The “to do or not to do” dilemma is something we’ve all dealt with since the coronavirus pandemic upended our lives in early March. In some ways, things were easier when we were under a full stay-home order. Don’t see your friends or family, minimize grocery store trips — better yet, get your groceries delivered! Get everything delivered. But not too much. Think of the warehouse workers! Don’t order anything that feels unnecessary. Don’t drive anywhere. Don’t leave your house! Wash your hands. Maintain an exhausting amount of hypervigilance to everything at all times!

Now, the end of summer is almost here, and we’re more than six months into the pandemic. Decision-making still feels exhausting. And we’re all going a little stir-crazy. As states started to reopen in June, it seemed as if everyone I knew began testing boundaries, even with case counts continuing to rise and many states reporting record numbers daily.

The word “essential” kept being thrown around as a qualifier by which people made decisions — even though not even state governments can define what “essential” truly means in every case. For some, a haircut, a pedicure, or a new tattoo felt “essential.” For others, it was a dental cleaning. For me, it was a 1,500-mile road trip to visit my parents near Fargo, North Dakota.   

What is ‘essential’ travel?

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I did not arrive at this decision lightly. In fact, I was deeply, deeply conflicted about this road trip — and it wasn’t just because of the potential difficulty that comes with having a toddler in a car for more than 23 hours of drive time.

The question I kept coming back to was, “How selfish and self-serving was this trip?” After all, King County, where our trip would start from, is still in Phase 2, and officials have encouraged people to stay close to home and only travel for “essential” trips. However, according to Mike Faulk, Gov. Jay Inslee’s press secretary, “there is no formal definition of essential travel.”

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Still, I thought as I weighed pros and cons, I have friends refusing to hug mothers who live in their same town! Here I was planning on traversing multiple states to hug mine. But with each takeout pick-up or socially distant meeting with close friends, my desire to see my parents seemed to outweigh the danger.

I’ve always been close to my family. My parents haven’t seen their only grandchild since October — we canceled a planned trip in March — and this is the longest stretch we’ve gone since she was born just over two years ago. Kids change at lightning speed when they are little and even the almost daily video calls weren’t enough of a substitute to keep my parents from continuously asking us to consider coming to visit. Their house in Horace, North Dakota, is an oasis in the country, complete with a massive yard, vegetable garden and pool. Once we arrived, I reasoned, we would practically never need to leave. I could soak up the free child care and sun and family time while my kid was bathed in her grandparents’ unceasing love.

Ultimately, we decided to go, and the trip itself provided a fascinating look at how four different states are handling and reacting to the virus. It helped me understand why our country is where we are: having surpassed more than 4.7 million coronavirus cases, and being nowhere close to kicking this thing.

Prepping to go

I mapped out the trip. Seattle to Kellogg, Idaho. Kellogg to Bozeman, Montana. Bozeman to Medora, North Dakota. Medora to Fargo.

After dismissing the idea of renting an RV, I called hotels to talk amenities, capacity numbers, case counts. I researched rest stops, Montana boat launches (which usually mean river access with fewer people, and good spots for roadside picnics), co-ops. I meal-planned and researched restaurants. We penciled in a side trip to Yellowstone National Park to keep the 2-year-old stimulated. We booked a campground cabin in Medora. We limited contact before we left and asked my parents to do the same.

Dan Hutchinson and his daughter Nova enjoy a picnic during a lunch stop on their recent 1,500-mile road trip.  (Jackie Varriano / The Seattle Times)
Dan Hutchinson and his daughter Nova enjoy a picnic during a lunch stop on their recent 1,500-mile road trip. (Jackie Varriano / The Seattle Times)
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Reasoning that we’d be wearing masks at each stop, I thought, “What’s the difference between a gas station here and a gas station in Montana?” We took all safety precautions recommended by public health experts. The car became a bubble of safety, complete with a hand-washing station and coolers stuffed with provisions.

My brother called to check in. “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” he asked.

I answered that the worst thing would be being an asymptomatic carrier, infecting unsuspecting people along the way, and ultimately giving COVID-19 to my parents and them dying. I shared this with my mother, but she brushed it off immediately. Dying is the worst-case scenario every day, she said. There are plenty of things we could die doing at any given moment. We can’t think about it like that because, otherwise, how would we live?

