Everyone the world over knows travel has drastically changed. For many, the simple idea of travel is fraught, regardless of the current restrictions and border closures. But others still feel the need to get away, drawn to the appeal of new — or familiar — sights and sounds and experiences.
A few of our writers got away, safely, by conducting a great deal of advance planning, choosing their destinations and activities carefully, and taking steps to best ensure their health and safety — and of those they encountered. Here are some of their experiences.
River raft and camping trip
IT WAS nearly summer. I was tired of the walls of my house. In the carport the big blue river raft wore the look of a dog that waits too long by the door. Enough. I texted my old friend Tim, a travel writer sidelined by the pandemic. His walls, as it turned out, were tired of him too.
But where to go? There was one answer. Into the pines, and onto the water. Back to “the rock-bottom facts of ax and wood and fire and frying pans,” as John Graves wrote in “Goodbye to a River,” my forever vote for the best book about rivers, and life on rivers.
Raft in tow, I headed for northeast Oregon. As the odometer spun up, the towns grew smaller and felt less menacing. Then the earth opened and the road dropped down the walls of a steep canyon, and even the small towns disappeared. At the bottom there was little more than a campground and the Minam Store selling fishing flies, and a boat launch, and the river, hurrying past.
The Grande Ronde is not well-known to those outside the Northwest. The river begins in the Blue Mountains of Oregon. For the next 182 miles it works its way north and east until its confluence with the Snake, in Washington state. Those who do make the 350-mile drive from Portland usually come to float a 45-mile stretch of water from Minam to Troy, a trip that begins on the Wallowa River, until those waters shake hands with the Grande Ronde about 10 miles downstream.
The Grande Ronde portion is part of the federal Wild & Scenic Rivers System, and that designation is deserved. The river long ago wore a canyon through volcanic rock, until today those walls ascend 2,000 feet in places. There is no car access on this stretch. You are on your own.
Tim and I took precautions before meeting. We drove separately, arriving from different towns. To shuttle a car between put-in and takeout, we masked up and rode with the windows down. On the river, we slept in separate tents. We brought a hand-wash station. Most important, though, was what we did before ever leaving home: We knew the patterns of the other’s life. Tim and I both work from home. We keep our bubbles small. Our risk to the other, we figured, was acceptably low.
The first morning, we were up early but on the river late, still new enough at river trips and the work they require. Finally we pushed off into a cold spitting rain, the river blown out from a downpour the previous night. Trout fishing, one of our goals, was out the window.
This was a blessing in its way. Not a scrap of agenda remained for us rafters, except to keep the wet side down. We practiced our fledgling rowing technique through rapids like Martin’s Misery, and we talked, and we knocked the same old jokes back and forth like a shuttlecock, and we drank cold beer. Mostly, we tried to forget about the world above the canyon’s rim. — Christopher Solomon
As of July 8, Wallowa County, home to our float trip, was in Oregon’s Phase 2 opening, allowing more activities. As illnesses have climbed again in Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown now requires face masks statewide, even outdoors, when distancing isn’t possible.
SANTA YNEZ VALLEY, Calif.
Jaunt to wine country
AVOWED WINE drinkers and avid travelers, my husband and I had back-burnered the Santa Ynez Valley, a wine region 125 miles north of our Los Angeles home. We preferred more exotic destinations: Mexico, India, Japan. But by June, after three months at home, the notion of waking up in a different ZIP code felt novel enough to make some reservations and pack up the car, assuming we could still remember what to pack. (I forgot a bathing suit, he forgot Advil.)
The drive from Silver Lake to Malibu, up the 101, took only 30 minutes. We drove past lettuce farms, lemon trees and a truck advertising cilantro and watercress. The 101 gave way to State Route 154, with rolling hills thick with shrub and brush, seemingly devoid of human intervention.
Before walking into the Santa Ynez Inn, a 20-room hotel in the style of a Victorian mansion, we donned our face masks. The general manager, Julio Penuela, also wore a mask while checking us in, though the guests behind us did not, standing a good 12 feet away. We arrived shortly before the start of the daily happy hour.
“We’re doing it a little differently because of the pandemic,” said Penuela, gesturing at the plastic wine “glasses” and shrink-wrapped cheese plates. “We’d usually have more jewelry on display, too, but we don’t want to have things that people can touch.”
Before heading to wine-tasting rooms in the nearby town of Los Alamos, we walked to Dos Carlitos, a Mexican restaurant up the street. A dozen patrons sat outside, slugging margaritas and wine between scoops of chips and guacamole.
“You only have to wear your mask if you’re moving about,” a server told us. That seemed to be the unofficial rule throughout the region. In an Uber? Mask on. Walking into a tasting room? Mask on. Sitting at a table? Mask off (one could attempt to taste wine with a mask on, but that could present some challenges).
Servers stayed valiantly masked while explaining the varietals and fielding questions. “We’re new at this,” said Kim van der Linden of Stolpman Vineyards, which had outfitted the lawn of its Los Olivos tasting room with tables, chairs and umbrellas. “We used to have everyone inside, standing along the bar. Obviously, you can’t do that now.”
Across the street, a prepaid, 90-minute, private tasting at the pinot-noir producer Dragonette, we were allowed to eat the sandwiches we bought from Panino, the deli next door, a food option recommended by tasting room manager Nicholos Luis. (Most wineries generally do not allow guests to bring in outside food.)
Some tasting rooms in Los Olivos, like Stolpman and Dragonette, recommended or required advance reservations. Others, like Story of Soil and Bien Nacido & Solomon Hills Estates, were able to accommodate walk-ins.
By late afternoon on Friday, the number of people milling about downtown Los Olivos had thinned out. Judging by the crowd spilling out of the Italian restaurant S.Y. Kitchen in Santa Ynez, some of them went there. The wait list was three hours long.
It seemed, watching people come together, lower their masks and raise their glasses, that they wanted a level of lightheartedness that often seems out of reach at home, surrounded by bills and laundry and 24-hour cable news. — Sheila Marikar
Coronavirus cases in California rose in July and indoor wine tasting has been banned. Some wineries have moved tastings outdoors, but rules are changing by the day. Call the wineries you intend to visit to find out their policies, and don’t forget your mask.