Escape from San Francisco and the COVID Road Trip

When I made my initial decision to move out of California almost two years ago, it seemed like an eternity before I would actually be leaving. But time sneaks up on us, and in the strange time warp that the COVID crisis has created, weeks and months have run together and made a lot of us lose track of time. I should have used my time more constructively while I was sheltering in place to clear out my apartment after 29 years of living there, but I procrastinated and due to the crisis, I kept pushing back my date of departure from May 31, to June 15, to June 30, to July 7 and that gave me the sense that I had all the time in the world. All I can say to those of you who have lived in one place for a long time and are thinking of moving anytime within the next 50 years, is “Start TODAY!” Let me be your cautionary tale.

I won’t go into great detail about what the final two weeks of my life in San Francisco were like for fear of boring some readers and of inducing flashbacks and PTSD in my own damaged psyche. I learned that transporting even a minimal number of boxes and small furniture across the country would cost me at least $3000, and so I decided to get rid of virtually everything I owned. I’d wager that over a couple weeks’ time I disposed of at least 50 Hefty trash bags full of stuff. I wheeled and dealed in various online marketplaces, selling several large pieces of furniture, giving away other pieces to anyone who would come and take them away, and giving away trees and plants I’d raised for decades to friends and neighbors. I had two meagerly successful garage sales and made a killing on selling a few boxes of old LP records for $150. I mailed about 25 boxes of smaller things like CDs, DVDS, books, winter clothes and art-work to my friend Joanne in New England and planned to pack my car with anything else I wanted to keep that was too big to mail.

Garage Sale and the process of trying to decide what to pack.

By early July I realized I’d desperately underestimated how much stuff I had, and again postponed my departure to the 14th. My landlord had allowed me to pay ½ month’s rent, but as the 14th drew close I looked at the piles  of stuff I still had to dispose of and realized I needed more time. My landlord was extremely kind, saying I could stay a few more days and she would not charge me any additional rent. After 29 years and virtually no updating in that time, my place would need a total renovation and she was in no hurry to start that, as there were already seven vacancies in my building – other people who had decided that San Francisco had lost its charm and were packing it up as well. Still, I could not keep this up forever. I’d already turned off all my utilities twice and had to turn them all back on!

And so, I called a junk hauler who quoted me an estimate between $500 to $700 to take all this stuff out of my place. When they arrived, they surveyed what needed to be done and the estimate jumped to $1200! At this point, I was so desperate to be done with this, I barely batted an eye. I sat in a sort of stupor as I watched my mattress and box springs, recliner, old tables and lamps, and seemingly endless boxes of crap get carted out. I felt embarrassed that my place was so out of control, I was becoming physically sore and completely exhausted from moving things and packing, and even with this help I felt like there was still too much I had to do. At one point the haulers found two more boxes of records in a closet and I quickly contacted the guy who’d bought my others; he came right over and bought these too! I found an ancient iMac computer hiding in the back of a closet; this thing probably belonged in a museum and I probably could have sold it, but there was no time, and out it went. After three hours, the two guys left with my $1200 and I stared at an empty apartment that still did not seem empty enough. Now I had no furniture or bed, so I worked into the night throwing away more things, sitting on the floor or bending over to pack things and simply ruining my back in the process. That night I slept on a pile of comforters on the floor.

My “bed” on the final night in the apartment, iMac recovered on an archaeological dig in my closets, and more junk needing to be hauled away…

The following day I thought I’d be leaving, but I spent almost 12 more hours packing and throwing more things away. I’d open up a cabinet and there were enough expired canned goods and opened packaged foods to fill a few more trash bags. I had things to toss from my refrigerator and freezer. I threw away more clothes and shoes than I care to recall, since no charity organizations were accepting donations due to COVID. Realizing I had no room in the car for things like bookshelves and lamps and tables that I had foolishly thought I could take, I was able at the 11th hour to donate things to a homeless veterans charity, and also gave them a lot of my kitchen stuff. By 8 PM, despite countless trips to the trash room in my building, I seemed to have accumulated even more stuff, and unwilling to face another night on the floor, I got a hotel for the night. In desperation I called a second trash hauler to come to the apartment the following day; I was determined to be moved out by that evening.

