A Vacation of Highs and Lows

This post begins a series on our experiences under COVID-19, inspired by the realization that “we are all field collectors” in the effort to someday tell the story of what happened in 2020. The essays I post here are drawn from First Monday, First Person salons since last spring. I’m sure we all experienced a memorable series of events as the world changed last March, as Ellen did. Consider this an invitation to write your own stories of pandemic life, and to submit for publication on this blog–guidelines here.

By Ellen Magee


My long-awaited trip to visit friends and family on the West Coast started on a cold, dark Wisconsin morning.  Retired, on a fixed income, this was a real splurge for me.  After the direct flight to Seattle, with nary a glitch, my brother Sam picked me up and took me to the phantasmagorical maze of shops at Pike Place by the harbor.  In spite of a steady rain, we were in a celebratory mood.

We met my cousin and his wife later at an upscale ethnic restaurant.  Having arrived first,  my cousin greeted us, “Great to see you!  But better not hug since the virus is spreading.”  During dinner, I processed the discussion of COVID 19, and sensed a strange culture shock since until then the virus had been, for us in Wisconsin, far away in China.

3/2 to 3/6/20

While with Sam, we did the things we both love: hiking to beautiful places, “forest bathing” in the rainforest, and exploring eateries, shops and galleries.  Much of the time we just enjoyed quiet companionship in his cozy home at the foot of the Olympic Mountains.


Sam drove me back to SeaTac for my flight on to San Francisco.  He offered me hand sanitizer and cough drops for my travels. I rendezvoused at the SF Airport with a long-time college buddy, Mary, who flew in from Los Angeles for our college mini-reunion.  After sanitizing the steering wheel, we climbed into her rental car and headed south to Moss Beach, the home of my second college buddy, Jamie.  Jamie set us up in a near-by motel for the night. Mary handed me a stack of letters she had saved from our correspondence in the 70’s which brought back both the fun of our hijinks as well as the insanity of our drug and alcohol abuse.

Western College Class of ’74 reunion, Ferndale, CA, (author far right).


Fun, fun and more fun!  In addition to Jamie,we now had Hannah from Oakland, also Class of 74, and the four of us set out for our road-trip to the Redwoods.  Druggies from the 70’s were high on life in our 60’s — and sober!  We found the quaint B & B we had reserved for two nights. We pulled out old yearbooks, laughed and hooted, and finally settled down for the night.



After a large breakfast at the town bar, we headed for The Avenue of the Giant Redwoods. Since experiencing the redwoods was my bucket list goal, it took patience on my part to let my friends wander “The Lost Coast” on the way.  I admit it did provide gorgeous seascapes.  The energy of the giant Redwoods was a spirit thing for me, and I hated to leave,  but it was a group decision to head back to town.  Tired and happy, we were getting ready to watch “Reefer Madness” on TV when there was a loud, clattering bang. Being a midwesterner, it took me some moments to realize we were having an earthquake! After a minute or so of chandelier-swinging and wall-rattling, it was quiet.  We learned later it was a 6.8 quake with it’s epicenter in a town we had driven through on the Lost Coast a few hours before.


We got going early heading back to Moss Beach.  Jamie’s accommodations this time were a room in the Lighthouse Hostel overlooking the Pacific — a room for 4 with bunk beds.  Perched on the top of a squeaking bunk, my dismounts were funny enough to get us laughing and screaming again, just like when we were 18.  That night I was somewhat concerned with my cough. My sense was it was seasonal allergies, but I had to use yoga techniques to keep from coughing constantly.


It was a hard night, but I felt fine in the morning and was able to calm my cough. Mary headed for the airport to turn in the car and fly home to LA.  Jamie was scheduled to work that afternoon, so Hannah and I took her car and tooled around her Oakland neighborhood.  Going across the Bay, we saw the Grand Princess cruise ship quarantined near port. Hannah knew I love Nature so we found a park. We drove around quite a while until Hannah found what she was looking for:  a parking space near a bench, where she could sit. “To make sure nobody tries to break into my car!”  I saw a few captive birds near a polluted pond, and went back to sit down. I discovered the natural beauty:  people of all hues and languages peacefully coexisting.

