This is a two-perspective story of our encounters with the impacts of COVID-19 while traveling to Europe for a cycling adventure.
Jeff’s story is in regular type.
Linda’s story is in italics.
Leading up to the event:
JEFF: In the months leading up to the trip, I joyfully anticipated travelling to Spain. On our recon mission to check out this trip’s possibilities in 2018, I saw Spain was a cycling paradise while the USA just cannot compare. Bikes are an instituted part of the culture in Europe, whereas American drivers often consider cyclists annoying. I committed to creating a trip for cyclists and their “Plus 1s”. I spent time and asked many of my Threshold Academy contacts to help. Several people were interested, but only a few participated. It bummed me out, but in retrospect, it probably was best, as there was a lot of freaking out while we were over there.
American cyclists spend lots of money on cycling stuff, and none of the cycling folks who I nudged to come were ridiculous enough to tell me that it cost too much. Many people spend more than this trip’s costs on mileage and entry fees for local rides alone. I know people who have spent more than that on cycling clothing or even a pair of aero wheels than the cost of going to Spain and riding for a week! Yet, there were two themes people used to decline the trip, and I couldn’t unwind their arguments. Some thought they didn’t have the fitness to ride in Spain, thinking that they needed to be at their best to justify riding on Spanish roads where the pros were training. Yeah, that excuse is a bit shallow, but I understood them. I was not at top fitness when departure day arrived, and I wondered how I would fare on the climbs.
My friends and acquaintances who I thought would enjoy riding in Spain the most didn’t have the ability to make the time; some had school age children and were overcommitted, and a few didn’t have enough days off from work for the year to make it work. Often, they would say, “next year,” and I believe some of them were telling the truth, but for some, I knew that they would probably never come. One bike store employee who claimed to have ridden in Europe before was sure to come. Despite repeated efforts, I never heard back from her.
Linda: We have been planning a remarkable trip to Spain for months. As soon as Jeff saw when Alex’s spring break dates were, he set up the trip. We invited our other son and daughter-in-law to join us. Jeff promoted the trip through his cycling venues to get other cyclists to join us. We would be staying with Chris and Helen – a couple that Jeff met when cycling the Pyrenees years ago. They had a home in that part of Spain and knew the area well. It was prime cyclist territory. Chris would lead the cycling and Helen would cook for us and lead the” plus one” adventures. We were having no traction getting others to join us. That turned out later to be a blessing- we just did not know it at the time. As the weeks and days grew closer rumblings of the Corona Virus in China and Italy were in the news. Italy was overtaken and they had closed their borders. Spain still felt safe to us, as there were less than 600 cases there. Our trip was to a rural region away from population exposure, and we felt safe to proceed. We were grateful it was only Jeff and Alex and his girlfriend Rachel and me on the trip to worry about. We had our hand sanitizer and wipes and felt as prepared as we could be.
Day 1: March 6th, the day of the flight to Spain.
My bags are packed with clothing, cycling stuff, and too many charging cables. Linda and I get everything down to one checked bag. We get Rachel’s mother to drive the four of us to the airport that morning, saving us money on parking. Our flights go off without a hitch. We transfer at JFK and get on our night flight to Madrid. I am excited. I don’t sleep on the flight as much as I did when we flew to Italy last summer, so I know that the car ride to Marina Alta will be a game of staying awake. Yikes.
Our flight was through JFK on Friday night. We arrived there early. I don’t think I ever washed my hands so much in one day. The airport was not over-crowded. We were being hopeful that the plane would have a light load. There were actually more travelers than I expected. We wiped down our seats, our buckles, the trays, the head rest and the entertainment controls. Jeff and I were blessed with 4 seats for us alone. The flight was long but easy. We only slept briefly.
Day 2: March 7th.
We arrive in Madrid and rent a car. Our bodies are telling us it the middle of the night, but it is mid-morning. We rent a car and drive nearly 5 hours to reach the town of Parcent, where Helen and Chris are waiting on us. Parcent is ancient and cute, and from the village, there are 4 distinctly different routes out of town, each with a unique feel, as a cyclist. We tour the property that we are staying at-just stunning beauty in all directions. We put our bikes together and get them just like we want them, and three of us head out for about half an hour to loosen the legs after a whole day of sitting on planes and in cars. Jet lag leaves our bodies after 15 minutes of pedaling, and we pass too many orange groves to count, all of them rich with fruit nearly ready to pick. As we get to the end, we stop and get one. We have a great home cooked meal, thanks to Helen. We watch sunset over the Sierra and say, “wow,” a lot.
