A West Coast roadtrip. Family looks for safehaven amid Coronavirus pandemic

By Spencer Wirkkala

WASHINGTON ST. – IDAHO – UTAH – ARIZONA. My feet are on the dash creating a desk out of my legs as I try to type on my computer. The passenger seat in my family’s SUV will be my classroom until further notice. 

Stony Brook University, the school where I study, closed its dorms on March 19 and transitioned to online classes to protect their students and slow the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19). 

I landed in Washington State on March 13 as the state prepared for a full lock with shelter in place and all. I won’t be going back to Long Island anytime soon and my parents are already discussing what would be best for us in order to keep ourselves safe.

My dad still has to report to work each day which increases his chance of exposing himself and us to the virus.. This fell heavy on his heart and the night of March 17,  he pleaded with us to seek quarantine at our vacation home in Arizona where case numbers were only around 20. 

The morning of March 18, we stuffed everything we could into bags and hit the road. 

Washington, March 18, 2020. Number of cases: 1,187. Restaurants, recreation  and entertainment facilities are all shut down. All schools closed until further notice.

Driving down the road felt eerie that morning. The traffic jams gave way to empty highways. The only time you see people is outside of grocery stores or pharmacies. 

Cassie Collinge, a junior engineer student at the University of Washington, has felt overwhelmed by all the changes,“This whole situation has been anxiety inducing – my school gave people 1 week to pack up everything and leave. It is very obvious people are just scrambling at this point”. Collinge grew up in my hometown and now quartines with her family there. 

We had put all of our food for the trip into one cooler. We didn’t know if there would be restaurants along the way or anywhere to find food. However once we reached Idaho, it felt like everything was back to normal. Businesses were open, restaurants busy with full tables. A completely different reality then the one we were just in a few hours prior. 

We made it to a State Park on the edge of Idaho and Utah by dark. The park was completely empty with only a few street lights to guide us into a parking spot. I threw down the back seats preparing the bed for the night. We squeezed in; my mother, sister, myself, and brother from left to right. Our golden retriever spread across all of us. 

Idaho, March 19, 2020. Number of cases: 23. The virus has had little to no effect on everyday life. Businesses remain open and locals are making jokes about the toilet paper outage other states have been facing. 

We awoke the next morning startled by a knock on our window. It was 6 AM and the park ranger had just arrived for his morning shift. We had been taking temperature checks for our own sanity, but felt the need to reassure him that we were healthy and he had no need to fear us. He nodded and stated he was actually happy to see some faces around the park. 

“This is right around the time it starts picking up, but as you can see that just isn’t gonna be the case this year….” Greg Miller sighed. Miller has been working for the park for a little over ten years now and grew up in the area. 

We packed up the car in a hurry that morning, brushing our teeth out the window of the car as the sun began to rise. 

Utah, March 19, 2020. Number of cases: 112. Workers at State Parks are no longer doing face to face interactions with visitors, payment to enter has been waived.  

Utah was the first time I started noticing billboards covered in COVID-19 warnings. Each one was different; good hand-washing techniques, warning signs of the symptoms, information on the closest testing sites. They stretched for miles.

We stopped once we reached Zion National Park. The place was packed. They had seen a sudden surge in hikers since waiving the fees and businesses sending workers home. The park only allowed half of the bathrooms to be open to the public  while they cleaned the closed ones, switching which half was open each day. We found a site towards the back of the base and set camp for the night. 

We slept there and woke up with the sun on the morning of March 21. New neighbors had just pulled in next to us; a mother and her daughter. They too seemed to have been sleeping in the back with the seats folded down. We said our hellos from a comfortable six feet distance and went on our way. 

By the time we had packed everything up, the young girl had started her school day. She held her books at her chest sitting on the bench in the designated sand pit besides her car. She was waiting for her mother to fill the role of her teachers and start today’s lesson. 

Many college students end up having to become their own teachers. Stevie Ostman, a freshman at the University of Utah, told me that teachers aren’t being very clear about assignments and due dates which can be a challenge all in itself. “At this point I feel like I’m learning completely on my own…” she sighed. 

Arizona, March 21, 2020. Number of cases: 104. Grocery stores need to be constantly restocked throughout the day and are restricting the amount of items people can purchase at a time. 

We reached our home around noon that day. We unpacked the car and prepared for what would be our new reality. 

Arizona is currently under a shelter in place order until further notice. I hope everyone does their part in flattening the curve, so I can return home with my family soon.  

Number of Cases Today: Washington (4,310), Idaho (261), Utah (602), Arizona (919). 



About Spencer Wirkkala 2 Articles
My name is Spencer Wirkkala and I am currently a sophomore on the Womens Soccer Team at Stony Brook University. I am a Journalism Major and Womens Studies Minor. I am from Seattle, Washington and plan to move back to the West Coast after graduation. Most of my passions are centered around media content, pop culture, and photography/videography.