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A home away from the virus, however you can find it

  • >> Ronda Kaysen, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-03-24 11:19:59 BdST

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Whether hitting the road or sailing out to sea, restless families are packing up and ‘slow traveling’ to new destinations. (Trisha Krauss/The New York Times)

Last June, as Americans began to emerge from lockdowns and into a new, uncertain stage of the pandemic, Amy Ryan and her family set sail in a 44-foot-long catamaran and headed up the Atlantic coast. They haven’t stopped sailing since.

Her husband, Casey Ryan, 56, was on a partially paid leave from his job as an airline pilot, based out of Denver. School was remote for their daughters, now 7 and 11. Amy Ryan, a real estate agent, could manage her team from anywhere. And they could rent out their house in Evergreen, Colorado, on Airbnb. The family saw a window open, and they leapt through it.

On the day in early March when I caught up by phone with Amy Ryan, 37, she was standing on a beach in Maho Bay in St John, US Virgin Islands, while her daughters snorkelled with sea turtles. “I feel totally disconnected from the reality of land life right now,” she said, her voice muffled by the wind. “It literally feels like I’m living a dream.”

For nine months, the Ryans have been hopscotching, first up the coast and later in the Caribbean. They bought lobsters from Maine fishermen for $20 apiece and anchored in New York Harbor. In November, they sailed an 11-day passage to Antigua with a Salty Dawg rally. They have been in the Caribbean ever since, having potlucks and bonfires on the beach with other boating families, whom they consider part of their social bubble as they dock together for long stretches.

Other times, they’re completely alone, storing food on the boat to limit trips to grocery stores. “We’re so secluded most of the time, we won’t see any people on land for weeks at a time,” Amy Ryan said. The biggest challenge is finding a COVID-19 test before setting sail for a new location.

For many of us, the past 12 months have been lived in a state of suspended animation, with dreams and plans deferred until further notice as we worry about venturing out for even basic excursions. But some people, like the Ryans, took the restrictions — virtual school and remote work — as an opportunity to pick up and go somewhere else. With a good internet connection, a Zoom conference call can happen just as easily on a boat or in the back of a camper as it can in a living room.

“There are a number of people who’ve looked at this crisis and thought to themselves, ‘I never saw the United States, I never took that trip I wanted to take,’” said Arthur B Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, Austin, adding that when faced with a crisis or the threat of mortality, people often meet the moment with regret and a desire to check things off their personal bucket list. “You can understand why some people may have seen this as an opportunity to try something big.”

On March 12, the Transportation Security Administration screened 1.35 million people, the most passengers on any day since March 15, 2020 — still well below 2019 numbers, but a sign that more Americans are traveling again. Nearly half of Americans say that a desire to travel has played a role in their willingness to get vaccinated, according to a February survey by The Points Guy.

But the survey also found that 56% of Americans haven’t travelled at all during the pandemic. Public health officials have voiced a growing concern that spring break travel could lead to another surge in COVID-19 cases and increase the spread of troubling variants.

Many people bristle at the idea of anyone taking a trip at all, let alone traveling indefinitely at a time of immense suffering, when millions of people are just waiting for the opportunity to hug a loved one again. School and office closings weren’t meant to make it easier to see the world; they were intended to persuade us to stay home and slow the spread of a deadly virus. Families that have travelled extensively during this time have done so despite public health guidelines.

But these families insist that their “slow travel” methods — allowing for only rare encounters with other people indoors — are no more dangerous than if they had stayed home. Spend your time crisscrossing the country in a camper and staying in state parks, and you rarely encounter anyone outside your family, except to get food and gas. These families often argue that they’re safer now than they were at home — with no grandparents or friends nearby, there is no one to see.

“This pandemic has been so incredibly hard for everybody, and people are finding their ways of managing and getting through it,” said Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, adding that isolated activities, like sailing or camping, are not inherently risky. “We need to give people a break to do something differently.”

Until the pandemic, the Ryans weren’t sailors, nor had they ever planned to be. But they spent the lockdown watching YouTube videos about families that sail. By May, they had bought a boat with no idea how long they would be on it. “If it hadn’t been for COVID, there is no way this would have happened,” Amy Ryan said.

And yet, their lives have become an endless voyage. Amy Ryan gave up on trying to keep up with the girls’ virtual learning schedule, and now home-schools them. The family hopes to extend the trip indefinitely. Casey Ryan is currently based out of Miami, so when he returns to flying next month, he will be able to commute from the Caribbean. “Honestly, it’s kind of awesome,” Amy Ryan said. “Nobody knows what the future holds.”

Other travellers set off because they simply hit a wall. There’s nothing like being stuck at home to make you realise you would rather be anywhere else. In Facebook groups like Travel Off Path Community and Worldschoolers, members trade advice on how to cross borders, how to handle local quarantine rules, where to find COVID-19 tests abroad and how to home-school on the road. Lonely travellers use the groups, with thousands of members, to meet up with other people overseas.

As the Wisconsin winter set in, Ana Gomez realised that she couldn’t make it through one spent constantly at home with her children, who are 5 and 3. “We cannot be in a house for six months when it is so cold,” said Gomez, 41, who is originally from Colombia. “It was going to be bad for us and for our marriage.”

So in early December, Gomez piled into her minivan with the children and her husband, Marcel Tassara, 40, a psychologist who was seeing his patients virtually, and headed south. After renting out their Milwaukee house, they made their way to Florida, stopping at hotels and Airbnbs along the way. Once they got to Florida, they spent a month in Largo, another month in Fort Lauderdale and a week in Orlando. They’re now in Miami for two months.

Gomez, who works part time as a travel agent, has lost friends and family to COVID-19, and says she is terrified of the virus but feels safe by avoiding crowds and indoor spaces. Her extended family, however, is baffled by her decision and worried that she or the children could contract the virus. “They don’t know how much care we’re taking,” she said. “How could we get COVID if we’re in the car?”

The family plans to return to Milwaukee in June, but hopes to repeat the trip next winter, home-schooling the children and escaping not only the bitter cold but also the responsibility of caring for a house day after day.

“I don’t want to go back, I really like this,” Gomez said. “I like the traveling. Just going from place to place and not having to worry about anything has been pretty amazing.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company