Chris Blask narrates an epic transcontinental journey with his family, a Labrador, turtle and a parakeet in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is just after midnight. Turning back at the Canadian end of the Detroit-Windsor bridge is not straight forward even if you aren’t processing the implications of being barred from the country you grew up in. An hour-and-a-half later, at a random rest stop outside Detroit, I parked and considered my next move.
The role I play in the business world is to consider risks and threats to the business of the world: fretting over how the events surrounding a natural disaster might provide an opening for miscreants to attack a national infrastructure; pondering how, for example, a global pandemic might impact the business of global life.
Watching the COVID-19 wave evolve has forced us all to make choices. In the world today, where you are when the music stops is where you stay. Where do I want my family to be when the music stops?
We live full-time in Orlando, Florida. My wife and son work at Universal Studios Orlando, our middle daughter in local college and our youngest a high school senior homeschooling her senior year. I tele-work from home or wherever I am, alternating between working from wherever my family is at the moment or travelling all around the world working from there.
I am American, but my wife and children are Canadian. We have moved back and forth across the border over more than 30 years of marriage, living together on each side three times and seasonally travelling to whichever we were not currently living in.
In the last week of February, I attended a large computer conference in California. When I got home, I learnt that a person I had met was infected with the Coronavirus. He is 10 years younger than me and has now spent more than two weeks on a respirator. Another attendee has since died of COVID-19.
At home, my wife and I worked through the implications of the growing numbers and the closing window. On 11 March, we decided that Florida was not the place to be. A geographic cul de sac with one way in and one way out, which plagues Floridians every year as they consider fleeing hurricanes, who agonise between the risk of staying or the risk of being stuck on a highway when the winds hit. A state rich in elderly people most at risk of the virus and most likely to flood intensive care, many of whom were then dancing in public saying that the President had told them it was all a hoax. A state full of drunk spring-breakers not yet up to speed on the coming state of the nation.
So, just after midnight on the morning of Sunday 15 March, I left Orlando in one vehicle loaded with things for the boat and the summer, an elderly Labrador, half of the supplies in the Orlando house and a trailer with various bicycles and kayaks. As I drove through the night into the daylight, stopping twice for naps in rest areas, the feeling of a closing window of time gnawed at me.
The plan had been for me to stop at Mom’s house in Indiana and wait for the family to catch up in two days. Events unfolding as I drove those miles made me more concerned that the Canadian border would close before a single American like myself would be allowed across. Two hours to the house in Indiana and three from Detroit, I phoned Mom and discussed whether I should just take the fork and head to Ontario. We agreed that, all things considered, I should get settled in Canada.
The Ambassador Bridge entry was emptier than I had seen in all my crossings. A handful of cars and a smattering of trucks lined up at the toll booth. One car was ahead of me at the one lane open, they exchanged documents with the booth and were waved in. I pulled forward in the time-honored fashion and presented my well-travelled passport with the casual delivery of the world traveller. The man asked where I was going and I told him honestly that I was going to paint the bottom of our boat and get it ready to go in the water.
He was having none of that. Essential travel only and that’s not essential. Don’t you know there is a global pandemic going on? You really think you’re just going to go paint a boat like it’s just a normal day?
Navigating the deserted maze of Detroit highways in a fugue of mental calculation, exhaustion and adrenaline got me to this rest stop somewhere in Ohio. Observe. It’s 2am. I’ve driven almost 1,500 miles over 26 hours with two catnaps. Orient. The goal is Mom’s house in Northern Indiana, which is three hours away, and I’m too tired to move. Decide. Sleep two hours now then drive. Act.
In Indiana, I spent the week talking with the Canadian Government’s crisis repatriation team that had been set up to handle expats around the world working their ways home. I cannot say enough good things about these people and what they say about Canada overall, providing easily accessible voices that worked through the evolving directives and conditions frankly and personally. We went over and over the exact way my family should arrive at the border, what we should say, who should be driving, how many vehicles we should bring (one), and how to behave.
