Getting by during COVID by Getting on the Road

John Pearley HuffmanCar and Driver

Going into the seventh month of the COVID-19 pandemic, the sheer monotony is grinding. Wear this mask, don’t touch that, bad idea to go there, stay home . . . every day. Every single day. And yet that dreary repetition is for those of us lucky enough to have stayed healthy. We’re getting by. Here’s how.

Cars. You expected something else?

john pearley huffman

Cars aren’t America’s only coping mechanism. Bicycle shops have sold out, almost all the rescue dogs have been rescued, and baking videos have become a fetishistic fascination for at least two people in my household. But cars and trucks are up there on another level.

Self-propelled isolation chambers with air conditioning, integrated entertainment systems, adjustable seats, and cupholders that make dining inside them nearly almost elegant have been saviors. They’re why there are curbs for curbside pickups and what are driven at drive-through virus testing centers. And they line up at the food banks, too. America has largely adapted to this “new normal” by leaning on the flexibility of personal transportation.

A couple Saturdays ago, I was out driving around because that’s something I can do without wearing a mask. In a parking lot at Santa Barbara City College was a group, apparently a family, pulling a 1964 Chevrolet Impala lowrider off a trailer. I forgot I was a reporter and failed to get their names, but my conversation went pretty much like this.

“Beautiful Impala,” I said. “Looks like you’ve got some radical hydraulics on it.” “Yeah,” one of the guys said, “on each corner. It will lift any wheel, do anything. We’ve got eight batteries in it.” Impressive. “But only six are hooked up right now,” another family member chimed in. Okay, 25 percent less impressive.

“Y’all taking it on a cruise?” I continued, indicating that some of my wife’s Alabama linguistic heritage has rubbed off on me. “Sure. Just a drive through town,” he concluded. “Something to do.” Doing something in still locked down Santa Barbara, in still locked down California, without doing something socially unacceptable and potentially risky is a real challenge.

After that, my awareness of all the people using their cars to do something socially okay was piqued. Young guys in Miatas and 350Zs running up and down San Marcos Pass; a pair of VW Things flying in formation; dozens of crossovers packed with families and toys; black Range Rovers lined up in a jam along Coast Village Road in tony Montecito. Maybe one of the Rovers was ferrying Harry and Meghan. They’re new to the neighborhood.

Over at The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer, who often writes about climate change and all the implications it brings, just bought a car, as many others in his young, urban social circle have recently. “Yes, I got a car. I got a car because cars are kind of this ultimate form of [personal protective equipment]—and we can talk about whether that’s true—but they’re at least perceived as a form of PPE. But also just because, if you live in the city, there’s not a lot to do right now,” he said in conversation with his colleague James Hamblin. “What you can do right now is go to the beach or go hiking or go hang out outside. D.C. has a great public-transit system, but it doesn’t have an amazing transit system to connect you with hikes that are an hour out of town. And always in the past, I’ve just rented a car if I want to go hiking. But renting a car feels a little dicey now because you don’t know who’s been in it in the past.”

My emails and social media reach-outs didn’t net a reply from Meyer. So, I don’t know what he bought. I’m guessing it’s not a Raptor.

Grease, the schlocky but sweet 1978 musical with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, is not my favorite movie. It is, however, my wife Dana’s. And when she won tickets in July to see it yet again at Santa Barbara’s near-derelict West Wind Drive-In, it was my husbandly duty to attend with her, my 19-year-old daughter, Nina, and Nina’s best friend, Emma. We piled into my Toyota Tundra pickup, found a spot along one berm that was socially distant from neighboring vehicles, and parked tail end toward the screen. We put lawn chairs in the bed for Nina and Emma, put a couple more down on the dirt, and had a blast. I can’t go to a movie theater, but coping with COVID reintroduced me to the drive-in. That’s about the only good thing I’ve extracted from this misery.

I wish the new James Bond movie or a Top Gun sequel had been playing.

There are almost 274 million cars in the United States, and that’s about 840 for every 1000 people. So many cars that it’s hard to remember that not every American can afford one or is capable of operating one. And in much of the world, cars are still an almost unimaginable luxury. The access to cars is a privilege and a product of our immense prosperity. Let’s appreciate what they’re doing for us.

Driving through this pandemic is bad enough. Imagine if you had to walk.

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