This was supposed to be an uplifting column — an exciting travelogue of the time I finally escaped the confines of my house for more than a few hours, and despite a worldwide pandemic, I actually enjoyed myself.
However, in the face of record-breaking numbers of COVID-19 cases nationwide, I’m glad I made it back home when I did.
After three and a half months spent almost entirely inside my house, with the exception of the occasional summer-league baseball or soccer game, I needed a change of scenery. Having socially distanced as much as possible, and knowing my parents had done the same, a trip to the mountains of New Mexico seemed the perfect panacea to break up the monotony. So, a couple Thursdays ago, I got up bright and early, got behind the wheel and made the 10-hour drive south.
Sure, there were questions: it was going to be the first time since March that I’d eaten food from a restaurant, for one — how was this going to work? For another, it was my first time leaving Utah since the pandemic started — how would the restrictions in other states affect me? Since I blew the engine in my own car a week earlier, how did the stereo in the rental car work? These are the things that were running through my mind.
The answers? On the first point — it worked quite well. When I stopped for fuel somewhere in southern Colorado, I placed an online order at my favorite burger joint an hour away in northern New Mexico. I stepped just inside the door and told them who I was, they put the bag on the counter, I grabbed it and was able to enjoy a green chile cheeseburger and Frito pie just like I had so many times before. It went so smoothly that it was easy to ignore the fact that all the barstools inside had been removed, everyone was six feet apart and all were wearing masks ranging from a simple bandana to something more Darth Vader-esque. Fashion-conscious? Hardly. Safe? Certainly.
That leads to my second question. As we know, Utah never officially “shut down.” We never had a formal stay-at-home order in the Beehive State. Colorado and New Mexico both did, and they were only starting to get closer to normal in mid-June. And for the first week of my two-week trip, things at least felt comfortable, if not completely normal. We toured the old part of the cemetery in the town of Belen, where multiple generations of my family are buried dating back to before New Mexico was a state. We barely left the car as we drove through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, through the tiny mountain village of Trampas where my great-grandmother grew up, and onward to Chimayó, renowned for its red chile. We were away from other people. We were safe.
The safety thing wasn’t an issue even when other people were present. We stopped and had dinner at a local restaurant specializing in all things red chile, and while tables were socially distanced, everyone wore masks until time to eat and all the utensils and drink cups were of the disposable variety, it felt relaxing. The same could be said for my trip to a small restaurant in Albuquerque to pick up a bulk order of tamales and tortillas. Socially distanced, masks on, but totally safe and also delicious.
But then, the news got bad in a hurry. COVID-19 cases spiked, and the numbers are only going to get worse in the days to come. States paused or reversed their reopening plans. Suddenly, my vacation became less relaxing. Instead, I had to face a 10-hour drive back to Utah, wondering what would and wouldn’t be open. I also realized this will probably be the last time I leave the state for a while, and it could possibly result in my world being limited to a two-block radius around my house again. (Let’s hope not.)
At least I figured out a satisfactory answer to question No. 3. I figured it out so well that I didn’t have to hear myself singing along, in fact.
Darren Vaughan is the sports editor for the Transcript Bulletin. He is holding out hope for high school sports to start again in the fall. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.