Yesterday, I flew on a plane for the first time in over three months. 111 days to be exact. But of course, the number of days one has abstained from something is irrelevant when deciding whether or not it’s safe.
Since my grandmother took me to Europe for one of those Cartan twenty-one countries in twenty-three days tours back in the sixties, I’ve loved to travel. In recent years, I will often arrive home from a trip, unpack, repack, and leave the next day for somewhere else. I get some of my best writing done in airports and on airplanes. I love the movement, the getting to and from, the new places, the old places again, the roar of the engine right before the plane barrels down the runway and that moment when the front wheels come off the ground.
Many of you know that Cal and I live in Columbus, Georgia, and also that I love Provincetown. I discovered it when I took a class at the Fine Arts Work Center back in 2006. Over the years, each time I went back, I loved it more. But it was the summer of 2012 when I fell for it like crazy. And in 2016, I bought a house here. Since January of 2013, I’ve been in Provincetown every month except for one.
Until this year.
On March 2nd, 2020, the day before I left Provincetown for book tour events in Atlanta and Birmingham, people were just beginning to talk about stocking up in advance of Covid-19. I went to the store too, thinking even if I couldn’t fly, I could drive the nineteen hours. I was thinking going to the grocery store before I left would be the thing that would make it possible for me to come back.
Cal and I have been sheltering in Columbus since March 15th. For us, going to a restaurant on March 12th felt perfectly fine, but when we sat down at a table on March 14th, it did not. And that was that. No grocery stores, no one in the house, no children, no friends, just wiping the groceries left on the front porch, letting mail and packages sit for three days, and having the wine dropped in the back of the car where we’d left the exact change.
When I drove away from the house yesterday morning at 8:45 am, I had not been by myself in a car for over three months. Deciding to come to Provincetown was not a decision I made lightly or by myself. In addition to so many more important things, Covid-19 has also deprived us of our independence. What we do affects others in our pod. Cal is the other in my pod. We talked about driving the nineteen hours, but that would involve not only the driving risks but our creaky bones in sitting positions for hours and hours and at least one hotel, and gas stations and bathrooms galore.
On June 14th, Cal and I ate outside at a restaurant. As Massachusetts reopened, the metrics were continuing to trend down. Delta was capping seating on all flights at sixty percent and leaving middle seats open. The ferry was going to run again. Earlier in June, I wasn’t ready to even consider flying; now I was. But Cal still wasn’t. We worked our way through it, and he said even if he wasn’t ready, knowing how much it meant to me to be in Provincetown, he was okay with my trying it.
When I drove into the Atlanta airport, the parking meter issued a ticket without my having to touch anything except the ticket, which I reasoned had been in the box long enough. Still, I put it up and sanitized. Finding a parking place was not a problem.
I wore long sleeves and a baseball cap. Everything I had with me was zipped away from any flying germs, so I almost forgot to empty the water out of my bottle. I avoided Clear and went to pre-check where I did not have to get within six feet of the checker to be allowed into the line. The six-feet floor markers were unnecessary. Only one person was ahead of me, and she was done by the time I got to the front of the line.
The TSA agent was masked and gloved. He asked for my driver’s license and for me to lower my mask. Then came the tricky part. He tried to give me my driver’s license back. My first thought was there was no way I was taking it back. But of course I did, and then I didn’t know what to do with it so I stepped to the side, hesitated for just a moment wondering what sanitizer would do to a license that had so much information on it the agent didn’t even need my boarding pass, and then poured a pool of sanitizer into my hands and rubbed the license and my hands around in it.
Next obstacle. Again, not people. The gray bins. I was supposed to move them from underneath to the top and put my suitcases inside. I used my shirttail. And when I got to the other side and got my bags back, I sanitized.
At the escalator, there were signs to keep your distance, which people were doing. Waiting for the trains, the same signs. Then I remembered I didn’t have to get on a train, I could walk. In fact, I usually walked for the exercise instead of taking the train.
Going up the escalator at the terminal, I couldn’t remember the number of my gate, and it didn’t show up on my phone. That’s another thing you’ll be doing all day. In addition to using hand sanitizer, you’ll be putting your passcode into your phone what feels like a thousand times because facial recognition won’t recognize your masked self. At the top of the escalator, I found the flight boards, and that was a weird moment. Of the ten boards that list the flights and the gates, only three and a half had anything on them. The rest were empty, just like all the blue seats at the Trump rally in Tucson.
The main area of terminal A was full of people (not normal full but still) and for a few minutes, I felt like I was in a video game trying to make my way to the gate without getting within six feet of anyone. I ducked out of the flow a time or two because I could feel people close behind me. Most wore masks. Maybe ten percent did not. And then another ten percent who had them around their chins.
After successfully driving the hour and a half from Columbus without a bathroom stop, now I needed to find one. My gate was at the far end of the terminal, and I thought a bathroom nearer the gate would be less populated. But it was being cleaned. I turned around to find another, and then I turned back. I had plenty of time. Why not wait for a clean bathroom? After five minutes, it was open, and I was not only the first but the only one in there.
At the gate, it was easy to stand away from people. The agent boarded the plane so that I was never closer than six feet to anyone. I didn’t have to wait on the jetway or at any time during the boarding process. The closest I got to anyone was the flight attendant as I boarded the plane, and I whizzed right by her.
The flight was full at the sixty-percent cap, and that felt safe. I had the window seat next to an exit (more space) and ended up with no one else on my row. There were people behind me and in front of me. With a wipe, I cleaned around me and above me. I didn’t recline. I declined the pre-bagged snack and water. They kept the lights low. No one spoke. I didn’t even read. I just sat there. Try as I might, I couldn’t make it fun. After we landed, I thought I would just wait until everyone got off, but people were keeping their distance and when it was my turn, I went.
In Boston, the water taxi is not yet back in business, so I took a Lyft to the ferry. Very few drivers so that was a fifteen-minute wait. I handled my own bags and was in the car less than ten minutes. I sanitized.
I had a two-hour wait, and I’d only eaten a few nuts driving to the airport. So I headed across the street to a restaurant with a large outdoor area. After giving my name and contact info to the host for tracking, I pulled the menu up on my phone and ordered guacamole and chips. And a margarita on the rocks. Closer to fun, but it still felt risky.
Only one ferry was running to Provincetown, and it was the first day for that. I was on the last run of the day. They are temporarily capping their passenger limit too, but it was unnecessary. There were only about twenty of us. I sat outside on an upper deck. As we were about to dock in Provincetown, the captain reminded us to wear our masks and to set a good example. I think he meant as visitors though, not as people.
When I opened the door to my house at 7:45 pm, I stood there for a minute and took it all in, felt the peace of being in the one place that feels right to me beyond anything I have the words to express, and then I took everything I was wearing off, including my hat, stuffed it in the washer, and got in the shower.
I had walked the last leg, and when I saw my house, it was almost too much. I think I’d been feeling as if I really might never be here again. And it still doesn’t feel quite real. Not only did I not love the traveling, I didn’t even enjoy it. Which, I have to say, surprised me. Out in the world, where I hadn’t been in a while, I was masked and vigilant for eleven straight hours. Most people and entities along the way did what they could to lower risks. And I took the risks in as smart a way as I knew how. That’s the thing. If you’re contemplating getting out there, be as smart as you know how, and you’ll need a little luck too. I hope luck was with me yesterday. There are not many reasons I would do it again, but I will to get back home.
And then to get back here again.