Of all the post-quarantine dreams that tantalized us this past year, the sweetest siren call was travel. As soon as we can, my crowd would say, we’re going to catch a plane, hop a train, take a cruise. Just get away.
In the B.C. years, many of us seniors already had a travel bucket list we were working on. This past year of hunkering and bunkering, travel came to a standstill. But we could dream. We’d say to each other: When it’s finally over, where do you want to go first? Montana? The Far East? The Canadian Rockies? To Venice, Italy before it sinks — or we do?
As I keep saying, one of the very few advantages of being 76 is this early release program we’re in. Below our age level, just getting a vaccine is still a mole hunt. But we elders are the first to sample real life, ahead of the rest. (Other advantages of being 76: no longer setting the alarm, wearing slip-on Skecher sneakers for all purposes, and not knowing — or caring — what Instagram and TikTok are for.)
A month past our second vaccinations, my wife, Thia, and I were ready to get moving again. Spring break was coming up. Our adult kids had recovered from mild cases of COVID. Our granddaughters, 4 and 7, are at a very-low-risk age. What with variants and uncertain antibodies, nobody could be sure about the long term. But for the mid-term, our little family pod seemed safe.
As to our risk to others, the CDC director just said real-world results show the vaccinated do not transmit the virus to the unvaccinated, although she is already getting pushback from scientists who say that transmission from vaccinated people might be unlikely but could still certainly happen. And in any case, what of the variants? Out of caution, we vowed to stay masked in public and stick mostly to ourselves.
So, chickies, we decided to fly the coop.
International travel was out. Europe is ravaged, Asia heavily restricted, Canada politely closed, Mexico is wide open but dicey about its health stats. (Travel to Cancun can be dangerous, as Sen. Ted Cruz can attest.) The Caribbean is also open, but I’ve never seen the appeal of St. Kitts to a resident of St. Pete. So for most of us, for now, travel will be mostly home-brewed.
We decided to light out for the western territories. Airfares were cheap, and we found a rental in the mountains of Utah. A week in the snowy peaks. Our itinerary was Tampa-Dallas-Salt Lake City. As someone inured to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ loosey-goosey state of affairs, I was surprised, and pleased, to see that everywhere we wandered, federal pandemic guidance was uniformly observed. Masks were enforced at airports and aboard flights. No “personal freedoms” tolerated.
As we walked through terminals, we repeatedly heard announcements warning us against any I-don’t-wanna-wear-a-mask nonsense. In tough language we weren’t used to hearing, we were warned we’d be fined or, if it came to it, deboarded and imprisoned for refusing to mask. We heard it really often over the P.A. at our layover airport in Dallas, in the proud boots-on, masks-off state of Texas. Badass TSA!
Sidebar to fellow Tampans: Do you know what a gem we have in our compact, well-run Tampa International Airport? After two travel days trudging and panting through the endless corridors of DFW and SLC, whose departure gates glittered malevolently miles away, I yearned for our cozy TPA, with its shuttle cars gliding silently a few short hops away, interrupted only by Mayor Jane Castor’s ever-looping welcome-to-Tampa stump speech. Appreciate what we got, neighbors.
We’d have preferred to travel on one of the airlines that still leaves middle seats unfilled, but American Airlines was cheapest, and filled to its greedy little gills. We were shown lots of videos explaining their air purification. Despite the tight, tight quarters, my wife and I felt safe. How the unvaccinated passengers felt, squinched together under AA’s sardine-can guidelines, I don’t know. But in fairness, the airlines’ reported safety record on COVID infections is good. Better than a bar in Ybor City, I’ll bet.
In Utah, we stayed in a mountain condo with a toasty fireplace and a large family hot tub. It snowed twice, very cool. Fifty degrees cooler, in fact, than we were used to. During the time we were there, we rarely saw an uncovered face where people gathered. It’s possible the snowboard hot-doggers in Utah resort towns were partying as hearty as our Clearwater dudes do, but we didn’t see them. We were impressed by the matter-of-factness with which people complied. Even when they didn’t have to.