We went through the Madrid airport with our luggage and not much in the way of crowds. We went right to the rental car counter. Jeff had reserved a straight drive vehicle because it was cheaper. He confirmed that Rachel could drive a stick shift so they would have to share all the driving. Fact 1- no one under the age of 20 can drive a rental car in Spain- that knocked Rachel out. Fact 2- you must have a valid driver’s license to present to the rental agent to get a car- that knocked Jeff out (he forgot to bring it). So- knowing I could not drive a stick, we had to switch to a more expensive automatic rental. The car was a smart car- smarter than us, actually. We could not get it to speak English and we could not adjust the seats. We did go back in for help, and the man who worked there changed the car to English. Yeah. We quickly left Madrid and joyfully drove into the countryside. We had what was supposed to be a 4-hour drive to our home base in the town of Parcent. We stopped a few times along the way a few times. We saw some familiar sights from our previous trip, like the giant black bull statues/billboards along the highway. When we got close, we called Chris and he met us in the close by town of Alcalali.
Our place was beautiful. It was made up a main house with 3 bedrooms (and 2 extra beds in staircase bedrooms) and three casitas outside. We had a tennis court, a huge pool (too cold) and deck with outdoor kitchen. There were seating areas all around the property. There were orange trees and lemon trees full of fresh fruit right in the courtyard. We were staying in the main house with Chris and Helen and their 2 dogs. There was a cat that belonged on the property. She lived out back near the washing machines and bike garages. There were hundreds of trees on the property growing almonds, olives as well as orange and lemon trees. As pretty as the house was, the view of the mountains all around us were even more impressive. We could see and hear the church bells in the town of Parcent in the not-too-far-off distance. Chris and Helen went over our proposed schedule for the week with rides for the guys and outings for me and Rachel. We loved the British accents and were having fun picking up phrases.
The guys went out for a quick ride to check out their rental bikes and see some of the area.
We had an amazing dinner that night prepared by Helen and went to bed early to try to get caught up on sleep.
Day 3: March 8th
Alex, Al (from the UK) and I head out after breakfast on our bikes for a 100k loop in the area. We climb up a valley for literally 25k before we reach the top, and we start the descent back on the other side of the mountain. We have no descents with views like this in NC. We stop for lunch at a little café, and everyone eating there was also in lycra and spandex, flaunting their affinity to cycling. We pass a pro cyclist going the other direction that Al recognizes. I turn to Alex and say, “see! The pros really do train here!” I wonder how long we could ride with him? A few minutes? A few seconds? Later in the week, we stop at a traffic light with an athlete from Team BMC….we were next to him for all of 30 seconds before the light turned green, and he was gone. That answers that.
Alex’s knee gets sore, so we cut short the last climb of the day. We get home and listened to three girls tell of their day hiking in the area. We crack open a bottle of wine (or two) and sit on the porch, watching sunset over the Mountains of Marina Alta. This trip has already been worth it. No way could I have ridden more than half a day in a cycling T back home. Weather back home is 20 degrees cooler than Spain. Chris tells us that tomorrow will be warmer. This is amazing.
We woke to the most beautiful breakfast table. It was very European. We had muesli, local cheese, tomatoes, fresh fruit, dark bread from the bakery, coffee, milk and juice and jams and nuts and yogurt and more! It was an abundant treat. The guys headed off with a friend of Chris named Alister. He was also from the UK and had a house there. There were a lot of British folks in the area. They were planning to be gone for about 4 hours and would be finishing the day on the close by Col de Rates. Helen, Rachel and I started our day with a drive to the Col de Rates and were going to hike up a section of it. Unfortunately, Rachel and I did not know this would be on itinerary and did not quite have the right footwear, so we did our best. We hiked about halfway up before returning to the car to drive all the way up. Helen had her car from the UK. I sat in the “drivers side” seat but had nothing to do. She drove from the right side but on the right side of the road. There was a café on the top of the mountain where we had a bite. You could see the Mediterranean Sea from the top. She showed us some of the mountains the guys would be riding on. There was one that looked like the head of an elephant.
