“Contactless” is just about the last word I would use to describe my travel style. Before the pandemic, some of my favorite travel memories were made possible thanks to contact.
But that kind of travel can’t take place right now. The pandemic is continuing to wreak havoc around the world and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to tell us that “travel increases your chances of getting and spreading COVID-19.”
And yet, my impulse to travel has been in the back of my mind throughout my hundred days of working at home in isolation.
On a Wednesday night, after transitioning from staring at my computer for work to staring at my computer for fun, I started thinking about how I could pull off a trip with the lowest possible risk.
What if I cut out the parts of travel that made it problematic during the pandemic? The parts like going through airports, sitting on planes, interacting with hotel guests, congregating at bus terminals or contaminating a gas station?
Convinced I could make contactless travel a thing, I booked a campsite, went to Target and bought the cheapest tent and sleeping bag I could find. Then I hatched a plan to bike 42.8 miles to a national park carrying all of my gear and supplies.
When the pandemic started, I was sure I’d keep up with my five-day-a-week workout routine at home with militant precision.
Reader, that did not happen.
Workouts turned into semiregular 15-minute ab exercises, coupled with some biking and jogging on occasion. When I looked on the internet for a campsite available in the next two days, I had to keep in mind that my endurance would be a factor. That filtered out most of the options, and I settled on Oak Ridge Campground in Prince William Forest Park in Virginia.
Yes, it was 40 miles away. No, I had never biked that far before. But I figured the energy of being out of my apartment would help propel me past my known endurance.
According to the CDC, the concerns with taking a trip by car is the risk of spreading or contracting the novel coronavirus while you’re at a rest stop or gas station. So I vowed not to visit any of these establishments on my ride.
The compulsion to book a campsite came strong and suddenly. Before I knew it, I had rented a plot of land for a night, but no tent or sleeping bag.
I put on a cloth face mask and went to Target. In addition to the sleeping bag and tent, other necessities included: DEET-heavy bug spray, food, wine, a portable battery pack to charge my phone and a gallon of water.
It’s impossible to count everything you can buy to go camping. There is gear galore, and it’s all cool. There were 30 things I could have purchased at Target alone that would have made for a better camping experience, but I was already anxious about spending nearly $150 on the tent and sleeping bag combo, plus I was going to be carrying it all by bike. So I kept the new gear to the bare minimum and headed home to pack.
Staring at my backpack, I remembered that an REI camping expert had told me a week ago that you should pack warm clothes even if you’re camping somewhere that’s hot during the day. I bundled layers into a packing cube that could also double as a pillow at night. This would be my only source of sleeping comfort, as I hadn’t wanted to spend more money on a sleeping pad – another thing the expert had strongly recommended.
My other contactless travel essentials included: a bike tire pump, sunscreen, general toiletries, a notebook, reading material (Anthony Bourdain’s “A Cook’s Tour”), my driver’s license, a credit card, $20 cash, a foldout knife, aspirin, a lighter and some trash bags to haul out my garbage.
The morning of my contactless travel experiment, I posted my plan on Instagram so I’d be fueled by peer pressure to complete the mission. Within a few minutes, my mother called me (at about 5 a.m. her time) and I knew she’d seen I was up to no good.
“What are you doing?” she asked in a tone that blended terror and rage.
She was reasonably worried that her youngest, single daughter was planning on biking 40 miles into the woods to camp alone. I didn’t blame her.
If you’re going to attempt contactless travel, make sure you tell your mom ahead of your social media posts so you can tell her how you’ve already sent your campsite information to your best friends, you packed a knife and will be reachable by cell throughout the journey.
When she asks why you’re doing it, do not answer, “Why did people want to go to the moon?” because she will not find that funny or helpful.
The night I booked my campsite, I pulled some flour out of my pantry and started making bread dough. Like many other Americans, I had started my foray into bread baking during the pandemic. Now was my time to put those new skills to use.
Except my starter was hibernating in the fridge.
Instead, I used a recipe for burger buns I figured I could mold into a loaf shape and use however I wanted. It turned out fine.
Meal planning for the rest of the trip came down to considering what food could stay edible unrefrigerated overnight, what wouldn’t take up too much room in my bag, and what was durable enough to survive being smashed in my backpack. I went with grapefruit, raisins, pistachios, peanut butter, a water bottle full of Vietnamese coffee, salami and an avocado (which yes, smashed in transit).
If you were doing a contactless trip that lasted more than a night or two, you may want to get into the world of Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MRE) foods. They’re backpack friendly, dehydrated and compact. I’ve eaten some decent ones when traveling in remote destinations, and while they’re not my first pick for standard wining and dining, they’ll do.
I’m not sure why, but when I pictured biking from a metropolitan area to a national park I imagined scenic pathways and leafy trails. Instead, Google Maps took me down highway sidewalks and suburban sprawl (to no fault of the technology’s own, it just gave me the most direct bike route).
The majority of my Into The Wild experience was spent gripping my bike handlebars for dear life as cars roared by me, the hot summer sun burning my skin through the weak Whole Foods sunscreen I kept reapplying to no help.
Google Maps directed me along a hiking path, not a paved road, for the final stretch of the journey through the national park to my campsite. I eventually made it to my little plot exhausted. Not long after setting up my tent, eating dinner and drinking wine while convincing my mom I was safe, I crawled into my sleeping bag and fell asleep immediately.
I set off on my contactless trip with the best intentions. I’d stop nowhere. I’d touch nothing. I’d hurt no one.
My first day of travel, I followed my own guidelines perfectly. I biked in my cloth face mask, went to the restroom in nature, resisted the siren song of convenience stores and fast food restaurants. There was even a quaint ice cream shop in a historic old town along a river. I still biked onward.
On the way home, after my one solitary night of camping, was a different story.
I woke up wrecked. Forgoing the sleeping pad had been a gargantuan mistake. When I’d crept into my sleeping bag at night, the ground felt firm yet not terribly so. Throughout the night, the ground seemed to become increasingly unyielding.
At daybreak, my face was swollen. My lips had cracked. My body felt like I had been stamped in a metal press. My muscles were blazingly sore from the bike ride and carrying the weight of my gear.
Why, dear God, had I forsaken the sleeping pad?
After breakfast in a stupor, I was too tired to hike out into the woods to pee. Instead, I went to the camp restroom, feeling guilty for touching the door handles and sink faucet (I kicked the toilet handle into motion). I had made contact on my contactless adventure.
Then I got so lost getting out of the national park on my bike that I turned the 30-minute part of my journey into a two-hour one. The rest of my ride home, I tried to ignore the pain in my body and the increasingly red sunburns covering my appendages.
An hour and a half from my apartment, I spied a farmers market stand advertising fresh peaches and I cracked.
I rolled into the parking lot, ditched my bike, waited in a line 6 feet from the patrons around me, and bought some produce, a root beer and a Thai iced tea Popsicle to eat standing alone by my bike.
The guilt rushed through me stronger than the muscle soreness. I biked the rest of the way home without stopping, feeling like I’d failed my mission.
The trip was neither contactless, nor contact-ful.
If you’re going to travel during the coronavirus, it doesn’t have to be a wild-goose chase that ends in guilt and pain. Remember that the pandemic is still very much a problem, read the CDC travel guidelines thoroughly before you commit to a plan, and keep your loved ones and neighbors in mind along the way.
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