This story is part of a series. You can read other stories from Some Personal News here.
Combined, Jim and Holly Weber have about 60 years in journalism. So, they knew getting laid off was always a possibility. On the worst end of that scenario — both of them could lose their job at the same time.
On May 12, 2020, they both got the call.
Like many journalism couples, the two met in a newsroom and moved around with each other. After Holly got laid off from The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal in 2017, she soon got a job at The Memphis News, and later joined a new online newsroom as digital editor, The Daily Memphian. In 2018, Jim left The Commercial Appeal and joined his wife, where he became its first photo editor.
It was exciting to be in a burgeoning newsroom, Holly said. And they did good work in a busy news year, Jim said. But in that May call, they learned the company was restructuring and their positions were being eliminated.
They get it. They were both editors, making decent money, and that money could be used to hire more reporters.
“We immediately called a realtor and put our house on the market,” Holly said.
“And it sold in a day,” they said at the same time.
The couple had six weeks to pack up 20 years of stuff and nowhere to go.
“I had been working forever,” Jim said. “It’s like, you know what … we’re gonna cut loose. We’re gonna float. And it was kind of beautiful.”
The Webers went on a 72-day road trip, staying at places friends and family lent and making use of their daughter’s hotel discount. The couple built a kit to wipe down and sanitize hotel rooms. And they applied for jobs along the way.
“We were really lucky that we were healthy and safe,” Holly said. “Unemployment sucked but also it was enough to keep us from going through that house money.”
Not quite one year after they were laid off, Jim and Holly got jobs back in newsrooms, though this time, not the same one. She’s doing remote work for the copy and design desk at The (Cedar Rapids, Iowa,) Gazette. And he’s a photojournalist at The (Santa Fe) New Mexican. You can also see his work here.
They documented their road trip and shared some photos and captions with us. Also, they’re both now keeping their resumes regularly updated.
Here a look at their epic pandemic road trip.
On May 12, we lost our jobs. One day later, we got a realtor. Eleven days after that, the house was cleaned, staged, photographed and listed. And on May 24, our beloved nearly-100 -year-old Midtown Memphis craftsman bungalow was under contract. We then had about six weeks to pack up 17 years of stuff, which was a semi-fortunate side effect of the pandemic: Closing was delayed because the usual processes were stymied by COVID-19. On July 8, we wandered from room to room, cried and walked out and locked the door to our home on The Dodgy End of Stonewall for the last time.
On July 25, after a couple weeks at Jim’s sister Mary Chaplin’s house in Sugar Land, Texas, which was to become home base for nearly a year, we hit the road with our kayaks and bikes, intending to be gone about a month. After a couple days in New Orleans, we headed to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, which Holly’s diary describes as “Gatlinburg on the Ocean. If Branson, Missouri, and Pigeon Forge had a baby, it would be Myrtle Beach.” We spent one afternoon at Huntington Beach State Park, with the threat of Hurricane Isaias beginning to make us a little nervous. It was forecast to make landfall in Myrtle Beach, a prediction that ultimately did bear out. We got out ahead of it, but during our stay still managed a blackwater float on the Waccamaw River and to paddle the salt marsh of Murrells Inlet.
Jim’s other sister and her husband, RuthAnn and Paul Atchley, gave us five days of condo privileges in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and who were we to decline such generosity? While we did get in a fair amount of outdoor activities, we were committed to spending at least one or two days a week actively looking and applying for jobs and polishing our resumes.
No work and all play brings out the kid in Holly. The pandemic diminished the usual crowds at the beaches, parks and boardwalk in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, as did the threat of Hurricane Isaias making landfall there.
Our Pandemic Odyssey included a detour to Pennsylvania during our Myrtle Beach-to-Maine leg of the trip. After finding Jim’s childhood home in State College, we set out to find The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, the 47-mile Pine Creek Gorge, which was an unexpected surprise. A hike to find a waterfall was fruitless, but it was lush and lovely. It was also hot and Hurricane Isaias was still managing to throw a monkey wrench into our plans, so we Clark Griswolded the view and hit the road for the next stop along the way, Troy, New York. The aftermath of Isaias was blowing up the East Coast, along the path of our route to Maine, so we decided to stay put an extra day in Troy and spent the day in the hotel room applying for jobs.
Jim checks the map of the carriage trails at Acadia National Park on Maine’s Mount Desert Island. Holly’s father lives in Lubec, Maine, and keeps his boat, The Sazerak, (you can take the man out of Louisiana, but you can’t take the Louisiana out of the man) at the marina in Southwest Harbor. We met him there, explored the island and dropped the kayaks in Echo Lake. At this point, the kayaks have probably been used more times on this trip so far than in the past eight years. We keep adding destinations to our trip, which would include stops at Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, so at this point we sprung for a U.S. National Park Annual Pass, which more than paid for itself in the end. Sadly, the bikes didn’t make it home with us as they were stolen in Las Vegas toward the end of our trip.
