Escaping the zombie apocalypse
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
The zombie apocalypse forced my daughter and I to leave our home and drive 3,200 miles across a continent blighted by global pandemic, political division, and economic meltdown. This continent, the USA, was also literally on fire! During our ten day journey we learnt a lot about ourselves and the beautiful country we are lucky enough to live in. At the end of this story are eight insights into America and Americans, I dare to discus religion, politics, gun control and eating meat!
We lived in a house perched on the side of a 1,000 ft mountain overlooking the Ashokan reservoir on the edge of Woodstock, NY. The reservoir supplies over 80% of the drinking water to New York city which is over 100 miles away. The mountainous area we lived in, The Catskills, is a tranquil NY state park. The area around Woodstock is populated by many artists, musicians, filmmakers and writers. For me this was a creative paradise, an appropriate two hour compression/decompression bus journey from New York City where I could dip in and out of various meetings then hide away to ‘work from home’ on the solitude of the mountain.
As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded around the world from its beginnings in China, spreading through Europe and to the USA, New York city and the rest of the state were hit particularly hard. As field hospitals and make-shift morgues were erected in the city the state went into a full lockdown. The shelves in the stores emptied, businesses closed and people ‘sheltered in place’. It surprised us all that when the ‘shit hit the fan’ the first thing people panic bought was toilet paper!
Seeing the shelves of the stores empty in Italy I realised this pandemic panic would certainly affect us too. I did a ‘big shop’, even bigger than the one you do at Christmas, I must admit to buying three jars of yeast, and many cans of baked beans (I'm British), but honestly we only bought one pack of toilet roll. I mused that the number of toilet rolls in a shoppers supermarket cart is directly proportional to the number of arseholes in their home. We had enough supplies that when combined with a weekly collection of fresh fruit and vegetables from a farm store down the bottom of the mountain we could last for around four months. I also set up an indoor hydroponics system for fresh greens. We were safe in our smug little bubble.
To me it was clear, we all needed to focus on four things; food security, financial security, health and a home. We stayed in isolation with our sensible four months of supplies, leaving delivered packages outside in the sun for twenty four hours before poking them with a long stick to check if they were safe before opening them with my ‘special regime’. I tried to focus on keeping my business alive. I create interactive posters for events such as music festivals. The posters play music or talk when touched; no one now wants to touch anything and who can even remember what a music festival is?
I admit to being a bit of ‘prepper’, I have spent nights out in the woods practicing wilderness techniques with camo clad survivalists from the city at temperatures of -5f. Preppers call those who do not prepare ‘Zombies’. If the shit really hits the fan there will be people who know how to survive (in my estimation, probably not the preppers!) and those who do not. The second are the zombies, those who leave the city to find safety somewhere, anywhere, taking whatever they can find from whomever they encounter.
Our landlady had been hoping to sell the house we lived in for a while, we knew we were on borrowed time, however, the initial reaction to the pandemic and lockdown was ‘we need to wait until all this is over’. However, with the city on lockdown and people starting to panic there was a desperation to leave New York and get to the countryside. There were stories of a mass exodus from the city, the Washington post carried the headline ‘Welcome to Woodstock 2020: Peace, love . . . and urban exiles fighting over real estate’
Suddenly there was 'gold in them there hills', real estate gold that is, and our house promptly went on the market; we were scared.
I decided the best thing we could do is hitch the trailer to the wagon and head west, boldly traveling beyond the beyond to discover our paradise; also known as putting a large bag on top of our SUV and driving to LA. I put out a call on my HAM radio and one of my friends found us some great storage, it took a while but we emptied our home and now have everything but the essentials of our life packed away in a garage. Next was where to stay in LA, over a ‘catch up’ conversion with a friend I discovered that she was spending a few months in Europe and was renting out her place in LA, all we had to do was get there, I call this seretripity (serendipitous events that happen when you take a trip)!
We planned to take around ten days driving to LA. We also decided to ‘stealth camp’ in our car at road side stops for convenience, cost and to avoid having to drive when sleepy. We made our car into our new home, folding down the front seats to sleep when we needed. Many of our belongings were on the roof and the back of the car became a makeshift roadside kitchen.
We finally left on a glorious afternoon of fall colour. We took ‘the long way’ from our house to enjoy the splendour the Catskills displays at this time of year, up the back road from Woodstock, realising as we climbed up the mountain just how much weight we had in our car. We literally drove off into the sunset.
Late that night we pulled over into a quiet spot, ate some soup warmed on the stove, made our beds and got some rest. The next day we set off early, first stop was Erie, Pennsylvania. We drove out onto a peninsula at the edge of the vast lake, got out our camp table, chairs and gas stove to toast bagels, smother them in cream cheese and enjoy them with a cup of freshly brewed tea. We were then disturbed by a parade of trucks honking horns, and carrying large flags declaring love for their political party. It suddenly felt more like the images you see of a country in the midst of a civil war. A vibrant display of a first amendment right to assembly.