I gave another $300 to the new junk haulers, who seemed to take out enough stuff to fill a small landfill. As my car became filled to the point of bursting, I started having to abandon even more things I’d wanted to take with me like lamps, picture frames and various books. At one point, I sadly took my stereo speakers out of the car and gave them to the trash haulers, figuring I could just buy new ones when I get settled somewhere else. But it was traumatic parting with some of this stuff, and my body was one throbbing mass of aches and pains. After the haulers left, I spent yet another three hours packing and throwing things even more things away and as it began to look like I might actually be done, I realized I had no room in the car for several large pots and pans and bowls. And so, I did a very bad thing; I loaded them into the dishwasher and turned it on, pretending that I’d forgotten a load in the dishwasher because I simply could not cope with carrying more heavy bags of stuff to the over-filled trash room. With a heavy sigh, I closed the door on a place I have loved and have felt safe in for almost half my life. I hobbled down the stairs to my car and got behind the wheel, surprised that there was actually room inside for me!

Wisely, I’d scheduled a last, 100 minute appointment with Alex, a masseur I’ve been seeing for about 15 years. Faced with a cross country drive after all I’d put my body through over the past week, I felt I deserved some care. I was so sore and so stiff that it hurt to climb the stairs to his studio or even to get onto the massage table. As Alex worked on me, I cried several times, partly because it felt so good, partly because I was hurting so badly. and additionally, I think it was just an emotional reaction to realizing that my time in California was truly over and that I was finally finished with clearing out the apartment. After saying goodbye to Alex, I sat in my car and cried for several minutes, feeling lonely, sad and totally alone, without a place to call home after three decades.

I’d reserved a hotel about an hour south of the city for the night, but it was already 8:30 PM and I was hungry. Restaurants are still not open in San Francisco except for takeout food, so I googled and found a nearby Thai place that offered to-go orders. I drove down Geary Boulevard, a six-lane major thoroughfare in San Francisco. It was drizzling and cold and there was virtually no traffic, and no one outside walking. All I saw were a couple of masked homeless people wandering aimlessly,  looking more like extras from The Walking Dead than real people. I paid for and received my Pad Thai through a window of the restaurant and sat in my car alone, eating my last meal in the City by the Bay. In my wildest imaginings, I never dreamed that this was how my time in San Francisco would end. I drove out of town feeling shell-shocked and numb.

My friend Jonie in Bakersfield had generously invited me to stay with her for a day or two, so the next day I headed her way, but taking a very circuitous route; I wanted a last drive down the California Coast along Highway 1. It was a beautiful day, and I enjoyed the drive, but everywhere I stopped there were reminders that COVID is still out there and that life is far from normal. I listened to Linda Ronstadt as I drove south, bringing back memories of doing the same thing back in the 1980s when California was still new to me. I noticed that she sang a lot of songs about California: High Sierra, Talk to Me of Mendocino, and Hey Mister That’s Me Up On the Jukebox, which contains the line, “Southern California is as blue as a girl can be, blue as the deep blue sea, won’t you listen to me now: I need your golden-gated cities like a hole in my head… like a hole in my head. I’m free.” That line really resonated with me. But as I reached Morro Bay and realized it was time to turn inland, I played Adios, where Linda sings about leaving California, saying goodbye to the “endless summers” and how she’ll miss the “blood red sunsets out on the California coast.” I cried half-way from there to Bakersfield.

Adios to the California Coast…

I felt bad for Jonie and her 99 year old mom; I’m not sure if they knew what they was getting themselves into when they invited me to visit. I was a wreck. Jonie exercised great patience, helping me reorganize the car so that I could actually see out my passenger side window and access the suitcases I would need to bring in with me each night of the trip. She fed me pot roast and buttermilk waffles and made me feel semi-human again, and I will always be grateful for that. I’d had a flat tire a week before leaving San Francisco and my tire pressure light was now on, so I got that checked out at a Firestone Service Center and they determined it was the gauge that had not been properly calibrated; crisis averted. I was ready for the road.

