My plan was to escape COVID-19 in 2021 by converting my dad’s old Suburban into a camper van, then travel to Seattle. I learned that while you can’t drive away from a global pandemic, it is possible to make a home anywhere.
After a year of not going anywhere, and feeling a lot like a hamster on a wheel to nowhere, I just needed to get out. I wanted to mark the start of 2021 with something crazy, unforgettable, different.
COVID-19 has both trapped us at home and also taken away our homes. Before contracting the virus in March, 2020, in my tiny flat in England, I researched international human rights law as a graduate student. Every day, I was involved in conversations about the legal rights of asylum seekers, international relations, the plight of the environment. I was marching, protesting, participating in Extinction Rebellion and volunteering in refugee camps.
The pandemic brought me back to my hometown of Vacaville. I now live with my parents and lead inebriated adults on glorified pony rides around a vineyard in Napa. The job is, leaving out the manual labor, something out of a dream: green pastures, wildflowers and free-flowing wine. The horses, always a part of my life, are my office staff and work colleagues.
At the same time, there’s an experience of a loss of my life. I no longer have my own place. I’m lucky and I’m not complaining; rather, as someone who researched the homemaking practices of refugees as her thesis project, I’m observing how I, too, lost my home and created a new one over this past year.
It’s a process many of us are going through in different ways.
I took a 10-day road trip to Seattle in my dad’s old Suburban to restart my life.
I moved to Seattle a few years ago for the same reason. The city represented a fresh start, a chance, a wild adventure at a time when I had no center. In Didion’s words, my center had not held. My heart was broken and I had no clear direction. I was looking for somewhere safe and quiet.
If you haven’t been to the Pacific Northwest in a snowstorm, you should. It’s quiet. Looking at the flurries, thick and cold outside, you feel safe and alone. When I first moved to Seattle, I needed to be alone. At that time, I couldn’t continue to stay in my parents’ house, in a town I’d never quite felt at home in.
LIFE IN SEATTLE
I moved to Seattle in November, 2018, after I got a job at an immigration law firm. It was a great opportunity, haphazardly attained after an email to a stranger who became my boss over a cup of coffee. I moved in three days. In November. From California. That was the last I saw of the sun until May.
In many ways, the job was everything I needed. At the same time, sitting at the desk for nine hours every day crushed my spirit. I requested to go part-time.
To make up for the loss of income, I took a job with Seattle Parks and Recreation. I directed lost tourists and set up games and music in the parks, despite only just moving to Seattle. I learned quickly. I walked the streets every day and got to know the homeless men and women who spent time in the parks. I made friends. I grew to love the bricks of Pioneer Square, memorized every corner of Pike’s Place Market and explored all the streets inbetween.
RETURNING TO SEATTLE
I returned to Seattle in January of this year for many of the same reasons I moved there, but now it’s home away from home and not a stranger. More than that, this time I was busy building a home that went beyond geographical constraints, that could travel as I did.
I converted my dad’s Suburban to sleep in because I still hadn’t coughed up enough cash to pay for that Volkswagen I’d dreamed of. My “conversion” consisted of throwing a spare mattress in the back. I borrowed my friend’s cooler and camping stove. After I declined her kind offer of a handgun, she insisted I bring an extra large can of hornet spray. With that, I was off to Seattle.
I bounced around friends’ houses as I traveled and slept in my Suburban at camping spots along the way. Once in Seattle, my friends hosted me in their downtown apartment.
It was hard, seeing what a year of lockdowns and protests had done to Seattle. Capitol Hill, where you could always count on a warm bar on a rainy evening, was largely boarded up. Seattle’s always been a tough place, a little cold and grunge around the edges, but this time it felt harsh.
Where I used to set up badminton games is now a sea of tents, testament to the economic hardship brought on by COVID-19. They are not at all socially distanced. What would Grace, who sucked on those SugarDaddy candies with such determination each afternoon to try to distract herself from the withdrawals, look like now? She gave me the best relationship advice I’d ever had. She watched my back. I bought her ice cream.
On my drive home, I booked an AirBnB in Portland when I grew tired of being cold. There was a blizzard, and Interstate 5 was closed anyway, delaying my return. When I got out of my car, I met a man who lives on the street every night, without a van, without the ability to book something to escape the chill.
Passing that man was like passing an old friend, only I didn’t know him and had no games to offer.
When I was little and couldn’t sleep, my mom would take me on long country drives to watch the horses until I fell asleep. Road trips are like this for me, self-soothing and adventure wrapped in one.
I went to Seattle looking for a fresh start, to put 2020 behind me. I’m sure I’m not alone in that hope. I didn’t manage to escape COVID-19, but somehow the trip made me feel more at home here: surviving a pandemic in suburbia, in my California skin.