Commentary: The Road Awaits For Now

Some weeks ago, I pined for the time that we can travel again. I was hoping we can do so sooner.

Now, I’m not too sure. Perhaps not in the way that is expected for an automotive journalist prior to government "stay-at-home" orders and shutting down of borders to flatten the curve on the COVID-19 virus.

There is a point of reference as to why I feel this way right now. We have to look back some 19 years ago when we experienced a major change in the way we travel.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 were the reason for the last major change in travel habits. Before then, we could freely enter airports, see our loved ones off at the gate, and dream of traveling somewhere. Business travelers were abundant, although we were still in an era where the magazines and newspaper columns were your primary source for automotive news and reviews.

In the aftermath of those attacks, we needed a ticket to get past security at our local airport. We had to say "good-bye" to our loved ones before we enter the serpentine queue to show our ID or passport, our boarding pass, take off our shoes and belts, our laptops form our bags, and have our bodies scanned for something that would disallow us to continue our travels.

By now, we’re used to it. Nineteen years of this routine had us hardened as air travelers. The extra time we needed to get ready, go to the airport, and arrive to get down to business was supposed to be worth it.

In the meantime, you did not have these measures when boarding intercity trains and buses. Still, we had to be mindful of our personal belongings and baggage before stowing them onboard those conveyances.

As we are anxiously awaiting the opening up of society with the elusive “all clear” from the COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing further changes in the way we travel. Some that may be more inconvenient than those imposed in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

If you are among the lucky few that are flying right now, you will be required to wear a face covering before you go through the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint. You may not be able to use the kiosk at the check-in counter, either. You better have a working printer and print your boarding pass before you leave your home or hotel. Or, download it to your mobile device.

Most airlines have eliminated passengers from sitting in the middle seat. That kind of reminds me of business class for flights within Europe. Still, the distance between two passengers in a three-three seat configuration does not meet social/physical distancing requirements. Oh, and you must keep your mask on. Not to mention, your beverage, snack, and food service will be severely cut or will be pre-packaged on board your flight.

Do you use airport lounges? Forget about the buffet. Your food will be pre-packaged, as it would on board your flight. I’d save that money for just chilling out at the gate. Oh, and forget about sit-down restaurants for a while. They’ll be closed until it is safe for passengers to congregate before boarding.

These same measures are being applied on Amtrak trains and intercity buses within this country.

Meanwhile, every passenger travel carrier is doing what they can to ensure an environment that is safe by disinfecting everything anyone will touch. A sign of assurance, perhaps.

I know we have our opinions about what is happening to our travel routines now and beyond the opening up of society. Believe me, some of us are hankering to travel again. Yet, we know that we will be further inconvenienced as these measures are applied on the next time we take a plane, train, or bus anywhere.

Honestly, I am actually discouraged from taking a flight, train, or bus in the near term. Or, perhaps for the rest of 2020.

Why? I have to look back at 2001. I have always been about personal freedom, but I also believe in following the rules. The rules imposed upon us after the September 11, 2001 attacks discouraged me from boarding a plane. It took me at least four years to get the courage to do so. Then, I got used to it.

It seems that this time will be different in several ways. Some of which I will refrain from even discussing here. Let’s just say that layering these health and safety adjustments above a set of 19-year-old security-based dictums may be the right thing to do, but you can already hear the bellyaching from those who dare to fly these days.

As for me, the only possible option to travel is by car. The reasons are obvious to you. In a car, you can go when you want, stop where you want, and have the freedom to not set any schedule for transfers or waiting at airports, train, and bus stations.

Yes, driving is a privilege. Under these guidelines laid down by your government, you can get behind the wheel. If it means just being essential at work or to help the refrigerator and pantry full of food for the family, then your privilege is used responsibly.

That’s all and good, but what will driving be like after we get that elusive "all clear?" I hope it's wonderful. I hope that we can freely move, use public facilities along our major highways, stay at some wonderful accommodations, eat at restaurants of all kinds, and see the sights. I would love to see museums open again and to a sporting event somewhere.

I want to get to those places that are still on my travel list. It would be great to spend at least one night in Kansas City or Omaha. It would be wonderful to drive to the Chicago Auto Show next winter for Media Days. It would be great to get on the road and explore something I have never experienced before and not have to worry about what's closed or not.

Right about now, I should have been packed for the week ahead. The plan was to go to the Midwest Automotive Media Association Spring Rally at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin to spend three days checking out the latest and greatest vehicles around. I wanted to try out their off-road course for the first time, as well as take some daring laps on their karting course for our autocross and perhaps a lap on one of the greatest road courses in this country.

But, like most events and other gatherings around the world, The MAMA Spring Rally has been postponed. I will have to wait until late October to head back out to Road America again. Then again, who knows at this point…

I am always hopeful that my colleagues and I can reconvene to work along each other again.

It is true that I have to cognizant that things might end up not being the same as it was before everything got shut down. Like everyone else, I’m sure we'll adjust to our travel routines, as we did in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Until then, we keep on pining for that day we can be free to roam again.

All photos by Randy Stern

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