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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Nuts & Bolts

 
 

The Nissan Sentra was completely redesigned for the 2020 model year.

Photo courtesy of Nissan Motor America

It's easy to not expect too much from the Nissan Sentra. In a world of Camrys and Accords, the slightly smaller compact car market is easily brushed off as cheap. That being said, your expectations don't have to be high for the redesigned 2020 Nissan Sentra to impress you. That isn't a drinking-the-Kool Aid scenario. The Sentra punches above its weight besting many other much higher priced cars.

So, let's start at the price. The Sentra starts just under $20,000 and the highest grade starts near $22,000. That's about the same price range as the Nissan Kicks. The Sentra tops out about the same as a similarly equipped Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic.

2020 Nissan Sentra The car is different from the bottom up, taking on design characteristics of the Nissan Altima, Maxima, and Versa.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

As tested, the top-tier Sentra SR comes with most of the features and appointments you'd expect of a mass market sedan. The car rides on 18-inch alloy wheels and is available in a variety of two-tone paint jobs as well as a good roster of solid colors.

The Sentra looks good. It doesn't vary too much from the Maxima, Altima, and Versa mold.

Under the hood is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that does the job sufficiently. Its horsepower and pound-feet of torque numbers sound low (149 and 146, respectively), but the car is a capable commuter. The engine is paired with a continuously variable transmission that won't bother most drivers with its capabilities. It's fairly fuel efficient too, getting 32-33 mpg combined depending on the Sentra trim level.

On top of that it's comfortable to sit in and easy to drive. Don't expect sporty Volkswagen GTI-level engagement or enough headroom for your 6'5" best friend in the rear seat (it is a compact car, after all) and you won't be disappointed.

2020 Nissan Sentra The materials on the interior of the car are fitting of its price point.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

Nissan does not sell the model with all-wheel drive.

Where Sentra wins big points is its interior. The car is the right mix of appointments for its price point, as tested, and even better than the cabin in the Subaru Impreza, Civic, and Volkswagen Jetta. Its 8-inch infotainment screen is easier to see and operate than that in the Mazda Mazda3's.

Though some may knock it, the Sentra's climate controls allow users to set the temperature the control the fan speed separately. This setup is common in many luxury cars. Most users would probably rather set it and forget it rather than deal with the two controls, but there's nothing particularly cumbersome about the design.

Though the infotainment system doesn't have the most intuitive functionality, most Sentras come with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, making it easy on users to just plug and play.

2020 Nissan Sentra Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are the answer to the woes of the Nissan infotainment system.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

The interior of the model is outfitted in standard charcoal cloth upholstery. Charcoal leatherette upholstery is available for a $2,170 upcharge as part of the Premium Package. Other elements of the package include surround view monitor, LED headlights, LED daytime running lights, moonroof with tilt feature, sun visors with illuminated vanity mirrors, auto-dimming rearview mirror, six-way power-adjustable driver's seat, heated front seats, and a heated steering wheel.

Like most new Nissans, it comes with the company's standard suite of six safety and driver assist features (high beam assist, lane departure warning, blind spot warning, rear cross traffic alert, rear automatic braking, and forward automatic braking with pedestrian detection).

That puts you all in for around $25,000. That's not bad. And, it's a much better car than the base Altima (though it has a smaller back seat and trunk), which hovers around the same price point.

Where the real comparison lies is with the crossover market, which is flush with a number of models priced similarly to the Sentra. For $25,000, there's nothing in the Nissan lineup that makes as compelling an argument for your money as the Sentra. Nothing from Ford, Toyota, or Honda either. Kia and Hyundai may be closest but their SUVs are still pricier compared to the Sentra.

2020 Nissan Sentra The car comes with device charging capability, phone storage space, numerous cup holders, and push-button start. Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

The Sentra's biggest sedan competition comes in the form of the 2021 Hyundai Elantra and 2020 Kia Forte.

It's legitimate to question if the Nissan lineup needs to have the Sentra with the Versa and Altima pulling such good duty. However, the Sentra makes a compelling case for drivers to see the lower priced offering, consider how much back seat space they truly need, and take it for a test drive.

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Visitors can hop on the ferry and camp out on Cumberland Island.

Photo by Ralph Daniel

There's a lot of wide open America to fall in love with between your home and your destination. Taking the long way or the road less traveled isn't a bad thing. It can lead to new adventures that end up as fond memories.

Almost as important as the destination itself is the vehicle you choose to road trip in. Click here to see AutomotiveMap's picks for best road trip SUV and here to see the best road trip cars. Click here to see AutomotiveMap's advice for planning the perfect road trip.

The next time you're planning a road trip to Georgia, consider the following destinations, which are not on the usual tourist roster.