As we left Pennsylvania and travelled across Ohio, our next stop was Ann Arbor, MI. We were going to have dinner with friends at their house and sleep over. Walking around Ann Arbor the next day we realised that it was a political blue island in an ocean of red that we had just traversed! Whereas yesterday we passed gun stores today there were weed dispensaries.
Back on the road, travelling through Michigan and into Illinois we stopped in Chicago, where I met two friends I'd not seen for a year, we spent an hour putting the world to rights over some cold drinks and a delicious plant based burger. My daughter and I then drove on late into the night, sleeping again by the side of the road in our makeshift home.
The next day was a big travel day, up through the cheese country of Wisconsin, onto Minnesota and finally crossing the border into South Dakota. This part of the journey made us realise how truly large this country is, we had travelled for days and were still less than half way, yet the change we had seen in landscape, weather, people and politics was akin to riding a roller coaster. Politically though it was still a vast red ocean with high peaked blue islands.
Before another night's rest by the side of the road, behind a gas station I tried to move some of our belongings up into the large bag on the roof. Sitting up there I had a flashback to childhood Saturday mornings watching an old black and white TV show; had I really become ‘Grandma Clampett’, sat up on the roof, in a rocking chair, headed to Beverly Hills!
Crossing South Dakota the road side sign read ‘only 291 miles to Wall Drug’, after more signs for Wall Drug than we could count, they almost had me a 5c coffee, but I was finally converted at ‘donuts’, of course we went to Wall Drug, you have to, you don't know why, you just do! Not exactly the maskless hoard you want to encounter in a pandemic though so we didn't stay long. I think the signs that say no shirt, no shoes no service need a little update!
As we crossed into The Badlands the weather along the highway through South Dakota took a turn for the worse, we had woken up that day to a chilly, snow covered car. As the drive unfolded it became even worse, it was challenging to see through the snow and the slushy road was becoming drive-able in only one lane; we slowed to a crawl slipping from side to side, this was one of scariest parts of our drive.
Crossing into Montana through The Black Hills the weather improved. We were determined to reach our next destination by nightfall. We planned to stay with a friend I had met on a social media network three years earlier. She had originally responded with concern to a post I made about a hike I went on whilst attending a business meeting in Bozeman, Montana one fall several years earlier. After the business meeting I hiked alone for three days in the Beartooth Mountains, walking from 7,000 to 9,000 ft. It was cold, I was scared, I knew the area had wolves, mountain lions and grizzlies. A foot of snow fell on my hammock during the night, but life's too short to the a fear of the unknown hold me back. My greatest fear in life is the regret that comes from not choosing adventure whilst I am still physically able to pursue it. Her message to me, on social media, cautioning my naivety turned into a friendship, this visit would be the first time we had actually met in person.
As we drove through Montana and finally crossing into Wyoming the weather significantly deteriorated. The snow became thick and fluffy. We could hardly see the road and it eventually turned from dark night to white wall of falling snow. The hypnotic snowfall made it appear as though the car was not moving. The road became a single lane, a back road, then finally a dirt road. Their house was at the end of a road peppered with intimidating ‘Posted’ and ‘No trespasser’ signs. It was dark, nine o'clock at night. I stopped the car, a little scared, actually quite scared and tried to reread the directions, am I sure this is the right place, should I really go find the door and knock, and why are so many dogs barking inside that house! The curtains twitched and a figure appeared to float across the snow in a nightgown, thankfully not carrying a shotgun. This was my friend, greeting us with a big smile, we were all pleased to see each other. We went into the house, welcomed in by the now very friendly dogs and cats!
My daughter and I were two strange city folk arriving at their house, they were two strange country folk beckoning us in.
She had made a tasty vegan chilli. Full disclosure, I am one of those ‘Vegans’ from the city. Looking around the room eating the chilli my eyes connected with those of a buffalo, an elk, a deer, a moose and a wolf! All stuffed, but still, their beady glass eyes staring at me were quite shocking! I had not seen anything like this since visiting someone in their London home who had a random stuffed polar bear behind the couch along with other animals in their wood panelled lounge! All the animals in my friends Wyoming home had been purchased at house clearances and were on show to celebrate how beautiful these wild animals are, I quite liked them. We all agreed hunting is a means to put dinner on the table not a trophy on the wall.
We were shown to our bedrooms in the basement, real beds, in a real house, this was a treat for weary travellers!
