COVID-19

A trip cut short and ​a high-risk return home in the dawning era of a pandemic

Delta is using fogging technology to help clean their planes and lower the risk of coronavirus transmission.

Photo courtesy of Delta Airlines

It began like many of my work weeks begin. This one was slated to include five flights, provide the opportunity to drive two new vehicles and participate in the red-carpet-like reveal of another, finish flight training for my private pilot's license, and take the required final "check ride" after three and a half years of study, before returning home after 18 days.

For some, these metrics are unfathomable. For many automotive journalists, this schedule is simply the way we show up to the office and conduct life. For me, the goal of becoming a private pilot along the way seemed an achievable aspiration. It was both fun and hard. It involves challenge and some risks. Just like life.

I knew this trip could be different. I did my homework. By this point, I was well-educated about the coronavirus and its worldwide trajectory. After a slow start in the U.S., I also knew that COVID-19 had picked up its pace.

I read a New York Times email newsletter concerning the virus as it hit my inbox and studied a multitude of news sources. I queried and listened to friends and colleagues. Some discouraged travel. Others said "go".

I knew things were already changing in our country. I knew my path could change. I had no idea how quickly it would.

No one was so much as coughing on my two flights to Texas on March 11. Years of being on the go in remote areas has taught me to travel with a veritable medical kit as well as extra gear and goods. I had hand sanitizer, hand wipes, and two masks. I thought I had my ducks in a row.

Delta airlines coronavirus Covid-19 Delta is just one of the airlines taking measures to clean their planes between flights.Photo courtesy of Delta Airlines, John Paul Van Wert

News came at a rapid-fire pace from two close friends late in the day on Monday, March 16, as I was filming a flight training video in the small community of Vernon, Texas. I grew more and more worried as the reports grew more and more ominous.

There were no positive cases of the virus in Vernon. Despite the shortage of toilet paper, water and hand sanitizer, and the news that ammunition was sold out, life seemed normal in this rural swath of the Lone Star State, in an area known for its authentic cowboy culture and where crops, cattle, and ranches dot the roadside.

When I had completed my test drives of 2020 Nissan Titan and 2020 Titan XD 200 miles south of Vernon in Midlothian, just three days previous, life still seemed somewhat normal.

Then the next leg of my trip, which was to take me to Los Angeles, was abruptly cancelled. Not a surprise.

My daughter had called my first evening away with concerns about my well-being and the worry for her father and in-laws; we are all post-60. My age put me at an elevated risk of contracting the virus.

I kept checking various apps and reading all the advisories friends were texting me links to. Flights were being cancelled left and right. The way home was getting less direct and harder to figure out.

I already knew by now that I did not want to take the risk of traveling on two airplanes and through three airports to get back home (that's the quickest way to go). But, I assumed that I would complete my flight tests and return home in a relaxed fashion.

Suddenly, I found myself as a pilot and professional test driver who stays in motion for a living, stuck in place in North Texas.

I made a call to a longtime colleague at Nissan who offered to provide me with a 2020 Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek Edition so I could drive home to Massachusetts from Texas with far less risk than what a commercial airline, Amtrak, or a Greyhound bus could offer.

Covid-19 sign highway Road signs across the U.S. have been advising drivers that they should not be gathering in groups. Photo by Getty Images

"Get in your car and start driving now," my friends directed. "It's all changing fast," they said. "Travel is getting riskier and restaurants and travel centers are closing. San Francisco has ordered new rules, New Jersey has a curfew—just go…please!"

According to the mapping app on my smartphone, the trip was projected to be a 26-hour drive of approximately 1,700 miles.

I was packed in 15 minutes. I had a navigation system in the Pathfinder and used it to be directed to nearest gas station in a small town to the north, then mentally made note of a rudimentary version of the directions presented to get me through seven states.

I was prepared to sleep in the car and not stop at restaurants along the way. My flight training instructor had thrown a blanket and pillow in the back seat and helped me pack water and food.

