In early June, I bought a car, filled the trunk with camping gear, and headed north on the I-15 for a drive that, I reasoned, could very well last forever—or as long as the gas prices held. The day I left California was dim. The sky was brown, the interstate brown. The wind sprayed my windshield with a thin film of dust. About ninety minutes in, I spotted the first scrunchy Joshua trees rising from the desert like contorted toilet brushes. Three hours in, I passed through Primm, Nevada, where electric signboards announced that the Buffalo Bill’s Casino was open for business despite the pandemic. The cluster of resorts in Las Vegas glinted under the mid-afternoon sun; neon rock stacks, which I learned were an art installation called the “Seven Magic Mountains,” teetered on the baked earth a few miles east of the interstate. Around four in the afternoon, I arrived at a campground in Hurricane, Utah, where I mangled a few of my stakes hammering my tent into the ground. A man sitting at an RV lot across the street shouted that I should re-pitch my tent so the wind didn’t kick dirt through the mesh door. “Thanks,” I yelled back, “I’ll try that next time.” Then I pulled my propane stove from the trunk, boiled water for a cup of tea, and sat back in my camping chair to watch the sun set on the western hills. In my journal, under the heading “Learning,” I wrote: “Windy. Red rock. Gorgeous blue sky. Cheap gas in Henderson. Yellow brush. 400 miles. Stress in back. North & east, north & east.”
For years, I had wanted to partake in the great American tradition of driving across the country. I wanted to see the terrain change between time zones. I wanted to visit places I’d only read about in books. More abstractly, I wanted to feel the size of the country. “Everything seems bigger in the United States,” my European friends would tell me when I talked about leaving home three years earlier to live in the considerably smaller countries of Spain and Belgium. In response, I’d tell them what I knew about vastness. I’d seen the Grand Canyon from Arizona and marveled at how its gaping red mouth stretched on for miles. From a dizzying cliffside perch, I’d observed ant-sized rafts float down the Merced River and through the Yosemite Valley. Once, I took a two-day train from Seattle to San Diego and watched pines blend into mountains and mountains blend into coastline. I grew up a forty-minute drive from the Pacific Ocean; each walk along the beach, the sea spreading far beyond the limits of my vision, was a lesson in scale.
Three months into the US coronavirus pandemic, it was not the best time to take a road trip. Still, I reasoned that if I took the necessary precautions, driving would be the safest way to travel. And I needed a change. I had returned, jobless, to southern California from Europe in late April. After spending a month in my childhood house, I was growing restless. I was tired of the sameness and smallness of things: the two mile walk down my road and across a drought-parched meadow, the diversionary drive to the grocery store just to get out. I wanted to be surprised. So I bought maps and car insurance, loaded up on hand sanitizer and masks, and sketched out a route through the Midwest that would take me to places I’d never seen before.
The day I left home, the United States recorded 18,615 new COVID-19 cases. The death toll from the virus was more than 110,000 people. Large numbers are always abstract, but these statistics felt especially difficult to wrap my head around. At the time, I didn’t personally know anyone who had caught the virus, despite having friends living around the world, some in coronavirus hotspots. I read first-person accounts from COVID-19 survivors and even reported on its early devastation in Europe, but the stories still felt separate from my own. Anyone could get the virus, I knew, regardless of how often they’d showered and sanitized, but a certain magical thinking led me to believe that everyone in my life would be fine so long as we were all careful. So far, our caution seemed to be working.
Before returning to California, I had lived in Belgium and frequently traveled to Spain. After Italy, Spain in March had Europe’s second-highest death rate. I wrote stories about infections at funerals, about small town economies decimated by the sharp drop in tourism just before Easter, one of Spain’s most important holidays. Hospitals converted waiting rooms into coronavirus wards, and everyone from cardiologists to retired doctors were pulled in to attend to the rush of ICU patients. When mortuaries ran out of space for bodies, a Madrid ice-skating rink was transformed into a morgue. But even while writing about the ubiquity of death in Spain’s capital, I could not imagine such scenes playing out in my own life. Any concern I had for my family was vague, not immediate.
Early in Spain’s pandemic, nursing homes were singled out as hotspots for transmission. I spoke with a handful of families whose relatives had caught the virus and died alone in their rooms. Their stories were horrific. In March, Spanish soldiers dispatched to disinfect nursing homes found cadavers lying in beds. Spain’s defense minister condemned the losses, but people kept dying alone in their rooms.
