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Pandemic Nomad: Student traveled the country while attending virtual classes


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Senior Alayna Fiel and her boyfriend Zack Bates take a photo on the side of the road in Helena, Montana while traveling during the COVID-19 quarantine.

Alayna Fiel packed up her car for what she thought was a two-week vacation. Instead, it turned into a cross-country semester.

Fiel, a Boyne City senior, and her boyfriend, Zack Bates, were living in and working for Village at Blue Grass when Central Michigan University announced classes would be placed online after Spring Break in March 2020. 

The apartment complex decided to put both Fiel and Bates on-call given the lack of residents at their apartments during the break. 

Under normal circumstances, Fiel and Bates would hunker down, save money, and do any leftover schoolwork. Now being given an "extended" spring break, the couple decided to spend the next week traveling and living out of Fiel’s 2017 Ford Escape.

“We laid the seats down and made a bed in the back using yoga mats, blankets and pillows,” Fiel said. “I've traveled a lot before, but I have never truly lived out of my car like that and neither had Zack.”


Senior Alayna Fiel takes a photo of her campsite in Zion National Park. She and her boyfriend lived out of her car during their mobile quarantine.

Courtesy photo.

For the extent of the COVID-19 lockdown, the couple made five different trips around the United States. Fiel called it "mobile quarantining." 

She and Bates visited multiple national parks - her favorite being Zion National Park in Southwest Utah. 

The first time the couple stayed at Zion, it was the start of lockdown and not many people were in the area. Fiel said she wasn't sure if they were actually in the park at first because of the lack of people. A park ranger found them and told them the park was shut down due to lockdown. However, after telling him what they were doing, the park ranger allowed Fiel and Bates to stay.

“He's like, ‘As far as I'm concerned, you guys can stay here for free. You just go park your car over there and make yourself a little campsite,'” Fiel said.

Bates said the journey helped him grow as a person. It allowed him to further explore his interests in traveling, ecology and National Parks. He said if someone ever has the ability to have a similar experience, they should go for it.

"It really developed a lot of those interests that I think may have always been there, but I never knew I had," Bates said. "I saw so many things that I didn't expect to find, see or experience."

Bates said the experience helped his and Alayna's relationship grow stronger.

Every class session, Fiel’s background would be a different location from somewhere in the U.S. Overall, Fiel’s professors did not have an issue with her cross-country learning. She had her books with her, and she used public wi-fi to participate in class. 

She said many of her professors and classmates wanted to be updated on her location every time the class met. She eventually got a U.S. map that allows someone to scratch off the states they’ve visited.

As a journalism student, Fiel said the experience helped her narrow down what she'd like to do with her degree. She found an appreciation for lifestyle writing about recreational sports like hiking and yoga.

Fiel called the experience the best opportunity in her career and life.

“I just really enjoyed exploring our world through a time like COVID, and still be able to do my classes and kind of share that experience with my professors and my fellow students.”


Senior Alayna Fiel in Grand Teton National Park during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020.

Courtesy Photo.

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