In mid-March, six days after the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic, the city of Moab, Utah, told visitors to stay away from its campgrounds and public lands. A few days earlier, New Mexico closed state parks to camping.
It was the beginning of a cascade of closures, as scores of state and national parks and other public campgrounds, along with gateway and resort communities fearful of travelers hoarding supplies and straining health systems, sent an unmistakable message: This is not the time for a vacation. Stay home.
As this was all going down, we were visiting Texas, then Arkansas, then Oklahoma, towing our Airstream travel trailer from one campground to the next. If that sounds like we were being feckless tourists while the nation was heading toward lockdown, it’s because we belong to an American subculture that gets fetishized on social media but is actually made up of regular people who’ve given up stationary homes for ones with wheels. There are an estimated one million of us out here, living, working and schooling our kids on the road, in everything from beater vans to tricked-out mobile McMansions.
Some of us have brick-and-mortar houses, too, but most — like us — don’t. In 2016, we sold our home in Rochester, N.Y., along with almost everything in it, bought a truck and an Airstream, and became nomads. My husband, a software engineer, works remotely for the same company he did before we left Rochester. I’m a freelance writer and editor and have been for 20 years. Our 16-year-old daughter home-schools, just like she did in New York, except now it’s called roadschooling. Not much has changed in our day-to-day except that “home” has become relative.
We’ve lived in the Alaskan tundra, the Dakota badlands, Banff’s mountains, the Florida Keys and the Southwest desert. We park our home near historic sites and museums, next to observatories and across the harbor from Lower Manhattan. We hike national parks from our front door. It’s cool, yes, but also weird, and we still have responsibilities and repairs and all the messy life stuff like everyone else. But it’s our life, and it works.
Then came a pandemic.
Barely a week later, on the day New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) declared a state of emergency, home was outside Dallas. We were there to attend a teen book festival, and though Austin’s South by Southwest had been canceled the day before, the book event went on. Precautions were in place — no handshakes or hugs with the authors, handwashing reminders, hand sanitizer everywhere — but it didn’t yet have that urgent feel that would come just days later, with the official pandemic declaration on March 11.
By then, we were in Hot Springs, Ark., at the national park, and venturing out made me anxious. We were healthy — we still are healthy — but we’d been at that book festival, and earlier that same week, while still in Houston, we’d been at an Elizabeth Warren rally with 2,000 others. Who knew what we might have picked up? We decided we needed to hunker down for a while. New York was fast becoming a hotspot, and anyway, with no house there, we couldn’t really stay long-term in a relative’s or friend’s driveway. All the public-lands closures made us wary of going off-grid, even though we’ve got solar panels and boondock as often as we can.
The answer was to find someplace we could have creature comforts — electric, water, sewer — yet still be able to go outside, away from overwhelmed tourist towns but near enough to an urban area just in case. Somewhere we could call home for a month or more. As closures and restrictions mounted, and our anxiety, too, we learned many municipalities were considering RV parks essential businesses. We found a spot in a private RV park in northern New Mexico.
We were in Oklahoma City when we made the New Mexico reservation, having left Arkansas early because of tornado predictions. We took advantage of being in a large metro area still low on the curve, and stocked up on food and supplies. I shopped with surgical care, sanitizing my hands and the cart and what I put in the cart, to protect myself and others, and kept wondering why everyone around me wasn’t doing the same.
Our only other outing while we were there was to visit the site of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. We went to the open-air memorial, but not the museum, late on a cold and rainy day. Only a few other people wandered the grounds. The memorial has 168 chairs, one for each person who died in the bombing, including smaller chairs for the day care on the second floor. Standing amid those empty seats, I had a morbidly hopeful thought: With businesses and schools closed, and public spaces empty, maybe mass killings would end.
On our last night before settling in New Mexico, we slept at a truck stop. Usually we don’t, because we see those as a refuge for truckers, not travelers. But this one had a section marked for RVs, and there wasn’t another option for miles. My husband pumped gas, using the disposable gloves we keep for dumping our waste tanks, but we didn’t go inside the convenience store. We knew essentials shortages were affecting truckers, too — the very people making sure the rest of us have food and toilet paper and medical supplies.
It’s now been more than a month since we started sheltering in place, the longest we’ve stayed anywhere since selling our house. Road life tends to build resilience and a comfort with making do, but it also primes you for constant change, so of course we’re itching to move. But now isn’t the time. We still have jobs, we already home-school, we’re in a place where we can get outside and get deliveries so we can stay out of public as much as possible. We’re more fortunate than many. And though we’re in a campground we’d never seen before last month, we’re home.
For four years, home has been relative, but it’s also been absolute. We could park under dark skies at the Grand Canyon or bright lights at Walmart, and it’s all the same once we step inside. Other people sheltered in place by going home. It took us a few more miles, but we got here, too.