Going home -- or trying to -- during a pandemic

Going home -- or trying to -- during a pandemic

What is home? Fear? Isolation? Safety? Freedom? These questions came to mind repeatedly during COVID-19 travel to my hometown – and second home – Asheville, North Carolina, where I still co-own my late mother’s home and property.

I originally booked my trip for March, around the same time I learned I was furloughed from my day job with no return date. I began sheltering in place that same day, a week prior to official orders, but I still planned to go to Asheville because I had nothing to keep me in Napa. Increasing concern over COVID-19 caused me to postpone my trip.

A couple of weeks passed. I was self-isolating at home with no human contact except the occasional grocery store outing. I began to feel very alone. I rebooked Asheville, departing a few days later, to shelter in place there until I knew when or if I would return to work. Although I have lived in Napa more than six years, Asheville has always been home.

I checked state quarantine requirements and was fully aware that I might be self-quarantined for weeks in either direction, or that commercial air travel could be suspended. I confirmed my temporary residence in Asheville with a longtime friend who was also alone in self-isolation since early March. I reserved an American Airlines first-class mileage award ticket to minimize exposure to other passengers, with a short layover in Dallas. I brought masks, pairs of gloves, and bottles of hand sanitizer. I was not afraid because not many people were traveling, and airports and airlines had escalated cleaning procedures and social distancing protocol. Fewer people were at airports and on airplanes than at local grocery stores.

The morning of departure, I drove to Sacramento, parked my car at a friend’s house, and requested an Uber pickup. I loaded my own luggage into the car, which was spotless. My driver, Antonio, offered me a sanitizing wipe. He told me I was a rare airport drop-off passenger these days.

At the airport, I was in awe of the cleanliness and emptiness. I checked my luggage and proceeded to the TSA checkpoint, where I scanned my own boarding pass. When the agent asked for my ID to swipe it, I looked hesitant and she said, “It’s OK. There are sanitizing wipes to clean your ID.”

I bought coffee and breakfast and sat alone in the food court.

Boarding the first flight to Dallas was speedy. As I started down the aisle, I thought I saw someone else in my row. I asked the flight attendants if I could move if someone were seated beside me. I must have had a look of fear in my eyes. They hastily logged into their phones to check the passenger load and reassured me that there were only five of us in first class and I could sit in any open row. The flight was meticulously clean and eerily quiet.

Because Texas has a quarantine policy for arrivals from some states, officers greeted our flight in Dallas, asking each of us if we were arriving or connecting. I replied, “I am connecting,” and they allowed me to pass without further questioning but it was unnerving. I had planned to walk between concourses, but I could not locate the walkway. Instead, I reluctantly boarded the tram with one other passenger. We sat at opposite ends of the car.

On the flight to Asheville, there were only two of us in first class. Upon arrival, I changed clothes and shoes and disposed of my travel wear prior to leaving the gate area. As I exited the security checkpoint, I was greeted by a sign stating that travelers from California, New York, and Washington were required by order of Buncombe County to self-quarantine for 14 days. For the first time, I felt unwelcome in my hometown. I tried to shake that feeling, reminding myself that I was home, in my happy place with my friend. After weeks of self-isolation, we enjoyed a wonderful face-to-face meal and real conversation.

The next morning, he woke up with a sore throat. While a bit concerned, I did not assume the worst. We went about our first full day together normally. He cooked and purchased take-out, and I washed dishes and cleaned. We each had our own space where we worked. During breaks, we shared meals and took walks. However, late that evening, he admitted that he thought I had given him the sore throat, that I made him sick. I asked him if he wanted me to leave and he said ‘yes’. He locked himself in a room.

I did not see him again. In fewer than 48 hours, I was already planning my return to Napa.

On top of this, my mobile phone’s cellular access was not functioning, so I could not make or receive calls or texts, only messages through Wi-Fi-based applications. I needed to find an airport hotel that was open. A friend reserved a room for me, but immediately after booking it, the hotel canceled it saying, “We do not accept guests from California.” I had experienced discrimination based on gender and age, but never based on origin or where I live.

