I traveled during the COVID lockdowns, it made me realize this important thing about myself.

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One of the main reasons I was offered this opportunity was that no one else wanted to do it.

It was April 2020. The pandemic had just started, and all of a sudden, I was considered an “essential worker” being asked to travel the country. Normally, the idea of traveling sparks images of exploring fun restaurants and unique places, meeting up with friends or family, or getting to know new people – none of this was even an option. Most businesses were closed. The idea of even booking a hotel was difficult because every city, county, and state had different regulations as to who was allowed to be there. Everyone I knew was staying at home and enjoying a small circle of people to quarantine with while I was getting to leave the house and experience new places.

I thought I had beat the system!

Making my way up the coast was breathtakingly beautiful. I had wrapped up my work in California and was driving up the Pacific Coast Highway, with a pit stop at Redwoods National Park planned the next day on the way to Oregon. The night was getting late, and I needed to find a spot to sleep, so I booked a hotel on my phone and pulled into the small military town of Fort Bragg. I grabbed my bag and, half asleep, wandered into the hotel to check-in.

“Checking in?” the guy at the motel asked.

“Yes, I have a reservation.” I handed him my ID.

“Are you working in town?”

“Yes sir, I just finished and am on my way north.”

“I need proof that you have a job in town, or unfortunately, you won’t be allowed to stay here,” he said.

“I did have a job. I finished it before checking in,” I explained, showing him my work order.

“Unfortunately, if you don’t have work here tomorrow, it would be against the law for you to stay here.” I was sent away. Mendocino County did not want me to stay the night, apparently, so I had to sleep in my car tucked off of the highway instead.

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A pedestrian removes a protective mask worn as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus in Philadelphia on March 2, 2022.
A pedestrian removes a protective mask worn as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus in Philadelphia on March 2, 2022.

I was completely alone and isolated. The excitement of traveling was quickly wearing off.

That rip current sign was in my head again. It said, “If you need help, yell or wave for assistance.” Only spending time with myself was going to be the greatest challenge I had ever faced. Most people have family and friends surrounding them in these moments of life transition. Everyone I knew was miles and miles away, self-isolating with their loved ones.

Making my way north through Portland and Seattle, I discovered that artists in nearly every city put murals up on the plywood that businesses used to board up their buildings. Everywhere I went, there were more plywood murals, and I started taking photos of them in every city. It gave me something to take my mind off of having to be my own best friend and attempting to enjoy my own company.

The pandemic made so many great cities look like empty, post-apocalyptic shells of themselves. They were depressed, empty, and dangerous. They looked like how I felt inside. As society was going through a difficult transition, so was I. But these murals were something else, a sign of hope. I began to see them as a sign that even in moments of transition, we can still make the best of things and create something beautiful.

My creativity had long been in hibernation. I had bought a camera a few years prior in an attempt to share a hobby with my wife, who was always setting up elaborate photoshoots. I didn't even really know how to use my camera, but I began experimenting, walking around these abandoned cities and capturing this historical moment in time. I couldn’t help but wonder if these cities would ever return to their former glory.

Would they be better than they were before? Was there a chance that everything, including my life, would be better in the future?

This is an excerpt from “Going Places: Soul-Stirring Essays About the Travel That Changed Us,” published on Sept. 22 by Sulit Press. Author Jason Fuerstenberg has been an independent travel writer and photographer for over five years based out of California.

Has travel changed you in some way? How?

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Traveling during COVID lockdowns taught me this valuable lesson