Like the nation, I’ve rolled up some serious, politically charged pandemic miles in recent months, days, minutes….
So let’s talk road trips, truly a great American pastime. I put 14,000 miles total on four different vehicles in the middle of a surging COVID-19 crisis and weird demonstrations of calamitous climate change. Oh yeah, the seemingly never-ending, wicked election season also provided a crazy backdrop. Mere mortals should not have to reckon with all this commotion and chaos.
Yet, for the past three months, armed with an assortment of colorful cloth masks, bottles of stinky sanitizer, and a few contactless credit cards, I hit the irregular 2020 road.
Desperately trying to avoid a lethal virus while crisscrossing the western half of the United States multiple times, I was bombarded with thousands of Trump-Pence signs littering corn fields and cow pastures in Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin, and similar numbers of Biden-Harris signs cluttering streets in cities like San Diego, Lincoln, and Milwaukee. As the news coverage of the pandemic dictated, I modified my itineraries to try to stay safe.
Huge motorcycle rally in Sturgis? That spells viral trouble. So, don’t take the South Dakota route. Intensive care units in Salt Lake City hospitals at capacity? Don’t stop at the Mormon Tabernacle. Trump super-spreader rallies in Nevada, Arizona and Minnesota? Avoid those areas. Exploding coronavirus cases in Wisconsin? Greet my cheese-head family and friends quickly and get the hell out.
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In normal road-tripping times, I’d check the weather and hit the highway. But not in this weird, only-in-2020 comedy-tragedy. As my adventures started in August, I drove through parts of Iowa that had been devastated by the “derecho” storm with its 140-mph windblasts a couple of days earlier. I sadly observed the ripped-apart barns and silos, the oddly bent and shredded highway signs, the roofless homes.
You’d think a derecho would be weird enough. It was just starting, though. Over the next few months, I drove through 110-degree heat in Southern California, down smoke-filled highways from drought-fueled fires in Colorado and California, and even through a strange dust storm in Wyoming that blew in unexpectedly. Fortunately, none of the record number of hurricanes this season veered my way.
But there were the political storms. Whether I monitored serious newscasts, chuckled at entertaining right-wing talk shows on AM radio, or listened to the chaotic, zany and occasionally enlightening debates, I was stunned at how distorted reality has become for some people. Why trust independent scientists, real journalists and critical scholars, when their facts can be so inconvenient? Why speak truth when falsehoods repeated often enough become reality for a sizable portion of the public?
I started to write down all the distortions I heard on AM talk radio while traveling across the country – “Biden is senile,” “Biden is a socialist,” “Harris is a monster” – but quickly realized how dangerous it was to jot notes while driving. Especially when avoiding speeding motorcyclists darting between cars and trucks on California highways.
Nevertheless, I pulled out the notebook again when I stumbled upon Christian radio and its newscasts featuring every right-wing politician, minister or commentator pushing extreme points of view like Democrats were either socialists or baby killers, and most likely both. The sources said Trump and Pence had won the debates (they didn’t) and Democrats had attacked Supreme Court then-nominee Amy Coney Barrett because of her Catholic faith (false, again). Then my pen ran out of ink.
When I wasn’t on the road, I had passionate discussions with friends and family about the election, usually walking away wondering how people could be so misinformed.
When I called them out on their so-called facts, they’d respond, “Where do you get your information?” When I quoted respected and credible scientists, journalists, news organizations, and scholars, they laughed and said, “Wow! No wonder you are so wrong.” Some of my friends were flabbergasted when I informed them Colorado has had mail-in voting for years and it works incredibly well.
As planned, I arrived back home in Colorado so I could watch election night results from my comfy sofa, with easy access to alcohol. Alas, a quick winner was not in the pandemic cards we’ve all been dealt this year. Was anyone really surprised?
Now that the election appears finally to be over, though, maybe it’s best to stay off the road for a while.
Kris Kodrich, a longtime journalist in Wisconsin, Florida and elsewhere, is an associate professor of journalism and media communication at Colorado State University.
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