After returning home and seeing the boys after their long day in the saddle, everyone in my group took a siesta. I kept finding unique places to sit and enjoy being outside. I met the cat. I did laundry and read. I stayed out until dinner. Helen did another amazing job with our dinner meal. She had no trouble preparing 2 vegetarian meals for Alex and Rachel. She is vegan and always had hers just a little modified and then a traditional meal for Chris, Jeff and me. Each dinner consisted of a first course- some sort of salad; our main course and then a small dessert. Everything was fresh, homemade and tasty. Rachel was trying and enjoying new foods at every meal.
Day 4: March 9th
We get our first reports in the am that global stock markets are crashing, and I lose a bunch of money on paper. Fear of COVID-19 has people reacting like the end of the world. I learn of the meaning of social distancing. I listen to an esoteric monologue about the differences between social distancing and isolation. Either way, we avoid people because of fear. I shake my head listening to the TV news over breakfast, as we listen to a British news program debating what is going on and how we should respond. At this point, I don’t get the fuss. I learn that our world’s health care system isn’t able to handle the perceived upcoming flood of patients needing medical care, and people are upset that a lot of otherwise completely unhealthy people are about to die. As always, people start taking sides. I don’t know what I believe. All I know is that it is time to ride.
But I do wonder as I listen to the TV. I am sick. I have a sore throat; a mild fever and my nose is running. Yet, it isn’t ending my happiness or my life. I may have a cold or this COVID-19 bug that has owned the news. Linda thinks it could be allergies, but that doesn’t make sense, as these symptoms started before we arrived in Europe. Whatever- it is doesn’t stop me from riding for 4 hours. I have had worse sore throats and worse fevers. I got through Dengue fever a few months ago; this is nothing, comparatively.
Alex and I head out on our bikes, this time with a support vehicle, to ride a different loop. Great climbs and fast descents. We didn’t have much flat anything, and we were always getting wowed by the beauty. The girls go shopping at a coastal town for dinner fixings and trinkets. All of us have a good day.
After another amazing breakfast, the guys headed out for a quick 100 km day in the Spanish mountains. They would be riding along with Chris in the support van behind them. Rachel and I headed out with Helen to the coastal towns of Denia and Javea. We had mentioned we wanted to a castle since they seemed to be in abundance. Having Helen able to navigate the area she knew so well was invaluable. She told us stories of the towns and places she and Chris would go on date nights. Her Spanish skills were necessary as there were very few English speakers in this area. The rural areas were not very heavily tourist travelled. We walked to the castle from our parking lot and found a back way in. There was a lot of climbing and stairs and odd terrain. When we got to the top and the entrance door, we realized it really was a back way in and not a main entrance. We climbed back down and walked in the proper way. The castle sat up high in the town of Denia. There were no interior places open to the public. The outside was loaded with stray cats. There were some visitors- regulars most likely- that brought food in to feed them.
While in Denia, we walked to the indoor Public Market. They sold fresh fish, meats, cheeses, produce, and the like. We bought a few things for the upcoming dinners and then walked back to the car. Helen took us by way of a tunnel that has paintings/graffiti on the wall just outside. There was even a tribute to Trump painted. We then drove to Javea. We had coffee and a pastry at a waterside café. We walked over to the local church that was nautically inspired. We then drove back to Parcent.
Each afternoon, when the guys returned, Chris turned on the tv news. They had an English tv station, so they were getting their local news directly. Every day Corona Virus seemed to be the only news. Things were escalating all around us. We still felt like we were in this protected bubble in our beautiful part of Spain, thinking nothing bad could touch us there with all that beauty around us. Traveling back to the USA was barely on my radar.
Day 5: March 10th
Alex takes the day off, and Chris and I ride our bikes to the beach to meet the girls for lunch. What a spectacular sight to see the Mediterranean from the top of a ridge after climbing the ridge on a bike. We descend to the coast and meet at a seaside restaurant by the bay. I feel blessed beyond words that I am not experiencing Spain from a cruise ship or a rental car. I am glad we are staying in the countryside and not in the city or in a hotel. We SO did this trip right. I need to share these pictures with folks who might yet come.
Another beautiful sunset, and an ever-growing running nose.
