Earlier this year, Joe VanHoose decided to take a cross-country road trip to see how the rest of the country was dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. In Part Two, he visits Oklahoma, sees the end of the world in North Texas and takes up hiking in Colorado. Check out Part One here.
Friday, August 21, Edmond, Oklahoma
After a full 24 hours into my road trip, I was starting to see how many states seemed to have a handle on COVID-19. On Friday morning, I drove out of Arkansas, stopping at the Donut Palace south of Batesville on the way. I was greeted with a large, plexiglass shield that separated me and the shop worker, who used tongs to carefully grab the donuts I was pointing to.
These were the best donuts on a trip full of them. I’d never tasted a glaze that was so thick and rich. Now six weeks removed, I still think about those donuts and wish that Arkansas was a bit closer.
Not that there was time to linger. I was due to meet up with my old boss and good friend Dave outside of Oklahoma City for the weekend.
Dave and his two sons had been quarantining in style, getting a lot of use out of the swimming pool in the backyard and the music studio complete with all the instruments that I kind of know how to play.
But when I arrived late Friday afternoon, I learned that the two sons had just reported back for the first week of public school in Oklahoma. After seeing photos of school halls in Georgia filled with maskless teens, I was more than a little apprehensive to get too close to these two kids I have watched grow up.
High fives had to be replaced by tips of the hat. Twitter had trained me to think that everyone was infected with COVID-19, so I did my best to create a little extra space around the dinner table and jam room. I washed my hands a few times an hour.
And we wore masks everywhere we went. To my surprise, Oklahoma had implemented a mask mandate, and everyone I ran into – from the music store to the liquor store and even Big O’s Pork & Dreams – was following along. Big O’s still had its dining room closed.
The ribs were still on point.
Sunday morning, I bid my Edmond crew ado and headed west for Colorado. I stopped for donuts off Garth Brooks Boulevard in Yukon, Oklahoma, and was served by a woman who had fabricated a plexiglass shield for her face.
The donuts were OK.
Sunday, August 23, Clayton, New Mexico
My trek toward Florissant, Colorado took me off of the interstate and onto a two-lane backroad that crossed all of North Texas. Fortunately, the speed limit was 75 mph.
In North Texas, it was hard to remember there was a pandemic engulfing the world. Some areas looked like the end of the world was already upon us.
Miles and miles of wind turbines gave way to derelict oil drilling rigs that continued to pump the gray ground. Slaughterhouses and feed lots for cattle and bison popped up every few miles. The sky was just as gray as the barren landscape.
I pulled into a Phillips 66 in Dumas and discovered the regular unleaded only boasted 86 octane. Considering the surroundings, I would have guessed regular octane would be higher, not lower. And while signs on the door reminded visitors to wear their masks, I held the door for two dudes who walked in without a face cover.
No one at the gas station was interested in enforcing the rule, but this stop proved to be an exception.
Down the road and across the border in Clayton, New Mexico, my quest for some authentic Southwest faire led me to a tired old drive-in that was now Taqueria Dalhart No. 2. I walked in and saw that, like the restaurants I had stopped at in Oklahoma and Tennessee, the dining room was closed.
But two older gentlemen in the kitchen had the fiesta music turned up, singing along with their masks on. They made me a superb torta pastor with peppers that I had not seen before.
Wednesday, August 26, Idaho Springs, Colorado
I spent the first half of the week hiking and traveling through quiet little mountain towns that weekend tourists had alreadyleft behind.
That Monday, I was one of maybe 30 people walking around the casino-lined main street of Cripple Creek. I didn’t really have any plans to venture into a casino, but the lack of a crowd and the COVID-19 precautions twisted my arm – not that my arm ever needs too much twisting when it comes to gambling.
A greeter at the Century City casino checked my temperature, issued me a fresh mask and hand sanitizer and gave me a wristband to show that I had been medically cleared. It was easy enough staying away from the other half dozen gamblers on the casino floor.
To my dismay, the table games were – and remain – closed until further notice. But the video poker machine at a closed bar netted me $35.
I made my way a little farther north to the Guanela Pass and spent Tuesday morning hiking along old gold rush structures and river rapids. As another hiker would approach, we would both stop and put on our masks as we passed each other by.
After an afternoon on an empty golf course up near Grand Lake, I arrived in Idaho Springs and caught a glimpse of what Downtown Athens could be doing to fight COVID.
The main street was closed to vehicle traffic, and all of the restaurants and bars – not to mention The Frothy Cup coffee house – had claimed several square feet on the street to serve patrons outdoors.
That evening, I ate more Mexican food and drank a few Sols sitting outside, listening to a just-earnest-enough bluegrass band play for the whole street. It felt remarkably normal.
I awoke early Wednesday morning and decided that I was tired of eating food out of Styrofoam containers. I wanted to eat some pancakes with a real fork. It was just after 7 a.m., so I figured the crowd down at Marion’s Diner wouldn’t be too thick.
I walked into the old restaurant – wearing a mask felt habitual at this point – and was greeted by a server who only had her mask covering her mouth. I sat in a booth on an empty side of the restaurant, divided by a partition that suggested this was a smoking section years ago. On the other side of the partition, old timers had assembled around a big table and were telling stories, hooting and hollering and coughing.
I sat there and rationalized that these people probably came here every day and interact with the same people every day. And I thought about how few cases there have been in this small Colorado county, how there had only been one recorded death.
Still, I kept my mask on a little while longer. It was as nervous as I had been on the trip. It was also the first breakfast I had eaten in a restaurant since before the world had ended.
The honey smoked sausage and bacon were really special, and the pancakes hit the spot. I hoped the meal was worth it.