The summer of 2020 and move number eight was supposed to include baseball games, National Parks, visits with family and friends and several weeks of leisurely making our way from Rhode Island to Washington. Instead, it became a trip with no authorized leave, traveled along the shortest route, with only necessary stops. So, with an exception to policy and masks in hand, we completed our nine day coast-to-coast trek.
Like many military spouses, I took to social media a few weeks before our departure, asking what I needed to know. The responses surprised me. Gas stations were low on gas and snacks. Hotels were closed even if they showed open online. Finding restrooms was challenging, and those found were unkept. Restaurants were only open for pick up or drive through, so fewer
bathroom break options and longer drive-thru lines. Those who responded sounded exhausted from the effort, more so than the usual permanent change of station (PCS). I was not looking forward to our turn.
What I learned is that during a pandemic, on the heels of states relaxing guidelines, circumstances change quickly.
All told, PCSing cross-country during a pandemic was more comfortable than expected once we got on the road. We took the mid-America route across 14 states from Rhode Island to Washington. I didn't have any complaints other than the crosswinds in Kansas and the baseball-size shatter in my new car's windshield from falling rock in Utah.
Gas stations were open, stocked and friendly. Restaurants were open for takeout and in some states for inside dining. Highways lacked the usual traffic and bottlenecks at major cities, presumably because everyone isn't back to work yet. Construction projects appeared stalled in some areas, improving traffic conditions. Hotels were open and available. Gas station restrooms were open and clean(ish). Hand sanitizer stations were readily available entering and exiting gas stations as well as in or near hotel elevators. So, it was different, and yet the same.
As we crossed each border, moving west, it was clear that the pandemic was less and less on the minds of those around us. By the time we hit Indiana, there were only a few masks worn by others. Continuing west to Kansas, there were virtually no masks worn, even by employees. In Colorado, and by the time we got to Washington, masks were common again.
We were "that" family who remained cautious and mask-wearing at each location. With two adults, two kids and two cars, there was no time for illness. We shouldered the side-eyes in states like Kansas, Wyoming and Utah. We were careful. Not sanitize the hotel room with wipes careful, but mask-wearing and hand-washing careful. (But if sanitizing the hotel is on your must-do list, check out Marriott hotels. Our SpringHill Suites in Boise was the only hotel of eight to provide a cleaning station on each floor with vacuums, clean rags and cleaning supplies for guests' use and added peace of mind.)
Overall, we made great time. We pit-stopped at Kansas City Chief's Stadium for my tween son's photo-op request and visited the Chick-Fil-A near our former home in Leavenworth, Kansas. Our daughter remembers Saturday errands with dad and the kind owner of this location, so a run through the drive-thru "to relive her childhood" made her happy. We visited with friends in Colorado and captured some stunning views in Wyoming. All in all, not quite all the memories we'd hoped for, but we'll take it.
The biggest surprise -- and disappointment -- was hotel amenities. We usually enjoy the free breakfasts and occasionally the pools or fitness centers. East of Idaho, none of those amenities were open. While potentially chain specific, we didn't find any states that allowed their hotel breakfast buffets to operate normally. Most provided a to-go breakfast bag of a granola bar, fruit and drink. Not exactly a family favorite, and later in the trip, I stocked up on breakfast foods for the road.
All in all, PCSing during a pandemic required some adjustments, but it wasn't terrible.
My best advice, if heading into your own pandemic PCS trek, is to only take advice from people who've made the trip recently and followed your same path. Circumstances from state-to-state are so different. And week-to-week access to all the creature comforts of travel seems to be improving. Military spouses are great planners, but this is a PCS that demands flexibility. Nonetheless, as always, we've got this.
Jennifer Pasquale is an Army (and proud Redleg) spouse and mom of two. She's a former corporate professional turned writer and military spouse advocate. As the founder of Pride & Grit she shares military spouse stories and their insightful lessons for navigating this unique life without losing yourself.
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