First, the basics. We bought a big and well-reviewed cooler, rated to keep food cold with no refrigeration for days. I packed children’s zippered pencil cases with masks, hand sanitizer, and plastic gloves: a packet each for myself, my partner, and child. It was the only pencil case my son would need this year.
We packed lunch meat and cheese for sandwiches, vegetables like asparagus and corn that could cook over an open flame. I packed jugs of water, packages of coffee, and a tin of powdered milk. I packed the vacuum-sealed oatmeal which had been sitting among our emergency supplies in the basement. Was this the emergency?
We were moving across the country to Colorado—for family, for my partner’s job, for my son to have a chance at a new school, and for health care.
Leaving Appalachian Ohio was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make, like leaving a partner you are still actively in love with but who has hurt you, has cheated on you and won’t stop, is drinking or using and won’t stop. I did that, too, years ago, and for a while, I thought he could change. I wanted him to be different. I wanted the world to be different, too. But what you want and reality are often not the same.
Moving my small family cross-country during a pandemic, in a worldwide emergency, is not something I could have anticipated. But in a way, I did. I won’t say I brought this on myself, but I wrote it. I wrote it myself.
Like many novels, mine started with a dream. I dreamed of a greenhouse in winter, the warm light inside the glass panes shining through a deep snow. There were two people inside the greenhouse with a child, I knew. And I also knew, somehow, the child was not their own.
That was the beginning of my novel Road Out of Winter.
When you’re living a dystopia, writing a different one feels like escape. My reality at the time I started writing my novel was that of a new and difficult divorce and single-parenting a young child. I was trying desperately to earn enough money as a freelance reporter, balancing a dozen deadlines to pay our bills. I landed a full-time job as an editor only to be laid off less than two years later. In short order, most of my colleagues would be laid off, too, and the journalism outlet I had worked for reorganized with a skeletal staff—but that was cold comfort when I received no severance. Because my former employer had been a non-profit, I didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits, either.
I wrote my book, like I have done most of my writing since becoming a mother: under extreme duress, the pressure to survive, to feed my child, which is the worst and best motivator.
In all my years writing about poverty, both the poverty I have lived and that which I often report upon, I’ve found that people don’t like to hear about how complicated poverty is, how it can result from a hundred different things or nothing at all. How it’s inherited, passed down as sure as wealth. People who don’t have lived experiences of poverty like the idea of one simple thing “causing” poverty because then it’s a problem that can be fixed—or, more realistically, forgotten about.
A storm. A bad storm, years-long. That was what I wrote in my book. Something to drive people out of their homes and away from their communities, seeking shelter, seeking alternative communities, seeking safety. But below the storm in Road Out of Winter, behind it, there is generational poverty, there is institutional neglect and the exploitation of a region for resources, stripping it bare, leaving its residents with nothing.
People don’t like to hear about that.
My divorce was difficult. The marriage, more so. As much as I love Appalachia and always will, sometimes I wanted to leave, but was prevented from doing so by the stipulations of my divorce—stipulations which too often unduly punish women more so than men, restricting our movements, education, finances, career, and other advancements with the burden of often near full-time childrearing. Divorce and single motherhood is one of those myriad reasons women go into poverty.
I was envious of my childless friends, or those with live-in co-parents, or less complicated situations, those with cash. I watched friends leave town for nice apartments and cities with safe drinking water. For medical appointments they could have the next day rather than in a month. For schools that taught calculus at the high school level. And, important for my biracial family, for places that were less white.
And then I left, too.
We’d been talking over the move for a while. We’d picked out a house in Colorado where my partner had been living—and which sat empty all the early months of the pandemic, when he lived with us in Ohio. We had settled on a fall move. A new school year. Good timing for our new beginning.
How can you have a new beginning when all around you is death?
We put in our top choices for public elementary schools, all the while not knowing—still not knowing—what school would look like, if my son would meet any other kids in person, let alone befriend them. This fall, for the first year in ages, I bought no backpack, no new school clothes.
I bought: surgical masks by the dozen, latex gloves, a collapsible bucket and soap. I put a container of hand sanitizer and a knife in every door well of the car.
How can moving be made worse? Move during a pandemic. My partner and I agonized over hiring movers to help pack our pod—we had an ancient, heavy piano after all—not because of the expense, but because of the risk of infection. In the end we did hire them, and they agreed to wear masks and mostly did. I opened all the windows and doors in the house and turned on fans, but still had a panic attack. I spent most of our moving day in the basement, organizing what little was left down there and trying not to cry, while my partner directed things upstairs.
Our belongings would travel in a pod, arrive later than us, but be in a shipping container for weeks, during which time the virus, if it had been on any surfaces, would die. But we had to move ourselves across the country, too.
In my novel, the narrator lives in a tiny house on her family’s illegal marijuana farm. When she decides to leave, to follow family to a warmer place, she hitches up the house and packs the truck with what she can. I’ve moved cross-country once before, to California, where I didn’t last long. But I was different then. Childless, in my twenties, I brought only what I could fit in my car, and gave away everything else. The world was different then, too. My dad and I drove together, stopping at hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions, stopping at gas stations and going inside.