The next day we surfaced from the basement bedrooms, greeted again by the dogs and by my friend's husband, another stranger, I knew nothing about him, I had no idea what to expect. A gruff demeanor hiding a cheeky smile, large belt buckle, hat and cowboy boots. We immediately struck up a friendly and meandering conversion that continued for four days! They were both glad to see that we made it through the snowstorm, another hour later and we would not have made it, the snow was now deep outside and the unploughed roads were closed. We were going to be there for quite a while, temperatures were dropping and more snow was due.
We were ‘trapped’ in Wyoming for four days waiting for the weather to clear and roads become passable. But oh my we were in good company, the couple of, until now, relative strangers were so kind to us and more interesting than we could have ever imagined. My daughter fell in love with their two puppies and overgrown labradors. She also got stuck into helping out with the four horses, taking in a delivery of fresh hay bales and enjoying life in the country.
I was intrigued by their lifestyle, they carried out some of their work on horseback, much of it out in the mountains or plains. The only worries out there were possible encounters with a ‘griz’, reassured though by always carrying a powerful handgun. I was also fascinated by her husband's early career. He was a green beret/special forces, served in Vietnam and other places only described as ‘exotic’ locations. Two purple hearts and a silver star on the wall in the basement amongst other medals clearly indicated an eventful life! Part of our conversation turned to his childhood, from a long military lineage and in part brought up by a grandmother who was born at the end of the Civil War in Georgia. It struck me how much someone's point of view is defined by where, when and with whom they grew up. Real history from actual lives lived.
After these four days, which were undoubtedly the highlight of our trip we finally left; the roads had changed on the WYDOT app from red to amber and now yellow. 1,200 miles left to reach LA we set off fully recharged and refreshed. We departed the house at a cool -7 F and made a promise to our friends in Wyoming not to sleep by the side of the road that night; we set off determined to get as many miles as possible under our belt. The roads were still a little slushy, but the countryside, the mountains, the canyons and the rivers were beautiful! We drove all the way through Wyoming that day through the spectacular Wind River canyon and on into Utah. South of Salt Lake we finally, after around 600 miles, checked into a motel.
The next day was a warmer start, waking up under the view of the towering mountains we had driven through the night before. We continued through Utah descending through a valley into Nevada. It was now much warmer, the landscape transformed into a desert. Passing through the bright lights of Las Vegas and on towards LA. We finally descended from the mountains down into the metropolis of LA late at night, and there were fireworks to greet us! The Dodgers had just won the world series, I think that is a good thing?
We arrived at our new home for the next few months, in a quiet residential street a 25 min walk from West Hollywood; our paradise! A big step up from sleeping in the car we were now in a combination of a bohemian garden shed (bigger than a typical New York studio) and an airstream separated by a beautiful little pond occupied by two large coy!
We had crossed the continent, not been attacked by Zombies, hopefully not infected by the virus, and apart from a snow storm avoided any other natural disasters! California is however sadly still on fire.
So what did we learn on this epic trip? The following are eight observations that struck me most as I reflected on our journey. Although these observations are inspired by the journey and people we met, they are not the actual events or views of anyone in particular.
1 The country is huge, beautiful, diverse in people, character, weather, geography and climate!
Many who live here have not seen much of it, in fact, I’ve met people in Brooklyn who have never been to Manhattan, I’ve met many who have never left their state, and when I ask them why they reply ‘why do we need to?’, of course they are right, every part of this country is like a country itself. To travel the country you need a reason, and sometimes that reason is just because you can, well, not everybody can.
2 Most of America is Republican, most Americans are Democrat
A big generalisation. What struck us driving 3,200 miles were the vast amounts of countryside and small towns that are clearly Republican, and in these oceans of red are towering blue islands populated by Democrats.
3 City folk and country folk struggle to understand the way of life each other leads and the opinions they hold.
Again, a generalisation. I believe that half of who a person is, half of their mind, is actually their surroundings. The thoughts we form, conclusions we reach are as much determined by our surroundings and experiences as they are by anything in our brain. I can not fully understand your world whilst I am in my surroundings. To truly understand another's perspective you need to walk in their shoes along the road they travel, until then a heavy dose of empathy and leeway is required. You'd be surprised (or perhaps not) by how many people change their opinion once they experience the thing they previously opposed for themselves. People in the country are not different to the people in the city, we are the same people but products of different journeys. If half of our mind is our environment then the true way to expand one's mind is to travel and take the time to meet with people along the way. This expands and opens your mind.
4 City folk feel safer when guns are prohibited, country folk feel safer when guns are to hand.
Living in the city and seeing a handgun strikes fear into most people, you do not feel safe knowing that the person you pass in the street or sit next to on the subway may be carrying a gun. An altercation can escalate to a place no one intended it to go. Fortunately the police are often only a moment away, yet even for them as professionals, de escalating a situation involving a gun is a challenge.
