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Melissa’s Spotlight: A Family Trip in the American West During Covid

Last year was full of many upheavals, delayed dreams, deferred plans, forced separations and other challenges, including deciding when, if and how to gather with family—and when, if and how to travel. After spending early lockdown together, our family, like many with kids over the age of 18, dispersed this fall and barely saw each other because of Covid considerations. However, we did want to spend the holidays together. And after lots of calls and texts, we agreed that we also wanted to continue our tradition of traveling together. We committed to doing so in a new Covid responsible way, which I believe is not only possible but essential, if we want to keep ourselves and others healthy and also want to support the 10 percent of the world’s population that is employed in hospitality-related industries.

Contact Indagare or your Trip Designer for more information on coronavirus travel safety, including the destinations that are open to travel, new COVID-19 hotel policies, the safest routes or transportation options available, future trip-planning advice, inspiration and ideas. 

Before we left, I spoke to friends who declared that they had no plans to travel until well after they’ve been vaccinated. “I’ve waited this long. I don’t want to risk it,” one said. Another confessed that she has become afraid of leaving home. “It’s like a muscle that I haven’t used,” she said. “I never used to be afraid.” And I understand those sentiments. We are creatures of habits, and habits can be hard to break. When you stop venturing out, staying in becomes what we get used to. I experienced that myself this spring and summer; I found it daunting to head to the airport for the first time. What is unfamiliar becomes uncomfortable, and yet once I read the facts about the safety of plane travel and the efficacy of masks, I felt confident that I could keep myself and others safe, and each time I have flown, I have grown more comfortable.

I have also been driven by a different kind of fear—that staying home will create a world that is unrecognizable on the other side. Tourism accounts for 10 percent of the world’s GDP, and for countries like Kenya, Thailand, Greece, Italy and many more it is higher. In the U.S., more than 40,000 airline workers have reportedly been laid off and four out of 10 hotel employees are out of work. There are predictions that 50 percent of hotels may never reopen. Their owners cannot wait for the second half of 2022 for global herd immunity and that knowledge—and the awareness that traveling today to areas that depend on visitors brings hope for tomorrow—are why we have to figure out how to travel safely now. 

Related Covid Family Travel Safety Tips 

My husband and I were open to where we would go, but after stressful work and school schedules, the kids had strong opinions about what they wanted their vacation to look like. “Hiking and healing,” said my 22-year-old daughter. 

“America’s national parks,” chimed in my 20-year-old son. 

“The Grand Canyon at long last,” we all agreed. Bucket list. Wide open spaces and easy social distancing. Road trip. Our own American backyard. We also agreed that everyone would test and isolate before meeting up to become a travel pod. I would book accommodations where we could have free-standing rooms with space to eat our meals and gather if we couldn’t eat outdoors. We would drive ourselves and wear masks around others—even outdoors. It would be all-family, all the time and a chance to see more of America together.

We left JFK for Las Vegas on what turned out to be one of the busiest travel days of the year, but we wore PPE, and I booked with Delta to guarantee lower capacity on the plane. Because we all have Clear, we had no lines to bunch up in; and once we were through security, the terminal was very empty. Our flight was only one-third full, and we all sat together, with no strangers near us. In Vegas, we only saw the casinos and high rises from the interstate as we had agreed to no crowds and no lobbies or other shared spaces.

Our first stop was Red Mountain Resort in Ivins, Utah, which is the best accommodation within driving distance of Zion and Bryce National Parks, but not a hotel attraction in itself. The property felt more like a collection of condos than a luxury hotel, but our two-bedroom unit came with plenty of space: a large living, dining area with a kitchenette, washer and dryer and large bedrooms and bathrooms. Ivy, the virtual concierge, contacted me by text on arrival and became our contact for room service, extra waters and settling our bill. We ate dinners outside under propane heaters or in our room’s dining area and ordered pack lunches for our park explorations. Under non-Covid circumstances, our canyoneering guide would have picked us up for our day in Zion, but instead we met at the edge of the park and followed him in our car to the trailhead for our introduction to navigating slot canyons by rappel. Jumping off a cliff in a harness and hiking diaper was a new experience for all of us and included lots of good-humored teasing opportunities. The next day, we spent Christmas driving through lower Zion and into Bryce National Park, for an unforgettable hike. Both parks are staggeringly beautiful, almost out of a fairy world with their warm glowing colors and wind-worn, whimsical shapes. The weather was brisk but sunny, and while this summer the parks had more than two times the number of normal visitors, we had trails almost entirely to ourselves.

