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The drive on Highway 1 along the Big Sur coast is one of the world's classic road trips. And right now, there's hardly anybody there.
One dinner out inspires AFAR’s CEO to rediscover his home state of California.
In May, I sheltered in place with some good friends in Orange County, California. This was the second couple who had allowed me to shelter in place with them since the beginning of the pandemic. To me, it was far better than staying home by myself. I’m not sure how my hosts felt about it.
The only times I left the Orange County house were to walk to Crystal Cove State Park, where I could hike, or to drive to a nearby restaurant to pick up lunch—which was stressful. Some customers waited patiently, masks on, keeping appropriate spacing in a proper queue. Others seemed to feel the lines didn’t apply to them. I understood that we are all not in the same mind space, but it induced some anxiety. Were they too close to me? I was trying to be so careful. I would grab my food, get in the car, and exhale a sigh of relief.
Then, with little advanced notice, Orange County opened restaurants for indoor dining!
We hesitated. We had been so caught up in sheltering in place. For 10 weeks, our sole focus had been: Do not catch COVID and do not spread COVID. Now the world had started to open up. Was it time for us to do so as well? Would we feel comfortable eating in a restaurant with a bunch of strangers? Would we be throwing away all the hard work we had done to remain virus-free? Would we be betraying the mission that we and millions of fellow citizens had embarked upon?
My friends and I had been discussing COVID every day since we’d gotten together: how it spread; how we were going to beat it; the economic and personal costs of our sheltering; how long this was going to last. What else was there to talk about? We had gradually come around to believe that the world needed to start opening up and that it was not sustainable to shelter in place until a vaccine was widely disseminated, but we had not yet agreed to change our personal behavior.
But here we were with this new opportunity. Orange County was telling us it was OK to dine in a restaurant. We called around and found that Ocean Club, a fine-dining seafood spot, was open. My friend reached out to the general manager, who said he could seat us at 7 p.m. the next day. And there it was. Were we really going to do this?
It helped that it was my birthday. Not that my birthday is any big deal. I’ve had lots of them, and this was not a big round number. But it had been a long two and a half months, and we were looking for something to celebrate.
We walked through the open door of the restaurant and just as we walked in, another group walked out. One of my friends, stunned to be close to an unmasked total stranger after so long, stepped out of the way and wound up leaning against a fountain and soaking her dress. Was this a sign that we weren’t ready for this? She said she was fine (she’s always a good sport), and we went to our table, which had a spectacular view of the Pacific. There were half as many tables as usual, each one with plenty of space around it, and they were all full. It felt safe, comfortable, and, well, alive. People were talking, laughing, having drinks. I had missed this so much.
Our masked server told us how happy she was to be back working. She offered us single-use paper menus and that all-important first cocktail. And soon, my friends and I, who had been having every dinner together and talking about COVID for what seemed like forever, found ourselves talking about . . . other things. In this room full of strangers enjoying themselves, our moods lightened, and we looked forward to all the other things we could do.
The meal was such a joy. Sure, we were cognizant whenever a server came to bring a plate or to refill a water glass (OK, more often it was the wineglass). They were always careful not to reach across us or otherwise make us uncomfortable. Even the birthday cake and song ritual, which usually makes me cringe, seemed fresh and fun.
That dinner completely changed my mental state. I went from being a total stay-at-home to thinking that I can get out of the house and do some things responsibly. I decided to go back to my home in San Francisco, where I hadn’t been since before the start of lockdown. (My hosts acted as if they were sorry to see me go but didn’t hesitate to lend me their convertible for the drive.) I took Highway 154 through the Santa Ynez Valley and stopped at Bell’s restaurant in the charming town of Los Alamos for a delicious egg salad sandwich that I ate in a park. Then I drove up Highway 1 through Big Sur. I’ve had the good fortune to drive Highway 1 several times, and though nothing can match your first trip on that spectacular road, this was a close second. There were so few cars. If I caught up to another car, I would pull off to soak up the view for a few moments and let that car get far ahead of me. Then I would get back on the road and feel that I had that amazing California coast to myself.
Monterey was not open for leisure travel, but as a member of the media (an essential service), I was permitted to stay at a hotel. I booked the beautiful Bernardus Lodge in Carmel Valley. The hotel was not very crowded, but it was taking COVID seriously: plexiglas at the check-in desk, everyone in masks in public, 24 hours of vacancy before a room could be occupied, and meals brought to my door. Out of an abundance of caution, I wiped down the faucets and door handles with Clorox wipes I had brought, but the room was very clean, and the staff seemed very conscientious. It was a great experience.
I got up in the morning and went for a beautiful hike at Garland Ranch park, right across the road from the hotel with my friend Mike Freed, the owner of Post Ranch Inn. (Post Ranch was still closed but is now set to open July 1.) I felt rejuvenated. Yes, I thought, I can start living again. Traveling is so key to who I am and how I live. Sure, I was fine sheltering in place and living a simpler life. But now I felt like it was OK to rediscover my home state.
The good news is, as of June 12, California is opening up to leisure travel on a county by county basis. The door has been opened, and I’m going through. I’m planning trips each of the next several weekends throughout the state. Yes, I’m checking to make sure the places I want to go are open to visitors. I’m making sure to keep my footprint light and my exposure to other people low. Mask on, hand sanitizer and wipes at the ready.
I’ve even booked a flight to the East Coast for mid-July. I’ll get a COVID test when I land. I’m going to spend some time with friends, and I want everyone to be comfortable. Based on these first experiences, I’ve found that being a responsible traveler really isn’t that hard, and the joys of travel are sure worth the extra effort. That birthday meal turned out to be quite a gift.
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