Alex took the day off from riding. Jeff and Chris got on their bikes and headed for the coast. Helen was taking the day off to do more grocery shopping to prepare for our next dinners. Alex, Rachel and I drove to the coast to meet Jeff and Chris for a coffee. We ate seaside, and the weather was sunny and beautiful. The riders began cycling back, and Alex, Rachel and I headed just around the corner to the beach town of Moraira. We walked along the beach front, we fed some ducks (and a large goose) in an inlet. We were feeding pigeons and one sat on my hand to eat-my treat. I always feel like it is a gift when an untamed animal allows me to be so close. We got back in the car and made our way back to Parcent. We stopped in a town called Jalon that we passed through on our way to the coast. It was siesta time and all businesses shut their doors most from 1:30 to 4. We walked around all the closed shops for a while, then we returned.
We enjoyed our beautiful secluded retreat in Parcent for the rest of the afternoon. That night we drove to the next town of Alcalali for dinner. We were in a very local restaurant-we were the only tourists. Jeff is starting with a runny nose. I’m sure it is just allergies. The orange trees, cherry trees and almond trees are all blooming right now.
Day 6: March 11th
Alex and I load our GPS with maps and head towards Valencia. We cross only one small set of mountains before descending the coast. We then ride on agricultural roads that parallel the coast for a total of 110 km before reaching the girls at a parking lot in Madrid next to all the tourist stuff. Alex and I make a lot of wrong turns, as the GPS didn’t have detailed European maps in it. We change clothes upon arrival and go walk around Valencia. Rachel finds some gems at a series of thrift stores in a hidden part of Valencia, not knowing that she would need every piece of clothing before this experience is over. head out into the mountains again, this time to ride over a couple of passes that we have yet to see. I feel great. The running nose is disappearing, despite the trees continuing to bloom-I conclude that whatever I have isn’t allergies. But whatever I have isn’t preventing me from going out and going hard on the bike. The TV does convince me that my snot rockets may be a weapon….
Interesting conversation at breakfast on one of the parties of English government suggestion on how to deal with Corona Virus spread. Their proposal- no quarantine, just let the virus run its course. Then, in a manner consistent with natural selection, the old or sickly would die off, releasing the government of the burden of pensions and health care for the elderly and sickly. Fiscally brilliant in the mid and long term.
Hopefully, that idea will not gain too much traction! At breakfast today, we are adding Helen’s homemade granola to our decadent spread. She uses the rind of an orange from the courtyard to flavor the oats. It is subtle, but wonderful. I will definitely try this at home.
Today is our day to go to Valencia. I am a little nervous about this idea. I’m not a fan of big cities. I’m definitely not a fan when there is a health crisis growing all around us. After talking to Rachel and Alex, they seemed excited about the visit so we went forward loaded with our sanitizer and wipes! The guys agree to ride their bikes in (110 km) and meet us there at one of the tourist attractions. Helen will drive Rachel and me and we will have snack and clean clothes for them. There are some beautiful sculptural buildings on the fringe of Valencia that make you think of the Sidney Opera House. They are big, white and modern. Both groups arrived around the same time, and our reunion worked out perfectly. Once the guys changed out of the God-forsaken spandex, Helen drove us into the city center with a plan to meetup around 4. Rachel had done some research and found a couple of vintage shops in the city. Fearing siesta time, we made our way there on foot and found some great places and great deals. We had pizza for lunch, and Alex ate more than an entire large pizza. We found another shop and realized our time was running short. We had talked about taking a tourist bus ride to see the city but did not have time to. In hindsight, that was a good thing as it kept our people contact down.
Helen prepared another wonderful dinner for us. We all sat around talking and watching the news. In the middle of the night, Rachel and I each started getting messages on our phone. Her mother and some friends were calling with news of Trumps announcement to shut the borders to all flights from Europe on Friday. Our return date is Sunday. My first message from Michael was that as well, the second one was also from him, “you should be ok, he is not restricting American from returning home”. It is now 4 am Spain time and we hear taking in the next room. Alex and Rachel came in to share their news. Rachel’s mother was ready to re-book her flight at a cost of $2000. We quickly shared that it would not impact us as Americans were ok to travel home.
Day 7: March 12th (vineyard)
We wake up and learn that stock markets continue to crash, and COVID-19 becomes a global pandemic. I learn what pandemic means. Some countries lockdown their borders to non-essential travel. President Trump announces the discontinuation of flights to the USA from Europe, as Europe becomes the global epicenter of what is wrong with pandemic management. Our family back home begins the act of overreacting, letting us know that they are concerned we will never come home. Here we go again-I am one of literally millions upset beyond words at what the media portrays vs. what happened.
