KENNEBUNKPORT — As I write this, my wife and I are on the road, sheltering in place in our Toyota Sienna. We’re headed for Nashville, Tennessee, a one-night stop on our way home to Maine. We’ve cut our two-month snowbird sojourn short by several weeks, including a family reunion in Hawaii, because of the coronavirus pandemic. Nashville is a hot spot for virus infection, so we’ll have to be extra careful tonight, as we’re both over 65 and thus members of a “high-risk group.”

The friendly waitress at last night’s Olive Garden didn’t look like an assassin, but had she been infected, just the touch of her hand to our silverware or wineglasses could have been trouble, even fatal. The overheard table conversation was filled with gallows humor and laughs, but one could also sense a growing sea of panic bubbling up. News reports of entire states closing restaurants and bars give us pause. It’s hard to be on the road and not eat out. Our final night away from home is in Pennsylvania, which has shut down many nonessential businesses. Dinner will probably be pizza delivered to our motel and a bottle of grocery store wine.

Our long-planned trip started out inauspiciously. In the weeks before leaving, faced with tons of cleaning and packing and planning, my wife and I battled vicious colds. The kind of head-pounding, coughing, sneezing, energy-sapping colds that make simple domestic chores like brushing your teeth a momentous event: “Teeth cleaned, now time for a nap!” Then, a couple days into the car trip, somewhere in the overcrowded, honking madness known as the New Jersey highway system, we got lost and went the wrong way, despite having GPS in the car. I’m driving and my wife is navigating and we try hard not to argue or lay blame, but if we’re not careful we’ll end up in former Gov. Chris Christie’s driveway, and he’ll likely yell at both of us.

And then we learn that our sweet cat of 20 years has died.

After a month in Florida and time spent in New Orleans and San Antonio, it’s become apparent the coronavirus is a serious, world-changing event. Italy and France are in lockdown. We cancel our trip to Maui (an overdue family reunion), though I pretend to argue the decision, noting that if we catch the virus and die at least we’ll die in paradise, drinking Mai Tais on the beach.

A trip with friends to Costco is eye opening. Entire shelves are bare of such basics as eggs, milk, bread, alcohol, hand sanitizer and (heaven forbid) toilet paper! The evening news confirms this is the case everywhere across the American landscape. This is the last straw; we decide to cut our vacation short. We also get creative. My wife makes hand sanitizer from rotgut vodka and aloe, and we conceive a strategy to steal one roll of toilet paper from every Holiday Day Inn Express we stay in all the way home. On the morning of our departure, our friends give us a surprise gift. Wrapped inside the gift bag is a single roll of toilet paper. Best gift ever.

I like travel writing. Two of my favorite books are rootless academic William Least Heat Moon’s “Blue Highways” and “The Great Railway Bazaar” by novelist Paul Theroux. Some of the best bits in these classics are stories of things gone disastrously wrong. I’m titling my slender contribution to this literature “Off the Rails,” with all the metaphorical freight that title carries.

When my thoughts turn dark and fatalistic, I imagine one of my grandchildren talking about me years from now: “Yeah, I remember New Grandpa. Didn’t he die from that Mexican beer virus?”

We’ve had a War on Poverty, a War on Crime and a War on Drugs. None of these long and highly funded efforts turned out very well. Now we have a War on Germs. Hopefully, the outcome of this war will look more like World War II than, say, the Iraq War.

Wash your hands, don’t touch your face, keep your distance, stay at home as much as possible and whatever you do, don’t give up hope. Even the Andromeda Strain eventually petered out.


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