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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Travel in the age of coronavirus

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Parents who played Oregon Trail in the 1990s might want to download the online version for their new adventure in home-schooling. Challenge your kids with properly provisioning a wagon train to make the trek across the unknown. It’s good practice for travel in the age of coronavirus.

When we headed east on March 11 for spring break and our grandson’s hockey tournament, schools were open and calendars full of events. We planned to be home by March 21. WSU had just announced all classes were moving online starting March 23. It would mean prepping for the new format, but a personal relief to cut out 360 miles a week of commuting. The new normal was looking good.

By the time we reached North Dakota on March 12, schools were shut down in three of Washington’s West Side counties, the NCAA Tournament was called off and other major sports events were announcing delays.

But there were no reported cases in Eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana or North Dakota. Coronavirus didn’t even make the Williston (North Dakota) newspaper until Friday the 13th, when no-vistors policies were reported at long-term care facilities. Hoarding toilet paper was still an amusing punch line, not a concern for the healthy young families at a North Dakota hockey tournament.

On Saturday, rumors spread of one positive test in Minot. Sunday morning’s Williston Herald reported schools would stay open, and the tournament teams wrapped up their final games. Then, by Sunday evening, the governor of North Dakota had declared all schools must close immediately.

In five days, normal had disappeared.

Heading west felt a wee bit like playing the old Oregon Trail game. Unknown challenges ahead, and not sure what to stock up on as we wandered the aisles of a Williston grocery store.

We picked up typical sandwich fixings, snacks, fruit and chocolate for the road trip. Other shoppers had overflowing carts. Shelves had bare spots. Just in case, a large head of cabbage and a bag of carrots rounded out the major food groups in our basket. We searched out flour for making bread at home. The flour shelves were nearly bare, and there was no yeast.

We did not try to buy toilet paper. There wasn’t any left anyway.

We had planned a few stops on the way home, and Montana was still coronavirus free. We called ahead to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. They had “just heard minutes before” that all National Park Service bookstores would be closing the next day.

The national news focused on Washington as an epicenter of COVID-19, but the focus was still mostly on Western Washington. I started answering the “where are you from” question with the qualifier that we’d just come from North Dakota.

The proprietor at the Lariat Motel in Hardin said business was already down. The waitress at the Four Aces speculated about restaurant shutdowns. Our breakfast waitress said her other job was at a dental clinic, and she expected to hear an order soon for emergency patients only. The economic impact was spreading faster than the virus.

Like reaching a remote Montana fort along the Oregon Trail, it was time to resupply. We sought out the local Family Dollar store and added towels and a washbasin to go with our slivers of motel soap for a portable sanitation station. No TP on their shelves either, and most of the disinfectants and wipes had been wiped out.

Notifications of event cancellations and business closures were piling up at home and closing in behind us.

Vacationing during a national emergency is a real guilt trip, but our lodging was still operating, our three nights were already paid for and we told ourselves the Gardiner, Montana, economy could use the boost.

By the time we arrived and found our cottage, Montana was reporting more local cases and the news focus was off Washington.

At Yellowstone National Park, travelers caught midtrip were from Texas, Florida, Colorado, Ohio, South Dakota, Utah, Arizona, Arkansas and, of course, Montana, according to their license plates. Maintaining social distance wasn’t a problem. We did exchange cameras for memento photos in front of a steaming hot spring with a couple from Iowa and helped push a stuck car from California out of an icy pullout. Walking paths were mostly empty and all park facilities were closed.

After a picturesque snowfall the first morning, the weather was gloriously sunny. It had been a long time since my husband and I had traveled through unfamiliar mountains together. It was exhilarating, and we’ll be back.

Friday morning we left for home and a different kind of unfamiliar territory. There will be a new normal. Universities, teachers and parents will discover new possibilities in distance learning. Knowledge-based businesses will discover ways to cut commuting and travel. Service and retail businesses will discover new services to offer. The possibilities are endless.

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