Travel

Diary of a Pandemic Holiday

How far into the surf do you have to get to find someplace without COVID?
How far into the surf do you have to get to find someplace without COVID? Photo by Jef Rouner
May
People are getting vaccinated, restrictions are being lifted, and deaths are going down. For one brief month or so it looks like there might finally be some hope. I very hesitantly book the safest vacation I possibly can just in case things go south. What could be lower key and inoffensive than four days in Galveston? Most everything fun to do is outside anyway. Even if we do end up cancelling, at least we won’t be out plane fare. I cross my fingers, tell the kid we’ll celebrate their birthday on the beach, and go to sleep with something to look forward to.

August
Things go so far south so fast penguins are pulling us over for speeding tickets. Vaccination rates slow, the Delta Variant starts mowing down people like a kid with daddy issues playing a first-person shooter and frankly, no one knows what’s going to happen. We consider cancelling but justify not doing it by saying we’ll only do outside activities. With my wife and I fully vaccinated and the kid having been in quarantine most of the summer, the odds seem low. I don’t sleep well, though.

Day 1
I decide that renting a car is too risky, even though I’m sure they are wiped down between customers. Instead, we fit way too much stuff in the Beetle and essentially entomb my child in the back. At least they have snacks back there…I think. We arrive on the island too early to check in, so we go to the first outdoor eating place on the list for lunch. Joe’s Crab Shack left a big old bucket-shaped hole in my wife’s heart when they pulled out of Houston, and their patio overlooks the beach.

However, the restaurant is almost completely empty, and we decide to eat inside for the first time since March 2020. None of us knows how to talk to a waiter anymore, and we’re generally reduced to pointing at the menu with pleading looks. Afterwards, we go to the hotel, having figured a reputable chain with lots to lose would be stricter about disinfecting rooms than an Air BnB or rental beach house. The first night, I read a book of scary stories on a balcony that lets me see the night surf as well as the fake volcano at the Rainforest Café. So far, it’s all worth it.


Day 2
The Kid With One F shot up three inches over the last year and considering that they mostly stayed in their room under artificial light it makes me wonder if they are part mushroom. Now that they top 48 inches, it’s time to introduce them to real rollercoasters. Pleasure Pier is entirely outdoors and almost deserted on a Wednesday afternoon, even in summer. We do park way too far away because I forget that rides make things look deceptively close. The chance to spend a day out doing something more than walking in the park is damn near euphoric, and when we’re not screaming on thrill rides, we feel safe.

Still, the specter of the plague hangs over everything. After a day being baked by the sun until we’re several pints of water lighter, the family settles for a trip to La Kings and takeout from Gino’s, which I still say is the best Italian food on the island. The kid and I visit the hotel pool, another one of the things that still feels safe while adding something different to the routine.

Day 3
It’s beach day. Having now swam in the Pacific Ocean, I can tell you I vastly prefer the dirty brown bathwater that is the Gulf. Sure, it seems we can’t go a year without hearing about flesh-eating bacteria or the actual ocean being set on fire by an oil spill, but in a way those are comfortable horrors. I can safely say that COVID has never been further from my mind than it was boogie boarding with the family for a couple of hours.

And yet…some things are the same. We brought the kid’s birthday presents with us and let them open them in the hotel room. One was a video game and the other a mid-level drawing tablet. Both of these involved fighting with WiFi and drivers and customer service, which felt far too much like wrangling remote learning throughout the year. We’re still all kind of afraid to go anywhere, or even to say hi to other guests with kids. There’s just so much anxiety left over, even when we decide to have dinner at Waterman’s while watching kayakers.

Day 4
It’s time to leave. Checking out is impersonal and touchless. We hit a couple of shops on the Strand early in the afternoon, enjoying the quiet and empty district. We buy gauche bits of nonsense, mostly to prove that we did leave the house.

The last stop before home is the Johnson Space Center, my wife’s favorite museum and one we rarely visit because of the drive. This is the only place that’s truly crowded, and it quickly overshadows the wonders of space exploration. We manage about 30 minutes of bumping into people before we can’t really take it anymore. Despite the majority of people wearing masks and regular use of hand sanitizer, it was still just too easy to imagine a virus creeping from person to person searching for us.

It’s a feeling that doesn’t go away until we get home. Usually returning from a trip makes us all appreciate the comforts of the apartment. This time, it was more like finding a save point in a very tough video game level. Galveston offered some experiences to top off our souls’ need for adventure and change, but there was still a black cloud around everything.

A year and a half of worrying constantly about death from an invisible enemy made a vacation very necessary, but I fear escape was never really possible.
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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner