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Lessons I Learned From a Pandemic Road Trip with an Autoimmune Disease

A handful of widely-applicable life lessons I took away from a 6-week road trip with an autoimmune disease.

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Road Trip Life Lessons with an Autoimmune Disease | Megan Zink

Spent. It’s how I’m feeling as we wind our way down through the mountains of Summit County, Colorado, heading home to Chicago after being on the road out west for exactly 6 weeks. 

Spent but accomplished. Spent but fulfilled. Spent but proud, because I never thought doing what we did would be possible during a global pandemic. Especially since I have an autoimmune disease – Crohn’s. 

When my husband and I (well let’s be honest, really, me) began nurturing the seed of an idea to visit my brother and sister-in-law and meet/help with their new baby in California back in May – it seemed like a wild and fantastic dream. Especially because at that point, I was – along with the rest of the country, and world, really – battling with extreme levels of anxiety, stress and burnout.

I’m a Type A+ personality with germaphobic and hypochondriacal tendencies. Throw in living in a Petri dish of a major city like Chicago, the worries of the safety of my parents, family and friends, managing a global, remote team (as a newish manager, no less) and the complexity of our social and political climates, and I was a mess of frayed nerves.

Oh yeah – and realizing how much my own world had changed due to the fact that I have Crohn’s Disease.

Just an Autoimmune Girl, Living in a Pandemic World

I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease over 20 years ago, and am very fortunate to be in what’s considered remission – as there is currently no known cure for the disease. I had 8 inches of scarred intestine removed just over 9 years ago, which has helped quite a bit.

I’ve been on immunosuppressants (and have had several bouts of steroids) for most of my life to keep my over-active immune system in check. (In those living with Crohn’s, the immune system recognizes different parts of the digestive system as foreign and attacks them like a virus or other invader. I like to think that my immune system is so badass, I need meds to keep it in check. Ha!)

I never let Crohn’s define who I am or what I can accomplish – but I was never living in a world with a potentially deadly, unknown-to-the-human body virus on the loose. At the best times it’s been humbling, at the worst, completely paralyzing. Which is all B-A-N-A-N-A-S anyway, because Crohn’s flareups can be triggered by stress! Pretty much a permanent Catch 22.

Possibly Planning a Road Trip

So, back to the tiny idea of a cross-country road trip. We’d fled (for lack of a better term) to my husband’s parents’ home in southern Indiana in late April after learning someone in our close-quarters condo building in downtown Chicago had tested positive – but we were still feeling pretty stuck. Not stuck where we were, per say, moreso, by the complete 360 of the world as we knew it. Canceled trips, events, celebratory milestones – all of it.

His brother had mentioned a few times how great it would be to have us visit – and honestly, after the hellish couple of months cooped up thanks to the volatile weather of a Chicago spring (aka, winter), nothing seemed more tempting, or conversely, unattainable, than some California sunshine.

Not feeling comfortable being exposed to so many unknown factors and crowds from all over the world in airports, I knew flying wouldn’t soon be in my future, despite being a passionate lover of travel. So, that left us with driving – and to California? Over 30 hours.

“Heck no,” was the initial response from my husband.

“Well, what if we broke up the drive and stopped for a while in Colorado? We both LOVE Colorado. It’s essentially the perfect midway point to California,” I countered.

“Okay – we can talk about it.” 

Pandemic Road Trip Planning

Fast forward to August – we’d spent the summer in Chicago talking through the logistics of a cross-country trip. Somewhere along the way, we actually committed to it. We booked rentals for our stopovers (the only place I felt safe) through VRBO and Vacasa faster and with less planning than I’d ever booked anything in my life. We decided we’d leave Labor Day weekend to take advantage of the holiday, and spend a few nights in Boulder, Colorado and two in Moab, Utah.

I’d never been to an official national park and so we planned to hit Rocky Mountain National Park and Arches National Park on the way to California. I also had been wanting to teach myself astrophotography (night sky photography) and thought this would be the perfect time to do it. So, I ordered an America the Beautiful park pass and a new lens, a handful of neck gaiters for safe, socially-distanced outdoor activities, and lots of overpriced Lysol wipes, hand sanitizer and toilet paper from Amazon.

Road Trip Best Practices in the Time of COVID

Overall, the trip went really smoothly – to each their own, but below are a couple of best practices we devised to minimize our need for stops (which also minimized our contact with people, our own risk and especially my increased risk with Crohn’s, and the chance of us introducing anything to them), as well as how we handled our different rental stopovers. 

  • Intentional dehydration: normally I try to drink at least 75oz (minimum) of water a day, but before this drive I cut off how much water I was drinking. Also, an especially salty departure meal helps (thanks, Lou Malnati’s!). Be sure to resume drinking water normally after you get to your destination, though!
  • Drive-through shifts: when we needed food, we’d hit a drive-through window, park, take turns running in to use the bathroom and wash our hands (fully masked up), eat in the car and be on our way.
  • Sanitize all the things: to preface, both VRBO and Vacasa were very communicative about the touchless procedures and cleaning precautions they put into place for COVID and we felt good about our bookings. However, that didn’t stop us from sanitizing ALL THE THINGS. Each time we got to a rental, we’d walk in with masks on, open doors, windows and turn on fans, then wipe every light switch, door and cabinet handle, thermostat, remote, appliance, toilet and sink handle, soap container and major surface we could find, strip and wash the sheets, pillow cases, towels, etc. and wash all the dishes we needed ahead of time. Overkill? Maybe. Did I sleep like a baby knowing we did everything we could? You bet.
  • Always be respectful and mask up: we began wearing masks very early on (especially because I have an autoimmune disease, and also because it’s just the respectful thing to do to help keep others safe) – a road trip was no exception. Whether masks for the few grocery runs we made or two outdoor dining experiences we had, or gaiters for every hike we did, we always masked up.

Lifelong Lessons from the Road

Photo by Megan Zink, all rights reserved.

Firstly, I recognize that my husband and I are privileged to have been able to take this trip. We both have jobs that allow us to work remotely right now and have wonderful family members who let us invade their home for a somewhat indefinite amount of time. I am grateful.

Secondly, I’d like to share some lessons these past couple of months have taught me, that hopefully you will find useful in your life as well. 

  • Be flexible: whew – this trip threw us for a loop. From wildfires, air quality concerns and a 60-degree temperature drop + blizzard to a sprained ankle and all kinds of other factors, we had to be nimble in our approach. At the end of the day, we were out west – and that was the whole point.
  • Seize the opportunities: if you don’t make a concerted effort to spend your time differently during a working road trip, you’ll fall into the same rut no matter if you’re in California or Chicago or Colorado (after-work errands, workaholic tendencies, etc.). Create boundaries for yourself and a small list of things you’d like to try/do to stay motivated.
  • Recognize when you need to rest: on the flip side, though, it’s okay to not do all the things. Since we were away from home “on vacation”, per say, my brain got pretty confused by not always being on the go – I had to remind myself a lot to rest – that again, it was a huge accomplishment to just be where we were.
  • Routine is really important: while a ‘rut’ isn’t good, most of the time, the human brain loves when things are familiar. I found recreating at least some of my morning routine (exercise, coffee, reading email newsletters) – no matter how small the pieces – helped trick my brain into running on a ‘familiar’ track, ultimately helping to calm restless energy and nerves and be productive.
  • I don’t need a lot of stuff: I wore the same clothes for 6 weeks; 42 days. Even when the pandemic began, it occurred to me, looking at my closest of all the outfits I have for (nonexistent) events, networking, meetings, etc., that I could definitely survive with less. Now I reallyyy scrutinize my shopping habits – and try to buy high-quality, durable, and sustainably-produced items that support small business and local communities or give back. 
  • It will all turn out better than you imagined: this one was a hard lesson to learn, but probably the most valuable takeaway I have from the entire experience. For all the doomsday prepping and logistics planning and worries of the unknown, everything was fine. In fact, it was better than I could have imagined. It was just as it was supposed to be. I realized staying paralyzed in my tiny bubble in Chicago perpetuated a constant build of fear over things I can’t control. Take precautions, of course, but just remember this anecdote from a well-known HuffPost article: 85% of what we worry about never happens.

About Megan Zink

Megan Zink works full time as a senior content marketing manager at Chicago SaaS ReviewTrackers, and is a published photographer, writer and speaker. She is also the founder and Chief Content Officer of media platform and site for lifelong learning, Color & Curiosity. She manages Crohn’s Disease and is an advocate for living a well-rounded life. You can usually find her getting active outdoors, learning new photography practices such as astrophotography, and leading or emceeing educational webinars, workshops and events. Connect with her on LinkedIn here and follow along with her adventures on Instagram here.

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