travel, COVID, and keeping plans

Around Independence Day, I decided to make long-range travel plans, just as I watched half of everyone, it seemed like, traveling across the country by car to various natural wonders. I didn’t have the time to make such a trip over the summer, being involved in a freelance question-writing gig for a textbook publisher. Moreover, I had no desire to drive thousands of miles by car. I’m less a Great American Road Trip person than a Fly or Take a Train to Get Close Then Take a Car Person.

I knew of a place I wanted to go before too long, though: Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, which I had planned to visit before the pandemic began and COVID lockdowns (or quasi-lockdowns) ensued nationwide, and the parks temporarily closed. I also knew by then that a semester of college teaching would be finished for me right after Thanksgiving. A bit of research, meanwhile, showed that flying into Las Vegas would also put me within close range of Death Valley National Park, which I had looked into before my trip to the Sierras and Los Angeles in July 2018. Visiting the park in December would work out well, weather wise.

I went to Delta’s website, then, and used points to reserve a round-trip ticket from Jackson to Las Vegas. By mid-month I had reserved in-park rooms at Death Valley and Bryce Canyon, both on sale. And on a Wednesday after turning in grades, I found myself in the outdoor Sky Deck of the Delta Sky Club at Atlanta’s Concourse F for a few hours, waiting on a flight to Las Vegas, with plans to head out for Death Valley in the morning.

Delta Sky Deck, Concourse F at 12:04 a.m. (Four or So Other People Around by 2:30)

Notable: It was 53 degrees out, hardly the typical weather you would choose for a long layover’s stay at the outdoor deck of an airport lounge. But given events of two or three weeks that preceded my planned trip, COVID was more of a concern than ever before. I hadn’t expected a new “wave” (I choose to think we’re still on a first wave in the U.S.) or a dramatic increase in cases to hit so soon after Thanksgiving. Even a week before the trip, I was wondering if I would have to cancel. Ultimately, however, I had done my research on flying, and what sort of precautions to take while on the road, and cautiously decided to move ahead.

I made a few significant adjustments, however, ones that built upon an earlier plan to make my trip as safe as possible, via means including the following:

  • “Contactless” care rental via Silvercar, an Audi company. Now, while Audi has chosen to close its Silvercar locations and airports and keep them open at dealerships instead, due to decreased travel in the U.S., you can still have the car delivered and picked up at certain airports for a $50 extra fee each time. I chose this option, and it was worth every penny. The only contact I had with Silvercar was via my phone and an iPhone app. No matter how Silvercar is doing now, I think you will see more of this sort of thing in the future, at least for everything but super-budget rentals.
  • Avoidance of The Strip or Downtown Las Vegas entirely, and even outdoor attractions I had hoped to visit, including the Neon Museum.
  • Steering clear of even outdoor dining at any place that looked crowded or appeared to have the opportunity to become crowded. Instead, I relied on pickup or to-go orders, room service (thankfully available for all meals of the day at my hotel in Springdale UT near Zion, the Cliffrose Lodge), and food trucks. Along the way, I even stopped at a fancy coffee trailer in a town of 1,000 or so residents!
  • Opting to stay at only Hilton properties, including the Cliffrose, not only because I could rack up some points, but because I could use its app for check-in, as well as use it as for a key. I also knew that Hilton had company-wide cleaning policies.
  • Otherwise, staying only at park lodges and, in an 11th hour arrangement, a glamping place about 45 minutes south of the Las Vegas airport, in the Mojave Desert (a location where, again, I did not need to talk to anyone in person–arrangements were made online).
  • Remembering some basic rules, including: Avoid crowds, keep my distance, wash my hands, the usual. (The only place that wasn’t as easy to do, but wasn’t impossible: The airport. This wasn’t Thanksgiving week, thankfully. The airport was dead in the morning, but ’90s type crowds developed in the mid-afternoon.
  • And finally: Deciding to spend a much longer layover than I initially expected at the outdoor lounge! Do your research, if you must travel over the next few months, and you might find out about such things. (I just can’t see the sky deck being uncrowded during a holiday travel week, even if the international concourse isn’t that busy nowadays. ) Helps to travel alone, though! A disclaimer there.

For my first night, I reserved and stayed at a nondescript Hilton Garden Inn south of The Strip. After getting there around 8:30, I ordered a big pizza from its restaurant. Then I ate most of it, but kept a few slices for a 5 a.m. “breakfast.” And I headed out for Death Valley at dawn. I went through the drive-through in the next city with services, dusty Parhump (where someone did the “pay it forward” thing for my coffee, as well as a panini that I thought I could use for lunch later on–I was previously unaware of this sort of thing, and baffled by it. I mean, I didn’t think I looked THAT shaggy.).

Within ten minutes, I was seeing this sort of road ahead of me. More exciting things were ahead, and are ahead here as well.