Late in our visit, we drove to Antelope Island, a craggy, isolated stretch on the Great Salt Lake, where antelope played and buffalo roamed. For real. We explored an old ranch while white-frosted bison grazed in the icy pastures. There, visitors in snowsuits wore masks, some even outdoors — unnecessarily, I thought. A sign warned us what to do if a bison stared at us and raised its tail: hightail it back into your car. Kind of like a certain pandemic I could name: When a surge threatens, shelter in place.
Gazing thoughtfully at the grazing cattle, our 7-year-old said, “We don’t have bison in Florida.” A potential zoologist, I thought proudly.
“But we got alligators,” said the 4-year-old. “I don’t see any alligators here.” Already, so skilled at debate.
There is more to be written about the mental and physical symptoms of traveling for the first time after such a long time inside. I may do so, when I catch my breath. (I do mean that literally, by the way. You forget what 7,000 feet of altitude can do to an aging, reluctant snow sludger.) There’s new reporting out there about the long-term mental and physical toll the pandemic has taken on even those of us lucky enough to survive. Memory, taste, brain fog.
I felt the effects. Twelve months of careful strolls and lots of binge-watching, even with my fitful efforts to stay fit, left their mark. Altitude, dehydration, the stairs in our rental, navigating snowy paths by boot and cane … my quick advice so far: avoid abruptness. Sudden changes of any kind for the freshly vaxed are to be avoided. Easy does it.
The first few days, Thia and I slept in, telling our snow-sledding, over-enthusiastic granddaughters to find other hill-climbing playmates. We told the girls, in our most apocalyptic voice, Pops and Nana don’t sled. But in fact, my wife Nana did pull our youngest around in a tire at a tubing spot, while I watched, leaning on my cane. I felt like an old lion picking nits out of my fur while the lioness did the work.
Later that night, we found ourselves out on the deck, in a bubbling hot tub, explaining to two little girls that no two snowflakes are alike. A sudden gust of real snowflakes swirled around us in the cold, black mountain air.
Spring weather in Utah can switch from freezing to balmy in hours. A local referred to the climate there as bi-polar, which I liked. Halfway through our week, temperatures briefly soared into the 40s, and we experienced a rare moment: hailstones falling through the sunlight. Which prompted our kids and granddaughters to put on their bathing suits and go for a frolic in the snow, throwing snowballs. They posed on the deck of our rental, shivering and hooting. A passing couple in parkas glanced up at them as we took photos. I could swear the guy muttered, “Probably a Florida man and his family.”
Meanwhile, back in Florida ...
When I took off my parka to glance at the news on my phone, I noted a couple of things happening back home. Most prominently, our Gov. Ron DeSantis was making himself highly visible, both statewide and on the national scene. He was touting his record at handling the pandemic. I recalled he had a habit of declaring victory way prematurely, posing at the White House last year just before a huge surge of infections in Florida. He’s also been dogged by reports, then and now, that he’s cooked the numbers to make his case. Here he was again, writing of his formula for “success” in the Wall Street Journal: “Don’t Trust the Experts.”
Which was curious, since DeSantis, busy lining himself up as Trump’s replacement in 2024, had just convened his own “experts” to discuss the topic of a vaccine passport. The idea being, should our vaccination status be certified with some kind of passport or wallet card? (That is, a formal vaccine ID, not the paper slips issued at injection sites.) He was against it. Too much government!
“A very, very, very bad idea,” said DeSantis at a press conference.
Here we go again, I thought. His hand-picked savants all conveniently agreed with him that such cards would be intrusive, inequitable, a dangerous step toward…I don’t know what — black “gummint” helicopters swooping down on the unvaccinated?
