It looked like COVID was done as we headed to Southern California, the last stop on our 10,000-mile road trip. But then, they’d been saying that for months — first in the summer of 2020, then spring of 2021, and now, in early November.
I’d seen it all since we started in the spring: unmasked Texans, double-masked Vermonters, defiant but apologetic Iowans crowding together at the state fair. And now, Californians with some of the strictest masking and social distancing rules, which they were reluctantly following.
You probably don’t need a 10-part series to tell you that attitudes about COVID varied between U.S. states, or that some people followed the rules and others didn’t. The real takeaway is both reassuring and terrifying. No matter what happens, tourism will continue. No quarantine, no government advisory, and indeed, no pandemic can stop it.
This is the final part of a series about a 10,000-mile road trip around the United States during the rise and fall of the delta variant.
How Southern California responded to the delta surge
In Southern California, we saw the best and the worst during the waning months of the delta variant. In Century City, I visited the new Fairmont Century Plaza, which had just opened after a massive $2 billion renovation. Actually, to call it a renovation would be a disservice; it’s basically a new hotel that preserves the modernist facade. There’s a new spa, larger guest rooms and Lumière Brasserie, where you can order a $25 “le burger” for dinner. They even moved the elevators. Hotel officials are bracing for the return of business travel and they are optimistic that it will happen soon.
Already, the nearby Westfield Century City, an outdoor mall, was beginning to feel busy with holiday shoppers. Some wore masks outside, but many didn’t.
In San Diego, we visited the North Park neighborhood, which had suffered immensely during the delta surge. Businesses were shuttered and visitors were few and far between. But even there, hotels like the Lafayette Hotel saw a bright future after the storm. The hotel’s new owners are embarking on a multimillion-dollar renovation of this historic property, restoring it to its former glory — a time when Hollywood A-listers like Ava Gardner and Bob and Hope spent weekends there.
But there was also a darker side to the delta surge.
Hitting a low point in Long Beach
The end of the road took a few more weeks to reach. We found an apartment in Long Beach, Calif., which is not exactly a tourist attraction. I spent the mornings walking from our place on Pine Avenue up to the Aquarium of the Pacific and across the bridge to the Queen Mary, a cruise ship turned into a hotel and restaurant.
For a few days, it felt like we had arrived just in time to see delta finish off this place. Long Beach seemed to have hit a low point in October, with summer over and no conventions in town. It was not at all the place I remembered when I lived in Southern California in the 1980s — the bustling port town with interesting restaurants and an edgy nightlife scene.
The streets felt almost empty during the day. The Queen Mary had shut down at the start of the pandemic, and it was doubtful she would ever return.
Container ships were anchored just outside the port in long lines waiting to unload their cargo, the delays caused by supply-chain issues from the pandemic. While we were there, Los Angeles County adopted some of the strictest COVID requirements we’d seen in our travels. In early November, patrons were required to show proof of vaccination at indoor bars, nightclubs, and other venues,
Here, for the first time, I felt as if the pandemic might have done permanent damage. But just before I left, a large convention called ComplexCon came to town, bringing an estimated 50,000 attendees. The container ships started moving again. And the number of COVID cases continued to fall.
By the end of the year, Long Beach would be a better place — maybe.
We’ll always have 2021
As the trip neared its end, there are some things I won’t forget. But it’s an almost paradoxical collection of memories that describe the forces that made traveling during the pandemic such a strange experience.
We are bigger than delta. There was one road stop between Texas and Louisiana at a Buc-ee’s, a larger-than-life roadside convenience store. No masks, no social distancing among customers, not a care in the world. They filled their oversized paper cups with slushies and sampled its “world famous” jerky, and they didn’t seem to care what came next. There’s something about that attitude that I find both dangerous and inspiring — this attitude that we won’t let the virus get the best of us. We are bigger than COVID. Only in Texas!
This Dairy Market is opening one way or another. Another favorite memory was visiting the new Dairy Market in Charlottesville, Va., Paul Cooper, CEO of developer Retro Hospitality, which created the food hall concept, told me that there had been pressure to delay the opening during the pandemic. But there, too, they didn’t want COVID to stop progress. So they opened in stages to keep everyone safe — a soft opening earlier in the year followed by an official opening in mid-June. “We didn’t leave anything to chance,” he told me.
This didn’t have to happen. I remember visiting Kelsey Baumgarten, who runs the Hidden Bean Bakeshop in Brattleboro, Vt. On the porch of her home-based business, I was drawn into a conversation with her and her landlord about healthcare and how much of the tragedy in the United States could have been avoided if we had a more affordable system and people who took personal responsibility for their actions. Rewinding that conversation now in my mind, and from where I am, I wish more people felt like the folks I met in Vermont.
Coming home to Minneapolis. Traveling during the delta surge was such a conflicting experience. You know it’s dangerous, but you go anyway. No place captures those conflicting emotions better than Minneapolis. In particular, Piotr Szyhalski’s Labor Camp Report at the Minneapolis Institute of Art left a lasting impression. It’s a series of 225 drawings created over eight months, chronicling his impressions of COVID in real time. Oddly, I felt at home in Minnesota like almost nowhere else. After all, this is where my maternal grandparents fled to from Germany after World War II.
At the end of the road. The end of Interstate 10 in Santa Monica is as undramatic as any freeway exit. But if you get off at exit 1C, and hang a right on Cloverfield Blvd., it’ll take you to Tartine Bakery. There, sitting in the outdoor cafe and enjoying a vegan crumb cake with an Americano is as good a place as any to contemplate the end of the road. And as you consider the ups and downs of 2021, you realize that the end is actually the beginning. A few travelers braved travel this summer. But the rest are not far behind.
What about the rest of the world?
I’m grateful for the opportunity to share this road trip series with you. It’s been a roller-coaster ride in more ways than one. We’ve felt fear together as the number of delta cases surged in Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota. We’ve seen the good humor of people in Georgia, South Carolina and Florida as they tried to brush off the pandemic and get on with their lives. We’ve felt the profound grief of the tourist attractions decimated by the virus, and I’ve shared my personal losses. But we’ve also shared the optimism of a better future, even as the delta variant lingers and cases begin to rise once again.
Over the last ten weeks, the most common feedback I’ve received on this series is an admonishment. Why would you take the risk of traveling during a dangerous pandemic, particularly with your kids? My favorite is the reader who said my daughter, who left the trip halfway through, was “the smart one.”
That may be true, but here’s how I see it. I’ve spent a fair amount of time with people who live in retirement communities, who are near the end of their lives. When they hear I’m a travel writer, they often tell me that they regret not having traveled more when they were young. But I have yet to hear someone say they regretted traveling more.
I call that the Rocking Chair Rule of Travel. When you look back on your life, you won’t regret the trips you took — only the ones you didn’t take.
And this isn’t the end of the road for us. Last week, I boarded a flight to Lisbon with my boys. It’s the first stop in a two-year, around-the-world project to see how the rest of the world recovers from COVID. Portugal is one of the most vaccinated countries on earth, with more than 86 percent of the population having received their shots. What’s more, many Americans are pondering an international vacation for the first time since the outbreak. What awaits them?