After years of saving and planning, months of giving away all of our things, our cars and furniture, and thinking through all of the problems we might face, it honestly never occurred to me that we would be thrust into a global pandemic just six months into our journey. But here we are and I’m determined to make the best of it.
COVID-19 Chases Us Through Europe (an overview)
We had heard the buzz of a new virus in China but our first intersection with it was landing in Venice on February 10th two days before my 46th birthday. As we deboarded our plane we were met by WHO agents in full space suits checking everyone’s temperatures. This seemed more drastic than the news we had been hearing. This was before Italy had announced it had quarantined whole towns near Milan. So as we left and heard nothing else about it, we thought it was a curious over-precaution. After a few days in Venice I developed a fever (not COVID-19) and our AirBnB host and I openly joked about it being the coronavirus. No one took a real threat seriously. The week before Carnival started the streets of Venice were surprisingly empty but it had nothing to do with the virus yet. And the hordes returned on our last day in the city as the festivities began to ramp up and we pushed through throngs of tourists on our way to the airport.
We made a quick stop in Verona and then on to Florence on February 17th where we mingled with dense crowds of tourists enjoying the good weather. There was no talk about the virus. No precautions. No masks except for some of the Asian tourists. For all intents and purposes the world was still normal. But reports of the virus in Milan had begun to trickle out. Rumors of a quarantine for the north. But we remained hopeful it would be contained.
Our next stop was Viareggio for Carnival on February 24th. As we were preparing to depart we heard the somewhat shocking news that Venice had cancelled their Carnival celebration that drew millions of visitors. This was now serious. We now saw passengers on the train wearing masks, mostly tourists, but not really that many. When we arrived in Viareggio at our AirBnB, I recall discussing the coronavirus with our host with some concern. It’s the first time I recall discussing it seriously with a local. It was the first time we started washing our hands carefully and being aware of what door knobs we touched. But the festival went on without any changes. We crammed chest to ass into parades for hours and no real precautions were taken.
Our eyes were now on the quickly escalating situation. Originally we had planned to tour the Cinque Terre region followed by a rural tour of Tuscany but with the concerns of a northern quarantine and other issues we replanned to skip south to Rome and get further away from the virus. But within a day or so reports of the virus in Florence were appearing and we soon realized a nationwide quarantine was possible.
Acting quickly we scrapped all of our new plans again (with considerable cost) and decided it was best to just get out of Italy. We booked a flight out of Rome (for fear that Florence would soon be shut down), rebooked our train tickets, and with haste made our way to the airport.
The adventure of our escape I will save for another time but in short, we missed a train in Florence, then a mechanical failure in Rome delayed our flight to Madrid for 7 hours.
Exhausted, we felt lucky to land in Spain and far away from the virus. And just in time, as soon after Italy announced it would be suspending travel and locking down the country. When we got off the flight in Madrid, several passengers had visual signs of illness, coughing and feverish. We watched with great concern that no one at the airport seemed to care. There was no concern in Spain yet about the virus.
We explored Madrid for a week then headed to Seville. We were being very careful about surfaces but at the time the WHO was still recommending not to wear a mask and to focus on washing hands. (This advice has now reversed but we were following the guidelines available at the time.) Our precautions were beginning to border on paranoia as we tried not to touch anything.
Once in Seville, the virus once again seemed far behind us. The city was beautiful and we were enthralled by the amazing food and warm orange blossom filled weather. But then almost as soon as we arrived reports of the virus began coming in from Madrid. The virus had indeed been chasing us across Europe. But we still were hopeful that things might improve. And probably more than a little delusional about our odds of escaping it.
We made plans to visit Jerez and scheduled a week in Granada on the way. Another beautiful town. But Katy and I were having daily discussions on what to do if either of us got sick, where would we stay, how would we communicate to our hosts. The virus was omnipresent to us. Though the city itself seemed entirely unaware or concerned. There were almost no masks and no chatter about it and it was very easy to be lulled into believing we were safe.
But pressure was growing to question the viability of our trip. Did we really want to be stranded in Spain for an indefinite period of time? How would we reach our families if they got sick? Did we want to end up in a hospital where most people only spoke Spanish? Would AirBnBs be suspended leaving us homeless?
