I couldn’t wait for my first post-pandemic getaway. Like most homebound travelers, I’d done my part to flatten the Covid Curve just by staying put. I even made the best of it, embracing my inner Janus, the Roman god with two faces. Janus looks both to the past (all those great trips!) and to the future (all those great trips!).
When my state finally was safe enough to allow us to travel carefully–with open-but-restricted rules for hotels and restaurants–I had to see what the “new normal” was like. Aside from mandated masks and gallons of hand sanitizer, what else would be different?
Starved Rock State Park…a familiar place
Choosing a post-pandemic getaway spot wasn’t difficult, simply because there still aren’t many options. It had to be someplace outdoors and state parks were open. An hour’s drive would take me to one of my favorite hiking places, Starved Rock State Park, the first recreational park in Illinois. With 13 miles of trails and views of the Illinois River from the high bluffs, I’d been a hundred times.
But…I’d never stayed at the historic Starved Rock Lodge. Because it simply wasn’t necessary with the short drive. The lodge is a treasure, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The Corps were groups of young local men, 17-23 years old; they were paid $30 a month to build the huge log lodge and to develop the trail system, both still in use.
The Lodge had a midweek “Golden Years” special that included breakfast in the rustic dining room with its high beamed ceiling and huge fireplace. I could hike the trails before checking in, spend the night, enjoy breakfast, and hike again before returning home. I eagerly made my reservation.
Note: If you’re over 60, you qualify for the special. It’s about $125 a night for two people, with a $15 breakfast voucher. No discounts for solos, but you don’t have to share the voucher! Regular price is about $160/night and no freebies. Prices go down a bit after the high season.
So, what’s different now?
Masks on entering and in public places, of course. Stickers on the flagstone floors to enforce social distancing. Plexiglass at the check-in counter. No surprises so far.
I was really curious about my room in the the original lodge. Down the hall, past the vending machines–with a disinfectant dispenser and sign asking guests to wipe them down after making a purchase–to unlock the door to my Lodge Bay Room.
What was most striking was the absence of a bedspread. Past images of the rooms featured patchwork quilts to fit with the rustic decor. Now there is a simple white sheet covering the blanket. Makes complete sense, even if it’s not especially attractive.
Although nothing was earth-shaking, other Covid-inspired changes included:
- No handy in-room coffee. The coffee machine was unplugged and unsupplied, looking like an artifact from yesteryear. (You had to wonder why they didn’t just remove it.) I’d anticipated this, and had brought my own mug, heating coil, and instant coffee.
- No “souvenir” pen or pad of paper. I stopped collecting them years ago, but their absence was conspicuous.
- No directory binder or folder of services. Although they’re often outdated, sometimes there are useful pages on nearby attractions, dining options, pool hours, and the usual safety stuff.
- Need a map of the park and trails? They’re plentiful, but you’ll need to ask. No more stacks or racks that can be touched or contaminated.
All in all, it was what I’d expected. But how would it be to eat in the Lodge’s restaurant?
The Hostess Stand is behind plexiglass, staffed by two masked teenagers who debated at great length where to seat me in the vast (and nearly empty) room. If you look at online photos of the dining room, from even just a few months ago, you’d have seen it packed with tables–including long trestle tables, made for families or groups–and busy with both guests and park visitors. Now there are about ten tables and the room practically echoes.
Besides the now-extinct Sunday and holiday brunches, there used to be buffets for breakfast and lunch. Instead, I was handed a single-use paper menu. I gave my order to a friendly masked server who seemed thrilled to have a conversation with a paying customer.
She told me that she fully expects another lockdown. When state parks were finally opened after almost three months of quarantine, “…there were 10,000 people here at Starved Rock the first day. They stood in line to eat without any distance between them and they wouldn’t even wait for us to clear the table before they’d rush in to claim it. We’re bound to keep getting this virus.”
I ate my lunch, a delicious turkey burger with the Lodge’s famous homemade potato chips. I over-tipped and wished her well. It was too sad to return to the magnificent-but-empty dining room. When it was time for dinner, I ordered a carry-out salad at the outdoor veranda. The next morning, I ate my breakfast outside at a picnic table…over-tipping the young man who brought it to me.
Hiking was peaceful, though…
Despite what my server said about crowds, hiking was terrific. True, I was there mid-week. There were enough people to not feel isolated, yet plenty of space on the trails. Not having been out like this for three months, it felt heavenly.
For now, public health experts tell us to stay outdoors–the virus spreads too easily in enclosed spaces. Good advice, because getting outside is beneficial for lots of reasons, including improving our mental health. Then there are the physical boosts that we all know about: lower blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol levels, etc. There’s even a Park Prescription Program in 34 states–physicians are writing prescriptions to get their patients out of their homes and into nature.
Plan your own post-pandemic getaway!
You probably have a state park or recreational area within a couple hours’ drive. I encourage you to find it and go for a night. Or at least a day trip. Get out and move your body. Eat at the nearby restaurants. First, you’ll feel like you’ve really been away from home. Second, you’ll be helping local businesses.
We’re not over the coronavirus hump yet. No one knows when that will happen. Even when things do get better, they’re not going to be the same. Be smart, stay safe, follow all the health guidelines…but go. That’s what travelers do!