Road Tripping In The COVID-Age As Thanos ‘Snaps’ 2020

September 1st, 2020 (Chicago, IL)

After traveling consistently for over 20 years, the last 6+ months of COVID lockdown had taken its toll on my mental health. My wife could see it, my kids could see it. I tried to keep everything in check, I really did, but it was getting to the point where I could feel everything unraveling after over 6 months of not only COVID related stress, but a virtual nonstop work schedule. I’ve always had a hard time separating work and personal time, and unless I’m traveling, I’ve found that my mind is pretty much revolving around work at some point during every single day, including the rare days I don’t have appointments.

The surprising thing is that business has never been better. I opened my own office in January, a short two months before our state went into lockdown, but even through it, things have been great. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to watch my business grow, while sadly, doors shut all around us, as businesses fail, and unemployment rises around the country. I’m incredibly grateful, but as the months passed, I also became incredibly burnt out. I’ve always said that ‘work pays for vacations’, but when all you’re doing is working nearly all day, every day, at some point it’s just not healthy anymore.

I’d thought about hitting the road back in June, then again in August, but could sense my wife’s discomfort with me traveling, so powered forward as best as I could. By early August, my feelings of dread and stress levels were through the roof. As hard as I tried, my patience was at an all-time low, and my unhappiness was at an all-time high. I know that seems dramatic, but over the years traveling is literally the only time that I can shut my brain off from work, for even a few blessed hours, and this is the longest I’d gone without traveling solo for over 20 years. My parents were over in August and I overheard my wife telling them that I needed to go. She could see it too.

I saw my first movie since February a few weeks back and went with the concept of ‘Planned Safety’. I’d been monitoring crowds at the Independent League teams I was targeting, and made flight reservations after seeing just how empty flights to Chicago were. My 8am Tuesday morning flight had 60 people on it, well spaced, and roughly 20% of what a normal flight would hold. SeaTac was a ghost town, and the process overall was incredibly smooth – which was completely opposite of my experience coming home, but more on that later.

Driving to SeaTac was surreal. There were a handful of hotels that were closed, and a number of parking lots were shut too. My Masterpark shuttle that normally services one location was now hitting three of them. Ghost town.

From O’Hare I grabbed my rental car. The garage was largely empty – Were the cars rented out, or have car rental companies liquidated their inventory? My bet is the latter.

My first night was scheduled for Rosemont and the Chicago Dogs. Like the airport, my Hotel (A-Loft) was empty. If there were more than 10 rooms booked, I’d be shocked. Restaurants in the small ‘hub’ across from the field were empty, on modified hours, or closed completely. My friend Jake and I walked across the way to Murray’s Caddyshack, a restaurant owned by Bill Murray and his brothers. It was an hour and a half until game time and there were 5 people in there, counting Jake, me, and the waiter. A fuzzy gopher golf club cover was stationed on every other table, closing them off to the throngs of game day crowds… like today. I had a burger and golf ball-sized fried mashed potatoes. They were good.

It had rained pretty hard that afternoon, but things had cleared up, so I was surprised when we got the email that the game was cancelled. I checked the schedule for Joliet, which is roughly an hour away, and saw they were still on for their 7pm game, so I had just enough time to get there if I left right then. Jake passed, but we agreed to meet up tomorrow instead, for Chicago Dogs Round 2.

I originally had Joliet planned for tomorrow, while making my way to Field of Dreams, but it was an easy switch. I made my way (quickly), and found myself in Joliet with time to spare. Well, time to spare if their game hadn’t been cancelled too. I’d checked their website and their Twitter, but didn’t think to check Facebook. Clearly I’m out of practice.

I’ll be honest, I was snarky and negative about it on Twitter, but had a revelation about the levels of my growing frustrations with life in general and decided from that moment on that every day was a good one, and the few short bursts of frustration I experienced during the trip were quickly replaced and re-centered with moments of calm. My trip officially started the next morning. A fresh mindset. I was privileged and grateful to be there.

On my way back to Rosemont I found myself back on Route 66, a callback to my hours driving through Oklahoma the year before. I stopped and grabbed a cherry dip cone while the Blues Brothers ‘danced’ on the rooftop of the small pull-up stand.

