After nearly six months self-isolated and socially distanced, I finally traveled in mid-September 2020. The pandemic was still impacting the country and the world, but I had work that couldn’t wait any longer to accomplish. For four years I commanded the 303d Information Operations Battalion at Camp Parks in Dublin, California. We originally scheduled my change of command a year out, but after not conducting our monthly battle assemblies since February due to the COVID-19 dangers of traveling, I was going out to California one more time and I had a plan.
Normally Army commands don’t last four years—especially battalion commands, two maybe 3 years at most. Somehow I stayed in command for four years, but like all good things, this was about to end. There was just one problem: I still had a full office full of my stuff at Camp Parks and a 2011 Subaru Forester at my Aunt & Uncle’s house in nearby Santa Clara. The idea came to me: fly out to California, stay with my Aunt & Uncle, do the change of command, and then drive home. I could straight line it from Santa Clara down the 101 eventually hitting I-5, and doglegging it over to I-40 and within a few days I could be home. But that was just seemed so boring.
So I devised a better plan.
Pouring over maps of the US, I looked at various routes I could go: across Nevada and norther Utah and hit Colorado before dropping down eventually to Kansas, Missouri, and then Tennessee. Or south through Arizona to see family in Tucson and then work my way back up to the I-40. I thought about it on my runs and bikes in late August and early September. Then it hit me.
I had my plan. I would drive first to Monterey and say my good byes. From Monterey I would set out to Pinnacles National Park (NP) about an hour southeast and knock out a run. From there, high tail it to Las Vegas for the night, where the next morning I’d hit some local trails and get my feet wet at Lake Mead National Recreation Area. From Vegas, up the road to check out Zion National Park and another run, drive further and check out Bryce Canyon NP for yet another run. See a pattern? After Bryce, drive further east to Moab and check out Arches & Canyonlands NPs, before pushing into Colorado for a final stop at Great Sand Dunes NP outside of Alamosa. At that point I’d make a beeline for I-40 near Amarillo TX and get home as quickly as possible. And that was the plan: 6 National Parks and one National Rec Area in just over a week. What’s the worst that could happen? Well there was a pandemic…yeah. Go big or go home, right? Exactly.
The flight to Cali went off without a hitch. I had a layover in Denver and my favorite bar, the New Belgium Brewing Company, was closed. I’ve been stopping at that bar for over a decade on my layovers and this was a first. Things really felt real. The flights and airports were fine—I wore my mask as did about 90% of folks (100% on the airplanes). I didn’t talk to anyone. I wiped down my seat at the gate. It was odd, but it was the times. Mainly on the flights I slept as there wasn’t much else to do.
Finally I got to the Bay area where my uncle met me at the airport. It was great to see him. We both knew what to do: grab some beer. Between the San Francisco Airport and his house is one of his favorite breweries, Devils Canyon in San Carlos CA. Of course we stopped just as the brewery was wrapping up their contribution at a local farmers’ market. My uncle, being a regular, was able to purchase some beers within 2 minutes of their closure. Everyone was happy to see him. We didn’t need the beer—he had a keg of their latest, Fluent in Sarcasm, on tap in his kegerator in Santa Clara. Did that deter us? No, of course not. We picked up a few other 4-packs of beer and ventured home.
Over beers in a small grove of redwoods in his yard that evening, I told my uncle my plan.
“You do realize there’s a pandemic going on, right?” he inquired.
“Yeah, but I have a secret weapon. I’ll be safe.” I responded.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“I have masks, hand sanitizer, some beer and this plan. What else would I need?” I said to him with a straight face.
“Good point. Let me go get you some AAA maps and you can show me again,” and with that we mapped it out with a marker on old school AAA maps over cold beers. Even in a pandemic, it doesn’t get much better than that.
There was one more minor factor affecting my plans for this epic adventure: air quality. California, in addition to the pandemic, had several severe fires break out and the air quality was horrific. Pictures at the time showed cities like San Francisco covered in dense smoke, despite the fires being nowhere close. It had a surreal, post-apocalyptic feel to it from the images on the nightly news. I lived in California in 2018 when the fires and air quality were bad. Then 2020 happened came in and said, “Hold my beer.” While the worst was over by the time I arrived, the air still held a dusty dirty tinge and taste to it, reminding me of sand storms in Iraq from my deployments there. It was still bad enough my first few days, running wasn’t an option. Finally, the following Wednesday of my week in California, the air quality hit the tolerable range as offshore winds blew the smoke out. Now it was time to cram in some training before my journey truly began.