This was an extreme journey, but not the type of extreme I was used to. I've traveled to over 70 countries, raced more than 30,000 miles around the globe, been trained by some of the world's top survival skills experts, spent a month on slogs through the wilds of Borneo and Mongolia (just to name a few). I was once airlifted to Libya "for safety". I was on a team that was shot at in Thailand. I hid in a vehicle in the brush nine miles from the Algeria border for an overnight, when my co-driver and I were lost during a race in Morocco.

This was different. The enemy is invisible to the naked eye and the path forward was clear.

During my first hour-long, self-imposed full-stop at 11:30 p.m. the first night, I fueled the Pathfinder, used the facilities at a truck stop and, after hand washing and a couple of touch-base texts, locked myself into the SUV. Hunkering down in second-row seat, under the bright lights of safety and near a collection of motorhomes and big rigs, I shut down my brain that was full of questions.

Was I already infected? Would I get sick? What would happen if I became ill along the drive home? What would be my resources if I had an accident or issues with my vehicle along the route? Exhaustion overcame the answers. Prayer settled the night.

Rested after a 40-minute sleep, I hit the road again. This was not a pleasure trip and I knew I needed to keep moving. By 3:30 a.m., my driving became less-than-perfect. Unlike most other models in the Nissan lineup, the Pathfinder doesn't yet have available advanced technology like the ProPilot suite of safety and driver assistance tech that is available in the Nissan Altima and Rogue.

Coronavirus updates clearned roadways Roadways across America have far fewer cars than normal thanks to travelers staying home to help flatten the curve. Photo by Getty Images

Pulling in to another fuel stop, I used the washroom to clean myself and used packed supplies to clean up few key touch points of the car and my credit card. Back to the second-row seat for more sleep. As I appreciated that my small stature made the seat feel like a twin-sized bed, I laughed at the notion of what ex-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn would think. He being the man who made worldwide news for sneaking out of Japan in a bassoon case.

Exactly 40 minutes later, my body woke me up naturally and I was back on the road. SiriusXM satellite radio became my lifeline as boredom set in. I found myself singing my way down the highway.

I ventured outside of my usual favorite channels and discovered Ecuadorian music from the highlands, Franco music that waltzed its way into my heart in French stanzas, and the news from CNN, and new-to-me me Fox (for equal measure), along with Doctor Radio, which was completely devoted to deep dives into medical news and has now become the coronavirus information channel.

Sunrises and sunsets have delivered some of the greatest joy in my life. When the morning light painted the world around me on Tuesday, I was midway through Missouri, having traveled through Texas and Oklahoma, and was nearing the Indiana border. It brought the vigor of a case of energy drinks and I began to know that I would remember the moment of this sunrise forever.

Charming signs, stunning vistas, and an ongoing picturesque collection of America's barns delighted my senses as I made my way through the Heartland. For periods of time, I forgot the woes of the present and simply remembered my blessings.

sunrise sunset With the sunrise came the dawn of a new day - the game had changed and the outlook is uncertain.Photo by Sue Mead

Navigating the roads was a bit surreal. The traffic, or lack thereof, was one of the unforeseen circumstances of the pandemic. It seemed as if Americans were heeding the road signs I kept seeing. Some were on overpasses or at the roadside, in electronic boxes where weather conditions, safety notices, and amber alerts are projected. A few were on rudimentary sandwich-board signs that typically direct travelers to specials at hotels and restaurants or deals for oil changes and new tires. "Stay home". "Stop the spread". "Save lives". "Flatten the curve".

Five hours from home, the orange orb of the setting sun illuminated my outside mirror. By now, I knew how much I didn't know. How would the world change? What would happen to me and my loved ones? Was my career over? The dark of night was approaching and all I knew was this: it was a new day. From here, forward.

Another road sign flashed "Stay home". Now I couldn't wait to get there.

