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Without a Doubt, This Was the Strangest, Most Intense Travel Day of My Life

PHOTO: Bernsten / Shutterstock

“Wait, what is happening?”

There’s a picture of the two of us, the Matterhorn in all its majestic glory to our backs, wine goblets with the remains of a bottle in our hands, and we are grinning, seemingly thrilled with life.

In this photo, my husband Steve and I give nothing away. There is no sign of the raging pandemic that’s cut our trip short, no indication that this will be our last day in Europe, our last supper before quarantine, natch, for the foreseeable future. The only tell is our departure from Chez Vrony and that magnificent lunch; on skis and a snowboard, respectively, Steve has turned the volume up on his phone and is playing, R.E.M.’s It’s the End of the World as We Know It.

The Best-Laid Plans

When we left New York on March 10, 2020, the novel coronavirus had mostly manifested itself as an annoying toilet paper shortage.

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Grateful to leave the anxiety of bathroom-stocking aside for a few days, we flew to Europe for an idyllic Swiss ski vacation. And so it was that we found ourselves approximately 4,000 miles from home when Trump announced a national emergency and subsequent travel ban and the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the novel coronavirus a global pandemic.

It was only our second night in Zermatt, the fabled town that allowed no motor vehicles and which apparently flowed with fondue and chocolate, when chaos descended.

Rude Awakening

To be sure, news of the novel coronavirus had begun swirling in the States before we boarded our international flight on March 10; in fact, days before our planned departure, my husband Steve expressed misgivings and asked me if I thought we should cancel. “I have a bad feeling. Do you really not?” he asked and I told him truthfully that I didn’t. It was going to be fine, I reassured him, because I believed it would be.

In less than 48 hours on the ground in Europe, I’d realize just how wrong I’d been. On March 13 in the very early hours of the night, Steve woke me up from a deep jet-lagged slumber. “Wake up! We have to get out of here!” he cried.

He’d been reading a book on his iPad when a New York Times notification popped up: Trump had declared a travel ban. No one from Europe or outside the United States would be allowed to enter the country. My heart raced as I struggled, in my groggy state, to comprehend what this meant for us.

As Steve resumed his flight research, I poured us juice glasses of red wine from a bottle we’d opened earlier, and then turned my attention to my phone, which was buzzing with an urgency I had not encountered before. I was working at CNN at the time and was getting Slack messages from my colleagues in Asia, London, and New York along with text messages from my family and friends. The subtext to the concerned messages was clear: We were screwed.

Making the Best of It

Unless we were willing to spend $4,000—shocker, we were not—there was no getting out of the country in the next 24 hours.

As news of what the travel ban really entailed emerged, Steve and I learned that we needn’t exit the country, or the continent for that matter, immediately. As U.S. citizens, we would be allowed entry, which meant we technically did not need to cut our trip short at all.

Although this meager flexibility provided some relief, the truth was the vacation had already ended. Over the course of a couple of days in Zermatt, we’d begun noticing some oddities. For starters, the town was practically empty. Considering it was Zermatt’s first year on the Ikon pass, a ski and snowboard pass with access to a range of mountains around the world, and our hotel’s minimum seven-night requirement, this felt strange. For its part, Hotel Schweizerhof had altered its breakfast service, ceasing the buffet-style set up in exchange for a la carte ordering. The beautiful lounge and polished bar only ever housed a few lone travelers throughout our brief stay, and another bar in town that should’ve, according to the friendly bartender we spoke with, been packed with lively vacationers, had four patrons; Steve and I were two of them.

The eerie quiet around town couldn’t be ignored, but the much bigger issue was around Steve’s New York events-based business, which was now seriously threatened by lockdowns. Any illusions I was still holding on to about salvaging the holiday had long since dissipated as I watched my typically chill and easy-going husband grow increasingly panicked.

By the time he magically unearthed two business class tickets on a Boeing 747-400 passenger jet out of Amsterdam, I was packing my bags, contrite over my insistence that we take the trip as planned in spite of Steve’s apprehension.

