I was supposed to be in New York City by now. A sunny Brooklyn apartment with that in-building gym I’d been dreaming of for years. That dollar-slice pizza just down the street. That proximity to the East River for panoramic morning runs. Instead, here I am: 30 years old and living back with my parents in my hometown of Littleton, Colorado.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Colorado. In fact, I adore this place and having spent the first 22 years of my life here, I think it’s the best state in the country (sorry Illinois, where I just moved from). It’s hard to match Colorado’s sunshine and scenery. It’s just not where I expected to be only a few weeks ago.
Faced with a new job opportunity in New York City in mid-March, I quickly subleased my Chicago apartment, naively not understanding how a pandemic works and thinking it would pass within a couple weeks. But with the explosion of a coronavirus hotspot in New York, the safer option seemed like a detour to my Colorado roots, where I can wait out the virus until at least early summer.
Moving during a pandemic is not recommended. Getting boxes was a headache. Part of my U-Haul shipments never arrived. The trip to Home Depot was unsettling. I couldn’t say goodbye to any friends or colleagues in person. The process was clinical: The movers and I all wore masks, barely talking, social distancing and just getting my boxes quickly out down three flights of rusty, narrow stairs. I did the move only out of necessity.
With conditions in New York especially risky, I tried to road trip my way instead to Colorado very carefully, armed with Lysol spray, antibacterial wipes and a mask I found in an old disaster kit I thankfully had hoarded. I carried old towels for holding gas pumps and promptly threw them away. A thing that is already stressful — moving — gave me sleepless nights and a tightened chest. A thing that normally gives me joy — road trips — was so melancholy. Along all the interstates were constant reminders of the deadly coronavirus: “Stay home and socially distance.” “Wash your hands and stay healthy.” “Do your part.” Few cars, mostly essential truckers, were on the highways.
The first day I drove from Chicago straight to Iowa — no stops, except to get some gas, and another break to reconnect the darn Bluetooth for streaming music (the only thing that kept me sane!). In West Des Moines, where I stayed a night, I might have been the only occupant on the entire first floor of the hotel. There were about five or six cars in the entire parking lot, my bright-red rental crossover one of them.
In Kansas City, where my brother and sister-in-law live, I didn’t stay with them to maintain social distancing. Instead, I checked into a suburban chain on the Kansas side where the front desk (with extra tables as a buffer) told me how all the soccer tournament families had canceled.
My brother dropped off tasty dinners each night in the hotel parking lot: He, setting a box of tupperwares down on the sidewalk as I stood far away; Me, thankful for their kind cooking but mourning our lost family time. After a road trip of mostly boxed mac-and-cheese, instant oatmeal and yogurt pretzels, I ate ravenously.
In both hotels, I sanitized every surface before and after my stay, paranoid that either I’d catch the coronavirus or, worse, if I had already been infected myself, I might pass it on to the next traveler or hotel crew.
I was so nervous that I’d bring COVID-19 home with me to my parents, who were themselves in a CDC-recommended quarantine after a roundabout U.S. government evacuation flight from India, where they were taking care of my grandmother battling cancer.
The obsessive germaphobe I once was as a 15-year-old is back, 15 years later.
I have to make it clear that my misadventures with moving are a #firstworldproblem and absolutely nothing in comparison to the thousands of Coloradans who are battling this menace of a virus; at least 374 in the state have lost their lives to it. The death toll across the country continues to climb. I also grieve for the millions across the United States who have lost their jobs in this weakened economy.
So I have been looking for the silver linings in my temporary life out West — and there are many: the home-cooked Indian food, the calming walks in the foothills, the 8 p.m. howling and the non-NYC free rent (though I happily contribute by covering some groceries and serving as my parents’ personal IT technician).
And that Colorado sunshine, how I missed it during the gray Midwestern winter.
But as much as I love Colorado and the proximity to my family and their better-stocked refrigerator, I still hope to move to New York City later this year — to start a new chapter and live out a childhood dream. A few friends out there tell me it looks like an innocent spring outside their windows, except quieter, despite the hotspot war being waged in nearby hospitals. Others say all they hear are sirens, echoing off all the concrete.
For now, I will do my part practicing social distancing and remaining in my first and forever home: Colorado.
Vignesh Ramachandran is a journalist who recently left ProPublica’s Chicago office and is joining media startup The Juggernaut, which covers the South Asian American community. Born and raised in Colorado, Vignesh is a CU Boulder grad and a former Denver Post “Colorado Kids” reporter.