Editor's Note: Mead has returned home safely and soundly to her family in Massachusetts and is not exhibiting any symptoms commonly attributed to Covid-19.

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The Nissan Pathfinder is just at home on the trial as it is on the road.

Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

One of my favorite poems is Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken". The message is about making choices and, how the road taken made all the difference. Often in life and on the road, we have to make one choice. Take one road. No turning back. I thought of this poem on my recent test drive in the 2022 Nissan Pathfinder in the hinterlands of Montana, when I could take two different roads—paved and dirt—and that made all the difference!

Nissan has redesigned and retooled its fifth-generation Pathfinder instilling greater latitude for buyers who want to travel both types of roads and expand their adventure footprint. After seven decades of off-road development, 35 years in the business of selling Pathfinders, and with more than 1.8 million sold in the U.S., this Japanese automaker has moved the needle with a ground-up revision of the previous-gen model.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder The 2022 Nissan Pathfinder is a capable off-roader.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

The full-sized sport utility is available in four trims (S, SV, SL and Platinum) and two- and four-wheel drive versions; Nissan expects that nearly 60 percent of buyers will choose four-wheel drive. The Pathfinder is in a segment that has grown larger each year as more families want a vehicle for around-town, school and playdate runs and for weekend getaways with traction technology that allows travel in the backcountry and good towing capability. Direct competitors are the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, and Ford Explorer.

A day-long drive of approximately 150 miles on tarmac and over a variety of dirt roads and tracks provided the opportunity to assess the Pathfinder's updates. A late-spring snowstorm added slickness to all the road surfaces in the region and allowed the Pathfinder to show off its traction capabilities at both slow and higher speeds and with lane change and emergency-braking maneuvers, when towing. I concentrated my evaluation on the augmented hardware and software designed to enhance the crossover's capabilities for backcountry travel and towing.

What I found most notable over every road surface was the comfortable ride and responsive handling that come from a collection of upgrades—and, in particular, as a result of the following: the gearing on the new nine-speed transmission, with paddle shifters for personal and more precise shifting for sport driving and slowing over rough terrain; the new terrain mode system that's engineered for different driving conditions; the four-wheel drive system that moves torque more quickly to avoid wheel slip; the improved suspension system; and new tires with a larger contact patch and more aggressive tread pattern, among other changes.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder Pathfinder's drive modes are designed to inspire confidence. Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

The Pathfinder provided sure-footed motoring and comfort over uneven surfaces. Its 7.1 inches of ground clearance easily maneuvered over the small obstacles on the trail and hill descent control took the reigns without hesitation for steeper and longer downhills on traction-compromised surfaces.

I was also impressed with the Pathfinder's towing competence and appreciated the standard trailer sway control onboard all trims. It offered notably strong, mannered acceleration from a standing start and excellent straight-line braking without porpoising for either exercise.

The new 2022 Pathfinder brings off-road and towing attributes that are important to families who are seeking to spend time in the backcountry for days trips and longer and for overlanding in terrain that doesn't require a true off-road vehicle with a low range. It's will appeal to buyers who want don't want to have to choose only one road.

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The 2022 Nissan Pathfinder arrives on dealer lots this summer.

Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

The 2022 Nissan Pathfinder doesn't have to be capable of rock crawling or deep water fording. What it has to do is service the needs of families in their daily life and give them the opportunity to competently go off-roading on rocky trails should they desire. The new, fifth-generation models does just that and adds in enough nifty features to make it among the most compelling choices for three-row SUV buyers.

