by Eric Barton | April 6, 2020

What I Learned From Road Tripping (With a Puppy) During a Pandemic

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Labradoodle litter
Photography courtesy of Mountain Creek Labradoodles

In the midst of a global pandemic, when all the experts were admittedly telling everyone to stay home for the greater good of society itself I set off on a love-driven mission halfway up the Eastern Seaboard.

It was for a reason that likely half of you will think is completely justified and the rest will deem entirely superfluous. That depends on whether or not you’re a dog person.

The trip was to pick up our new puppy, a 12-pound bundle of bleach blond bedhead we named Huckleberry Finn (aka Finn), whom we had already fallen in love with through pictures sent from the breeder.

Weeks before anybody knew how bad things would get with COVID-19, we arranged to pick him up from a breeder in rural South Carolina. This was mid-March—before the shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders—but it was still a downright bizarre time to travel.

We drove 10 hours straight through from our home in Fort Lauderdale. And with about 2,000 round-trip miles to cover, we figured we’d break up the return leg of the car ride with a few extra nights, taking every precaution we could to do so wisely in this time of endless hand-washing.

For us, this puppy adventure marked the culmination of a full-circle story that you might remember reading about a year ago. That’s when I told about our days vacationing with our late Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Lucky, in an era when many hotels and luxury resorts have begun welcoming furry family members. I didn’t know it then, but our trip to the Keys, highlighted in that story, was her last. Since Lucky’s passing in June, we’d been researching breeders and planning for our next fur baby, counting the days from his birth in January to when we could pick up little Finn, an outrageously adorable Australian labradoodle.

As the date approached, we had our hesitations. Perhaps we should delay the trip, we wondered for days, right up until we were actually in the packed car. But we had an obligation to the breeder to pick him up at the end of nine weeks, and for the pup, it was crucial that he get used to his new home at a stage when he could adapt easily.

But, it was strange traveling at a time when most people are hunkered down at home and sometimes frightened of those who aren’t. Here’s what we learned.

ALONG THE WAY, WE OFTEN FELT THE PUBLIC SHAMING

An eerie feeling takes hold when driving by those digital signs they use on the side of the road to inform drivers of things like a lane closure, which now read: “Stay Home. Save Lives.”

Eric snuggles with Finn
A snuggle with Finn; Photography by Jill Barton

Beyond the ominous signs, there were the sideways glances and chastising comments and questions from friends and colleagues: Is it not irresponsible to expose yourself to dozens, maybe hundreds, of people along the way simply to adopt a dog?

Yes. Maybe? But there we were, zipping by those flashing signs telling us to turn around, along with thousands of other cars blowing right by them.

THERE’S A DOWNRIGHT EXODUS OF NORTHERNERS

We expected to find light traffic along the way, but actually the highways were busy. We saw countless Canadian plates, with lots more from New York, Ohio, and New England states.

Finn sleeping
After every hour-long nap, Finn needs 10 minutes of playtime and endless amounts of affection. Photography by Eric Barton

It seemed to us, as we headed up I-95 over the border into Georgia, that we were surrounded by a sea of exiting snowbirds and spring break vacationers.

It’s hard to estimate what it’ll be like in Florida in the coming months without these seasonal residents and tourists. Even if things open up at some point in the next few weeks, those visitors are likely not coming back until the fall.

IN THE DAYS OF SOCIAL DISTANCING, HOTELS HAVE THEIR PITFALLS

The night before we were to pick up Finn, we stopped at a hotel in Columbia, South Carolina, which we quickly realized wasn’t a great idea.

Up until that point in the journey, we avoided human contact. For lunch the first day, we ordered takeout in Savannah and ate our food in a park, maintaining a good distance from everyone. The next day we ordered Chipotle through the website and picked up a bag with my name on it from a folding table set up outside the restaurant. At rest stops, we made wide paths around everybody, and at gas stations, paying at the pump meant no human interaction. At rest stop bathrooms, we’d bump the door open with our feet, wash our hands incessantly and constantly spray hand sanitizer, which we kept in our center console.

Yoga with Finn; Photography by Eric Barton

But there we were at Hotel Trundle, handing my credit card and license to the kid behind the desk. He gave me the room key, and I made a mental note not to touch my face until I could wash my hands.

After retrieving our little guy the next morning from the breeder, we drove on to Asheville, North Carolina, for a couple of nights, giving the pup some outdoor adventures before the 12-hour ride back. We stayed at a vacation rental, and quickly realized it was far better than a hotel in these days of social distancing. We used a code to unlock the front door and never had a moment of contact with anyone from the property. We brought groceries from home to avoid a visit to a local supermarket, and the only takeout we ventured to pick up was curbside. We spent two days without making close contact with a single person and got down to the business of bonding with our pup.

We put Finn, and ourselves, on a 90-minute training schedule between outings to sniff the grass. After every hour-long nap, Finn needs 10 minutes of playtime and endless amounts of affection. He devours bowls of food to fuel his lessons in walking (or bumbling) on a leash, learning how to sit and stay and roll over and anything else we could find on YouTube.

POST PUPPY PICKUP, LIFE IMMEDIATELY IMPROVED

You’ve probably been like me since all this started, obsessively reading the news of the virus, doing the math, contemplating the chances that someone close could get this thing and what the world will look like after. It’s similar to the era after 9/11; but then, we had a common enemy, paths (we had hoped) to victory and also an optimism that seemed to bring us together. Since COVID-19 became an epidemic, many have felt a general feeling of malaise and depression, even if we don’t know someone suffering from the virus.

Puppies, I’ve discovered, greatly mitigate this. It turns out a government-imposed quarantine is an ideal time to raise a puppy. Stuck inside, we had far fewer things pulling us away from the need to hold a squeaky toy as Finn chews on it.

Finn plays in grass
Finn out to play and sniff the grass; Photography by Eric Barton

Nowadays, our discussions center not around COVID-19, but around Finn’s quick ability to learn to sit. How he likes to be held like a baby. The need to explore the world by putting anything he encounters between his teeth.

We still talk about the virus (although, in our house, we call it Skynet, from the film The Terminator, so that it somehow seems less awful). But we’ve also been laughing a lot and spending a good part of our day whispering lifetime promises in the floppy ear of what looks like a walking teddy bear. Life is, undoubtedly, better, at least for the three of us.

There was a risk, we realize, in traveling many miles during a global pandemic. But if you have to do the same—if there’s maybe a puppy waiting for you at the end of a journey—a few precautions just might make it social distancing friendly.

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