I love to travel. Booking flights, adjusting the rear view mirrors on rental cars; checking into hotels. After living so much of my life as a touring musician, it all became so familiar: the good, the bad and the ugly, though I’ve gotten better over the years at weeding out the Bates Motels and places where the night is spent praying for morning.
I met an English musician, Wreckless Eric, during a tour of the UK, and our courtship and the first decade of our marriage were spent playing gigs together in England. We’ve stayed in so many Premier Inns—the most reliable and ubiquitous British hotel chain—that we joked for a while about redecorating our bedroom to resemble one of their rooms, especially the purple stole that lays across the foot of the bed. These places become more familiar than your own home when you tour, down to the biscuits and tea kettle you count on finding in every room. Writing about it now I have a longing to make two cups of tea with long shelf life milk and dunk a Speculoo…
So travel. Not exotic characterful travel but travel as a means to an end--I love it. I look out hotel windows at generic landscapes and wonder who I am. It’s life in freefall, until the gig brings you back down to earth. “Oh, that’s who I am!” But for those moments looking out the window, I could be anyone, going anywhere, to do anything. A pharmaceutical salesman, a comedian, a criminal.
That’s why I hate to break the news but travel is fucking weird right now. That’s in case you imagined it might be a respite from the weirdness everywhere else.
I booked a few nights at a decent hotel down the street from my dad’s apartment because he’s 92, his wife’s been in and out of the hospital lately, I have antibodies and it just felt like I needed to visit while I could.
The seven-hour drive was uneventful. It’s never a thrilling ride from one end of Pennsylvania to the other. The roads are bad, and there’s nowhere to stop so expectations are kept way low. I brought a sandwich. I brought water. My first break was only thirty miles from home, because there aren’t a lot of places once you start heading west at Newburgh. Everyone was masked at the Modena Services on the NY State Thruway. There were indecipherable arrows in masking tape on the floors that everyone disregarded.
The next stop was four hours later at a rest area in the Pennsylvania Wilds. It was 92 degrees and sweaty, my eyes and hair wild above my mask in the ladies room mirror. I looked like a woman in a horror film who has just seen something awful and is trying to tell you with her eyes. Have you been realizing through this whole thing how, in spite of what we’ve been told all our lives, that “the eyes of the windows of the soul”, the truth is eyes on their own don’t say shit. Our humanity and vulnerability are written in the lower part of our faces.
Restaurants, even McDonald’s and Dunkin, were closed to customers in Allegheny County. I’d read this in the news but it still felt upsetting, like going back in time, to three months ago. Cases are spiking in this part of Pennsylvania, but not enough to put it on Governor Cuomo’s New York traveler’s quarantine list which as of today includes twenty-two states (I’d checked and double-checked before leaving—I’ve already been quarantined once). I stopped at a Sheetz and grabbed a snack and some more water. Everyone was masked. A biker type held the door for me. People tend to be polite in southwestern PA. The drivers will actually let you into a lane if you put your indicator on.
When I pulled up in front of the hotel where I'd stayed last year, I thought there must be some kind of mistake. I’d made a reservation, but the place looked shut down. I called from my car: “Are you open?” The desk clerk assured me yes, it’s possible to check in but everything else is out of service: no pool, no fitness, no common areas. All the furniture was taped over or stacked up. The room smelled like heavy cleaning products. I won’t make a joke here about how those are more likely to kill you than coronavirus because I don’t believe that’s true. Maybe if you boil the carpets and drink it. Maybe if you seal yourself into the room and never come out.
The Old Hometown
I thought I’d surprise my dad and bring him a hot fudge sundae. I went into a cute little local place (take out only) and when I paid with a card asked the young pierced and tattooed server if I could put a tip on the card.
“Sorry, it’s not set up to do that, but you’re okay” she said. I wanted to leave a note for the owners - we’re in a pandemic here, please make it possible for your workers to get tips. It upset me, but maybe I have more empathy for servers since my daughter was one and I am too, when the bar where I work is open, which it’s not right now. Right now the thought of handling all those dollar bills feels…disturbing. Oh it all feels disturbing!
Anyways, it was 93 degrees and I’m standing outside my dad’s apartment building with a hot fudge sundae.Not the smartest move, but it just felt like he’d enjoy it. He doesn’t go anywhere. Who goes anywhere? He must not’ve heard the buzzer or phone. I took the sundae back to the hotel and ate it.
I did get to see my dad and his wife came out of the hospital while I was there. I know they welcomed my visit, but weren’t that up to having visitors for any length of time. And they were worried about Eric—who has been recovering from Covid-19 AND a Covid-related heart attack— and thought I should be home with him.
My dad and I took a trip in the car and that was sweet. Me driving, him as passenger. He can’t drive anymore and I hate to say that’s killing him but I think it sort of is. He was always a driver, and it meant a lot when he said “you’re really comfortable behind the wheel.” He didn’t ask about my book and I was relieved that he’s forgotten about it. I had decided things in there would upset him and I don’t want that, he’s been through enough. I know he loves me and I love him and in the end that’s it - that’s what matters. All the approval I craved from him all these years is just so much melted hot fudge.
After I checked out of the hotel, where it felt like I was the sole guest, I stopped off at a Starbucks near the big old outdoor swimming pool I’d gone to many times over the years, which now sat empty in the heat and humidity. That got me. It would’ve made me feel worse to see people grouped up and swimming though. As I waited for coffee in a distanced line, I felt that trepidation crossed with hope I often feel when I’m visiting my old hometown, that I’ll see someone I know. Since everyone was masked, there was no way I would recognize anybody, forty-three years later. I don’t know why, but that sort of made it worse. With only the eyes, they could’ve been anybody’s old friends and tormentors and I wanted them to be mine.
When I got back in the car I switched on the radio and WYEP was playing a song the digital readout said was "Marathon." “I know that voice,” I thought and decided it was Chuck Prophet. I sat and listened. “So you don’t have to feel alone,” he and Stephanie Finch sang. The guitars twisted and wrapped around me in the car. It was like getting a great big hug. I had run into someone I know.
The night after I returned home, I saw an article in The New York Times: “In Pittsburgh, cases are soaring…” Unable to sleep, I went over every interaction from my trip: the desk clerk, the ice cream girl, my dad and his wife; a pizza delivery—how safe were they all? The biker who held the door…did I touch the door? Had I somehow spread the virus to my dad, the very person I’d made a travel exception for? I’d washed my hands and washed my hands and worn a mask.
I still love to travel. But I don’t recommend it right now.
Amy Rigby and Wreckless Eric. At home, post-Covid.
Amy Rigby is a songwriter, musician, and performer. Her memoir, Girl to City, was called “…the best rock memoir I read all year” by NPR’s Ken Tucker. The New York Times wrote" she's right up there with Paul Simon and Randy Newman." Her most recent album is "The Old Guys." She lives with her husband and sometime duet partner Wreckless Eric in New York’s Hudson Valley.
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