Travelogue: Driving In The Face of Extraordinary Times

How are you doing?

No, seriously, how are you doing?

This is a question that we all should be asking our family, friends, enemies, and other human beings during this period of self-quarantine and social distancing because of the COVID-19 situation. It has not been easy for us, as a whole. Some have reached a breaking point. Others have rolled onward the best they can.

Me? Well…

While I have been working at home, I miss going to coffeehouses and restaurants. I miss the occasional "Carch" dinners with my friends. I miss the car meets and more friends. Social media as a tool for social distancing is not exactly cutting it during these compounded times of self-imposition from COVID-19.

To be honest, I had several tense moments with both my day job and with an outlet I write for. I almost walked away from one – if not, both – of them. For the sake of my own health, I would rather not get into the reasons why I felt the way I did this past week.

Of course, it could be worse. California Governor Gavin Newsom put my birth state on lockdown practically, known as "shelter in place." Just stay home, his executive order said. If you need to travel, it better be to the grocery store or the pharmacy – that is, unless you’re an essential employee somewhere.

At the time of publication, my Governor Tim Walz has not decreed such a massive restriction. Nor has the President of the United States. Yet, international travel is a no go. Not even Canada or Mexico.

That’s all I have to say about politics.

Needless to say, I had a rough week. Aside from the external stuff of politics and restrictions, there was a lot of stuff coming from my own workflow. Not going to specifics, but one can point back to those external situations for exacerbating things further.

I had to do something to save my soul. I needed to clear my head of the garbage – internally and externally. I needed a release in the form of therapy.

The only therapy I know that worked for me is driving.

Having no vehicle to work with for a while, I rented another vehicle. It was back to Avis at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport for my therapy to begin.

This time, I spun once. Avis lined up a 2020 Jeep Compass Trailhawk. I worked with one a couple of months earlier, so I am familiar with how it drives. I figured this would do for what I needed to do.

With its 180-horsepower Multiair Tigershark engine, 4X4 Active Low drive system, and signature Trailhawk look, I noticed that I had less content on this rental in comparison to the one I reviewed before all heck broke loose. I was not mad that I did not have onboard navigation for the UConnect 8.4-inch infotainment screen, Adaptive Cruise Control, Bi-Xenon HID headlamps, full leather seats, or a sunroof. Still, it’s a Trailhawk – the best trim level you can get on a Jeep, in my humble opinion.

With the vehicle in my possession, I figured I’d take this red small SUV for a nice long drive. But, where? I could either do a direct shot to Sioux Falls, South Dakota or head the other side of Interstate 35 along the Mississippi River. I chose the latter.

Saturday morning began below freezing, but the sun was out. Having the sun out does help in making a drive possible. I had every intention to put in a full day’s drive. Therefore, I hoped I would sun and partly blue skies along the way.

This time around, I had to work with some of the changed imposed upon us recently. Since I could not eat inside a restaurant, I would have to either picnic outside or eat inside the Compass Trailhawk. I ended up going with the latter since the air was still pretty crisp. It was one adjustment that put a crimp on things. I managed, however.

The route I took was very familiar. My first goal was to get from home in the heart of the Twin Cities to Prescott, Wisconsin. That would be the start of one of my favorite driving routes in this region – Wisconsin Highway 35. The road offers great views of the river through the bluffs and nice curves along the farmscapes. You also get some lovely small towns to drive through between Prescott and La Crosse.

In La Crosse, I took a lunch break – in the Compass Trailhawk, of course. Wisconsin Highway 35 does not provide any challenges along the way, but it does reward you with the vistas and landscapes alone. Plus, La Crosse is a destination onto itself to discover.

My next leg would equally serve up the same wonderful curves and landscapes as the first one. This route took me across the Mississippi River on Minnesota Highway 16 out of La Crescent to the of Hokah, where I followed Minnesota Highway 44 to US Highway 52 into Iowa. Again, I was entertained by some lovely small towns along this route, including Spring Grove.

One would ask why Decorah? It is the home of Luther College, a school well-known for its Music department. Specifically, it's choral music program. Not that I am interested in choral music, but this is known by the friends who are into it.

Away from campus, it is a beautiful town. Full of Norwegian pride and Lutheran history. Just meandering through its historic sites and neighborhoods, one would drive off with a different perspective as to why this is one of the most wonderful communities to visit over the Minnesota-Iowa border.

Going west from Decorah on Iowa Highway 9, you get what could be seen as a "typical flyover landscape." While "boring" is the best description of this portion of the drive, perhaps it was therapy. It was a chance to relax the Compass Trailhawk across almost half of the top of the state.

The plan was to connect with Interstate 35 and blast home. Instead, I reached the town of Osage and connected with US Highway 218 up to Austin, Minnesota. I do not remember driving on this highway before, so it was a fresh piece of road to navigate.

From Austin, it was all interstate: Interstate 90 westbound to Interstate 35 northbound. This last leg was for speed and time. An in-vehicle dinner in Owatonna helped break up the dash homeward.

In all, I had a full day of driving on familiar roads that I seldom drive on. To places I truly like to be. Places that evoked memories and stories.

Yet, there was a strange sense of place everywhere I drive. They felt empty. Sure, there were trucks hauling goods and vehicles on the road going somewhere, but there was something missing.

Maybe. In rural communities, you always had a sense of purpose. I saw people going about their business of living, working, and sustaining themselves the best possible. In other places, I felt some emptiness in the air. Restaurants, bars, and coffeehouses were dark with no life inside. Some smaller stores and take-out places were open but only staffed by a single person with no one else inside. I dared not to go into a supermarket or a pharmacy to see what shelves were emptied.

Maybe the latter helped to make this drive more therapeutic. With governments adopting extreme measures to "flatten the curve" on COVID-19, getting out and seeing the world near your home is probably better than going stir-crazy. It is better for your soul, your psyche, and your emotional/behavioral health.

The challenge of battling this health situation is to stay healthy beyond just immediate prevention measures. This was a message I needed to take in and execute. In this case, I was able to regain my sense of humanity and not worry about the crap that is happening in my life and beyond it all due to the fallout of this virus.

I hope you are doing well. I hope you are managing through these extraordinary times. Reach out to someone you care about and see how they’re doing. And, please take care of yourselves through this blip in our routines. Do something you love to avert from reality. If you have to do something within these restrictive measures, make sure it something that makes you happy and healthy.

We will get through this. I will do my best to do the same.

DISCLAIMER: This vehicle was rented by Victory & Reseda for the purpose of publication

All photos by Randy Stern

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