September 2nd, 2020

I don’t sleep much when I travel. It’s not a comfort thing, it’s the excitement. I’m always anxious to get out and explore, and even though it had been a few years since I’d been to Chicago, I still had a good feel for it as I walked to the Blue Line. Watching the apartments and condos pass by, well, the other way around, put me right back there. Everything was familiar, just like riding subways in New York.

I spent close to 6hrs just walking the city, logging over 10 miles between stops to look or stops to eat. I grabbed an Italian beef at Portillos and a slice of deep dish at Art of Pizza (on Kevin Kaduk’s recommendation, be sure to check out his Chicago sports website Midway Minute). It was beautiful out, but the beaches were all closed, a sad reminder of the world we’re all trying to manage through the best we can.

The biggest thing that jumped out through all of this was just how empty the city was. The streets, the shops, the sidewalks. I saw it again in St Paul and Milwaukee during the week, and made a startling observation. It was almost as if we’re are living in a post ‘Thanos snap‘ world.

Think about it for a minute. In the movie ‘Avengers: Infinity War’, Thanos snapped his fingers and 50% of life disappeared. We’re experiencing that moment right now. The ballgames, the restaurants and hotels; stretches of empty seats, empty tables, and darkened corridors and conference rooms. When you step back and just observe, it almost gives you chills. What is the reality of today, and what are the long terms implications of the post-COVID world? It’s interesting to watch, and equally scary. What will happen to all of these businesses? (More on that later in regards to Wrigleyville.) Combine that with the number of business windows that were boarded up from recent protests, along with the scattered masked people on the street, and there were times it felt like an episode of the Walking Dead.

I caught the (empty) train back to Rosemont in time for the game. I’d been waiting to hit Impact Field for the last few years and was looking forward to watching my Red Sox Fantasy Camp manager, Butch Hobson, manage the Dogs.

Tonight the Chicago Dogs were playing as the Chicago Wieners. It’s Wiener Wednesday, so hot dogs are free, which meant larger crowds, but still significantly under normal attendance. Impact Field in one word is ‘Crisp’. It’s a clean, sharp park with a solid location. I’d bet it fills up, along with the restaurants a short walk over the freeway, when things are less strange.

The American Association is running a 60-game schedule, like MLB, but started their season before Major League Baseball. 6 of the 12 teams chose not to play this year because of travel restrictions, and as it is, not every team was playing at home this year, living 2020 as baseball nomads.

The team checked your temperature when you came in, but once you hit your seat, masks were optional at your (relatively) socially distanced seat. I promised Amy I would wear it everywhere, and was diligent all week.

I watched the final outs of the game under a full moon before walking back to the hotel. I was originally planning on driving some of the way to Iowa that night to trim a few of the 400+ miles I was scheduled to drive in the morning, but decided to rest up instead. Plus, I’d never been to Iowa, so I wanted to see it in the day time.

September 3rd, 2020 (Dyersville, IA and St Paul, MN)

“If you build it, he will come.” It’s probably one of the most misquoted movie lines in cinema history, often replacing ‘he’ with ‘they’. But ‘they’ most definitely also come to Dyersville, Iowa.

After driving hundreds of miles through cornfields and 125-200 year old towns like Galena and Elizabeth, I arrived at the Field of Dreams. Most fans are sentimental for FOD, and while it’s not my favorite baseball film, it certainly has its moments, with feelings of true nostalgia and Americana. What’s the saying? “Baseball shows us what was great and could be great again”? I think we could all use that right now.

I was surprised at how many people were there on what was an incredibly nice Friday morning in September. There were probably 10 families there, including a father and son playing catch. It’s hard not to feel wistful seeing that, especially given my oldest’s love of the game, and the hours we’ve played catch over the years. I’d really hoped to share this with her, which is why I’d waited so long to see it already.

Surprisingly, the moment that filled me with the most emotion wasn’t the field, or the corn, it was the stands where Ray’s daughter falls backwards, only to be revived by Moonlight Graham, who chooses to leave behind his dreams to do what’s right, all while knowing he can never return. If that isn’t a metaphor for life, I don’t know what is. It’s the one scene in the move that hits me every time.