On Thursday morning, July 23, I left Bakersfield in the early morning and crossed the Mojave while the temperatures were still closer to those on earth than on Venus. I crossed the border from California into Nevada playing The Last Resort by the Eagles, a song lamenting how settlers came first to Colorado, then to California, and finally to Maui, ruining each of these “paradises” with over-development.

“They called it ‘paradise’; I don’t know why. You call some place paradise… kiss it goodbye.” And with those lines playing on the car stereo, I kissed California goodbye.

Crossing the Tehachapi Mountains east of Bakersfield

With the pandemic front and center in the news, I wondered what traveling on a cross country road trip would be like. I stopped for lunch in Las Vegas, relieved to find that The Baguette Café – a wonderful place, far from the Vegas Strip and owned by a French immigrant named Olivier – was still thriving. I’ve stopped there countless times before on previous road trips, so was glad to have a chance to see Olivier one last time. I dined on an amazing smoked salmon sandwich with dill cream and apple slices on a homemade croissant, a slice of bread pudding – also made from croissants, and a fantastic iced mocha. Olivier and I wished one another well and I was off again to St. George, Utah for the evening.

Lunch at Baguette Cafe, Las Vegas

I was required to wear a mask inside the hotel lobby, but check-in was easy and my room was comfortable. I immediately headed to the outdoor pool and felt like I was on another planet. There were families in the pool and hot tubs, without masks, smiling, laughing and talking to one another. It all seemed so normal after four months of California’s lockdowns that it felt abnormal to me. Abnormal, but comforting. I chatted with two families from California who interestingly were searching Utah, Nevada and Idaho for a new place to live, as they were moving out of California as well.

For dinner I went to the Cliffside Restaurant, which as the name implies is perched on a cliff overlooking the city. I sat outside on the patio, the weather was balmy and I was maskless, but comfortably socially distanced from other tables. I marveled at the amazing view as the sun was setting. The food was great and as it got dark the waitress told me that it was Pioneer Day, a state holiday, and that the fireworks would be starting soon. Sure enough, soon the entire city below started to erupt in small displays of fireworks, while in the distance larger displays could be seen going off in neighboring communities. It was a magical night.

The views from the Cliffside Restaurant in St. George

The next day I drove to Zion National Park, purchasing the annual pass good for all of America’s National Parks and Monuments for $80, a real bargain, since just one single entrance to Zion and to nearby Bryce Canyon costs $35 each. Zion, as expected for late July, was toasty at almost 100 degrees, but I did manage to get out of the car for a couple short walks, and got a close up encounter with some bighorn sheep crossing the road. I stayed at a hotel in nearby Kanab, Utah where I soaked in a very chilly pool, had a tasty dinner at the Rocking V Café, and took a sunset drive through nearby Johnson Canyon.

Zion National Park

From Kanab I went to Bryce National Park and enjoyed the higher elevation and the cooler temperatures. I’ve been to Bryce many times and it’s probably my favorite national park. I managed to get to some of the viewpoints I had never seen before, and the views were as astounding as ever. From there I took Scenic Byway 12, a magnificent road that leads from Escalante to Torrey over a narrow spine of land between two massive canyons, then up and over birch-covered Boulder Mountain. If you are ever remotely close to this area, do not miss that drive.

I stayed in Torrey, a town that I’ve always loved, for two nights. It’s nestled at the base of red rock cliffs and is a stone’s throw from Capitol Reef National Park. To my dismay, my favorite restaurant there, Diablo Café, has gone out of business and I will miss their gourmet food served in an outdoor garden with views of the red rock. I still found a decent dinner, had a long soak in the pool and hot tub at the hotel, which I had all to myself, and started to feel myself returning to something resembling normality, though my body still ached and kept me awake at night. I obviously really did a number on myself in those last few days in San Francisco. I even had several disturbing dreams in which I was again confronted by piles of junk needing to be discarded and awoke with a helpless, panicky feeling until I realized it was only a dream. Flashbacks!

