rainy pandemic road trip
Friday, October 16 2020
location: rural Hurley Township, Ulster County, New York
Today the three of us (Gretchen, Powerful, and I) would all be traveling to Washington DC for a pandemic visit of Gretchen's parents at their home in the Watergate. We'd all recently tested negative for the coronavirus, and we had Avis (the 20-something daughter of my boss Alex) as a housesitter. Avis arrived as I was doing some last-minute trip prepartion, which included hooking up the standoff for the laboratory window so the cats could go out there, pouring some rum in a travel bottle, and, when Gretchen told me temperatures might drop below freezing this weekend, collecting all the peppers I could find in the garden and bringing in the spider plant.
A light rain was falling when we left in the Prius in the late morning. I was driving, and I would end up driving the whole way. The rain eventually ended, but not before we'd made it some distance into Maryland. I'd expected there to be more traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike, since (in the pandemic) many of the people who normally would fly would opt to drive. But no, traffic was only bad in a few places, and then never for long (usually it was the result of rubbernecking at rain-related accidents). We stopped at the Richard Stockton Service Plaza, which had a Burger King. This meant we could get Impossible Burgers, which Burger King is heavily promoting. Despite Gretchen asking that they hold both cheese and mayonnaise, our burgers all contained the latter. People were wearing masks in the rest area, but they weren't too good at social distancing, so we ate our lunch out in the car. Neither Gretchen nor I were much impressed with the burgers; the buns tasted very cheap and there wasn't much flavor to the onions and tomato either. And the fries were decidedly mediocre. But, unlike that one time when real mayonnaise caused an unscheduled visit to the shoulder in New Jersey, our guts managed to handle the assault with aplomb.
The coronavirus pandemic is a scenario that throws a spotlight on the extent to which we place trust in strangers: that they will practice safety in their lives so as not to first get the infection and then not to spread it on to us. People who "look" Republican are best avoided, since they think it's all a hoax and are more likely to be practicing unsafe behaviors. But avoiding such people is usually possible. On the highway, though the trust we place in strangers is of a different sort: that they will look where the fuck they are going. Usually on a drive this far, about half the time there is a close-call with some idiot. On this drive there were at least two. The second one was when a Tesla crossed three lanes at the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel toll plaza to get in front of me at the last second, forcing me to slam on my breaks and lean on my horn. That driver wasn't having a good-driving day, and left his right turn signal on for most of his drive in the tunnel. (Do Teslas encourage bad driving with excessive automation? If so, how is it possible the car doesn't disengage a turn signal after hundreds of feet of not turning?)
For most of our drive, we listened to various podcasts, including brief NPR news digests. The most entertaining podcast we heard was one about Johannes Gutenberg's bible project, and how his major investor sued him as he was completing his project and ended up with all his printing equipment. Interestingly, a single bible was to be sold for roughly a third the price of a house (say, $70,000 in today's money), indicating that, like others who have come along since, the idea was to sell products produced in a new way at the price of the technology being replaced (in this case, copying by scribes), even though the new technique made production much less expensive. The idea, then, is to take full financial advantage of exclusive access to a new production method. I should mention that the two hosts of this podcast (Stuff You Should Know) have a great sense of humor, which is delivered with effortless informality.
Google navigation sent us around the Beltway into Virginia, where we got off and took the George Washington Memorial Parkway southeastward along the southwest bank of the Potomac. I don't remember being on this parkway before, but it was very similar to the Palisades Parkway in New Jersey: it's a curvy parkway through forest, complete with many views of a large river and a large city beyond it. Fall colors had been at or near peak on the New York Thruway near home, but down this far south, the forest was still lush and green, and the many vines gave it the look of jungle.
We crossed the Potomac on the Key Bridge into Georgetown. Most of the pedestrians we saw there were wearing masks, but there seemed to be percentage of assholes out on a Trumpy mission on behalf of the virus. Google didn't know about a watermain break and tried to send me down two different streets that were blocked by utility workers. The second one was a temporary cul-du-sac of constantly-u-turning vehicles. But then I saw an alleyway that Google didn't seem to know about. It got me around the construction and back on track. Sometimes you have to know when to ignore the robots.
After parking in the basement parking area of the East Watergate Apartment building, security let us through several checkpoints to Gretchen's parents apartments. We'd all decided we'd be considered non-contagious for the purpose of this trip, so when we entered their apartment, we all hugged like back in the good old days. They were the first non-Gretchen people I'd hugged since March. (Not that I'm much of a hugger; not having to touch other people, and, more importantly, worry about the protocol of such touching, has been one of several pandemic perks.)
We sat around in the living room (at the west end of the apartment) eating chips and dips. Gretchen's mother also managed to find me a Sierra Nevada Torpedo in the refrigerator, and it was so old that it no longer really tasted like an IPA. We talked about things like coronavirus, Donald Trump, and what the Democrats can do in the face of a 6-3 crazy-eyed conservative majority on the Supreme Court.
Later we moved to the dining room and had Burmese food from a nearby restaurant that had last been in a restaurant in the early afternoon, so it had lost a measure of its freshness.
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