Why I’m Thankful We Went On Spring Break During The COVID-19 Pandemic.
And the lessons I learned along the way
2020 is a year the world will never forget. The COVID-19 pandemic has infected our lives forever in one way, shape, or form. COVID-19 has changed how we work, how we play, how we travel, how we interact with each other, how we shop, and even how we dress. This year, spring break looked very different for all of us. Most wisely stayed home, under the advisement of local authorities to shelter in place as the virus rapidly spread across the country. But something in my heart told me to take the trip; months in the making, even though it was against the better judgment of almost everyone I spoke to. Eyebrows were raised, the shame was real, and to avoid the ridicule I vowed not to share the experience with anyone other than my family and friends. Until now. Because I learned some valuable lessons that can only be absorbed and shared through this unique experience we find ourselves in.
The week before we were scheduled to leave, stores and restaurants began to close, social distancing guidelines were already in place, and my parents, who are senior citizens, decided to stay behind to stay safe. I was suddenly taking this trip alone with my 8 & 11-year-old sons. All of our carefully laid plans for Memphis were scrapped as I watched all the businesses and tourist attractions in Memphis start to close their doors. I was quickly crossing out every place we had on our to-do list. At this point, things were changing by the hour, and two days before our departure we knew we were still going to Memphis but had nowhere to go when we got there. I quickly scoured the internet and within a couple of hours made a list of outdoor places in Memphis that we could safely do while there. Before we left we made all the preparations we could to keep ourselves and everyone that wasn’t us, safe as well. We loaded up on food, PPE (an acronym that will forever be burned into our memories), and everything we would need to survive if we weren’t able to leave the Airbnb we rented for the entire week we were there. Frankly, I didn’t care if we stared at the walls for 8 days, at least they would be different walls to stare at.
On Saturday, March 21, 2020, as COVID-19 was reaching its fever pitch across the country, I loaded my two boys in the car and headed to Memphis, TN; a trip I will never forget. It was quite possibly the best, albeit the most frightening trip I’ve ever experienced. We hit the road on Saturday morning armed with sanitizer, gloves, masks, and prayers. To minimize contact with others and avoid gas station pit stops, we pulled over on the side of the road to pee. We avoided fast food restaurants for the same reason, and when we did have to get food from a drive-thru restaurant, I sanitized everything before I handed it back to my kids. I felt like Hitler with a sanitizer gun, ignoring the eye rolls and protests from the backseat, as I mentally took note of how I didn’t feel qualified to be a mom. Who takes their kids on a trip, 394 miles away from home during the height of a pandemic? The lengths we had to go to just to feel safe, and the empty highways before us, was surely a sign of how dumb of an idea this was. No one else I knew was forging ahead with their spring break plans, so who did I think I was? While everyone was safe at home with their families, I was leaving mine behind, and taking the two most important people to me in the world, from their safe place to a not so safe place, with no idea what would happen or what we would find when we got there.
We arrived in Memphis at our Airbnb late Saturday afternoon, after a two-hour detour because my GPS went AWOL somewhere in south Missouri. The house was fully furnished with everything we needed. The owner was very accommodating, and I’m sure very thankful he was able to pay his bills for one more month.
During the next few days, we visited a lot of empty spaces. One of our first stops was the Harahan Bridge. This was on our revised itinerary of things to do, and we brought our scooters for just the occasion. I didn’t know what to expect, but I know what we got. Virtually no one was on the 4, 973 ft. bridge so we felt like we had it all to ourselves. Much to our surprise and utter delight, the pedestrian walkway was all downhill, making for the best ride you could ask for on a busy bridge that didn’t happen to be very busy at all.
Next on the itinerary was a famous but unfortunate abandoned DIY skate park we couldn’t skate due to the severe neglect and recent rain. We weren’t in the best part of town, and our scooters were dead in the water, but to my surprise my kids loved it and we stayed for an hour as they jumped from island to island, admiring the graffiti, and taking in the scenery. It was a beautifully sad and happy moment for me. Here were my children, making the best of a bad situation while their mother was feeling lonely and shipwrecked. But if there’s anyone in the world I would want to be stranded on an island with, it would be them, because at least they would make it fun. It quickly became clear to me that we were in a city that was just as affected by COVID-19 as the rest of the nation, we hadn’t outrun it after all. But we were together, and that’s all that mattered.
Mayor Jim Strickland issued a shelter in place order for Memphis shortly after our arrival. Streets and restaurants were abandoned. Doors and gates were locked. Even the basketball hoops at Tom Lee Park were locked to avoid group gatherings. Finding a public restroom had not just become hard, it became impossible. Extensive pre-planning and preparation were suddenly integral to a successful COVID-19 spring break vacation in Memphis.