One March evening I called María José Buruchaga, a woman in Madrid whose mother Josefa had advanced Alzheimer’s disease and lived in a nursing home. María José was horrified when she learned Josefa’s residence had a handful of confirmed COVID-19 cases. The last time she had seen her mother was nearly a month earlier. The two visited a garden together and spent the afternoon looking at flowers. The next day, the facility closed to visitors, and two weeks later, Josefa came down with a fever. María José worried her mother would never leave her room again.
After writing about the nursing homes in Spain, I thought of my own grandfather, Fred Reagan, who lived in a Dallas Alzheimer’s facility many thousands of miles from anyone in my family. At 85 years old, his memory was nearly gone and his body was so frail he couldn’t stand up. I had last seen him in 2018, on a visit to his facility, and could hardly recognize the shriveled man in a wheelchair.
Before that visit, I had a fixed image of my grandfather: tall, silver-haired, bespectacled, usually dressed in a polo shirt tucked into jeans. A former FBI agent and English teacher, he had the sharpest mind of anyone I knew. When I was a child, my family would drive through the desert and wind around a mountain to get to his house in Big Bear City, California. Those trips were idyllic. My grandfather would take me and my brother and sister on long walks through the woods, and drive us across town for morning garage sales and afternoon fishing.
At the mountain house, he’d spin wild stories about the nearby hills, which he claimed were covered in gold and quicksand. Walking through the woods, where people had dumped old cars and carpets onto the pine needle-covered dirt, he’d talk about murderers and robbers and folks who got up to no good. I used to think my grandfather lived far away; his mountain house, two hours from ours, was at the limits of my childish comprehension of space and time. Then, when I was a teenager, he moved to the suburbs of Dallas. The two hour drive became twenty. We called every so often, but once his memory deteriorated, our phone calls grew shorter. Eventually, they stopped altogether.
Many years later, under quarantine in Brussels, I wondered about my grandfather, who was now locked away in his bedroom like Josefa in Madrid. Were nurses at his facility getting tested for the virus? Did he understand why he couldn’t leave his room?
He was so far away from anyone in my family, and totally alone. Stuck in a city across the Atlantic, I felt powerless. One morning, I emailed the director of his nursing home. “I wanted to email to ask how he is doing,” I wrote her. “Is he eating and sleeping ok? What does he do all day, now that the facility is under lockdown? He’s stopped speaking, I’ve been told—is that still true? He’s in a wheelchair? Does he seem to be happy? Can you tell?”
Three days later, she responded. “We are very busy here,” she wrote. “Your grandfather is doing fine. He is eating and sleeping just fine. He has a very healthy appetite. He passively participates in Activities. He does not talk much but he does sometimes. Yes he is in a wheelchair but that does not stop him from trying to get up and walk. He is not stable to walk.”
Her words put me at ease. COVID-19 had not entered my grandfather’s facility. It sounded like his condition was much the same as when I’d last seen him—he was weak, yes, but not sick. So I put my concern aside and worried about other things: my expiring Belgium visa, my ever-changing summer plans. A month later, I flew home, and soon after I arrived, I drove east.
Driving across the country during a pandemic requires a constant state of alertness. You cannot leave the car without hand sanitizer and a mask. Pumping gas is best done with latex gloves. You should never take a lid for your gas station coffee; countless others have touched the stack. Better, in fact, to make your own pour-over with an electric kettle and a funnel. Every person, everywhere—at the gas pump, at the grocery store, at the toll booth—is a potential carrier and should be avoided. Camping and sleeping in your car are both preferable to staying at a hotel.
Then there were the usual snags of road tripping: long hours, inclement weather, unexpected closures. In Rawlins, Wyoming, I wrapped myself in a sleeping bag and spent the night on the passenger’s seat of my car. It was 30 degrees out, too cold for a tent. Weather advisories on the radio threatened snow. “Standing by stove, for warmth,” I wrote in my journal while I heated water to make pasta. “Green & blue & brown here—a few mountains rise above the plain. The most amazing sunset. Entire sky—flame, pink, west. Dimmer east.” I watched the cloud of my breath materialize in the frigid air and recalled that it had been 90 degrees in southern California just two days before.
Snow did fall that evening in the eastern part of the state. When I encountered it the next day, the image of a bright white expanse, stretching flat all the way to the horizon but for a thread of black interstate, rendered my mind’s vocabulary that of a child. For miles, my only thought was: Wow.