Did that make me feel better? I’m not sure.

I cautiously told a few friends about the road trip. “Good for you!” they said. “I’m so glad you’re going.”

That didn’t make me feel better either.

Ultimately, I think what I sought while planning the trip was validation. For someone who really knows what’s right or wrong to tell me my decision to go is fine. A smart decision.

The Mountain West in the age of coronavirus

We left July 23. It was bittersweet, crossing the Interstate 5 bridge on our way out of town, seeing the boats zooming around Lake Union. Seattle in the summer is magical, even if you’re mostly alone with your family in your house.

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But the more miles we put behind us, the more we relaxed … until we had to break our bubble and get out of the car.

Kellogg, Idaho was beautiful, but I felt on edge the moment I stepped into the hotel lobby and realized I was the only one wearing a mask.

“Oh, I forgot mine in the car. We only have five cases in our county,” a woman said to the front desk attendant after I walked in. He replied it was fine.

“Masks aren’t mandatory here,” he said with a reassuring smile. (While that was true at the time, as of July 30, Kellogg has a mask mandate in effect through August 30. Failure to comply can result in a fine of $100.)

Later that night, the same woman walked past my family with her husband, remarking to him that we “must be scared of them” with our masks on. The pool at the hotel was packed; breakfast in the lobby was the same. 

Montana was different. Our hotel had a sign in the lobby that stated masks were mandatory. Guests interested in using the pool could sign up at the front desk for a 30-minute private session. Breakfast would be served by employees. No congregating in common areas, please.

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Still, when I went to pick up takeout one night from a restaurant in downtown Bozeman, there were throngs of people out and about. Some wearing masks, others carrying masks. People sitting at tables in restaurants, relaxing and laughing, unmasked despite not having any food in front of them while masked servers ran around in circles, flushed.

Montana fishing access sites were unpopulated and proved to be great spots for lunch along the road. (Jackie Varriano / The Seattle Times)
Montana fishing access sites were unpopulated and proved to be great spots for lunch along the road. (Jackie Varriano / The Seattle Times)

On our trip, it became evident that the definition of “essential” activities and practices means different things to different people everywhere. Every community we passed differed in its rules and how seriously its residents appeared to be taking the coronavirus.

It was easy to find some empty stretches of river and trails on our day trip to Yellowstone, but stopping at the hot spots like Old Faithful or the Fountain Paint Pots trail was impossible for us once we got a glimpse of the packed trails and overflowing parking lots.

The campground where we stayed in Medora had inexplicably left only one restroom area open for a full campground brimming with RVs, trailers and tents.

In nearby Theodore Roosevelt National Park, however, we saw more buffalo than people.

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The last stop before arriving in my parent’s driveway was a gas station in Valley City, North Dakota. An unmasked woman glared at me while I washed my hands in the restroom, another unmasked woman shoulder-bumped my masked husband on his way out of the gas station. Things felt hostile.

So, what is essential?

Was this trip essential? I’m still not sure. I do know that after months of fretting about the pandemic, working, caring for a child, doing household chores, maintaining relationships of all kinds and all the stress that goes along with it all, it was an extreme relief to have an agenda that only had three items on it: drive, eat, sleep. And it was so gratifying to finally see my parents again.

Nova Hutchinson plays with a toy airplane against the backdrop of rural Montana on a recent road trip. (Jackie Varriano / The Seattle Times)
Nova Hutchinson plays with a toy airplane against the backdrop of rural Montana on a recent road trip. (Jackie Varriano / The Seattle Times)

I also feel good about the choices we made while on our five-day road trip. We packed most of our own food and pulled over for lunch at sparsely populated Montana river access points. We were masked at all times while in public, and utilized our hand-washing station constantly. There was only one toddler meltdown in the car, and it came on the last day

What does feel essential is this time with my family.

My husband remarked how beautiful it was to see literal amber waves of grain rippling in the field just beyond the pool. I’ve been waking up at 5 a.m. to join my mom on her daily sunrise power walk. My dad and I are smoking ribs and discussing cucumber pickling techniques. But the best thing, of course, is seeing our kid’s face light up as she plays with my parents. It’s a soothing balm for all of us, I think. And in a world ravaged by a pandemic, that’s what feels more “essential” than ever. 

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of coronavirus cases in the U.S.