The 2022 Pathfinder is thoroughly modern though not the boxy off-roader it once was. The SUV's styling harkens back to that time with a tilted, darkened C-pillar and a return to a more muscular body style. That styling makes straightforward visibility good but for shorter drivers seeing what is immediately in front of the grille is a challenge that necessitates using surround view camera technology (available only in upper trim levels) when navigating challenging terrain.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder The Pathfinder can easily handle the roads less traveled.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

Under the hood is a 3.5-liter V6 that offers up 291 horsepower and torque - plenty to do the job without complaint. The SUV's nine-speed automatic transmission replaces the continuously variable transmission (CVT) from the previous generation and delivers smooth shifts. Though low-end torque isn't as robust as I like it to be, once up over 35 mph, the Pathfinder's powertrain delivers smooth, powerful sailing.

The redesigned architecture and components underpinning the Pathfinder make it stable on the road and don't allow it to wallow on winding roads. Even off-road, the suspension provides the right blend of stability while the drive dynamics allowing the driver to feel engaged with their surroundings whether on freshly paved roads, city streets, or muddy trails.

Nissan has given the Pathfinder a 6,000-pound towing capacity and even when maxed out the engine's functionality is strong as ever. The transmission can get held up in a gear mid-range when performing this function, however, with 5,000-6,000 rpms registering on the tachometer but a quick release of the gas pedal recalibrates the offering bringing it down to a more traditional 2,000 rpm range.

The eight-seater Pathfinder clearly has the Toyota Highlander in its sights, with good reason. It's the top-selling three-row SUV in the country. Nissan boasts that three adults can fit across the rear bench seat of the Pathfinder and, as long as they're average size or smaller, the marketing talking point holds up. There is gobs more room back there than there is in the Highlander.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder Nissan has given the Pathfinder ample cargo space.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

Getting in and out of the third row is easy thanks to one-touch buttons on the outboard side of the second-row chairs that move the SUV's captain's seats forward creating enough room to get through to the back. Smartly, Nissan's engineers have put duplicates of these buttons on the back side of the same seats allowing third-row passengers to simply press the button to move the seat up.

The third row can also be accessed via a split between the captain's chairs as well, a space traditionally occupied by a center stowage bin/cup holders/arm rest. Owners can quickly remove the center console by opening a panel on the front and pulling the release mechanism. The one-handed operation takes seconds and the console can be easily stored in the under-floor trunk space behind the third row seat for ease.

Speaking of cargo space... The Pathfinder is one of the most spacious midsize SUVs on the market today for both passengers and cargo. There is a substantial amount of room behind the third-row seat and the under-floor storage area is nearly twice the size of the one in the Highlander. Plus, it has a feature that allows the area cover to be automatically propped up when pushed up by a user. This is especially help when carrying groceries or plants home and keeps them from being crushed.

The first- and second-row seats are suitably comfortable, even for extended periods of time and standard trig-zone climate control makes finding the right in-cabin mix easy. Bottle holders in the pockets of the front doors are exceptionally large, fitting even bulky water bottles.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder The Pathfinder's front row seats are comfortable.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

In front of the driver is a standard tachometer, speedometer, and 7.0-inch driver information display. Buyers can upgrade to a fully digital 12.3-inch instrument cluster and head-up display but they're not reason enough to upgrade to the top-tier Pathfinder Platinum on their own.

Nissan packs the new Pathfinder with a host of desirable features that make living with the Pathfinder easier including one-touch auto up/down windows, a wireless phone charger, grocery hooks in the rear cargo area, USB ports in all three rows, second-row sunshades, rear door keyless entry, wireless Apple CarPlay, and a motion-activated lift gate.

The 2022 Nissan Pathfinder is priced to start at $33,410 for the two-wheel drive S base model and $35,310 for the four-wheel drive S base model. The model tops out around $50,000 with destination and delivery included, which seems fair when comparing the Pathfinder to other vehicles in the market.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder The Pathfinder can tow up to 6,000 pounds.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

If you're thinking of purchasing a Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Hyundai Palisade, Kia Telluride, Honda Pilot, or Highlander, do yourself a favor and schedule a test drive of the new Pathfinder when it arrives at a dealer lot near you. You may just be surprised how seamlessly it fits into your daily life compared to the competition.

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