A Pit Stop and a Pause to Reflect on a Summer That Wasn’t

Labor Day weekend is typically a chance to take a last deep breath of summer — to fit in one final county fair, extended-family gathering, or long beach weekend — before settling into a new school year or returning to a busy fall.

But like everything else since the coronavirus arrived, the joys and rhythms of the long weekend felt different this year.

Still, after a summer marked by canceled plans, in which many people were largely confined to the boundaries of their neighborhoods or cities, Americans hit the road. In minivans and on motorcycles, with cats or kids, they pulled into highway rest stops like the Richard Stockton Rest Area along Interstate 95 in New Jersey to snack, fill up on gas and reflect on a summer that mostly wasn’t, and a fall they hoped would bring better.

For some families, this weekend was the first time all summer they felt safe enough to travel out of town; the first time they would see certain friends or family members since the country shut down and Americans were forced indoors.

Jonathan Martinez, a construction contractor from New Jersey, used the weekend to escape town and try to regain a sense of normalcy. Mr. Martinez, who was traveling to Northern Virginia with his wife and two sons to visit friends, said it was their first trip in months.

“It’s pretty exciting,” he said. He had dirt bikes strapped to his truck for riding on the trails behind his friend’s house. “Finally, we can take a little ride and enjoy their family.”

After months of isolation, some risks are worth taking, said James Haven, a health care policy researcher who paused at the rest stop with his wife and son on their way to Pennsylvania for a weekend getaway.

“I guess we just got fed up,” he said. “There’s a limit to how much we could stay indoors and not see friends. We have to create a decent quality of life for our 5-year-old. He has to see other kids, it’s really important at this age.”

A new season will bring new challenges, as schools grapple with reopening and it gets too cold for outdoor activities. Mr. Haven remains tentatively hopeful.

“Cases are in decline nationwide,” he said, “so I’m kind of just banking on that.”

Renu Kuinkel, 32, originally from Nepal, with her daughter Rewisha, 1. Ms. Kuinkel and her family were headed from Queens, where they live, to Maryland to visit friends from Nepal who just arrived for their medical residency.

It’s been really bad. We go nowhere. This is the first time we have been out of New York City.

We both were positive with the coronavirus in mid-April. When [her husband] started to stay home from work he was sick for almost two months and isolated in the home. Now we are feeling fine with the kids. It’s been hard but a little bit fun, too.

Carolyn Hernandez, 27, of New York City, with Hawkeye, her one-eyed cat. A makeup artist, Ms. Hernandez has been out of work for the duration of the pandemic. This is the first trip they’ve taken out of the city to see family friends.

It’s his first road trip, we’re trying to see how it works. He needed to get out of the house too.

It’s hard to get close to people. I do fashion and events — there’s no events right now. I have not worked. We’ve been home for six months so we feel safe.

Two months in we ran out of things to occupy ourselves and we started to get stir crazy. We baked a lot at first. We watched a lot of cooking shows. The fall will probably be the same as my whole year has looked like but just colder.

We feel pretty safe. The masks, the sanitizer, we’re staying relatively distant from everyone.

Shelly Greenlee, 48, of Florida drives a truck with her husband. They just finished a trip that started in Denver.

Me and my husband are team driving, he’s asleep now. We can drive 10 hours each. We’re waiting now for a load so we don’t know where we’re headed next. I started driving in April. We have driven together probably 70,000 miles in that time. When we first started in New Jersey and New York, it was pretty heavy there — they wouldn’t even let us out of our truck. We just backed in and they unloaded.”

The roads were not as busy as they are now. It makes it a little difficult. I was in California last week and it took two and a half hours to drive 53 miles. Traffic is getting worse. You can tell people are back out and about and hopefully back to work themselves.

People stuck at home have got a lot more room to move around than I do, it’s pretty tight in here. We’re pretty much trapped in here most of the time.

I’ve got more faith than fear. I wear my mask when it’s required. Other than that I don’t wear it.

Emi Lotto, 36, works in book production. She was traveling from Queens to the American Treasure Tour in Valley Forge, Penn., for her birthday.

I asked my friends: ‘Who wants to come do this thing with me? It’s going to be random and weird. If you’re not comfortable you don’t have to.’ Several friends said they weren’t comfortable and they didn’t come.

I was supposed to go to Milwaukee for a paper doll collecting convention on Fourth of July weekend. Most of the paper doll clientele are twice my age so of course those guys will be looking out for themselves. I was bummed but I was not surprised.

We were tested about two weeks ago because we wanted to be tested before we see my in-laws who are elderly. It’s just the courteous thing to do if you’re going to to stay at someone’s house — you get tested.

James Haven, 40, of Englewood, N.J., a health care policy researcher who was reduced to a part-time schedule because of the pandemic, was traveling to Lancaster County, Penn., with his wife and son for a weekend getaway.

We just got cooped up for too long. We started to move around the last two or three months. We’re now trying to re-create 2019 normal. We have to create a decent quality of life for our 5-year-old. He has to see other kids, it’s really important at this age. So he’s going to be exposed to other kids and we have to take that risk.

One thing is that we still don’t see our parents.

I was nervous months ago, but I’m not anymore. It feels like I’m being cognizant of the risk. My perceptions of risk for me and my family are quite low. I feel like things are going to go better in the fall.

I tend to think things will be OK. I think people should vote in person. In that way we will get to see the will of the country in greater confidence. There will be less room for fuss.

Quinton Hunter, 30, of Amityville, N.Y., was riding his motorcycle to West Virginia to visit a friend.

I was working for an insurance company but now I’ve been freelancing, doing home improvement work, working on cars.

I redid my whole basement. I’ll start something and say I’ll finish it tomorrow and then it becomes next Tuesday.

Riding in New York you can go through two rims a summer, you hit a pothole, it’s terrible. You’ve got to be on it. Here you can cruise a little more, get a little flow, enjoy the ride. It’s what it’s about. Hopefully the fall will be nice weather so I can ride as long as possible. I have a son who’s 1½ and a little sister who’s 16. Now I see them a lot more. I’ll swing by and there’s a bigger chance I’ll see them.

I pray for the best. I’m young and Black in America. It’s the worst. All lives matter, sure, but people forget that Black lives matter. I’ve been to one protest. I try to repost, you know, to support the cause.

Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

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