American Grandparents of Canadian citizens were already banned and my status even as a spouse/father/breadwinner was no guarantee that the border agent would let my family in if I came with. Romania had closed its borders to its own citizens living abroad three days previously.
On 19 March, my wife and I decided that she and our son would make a two-day 2,500 mile round trip to Orlando to get the rest of our pets and a final pass at belongings the next day. Watching the progress of the Hertz rental van on my phone over 17 hours, I saw them arrive while a map showed the United States painted in shades of red indicating abnormal fever and Florida had gone from light pink to rose during the drive down.
My wife and son got back to Indiana exhausted on Sunday 22 March. I sat in my new spare room office working when my mother came in and told me that she had talked with my wife about leaving for Canada at once, and that she was onboard. Over the weekend I had rented a Uhaul trailer, the trip out to pick it up was my first foray into public other than a gas station or border crossing in two weeks.
It is almost 2am, Tuesday 24 March. The kids are in the rental van with most of the pets, my wife is in the back of our SUV ill from stress and existing conditions in a bed made of pillows and blankets. Four hours would get us to Flint.
It is 7.30 am, at a gas station in Port Huron, a mile from the Enterprise Rental location and a mile from the bridge to Canada. Almost nothing is moving, there is no traffic at all across the bridge. With the turtle and the parakeet staying safely in Indiana, we packed five people, two cats and an elderly Labrador into the SUV and transferred the rest of the luggage from the van into the trailer and dropped off the rental.
It is 7.55 am. We are driving across a long empty expanse of concrete usually populated by at least a few cars in each direction, but nothing moves except us. My wife is driving as instructed by Sean and the Ottawa team, passports are all together. The border agent takes our papers and asks where we are going and why. We tell her who we are, where we are going, and why in as few words as possible. She leaves for an agonising few minutes to check on something. The effort to stay patient and calm is like a lead apron pressing down.
Do we know that we are under a mandated federal quarantine? My wife doesn’t reply for a long moment, lost in exhaustion and trying to understand whether we are being sent to a camp of some sort. Yes, I answer, we have plenty of food in the trailer. We have a place to go already paid for and enough gas to get there. Nothing moves.
From the lake in Canada where my grandfather-in-law and his son built a cottage on a piece of land bought from a farmer in 1948, the beginning and something like an end connect. We’ve come full circle.
Rolling over the lanes away from the border was surreal. Was that a scene from a movie, a bad dream, a false memory from the depths of a minute ago? There were a few miles, now kilometres, until we found a place to stop. My son took over driving, my wife squeezed into the back seat, we headed for the house that was waiting for us in Toronto. Pillow jammed into the passenger door. I closed my eyes for an hour and did a lot of not falling asleep.
Then a text from the person we rented the house from in London, Ontario, changes everything. Seems there is a basement apartment with three tenants over 70 years old. If we enter that house we will break the federal quarantine we just agreed to, which would be backed up with a $750,000 fine and six months in prison in the coming two days, and we would be sharing a space with strangers and breaking the hygiene protocols we had maintained for weeks.
Without waking my wife, I set the map for this cottage and fell asleep at last.
It was not our plan to be here. The lake was still frozen when we arrived, there is no insulation in the walls, no running water until the ice goes out, and a very limited rural medical infrastructure. But, because my father-in-law and his dad built this little frame building when the world was just beginning to struggle from the wreckage of the last global catastrophe of World War Two, my family now has a safe and familiar place to ride out our federally mandated two-week quarantine.
So here we are, short a turtle and a parakeet and a house. Running water was established after only a few days, hot water only a few days after that. There is no laundry and we would go to jail for going to the laundromat if, in fact, we still wanted to go inside someone else’s shared space and spend a lot of time touching things, so hand washing and hang drying has been reinvented. Our supplies have done us well and kind neighbours have brought a few items to stock us up, and have not been offended that we leave them outside and carefully decontaminate each item.
Nothing moves, now. Not even us.