This panel, by the way, was the same group of “Great Barrington” academic outliers who preached that the virus should run free last year, while claiming to protect the old and vulnerable. (Except that of out of Florida’s 34,000 COVID fatalities, 10,000 were in elder care facilities and among their staffs.) This crackpot crew even included DeSantis’ old pal Scott Atlas, Trump’s unqualified epidemiological whisperer during last summer’s infection rallies and bleach festivals.
It was something to hear from that crowd again. Especially in light of the last report on what simple mitigation efforts could have meant to the national COVID fatality numbers. How many lives could have been saved had Trump, and his follower DeSantis, officially called for masks and distancing even as they tried to keep businesses open. I noted in my column last month that medical journals estimated that 40% of fatalities could have been avoided. The latest research says I understated it. A UCLA study now says that 400,000 of our 553,000 deaths could have been avoided.
As to the less lethal topic of vaccine passports, they’re being tried out in Israel, discussed in Europe, considered by President Joe Biden. They’re intended to help businesses like sports, concerts and cruises tell who’s healthy or not, to restart entire service industries. And help the rest of us know who’s safe. But the right-wing ideologues have found a new hobbyhorse. “Like Nazis demanding your papers!” cried a congressman. The same people who support voter cards to discourage minority voting, and who rage against restrictions on business, are now shocked, shocked to hear that businesses might choose to rely on a simple ID to check who’s healthy or not.
Eventually, most sane people will be vaccinated. But it’s frustrating to see history repeating itself. We’ve seen a return to science and rationality in Washington. We’ve even seen some of DeSantis’ more rational instincts work well in Florida — kids in school, for instance. But we’re still not going to get a mask mandate, the bars will stay open no matter what, and we don’t need no stinkin’ vaccine badges, do we? We’re Floridians!
This latest pull between individual “freedoms” and the collective good is not the only dilemma we’ll be facing in this, the brave new twilight of the pandemic. (If it’s twilight at all. History warns us about complacency, about its getting suddenly dark before the dawn.) It’s been a slog in parts of this country, pushing against irrationality. Those of us more or less safely past the finish line are both lucky and still challenged. We followed the rules, went with the science, but still can’t easily resume our lives fully. At least not until the anti-maskers, then the anti-vaxxers, and, now, the anti-health-card zealots finish shaking their ideological juju sticks at the rest of us.
Were we, dare I say it, “Florida Man”?
We were on the Salt Lake City-Dallas leg of our flight back home. Thia and I sat next to a nervous younger guy. She lowered her face covering briefly to eat some pretzels, top-of-the-line airline dining these days. On my tablet’s stuttering onboard wifi, I read that Miami Beach had just imposed a freedom-infringing curfew on marauding, bare-faced spring breakers. The man sitting beside us heard where we were from, and looked worried about my wife’s open-face pretzel break.
Thia raised her mask and said, “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ve been vaccinated.”
It’s quite a turnaround. All this time, it was the young who were supposed to look out for the vulnerable old. That’s when I thought, What if Thia had been able to show him a nice, laminated card? Wouldn’t it have been kindness to him?
The nervous guy looked unconvinced.
I imagined him wondering about us -- Am I safe from them? Or are they … Florida Man?
Oh, to be carded again
And so here we are back at home in Tampa, in the early days of spring. Our snow boots are stashed in our closet. It’s hot, and COVID infections are on a dangerous uptick again. Down in Miami, two spring breakers were bitten by sharks. It may turn out that’s the only enforcement that will work for the most committed party-goers.
Speaking for my fellow seniors, we’re eager to get moving again. It would be good to know with whom we could safely travel, share a meal, raise a glass. We might recapture some of our youth sooner. I wouldn’t even mind if I were, you know, carded again.
Guest columnist Barry Golson covers the Tampa Bay senior scene. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and AARP. He is a former editor of World Press Review, Playboy, Forbes and Yahoo Life. He is the author of “Gringos in Paradise” (Scribner).