We’ve shared the ritual for years. Moments after we pull out of the driveway on our way to some long-awaited adventure, my wife and I break into a rousing chorus of The Who’s “I’m Free.”

It’s our way of celebrating an escape from the routine, a chance to kick up our heels, to trade the daily treadmill for the allure of the open road.

Never was that more true than last week.

Calendar in hand, we started planning our road trip to Virginia back in early March, just after we received our first shots of the Moderna vaccine. We calculated that April 14 would be our “all clear” date for full vaccination from the COVID-19 virus, so we circled April 23 as the day we’d get in the car and, for the first time in forever, keep on driving.

As pandemic hibernation goes, we’d been on the Rip Van Winkle end of the scale. Outings with no purpose or destination were few and far between. Errands were reduced to curbside pickups and 7 a.m. forays (on Sunday) to the grocery store.

And leaving Maine? Forget about it.

Now here we were, rolling down the Maine Turnpike and marveling at the almost-completed high-speed tolls in York, the ongoing rehabilitation of the Piscataqua River Bridge. Time marched on, even while we didn’t.

From a distance, things looked the same as they did back in February of 2020, when we last scooted back home from a warm-weather vacation just a half step ahead of the looming pandemic.

But up close, things are different. Billboards and electronic highway signs implore those who haven’t to get vaccinated, much like the signs during World War II exhorted “We Can Do It!” and “United We Win!”

And at each rest stop, we couldn’t help noticing that everyone, without exception, wore a mask. After months of hearing about all those anti-maskers out there, it was heartening to see so many people, from so many states, doing the right thing as they traveled the nation’s interstate arteries.

The real joy of busting out of our bubble, though, came as we pulled into the driveways of loved ones who, for far too long, had been reduced to distant voices on the telephone.

Son Karl and his wife, Aliza, have a new home in Connecticut and a baby on the way. We sat late into the evening by their outside fire pit, basking in the warmth of things to come.

Down in Virginia, sister Maripeg and her husband, Ralph, also just moved into a new home. After waiting out the pandemic, Ralph, a lifelong rock collector, soon will unlock the door to his retirement dream – the Blue Ridge Rock Shop in nearby Stephens City.

Meanwhile, brother Mike and his wife, Mary, are in the process of packing up and moving to North Carolina to be near their grandsons. Mike and I stole away for a couple of hours to go fishing. Didn’t get so much as a nibble. Didn’t matter.

What mattered is that we could laugh out loud with no masks muffling our mirth. That we were all vaccinated. That we could, at long last, greet one another with unbridled bear hugs.

What mattered was that for the first time in 14 months, we had a sit-down lunch in a restaurant. Never have pulled pork and a cold beer tasted so good.

What mattered, like the glow in the eastern sky very early on a summer morning, was the feeling of renewal, the glimpse of good things on the horizon.

Yet at the same time, the pandemic lingers.

On our trip home, Andrea and I stopped in Baltimore to pick up a small vintage bench she’d bought on eBay. We met the seller at her warehouse, exchanging stories, browsing her other merchandise – she talked us into also buying a light fixture – all the while keeping our distance and dutifully wearing masks.

Driving away, I thought, “We just spent almost an hour with this nice lady, showed her pictures of our living room, bought two beautiful items from her, and we don’t have a clue what she looks like.”

Barreling up the New Jersey Turnpike a few hours later, where I’d feared we’d get bogged down in midday traffic, I looked down at my speedometer and gulped: Not only were we and the cars around us moving right along, we were collectively nudging 90 mph.

“What are we all doing?” I wondered as I slowed down and car after car whizzed by. “Making up for lost time?”

Back home in Maine, I see that the state’s outdoor mask mandate is over as of this weekend, as are restrictions on out-of-state visitors. Restaurants and other hospitality businesses are giddy with the approach of summer and, they hope, an open floodgate of travelers eager to escape their own doldrums.

Still, even as the tourism curtain lifts, the danger lingers. COVID-19 cases are spiking in the Lewiston-Auburn area, daily new cases still number in the hundreds statewide and the death toll, however incrementally, continues to rise.

So where are we as April gives way to May? If freedom tastes of reality, as The Who’s Roger Daltrey sang all those years ago, what exactly is our new reality?

Yesterday, as the much-needed rain came down, Andrea donned her slicker and mask and headed out to Hannaford for a few groceries. Leaving the store, she came upon an unmasked woman on her way in.

“Oh no, I forgot my mask!” the woman said upon seeing Andrea’s and doing an about-face back to her car.

Andrea smiled an invisible smile. “Maybe it’s a sign that things are getting back to normal,” she said sympathetically.

Let’s hope so.

Let this be the spring that science – and a year-plus of looking out for one another by staying apart from one another – finally set us free.


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