Reflections on a post-pandemic road trip

An Editorial

One thing I have learned to appreciate about the study of history is the importance of primary sources. These are some form of direct evidence that some historical thing happened a certain way or that people of the past did things a certain way. They could be the firsthand accounts of the people who lived through important events – journals, court testimonies, interviews, or autobiographies. They could be official documents, reports, or pronouncements, such as a report on tank ammunition production during World War II, or the orders issued by a medieval king to his lords. They could be news reports from the time, or new findings dug up by archaeologists who have uncovered the actual objects from the past that our ancestors used. Since we don’t have time machines, primary sources are the best thing we have to tell us what actually happened.

When I think about how people from the future will see our present day, I am rather concerned. What will our descendants use as primary sources for the year 2021? News reports from a media that has devolved into nothing but sensationalistic political propaganda and fearmongering? Social media that has become flooded with toxicity and vitriol and misinformation? Programs on TV or streaming services and marketing campaigns that seek to impose Hollywood’s idea of what America should be, rather than reflect what America actually is?

That’s why I have decided to write this editorial. In some small way, I want to tell my own firsthand account of what the United States of America is actually like in June of 2021.

I recently went on a road trip through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. For some historical context, this was about 15 months after the outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus was declared a pandemic and massive shutdowns and mass quarantines were imposed around the world, the public being told this was a short-term measure to slow the spread of the virus and save lives. During this past 15 months, many of the people in my personal life have been working from home, millions of workers whose jobs were deemed “non-essential” have been forcibly unemployed, and people have not been permitted to enter into any building other than their own homes unless they wear a face mask and stand at least six feet apart. Many people have been unable to attend weddings, funerals, or religious services due to restrictions on crowd size. These lockdowns and restrictions, in my personal opinion, have massively escalated tensions and contributed to a wave of outbreaks of violence and rioting across the United States (even into the Capitol building itself) and around the world.

As I write this, a series of vaccines devised to fight COVID-19 have been distributed to many countries around the world, with 2.7 billion doses having already been given to patients, a number that grows by 38 million more doses each day. As the number of doses administered continues to go up, the restrictions are slowly being lifted country-by-country and state-by-state. We now have a new president, Joe Biden, who recently met with other world leaders to set a global agenda to “Build Back Better”, the very phrase showing that all of them assume the world we lived in before the pandemic has been destroyed.

I assure you, it has not been destroyed.

As I drove from state to state, I saw people who were happy to get back to normal and move on with their lives. I saw businesses that were packed with customers, none of them wearing masks, all of them smiling and friendly. I saw people hug. I saw them laugh. I saw waitstaff in restaurants who were eager to be back to work. I saw businesses in state after state with “Now Hiring” signs.

I saw people who would strike up a conversation with almost no prompting, sharing their lives with whoever would listen. An Apache woman at the Fort Apache Historic District in Arizona started talking to me because she saw that I was taking pictures with my phone. A waiter at the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo took time to chat even though the place was an absolutely crowded madhouse when I got there. I also noticed something I didn’t see. I didn’t see people glued to their phones, walking around texting or scrolling through Twitter with their heads down. I think a year of isolation has made people crave personal interactions.

At one of my hotels, a high school football team was staying as they prepared for a game at the local stadium, hoping they did well in front of the college talent scouts in the audience. When I went to the McDonald’s a few doors down, the cheer team was huddled up in front of the register, placing their order. Nobody was using the touchscreen self-serve device; everyone in that restaurant preferred to place their order with the young man behind the counter and was happy to wait.

Some people that I saw still chose to wear face masks when in public, but they were certainly the minority. In most states I visited, they were a tiny minority. What I found interesting was how masked and maskless people interacted. In almost every case, nobody seemed to care. The people wearing masks and the people not wearing them were just as friendly to each other, and neither would say anything to the other about the presence or absence of a piece of cloth on their faces. It seemed everyone was fine with each other making personal choices for themselves.

Most people I saw were also just respectful and polite to each other in general. I didn’t see any heated arguments over politics; almost everyone seemed not to want to talk about politics. I also didn’t see any of the supposed racial tensions one might have expected from getting information on the state of the country from CNN or Fox News. In every state I visited, I saw people of all races get along and treat each other like fellow human beings and not categories of skin color.

In Arizona, Texas, and Arkansas, business seemed to be booming. I saw streets lined with shops with enthusiastically opened doors staffed by people happy to be working again. Not so in Oklahoma or New Mexico, unfortunately. It seemed to me that the pandemic restrictions in those states killed off many businesses. In Oklahoma, the empty storefronts were a sad sight to see, but the locals seemed to take it in stride and were hopeful their town would recover. Tragically, my experience in Albuquerque was that it has become a truly run-down town, with litter and graffiti everywhere, and homeless people wandering around in desperation. One was so bold, he would walk right up to the drive-thru line and beg at the window as the employee handed food to the customer. It appears to me that something went horribly wrong in New Mexico this past year, and I pray for its residents.

Still, my experience on this road trip was positive overall. I had long suspected that the nightmarish dystopian vision of America we are shown on social media and in the news isn’t the reality. Now I have seen that I was right with my own two eyes. So, future historian, if you read this, please take this perspective into consideration, a perspective based on lived first-hand experience of going out and talking to people in the real world. I apologize that our media at this time can’t seem to do that.

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