Two hours into my drive, I had to stop in Laramie, where the snow storm had downed power lines and closed Interstate 80 all the way to Cheyenne. I took refuge from the cold in the lobby of a Marriott. Across the street, a long line of big rigs had formed to wait out the closure. I read online that the blizzard, blinding white, had necessitated at least one rescue the night before.
Conditions worsened in Nebraska. In the evening, rain lashed all around my car, making it impossible to see through the windshield. Winds reached 70 miles an hour; trucks swerved dangerously close to my lane. Somewhere on the interstate, I hit a pothole, flattening the tire. The next morning, I was towed to a mechanic’s office in Nebraska, where I drank bitter coffee from a Styrofoam cup and read an agricultural magazine article about the year’s soybean yield. Two hours and 130 dollars later, my tire fixed and rim replaced, I ribboned through cornfields, the green stalks fluttering in the midmorning breeze. On the side of the road, I watched the shallow green wave rise and fall, thinking, as I often did, about how brown California was.
A few days later, I’d arranged to meet my friend Liam on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. I arrived early, so I steered to the beach. The lake was glassy and looked like the sea, stretching far beyond my vision. Once we’d found each other and were on the road, Liam set the GPS to “avoid highways,” and we curved through the hills of Ohio, trailing behind Amish carriages and farm trucks and tractors. “I am always amazed at the size of this country,” said Liam, who, like me, had spent the last several years overseas.
Every so often, when contemplating the enormity of the country I was seeing on the drive, my mind wandered to the increasing smallness of my grandfather’s life. Under Texas lockdown, he was confined to a tiny corner bedroom decorated with a few certificates from his time in the FBI and a bulletin board covered with family photos. He had only brief glimpses of the world outside: my mother calling him on FaceTime, the nurses wheeling him over to the window so he could look at the patio.
In May, before I left on my drive east, I had spent many evenings at my grandmother’s house, fifteen minutes away from my parents’. On her patio, swatting at flies and fanning her face from the heat, she told me about her childhood and her relationship with my grandfather. They had fallen in love and eloped as teenagers, then divorced twenty years later and never spoke again.
Their lives, she told me, had started off small. The both grew up in Tucumcari, New Mexico, an arid speck of a town where rainfall was cause for celebration. Come springtime, winds scuffed up loose dirt and swirled a thick curtain of dust through the flatland. The nighttime sky, unhindered by the light of other towns, blinked bright with a thousand stars. Airwaves transmitted radio shows from Amarillo, Texas, a two-hour drive east. The football team traveled a hundred miles to play away games. For teenagers, the most interesting activity was driving up and down Main Street with friends.
Once married, my grandparents left town for college, and gradually their lives expanded. My grandfather got a master’s degree in English; my grandmother worked as a schoolteacher. They had two kids—my aunt and then my mother—and moved constantly: Albuquerque, Arlington, San Diego.
Their last move together was to Quantico, Virginia. There, the marriage fell apart. After that, my grandfather moved to Los Angeles; my grandmother stayed in Virginia. My mother grew up in an empty house: Her father was gone and her sister had left for college. When she learned how to drive, driving helped. She would take long drives, head north out of town to D.C. for a few hours’ distraction.
I was never able to talk to my grandfather about the life he’d led before I was born. I knew him in his sixties and seventies; to me, he had no past. By the time I was curious about his childhood and career, he could hardly hold a conversation.
Once he was at the nursing home in Texas, I’d call and remind him of all the things we used do together when I was a kid: make waffles, eat tubs of ice cream, stick pennies to our foreheads, burp on command. During one call, I talked about the cookie jar that sat atop his fridge in Big Bear. Out of the blue, he said, “The cookie jar isn’t full anymore.”
As his mental capacity deteriorated, so did his body. During his first month in the nursing home, he fell out of bed and broke his hip. After that, he had trouble walking. Nurses kept him in a wheelchair, and his body shrank. The last time I saw him stand upright was at my sister’s high school graduation a decade ago, two years before I left home for college.
Later, he had difficulty forming words. He hardly registered who I was.
My mother called him each week; I called less and less. I visited just once. Two years ago, a few relatives and I spent three days at his facility. Seeing him, frail and shrunken, his face clouded by an unfocused gaze, was a shock. When I was five or six years old and too small to hug my grandfather, I would wrap my arms around his legs instead. Twenty years later, he was now smaller than me. As we gathered around his wheelchair and tried to speak with him, he pointed to me, finger shaking, and said, “baby.” To my brother, he said, “man.” When we returned to our rental house the first evening of our visit, my brother and I sat on the floor, unable to speak.