Neither Linda nor I buy into the hysteria, and I read the fine print. Turns out the claim that we are stuck in Europe is fake news. US Citizens are still allowed to fly home, but we have to fly into an approved screening facility/airport. We already are scheduled to fly into JFK, a sanctioned screening city. We conclude that we will have no changes in plans. Time to ride and explore Spain and turn the TV off.
Alex, Chris and I head out into the mountains again, this time to ride over a couple of passes that we have yet to see. The first big one, Confrides, takes us up a longer climb and over a beautiful little mountain pass. We enjoy the rush of a long descent back into a beautiful valley before stopping for some refreshments. We hit a couple more mountain passes and valleys before getting back to the house for a shower. Four of us head out for a tour of a local vineyard, and Linda and I buy a couple of bottles to take home and share with folks.
We are in the cycling tour groove, now. Wake up, eat a lot, hit the roads on bikes for 4 to 6 hours, come back to clean up, power nap, eat and watch sunset and talk about life. This is the experience that I want everyone to have. In NC, people ride for a day, then disperse not to see each other again until the next event. Cycling is life enriching when you do it everyday with people who share a passion. Alex and I are both getting fitter, and we are both getting better and the things we weren’t good at. I can hold high power for 30 plus minutes, and Alex can descend without brakes. This is an amazing experience.
Waking up late after our exciting night, we get word that both Rachel and Alex would not be able to return to their campuses following their spring break. Both of their universities extended Spring Break an additional 2-3 weeks to allow students to self-quarantine. We now must change Alex’s return flight to reroute from going to Phoenix to return to Charlotte with us instead. The hold times were longer than expected that day. Today our breakfast treat was Helen’s homemade chocolate chip banana bread. The guys were going to cycle with Chris following them in the van again. Rachel and I were on our own for an adventure. We decided to go back to the town of Jalon. Our first find was a wine cooperative. Here, they had huge barrels of local wine with smaller ones in front of them. There were a few tasting tables around to sample what was in the barrels. We finally realized how this store worked. People could just buy the wine on the shelf in a plastic bottle that looked like a one-gallon Hawaiian Punch container. Or, if they brought their bottle back, they could refill their jugs there. It was a pretty clever idea. We did hear later it is not the best wine for drinking, but it was cheap! There were some nice bottles available for sale as well as local olives, honey, and almonds. Rachel and I also found a few more shops along the shopping area, and there was a thrift store that benefitted the local animals of Jalon. Rachel did a great job of selecting unique gifts for her family members that would never be found in a traditional tourist shop. I spoke to Rachel’s mom on the phone who begged me not to leave Rachel behind if we were separated. I promised.
We met the guys back at the house later and went to a very small local wine making shop in the town of Parcent. We had reservations for a 4 pm tour and tasting from Alberto, the wine maker and tapas served by Noria, his sister. The building had been in his family for years. It used to be a place to just process the grapes to raisins. Later, and after renovations and schooling, Alberto turned the property into a wine making business. Since Alberto did not speak any English, Helen had to translate the entire tour from Spanish to English for us. He was very proud of their processes and the wines. At some point in the translation, Helen would begin making things up that she could not translate. We got tickled as she said things like. “this wine goes well with tofu” when she could not follow along with Alberto’s commentary. We had loads of fun, tasted some great wine and even brought a few bottles home to share.
After dinner at the house, the news was on again and the realization there were only a limited number of airports that would even receive airplanes from Europe came to light. We were, thankfully, already booked through JFK, an approved airport. We did not know, however, what that would mean for the crowds at our return. Jeff’s nose is still running a bit, and he has a slight cough. It is affecting his sleep. I am not overly concerned. He’s only concerned on what this could look like by Sunday when we have to travel.
Day 8: March 13th.
Alex and I both agree to take the day off. We take the girls in the car and ride on the route. I take a Benadryl to make the running nose go away, and it works. Linda hates the windy roads, but we get out and look at the landscape, going not much faster than we would on our bikes. Alex and I comment about how things look differently when you are driving and not pedaling.
All the chatter is about closings of borders and social “screw you’ing” that is in effect. Apparently, Madrid is to go on lockdown. Yet, none of this seems real as we look at cows walking on the sides of mountains, knowing that none of this impacts any other species but ours.
