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Oh, The Places I Didn’t Go! I Traveled a Lot During the Pandemic. It Just Wasn’t to Anyplace I Had Intended to Go

You’re off to great places! Today is your day!

Your mountain is waiting, so get on your way!

—Dr. Seuss, from Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

As a locum tenens ID consultant, I’ve had to travel a lot over the past 2 years. Starting in December 2019, I worked straight through the first COVID wave at a community hospital outside of Washington, DC. After more than 6 months there, I traveled for a 3-month assignment in rural Wisconsin. Then, I began a long-term, intermittent gig in Oregon, which finished at the end of 2021. As I made my way back to my Midwest home, a rain-to-snow storm in the Pacific Northwest and airline staffing shortages due to the Omicron surge greatly extended my day — I had lots of time to let my mind wander, and mostly, it wanted to consider my travels.

More accurately, I kept thinking about the travel I haven’t done. As happened for so many others, the pandemic affected my plans for a global itinerary. In February of 2020, I was scheduled to attend an international infectious diseases conference in Malaysia (with a little side jaunt to Singapore). Receiving the cancellation notice from the conference hosts came only weeks after hearing about the first case of COVID in the United States.

This was an eye-opening moment for me — clearly, SARS-CoV-2 was about to change more than just travel plans for most of us. As I continued to commute back and forth to DC for my locums gig, travel became more and more burdensome. Flights were cancelled or rerouted through distant hubs, rental cars were often unavailable or their counters were unstaffed, food options were limited, and hotel services were completely shut down. I relied on a nearby convenience store and vending machines for meals, and the only other guests I saw at my deserted hotel were mice in the lobby.

The next big trip to be canceled was an excursion to Italy planned for June of 2020. Sponsored by a regional book arts center, I envisioned 2 weeks full of visits to historic bookmaking studios near Venice, careful construction of a book of my own, and unending conversations (over food and wine, of course) with a small but incredible group of like-minded bibliophiles. To be honest, hearing that this trip would not take place nearly made me cry. Tanto triste! Instead, I navigated my way to rural Wisconsin, where life went on as if the pandemic didn’t exist. I knew Wisconsin was due for a serious surge in COVID cases when I saw teams of young boys and their parents/coaches/staff arrive at my hotel to participate in a baseball tournament without masks, consistent distancing, plans for testing, or cancellations.

In the fall of 2020, I was scheduled to tour Ireland in the company of a band that I love, We Banjo 3 (if you’ve never heard of them, they are worth getting to know — great guys playing great music; seeing their shows or listening to their music always makes me a happier person). When this trip was canceled, I was given a double-punch: I missed out on an experience that I may not have the chance to do again, and the tour operator wouldn’t provide a full cash refund. Ouch.

Instead, I began my travels across the country to the Pacific Northwest to work in Oregon. At least that state had been serious about the pandemic and its necessary precautions — it was the first place I’d been where most people, young and old, followed the recommended masking, distancing, and occupancy mandates. And this has certainly been reflected in Oregon’s COVID numbers compared with other states.

I’d considered traveling to Edinburgh, Scotland, for New Year’s Eve in 2020, but that idea was postponed when the Hogmanay event went virtual. So, for the next 12 months, I returned every 3 weeks to the Pacific Northwest, recognizing that travel outside of work assignments just wasn’t feasible. With Oregon one of the safer places to explore between pandemic surges, I did try to take a few days to see more of the state (most of Oregon’s coastline, the port of Astoria and Lewis and Clark National Park, weird and wonderful Portland, the historic Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood, the booming city of Bend, Willamette National Forest, and Crater Lake National Park).

In July of 2021, I choose to drive to Oregon (rather than fly) before starting my work week so that I could see some of the country from the safety of my car. The road trip took me over to Chicago, up to St. Paul and across to Fargo (with a stop at Theodore Roosevelt National Park), through Billings, Bozeman, Missoula, and Butte in Montana, down into Yellowstone National Park, up past Idaho into Spokane, and then over to Oregon. I also took one summer overnight trip to northern Michigan to pick up a custom wooden paddleboard I’d ordered — it’s beautiful! (Check out Little Bay Boards if you’re interested).

Hoping that the pandemic would finally allow international travel for the 2021 NYE holiday, I scheduled a trip to Montreal, where I planned to meet up with friends to take the train to Quebec City for an outdoor New Year’s Eve celebration. As I was counting the days through my final work week in Oregon and practicing my French, our restaurant reservations were canceled, one by one. The Omicron surge rapidly resulted in the return of occupancy restrictions and closures in Canada, and by Christmas, it was clear that I’d need to cancel the trip. The only travel that I got to experience as the year came to an end was that long, delayed, and stressful trip home.

My travel experiences, of course, are far from unique; everyone has canceled work trips and vacations and visits with friends or family during the pandemic. What differs is why we made the decision not to go and how we have chosen to transport ourselves (whether mentally or physically) otherwise.

As a healthcare provider, the concern for me has never really been my own health (or else I don’t think I could have worked through the pandemic as a traveling physician); rather, I’ve been much more afraid of sharing in the spread of the virus or infecting another (stranger or not) who may be at more risk for severe disease, hospitalization, or even death.

I’ve started tentatively planning for some travel in 2022 (hello, Portugal!) and beyond (did you know you can hike completely through Liechtenstein?), but I fully recognize that my itineraries may be interrupted again. I’ve made peace with that possibility — I’ll look forward to traveling when it can be a happy and healthy experience for myself and those I encounter along the way.

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About Dr Roni Devlin
Roni K. Devlin, MD, MBS, is an infectious diseases physician currently residing in the Midwest. She is the author of several scholarly papers and two books on influenza. With a longstanding interest in reading and writing beyond the world of medicine, she has also owned an independent bookstore, founded a literary nonprofit, and published articles and book reviews for various online and print publications. You can reach her via
LinkedIn.

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