To his credit, Steve never once said, “I told you so,” in such explicit terms, even though I invited him, even goaded him, to say it many times. The only thing he’s ever said about that ill-fated trip was that he was glad we’d enjoyed that meal on the mountain. “I still don’t think we made the right decision in going to Zermatt knowing what we knew, but I’m glad you didn’t cancel the Chez Vrony reservation,” he said.

Skin of Our Teeth

To be sure, Steve, who can be a bit of an aviation geek, was ecstatic about the KLM 747 aircraft and his adept use of airline miles to snag us seats on the upper deck—a first for both of us. I admit I was duly impressed. Though, truthfully, the sheer fact that we’d made the flight after a harrowing journey out of Zermatt served to galvanize me.

The ski village, the mountain: It was all shutting down, COVID’s relentless spread knowing no bounds.

After our early departure from the hotel, which generously credited us for the days we would not be staying, we boarded an early morning train in Zermatt, believing we’d have hours to kill at Zurich Airport.

I’m still not sure what caused the train rerouting, requiring us to connect an additional time, but it’s possible Zermatt’s closure the day of our departure had caused a predictable scramble and nothing was functioning like normal.

The ski village, the mountain: It was all shutting down, COVID’s relentless spread knowing no bounds.

In any event, we learned the rerouting due to a tunnel’s closure would set us back at least 60 minutes, making it imperative that we catch the earliest available connecting train to the airport or we’d miss our flight.

At one point, as Steve checked the train schedules again and I looked up the time it would take to get a cab, in an effort to lubricate our race through the various stations and terminals, I suggested we ditch my skis. The baggage was just too much. If we offloaded the most cumbersome luggage, I reasoned, we were much more likely to make the connecting train to the airport, and if we made that train, then we could, if we ran, make our first flight to Amsterdam, ensuring we make our flight home.

We did the math and the recon: Assuming we made the next train, we would have exactly 16 minutes to get from the airport’s train station to the check-in desk at an airport we did not know.

But Steve had a different plan; he would put my ski bag in his snowboard bag and be responsible for that load, while I managed my suitcase, carry-on, and boot backpack. Judging from the sardine-packed train cars and frantic faces, I knew we were far from the only ones racing against time.

A Flight to Remember

The short hop to Zurich was largely unmemorable, save for the coughing person beside us who caused us to switch seats and sanitize our hands repeatedly. It would be months before masks accessorized every outfit and accompanied every outing.

The flight from Amsterdam to New York was, in a word, glorious. Steve and I and one other person were the only three passengers on the upper deck, which meant we had two flight attendants among us and as much champagne and Holland cheese as we desired.

“This is going to be the last time we fly for a really long time,” Steve said before the wheels went up, and I nodded and said “Yes, okay, I know,” because I was exhausted and didn’t feel like having a conversation about it, even though I doubted the veracity of his certainty.

Nightmare at JFK

I barely slept on the flight back to New York, and that turned out to be yet another mistake. Every minute of the four hours we spent on the immigration line was complete with no social distancing and no masks. It was agonizing.

People began fainting; one woman vomited.

We’d been given a pamphlet on quarantining upon disembarking the plane. We’d also had our temperature taken and filled out a form that basically said, to the best of our knowledge, we hadn’t been exposed to COVID-19. But after that, it was on to immigration, where hundreds like us stood hunched in a line. It appeared that there were a total of two immigration stations open, and when frustrated and angry travelers questioned the situation, a member of security merely shrugged and said there was nothing she could do.

People began fainting; one woman vomited. Soon, pregnant women and young children were ushered to the front of the line. I looked on, envious, and deliriously wished I was pregnant so I could get the hell out of there.

Well after midnight, we finally made it to the front of the line, where we quickly answered a few standard questions before being allowed to exit the airport.

Steve and I have not tested positive for COVID-19. We were, however, somewhat surprised to learn that we didn’t carry the antibodies either. It’s been over a year since that trip, and I have no idea when we’ll travel abroad again. But I know that when we do, I will order the bottle of wine at lunch and make sure to take a picture for posterity.

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