It is our last full day in the beautiful countryside. We wake up with Chris watching the news and hearing the escalation of the global pandemic. There is talk of Spain shutting its borders. He wonders if he and Helen stay put in the beautiful fresh air of Spain, or head back to Wales to their new home they just purchased. Brexit has jeopardized their ability to live and work in other European countries with the same benefits that they are used to, and they must move back. They are expecting a group from Canada next week, and they are wondering if they will cancel.
The day is labeled as Rider’s Choice”. The guys decide they need the day off. The weather is cloudy and cooler, and they decide they wait to see if it clears up enough to make another run up the Col de Rates at the end of the day. After another beautiful breakfast, we get in the car to drive through some of the areas Jeff and Alex had ridden through earlier in the week. I don’t know what I was thinking. I don’t know what Jeff was thinking. Clearly, we had both forgotten my un-natural fear of riding on mountain roads with lots of twisty turns. I squeaked enough for Jeff to know to slow down to a crawl. We drove through amazing scenery; I just could not relax and enjoy myself. I have seen the pictures that Jeff and Alex and Rachel got out to take, it was breathtaking; but for me it was also terrifying.
Back at home base, we relax and do our last laundry. The clouds never really cleared today, so they are not able to go out for their one last ride. We have tomorrow morning available since we are in no rush to get to Madrid. We drive into Jalon to have our last dinner at a very nice restaurant. Helen made the reservations for us and called it “a smart restaurant”. It was not very crowded. People are not going out much. As the inevitable shut down of Spain is looming, restaurants will be closing for an unknown period of time. Little did the restaurant know that this would be their last weekday of operation. By Monday, all of Spain will be in a mandatory quarantine. We realize we will have to self-quarantine upon returning home. Rachel will have to live with us for a few weeks. Her mother is preparing for surgery a week after our return and there is great risk to her recovery if they stay together. Spain was now listed as the 5th largest population of infected people. They were close to 2400 cases. There was less than 600 at the start of our trip. Wow.
Day 9, March 14th Saturday
This is our last morning in Parcent. I get up early and go running, looking at the city from a pair of running shoes instead of the seat of a bicycle. I run next to the orange groves that I rode my bike through just days before. The experience isn’t the same. This is beyond words, as well, but different, as running takes me at a slower pace than the bike. I can count the oranges on the branches now. I can see the size the tree trunks and compare them to each other. I feel the uphill and downhill more. I wish I ran more while I was here.
My nose is running like there is no tomorrow, and the aches and fever are real. Still not as bad as Dengue, but I learn later that we will be screened by CDC employees when we leave the plane in JFK. They want to make sure that we aren’t walking COVID-19 bombs, accidentally killing everyone they meet, like a sci-fi movie. Linda and I come up with a strategy to take Benadryl before deplaning and two Tylenol to keep the fever down. We want to prevent me getting flagged and placed in a detention center, like an illegal immigrant. I want to heal back in my own home and not on the outskirts of JFK airport. Who wants to be in NYC in March? I used to live there, and I know.
I still don’t think I have this killer disease. I have ridden a few hundred km and ran another 5 or 10. That isn’t the behavior of someone with acute distress. Or, if this is COVID, the media has truly duped us with what it is and what it does.
We drive 5 hours to get back to Madrid and reach our airport area hotel. When we are 30k from our place, we can see the skyline of Madrid. We take a huge toll road bigger than any road we have in Charlotte. As we hit the toll plaza, I count 14 lanes in each direction. We enter the toll area, and I roll the windows down to insert my credit card into the machine. It is about 4 pm, but not yet 5 pm.
I can hear a pin drop. There are no other cars on the road. Earlier that day, Madrid was shut down, and all restaurants and non-essential businesses closed. We leave the toll booth and travel on 6 or 7 lane highway for the next 5 minutes, and we don’t see another car in either direction. I feel like we are in a Hollywood movie, and soon a director will come onto the road and tell us to get off his movie set.
We arrive at the hotel and the guy behind the counter checking us in is wearing rubber gloves and is behind a glass barrier. The hotel restaurant is closed, and we are told that we need to get our own food. We order delivery to the room, and the delivery guy won’t touch the food boxes, insisting we reach and get them ourselves.