I felt alienated by my beloved hometown. Perhaps Asheville’s native author, Thomas Wolfe, was right when he wrote this passage in “You Can’t Go Home Again”: “Perhaps this is our strange and haunting paradox here in America — that we are fixed and certain only when we are in movement. At any rate, that is how it seemed to young George Webber, who was never so assured of his purpose as when he was going somewhere on a train. And he never had the sense of home so much as when he felt that he was going there. It was only when he got there that his homelessness began.”

Another friend called more hotels trying to find one would accept me, including the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Asheville Airport/Fletcher. The front desk clerk, named Salem, who took the call said there was not a state or local order against California residents, and that I was welcome to stay. I breathed a sigh of relief. I reserved my room online.

I requested Lyft for a ride to the hotel, but due to my cellular network issues, the driver received an incorrect pick-up location. I sat on my luggage waiting for about 10 minutes, with no means of contacting anyone. Finally, I saw the car driving toward me, the correct license number displayed in the front window.

The driver, Robert, stopped and said, “Are you Elizabeth?” I pulled my mask down and said yes.

He said, “I already canceled your ride as a no-show. You’ll have to request a new one.”

Overwhelmed with all that had transpired, tears welled up in my eyes, and I said, “I can’t call another ride. I don’t have cellular service.”

He paused, tapped his phone, and said, “Get in.” As I loaded my luggage and seated myself, he added, “I canceled my other ride when I saw your tears. I knew I could not leave you. However, you will need to pay me in cash. Do you have an ATM/debit card?” I said yes. He also offered to stop so I could pick up dinner, but I declined. I did not want to delay him further from accepting new rides. If angels exist, Robert is one.

At the hotel, Salem was not on duty. Instead of showing my California driver’s license as ID, I showed my passport card. Although I knew the clerk could see my home address in my reservation, I did not want to call further attention to my California residency. In my room, I ordered DoorDash dinner delivery. The next morning, when I went downstairs for the hotel’s pre-packaged breakfast bag, Salem was at the desk. I said, “Salem, I am Elizabeth Smith, the traveler from California you helped yesterday. Thank you so much for accepting me.”

He pulled down his mask, smiled, and said, “You’re welcome.”

At the airport, the sign requiring a 14-day quarantine in Buncombe County for California, New York, and Washington travelers was no longer displayed at the TSA checkpoint. I interpreted its disappearance to signify that I was free to leave, so I did.

The return proved to be another easy travel day. My flight to Atlanta only had 10 passengers, spread throughout the plane. The flight attendant provided a pre-packaged snack bag that included two snacks, an eight-ounce bottle of water, and a sanitizing wipe – the first of four wipes that I would receive along my journey.

In Atlanta, no officers greeted our plane. I arrived at Concourse D and walked to Concourse T, instead of taking the tram. I wanted to feel freedom of movement. On the flight to Sacramento, there was a special pre-flight COVID-19 video, along with the usual safety video. The flight attendants provided headsets, pre-packaged snack bags, and sanitizing wipes by request. Upon the approach into Sacramento, I wondered if our flight would be met by officers and if there would there be a self-quarantine order. Deplaning was the only time during my trip that felt nervous. There should have been a more organized, systematic protocol to maintain social distance. Instead, passengers jumped up to grab bags from the overhead bins, a few bumping into each other. I remained in my seat until it was clear to exit. No one greeted the flight and there was no quarantine.

As I drove the final 65 miles of my trip, I tried to come to terms with what had transpired. I had a greater appreciation for my Napa home, although I am alone again in self-isolation for the foreseeable future. As Maya Angelou once said, “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

Where – or what – is home remains to be seen, but I am open to what the future holds when I may travel freely and safely, without quarantine, prejudice, or discrimination.

Elizabeth Smith is a freelance writer and the professional wine tutor at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. Reach her at elizabeth@elizabethsmithconsulting.com or visit her website at elizabethsmithconsulting.com.

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