The next day I drove to Capitol Reef. The Gifford Homestead, an historical site within the park, sells some of the best mini-fruit pies I have ever tasted. I grabbed a cherry and a strawberry rhubarb, and then took a four hour long scenic loop around the area. I adore Utah. If they had an ocean (The Great Salt Lake simply does not count!) I could live there. I drove the partially unpaved Notom Road, marveling at the rock formations created when this land was once the seafloor of an ancient ocean and was gradually tilted and uplifted to create what we see today. I then turned west on the Burr Trail, again an unpaved road that starts with a series of incredible switchbacks and then continues through dramatic red rock canyons. I passed maybe four cars in as many hours and soaked up the solitude. I stopped at Singing Canyon, a slot canyon carved into the red rock cliffs that anyone unaware of its existence would easily drive right past. I had it to myself and mediated a bit in the shaded interior of the canyon, grateful to have the chance to return here again. In the car I listened to soothing Native American music, which added an air of calm to the whole experience. As I came back over Boulder Mountain toward Torrey, the skies opened up and it poured. Thunder and lightning boomed and flashed all around me and rainbows appeared over the red cliffs in the distance. It reminded me of how much I love dramatic weather.

I was sad to leave Torrey, but it was time to press onward. I stopped for more pie… a peach and a cherry this time… and headed east through the Utah metropolises of Hanksville, Green River and Moab. In the latter I dined on fantastic Mexican food at the Quesadilla Mobila, a food truck specializing in gourmet quesadillas. From there I headed east on small roads into Colorado and took Route 50 through Gunnison Canyon. I learned that Colorado had much stricter rules about COVID and hotel swimming pools were all closed. That was disappointing, but the disappointment was soon forgotten when I found that hotels throughout the entire middle of Colorado were all booked for the night! By a fluke, I was able to snag a very overpriced room at a Comfort Inn in Gunnison, and the hostess was actually surprised that I’d been able to book it because she had only minutes before blocked any other reservations for that night. I got the last room!

I drove across the high Rockies (with John Denver playing, of course) and down into Pueblo, where I found that another favorite restaurant, the Mill Stop Café, was open but only serving take out. I ordered “the usual”: the stuffed sopapilla. Sopapillas are a sort of fluffy fried bread popular in New Mexico and often served with honey for dessert. But a stuffed sopapilla is a savory entrée filled with chicken, green chiles and cheese, and it was as delicious as ever.

I’m always shocked by how quickly the Rockies give way to the flat plains and it was a long, boring drive to Wichita, Kansas that afternoon. I found that in Kansas, I needed to make a reservation to use the pool for an hour at some hotels, while at others, I’d have to have my temperature taken in order to get admitted to the pool area. It didn’t matter, as I did not arrive till almost 11PM. I got slowed down by three hours of driving through some of the most spectacular lightning storms I have ever seen. Before sunset there were some of the biggest, brightest rainbows I have seen anywhere and as it got dark, the road I was on was mainly dry, but on either side of me for hour after hour, bursts of lightning lit up the clouds so frequently that it looked like someone had planted a strobe light inside them. I actually had to pull over and videotape some of the action, it was so dramatic. Something I have always missed in California are thunderstorms, and mother nature was certainly making it up to me with this show.

Video: Lightning over Kansas

The next morning I slept in, and then dined outside on a perfect road-trip breakfast of eggs, bacon and pancakes at Home Grown Wichita. I got some gourmet donuts at The Donut Whole and then headed east on back roads all the way to Springfield, Missouri. Swimming pools here were open and I had over an hour to myself in the hotel’s pool before heading to dinner. While I’m still fighting a pinched nerve in my left shoulder and arm, I was beginning to feel more rested and felt like the state of shock or grief or trauma that I was in last week when I left California was starting to subside.