Final breakfast. Final packing. Jeff goes for a run. The boys take their bikes apart. We originally planned to leave early to have a whole day to explore Madrid. As of now, we will do nothing but go straight to our hotel, so we take our time. We get one last chance to see the cat. We pack the car and say our goodbyes. We are driving back up the same route we used to reach Marina Alta, but things in the world are very different. We stopped at a grocery store close to Parcent to buy food for the day. We were not sure what we would find as we got closer to the big cities. The shelves were a little sparse, but we got what we needed in case we did not find anything later. We stopped for gas but the doors were locked- you had to pay through a window. At another stop, the cashier had her register area roped off to keep people from getting too close. We had to lay the money on the counter to prevent us from touching her gloved hand. There were armed guards on site. As we got closer to Madrid, the highways seemed emptier. I thought at one point we were on a wrong route- there were no cars. We approached a huge toll plaza and there was not another car in sight, not in front of us, coming towards us, or coming up behind us when we were finishing. This happened twice as we were very near the city.
In Madrid, our hotel looked more like a college dormitory complex. There were signs on the registration door saying do not come in if you don’t have any business here. I was afraid we were going to find it closed with no place to stay. We felt like we were one of about 10 people in the whole huge complex that could have held 1000. We knew that all the restaurants in the area were shut down. We were not sure about grocery stores, but it did not feel natural to go walk and explore. We did end up with dinner from a local place that delivered. Even that transaction was awkward.
Day 10: We leave the hotel and drive to the airport. We leave around 7 am. There are no other cars on the road going to the airport, so we use our car’s high beams for 10 minutes. We are still in Madrid, proper, with all the roads to ourselves.
This experience of a vacant city is surreal. Madrid is the biggest city in the Iberian Peninsula, and there is no one moving outside of their homes. People are isolating and avoiding contact with each other.
When we reach the airport, we get through all the security lines without event, and we learn that many of the people on the flight with us are there only because the city that they WANT to go to doesn’t support inbound travel from Europe now.
The flight over the ocean is uneventful. Linda and I have a whole row of seats to ourselves. We are asked to fill out a health questionnaire. I lie. I tell them I am fine. An hour before landing, I take the Benadryl and Tylenol. The CDC officials scan our temperature with a infrared thermometer and take our questionnaire without looking at them. I was counting on that. They don’t have the time or the finances to look at those documents until we are long gone. Barrier 1 is over.
Global entry is closed for all American citizens. Everyone goes through the slow line. They ask the normal questions. I am able to tell the truth on all of them. The conversation ends with “have a nice day,” and I am back in the states.
We hang out in the connecting flight terminal for a few hours. I lose my passport. I have my global entry card, and I use that to get passed TSA. I sleep. We have another uneventful flight to Charlotte and drive home.
We arrive at the airport without seeing many cars on the road. Alex commented at one point that I had driven almost entirely there with my high beams on but that it never really mattered. We have a 10 am flight. We arrive in our terminal right at 7. This is torture for Jeff to be there so early. We really had not idea what to expect. With the travel ban from Europe into US instituted on Friday at midnight, would the place be empty? With a lockdown in Spain starting in less than 24 hours, would it be a madhouse of people leaving. We got the latter. We had about a 1 hour wait to get checked in and our bags dropped off. People all around us were travelling with 4 and 5 suitcases not sure if and when they could return. There were Americans who were there working that had to leave abruptly. Everyone was patient and grateful to be making it out in time. Rachel was questioned at the counter about her health and where she had traveled and her plans upon her return to the states. We were told there was a final health check at the gate that some passengers would randomly being sent through. Jeff had a pocket full of tissues and was hoping to miss the screening. We were ok to board. I kept thinking about my phone call to Rachel’s mom about not leaving her behind. We got a message from Chris back in Parcent that the UK was shutting its boarders on Monday- the choice to stay or go was now out of their hands- they were going to have to wait this out in Spain.
