covid travel diary

by rebecca patterson-markowitz

The essay centers around my experiences of making a cross country drive to travel home during the pandemic and of spending time caring for my grandmother after she breaks her wrist and contracts COVID-19. The major paradox I explore is the desire and need for care, both proximate and distant, even as our physical bodies have become sites of increased vulnerability and potential vectors of transmission. 

Returning to a place that feels like “home,” I find myself moving through and participating in reconfigurations of closeness and distance, which are infused with both familiarity and strangeness. I center mundane and intimate enactments of care as well as my own visceral experiences. 

In writing the piece, I was thinking about the role of certain technologies in mediating some of these interactions. This was a moment of the pandemic when I was spending a lot of time on my phone both connecting with loved ones and also watching content created by strangers, with a sense that many of us were experiencing similar feelings of stuckness and longing. Through my cross country travel I was able to encounter strangers in surprising new ways. Meanwhile, my grandmother was living alone and isolated before my visit, but had Google Assistant set up in her home. Once in her space, I realized how regular and important her interactions with the platform were, and how it made simple tasks like turning on appliances or getting the daily news so much easier. References to these technologies punctuate the essay, as these technologies themselves have felt like an ever increasing part of the grammar of life this past year.

As a final comment, I acknowledge and in some ways regret that this reflection does not overtly center some of the transformative politics and uprisings that were such a crucial and inspiring part of this past year. My hope is that it still offers a few important impressions of the uneven and complicated experiences of being embodied at different intersections of class, age, and mobility in this moment.

 

I drive from the leafless trees of the southeast winter into the open vast yellow dirt of the west Texas desert and further through to Arizona. Once the horizon opens up and I see in every direction from my windshield and even in my rearview mirror, my body heaves a big sigh. I maneuver cautiously through aisles at gas stations to bathrooms where I try to touch as little as possible and breathe even less, though I have a KN95 mask on my face. I am just a passer through. These places are not mine to know or be known, and every potential human encounter is tinged with the fear of our permeability, the things we might share that we cannot see.

One night I sleep at a west Texas campground a little ways east of El Paso. There are sand dunes, and the pandemic has not stopped the tiny park office from its business of renting out plastic sleds. I equivocate, but decide to pay my $20 for the night and go set up camp. As I am eating my dinner, packed diligently in North Carolina and preserved along my drive, I notice rousing in the tent across the way. Two twenty-something young men are waking up as the sun sets. They make a meal in a cast-iron pan over the short blackened grill provided at the site, then tidy up and don orange vests and hard hats from their trunk. They drive off together. I proceed with my dinner and eventually hunker down in the back of my own car, which I’ve turned into a nest for the cross-country trek.

I read Beloved by Toni Morrison by lamplight. Her words invoke the invisible and visible histories of the land I am crossing. I sleep in fits, and so I wake up not before dawn but after the sun has risen, to see my campsite neighbors returning in their car. Making my breakfast, I look up at the sloping sandy dune that sits just above where I camped. I decide I should sled, and try to figure out what I can use for my impromptu sport. I decide on a trash can lid from the collection of dusted metal trash cans chained together nearby. I march up the dune, lid in hand, and find its ridges make any kind of sledding near impossible. Heaving the weight of my lower body forward I lurch but cover less than an inch of ground. I continue these attempts for longer than is reasonable before conceding defeat. Boots a little more full of the fine white sand for my effort, I trudge back down the slope. One of the two young men, with a broad freckled face, walks toward me. He is holding a bright green disk in hand. Shyly he extends it out, still keeping a distance, telling me, “The park rangers gave us this one a while back if you want to try it out. It has a crack in it and someone said it pinched their butt and that they were gonna sue the park, so they took it out of rotation and said we could have it.” Wary of our maskless faces but touched by his offer after my trash can lid antics, I take the sled, extending my arm in a reach as far away from my body as possible, holding my breath a little. After a few steps backwards and a thanks, I ask him what he and his buddy are up to. He tells me they’ve been living at the campsite for their work in a nearby sand mine. “We’re on the night shift now. We’re both into the outdoors. It’s $100 a month split between us here at the park campsite. A trailer would cost $500 for the month.” I thank him again and get his name before he walks back towards his tent. His semi-permanent address.