Living out in the country, on an isolated road in a house with help often over 30 minutes away and not having a handgun by the door or shotgun by the bed creates a different type of fear. Being out in the back country inhabited by mountain lions and grizzlies without at least .45 can be a scary place. And the rifle you take out at the weekend is how you bring dinner home for the family. To these two sets of people appropriate use of guns and the fear associated with having them or not are two entirely different perspectives, it's no wonder we find it difficult to agree on this.
5 Those in the country think meat comes from an animal, whereas people in the city think meat comes from a supermarket.
I heard a story of a person that thought chocolate milk came from brown cows. Most people would be horrified if they saw an animal being slaughtered, quartered, chopped up and served for dinner. There is a reason we call the meat from a cow beef, from a pig pork and from a sheep mutton, we don't really want to know where it comes from. And if we could see how the billions of animals we consume each year are farmed, fed, killed, processed, filled with chemicals and the impact intensive farming has on the environment I imagine that would cause a great deal of stress too. I find the ignorance we casually assume when shopping at the supermarket disrespectful to the animals we consume.
As someone who consumes a vegan diet I have no issue with people who go out to hunt an animal and kill it in a humane manner, and where most or all of the animal is processed, cooked and consumed. I believe this has minimal impact on the environment, involves little or no cruelty and is probably one of the healthiest and tastiest things we could eat, I just choose to opt out.
6 To a religious person it's hard to understand how someone cannot believe in God, to a scientist it's hard to understand how someone cannot believe in science. Yet they all expect their children to believe in Santa.
Of course, these two groups are not mutually exclusive. To a religious person it is incomprehensible how someone cannot look at the world, all the life in it, the beauty of the universe and not believe there must be something more, a creator, how can there be nothing more than us, there must be someone looking down who created all of this! The thought that we are all alone in the world, to many people, is just unpalatable, there must be someone up there, there has to be a reason. Religion provides the equivalent of a musical resolve that most cannot live without. Religion requires a suspension of disbelief, you must adopt pure faith and accept all that is written without the need for proof. Although you may question what is written you only do so in the process of accepting it as ‘gospel’. Believing in God brings us peace.
An atheist scientist can not understand the need to believe there is anything more, and that everything we see and experience is on its own enough, why does there need to be anything else, why must the universe have been created by anyone else, it’s ok to feel that there is nothing else, it's not scary and all we see is more than enough. There does not need to be a reason, it doesn't need to make sense (from our perspective), it just is. Science is purely a description and codification of all we see and experience. It is done in a way that enables us to predict events and effectively make use of the resources around us to enable the human race to survive whilst preserving our environment. For science there must always be proof, and any real scientist will tell you that everything we believe to be true, based on evidence seen, is potentially or even most probably wrong, however we accept it until proven otherwise. To many their version of God is the universe itself and we are an integral part of that universe. When one accepts that they are the universe and we are all one, peace is achieved.
7 You can experience sunrise in one place at -7 F and drive to another place to for sunset at +70 F.
The change in weather as you drive across this country is staggering, the change in elevation from the depths of death valley to the peak of Mt Whitney is unfathomable, and the dramatic difference in experience from a desert to a rain forest is a little hard to comprehend.
8 Historical events of the last few hundred years are palpable wherever you go.
These events are held in the living memory of people you encounter or the people who brought them up.
Driving across the USA you feel the echoes of history, you almost smell it or taste it in the air. Meeting people who ‘were there at the time’, or brought up by someone who actually was intensifies that feeling. Many people grew up in surroundings or have a way of life that is a direct result of historical events. Meeting people who were brought up by grandparents who grew up at the end of the civil war, in the north or the south, or a native American whose family told them stories of how their lives used to be or where they used to live is powerful. There are people alive today whose parents were slaves, I find this shocking! https://www.currentaffairs.org/2016/10/slavery-was-very-recent
There is the history we read, which is often an aggregate of events and perspectives which is then abstracted to create the version most of us ascribe to or are taught. The civil war for example is to many about slavery or to others money. Someone with experience of that event in their living memory may have a different and more vivid version which may in turn give them strongly held opinions, or a sense of injustice. If we are to find ways to come closer together and understand each other we need to appreciate this. Expecting everyone to accept a cookie cutter version of history when they have a living memory of those events is a big ask.
Events in the USA such as revolution, civil war, emancipation of slavery, women's rights, abortion, gay marriage, internment, world wars, Vietnam and many others are to a great many people so much more than a story in a history book. I was struck by how recent, nation building, and life forming history was actually still so vivid in the minds of people you can meet. We need to take more time to listen to the experiences of those who were either there brought up by people who were.
So these are things I learnt and was inspired by from our wonderful trip. We are now spending a few months enjoying an LA winter before heading back to New York. We are very happy and lucky to be here but equally excited to see another slice of the country as we drive home next year through the south!