Grant Hermes: What it was like moving from Oklahoma to Detroit during COVID-19 pandemic

‘The trip played out as a strange dueling set of oddities,’ Hermes said

DETROIT – “Ozarkland: a road trip tradition” the billboard read as we made our way to the outskirts of Joplin, Missouri. Normally, that’s the kind of place I’d stop. A kitschy, quirky roadside stop filled with knick-knacks that I’d probably only touch or ogle until I instead turned to buy some kind of local brand beef jerky to tell myself that road calories do in fact still count. The thought of stopping at a place like Ozarkland or indeed any inevitable truck stop or gas station now makes my stomach churn.

We were entering into hour three of our 15 hour journey from Oklahoma City to Detroit. I was leaving my job as a local morning news anchor and reporter to become a reporter. The trip was about 1,000 miles in the middle of the worst pandemic the nation had experienced since the influenza outbreak in 1918.

In 1918, the flu infected nearly 500 million worldwide and took the lives of an estimated 675,000 Americans. As we’re driving the numbers of the infected and dead from coronavirus (COVID-19) were rising. The US would surpass Italy, considered to be the hardest hit country in both infection and mortality rates, in the coming days.

The roads were eerily clear. Most of our highway companions were long haul semis and work trucks for companies deemed essential. A landscaping trailer, a plumbing and HVAC van and a truck for a bread company I’d never heard of blocked my view of the caravan that is my fiancé Becca, who had our 85 pound dog Blakely, and Becca’s parents who lent us their pick up truck and help with the move even though they too are worried about driving into one of the country’s coronavirus hotspots.

The anxiety of finally moving after weeks of preparing had given way to the anxiety of simply driving into common places with other people. Will people there be social distancing? Will people stare when we get out of our cars with our nitrile gloves and home-sewn masks? Will the hotel be safe when we stop in Fort Wayne, Indiana or are we taking an unneeded risk? I speed up to pass the bread truck and shush our 18-pound cat, Woodfurd, (a pun name on one of my favorite bourbons) who groans at me for speeding up and disturbing his nap.

Before leaving we had been closely watching the spread of the novel coronavirus both in Oklahoma and, more important to our impending futures, in Michigan. In Oklahoma, the number of infections had only reached several dozen with maybe a handful of deaths as we started to plan our move.

While those numbers were showing a steady increase, Gov. Kevin Stitt had been slow to act on an official stay-at-home order, leaving the mayor of the state’s capital city to issue one himself. Stitt instead was coming off the heels of a national scolding for posting a picture of himself and his kids in a packed food hall shortly after the CDC warned against large crowds.

Testing had also been an issue there. As case numbers grew at an exponential rate, Oklahoma remained last in the nation in testing per capita. While Stitt, a close ally of President Donald Trump, was waiting on more firm direction from the federal government that did not come. He would eventually issue what was called a safer-at-home order on March 24, two weeks before we were set to leave.

Meanwhile, in Michigan the virus had already become scary. Cases were in the thousands with hospitals rapidly filling to capacity, stretching resources to the kinds of ends normally reserved for fishes and loaves.

There, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, issued her stay-at-home directive on March 23. While the order was much more strict than the state we were set to leave, questions swirled about whether the order had been issued too late to stop thousands of deaths. Now as I’m writing, Michigan’s cases near 25,000 and the number of people who couldn’t fight off the virus topped 1,400.

April 27, 2020 -- Michigan coronavirus (COVID-19) cases up to 38,210; Death toll now at 3,407

As we waited for our moving date, we packed. Packing our lives into boxes and bags after disinfecting the hand-me-down cardboard first, of course. Making piles of donate or dump. It became a kind of mental gameshow for me deciding the fate of each useless thing I had accumulated during my almost five years in Oklahoma after moving from Texas for work.

For Becca, it was different.

She grew up in Oklahoma, went to the University of Oklahoma and got a job right out of school working for the same news station I was now leaving. Her family still lives in Tulsa about 90 minutes northeast from Oklahoma City. The process of sorting through our things meant deciding which keepsakes to bring and which to leave behind for loved ones to hold onto as we made optimistic promises we’d be back to collect them once the pandemic passed.

The piles meant for the dump or donation centers proved harder to get rid of than we had anticipated. At this point, most businesses had gotten the message; close unless essential. No exceptions. But that also meant shortening the hours at the local dump as well as many donation centers. In the case of the Goodwill stand around the corner from our home, it was closed entirely. We left what we could on the side of the stand along with a few other dozen donations left by other people. All of us hoping someone in need of help would be able to find what they needed. On a return trip, we noticed someone had dug through one of the bags of my old clothes leaving some scarves and shirts on the ground. Hopefully they found what they were looking for.

After about four days of near constant packing our things were in boxes and ready for movers. They came at about 8 a.m. on April 1. A fitting holiday given how we would have to spend the next two weeks unexpectedly living out of suitcases and on three different air mattresses.

It was a two-man job. We were only moving into a one bedroom apartment without a couch so our things fit neatly(ish) into 30 boxes along with a bed frame and mattress. We asked one of the movers, named George, if they were worried about coming into people’s homes and touching their things without protection. George and his partner were not wear gloves or masks. Through a thick eastern European accent he shrugged and said it was “like the flu with a little bit of pneumonia.”

Nothing to worry about there.

They packed our things away. Marking each box as it went onto what looked like a 65-foot truck that was parked on our narrow suburban street so they wouldn’t be delivered to one of the other stops the truck would be making before Detroit.

Nothing to worry about there either.

