Going north

Hilary’s car was not made for highway driving. It’s about the size of a teacup, and it gets tossed about the street in a light breeze. Nevertheless, when the weather is right, we’re compelled by the prospect of the open road. Since the beginning of the lockdown, we hadn’t done much more than move the car around the block. We’ve been reluctant to push it any more than that: what if we couldn’t get gas, or what if we broke down in the hills, or what if it was just psychologically untenable to be far from home? But Saturday was so nice that we set our reservations aside. We put on our masks, packed hand sanitizer in our bags, and headed out to 1-9 and the Turnpike.

Our destination was an organic farm on the far side of the New York border — a main supplier of vegetables to many of our favorite restaurants on both sides of the Hudson. Those restaurants have been closed for more than a month. As many farms have, this one has adjusted by selling boxes of produce. We’d shopped at their farmstand a few times in the summer of 2019, and always had a delightful time when we did. It occurred to me that a visit during a pandemic might be tempting fate: not only would we be exposing ourselves to the outdoors, and to people we didn’t know in a place many miles away, but the actual experience of being on the farm might be uncomfortable. They might frown on city visitors.

We expected quiet roads. Instead, Tonnelle Avenue was busy as usual: people heading to work or heading home, getting groceries, hauling lumber for reconstruction projects. Many drivers wore masks. Initially I wondered why they were bothering, but at the very first traffic light, I understood. With windows down on a warm day, I was, on the passenger’s seat, much closer to the car and driver next to me than the recommended six feet. I reasoned that I had a few things working in my favor. The virus dies fast in direct sunlight, and the sun was certainly out. Air currents disperse small respiratory droplets fast, and a spring wind was certainly picking up. Cars in motion create their own currents. Nobody was talking or even looking my way. I decided to feel safe. It beat the alternative.

Electric signs suspended over Route 17 told us to stay at home and flatten the curve. Hilary asked if we were doing the right thing by traveling. We passed the white tents of the drive-through testing center on the side of the highway, and noted, to our relief, that it wasn’t busy. We knew that when they’d opened, roughly a month ago, there’d been hours of waiting for desperate people looking for a diagnosis. Many of the billboards acknowledged the crisis, either thanking doctors or advertising hospitals or assuring motorists that first responders were still on the job. Someone had painted a great thank you to essential workers on a bedsheet, and they’d hung it on a fence. The lots of the big-box shops on the retail strip were either overstuffed or completely empty: no activity by the Crate and Barrel and the Barnes & Noble and the Garden State Plaza, but cars parked on the concrete dividers of the BJ’s Wholesale and the Home Depot as people jammed into the stores. Lines of shoppers, virtually all masked, waited, six feet apart, to be allowed to enter; others pushed teetering carts back to their SUVs. A Smashburger hung a hopeful sign in the window: Yes!, we’re open. I felt great love for Jersey, for the diners and drag-racers blasting Latin music, the blind suburban sprawl and the roadside plazas, the musical instrument stores, big as airplane hangars, the banks and busted-out businesses and the rough imprint of the pharmaceutical industry, the gas stations and cloverleaf intersections and jug-handles, everything that had shaped my consciousness and made me the thorny character I am. Time after time, we’ve taken terrible hits. We’re taking another, but we’re not going anywhere.

We’d arranged a noon pickup at the farm, but the traffic in Jersey City made us late. When we pulled into the driveway, we were surprised to see it busier than we ever had before. People carried great boxes of lettuce up the hill and back to their cars; others were lined up to get pizza from the farm store. I’d expected an alleviation of the feeling that the virus was hovering above us and waiting to pounce, but the frenetic activity at the farm merely made me think I’d swapped one treacherous place for another. As I steadied myself, I heard my name called, and that seemed so improbable that at first, I thought I’d just imagined it. But no, it was our cousins, a married couple with a house on a Rockland County lake. They’d also taken the nice weather as a prompt to visit a farm. They were the first family members we’d seen in more than two months.

Not that they were easy to see: they wore masks, and sunglasses, and hats, and hugged each other to signify that they wanted to hug us but knew they couldn’t. He briefly took off his mask to let an impressively salt-and-peppered quarantine beard fly. Hilary told him he looked like a country farmer. Even underneath the protective gear, they both seemed healthy, happy to be out in the sun. This came as a great relief to me, because she’d been diagnosed with cancer in late 2019. Her case wasn’t as serious as Hilary’s, and she’d never had a terrifying prognosis, but I knew enough about the unpredictability of outcomes to worry about her daily. She’d finished her chemotherapy on March 13, right as the keys to the lockdown were beginning to turn. Radiation begins in a few weeks. Like Hilary, she chose Sloan-Kettering for her treatments, and, so far, the crisis hasn’t forced her to reschedule or delay any of the medicine she needs. I’ll take that as a positive sign — confirmation that the hospital is ready for whatever we might need from it.

The farm’s system turned out to be a manageable one: report to a makeshift desk by the barn, give a name, and wait while an assistant in a mask and gloves fetched the box. We never had to go inside the store. The whole transaction was blessedly conducted under a blue sky and the disinfectant effects of the sun. Once we’d secured our vegetables, we were in very good moods, and we were reluctant to make an immediate return to Jersey City. The day was there to be enjoyed, and the hills were Upstate green. A few months ago, there wouldn’t have been any question about it — we would have spent the afternoon exploring. We resolved to find a place to take a walk.

On the far side of the highway we’d taken to get to the farm, we found a lake, and a footpath. Masks on, we headed north. Before long, we were joined by many others: kids on scooters, bicyclists, families out for the day, and joggers, who I’d resolved to try to avoid. There was none of the furtive quality that I’ve noticed among pedestrians in Jersey City; these people were acting as they would have even if there’d been no crisis. This struck me as odd. Their county is sparser than ours is, but it has almost as many cases as we do. The virus, it occurred to me, was most certainly here: on the farm, on the footpath, in the air around us. I tried not to see the joggers as cloud-generators. That’s a terribly dehumanizing (not to mention un-Christian) way to see our fellows — as hosts, particle factories, reservoirs of lethal pathogens. Nevertheless, we’ve all watched the digital models of respiration as it happens, and the near-unavoidability of sharing air with the people around us, especially those who are breathing heavily. We, as city mice on a stroll in a part of the country where we didn’t belong, were likely occasioning the same suspicion. I want more from the farm counties than their vegetables. I want to know and love the people, too, and I want them to know and love me back. In 2019, trust was already in short supply. Where under the sun are we going to find it now?