In late August, my eldest daughter Kylie and I set off on a nine-state, 12-day, 3,500 mile road trip…no, really…
Why, during the heart of the COVID pandemic would we choose to do this? Because Kylie is a senior in high school this year, and after looking at the calendar and her schedule, we sort of figured this was her only real opportunity to check out some campuses before it was too late. The timing, obviously, wasn't ideal, but it was what it was. We had to figure out how to make it work as safely as possible.
We used our Tesla for this journey, which will be the subject of a near-future post: It was, by far, the longest trip I've ever taken in an electric vehicle.
Although we arrived home in late August, I "quarantined" this post for a couple of weeks, until I was (relatively) certain we'd managed to complete the trip without contracting COVID.
As of today, we've been home for 17 days, and neither of us have shown any symptoms. It appears we successfully avoided COVID on the trip—or if we didn't, then we're both asymptomatic. (I'd wanted us both to get tested when we got back, but as we didn't have symptoms and hadn't been in contact with anyone who knew they had COVID, we weren't eligible.)
And because this post is just a whole bunch of words, I've included a photo from each campus we visited, along with some assorted tour shots, just to make it a bit less dry. (Hover and click to see the uncropped version of any photo.)
This post covers both the steps we took to protect ourselves and others from COVID, and a few thoughts on COVID-related things we observed during the trip.
As we planned the trip, we used three very basic assumptions to guide our decision making: We assumed every person we came into contact with could be infected with the coronavirus. We also assumed that every public surface that we would have to touch could be infected with the virus. Finally, we assumed that we were possibly infected, so we'd do our best to not expose anyone else.
With those assumptions in place, here's how we tackled this road trip…
» Pack a well-stocked sanitizing kit
In our kit, we had the following:
- Sanitizing wipes
- Paper towels
- Liquid (foaming) hand soap
- Roll of toilet paper
- Small bottles of hand sanitizier
- Package of plastic gloves
All of this was in a small easy-to-carry bag, so we could take it anywhere with ease.
In addition to the kit, we had a box of 50 disposable masks for outside use, and we each brought a couple of cotton masks as well. We also had spares for the wipes, paper towels, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer.
This kit was used extensively during the trip, as you'll see…
» Stay outside
As much as possible, this was our number one goal. From what I've read, COVID seems to spread most easily in indoor confined areas with large crowds. So we resolved to stay outside. No building tours on those campuses that would be open. No dining inside a restaurant. Ideally, don't even enter a restaurant. Our goal was to only enter our hotels, and a grocery store at some point to restock our cooler.
For the most part, we did well at this goal; there's more detail below, but I only had to enter three or four restaurants that didn't offer curbside delivery.
» Minimize exposure during campus tours
One thing that made this trip easier to plan was that under half of the schools were planning on having on-campus students this fall, and of those that were, none would be in session yet when we arrived (or so we thought). Only Colorado (two schools), Montana (two), and Idaho (one) had universities that would have students.
Even knowing there weren't students at many of the schools, we set up our route such that we'd typically arrive in a town in the afternoon, spend the night at the hotel, then tour the campus early the next day before heading for the next town. We figured if there were people around, they'd be less likely to be out and about early in the morning. We couldn't always do this—we had a couple days with two visits, and a couple where we had to drive before visiting—but it generally worked well. We saw very few people on any of the campuses ... generally.
The Colorado schools were our first exception: We were arriving during move-in week. But we got to both campuses early in the day, and the number of people was easily managed—we'd occasionally have to alter our course to avoid someone, but it wasn't bad.
The first Montana school was going to be more of an issue: We didn't know that the Montana schools had moved their start dates up, so that fall term would conclude at Thanksgiving. That way, the students wouldn't have to travel home and then back to school for another month, only to then travel home again. We didn't figure this out until we were in the midst of the trip—and we were set to visit the first Montana school on a Friday. We just changed our schedule a bit and went to both schools on Saturday—obviously one couldn't be early in the morning, but there weren't too many students around at either school. Whew.
The University of Idaho was also starting in-person classes, but we toured the Sunday morning before classes began, and saw relatively few people out and about.
We were either masked up all the time, or had our masks around our necks ready to pull up if we were going to have to approach anyone. There were no interactions on any of the campuses where I felt we were uncomfortably close to anyone.
» Minimize exposure during meal times
For breakfasts, we took whatever the hotel offered—either ordered off a menu or a grab-and-go-bag—back to our room to eat. We'd then use a sanitary wipe from our kit on the wrapped items in our breakfasts, open everything and move it to our own paper plates, and wash our hands before (and after, of course—we're not savages!) eating.