Somewhere in West Virginia, Liam pulled over so we could look at the view. Clouds in the foreground were dark; clouds on the horizon were bright. Light green threaded through bruise-colored mountains. A wild slope fell away into the valley. It looked as though the mountains went on forever, folding farther and farther back into the sky.
I felt, as I often did on the long drive, the limitations of language. Any attempt at finding adequate words to describe such vastness veered toward cliché. I was reminded of a time I walked through Richard Serra’s “Torqued Ellipses” sculptures, massive iron pieces that distort one’s sense of space. “As soon as you start reducing it to how you see it,” Serra said of his sculptures, “it takes away from the fact that your body and your haptic senses don’t register that way. Nor can such experiences be distilled into words. The words are always made up behind the experience, after the experience.”
Liam left the road and walked down into the long grass for a bathroom break. I stopped trying to think of words to describe the mountains and simply watched as his figure was subsumed by the landscape.
Later, on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, we stopped half a dozen times to look at the trees. Up close they were as green as any tree I’d seen, but at a distance, and all together on the mountainsides, they registered as a hazy blue. While Liam drove I stuck my head out the window, breathing in the clean air. A few hours later, we reached our last stop in Virginia. We were about thirty miles from the town where my grandparents had spent their last year together before my grandfather moved to Los Angeles. The evening was thick and dim. We swam barefoot in a shallow creek, the rocks stabbing at our feet, and arrived at Liam’s house just as the sky broke open.
The next morning, I took a walk along the perimeter of the property. The sky was misty, the horizon a white-grey fog. Heat rose from damp grass. I ran my hands over the roots of a tall oak tree where I’d seen a groundhog the night before, then walked to a thicket to watch morning birds make music. As I turned away from the birds to return to the house, I looked down and felt a sudden stab of alarm. A turtle the width of my two hands sat at my feet. Its right eye rose to my sandal, and I crouched to greet it. Waving goodbye to the turtle, I nearly laughed. After all the bigness that I’d seen around the country, I was startled by something so small.
In early July, as I was driving back to the Blue Ridge Mountains for a hike, my mother called me in frantic tears. “Granddad’s sick,” she told me. “There are five cases of COVID at his facility.” My grandfather hadn’t yet been tested, but nurses suspected he had COVID, too. I pulled over at a gas station and stared at the phone.
Forty hours later, I was back on the interstate, traveling south on the 81 towards Knoxville. Clouds gathered overhead, and a severe thunderstorm warning cut into the radio, then turned to static. Sheets of rain pounded the windshield. Briefly, I could not see in front of me. I was driving too fast, 80 in a 65 zone, 85 when I should have gone 70, but I needed to go faster. I imagined my mother and brother leaving home at the crack of dawn and speeding east through Arizona and New Mexico, clocking fifteen hours on the road in a single day. Grapevine, Texas, where my grandfather was living, was the midpoint between California and Virginia—twenty hours each way. In a town near the Smoky Mountains where I stayed the night, I took a walk through a residential neighborhood and tried to quiet my mind. I pleaded with my grandfather. I’m coming, I thought. Wait.
The next morning, I left before sunrise. It was thirteen hours to his facility. Rays of smoky light cut through mountain ridges. Tennessee became Arkansas. Arkansas became Texas. My back hurt and my feet were numb. For the first time on the trip, I felt claustrophobic in my car. I stopped for gas in a town called Hope and ate a bar of chocolate to help my headache. I drank two cups of coffee and a giant cup of sweet tea to help more. My hands were red and flaky from the washing; my steering wheel smelled of rubbing alcohol. The radio broadcast an interview with the Arkansas governor, who refused to issue a mask mandate. I wanted to yell at all the people who weren’t wearing face coverings—the gas station attendants, the customers—but instead I flipped them off from the privacy of my car.
I made it to my grandfather’s facility around six in the evening, after picking up my mother and brother from their rental house. The nursing home director, wearing white scrubs and a plastic shield over her face, let us into the patio through a back gate. Because of the pandemic, we couldn’t enter his room. My foot crunched on a cicada shell. The insects’ abandoned shells littered the ground, strewn across the wicker patio chairs, nestled at the base of a big blossoming tree.