I walked into the corn, touched it, smelled it, before heading back towards the field. I had brought a glove with me and grabbed it from the trunk of my rental. There were two guys playing catch that looked about my age. They were finishing up, but I asked if I could get in for a few and they agreed. I didn’t think for a second that they’d refuse. Not here.

Frank was from outside of Dallas and Brandon is from Nashville. They’d stayed in the house the night before and were headed towards Louisville to the Slugger Museum. Frank had been to all 30 parks twice over, and we both agreed that Fenway was the best. Brandon fits as many parks as he can with his family and work. All 3 of us were there for the same thing: We needed to feel like part of the game right now. Butch Hobson likes to talk about finding that love in ‘smelling the baseball’. That’s why we were here.

I took a swing through the Baseballism store that was built for the since-postponed MLB Field of Dreams game before making my way one last time to the cornfield. I have two gloves I play with at home. When I left I grabbed my primary practice glove out of the garage, not even thinking. I got to the corn for a final touch and looked down at my glove. Across the wrist strap it read ‘Shoeless Joe‘.

A few hundred more miles of corn, a handful of Amish horse and buggies along the freeway, and over 400 miles before I arrived in St Paul, Minnesota for the night’s Saints game.

Like Rosemont, the hotel I stayed in was barren of any activity. The conference rooms were all dark, and the restaurant and coffee stand were both closed. A surprising and stark contrast to most of Chicago were the number of homeless living in the park along the river. I could see more than a dozen tents from my window. It’s a sad reminder of just how many people were already struggling before all this started. Where will we be in another 6 months or a year, when the long term economic implications of COVID really hit? It’s a scary road ahead, and I don’t think we’ve even seen the start of it.

I walked down to the park, which is a good thing, because the $20 parking is a far cry from the $3 parking in Rosemont. The stadium itself is nice. It has a AAA park feel to it. There’s a great museum in there, and the man and woman PA announcers added some fun to the game with their banter throughout. Of the four Independent League games/parks I hit this week, St Paul was my favorite. (Great cheese curds too!) It had the best and most authentic vibe of the parks and crowds, which probably has something to do with the team’s long history in St Paul.

September 4th, 2020 (Milwaukee, WI)

Milwaukee? Well, Franklin. The same way the Chicago Dogs play in Rosemont. It’s not as egregious as calling yourself the Los Angeles Angels… of Anaheim, but let’s face it, Milwaukee Milkmen sounds better than the Franklin Milkmen.

I only had 300 miles on the road today and took my time getting there. I stopped in Eau Claire at the Milwaukee Burger Co, also not in Milwaukee, for a burger and some amazing golf ball-sized cheese curds, before pulling into Franklin a little over an hour before game time.

The Milkmen’s park is new and fresh. I really like the shipping container look they’re going for, and the turf really stands out. I see their park and think ‘Spring Training’, and that’s a compliment. Of the four parks I hit, Milwaukee was the worst for crowd control and social distancing. Masks were few and far between, and unlike St Paul, who were incredibly strict at entry, Milwaukee was considerably more full, with few masks and just clusters of people throughout the park. I actually moved to a different area to give myself more room. I was disappointed in the team’s management/logistics for dealing with COVID, and even more disappointed in their poor quality cheese curds! (At this point, I’ve also eaten more than enough cheese this trip.)

Quality of play across the league is about on par with short season Single-A. In other words, a little slow, and a lot of low batting averages. The Independent Leagues are real ‘love of the game’ leagues; guys hoping for a chance or MILB/MLB players that don’t want to leave, all while likely making very little money. Tim Dillard, former pitcher for the Brewers, pitched the night before in St Paul, which seemed short sighted since waiting one more day would have helped their gate.

The highlight of the game was when one of the opposing coaches was ejected. We watched him make the looooong walk of shame to CF to the sound of a baby crying, before he stopped to bend down, ass to home plate, to ‘tie his shoes’, slowly.

September 5th, 2020 (Chicago, IL)

I’ve been waiting for today. Waiting or wanting? For as great as it was to hit some new Independent League parks, nothing replaces the Major Leagues.