The lighthouse at Quaddy Head State Park in Lubec, Maine, marks the easternmost point of land in the United States. Typically, Grand Manan Island and Campobello Island, both in Canada, are visible. And atypically, because of the pandemic, we were not allowed to cross the Lubec Narrows into Canada as the border was closed to visitors. Holly’s father lives in Lubec, but also owned an 1892 farmhouse in Dennysville, on the Dennys River, which he gave us the keys to for that portion of our journey. While there, we dropped the kayaks into Cobscook Bay for a different kind of paddle for us, one in which we had to account for huge changes in tide.
Our drive across country from Maine to the family cabin in Idaho included a planned stop at the absolutely bonkers House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin. It defies description, but houses what it claims is the world’s largest indoor carousel, featuring 269 animals, 20,000 lights and 183 chandeliers.
Driving through South Dakota, the sight of a giant sculpture of a bull rising suddenly on the horizon compelled us to yank the car around to go find out what the heck that was all about. What we found was Porter Sculpture Park, where self-taught artist Wayne Porter has scattered more than 50 metal sculptures along a path in a field off the highway.
When we noticed the expanses of yellow we were passing in South Dakota were fields of sunflowers, it seemed appropriate to bathe in their happy faces.
South Dakota provided another opportunity to pull out that National Park pass we purchased. Though it was late and a fairly fast drive through the park, Jim got to shoot the dramatic landscape of The Badlands.
No caption necessary. It was an interesting stop, however, as we were beginning to notice more and more the behaviors of tourists during a time when COVID-19 cases were climbing and precautions were ramping up. We discovered our arrival on Aug. 19 came in the wake of the Sturgis Bike Rally, which had taken place Aug. 7-16, bringing some 460,000 people to The Black Hills of South Dakota, and ultimately was linked to hundreds of cases across the country. We made a hasty retreat.
Aug. 19, having put 6,384 miles on the truck so far on this safari, we pulled into Yellowstone National Park. We would imagine that in The Before — and certainly it is the case now — that the Grand Prismatic Spring would have been ringed by tourists standing shoulder to shoulder and several people deep. We were fortunate to experience Yellowstone without the crowds and the bumper-to-bumper traffic (except when everyone stopped for the bison), both in the park and in the village where we stayed. We were also beginning to see the effects of the wildfires on the West Coast and Colorado, as the skies were hazy and yellowish with smoke.
After loading up with supplies in Boise and making the three-hour drive north, we arrived on Aug. 24 at the Weber family cabin in the Payette National Forest. Jim and his father built the cabin together when Jim was in college. As a couple, we have never had the opportunity to spend any real length of time there, but becoming unemployed and untethered gave us the rare opportunity to do so. This rustic cabin was home for a month, and while we had no indoor plumbing we did have solar power and a phone line, therefore we had DSL and were able to do the job search thing, which was yielding little in the way of responses, as well as binge-watch “Cobra Kai.”
Coming out of the outhouse at the cabin in Idaho, Holly noticed what looked like snow flurries but turned out to actually be ash from nearby wildfires and Jim is reflected in the truck covered with ash. We were also feeling the effect of the wildfires in other ways, with the smoky haze in our area diminishing the ability of the solar panels to absorb sunlight by as much as 20%.
Our trip was far exceeding our estimated duration, but we had no real reason to hurry back to Texas. After nearly a month of cabin life in Secesh Meadows, we decided last minute to add Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Lake Powell to our itinerary. It was one of the best decisions we made. We found accommodations in Page, Arizona, and spent two days paddling and hiking one of the slot canyons. It was incredible, but sadly, one year later, Lake Powell — the second-largest reservoir in the U.S. — is at a record low with boat launches closed as a drought fueled by climate change escalates in the West.
We were greeted with stunning views and snow after the beautiful — and harrowing — drive and shuttle to the summit visitor’s center at Pike’s Peak.
We saved perhaps the best for last, spending a couple days at the Grand Canyon on the return leg of our journey, Las Vegas to Texas. Again, we felt lucky to have little in the way of crowds to contend with, though we were finding fewer options for dining as facilities scaled down their operations during the pandemic.
Scenery and wildlife fun at the Grand Canyon. Our cross-country pandemic odyssey was coming to a close — and we still liked each other. Our last leg included a stop in Albuquerque to visit some of Jim’s relatives. Then, after 72 days on the road, we returned on Oct. 4, 2020, to Sugar Land, Texas, where we lived in Jim’s sister’s house until we again piled (some of) our stuff into a trailer and the vehicles and hit the road on April 22, 2021, heading to Santa Fe, for the next leg of this adventure called life.
This story is part of a series, Some Personal News, that shares experiences of people who were laid off from their journalism jobs or left the news during the pandemic. We know thousands of people lost their jobs last year, and want to capture the stories of journalists, printing plant employees, ad sales people, news researchers and anyone else whose employment by newsrooms ended or was altered because of the pandemic. You can tell us your story here.