“On a cold and snowy Tuesday, February 13, 1866, at two o’clock in the afternoon, two men wearing Union soldier overcoats entered the Clay County Savings Bank in Liberty, Missouri. One man moved to the stove to warm himself; the other stepped to the counter, laid down a bill and asked for change. When the clerk reached for the bill, the men drew their guns and demanded all the money in the bank. One bystander on the street was shot and killed, and the robbers got away with $60,000. This was Jesse James’ first bank robbery. The bank stands where it did then, fitted out and preserved as it was on that day and operated as a museum by the county.
On a hot and steamy Monday, July 27, 2020, at high noon, I walked into that bank museum wearing shorts, a t-shirt and a large, red bandana covering my nose and mouth. As I entered, I pointed my index finger at the woman seated behind plexiglass and ordered: “Stick ’em up!” She said I wasn’t the first. But when I pulled down my mask to talk to my accomplice (my wife), she told me to put it back up as this was a government office and security cameras were watching.
Since March, when bureaucratic oversight of the COVID-19 pandemic first impacted my 2020 travel plans, I’d been suggesting a road trip to Mount Rushmore. My wife finally gave me the green light to plan it in June, and we were off mid-July.
Of course, in addition to government warnings, friends and family were discouraging, and a few insisted we would certainly get coronavirus. We were told to load the car with food and water. Others counseled advance hotel reservations at carefully checked-out establishments with an assurance of at least 24 hours of room vacancy. I was warned to wear gloves whenever I pumped gas and to use sanitizer on every surface before contact. (Not for me.) There was even what seemed a suggestion of adult diapers to avoid public restrooms or the possibility that none would be available. (Definitely not for me.)
I put together an extensive itinerary covering almost three weeks, but with constantly changing openings of virtually every attraction, it was hard to judge daily driving distances sufficient to make reservations. So we packed pillows and sleeping bags just in case, figured we wouldn’t starve or get stuck as long as there were gas stations open and decided we’d turn around the first time we couldn’t find a bathroom.
We started off through New York with Niagara Falls as our initial destination. Some four hours later and just past Albany, we faced that first bathroom challenge. With all the pre-trip pressure, it was an anxious moment, but a Panera Bread in a shopping mall just off the highway came through with the necessary facilities and a snack. (It was the first restaurant that I’d been inside for months.) After that we weren’t worried and bathrooms never became a problem.
Hotel accommodations were readily available for last minute, online booking and COVID-19 advisories were plastered on every front door with shield walls to separate us from desk clerks. Thinking back, perhaps the most common lobby decoration at the fifteen places we stayed was a gallon bottle of disinfectant.
The rooms were all clean, probably cleaner than ever. Many had breakable seals on their doors to verify a prepared status, and television remotes were often wrapped in plastic. Most had replaced the included breakfast buffet with bagged sustenance. One kept the buffet open but provided plastic gloves to be changed with each serving. The hotels did seem sparsely populated. But despite whatever extra work was involved in added maintenance, rates across the Midwest were low by East Coast standards.
Restaurants all seemed to require social distancing, but none were well occupied even so. One restaurateur whose family has operated a large, fine dining establishment in Cheyenne, Wyoming for generations told us that their regulars still seemed absent and tourists were making up most of their business. We ate there alone on a Friday night, a night on which in previous years the place would have been jammed during Cheyenne Frontier Days, cancelled for 2020. We had a Sunday lunch in an all but empty restaurant that Ike and Mamie Eisenhower use to frequent in his hometown of Abilene, Kansas. The waitress told us that before all this, the place would have been packed with the after-church crowd.
Highways were eerily empty, although that may always be true in states where towns are few and sparsely populated and corn fields stretch out endlessly in all directions without a farmhouse or structure in sight. Roads run on flat and straight forever. There was always a gas station to be found, although across many stretches by 8:00 P.M. the pumps were left on while the station was closed. (Most interesting was the prevalence of ethanol fuels and often the availability of only 87 octane gas.)
We passed through fifteen different states on our loop across America’s Heartland, a few both coming and going. Mask wearing and social distancing among the circulating population wasn’t consistent and decidedly less than in downtown Boston. One beach on Lake Michigan, with a view of Chicago on the horizon, was rather congested with no one wearing a mask on a hot and muggy Saturday afternoon.
It was raining when we visited Niagara Falls and our Maid of the Mist boat was far less than half-full, but a steady crowd occupied Mount Rushmore. While a lot of popular sites across our route remained closed, most were still perfect for outdoor viewing at all hours and with no admission fees. Many times we were alone in stillness outside the former homes of presidents, authors and inventors in neighborhoods and settings that preserve the views which shaped them.
Of the seventeen days we were on the road, all but three were beautiful and sunny. Skies were an amazingly crisp blue during the day and the constellations stood out clearly at night. As we flirted with multiple time zones, the sun lasted late enough most days to extend the best sightseeing hours. We walked Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois at dusk where the National Park Service meticulously maintains his old street. And we sat in lawn chairs on a dirt road in the middle of a vast, South Dakota prairie in which cows and deer roamed all around us as we watched the sun set magnificently over a former nuclear missile silo.
You’re never far from home these days. When my phone reported Governor Baker’s announcement of added travel requirements beginning August 1, we were at the furthest western point of our trip. His new mandates to self-report and quarantine made it hard to ignore midnight on Friday, July 31 as a more practical time to return. My wife put some effort into looking for a way to get tested for coronavirus outside Massachusetts on our way back but that didn’t work out. She was able to get us signed up for testing here. We beat the deadline – crossing the Massachusetts border at 9:30 P.M. on July 31st. We got tested Sunday night and had the results on Monday – NEGATIVE.”
You can find the itinerary for our trip on The Wayland Town Crier website. Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.