On The Road in a Torn America
Lessons learnt from three weeks on the road in Coronavirus America
Sitting here in Denver, Colorado — my third time in the city since departing Connecticut three weeks ago — it is finally time to take a look back at this rollercoaster of a journey. At the end of May I purchased a 2001 Ram camper van and began making preparations for an ambiguous cross-country trek. Perhaps I had read too much Jack Kerouac during quarantine, and now that I am writing this article near Alameda Ave., ‘6 miles out of Denver’, I believe the parallels to On The Road are too perfect to ignore. I never made it all the way to San Francisco, but I’d like to think many of my antics are at least partially inspired by the Beats.
After spending more than a month ill with COVID-19 while attending online class, it was finally time to get out of the house. I sought a utopia, one in which coronavirus existed only in subtle periphery. Since leaving I have spent equal time with friends as I have alone, and I have prioritized meditation whenever possible. In a sense, I am on a sabbatical, if you ignore the part where I am still working remotely. Regardless, this experience has enabled a deeper exploration into my psyche than I have ever previously afforded, and I believe I have learned lessons powerful enough to warrant their sharing.
A World Without Coronavirus
I departed Connecticut in full health, with the exception of my severe case of cabin fever. My first destination would be Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia, where I would camp out for the night. As I left the Tri-State Area, it quickly became apparent that masks were no longer socially acceptable. I was aware that there was a large population against masks, but I was not prepared for verbal harassment in gas stations and a complete ignorance of CDC guidelines.
“F**king Masks.” — Walmart customer in Utah
“All you liberals and your masks, huh?” — Wendy’s customer in Wyoming
“What Virus! Mask Free Zone Inside Shuttle.” — Rafting company in Idaho
From campsites to rest stops I shook hands with strangers, lent people pens, lent a lady my phone, and welcomed strangers within as little as three-feet distance. I left Connecticut to find a place where I could pretend the virus didn’t exist, and I didn’t have to go far. I made the incorrect assumption, however, that the majority of people would have at least a little concern about catching the virus. Instead, it felt as though many sincerely believed that the virus was a hoax determined to shut down the local mini-golf course, destroying vital caddying jobs for the community.
The outrage is not unfounded. Many small businesses were forced to close, and the disaster relief programs struggled to assist. Instead of blaming the virus for the failure of these businesses, however, many are choosing to blame the lockdown efforts. From a Utilitarian standpoint, a full lockdown does the most good for the most people, and should therefore be the best decision. From a Capitalist standpoint, however, jobs are more important than lives. What is perplexing, however, is the fact that we can still reopen the entire economy and minimize deaths by engaging in the painfully simple task of wearing masks. Unfortunately, the mask has been intentionally demonized in the hegemonic ideology as being associated with the lockdown efforts, and if your opinion toward the lockdown is negative it is likely you will not be a big fan of wearing a mask. I have proven my hypothesis with the transitive theory, as follows:
If Lockdown = Mask,
And Lockdown = Bad,
Then Mask = Bad.
Coming from the vicinity of the hardest-hit city in the world, I will admit that my opinion toward the virus could be biased. Perhaps it is not normal that I can list about twenty people I personally know who tested positive, but maybe that will eventually be the new norm in America.
On this road trip I made the ambitious goal of completely scrubbing the virus from my mind, and my first step was to delete Twitter from my phone. Don’t worry, I donated to two bail funds and affixed a Black Lives Matter sign to my van before going off the grid. I have also been attending protests whenever possible along my route. While I would like to go fully off the grid, it is simply impossible during a time we must fight for justice.
Once Twitter was out of the picture it was remarkably easy to completely ignore the virus. I spent the first three nights in West Virginia, Indiana, and Missouri, all three of which voted for Trump in 2016. Masks were a rare occurrence and were often looked upon with disgust by passersby. In Denver the virus was impossible to ignore, but Utah was promising until my roommate Jack joined me with good cell service and an eager rapid fire of trending hashtags. It didn’t take long before I instituted a “No COVID news” rule, which we both proceeded to frequently break, he more so than I.
While I had achieved my goal in finding a place where Coronavirus did not ‘exist,’ I wasn’t fully satisfied. Although everyone was willfully ignoring the virus, that didn’t make it suddenly disappear. The packed bar in Ketchum, Idaho, for example, didn’t have some magical shield just because all the patrons had a positive mindset, and the virus maintained a stake of real estate in my mind the entire night out.
In hindsight, I was never really searching for a literal place without the virus. I was seeking something far more profound: a sort of physical and emotional relief from what could only be described as a three month disaster. While the physical setting had certainly lent itself well over the past three weeks, it was meditation that lifted me from the dark haze of 2020 and helped me rekindle joy in both social and solitary settings. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius provided guidance as I gradually formed my own philosophy of life, and Stoicism and the Art of Happiness by Don Robertson introduced me to the ideas of ancient philosophers like Socrates and Diogenes. The Wim Hof breathing method became my predominant form of clearing my head, and my experience in Jesuit education familiarized me with the Examen, a weekly step back and reflection. Never before had I been more in tune with myself and with nature, let alone with my intentions for my own life. The Stoics place incredible emphasis on the difference between good, bad, and indifferent. Anything that is not within one’s control is indifferent and can be neither good nor bad. It is this idea that is the basis for the serenity prayer:
God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can, and
The wisdom to know the difference.
Meditation has provided me a glimpse of the wisdom required to know the difference between what I can and cannot control. And I say ‘glimpse’ because I have only scratched the surface. Ancient Stoics claimed that a truly wise Sage would achieve a state of “Eudaemonia,” loosely translated as reaching perfect happiness and wisdom.
Never before have humans had such immediate access to news and communications, and our emotional systems are not designed to handle this constant intake. In such a world, it is easy to become distracted by false notions of what we believe is good or bad. A point of perfect wisdom would enable one to navigate this world and only be personally affected by things within direct personal control. It is so rare to temporarily remove oneself from the chaos, yet it is such a simple solution to navigating the noise. When you are meditating you aren’t worrying about things you can’t control — things like whether the guy at the gas station was wearing a mask, or whether you should have moved home, thus unknowingly spreading the virus to your entire family.
Being on the road is not a necessity in the slightest, although I strongly believe that going into nature enriches the experience. It took being on the road for me to reach these conclusions, after all. Exciting moments seeing friends for the first time in a while, sad moments saying goodbye to friends for the last time for a while. Solitary moments on open road, putting more effort into thinking than into driving. I have reached many conclusions along the way; some epiphanies, some “duh” moments. If there is one overarching lesson I have learnt, however, is that it is within our power to live in perfect contentedness with those around us and in harmony with nature.
For some ridiculous reason, the world seems to be living in ‘ignorance is bliss’ mode. In the same way that a Coronavirus test reveals a fact about your current infection status, meditation reveals a fact about the way the world truly works. We can choose to live in ignorance on both fronts, to choose not to have the facts revealed. The facts will remain facts, yet they will remain obscured. Ignorance of Coronavirus could result in the unknowing spread of the virus and possible death. Ignorance of meditation could result in persistent unhappiness and obsession over the chaotic tedium of indifferent things.
Is it a lie when one says ‘ignorance is bliss,’ or is bliss really a facade for obedience? Is it possible to truly escape the virus, physically and mentally? Perhaps the rest of my journey will reveal more answers, and perhaps, more questions.