Lunches were easy, as we packed a cooler full of lunch stuff and snacks, as well as a couple bags of dry groceries—bread, chips, crackers, etc. At one of our recharging stops each day, we'd just open the back, make a lunch, and then eat it in the car while charging.
We made two grocery store stops to restock the cooler; both times, I went super early in the morning when they were pretty much deserted. Ice was restocked in a similar manner, or at gas stations where the ice bags were outside and you could pay without going inside. And, of course, anything we bought was wiped down with a sanitary wipe, and hands were washed before doing anything else after shopping.
When it came to dinners, we knew there was no way we were going to eat inside a restaurant. So we either used a delivery service to the hotel, or a curbside pickup if available, and ate dinner in the hotel room most evenings. (Sometimes we'd eat while recharging.) Dinners were treated like breakfast: All food containers were wiped with sanitary wipes, then disposed of after we moved their contents to our own plates.
Overall, I have very little concern that we could have picked up COVID from any of our meal time activities.
» Choose the right hotels
When I booked the hotels for the trip, I looked at each destination city and what choices we had available. Then I went to a number of the possible choices' web pages to find their COVID policies. I decided that we were only going to use big chains, with the hope that they'd have better-developed policies—and more importantly, that those policies would be implemented and followed.
In the end, our trip was split evenly between Holiday Inn Express and Comfort Inns. I thought both chains did a great job with their COVID preparations: Masks required inside the hotels, signs near the elevators stating only one or two people per car (if they weren't a related group), lots of plexiglass dividers, hand sanitizer stations, and (with only a couple exceptions) all staff obeying the mask requirements.
There was one exception to our chains-only rule: I had originally planned for us to spend a night in Superior, Montana—a very small town. There was really only one hotel in town, and while it may have excellent COVID policies, we don't know that because we wound up skipping the hotel. More details about why this happened in the section about COVID awareness.
As an emergency backup plan, we packed a tent, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads in the Tesla's front trunk—we figured that if any hotel looked too marginal, we'd just find a spot to sleep outside for the night. We probably could have tried the tent in the Superior area, but then we'd have new issues—where to get breakfast, where to find a shower in the morning, etc. Driving to Spokane seemed much simpler.
» Be extra paranoid in hotels
On check in, I asked for a room that had been empty for at least 24 hours, and (assuming the clerks weren't lying to me), that was only an issue in one hotel that was relatively full.
Our routine for our hotel room stays made use of our sanitary kit: On arrival, we used a paper towel or sanitizing wipe to open any doors in public spaces. When we got to our room, we wiped down all the hard surfaces with sanitizing wipes. And if we left the room for any reason, we carried a wipe or paper towel, so we wouldn't have to touch door handles, etc.
We also used the stairs nearly exclusively, except when we were pretty certain we wouldn't run into anyone else in the elevator area—i.e. early in the morning when we were leaving. (It's ironic—as a parent, my kids grew up with me telling them to always use the hand rail when going up or down stairs. On this trip, hand rails were treated like a "floor is lava!" game, and were never to be touched!)
The one big question that I didn't have a great answer to was what to do about pillows. We packed our own, and used them the first couple nights. But then I realized that the pillow is on the bed, and probably on other surfaces in the room we didn't wipe, so it probably wasn't all that sanitary. We gave that up and just started using the hotel's pillows.
Of all our hotel stays, I only had one event that I'd consider as a possible exposure: I was waiting for the elevator, standing six feet back from the doors. When they opened, two teen girls came out quickly—so quickly I didn't even have a chance to turn or move away—chattering with each other. They walked right past me, and neither was wearing a mask—yikes! They passed quickly, though, so the exposure time was minimal. But it really angered me that they were ignoring the mask requirement and possibly endangering others.
Other than that one event, I felt our hotel stays were relatively safe—once we got into our room, we'd spend the night there, and not leave until breakfast time.
» Avoid public restrooms
In an ideal world, we would have avoided all public restrooms completely, but being on the road for eight to 12 hours every day made that a no go. So how could we use public restrooms in a safe manner?
We developed a plan, very similar to our hotel plan: Take sanitizing wipes and a couple of paper towels with you, and wipe any surface that you're going to have to touch. When washing your hands, use the paper towel to turn things on and off, and to dry your hands when done—the hot air dryers are germ spreaders, so we stayed away from those. When leaving the bathroom, use the paper towel to open the door, then dispose of the towel and wipes.
Beyond that, there was the question of finding non-busy public restrooms, so that you wouldn't have to worry about the cleanliness level, unmasked others in the room, etc. As it turns out, that was mostly a non-issue: In the entire trip, I think we used a stereotypical gas station/truck stop public restroom exactly one time. Why so few? Oddly, I have Tesla to thank for that.