In Road Out of Winter, the gas stations are starting to be emptied, closed. In our world as it is now, the gas stations are open but dangerous; everything is dangerous. My partner pumped gas in a mask and gloves. We had it down to a system. He threw away his gloves before getting back in the car. He held out his hands for me and I gave him hand sanitizer. He tossed his mask in a bag; I would wash the used masks nightly and hang them to dry.
We didn’t stop at restaurants. We ate our lunch in the car, parked at deserted ball fields and in desolate school parking lots. We didn’t stop at rest stops. We pulled off the highways and stopped in the woods, down dirt and gravel roads. For days, my legs bore the marks and scratches of tall grass, briar patches, and brittle scrub.
We stopped in Kansas across a red dirt road. Down the soft slope of a hill, there was a stream, and a great blue heron flew across the water right in front of me, its shadow streaking the banks. Its wings were long and almost silent. My son wanted to stay and play in the water. He scaled a fallen log. We saw sunflowers.
It was there that we saw the abandoned farm.
We had gotten back in the car and were turning around by a stump that had once held a mailbox. The mailbox was long gone but there was a kind of access road, we thought, a dip in the weeds. Once the car turned, we realized it was a driveway, almost completely grown over by tall, soft grass. Almost hidden by trees: the remains of a farmhouse, a big dark barn. It was quiet. We’d seen no other cars. The grass made a kind of song, stalks brushing against each other in the wind. I was lulled by it.
This is a good place, I thought. As ridiculous as it sounds, I thought: Maybe we should just stay here.
In zombie movies, I’d be the one who stays behind, who doesn’t want to give up the homestead which has been a good place, a safe place. Who doesn’t want to believe it’s no longer safe, that the swarm of monsters is just over the next rise and heading straight toward us. Maybe I would be the one who’d be eaten, sacrificed for familiarity, for the family home, for the things she’d built.
Leaving behind what you have built, even if it’s a difficult life in a difficult place, is not easy.
In my novel, most of the narrator’s family is already gone from the rural place she has called home. In my life, my parents are still there. I didn’t cry until we had pulled down the orchard road away from my mother. I cried in the car, when I’m sure she was crying behind us, too.
One by one we’d said our goodbyes, safely, masked, at a distance. I watched my neighbors’ eyes fill with tears. We talked about how strange it was not to hug. Several friends gave me wine, offering disinfectant to wipe down the bottles.
It was not only that we were robbed of saying real goodbyes, as many people worldwide have been robbed of so many experiences—weddings, graduations, being present for births and deaths, going to school, meeting and becoming friends, even falling in love—but that few farewells have ever been as heightened.
Saying goodbye to someone is terrifying when you don’t know if you will see them again, if it will even be within your control whether you can. I guess I’m glad I didn’t know that before I wrote my book. There is no way I could have captured that terror on the page, put that emotion into words. There is no way to capture it now. We told our friends, neighbors, and my parents, we are visiting in December. And we are; we have to for child custody reasons. But what will December be like? What will next week be like?
We drove through Kentucky and didn’t talk to anyone. We drove through Kansas and counted cows. In Missouri, we slept in an old grain silo converted to an Airbnb. We had our process: the child stayed in the car while my partner and I wiped down doors and surfaces, opening all available windows.
We had trouble getting the fire pit lit that night. I balled up the paper I had wrapped paintings in. Once it caught, my partner tended the flames. I drank wine from home in a glass that read Bride Squad.
There was a wedding happening that weekend at a barn on the property, and a few children from the rehearsal dinner wandered over. Stay away, my partner warned them, as friendly as you can be when there is a deadly virus spread by breath and strangers want to see the warmth of your fire.
From car windows, we saw many people without masks. We saw people walking out of restaurants. We saw full parking lots at Wal-Marts, BBQ places, antique malls. Medical helicopters arched through the sky. We heard sirens. We passed cars stopped by the side of the road, their occupants running into the woods, as we had. We passed many RVs. We drove for a time alongside an old school bus, converted into a camper.
In my next novel, slated to come out in 2021, the main character and her partner live in such a school bus. What will come to pass from that book, set in a near future where plastic has overtaken the world, and wildfires and floods have nearly ended it? Is everyone who writes science fiction doomed to watch their stories come true?
The day we arrived in Colorado was bright and clear, as most days are here. The smoke from the wildfires had not yet reached us, though it has now. I wiped down all the window shades and blinds in the house that had been closed up for months, that my partner had found for us what feels like a lifetime ago.
I talked to my friend back home who said cases spiked right after we left and are spiking again. Because of the time difference, it was already dark where she was calling from. Cases are steady here in Colorado, but that could change. Anything could change.
I’m not going to spoil the ending of my book, and I don’t know the ending of my life story. But I know we are here now. We are safe and happy. For the first time since before I was married, since I was twenty-six or so, I have an office—a room of my own with a door that closes. The room is sunny and bright. I have a hooked rug from home, and enough space for my desk and all of my books. I can see trees and a park through the window. I have already written a lot here.
Also in view from my desk is a far corner of the nearest hospital. I can see some of their windows, and they can see mine. I’m not sure if their windows are close enough to see the light-up sign—my son gave it to me—I have placed on the sill that reads in glowing letters: I am with you.
But if you are in Colorado, and you see the sign, that’s my window. And wherever you are, I still am.
Rumpus original art by Dev Murphy.