The answer came on the morning of March 12th when president Trump first announced his travel ban on the EU. We knew immediately this was the beginning of the end and if we wanted to get out, it was now or never. We had planned a week in Jerez followed by a few weeks in Portugal where Katy was going to hike the Camino followed by a hop to Scotland where I had planned and payed for my grand whisky tasting tour. But we knew we had to leave. We would figure everything else out later.
Acting quickly we found a flight out of Granada the next morning to London. Trump had imposed travel restrictions on all inbound EU flights but not the UK so we booked a flight to there and a second flight from London to NYC to skirt the red tape. Obviously everyone else had the same idea but we managed to beat the crowds and book before everything filled up. Within hours it was impossible to get a flight back to the US.
We flew from Granada to Madrid (a COVID hotspot) to London (a COVID hotspot). Then from London to NYC (a COVID hotspot) to Seattle (a COVID hotspot). We knew the risks but it was either that or stay in southern Spain for the duration. Which at first blush sounds like a good idea but being in a foreign country during a nationwide lockdown with no support network and the probability of closed stores and other needed resources while traveling, it didn’t sound that fun when you thought it through.
Upon landing in NYC we were supposed to be boarded by ICE officials to interview us but because of high demand we were released without screening and were safe back in the states. Then another flight to Seattle.
We booked a small cabin on Whidbey Island a couple of hours from Seattle so that we could self-isolate. My daughter was flying back that day to stay with her boyfriend’s family in Seattle and it would great to be near each other. Exhausted, we rented a car, bought enough food for two weeks, picked up some basic supplies, and headed out to wind down and consider our options.
We felt healthy and we both fully believed we had escaped COVID unscathed.
It took only a couple of days for me to develop a fever. I was worn down from travel so I expected to feel bad but once the fever spiked to 101 Katy called a local hospital for a drive-by test which ultimately came back positive.
Had we known we would be literally confined to the tiny cabin for two weeks we probably would have invested in a larger one. We had a dorm fridge with a single burner hotplate a small pot and small pan but we made the best of it.
I won’t go into the details here but we recovered and in some ways are still recovering. COVID-19 is a bitch. I don’t recommend catching it.
What To Do Next?
Needless to say I was heartbroken and depressed that we were back home. I had put enormous effort into creating the right conditions for long term travel and I didn’t want to get sucked back into an apartment with furniture and a job. But also didn’t want to burn through our savings waiting out a pandemic. It was and still is a problem for me. It’s difficult to get excited about something else when I had so many other plans I had to abandon. I told myself maybe a couple of months, maybe things would clear up, maybe we could keep going. But now over two months back I don’t really see it happening for a while.
Our first month we booked a place near our old house in central Seattle where we could order our favorite delivery, lay low, and find our bearings. Our second month we booked a large cabin in Galcier, WA in the Mt Baker – Snoqualmie National Forest near where we were married with a 6 person hot tub and seclusion to plan our next move.
Our first concern was slowing the burn rate of our savings. Without furniture we had to continue to pay AirBnB prices to avoid accumulation, but even with some savings from the COVID slump we were still burning faster than we wanted. We needed a solution that would limit our housing costs while still providing freedom to explore. We explored work-for-stays and volunteering. But settled on researching small RVs. Our plan was always to return to the US after our trip, buy a small RV and explore the National Parks. So it was in our budget. But it still felt like giving up to me. And it took me a while to fully settle into the idea that I wasn’t immediately going back. But strategically this gave us the best chance to conserve our money and remain free until we had a better chance.
After a bit of research we settled on a cute 2000 Rialta 22HD as our perfect configuration/price/mobility solution in Portland which was well maintained and spent the rest of the month figuring out all of the complexities of an RV. We serviced every system, had the engine inspected, ordered all of the basic things you need like hoses and regulators and what not, and now we’re just trying to iron out some title transfer issues. Hopefully in the next few weeks we’ll be road worthy and head out across I90 to the other coast.
I was concerned initially about closures and the hardships of being in an RV during the pandemic but it seems like things are opening back up, at least temporarily, so it might be the perfect time to give it a shot. I guess we’ll see.
The adventure continues!