Cumberland Island National Seashore

Cumberland Island hiking path Spanish moss oak tree

Photo by Ralph Daniel

If you're looking for an Instagram-worthy island on Georgia's coast, seek out Cumberland Island. The destination is only reachable by ferry and there's only two departures from the mainland each day. You can't take your vehicle so bring your walking shoes.

Like other National Parks, there is a visitor's center but that's not the main attraction. There are miles of beaches, hiking trails, bike paths, and fishing areas. Camping reservations can be had and there are managed hunting opportunities throughout the year.

One of the main attractions is the ruins of Dungeness Mansion on the southern end of Cumberland Island and the 22,000-square foot Plum Orchard Mansion. Also be sure to stop by The First African Baptist Church, which was established in 1893 and hosted the September 1996 wedding of John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Carolyn Bessette.

Georgia Movie/TV Tours

You can road trip to the Atlanta or Savannah area then let someone else do the vehicle operations part. The cities have a rich film history from "The Walking Dead" to "The Hunger Games" to a number of superhero films. Tour companies have popped up offering themed tours for TV and film productions, as well as general overview tours. Check out the full list on Explore Georgia's website here.

George L. Smith State Park

If you paddling and fishing, Georgia L. Smith State Park is for you. The state park is home to a 412-acre lake that is surrounded by thick stands of cypress and tupelo trees draped with Spanish moss. The state stocks the lake with bass and bream. If you're not in to tent camping, have no fear, there's well-appointed cottages that can be rented as well as space for tents, RVs, and campers.

National Infantry Museum

The National Infantry Museum

Photo courtesy of the National Infantry Museum

The National Infantry Museum encompasses 190,000 square feet of galleries that give insight into the U.S. military's role in the military campaigns that have helped shape the world's history. There's something for everyone from children to adults. The museum is located just outside Fort Benning, a U.S. Army post. There is no admission fee to get into the museum but they do ask for a $5.00 donation to help maintain the facility.

Chehaw Park & Zoo

Chehaw Park and Zoo

Photo by Ralph Daniel

What is Chehaw? A BMX biking facility, campground, an education center, and a zoo. The facility consists of over 700 acres of conservation land. The zoo consists of hundreds of animals including cheetahs, black rhinos', meerkats, black bears, and alligators. There's RV, camper, and tent camping on-site as well as cabins for rent. The disc golf course and BMW bike track give plenty of opportunity for good clean fun.

Atlanta Beltline

Atlanta Beltline Eastside Ponce City Market

Photo by Ralph Daniel

You can take the Atlanta Beltline from one side of Atlanta to the other, if you don't mind a long bike ride or walk. Or, you can opt to do it in sections. The east side of the Beltline was completed first and has the most development alongside it. There's art installations, popsicle carts, shopping, bar patios, cornhole games, and bike rentals available in addition to a myriad of cuisine options.

Stone Mountain Park

Step aside from the theme park area of Stone Mountain Park and head instead to the natural side where paddling, fishing, biking, hiking, and much more take precedence. There's a bevy of sleeping options from a traditional hotel to a yurt to tent and RV sites (and more). A general store, laundry facilities, and a swimming pool are also available. Remember to bring cash - there's a $20/day parking fee ($40 for an annual pass).

Oakland Cemetery

Oakland Cemetery tour

Photo by Ralph Daniel

Sure, it sounds macabre but some of the best storytellers can be found hosting tours of Atlanta's Oakland Cemetery. The historic cemetery is the final resting place of thousands of people (and animals) with enough stories to fill several days including "Gone with the Wind" author Margaret Mitchell, 27 Atlanta mayors, golfer Bobby Jones, and six past governors of Georgia. There's DIY options and a wide variety of themed tours available most of the year. Bring your walking shoes. There's a lot of ground to travel.

Roosevelt's Little White House

Warm Springs Little White House

Photo by Ralph Daniel

Enter into the world of President Franklin D. Roosevelt at his Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia. Just a few miles from Callaway Gardens, the site takes visitors back in time to learn more about the man that helped the U.S. navigate the Great Depression and World War II. Splurge on a stay at Callaway Gardens or camp out in F.D. Roosevelt State Park where there are tent, trailer, and RV sites as well as backcountry accommodations and cottages. Remember, you can still get a day pass to Callaway that includes the opportunity to walk or bike around the grounds, visit the nature centers, and enjoy the lake. Buying a ticket in advance can save you money.

Hike a monadnock

Panola Mountain State Park

Photo by Ralph Daniel

There are three places to see mondanocks, stone outcroppings that rise out of the surrounding landscape, in Georgia and they're all relatively close to one another. Arabia Mountain and Panola Mountain State Park are the least busy. Experts say that monadnocks are the closest thing we have on Earth to what it's like to be on the surface of the moon. If you're feeling ambitious, pack a picnic in your backpack and make a day of it.

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