On our way to Camp Sarika, the new all-tent sister property to Amangiri in southern Utah, we met our UTV tour guide. (He, like all of our guides, wore a mask even outdoors.) After a brief introduction to the vehicles and terrain, we set out in three souped-up dune buggies (he in one and our family of four in two) to explore the desert and Vermillion Cliffs National Park. We criss-crossed the Utah-Arizona border, raced along a rocky riverbed and navigated the rim of the Vermillion Cliffs that drop 3,000 feet into the striated canyon in a rainbow of red and orange hues. We stood on towering boulders scanning for California condors and spying the Colorado river snaking its way to Lake Powell. For sheer awe-inspiring natural drama, it ranked up there with the Alps, the Amazon and the Serengeti, but I knew better than to try to coax exclamations from my kids and instead settled for excited photo moments.

Pulling into the Amangiri and Camp Sarika evoked a different kind of wonder: at the combination of natural beauty and the creative inspiration of man, or more accurately Aman. Tucked into the desert landscape at the edge of a mammoth mesa sits America’s most glamorous camp site, which opened this past July and, like the whole property, has been kept at 60 percent capacity, with 24-hour sanitizing breaks between each stay. A series of 10 tented villas, complete with plunge pools, fire pits and every spoiling amenity down to s’mores kits and Toto toilets. Our two-bedroom tented retreat was hard to leave for all its cosseting, but the outdoor activities like sundowners on a private hilltop with sunset views and deep desert silence; a boat trip on Lake Powell, which we agreed may be as close to feeling like we were exploring Mars as we might get; and hikes into the surrounding slot canyons were all too tempting to forgo. One night, we huddled around our tent’s fire pit, wrapped in blankets, under an almost full moon, and listened to a Navajo storyteller share his tribe’s origin stories. We kept our distance and our masks on, but his stories and the stars’ magic wove us together in the kind of cross-cultural companionship that we have been starved of for too long. “That was awesome,” my son allowed, as we headed into bed, and it was.

From Camp Sarika, we drove down to Sedona to stay at Enchantment, the sister property to Mii amo spa, where I have returned every January for the past seven years to start the year with an Indagare Insider Journey retreat. We hiked with my favorite guide, who shared stories of his ancestor Geronimo and his Apache traditions of healing, and we made our foray to the Grand Canyon as the grand finale of the trip. Standing at the southern rim, our guide explained that the mile-long rise from canyon floor to the rim where we stood is the place where earth’s sedimentary layers are the most exposed, meaning it is where our planet’s physical history is laid bare, eons captured in the sweep of an eye. The basement layers date back 1.8 billion years. Staring across the chasm into the walls of striated stone, I tried to fathom how to absorb that kind of time. One year, even one as momentous as 2020, would be thinner than a piece of paper in this stone stack of ages.

Related Coronavirus Travel Information: What’s Open To Americans

“We are standing on the layer where the dinosaurs walked,” said our guide. The wind-swept gullies once sat at the bottom of the sea and then evolved into sand dunes, which morphed into stone with creatures trapped as fossils in their crevices. If staring up into the infinity of the universe scattered with stars feels like looking into the unknown future, then this was like facing the infinity of past history. Neither is comprehensible, but after a year of lockdown and what we agreed as a family in one of our long car drives was the most uncertain year of any of our lives, the yawning sense of space and time and our minuteness in them was contextualizing as concerns evaporated. In the face of all eternity, I was with those who matter most in my life. Lockdown has been a kind of forced hibernation, and traveling as a family again felt like emerging from a long sleep in a dark cave into a bright open space full of possibilities. 

For me, travel has always represented an array of options, so many roads one can take, all with different outcomes. But as Covid has made us all so much more acutely aware of how interconnected our fates are, it now also illustrates the impact of our choices. We, as travelers, have to think just as deeply about what we bring and how we impact destinations as what we gain and take away. Never more have I appreciated what a sacred privilege travel is, one that should not be taken for granted nor undertaken without consideration of our responsibility—for ourselves and for others. This was a trip where we certainly traveled differently, and though we traveled to “hot” states, all of us stayed healthy and kept everyone else’s safety top of mind as well—and we were able to support those working in hospitality, who tend to be daily givers of joys. (Even though I couldn’t hug or see the smile of my favorite server at Mii amo, Bev, I read the warmth in the wrinkles around her eyes when I showed up and when I told her we would be back with our Indagare Retreat in 2022.) Plus, our family added a dream trip to our stack of memories.

Related Covid Family Travel Safety Tips 

Contact Indagare or your Trip Designer for more information on coronavirus travel safety, including the destinations that are open to travel, new COVID-19 hotel policies, the safest routes or transportation options available, future trip-planning advice, inspiration and ideas. 

 

– Melissa Biggs Bradley on January 8, 2021

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Lockdown has been a kind of forced hibernation, and traveling as a family again felt like emerging from a long sleep in a dark cave into a bright open space full of possibilities. 

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