Travel in America, August 2021

August 14, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

I have just returned from my first airplane trip since the pandemic started, and I have some good news. The U.S.A. is still a beautiful country, at least if you look in the right places. The picture above is a view of a city park in Colorado Springs called the Garden of the Gods. In almost any light, the sandstone crags are striking, and you can wander among them from early morning to late evening, free of charge. The question, however, is not whether the country is beautiful. It is whether the counry beautiful enough to justify the risks of traveling through it.

My wife and I went to Colorado for a meeting originally scheduled for 2020. There was some deposit money to be lost if we blew the meeting off this year. When we decided to risk it, a couple of months ago, we'd both been vaccinated and the Covid 19 numbers were dropping rapidly. Now, of course, they're not. By the time you read this, the numbers will have changed again. So take this post as a tenttive advisory.

Our flight to Denver was full. So were the rental car buses, the airport subways, the hotel restaurants, and the cog railway to the summit of Pike's Peak. People are so eager to travel. They're climbing the cliffs at the Garden of the Gods. They're putting two quarters and a penny into machines to get a souvenir mashed coin. They're pulling out their cellphones to make videos of any bewildered wild animal that crosses their path.

(They're also pulling out their cellphones and electronic devices at the dinner table, when they ought to be focused on their companions;and on the cog railroad when they ought to be focused on Pikes Peak. But that's another blog post.)

This post is about two questions: Are travelers spreading the virus? Are they catching it? And the answers are: I don't know. 

The people on our flights obediently wore their masks. No one got obstreperous and had to be duct-taped to a seat, leaving me slightly disappointed. I had a secret, guilty desire to see that happen. The flights were boring enough that rather than focus on my fear of disease, I found mysef wondering why United Airlines, with hundreds of channels of in-flight entertainment, couldn't come up with anything more interesting than "Godzilla vs. Kong."

Off the plane, most people seem willing to wear masks when asked, especially indoors. But not all people are. If you go through an airport, you can expect to hear numerous announcements stating that mask wearing is required by law. You can also expect to encounter someone like the man above left, maskless outside Gate B-39 in Denver International, wearing a shirt with a weird version of the American flag. There were, perhaps predictably, crossed rifles on the back of his shirt. I suspect the Venn diagram of people who have a un fetish, who wear weird flag shirts, and who reject masks and vaccines is pretty much just three overlapping circles that blend into one. Can you avoid the exhalations of this guy and people like him? Can they avoid yours? I can only hope so.

And people aren't always asked to wear masks. At our first hotel, the Broadmoor, the bellman blithely advised me as I entered that I could remove the mask I was wearing. The Broadmoor guests in general seemed to think the pandemic was over. In the mornings, they lined up happily for something I did not expect to see in America again--the breakfast buffet. All day long they mingled, outdoors and indoors, mask free. I doubt they were all vaccinated, and I doubt they were all free of Covid.

Like a lot of places in the hospitality business, the Broadmoor was suffering an abundace of guests and a shortage of staff. This meant, for example, that you couldn't just drop into one of the hotel's  restaurants for a meal, even if there were empty tables. The restaurants had to spread the customers out so that the staff could handle them. Reservations were therefore required. Similarly, Hertz did not seem to have enough drivers to run enough shuttle buses at Denver International. We waited 40 minutes to get on a bus. After we finally got our car and drove off, we passed a parking lot with eight empty Hertz buses sitting in it. 

In my Economics 1 class, lo these many years ago, our professor confidently predicted that the result of a labor shortage would be rising wages. He underestimated American capitalism's tenacious desire to minimze labor costs. The Broadmoor has responded to the labor shortage, in part at least, by importing workers from other countries. Genial folks from Jamaica, Colombia, and Afghanistan crafted our cocktails and carried our bags. They did a fine job, although the contrast between their skin color and the hotel guests' skin color did give the Broadmoor a rather Old South feel at times.

Despite the ennervating episodes from the trip, though, the bottom line is that tonight at dinner, I could smell and taste my food. We got to see and re-connect with family members. We saw a beautiful part of the country we hadn't visited. And eight days after we embarked, we're not sick. 

But as they used to say in the automobile commercials, your mileage may vary.


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