The flight was mostly full, but Jeff and I did have a whole row together again. Alex and Rachel were together but about 10 rows back from us. With much wiping and sanitizing we settled in. There was such a feeling of relief when the plane took off. I know people will occasionally clap when a plane lands, this time I wanted to clap at takeoff. We knew we still had some final hurdles to clear before being home safe. We were given a health information form to complete on the plane. The attendants said this was new to them as well. It was basic information about where we had been and how we were feeling. Jeff took 2 Tylenol before landing on the wild chance he had a fever (he had not up to that point). Just as we landed, we were told there was another new procedure. There would be staff from the CDC boarding our plane and taking our temperatures as we were getting off. Jeff was anxious to get off and use his Global Entry to get right in. He scooted up the row as soon as we stood. I waited for Alex and Rachel to make their way to me. There was no way I was going to let them out of my sight. Our temps were recorded as good and we were able to exit the plane. At the top of the jetway, there was an armed police officer, wearing gloves and a mask, watching over a group of about 20 people- these were the people who had a fever. They would be taken separately for further questioning and testing and a decision to let them continue home or stay isolated in NY. We made it to the immigration area, and I was expecting a mad house. We landed at one of only 11 airports in the US that were taking flights from Europe. We walked right up to the agent and only had one person in front of us. I was staying with Rachel and Alex even though I had Global Entry myself. Our plan was to meet Jeff on the other side at the baggage claim area. He was there with our bags- what a relief to all be together. We got rid of our bags and waited for our last leg of our journey. I have never been so ready to land in CLT.
Driving home from the airport a strange feeling comes over us. We have been on an unprecedented vacation. The scenery was beautiful. The food was amazing. The house was luxury. The company was easy. We spent much of our time relaxed in the rural setting in a cocoon protected away from what was taking place all around us. We spent only a couple of days on high alert as we traveled in the cities and airports. We had one last task to make that happen and that included wiping down all our suitcases before bringing into the house. Jeff suggested stripping down our outer layers on the porch and not brining inside any airport clothing (that was partially done). We left our shoes outside of the house. We all agreed to take showers that night even though we were all exhausted. But all those final steps were worth it. We knew when we walked through our door- our house was clean and safe and germ free. We would be able to relax and self-quarantine here without fear.
The days after the trip:
I wake up the next day feeling fine. I have no fever, no aches and only a mild chest drainage. Two days later, all my symptoms are nearly completely gone. On day three, there is no trace that ever was sick. I race my bicycle on a virtual race and hit personal bests on all my metrics Cycling in Spain made me a much better cyclist. Whatever bug I had didn’t kill me.
However, my son isn’t better yet, but he is only a day behind me with his healing. He only has mild chest drainage.
He gets up early on Day 4 and rides his bike on the trainer in the basement. He isn’t at 100% yet.
We come home to pandemic reactions close to what we saw in Europe. Schools and universities are closed. My son’s college says, “don’t come back. We will have everything online for the rest of the semester.” I decide that I need my 4-wheeler to work, so I take it to my neighbor who fixes things like that. For the first time ever, there was someone else there getting his help, as well. I don’t get this man’s name, but during out small talk, he hears that I had just flown back from Europe and he freaks out.
I am totally healed now, but apparently, I am contagious…. assuming this was COVID-19 (which Linda still totally doubts). I remain unconvinced. It could have been allergies, as my wife thinks. It could have been a common cold. Either way, the CDC told us to self-quarantine for the next two weeks, since we left a Schengen country. We all decide to do it, together. Wish that man hadn’t been at my neighbor’s house. I wish I had ignored the small talk.
I am healed now. What it was, well, it wasn’t much. I still shake my head at the global response.
What is next?
We are scheduled to ride the Pyrenees is late August and race in the Netherlands in September. With the media and our propensity to listen to whatever they say as truth, most folks remain in a state of “oh my goodness” with their day to day life.
My response? I am not going to market this trip until people will have the information. There are already 7 of us signed up for the Coast to Coast ride in the Pyrenees. I have a couple of American friends who would love the experience, but I don’t know if they can overcome their fears.
Since coming back, I learn that the Spanish government made it illegal to ride bikes outside. This am, I read that people are already getting ticketed for riding their bikes to work and to their family’s houses. That means people that were training for Tour de France are now collecting unemployment. Weird.
USA Cycling is recommending no organized rides once a certain number of people are involved. They announce this ban until May. Every race director is following party lines and cancelling everything. Doomsday tones over shrinking corporate profits permeates the news as fear makes decisions for us.
In our household, we are only doing the minimum…groceries, banking and yardwork. We are practicing social distancing. Our church homegroup met last night, via teleconference, and that was weird. We are saving money.
Now that it is over, all of us want to go again. We loved Spain, even though we didn’t speak very good Spanish. The cycling is the best-better than anything I have done in the US or in France. We are targeting May 2021, after college is out for the summer.
Join us. Rumor has it some good stories come from it.