My grandfather’s window was on the left, behind a shrub. A nurse wheeled his bed over to the window and propped him up on pillows so his face could meet ours. His body was withered and shaking. His eyelids fluttered. His lips trembled and his mouth was open, his breathing labored. The nurse mixed a milkshake, and with one arm lifting my grandfather’s torso up and the other holding the milkshake, tipped the plastic cup toward his mouth. My grandfather drank like a bird, mouth narrow and lips puckered.
My mother leaned forward into the shrub and tapped on the closed window. “Dad,” she said. “Hi Dad. I love you Dad. It’s Kelly, Dad. It’s me, Kelly.” He did not open his eyes. “Me, Kelly,” she said. “Your daughter. I love you Dad. I love you.” Her body shook like his, heaving with sobs. I sat on a wicker chair, watching my mother bent over herself in grief, bent over the window ledge, faced pressed against the glass, willing her father to open his eyes, to look at her. With exacting effort, his face clenched into a grimace, he did. His eyes were green-blue and watery, like hers.
The next day we came with the opening lines to Huckleberry Finn, the book he’d written his master’s dissertation on. We stayed for hours, taking turns in the shrub. My sister called on FaceTime and we put the phone up to the glass. My grandfather twisted his mouth into a smile, blinked open his eyes, and, slowly, with pain etched into his face, lifted his arms in a motion that looked like a hug for my mother. Later, he tried to blow her a kiss. She leaned on the window ledge, her face resting in her arms, her eyes level with her father’s eyes, and cried.
The following day, July 8, we got a call early in the morning. Fred Reagan had died in his bed. Cause of death: COVID-19. He was three weeks shy of turning 86.
I waited in Texas to retrieve my grandfather’s ashes. They would be ready in a week, so the day after my mother and brother left for California, I drove three hours south to the town where my grandmother was born. I steered down the street where she lived until age twelve, Parmer Avenue, and tried to figure out which of the grey wooden houses was hers. I couldn’t. At the cemetery, I called her and she directed me to her parents’ graves. “Are they crooked?” she asked. I told her they weren’t. Without any flowers to leave behind, I pressed my hands to the warm stone surfaces.
A week later, I drove back north to Keller, where my grandfather’s body had been cremated. The afternoon was too hot, too bright, too loud. The funeral home was on the side of a busy road. I walked into the air-conditioned building and a man had me sign papers certifying that I was collecting “the remains of Fred C. Reagan.” He gave me a document that allowed me to bring the remains across state lines, then handed me a heavy steel-colored urn. I cradled it as I walked back to the car, the weight of my grandfather’s ashes feeling like that of an infant. I placed the urn in a box and buckled it into the passenger’s seat.
On the road, I talked to my grandfather. I apologized for the terrible pop music playing on the radio, asked if I should turn up the air. That evening, I stayed in a cabin in a mobile home park next to the interstate. A dry wind blew dust. The air smelled of gasoline. I placed my grandfather’s ashes on a table and sat on the stoop to watch taillights from the highway fade into the night.
The next morning I brought my grandfather to El Paso, where he was born. We parked in a cemetery at the foot of a reddish-grey mountain. The cemetery was sub-divided into gardens with bucolic names. A man driving a golf cart directed me to the section where my great grandparents were buried—the garden of devotion—on a dead patch of grass the sprinklers didn’t reach. I set my grandfather’s urn between his parents’ names, Duffie and Opal, and took a photo for my mother. Sweat beaded down my neck. The sun burned my arms.
I sat for a while on the dead grass, looking at the mountain. It seemed so large from my vantage on the ground, but I knew if I moved farther away it would look much smaller than other mountains I’d seen on my journey. I thought about the enormity of loss during the month of July, during the past five months. Six hundred thousand deaths around the world. I remembered the Madrid-ice skating rink made into a morgue, the hospitals overwhelmed with COVID patients.
I didn’t know how to hold a grief so vast. I had only images to translate what such loss felt like, images I’d collected from my journey tracking the size of the country. A lake that looked like an ocean. Mountains that folded back and back. A great white plain. A long drive. No message of condolence or newspaper obituary could capture the depth of pain that gutted the country. Yet the landscape seemed to hold something more legible. What I felt when I saw the bigness of the country was what I felt then, sitting on blighted grass with the remains of a man who had once been so tall, so brilliant, so deeply alive. When the sun grew too hot, I picked up the urn and turned back to my car to drive the last 800 miles west.