Flying halfway around the world, cresting on a peak of terror, I left an empty airport in Hanoi, transited through an empty airport in Tokyo, and then arrived at an empty airport in Los Angeles. From what I’d seen on the news I was expecting mobs of frightened passengers, a labyrinth of security and health check clearances, and an enforced quarantine, probably at a military base. Instead, I got to customs and was waved right through. No one even asked where I was coming from. Right before I’d left for the airport in Hanoi, I’d jumped on my laptop and reserved a rental car for two weeks since I couldn’t go straight to my Mom’s. The one message I’d heard, over and over, was that all travelers needed to be quarantined for two weeks. Since my country wasn’t giving me any guidance and there was no way I could afford to stay at a hotel in Los Angeles for two weeks, I figured I’d just drive out to the desert and sit in the car.
Outside of the Tom Bradley International Terminal, I stepped off the curb to scout for the shuttle that would take me to the Fox Rent a Car office. It was ten o’clock at night and unseasonably cold. Floating in a sea of fear, I watched a policeman approach me, seemingly in slow motion, screaming at the top of his lungs. It took a while for it to register that he was just angry that I was standing on the street. The way he was carrying on you would’ve thought I was unscrewing the lid on a thermos full of the coronavirus.
On the shuttle I talked to a guy from Hawaii who believed that the virus was related to the new 5G wireless technology. This kind of thinking eventually led to almost eighty wireless towers being vandalized in the UK alone. Did 5G have anything to do with the corona virus? I had no idea. No one had any idea what was going on. People were reacting with hysteria and panic, not necessarily observing the recommended safety protocols, as much as just freaking out.
I had gone with Fox because of a daily rental rate that was so low I thought it must be a misprint. Once insurance and taxes were thrown in, it was about the same as a down payment on a brand-new car. Without insurance, the slightest mishap would result in a state of immediate and irrevocable bankruptcy. That’s how they always reel you in. There was no one in the garage, so no one to tell me not to expect any engine noise when I switched on the hybrid I’d rented. I thought it wasn’t working, but in the midst of banging on the dashboard, accidentally stepped on the gas and it surged forward. That’s the way I departed the airport, driving a noiseless car through a noiseless city. To witness Los Angeles under lockdown, the buildings all closed, no one out and about, only a few other cars on the 405 heading south, was like starring in a science-fiction movie. I sat hunched over on the edge of my seat, giddy with anxiety.
It wasn’t until I reached Beach Boulevard, my Mom’s exit in Huntington Beach, that I realized the true heartbreak and loneliness of the situation. A few loud sobs burst out of me like belches from a donkey. I figured I’d stop for the night in San Onofre, and when I got to Basilone Road pulled over and bought a small bottle of whiskey, hoping that might help relax me a little, if nothing else. San Onofre was closed, so I went over to San Mateo campground and saw a few RVs parked there. The front gate was open, so I went in and pulled into a site. After turning off the car and the lights, I leaned the seat all the way back, and took a long draw of the whiskey. What the hell was going on? Five minutes later I sat straight up again. A bright light was shining into the car and bouncing all around in the rearview mirror. I stashed the bottle under the seat, and rolled the window down. A woman ranger informed me that the campground was closed, the whole state of California was under lockdown orders, and I’d best be hitting the road. When I tried to get out and ask some questions, she ordered me to stay away and leave immediately.
There was a Carl’s Jr. restaurant with a big parking lot that I pulled into next. I finished what was left of the whiskey and hoped to doze off for a few hours. It was bitterly cold, however, and all I had in my suitcase was T-shirts and shorts, so I just sat there with my arms crossed, feeling wretched and shivering. Just when I was thinking it couldn’t get any worse, there was some rustling in the bushes in front of me, and a hobo poked his head out. Apparently, it could get worse, much worse, but that was small consolation. When it got too cold to stand, I started the car and continued heading south. At a rest stop just past the State Beach, I pulled over. Almost every spot was taken by people sleeping in their cars. It seemed entirely possible that this would be the way it was from now on, people on the run, sleeping in their cars, seeking shelter wherever they could find it.
After sitting at the rest stop for a few hours, too cold and agitated to sleep, I decided to head towards San Diego, just to have something to do. I arrived just as the day was breaking, but there was no sign of life. The city was desolate. Out of force of habit I kept driving to the Mexican border at San Ysidro, considering a Motel 6 there that has often served as a base. It was too early to check into a room, however, so I just drove past the closed border, and began heading back north. The only way to constructively channel my anxiety was to keep driving, so I decided to head for Calexico, one of my favorite hideouts back in the day. At the 8 freeway, I headed east towards Arizona, moving beyond the city limits into an endless expanse of piled stone and cactus.
Reaching Jacumba Hot Springs an hour later, I pulled over for gas, even though I still had over half a tank. Might as well fill it up, and grab a little whiskey for the road, I figured. The remote desert setting seemed to be a perfect fit for the alien circumstances, as I fastened a blue paper mask to my face, and walked into the station like a bandit.