Many of Tesla's Superchargers are located on hotel properties, and these hotels get rent money from Tesla, so we felt perfectly justified using these hotels' restrooms. Our approach was the same (wipes, towels, etc.), but the restrooms were always completely empty and impeccably clean. Chalk that one up as an unexpected benefit of Tesla ownership.
» Minimize risks while meeting with family
Both I and my wife have family in Colorado, and there was no way they were going to let one of their grandkids be in the state without seeing them in some way. We knew this, of course, but set some firm rules, based on the assumption that we were the infected ones: We were not going in anyone's home, we didn't want to do anything indoors anywhere, and there would be no physical contact of any sort, with masks and social distancing enforced.
So we visited with my mother-in-law for a couple hours on her outdoor patio, wearing masks. Then we had dinner with my brother and his family, plus my mom and her husband. Dinner was outside on a huge deck, with three different tables that were well more than six feet apart. And once we finished the eating portion of dinner, masks went on.
It was tough not being able to have traditional family greetings with hugs and handshakes, but everyone agreed it was still fun getting to see and talk with each other.
COVID exposure wrap-up
Overall, I felt we did a very good job of minimizing our exposure to COVID, as well as minimizing the possibility that, if we were infected, that we'd pass it on to others. The one incident with the elevator is the only point in the entire 12 day trip that I can say made me truly uncomfortable. (There were other times we saw unmasked people, but we were always able to steer well clear of them.)
My hat's off to both Comfort Inns and Holiday Inn Express; I feel both did an excellent job at making us feel comfortable with the effort they were putting in to minimize COVID risks.
And I guess the proof is in our apparent COVID-free status a full two weeks after the end of the trip.
This was an interesting trip, in that we visited so many states in such a brief amount of time. Our route was primarily interstates with stops in cities ranging in size from small to huge. Overall, we found that mask wearing was common (though more common in the larger cities), people generally tried to respect social distancing, and that most places had restrictions of some form or another on inside activities. Not all states have a mask mandate, though.
On the campuses, as there were generally very few people and we were outside, we felt completely comfortable. (We didn't enter any buildings at any of the schools.) Things got more interesting when we had to head to the hotel and figure out the dinner plan. We had no concerns in most of the places we stopped, so I'll just focus on the places that Kylie and I discussed as "interesting."
» Colorado campuses
With Colorado schools starting up, the two campuses we toured were clearly prepared for students, with lots of information on COVID policies on signage (and on their web sites). Still, as we watched the students moving into the dorms, it was hard to see how this can possibly work out—there are so many students, and students are going to socialize in groups, and often indoors. It will be interesting to see how this proceeds, not just in Colorado, but in any state whose universities are opening for on-campus instruction.
» Sheridan, Wyoming
We went to order a dinner-to-go at a restaurant in Sheridan, and when we arrived, it was quite busy. Looking in from the outside, the tables were spaced for social distancing, but the available tables were mostly full. There were also about 10 people in line, and all but one was maskless. (Wyoming doesn't presently require masks for the public, just for staff interacting with the public.) There was no social distancing in the ordering line, with people standing pretty much shoulder to shoulder.
Needless to say, I didn't go in. Instead, we sat in the car, ordered online from the same restaurant, and then used curbside pickup. (The employee who delivered the food was wearing a mask and gloves).
» Superior, Montana
Our original plan had us spending the night in Superior, which is a small town about 60 miles west-ish of Missoula on I-90. It was the only non-chain motel on our trip, as it's the only hotel in Superior. Before we went to check in, we stopped at the Tesla Supercharger, which is behind the only gas station in town.
As we charged, we saw people arriving and greeting friends with nary a concern for social distancing or masks. Kylie and I talked it over, and we decided that we weren't comfortable staying the night—both for our health's sake, and for that of any unmasked people we might encounter if we had picked up the virus during the first week of our travels.
We chose to continue on to Spokane, which was actually a bit off our intended route (we were originally set to head south from Couer d'Alene), but they had a Holiday Inn Express with a good rate, and a nearby Supercharger. This turned what was to have been a relatively short driving day into our second longest (446 miles) driving day. But both Kylie and I felt it was the right decision, given what we'd seen in Superior.
As we toured the west, we were impressed by the number of people wearing masks (even in states where it wasn't required), the changes made at hotels and restaurants to safely serve customers during the pandemic, and the pleasant attitude of the workers we interacted with during our travels. I know we had more exposure during the trip than we would if we stayed at home, but we tried to minimize those risks as much as practical.
I'm not sure I'd recommend doing what we just did, but if you do have to undertake such a trip during the pandemic, plan and prepare as much as possible, and be ready to modify your plans based on what you see while you're traveling. Maskl up, and stay safe out there!