Next on the itinerary was Beale Street. As we walked under the famous Beale Street sign, save for one lonely and brave band of three and a few stragglers, no music was played and no drinks were poured. The welcome mat was rolled up and put away indefinitely; the caution tape wrapped around the guardrails whispered, “Enter at your own risk”. We were the sole inhabitants of one of the busiest places in Tennessee. But it turned out to be the perfect way for my kids to experience an iconic place, without weaving through the crowds and witnessing the debauchery that is a staple of Beale Street life. They played hosts outside of Alfred’s, one of the few restaurants open for curbside pickup. We tipped the only employee of the restaurant $33, at the suggestion of my kids, because even they could understand the desperation of the situation. They saw that he was willing to do whatever it took to keep his door open while all the others were closed. We grabbed our food and made the eerily quiet walk back to the car, long after the musical trio had packed up and called it a day.
The next day we spent three hours on Mud Island, a popular tourist attraction in Memphis. Usually crawling with bodies, it was desolate and deserted. We were the only people on the island. This was in every sense of the phrase, ‘no man’s land’. I felt like we were in the eye of a hurricane. Sickness and death behind us, in front of us, and all around us. But for one moment, we were in a calm, safe place, and we were together. We didn’t have to fight the crowds or stand in line for pictures in front of the murals and sculptures. We were the only ticket holders to all the attractions, always first in line with front row seats.
We walked the empty but famous riverwalk. They rolled down the hills and crawled under the bridges on the island. They put on their very own show and played Star Wars on an empty stage. The newly constructed Memphis monument was there for the taking and Mud Island was all ours for a day.
We visited the Memphis Zoo we couldn’t go to, and opted instead to scooter outside around Overton Park. We drove to Shelby Farms and walked through the woods, opting to just take in the scenery as we passed the ‘Closed’ signs on the Treetop Climb and the outdoor Axe Throwing that seemed to beckon us to play.
I feel so incredibly grateful for the opportunity to see something not many people will ever see; to see nothing in places we’ve always seen something, empty spaces where people should be, a slice of our world devoid of humanity. I always thought I could live in a world without people. But taking this trip made me realize I don’t want to live in a world without people. Because I need you, and you need me. We all need each other. It’s what makes the world interesting and even though it may not feel like it now, it’s what keeps us safe; to know that there is another person in this world experiencing maybe just a few of the same things you’re going through. It takes away the sting of loneliness. In a time where physical human interaction is so important, yet so strongly discouraged, I hope we remember the value of human connection when we open the curtains and come out of our homes to dance with the world, and each other, again.
My hope for my sons is that they remember this time, not just as a crisis, but as an unfortunate event they were able to live through and recognize just how blessed they are. Maybe this experience will make them more resilient and more adaptable to all the challenges they are sure to face in their lifetimes. They were witness to a very important time in history, a precious time really, a time in their lives where the world stopped and held its breath, while they were able to catch theirs. Since that spring break trip I’ve taken them on several trips this summer, all outdoors and to places where we could safely socially distance. We’ve had a busy summer, but we’ve become closer because we’ve slowed down. We’ve become closer because we’ve gone through some pretty tough stuff together. We’ve become closer because we’ve been forced to get creative, spend time with each other, and had the chance to do all the things we might not otherwise do if we hadn’t been in the middle of a pandemic.
Now that we have been home for a few months, and had the chance to exhale, I’ve had time to reflect on our trip and the lessons I learned along the way. I’ve learned that in times of trouble nothing else matters but the people you love and the people who love you. I’ve learned how to let go of all my preconceived notions of how the world should look according to me, and how to accept the world as it is; to be more flexible and adjust accordingly. I’ve realized how much I love our country and I’ve learned to appreciate all the beautiful places we have because that cliche saying really is true, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. We take so much for granted. I’ve learned that sometimes you need to trust your intuition, even against your better judgment, and especially if it scares the hell out of you. Because listening to and trusting that inner voice just might change your life. I’ve learned that I am stronger than I think and I can do hard things. I’ve learned that I am not only qualified to be a parent but that I’m pretty damn good at it. I’ve learned that if I always listen to the advice of others, I’ll never hear my own. And most importantly, I’ve learned to look at the world through the eyes of my children. While I was worried about an impending apocalypse, they were only worried about their next big adventure. They taught me to see the little picture, the one they see, where only the present moment matters, because life is only a collection of those precious snapshots, the moments that happen in the in-between of the beginning and the end. Because there is always a beginning, and there will always be an end. So don’t be afraid to walk into the darkness and revel in the middle. Listen to your own voice. Be your own light. It’s brighter than you think, and you will find your way.