers: this is your life now, and in your new social order, there's a subverted logic around personal hygiene, acceptable risk.

We stayed in a motel last night. We meant to camp, but all the sites within an hour of the route were booked up, and the free site I found was too close to the active fires. I've been wearing my two masks intermittently: one to protect my lungs from the air, one to protect anyone around from whatever germs I exhale. Walking into a motel room after checking in at an improvised, shielded window (the registrar eight feet back) is a whole fresh level of ick. I've stayed in worse places than Motel 6, and stayed in much worse Motel 6's. But I've never before walked in and felt so trained-averse to setting my things down. I had to remind myself that my face would rest on that foreign bed all night; might as well use the shower, set my floss by the sink.

I can tell you that the sunsets are great. The beaches, especially on the Oregon coast, are so reliably spectacular that it feels a shame to pass one by- even when you've just gotten back to the car and have hours more to drive.

The sand dunes in Florence are as gorgeous and open a playland as I remembered, and almost nobody was there. Perhaps others left when they couldn't fit their park fee envelope into the metal stand; we only managed by folding it four times and shoving with a key. Low parks staffing, I guess.

Back in June, we talked about crashing at a motel when we got tired, but couldn't bring ourselves to do it in pandemic. Instead we found a roadside spot to pitch our tent in falling dark and I coined a new list on my Google maps: "you can get away with sleeping here".

Now that it's October, we're making choices more by the quality of the air. Infection rates seem to warrant cautious optimism, while I know that even light amounts of smoke can lay me low. We're balancing tradeoffs, weighing risks.

I've got the Windy app up on my phone; we spent most of the day consciously blasting through the orange-yellow-red areas that started right at the California state line. The giant redwoods looked hazy, and the gas station mart we stopped at had a poster out front showing the fire line, but we didn't see any burnt trees or orange skies on our route.

It’s okay. We’re okay. Things aren’t really okay, but in the car, I’ve been able to breathe. In clearer spots in small towns we can stop for ice cream and eat it outside buildings and away from people. It’s worth knowing what you can still do when smoke or pandemic or anxiety give you the space it takes to breathe. There’s still a world out here; I still want to be out in it.

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An adventurer, woodland creature, and engineer. Currently working on data ownership models, environmental accountability, and intentional community.

An adventurer, woodland creature, and engineer. Currently working on data ownership models, environmental accountability, and intentional community.

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