I’d been watching the Cubs rooftop market pretty much all season, dating back to my original early Summer plans. The Cubs own the majority of the rooftops and had them saved for sponsors. The only rooftops available were at both corners, and I was seriously concerned about visibility, especially for the close to $400 it would cost for a ticket. I’d poured over website reviews, stalked Twitter profiles that had been to a game already, and wore out Google image search before choosing to go with Wrigley View.

Driving in from Milwaukee was a breeze. I’d hit the movie ‘Tenet’ after last night’s game, so I took my time leaving that morning for the evening game of a double header.

I had reservations at the Wheelhouse Hotel, a small boutique hotel a few blocks away from Wrigley Field. I was still really early, too early to check in, so I spent a few hours just walking around, since it had been a while since I’d been to Chicago.

The Wrigleyville experience during the COVID age is a stark departure from a typical year, even compared to years when the Cubs stink. 4 hrs ahead of game time and Wrigleyville was empty. I would never have considered driving down there if it wasn’t for COVID. The virus has clearly taken its toll; empty parking lots, sparsely populated restaurants, and businesses that had closed completely.

I peeked into Sluggers, which was quieter than a public library. There were a handful of people in there eating unhappily, like it was something they had to do versus something they wanted to do. I went upstairs to the batting cages and flailed wildly at 10 coins worth of pitches before heading out, but not before talking to the guy at the counter. They had a COVID capacity of 50 people, where before they could do up to 150. If there were 5 people downstairs I’d be surprised. They’re doing their best to weather the storm, but what will next year look like, and what happens to Wrigleyville if next season starts without fans?

One of the most striking things around the park were the handful of families that were walking around decked out in Cubs gear like they missed the memo. I listened in, they weren’t going to the game. So why bring kids down there? I mean, I get it, I’ve gone past ballparks this year too, staring longingly, wistfully dreaming, but I haven’t had my kids! That seems like taking the kids to Disneyland and standing outside the gate, before buying them Mickey Mouse ears.

By game time there were a handful of very manageable lines outside of very few bars. Most were well under even COVID capacity, and even then there just wasn’t the white noise murmur you get from a game day crowd.

I grabbed a late lunch at Happy Camper, one of the very few busy places on the strip, and I understand why. I had a great pizza, along with a vodka lemonade, while sitting out in the sun. (A side note that there was a lot of ‘talent’ at Happy Camper. Probably 80% women to men ratio. So take note if you are single, which I am not.)

My rooftop tickets were for the second game of the double header, so I got checked into the Wheelhouse. What a cool hotel! I loved the lobby feel, and whoever designed the look of the rooms did a great job. I’d definitely stay there again. Like other hotels I’d stayed at this week, the bar and restaurant were closed, and the rooftop was devoid of furniture, outside of a single pair of red adirondack chairs and a small lonely table. I’d love to stay here during a typical season game.

Check-in for Wrigley View was an hour before game time, which worked out great since I was able to catch the last 3 innings of the first game for ‘free’. I was the first one there, and had the roof to myself for almost all 3 innings.

I was really happy with the view. Quite honestly, I was really worried the view would be too far or too obstructed, but it was about as good as it could be. It felt like being in the upper deck of the outfield, which isn’t the best place to watch a game, but when it’s your only option you embrace it! Yes, there were a few minor obstructions with a small tower in LF and a partially obscured CF, but with the new screens it seems like all of the rooftops will have some form of obstructed view. Wrigley View worked out great, and at the end of the day I was at a Major League game, something I never envisioned with the current state of things.

I had a great time, but was too full from lunch to get in on the all inclusive food and drinks. The majority of those in attendance did everything they could to get their ‘money’s worth’ however. Haha. Speaking of, a few observations: All inclusive scenarios are always an entertaining social experiment to watch. It’s amazing how many people immediately load up on food or drink, then plow through it as fast as they can. I watched guys crushing Italian beef sandwiches like they were Joey Chestnut on Coney Island. Were they even enjoying it? Same with the beers. I think some people come in with the mindset of “I spent $400 on this ticket, so Cubs game $50… beers are $10, so that means I need to drink at least… 35 beers. ” And GO!

