Driving South in the Pandemic


Below St. Louis, the face masks disappeared. The sign on the door of the gas station near the St. Francois Mountains said, Please don’t come in here if you have a fever or bad cough. If you cough inside, please do it into your elbow.

The second place we stopped, in Arkansas, had locked their bathroom, the sign said, for the staff’s protection. People inside gave us hard and fearful looks for both our masks and for trying to social-distance. The cashier rang me up for a bag of ice but only gave me bills back and slammed the cash drawer shut on my 83 cents. She was done with me. Our Styrofoam cooler held lunchmeat and Gatorade so we did not have to buy fast-food. My kid took photos of me with my car sandwich and Pringles, and texted them.

Homeowners had pushed Faith over fear signs into the gravel at the end of their driveways.

An old friend called from L.A., as we got close to Louisiana. I was lucky he reached me. Dead zones on the old state road through villages and National Forests made reception difficult. The entire route down the middle of the continent had gas deserts, and long stretches with no buildings, cars, or people, even in normal times. Now, places were also closed or could be vectors. I told Larry we had not used a bathroom in many hours. He said I should just turn down a side road. I said it was impossible for an outsider to know where locals, land owners, or sheriff’s deputies might be watching. Once, in a similar place, we pulled over to take photos, and a guy in a pickup stopped to ask questions. After a while he relaxed and told us, I had a gun on the seat next to me the whole time. Larry said he was suddenly fearful for us.

Just before Alexandria, the highway got bigger, and the traffic heavier. A White Heron on the other side of the median took flight and flapped parallel to the road. I looked down at the dash and was startled to see we were all going 90, as if everything was off. We had not been anywhere in weeks, and it suddenly seemed odd there were animals on the planet that could fly.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.