I had set out on this Western road trip with a supply of masks and hand sanitizer and a double dose of the Moderna vaccine coursing through my veins. But it was still a shock to encounter a place so different from the one I had inhabited for the past 14 months, since the pandemic and a socially distanced response swept into the New Hampshire college town where I make my home. I had not expected to find myself facing, as so many other travelers will during this summer of renewed movement, such a constant question: How do you navigate quickly shifting public health terrain?
Whether traveling from a place with few pandemic protocols to a big city or wandering from the coasts of this country toward the center and south, all of us will have to figure out how to feel comfortable when it comes to masks and social distancing. In some places, rules remain clear. But in so many others, they are lifting quickly or were never in place to begin with, and that can mean finding your own way.
The morning after checking into the Roosevelt, I met a rancher who, unprompted, explained her uncovered face.
“The pandemic left here a long time ago,” she said, with a sweep of her hand that seemed to take in the vast prairie.
I heard the next day about a charity auction that would feature “Yellowstone” actor Forrie Smith and an artist who would speed-paint his portrait to benefit a local children’s home. I had decided to skip it until a friend from California called and told me the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had just changed its guidance: Any vaccinated person could go maskless in public. An hour later, I was standing outside the banquet room downstairs from Outlaws’ Bar & Grill, trading smiles and a handshake with Smith.
As the crowd gathered, old friends shared hugs and slaps on the back. I helped myself to a buffet of shrimp cocktail and skewers of bacon and beef, then settled at a table next to an elderly couple from north of town. Folks in the room, many of whom had been gathering indoors unmasked for months, seemed expert at social routines we all once knew so well. The speed-painted portrait sold for $11,000, and guests lined up for iPhone photos with Smith.
Amid the milieu, I embraced old habits quickly, shaking hands with a lawyer who walked up to our table and laughing alongside others as Smith worked the room. I was also overwhelmed, having shifted so quickly and completely from my masked existence to this unmetered mingling.
I was aware new variants of the coronavirus continued to spread. I also knew that more than 500 people were still dying from covid-19 each day in the United States during my mid-May road trip. But the science behind the CDC guidance to remove masks was enough for me to shed mine. I realized that for me, months of wearing a mask had been about safety but also more: a social signal to others that I shared in a collective effort to keep safe.
In Miles City, Mont., after three hours alone on the highway, I pulled up a stool at the historic Montana Bar, opened in 1908 to serve the cattle drive crowd and still a monument to those Wild West days. The previous weekend the city had hosted the annual World Famous Miles City Bucking Horse Sale, a rodeo that brings concert stages to Main Street and hundreds of revelers into the Montana Bar. I ordered a steak and asked the bartender whether the Bucking Horse crowds had been smaller this year with the pandemic. He laughed.
“It’s all back to normal,” the bartender said. “The whole state’s wide open, man.”
The next day, when I stopped at a Cenex station in Gillette, Wyo., for a tank of gas and a microwaved burrito, I stood face to face with a woman cleaning the counter, and we chatted about the weather, casually. It felt at so many points along the road that the past 14 months had never happened. But I couldn’t help feeling uneasy about this sudden return to a world in which public health was left to personal discretion.
In Steamboat Springs, Colo., a woman working at Rabbit Ears Motel gave voice to my uncertainty. A sign on the lobby door requested that guests still wear masks, so I had dug mine out of the car. The clerk, masked herself, stood behind plexiglass as she checked me into a room with a balcony set above the Yampa River.
I mentioned how nobody, including me, had been wearing masks along so much of my route. She rolled her eyes and said she feared she might catch covid from a motel guest. “You know that so many of them not wearing masks aren’t vaccinated,” she said.
The next morning, as I tucked into a plate of eggs, greens and grits at Freshies, I overheard a server greet a familiar customer.
“Well, who’s this unmasked man?” she said with a laugh.
She described to the man her reluctance to stop wearing a mask when she went to the grocery store or while working in the diner.
I was wondering about that later, when I walked into the lobby of the Old Town Hot Springs, home to a complex of swimming and soaking pools, complete with climbing waterfalls and slides for kids. I arrived wearing my mask, assuming that a place with close quarters for changing would still require them, and I was surprised to see staff and guests wore none.
I pulled mine off and headed to soak. I lowered into the historic heart-shaped pool, naturally fed with 103-degree mineral water. Ancestors of the Ute people had cherished the spring for its physical and spiritual healing. Today, tourists and locals soak sore muscles after skiing, hiking or biking.
Sitting on a submerged stone bench only a few feet from strangers, I wondered again at the evolution of our pandemic provisions: If another spike of coronavirus infections arrives — perhaps this fall or winter — will we be able to muster the collective resolve to mask up and distance to protect ourselves and the vulnerable among us?
I floated to the center of the pool, the question distant but lurking. I tilted my head back until only my eyes, nose and mouth remained above water, and I stared into blue Rocky Mountain sky.
Haines is a writer based in New Hampshire. Find him on Twitter: @twhaines.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC's travel health notice webpage.
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted travel domestically and around the world. You will find the latest developments on The Post’s live blog at www.washingtonpost.com/coronavirus