My Road Trip To the Lake of the Ozarks in the Era of Coronavirus

For the vast majority of us, 2020 has proven a year where we have stayed home. Whether your home is in an urban apartment complex, a suburban house or a rural farm, we’re traveling less and interacting with less people than in any other time in recent history. The culprit, of course, is that nasty little virus called Covid-19, the Coronavirus. In the last four months, however, we’ve learned quite a few ways to cope with the situation that don’t require us to lock the front door and keep the curtains drawn, most notably related to hygiene. Masks, thorough hand washing, avoiding crowed spaces, using hand sanitizer, and generally trying to move from safe space to safe space are all smart ways to minimize risk.

dock lake ozarks missouriAs it turns out, my ex has a lovely place at the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri that’s the home of many fond memories; the kids and I have spent many weeks each summer vacationing on the lake, swimming, boating and enjoying the area. So we decided we’d take a road trip and spend a few weeks at the Lake this year too. Yes, there are “party cove” areas at the Lake of the Ozarks, as famously touted in the news a few weeks ago, but there are lots more people at the Lake minding their own business and not engaging in ostensibly risky behaviors.

Just as importantly, it’s a day drive (with a pit stop in Kansas City, where we have access to a modest apartment as a way station). No hotels, no restaurants needed, just a long drive, a stock-up trip to the grocery store, and a beautiful lake house for a few weeks. But I kept wondering what it would be like to drive through rural Kansas and rural Missouri during Covid? What would Kansas City be like when compared to my little town of Boulder? Turns out it was just fine and everyone I met was respectful and happy to socialize at an appropriate distance.

Rural America didn’t surprise me with its unabashed enthusiasm for President Trump, however. Even Eastern Colorado residents showed their support, like this building that had both pro-Trump and anti-NFL (presumably due to Black Lives Matter?) signs:

no nfl pro trump garage, eastern colorado

Rural areas are more of a Republican stronghold in the Midwest, and it wasn’t particularly rare to see Trump signs when I wasn’t in cities or towns. Bumper stickers? Check. American flags flying from big American pickup trucks? Check. Confederate flags? Surprisingly, I didn’t see a single one on the entire trip, which I took as a good sign (pun intended). Black Lives Matter signs? One car in Kansas City, that’s it. Most people, as I said, were just getting on with their lives, ignoring politics on both sides of the aisle.

What were gas stations like? Well, I was driving a big 2020 Toyota Land Cruiser with fairly miserable mileage (16.6mpg) so I got to visit a fair number of petrol stations en route. Like this Pilot fuel stop:

rural gas station with cars

Just about every business had employees wearing masks, even these rural gas stations, but while they had signs indicating masks were mandatory for customers too, I’d say only 60-70% of customers were actually wearing a mask, though the closer to town, the higher the compliance. Signage was in your face too, and impossible to miss, like this:

mandatory masks signage - gas station door

You can see in the reflection that I do have a mask on – it’s easy, I have zero issues with breathing, talking or even whistling while wearing one – and most people at this particular station had ’em on too. Still, the feeling is that “it’s the big city folk” who are telling these rural people what to do. It’s worth noting that the occurrence of Coronavirus in rural areas is quite low on a per-capita basis. Even the Lake of the Ozarks with its college party scene on the big holidays has an incidence that’s a tiny fraction of St. Louis, just two hours away.

And the open road is still glorious. If you’re a driver, there’s something immensely appealing about the great vistas of a long drive. Some people might cringe at the open sky, but for me, a view like this is a delight:

the open road

Boulder to Kansas City is about 8 1/2 hours, almost a perfectly straight shot due East on Interstate 70. Kansas City to our place at the Lake of the Ozarks, however, is only a couple of hours further, but a bit of a windy maze working due SE on roads that go north/south or east/west. Zig, meet zag. Finally, though, we made it, via a stock-up visit to a rural Missouri Walmart:

kids at walmart with masks

That’s Gareth and Ashley, of course, and both wear masks without a complaint even though they’re in a very low risk age group. I’m proud that they understand public health affects everyone, not just them and their friends. At this particular Walmart about 50% of customers were wearing masks, though every single employee was wearing a mask. Every one, even though some looked like they didn’t want it on. Here’s a big secret for those anti-maskers: No-one’s enjoying wearing a mask, they’re a pain and it’s not fun to be having your breath filtered through fabric or paper. But it’s also a very minor inconvenience and easily doable for 99.9% of the world, in my opinion, at least.

I also kept thinking about how in a more rural area the chance of getting infected is significantly lower and that with some basic hygiene – wash your hands, wash your hands! – we would quite likely have been completely safe and fine had we opted to eschew our masks. Still, we wore our masks every time we went in somewhere, even the G2M Supermarket in Laurie, Missouri where we were almost the only people (employees included) wearing ’em at the time.

Ultimately, though, no one gave us a funny look, no one was hostile or snarky and the people not wearing masks didn’t seem to care if we had masks on our faces. Other people wearing masks also didn’t treat us like we were “part of the club” either. In fact, masks are just a fact of life for the vast majority of people at the current moment, and the more people wear them, the more we can reduce the infection rate.

And how was the Lake? Really fun. It was great to get out of town for a few weeks, the water’s still lovely, and we all really enjoyed ourselves, including the addition of our new dog Gus, who we taught how to swim! Road trips with a bit of planning seem like they’re just fine. The hard part is getting back into the groove post-holiday, as always…

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