Hannah was kind enough to drive me to my next stop, Sacramento.  I was welcomed by my niece’s ex, Pat, his partner Lori and their kids.  My niece teaches school and wasn’t available until the weekend.  It was a beautiful home with mature redwoods, but there was stress.  Pat was scheduled to present a paper in Sweden the next week and Lori also had a business trip.  They were counting on their older neighbor to stay with the children in their absence, but she had decided she needed to quarantine.  Later in the day that concern became moot as both the Sweden and out of state events were cancelled due to COVID 19 travel restrictions.


My niece, Kat, picked me and the children up after school Friday to spend the weekend with her and her partner.  There were all kinds of events scheduled for that weekend so it was a juggling act with me there.  I thought if they were too busy, I might return to Pat and Lori’s. Then, one by one, events were cancelled and even whether school would continue after the weekend was up in the air.  We spent the next few days all together at home, catching up, cooking and reading. Frankly, I was happy just to be soaking up warm sun by the pool. Kat did have to report for school Monday, but the kid’s were going to finish their year online.


Kat dropped me off at the Sacramento airport on her way to work on a rainy, cool Monday. I picked up my rental car and headed South to San Francisco and Route 1.  Jamie, my Moss Beach friend met me for an early lunch at one of her favorite eateries.  It was take-out only, but the outdoor area overlooked the Pacific with early morning surfers- and the sun came out.  We talked about COVID 19 precautions I needed to take on the road, to the extent that even stopping to take a bathroom break felt like a life or death gamble that day. When I saw a place open for take-out food service, I stocked up to keep my stops to a minimum.  The drive that first day on hairpin curves, with little between me and the cliffs high above the Pacific, was both terrifying and euphoric. Each curve opened up to a more spectacular view of the sparkling Pacific.  I exclaimed to myself, “Oh my God!  Wow!  WOW!! Just WOW!!!”  I stopped at Big Sur. The lady running the tourist shop where I used the facilities was lamenting to a friend what the newest travel restrictions would do to her business.  This only added to my anxiety.  When the hills leveled off I could see beach after beach full of elephant seals, but I was too anxious to stop at the viewing area.  I stopped at a Motel 6 after ten hours of driving, ate a wilted sandwich and went to bed.

Amazing California Route 1!


I woke up in better spirits.  I would see Mary in LA this evening!  I found a cute little carry-out deli and stocked up for the day.  Without much thought, I started up my navigator to book it to LA.  I was also talking to my travel agent in Madison to move up my flight to tomorrow. I cut away from the coast and drove through the most beautiful emerald hills- on St. Patrick’s Day no less. Gradually the geography became flat and brown.  I noticed a few oil derricks, then many and then I was bathing in a forest of them! I drove through stretches of vegetable fields, under a crop duster, and suddenly, up into mountains and snow! Then the descent into LA.  My friend Mary picked me up wearing a face mask and coughing.  She had tried to get tested but having no fever was told to go home.  We were both relieved that I was heading home the next morning, as she was hoping to to work from home.


The LA airport was all business and orderly lines.  The plane was about a third full.  Someone behind and across the isle from me wore a hooded, full-body Pink Panther suit, but otherwise the flight back to Madison was uneventful.  We arrived in Madison to a balmy 40 degrees. The airport was eerily empty as was the street in front.  I had just barely squeaked home under the wire.

© 2020 Ellen Magee

Ellen lives in Madison with her husband and animals too numerous to mention.  She is a retired social worker.  Her family includes her son, two step-sons and their assorted kids.  She keeps busy during COVID by writing racial justice-themed letters to decision makers and editors, mentoring people in substance abuse recovery, dancing, kayaking and e-biking.  Her goal in retirement is to cultivate her friendships.

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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