Tim Whyte | The Vastness of COVID-19 Impact, at Freeway Speed

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By Tim Whyte

Signal Editor 

I wasn’t nuts about the idea of my wife getting onto a plane just as the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic was ramping up in America. But at the time, it seemed like the best option.

Our daughter, a freshman at Washington State University, needed to join the mass exodus of students heading home for the semester after all classes were switched online and Pullman, Washington, was fast becoming a ghost town. 

The plan was, my wife would fly up, help Brooke move out of the dorm, and they would make the 17-and-a-half-hour drive home. 

Erin had booked a flight for Saturday the 21st. We hemmed and hawwed, but concluded she would bring Lysol wipes, do her best to avoid contact with people and hope for a mostly empty plane.

The day before she was supposed to leave, while Erin and I were both finishing our first week of working at home as our respective offices switched to a telework model, the airline emailed her: Flight canceled.

So she got online. She’s become rather experienced as the Whyte family’s in-house travel agent, and she pretty quickly found another flight and booked it. 

Three hours later, the airline emailed again: That flight got canceled, too. It was approaching 10 p.m. Friday when we decided we’d need to drive up to Pullman.

I finished my work for the Saturday edition, did a quickie pack-up for the trip, and got to bed just after midnight with my alarm set for 3:30 a.m. so we could leave by 4. Thankfully, Erin took the first driving stint so I could catch a catnap as we went. We drove straight through — average speed, 67 mph including three pit stops, and I’m not sure whether I should even say that out loud but hey, some of those highways have 70 mph limits, so…. 

We arrived in Pullman that night, exhausted but glad and relieved to see our girl, who seemed perplexed by how worried we’d been about her. I told her that’s just what parents do.

It was a quick turnaround — one day to do the move-out, and by Monday we were on our way home.

Along the way, on both drives, we did our best to avoid contact with anyone or anything, even wearing gloves when we pumped gas and wiping down surfaces in the hotel rooms. And as we went, we could see the impacts of the coronavirus on a different scale than we could see on our computer screens working from home. 

It’s one thing to read about it or see it on TV, but when you cover that many miles and see it in person, the vastness of this crisis hits home.

Through three states, every town of every size showed the signs. Businesses closed. Schools deserted. Light traffic. People awkwardly standing aside as others passed in convenience store aisles. Fast food joints with long drive-thru lines and no one inside. 

There were exceptions, particularly in rural areas. One defiant bar and grill in the middle of Nowhere, Oregon, advertised on its marquee sign:

“Hell Yes, We’re Open.”

The parking lot was still deserted.

It’s surreal, this thing. 

Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays. Pastor David Hegg’s column, which normally appears Sundays, appeared in Saturday’s edition of The Signal. 

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