I always wonder about the demographics of something like a rooftop too. What’s the percent that are truly locked in on the game? Are they there for baseball, interactions, Instagram? What’s their motivation? I looked around at the other close by rooftops and was happy to see that most of the people were pretty well dialed in and looked like legit fans. It would have been a real bummer if there were just ‘suits’ on their phones the whole time.

I watched the Cubs lose for the second time today before heading back to the hotel. Unlike before and during the game, the bars were packed. (Again, relatively speaking.) There was virtually no distancing, not many masks, and it was a total meat market. So yeah, that’s a hard pass for me tonight. I grabbed a few pieces of pizza and ate alone at the window of my empty hotel lobby watching people stumble by.

Heading up to my room, I held the elevator for twins that had just come in. All 3 of us were wearing masks, and they’d come back for the same reason I had. One of them asked where I was visiting from. “Seattle.” No way, so are we.

We ended up on the roof for about an hour just shooting the breeze, while looking out at the Saturday night crowd. Kelley was helping her sister Kate move back to New Hampshire, driving across the country in a Uhaul. They’d spent the day before in South Dakota, and spent today just being in and around Wrigley. Both love baseball, played as kids, and still play in beer leagues. Sure enough, their favorite park is Fenway too. (2nd time this week.) A weird set of coincidences in timing, for sure.

We called it a night. They had an early wake up and I was on a mission to hit the unattended candy jars before catching up on some quick work.

September 6th, 2020

My last day was a flex day. I’d done everything I wanted to do this week, so I decided to give Joliet a 2nd try after Tuesday’s rainout. The Joliet Slammers are normally in the Frontier League, but since the season was cancelled, they settled for a makeshift 4-team ‘City of Champions’ cup.

Joliet’s ballpark has seen better days, which is depressing for a park that is less than 20 years old. The original team was part of the Northern League before folding in less than 10 years. The current Slammers have active since 2011, and from the look of it, haven’t update their interior or exterior graphics since then. I can’t picture Joliet being a big draw, which is too bad, because it has the bones of a nice AA quality ballpark. It’s sad to see a small town like Joliet invest in baseball, but not see the bump in economy. The bars in and around the park were all mostly closed, and look like they had been for a while. Like some past trips through the South, a sad reflection of struggles that so many small towns are seeing, even well before COVID.

The game was over by 3pm, and I was staring at an empty rest of the day. I thought about seeing another movie, or even trying to find a less ‘official’ way on to one of the other rooftops for the night’s game, but decided to fly home a night early to avoid the next morning’s 5am wake-up call. Changing my flight and hotel were easy enough thanks to the increasingly flexible travel policies brought on by travel-related businesses trying to find any way to get people to book with them through COVID.

Flying out of O’Hare was a complete 180 from my experience in Seattle. The rental car bus was packed like we’d all just gotten out of work, and the restaurants were even worse than that, with no distancing or masks in sight. I sat as far away from the madness as possible, eating a regretful airport pizza over some quick work.

Unlike Alaska Airlines, which is blocking out all center seats, United Airlines chooses to fit as many people on the flight as possible. Hell, they’d probably sell adult lap seating if they could. I regretted flying out on a Sunday night and made a note to avoid if if I convinced Amy and the girls to fly this year.

Still, as a whole, I felt safe 90% of the trip. I made a point of just avoiding some areas or leaving places completely when it didn’t feel like a place I wanted to be. It wasn’t about being paranoid, it was about keeping Amy’s trust. Part of her understanding my travel was knowing that I’d follow the rules, which included masking up at all times, along with using the 3 bottles of hand sanitizer she gave me, which while I didn’t use all 3, I did use diligently.

I’d go again, and would feel comfortable traveling again tomorrow. This trip was a really good first step into a new, and hopefully temporary ‘normal’. The irony of traveling right now is that it’s probably safer because so many people think it’s unsafe. So many people are avoiding airports, or restaurants, or movie theaters, etc., that there was plenty of space around me almost every where I went. If everyone actually thought it was safe and traveled, then it would ultimately be unsafe. How’s that for irony, and a Catch 22? Welcome to 2020.

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