Driving Across the Country in the Time of the COVID-19 Crisis and Civil Unrest

By Bob Morrow, Montana NMA Member

In late May, I had to fly from Montana back to the Buffalo, New York area to pick up my dad’s car and drive it back to Montana. Dad is 84 and can’t drive anymore.

I grew up near Buffalo, but I’ve been living in Montana for most of the past 30 years. That Buffalo-to-Montana drive is a yearly event (but two-way).

Initially, I was supposed to fly back to Buffalo on April 5th. Yeah, that didn’t happen. I could have gone even though both Montana & New York were under shelter-in-place orders at the time.

When I read in the last few days of March that Rhode Island was stopping all cars with New York plates and forcing drivers and passengers into self-quarantine for two weeks, I decided to hold off. Of course, I don’t drive through Rhode Island on the way to Montana, but what if Pennsylvania, Ohio, or Illinois got the same idea? At the time, I had started the process to get a Montana title and registration but didn’t have them in hand yet.

Then I bought a ticket to fly in early May, and the airline canceled the flight!

During that time, I registered the car in Montana, then later got insurance for it.

The next time, I waited until one week before my new planned date to buy a ticket on a different airline. Friday, May 29th, came and went with me landing in Buffalo, finally! The following day I put my Montana plates on the car, and all was well with the world.

Or at least we thought so!

Saturday and Sunday nights in Erie County, NY (where Buffalo and mom & dad’s place is located) was suddenly under a curfew. No one was allowed outside of their house after 10:30 PM Saturday (they had just imposed the curfew that night) and Sunday after 8:00 PM. I think if you were out after curfew, you could be arrested. When that happened Saturday night, I realized leaving on Monday (my planned departure date) was not a day too soon. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana

Monday morning (June 1st), I said goodbye to my parents and started my road trip back to Montana. I put the car on the New York Thruway (Interstate 90) at exit 57 near Hamburg. A sign said do not stop for toll tickets due to the coronavirus, so I didn’t. At the NY/PA line on I-90 near Erie, they would not let me pay by cash or card. (EZ-Pass was accepted, but I don’t have that.)

You still had to stop, though, according to the NY Thruway Authority signage. The toll booth attendant asked where I got on the Thruway and wrote down my license plate number. She said they would then mail me the bill, all of $2.85. (As of mid-June, I’m still waiting for it.) The toll attendant couldn’t read the somewhat stylized “Montana” on my plate, so she asked me which state I was from. Oh, boy!

I was honest. I could have told the attendant, I got on the system five or ten miles north of the toll booth, and she would have been none the wiser.

The Thruway Authority had to be losing money hand over fist with this system.  All the employee time, postage, etc. [Note: Starting June 4th, the NY Thruway resumed regular cash toll payments.]

My first stop was about 20 miles east of Cleveland, OH. I didn’t know if a mask was required, but I wore one anyhow. I stopped for gas at a small convenience store, and it was completely open.

Continuing westward, towards Cleveland, I saw that the cops had blocked off some exits on Interstate 90, probably because of the protests going on at the time. (George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis was just one week earlier.)

My second stop was also in Ohio, this time on the Ohio Turnpike. Still not sure about the mask requirement, I wore it again for the last time. Everything was normal, except for the parking lot. The lot which had spaces for about 50 cars, had about 10 in it. Otherwise, though, the traffic seemed about the same.

Both Ohio and Indiana allowed cash at their toll booths. Finally, some normalcy! But it was not to last.

Somewhere near Gary, Indiana, I got on Interstate 80, thereby missing most of Chicago and its traffic. I stayed on 80 until central Iowa then turned north to Minnesota.

I did not experience any encounters with protesters, other than the blocked exits in Cleveland. I heard on the radio about other exits blocked or entire interstates (not sure which) in the Chicago area, but I didn’t go that way, so it didn’t affect me. I avoided Chicago not because of the protests, but because of all the traffic, tolls, congestion, and road construction that usually exists there. I’ve been avoiding the Chicago area for those reasons for the past four years or so.

Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota

Illinois would not allow cash at their tolls (also due to coronavirus), so I was forced through the e-tolling booths where I didn’t have to stop. Presumably, they took a picture of my rear license plate, but I don’t know. An electronic sign said to go to a web site and pay there. Well, I wrote down the information and then got on the system at “plaza 43”.

An aside: Once I was home, I went on that web site, under the ‘pay toll’ section. If it had been less than a week, the website wouldn’t let you search by the license plate. Instead, you have to search by trip data (entry/exit points, time, etc.)  Worse yet, there is no “plaza 43” to choose from on the list of entry/exit points, and I could not find it on the web site’s map. As of the middle of June, that website still says they can’t find any data for my license plate.

One of the funniest things I saw on the road was the Jolly Green Giant wearing a mask in Blue Earth, Minnesota. This is the same city where the Golden Spike was laid for the completion of I-90…the interstate from Boston to Seattle.

Getting a hotel room in southern Minnesota was no problem. I set up a reservation about 8 hours before I actually arrived since I wasn’t sure until late in the day which way I’d be going (the George Floyd protests were now my main concern). The hotel had the usual cereal, coffee, and other stuff available for the continental breakfast the following morning.

The Dakotas and Montana

Nothing particular happened in the phase of the trip—just wide open spaces, big skies, and relatively open highways.

Other Trip Particulars

Gas stations/convenience stores and their bathrooms were open and available everywhere along the entire route. Still, gas station food (such as the hot dogs that stay on the rollers for hours) was not available anywhere. Restaurants were hit or miss. Some were fully open, some were open for carry-out only, and still, others were drive-up only, and some were closed. Fast-food joints were open to some degree.

I believe mask requirements were non-existent at all of the places I stopped at, or they were not enforced if they existed. Only in Ohio did I bother with a mask; I didn’t bother with one the further west I went.

I did not see one checkpoint where authorities asked me to quarantine, asked me where I’d been/where I was going, or check my temperature. Having Montana plates was probably a good thing since, heck, it seems most folks don’t even know where Montana is!

The thing that bothers me about New York’s and Illinois’ toll payment schemes would be the data mining for personal information and possible future problems if someone didn’t do their job and mark that I actually paid the tolls.

Years from now, I can see getting stopped for whatever reason in those states and having the car towed and me jailed because of a supposed failure to pay a toll when I, in fact, did pay.

What is my recourse then?  How do I prove that I paid? Not sure at all.

Final Thoughts on Driving across Country during the time of Coronavirus and Protests

Despite all that’s going on in the world, I was happy to be driving a car as opposed to sitting in on an airplane. I prefer driving at any time, but even more so on this trip with all this virus nonsense going on.

I’m not scared of airplanes; I don’t care for all the security nonsense that goes along with flying and being crammed in seats too small for children with my knees touching the seat in front of me.

Driving a car, I didn’t have to wear a mask, and I didn’t have to worry about the passenger next to me (because there wasn’t one). Basically, I had nothing to worry about except myself and the car.

Driving free is always a great feeling!

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One Response to “Driving Across the Country in the Time of the COVID-19 Crisis and Civil Unrest”

  1. Joe Allen says:

    Just saw this article. Agree totally about flying now. Since 911, air travel has not been pleasant. Good to see you wear the fear mask as little as possible. But why did you take toll roads when the federal roads and interstates were there for the taking? Save all your correspondence about the tolls and hopefully you took screen shots of the sites where you could not find the info on the paying of tolls. Paperwork is very important infighting these scam notices from the toll road companies.