And on Friday, July 31, I had another great road trip breakfast at Gailey’s in Springfield before driving across the Ozarks toward Memphis. Crossing the Mississippi into Tennessee was a strange feeling, as this is now the place where I’m setting up residency for a few months. I plan to be doing a lot of traveling, using Tennessee as home base until I determine where I ultimately want to live. My friends Daniel and Sarah generously welcomed me with open arms to stay with them and their two young daughters for a couple of weeks, offering me a place to call home, be with people again, and get myself ready for whatever my next adventures many be. On an uncharacteristically cool (i.e. pleasant) first evening we joined about 8 of their neighbors, sitting out on someone’s front lawn while about 16 kids played on the quiet street. I was truly surprised by how warm and friendly these folks were, and had such a great time talking about every day, normal things. Over two hours not one mention of COVID, masks, or quarantines was heard, and for that I was incredibly grateful.

Over the weekend, Daniel’s parents invited us all to a pool party, I got to meet his siblings, and we shared an amazing spread of Memphis barbecue for dinner. We’ve gone out to breakfast and will go out again as a family for dinner tomorrow. We’re also planning to go boating on a nearby lake this coming weekend. Daniel and I have sat up and laughed ourselves silly watching Jim Gaffigan comedy specials late into the evening or floated around in the pool talking about life. I have been entertained by the antics of little Hallie and Eleanor, but their cat,  Buddy steals the show. He is a young feline who behaves much more like a puppy than a cat and storms through the house at breakneck speed,  slams into walls, and jumps four feet straight up into the air seemingly effortlessly!  And tomorrow I will actually get my first haircut since March 1. Life has not felt this normal in a very long time.

Yesterday I braved a 3.5 hour line in the hot sun at the Department of Motor Vehicles, but walked away with my new driver’s license, though the picture looks like the mug shot of a moonshiner living in the hills. I should have gotten my haircut first!  

San Francisco seems like a far-off memory now and in some ways, I feel like I’ve been gone for months rather than days. While I felt incredibly nostalgic in the months prior to leaving and enjoyed some truly nice visits with long time friends just before I left, I think that my long term disappointment in how the city has changed, coupled with the truly traumatic way I exited my apartment helped to soften the emotional blow considerably. By the time I was done packing, I was really ready to leave.

And now I feel as if I’m watching a movie about my own life and have no idea where the plot will go from this point on. The uncertainty of this seemingly endless COVID crisis, my indecision about where I really want to live and where I can actually afford to live, and wondering what I might do to make a living from now on could lead to any number of possible conclusions. Maybe, in epic movie tradition, this is just a cliff-hanger. I can almost imagine the words, “To be continued…” scrawled across the big screen.

4 thoughts on “Escape from San Francisco and the COVID Road Trip

  1. An adventure for sure. Hope you are resting now in Tennessee and everything looks a bit brighter.

    Wishing you courage, Patty

    On Wed, Aug 5, 2020 at 1:34 PM MATT: AT HOME IN THE WORLD wrote:

    > mattathomeintheworld posted: “When I made my initial decision to move out > of California almost two years ago, it seemed like an eternity before I > would actually be leaving. But time sneaks up on us, and in the strange > time warp that the COVID crisis has created, weeks and months have ” >

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  2. Quite the adventure Matt! I would expect nothing less from you. As I plan to retire and move out of state next summer, I will heed your warning and start planning now. My move will be considerably easier. My daughter is buying my house so I can take what I want and leave the rest for her to deal with. 🤣 After reading your story, that sounds more appealing than ever.
    Wishing you much happiness in your retirement!

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  3. Dear Matt:

    Reads almost like “Escape from New York!” Description of aimless homeless folks on streets of San Francisco resembling zombies a tad creepy. Very glad that you have a temporary abode in Tennessee and that you are with loving and kind friends.

    I think you are in safe location for the next several weeks, a red state in a region, the South, noted for gentility and relative sanity. I wish you well in finding a place to establish your new home.

    Take care Matt.

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  4. Oh my gosh, I was rolling around laughing when you talked about loading up your dishwasher and leaving them leaving. What an adventure, Matt. I feel like this was a great chapter of a book, which makes me think – you should write a book. Perhaps, that’s a partial answer to “what’s next.” You captured the emotion of leaving San Francisco so well. I cannot wait for the next chapter.

    Like

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