I try the bright green sled. It works, in spite of the crack. I try to position my weight towards the back, as he told me. In jerky progress, I descend the slope, the markings left behind me in the sand confirm my awkward yet ultimately-successful trajectory.

The two men already have zipped themselves into their tent for their daytime sleep by the time I’ve packed up my little camp stove and gotten my things in the car. I still have the green disk. I take some pears and apples from my snack stash as well as a can of smoked trout. I wonder briefly about the trout, imagining fish breath in tented close quarters. I leave these small offerings anyways. I tiptoe over and place them into the bowl of the bright green sled, hoping the arrangement evokes a cornucopia or a gift basket. It’s on the metal picnic table right next to their tent.

I wonder if birds or small rodents might get to the fruit before they do.
Body a little more limber for my efforts on the hill, I pack and hit the road. I’ll make it to Arizona a little after sundown.

It’s late in Phoenix. Holding a FaceTime call in one hand, I tap my fingers on objects at my grandmother’s house. A lamp with ridged sides, a glass of water on the bedside table. On the other end of the country and appearing in the tiny device in my hand, my partner attempts to mimic these sounds with their voice. A bedtime TikTok game.

I hear my 95-year-old grandmother from across the hall in her bedroom, “Okay Google turn on the TV.” Google might be the name she has spoken the most this last year, living alone as she does, eyesight failing. Visitors have come to check on her with great caution; they must wear masks and sit outside. Or, this was the case. Until I got a phone call that she and my father both had COVID-19. That she had also fallen while trying to grab something without her walker, and was in hospital.

I’m now in the extra bedroom at her squat small house in the Phoenix desert, both because of her broken wrist and her amplified tiredness, the blessed aftermath of her surviving COVID pneumonia. I’m doing a weekend care shift. For all my attempts and enthusiasm to take care of her, she insists on doing most things herself. Bending forward, breath slightly labored and wheezing, she’ll spend a minute trying to get the ridges of her pliable cotton socks over all five toes with one hand. Then pull them up slowly. She has patience, and most of all, her independence this way.

I have been on my phone more these days. In many elsewheres, people point their cameras at themselves or friends, recording pranks, cooking triumphs, cute kids, dance routines. A dog voiced by its human is lamenting the cute outfits it didn’t get to wear this year. A disability rights activist dances to the latest viral trend. A woman from Appalachia speaks to the camera to contest the stereotypes of the region. A young white queer teen teaches his slightly befuddled but willing older parents a burlesque routine. I dive into these worlds for comfort, for humor, for distraction, for connection.

I also find time to leave this technological connectivity behind. Since arriving in Arizona, I have been watching the mushroom-cap-shaped bubbles stream off my hands as they plunge ahead of me into the aquamarine community pool of my childhood. I swim laps for an allotted 30 minutes in a lane next to my mother. I try to be attentive to the inevitable hovering of the next swimmer with a reservation, to spare them the need to come closer than might be safe and fish me out. With my glasses off, it’s hard to keep track of time. It’s been hard to keep track of time. My childhood memories mingle with present day. The mountains look the same as they always have, though I know fires ravaged them this past summer. In the evening, the bats and nighthawks still swoop low in the sky. My mother and I remind each other, “Make sure to bring a mask!” or, “Put a mask back on after the water.” My favorite laps are those I swim on my back, looking up at the expanse of sky, the play of light and shadows through distant trees and squat shade structures as the sun dips lower in the afternoon. Taking comfort in the way this happens every day, and in the knowledge that at least for now in 2021, while the hours don’t change, the daylight is getting longer.

Rebecca Patterson-Markowitz (she/they) is a PhD student and feminist geographer interested in the connections between the body, power, and well-being. She is currently at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researching the intersections of therapeutic practices and social justice. Born in Tucson, Arizona, she feels lucky to be connected to such an amazing region with a rich and complicated history. During the COVID pandemic, she finally downloaded TikTok, marched for Black lives in Durham, North Carolina, and has been re-learning the fiddle.