We left Oklahoma in the middle of the week after spending about 5 days in the empty bottom half of a duplex we rented from a nice man who spent most of his time in New York working as an interior designer. His name is John. John had come back to OKC a few days before the movers arrived. He made sure say several goodbyes to us before standing on his upstairs porch to see us off. John looked just as sad as we were.

No one tells you how to say goodbye when you can’t be close to the people you’re the closest with. There are no shared drinks or meals. No one more time for old times’ sake. No hugs

Goodbye. It’s less of a goodbye as it is a relationship interrupted. Leaving people you care about is a part of the industry. Particularly in local television news where contracts are often only two to three years. You get used to staying in touch long distance and checking in from time to time. You find comfort in knowing there was physical closure.

But leaving without that closure feels hollow. Even for some of our closest friends who we were able to see from a socially safe distance, the goodbye felt lacking and less filled with meaning as we wanted it to be. For me, an above average extrovert, these goodbyes will stay unbearable, albeit painfully necessary regrets.

We had been driving for hours when we passed the sign for Ozarkland. It was also about the time we decided to make our first pit stop for gas and a small relief break for both human and animal travelers. It would be one of many along the way. Donning and doffing masks followed by hand sanitizer spray or, when that ran out, a straight shot of kitchen disinfectant.

Each truck stop experience was worryingly similar. Paper signs, sometimes handwritten, urging customers to wait until there were fewer than 10 people in a store and to mind the taped X’s or lines marking six-foot spaces. Most customers didn't listen.

While many stayed behind their taped boundaries, I could count on one hand the number of people we saw wearing masks, despite the CDC recommendation just a day before. Almost no one was wearing gloves including employees handling money.

We were often met with strange looks and sometimes scoffs. At one stop Becca said she overheard an older man in a plaid shirt and jeans telling the attendant we “shouldn't live in fear.” At another the clerk told me business had been steady but laughed from behind his recently hung plexiglass shield when I asked whether his regular customers were nervous about the virus.

At one stop in Indiana, the clerk, not knowing we’re journalists, told us he didn’t normally buy into the “media hype around the coronavirus” and didn’t trust politicians or experts either. In the same breath he told us how his manager had cut his hours, moved his shift from overnights to days and how one of his coworkers had already been sent home because of a high fever. Similar to our previous stops, no masks or gloves were seen here either.

Interactions like these left me somewhat speechless. The trip played out as a strange dueling set of oddities. On one side were crowded, gas stations filled with people whose lives seemed unchanged by the virus. On the other was the endless scene of empty school, restaurant and church parking lots that rolled by outside our car windows.

As we made our way across the country, the roads became less and less populated. The closer to another hotspot or a state like Ohio, which was the first to get a jump on mitigating the virus’ spread, the fewer people we saw out.

We passed through St. Louis, once the nation’s gateway to western commerce and transportation, where now highways were nearly empty. We continued through Illinois bound for Chicago, but no one seemed to be heading to the Windy City. In Indianapolis, home of the NCAA, we should have seen some residual electricity while driving through this time of year following the men’s college basketball tournament. Instead, the city at night was mostly dark except for a few billboards urging people to stay home to stay safe.

After our first day of driving, we stopped in Fort Wayne, IN at a hotel that was friendly for the pets. It was about 11:30 p.m. and we had been on the road for nearly 16 hours when we checked in. Despite our exhaustion, we spent the next hour and a half disinfecting our rooms and wondering how long it had been since the sheets had been cleaned, hoping the virus wouldn’t live long on such soft surfaces.

The next day was the final push to Detroit. We weren’t sure where our movers were with our things, but we were told it would be 7-10 days before our boxes would arrive. Our new apartment building called that morning to walk me through their new contactless move-in procedure. Everything would be ready for us when we arrived once we talked with security downstairs.

Feelings of sadness about leaving our old lives had subsided and were now supplanted by excitement with a touch of anxiety about what we would find in Michigan’s Metropolis. Surprisingly, the traffic had begun to pick up near the Ohio state line. As we crossed, an update from my new station’s ClickonDetroit app pinged on my phone. Michigan had hit 20 thousand cases.

As we drove into Detroit the city was nothing like what we had seen just a few months prior. Becca and I had flown up for my interview and stayed the weekend to explore a new city. It was vibrant and bustling. We would tell our friends there was a magnetic energy that was hard to deny when many gave us cockeyed looks at the mention of Detroit.

But when we made it to our downtown apartment, we found the city had changed. The energy was still there but it was an undercurrent, not a live wire. The streets and parks were empty. None of the lights in the restaurants, bars and shops we had been so eager to become customers of were lit. It reminded me of that scene from the zombie move “28 days later” where Cillian Murphy is walking through an empty London shortly after waking up in a hospital bed. Light traffic, however, made for an easy unloading of our two cars and the pick-up. The whole thing was done in less than a few hours.

After avoiding saying goodbye on several occasions, the time had come for Becca’s parents to make the return trip to Oklahoma. For this goodbye we did hug. No tears were shed in front of us, but I imagine the case was different on the drive back south.

So there we were, after a little more than a 1,000 mile trek, we were sitting in our new place. Detroit now the third hottest spot for the worst viral outbreak in the country in 100 years. Still, we were grateful. We were healthy. Our loved ones were safe. Our biggest problem was finding out the movers would be days later than we expected, which right now is nothing compared to the new normal inside emergency rooms, ICUs and obituary pages.

My first day at WDIV wouldn’t be for another week and the location of our movers was still unknown, so we figured we should get to work in the meantime. Our hopefully non-socially distant wedding back in Oklahoma, still needed to be planned.