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Last flight out of Spain: Bookwalter’s great escape

Mitchelton-Scott pro cyclist caught one of the last flights out of Spain as coronavirus shuts down Europe.

Brent Bookwalter lives in two worlds. One is his adopted hometown of Girona, Spain, where he’s lived and raced for more than a decade. The other is Asheville, North Carolina, where he and his wife own a home, close to family and friends.

Over the course of what’s been a harrowing few weeks, the Mitchelton-Scott rider had to decide in which home he was going to ride out the coronavirus storm.

With borders closing, flights being canceled, and entire nations ordered into lockdown in an unprecedented global crisis, Bookwalter and his wife, Jamie, along with their newborn son, Waylon, suddenly wanted to be back in the United States.

It wasn’t quite the last flight out of Saigon, but it was close enough.

“Our flight from Barcelona to Amsterdam was the last one, on that route that remained open. All connections were shut down after that,” Bookwalter told VeloNews. “It was a pretty stressful trip. Things we’re changing by the hour. We finally made it home.”

As the coronavirus crisis sweeps across the globe, Bookwalter and his family were among thousands worldwide who were scrambling to travel home before borders are shut down permanently.

When Bookwalter spoke to VeloNews via telephone Thursday, he cradled his son in his arms, and had been safely back North Carolina for only a few days. He admitted he was a little bit whiplashed after what he had just been through.

“We did this whirlwind trip trying to take care of our little guy,” Bookwalter said. “We started in a place that was in complete lockdown, with everyone wearing gloves and masks, and looking at the ground. And then you show up in North Carolina, and see kids playing basketball in the park. It’s not the same reality we were in just 48 hours before.”

Deciding to leave Spain wasn’t easy. Bookwalter’s called Girona home since 2010, and has deep affection for the people, food, history and culture of Spain. His wife, Jamie, is working on her PhD at a university, in nearby Barcelona. They had so much confidence in the Spanish health care system that their first child was born there, on February 1.

The 2020 racing season opened as expected. Just days after Waylon was born, Bookwalter was off racing in his first — and so far only — race of the season at the Ruta del Sol in southern Spain. At that point, coronavirus was barely a blip on the radar screen in faraway China.

They knew when they wanted to travel back to the United States they would need a passport for their son. That would require a trip to Barcelona to visit the U.S consulate for a scheduled interview. It was on their agenda, but there was no pressing need.

Suddenly, coronavirus broke out in Italy. It quickly spread to Spain and across Europe in breakneck speed. Italy was the first to impose a lockdown, first in northern Italy and then across the entire nation. Less than a week later, Spain would follow suit with an even stricter quarantine. No one would be allowed outside, not even for a stroll or riding a bike. Only essential trips to the pharmacy, the grocery story or to work are allowed.

That’s when things started to change for Bookwalter and his family.

“Even with the lockdown, we still wanted to stay in Spain,” Bookwalter said. “Our lives are here. Our son was born here. We consider it our home, and we wanted to ride it out.

“But after the lockdown, we started to extrapolate things,” he continued. “How could we best support Waylon as a parent? Where could we best do that? Our support network is better in the U.S. My wife’s brother and parents are close by. If one of us got sick in Spain, we didn’t want Waylon to end up in some state-sponsored foster-care home. That’s when we started to make plans to come home.”

Waylon Bookwalter in Atlanta
Bookwalter arrives at a nearly empty Barcelona airport for departure. Photo: Brent Bookwalter

There was still a question of Waylon’s passport. Spain had gone into lockdown, so technically, Bookwalter shouldn’t have been allowed to make the hour-and-a-half drive to Barcelona. Police were patrolling roadways, and heavily fining anyone caught out on the roads without a good reason. The consulate informed him the passport was ready, but said they were winding down operations. Bookwalter got in his car and sped down there to pick it up. Without it, they couldn’t leave.

“That was a tense and nervous drive,” he said. “There were a lot of police checks, but they didn’t stop us. That was an adventure unto itself.”

Back in Girona, they started scouring for flights. Everything accelerated again. President Trump announced that all flights from Europe would be shut down. Airlines were also shuttering flights as demand for tickets plummeted. That’s when they had to make a dash for the exit door.

“We were on the phone with the airlines, and they were canceling flights left and right,” he said. “It was hard to get a fixed itinerary. Things were changing by the hour. It was getting stressful, and we were wondering if we were going to be able to get out.”

Finally, they found a flight for March 21, packed up their bags and closed down their apartment. They stuffed everything into a taxi of a friend in Girona, and arrived at a nearly vacant Barcelona airport only to find their 6 a.m. flight had been delayed. By 10:30 a.m., they were on their way to Amsterdam. Upon arrival, the airlines said they could catch a flight to Atlanta that evening, and they jumped at the chance to get out.

Once in Atlanta, they weren’t in the clear yet. First, agents dressed in hazmat suits came onto the flight and examined everyone’s travel documents, even pulling a few passengers off the plane. There was a longer than usual line at customs. By the time they got through, they had missed their connection. Exhausted, they stayed the night in Atlanta, and then jumped on an early flight to Asheville. Friends had left their car in the parking lot, so they could drive directly home. Neighbors had also stocked their house with food and essentials, so Bookwalter and his family could go straight into voluntary 14-day quarantine.

It was a harrowing 48-hour trip, but the great escape was a success.

“We were exhausted,” he said. “When we got home, we were definitely feeling the love, and that helped reinforce the feeling that we made a good decision to get back to our USA home. We were relieved to get through the trip.”

Bookwalter and his wife are settling into life back in North Carolina. They’re being very careful about social distancing, and Bookwalter has gone out on his bike for a few spins just to clear his mind — something he couldn’t do in Spain.

He’s struck by the sharp contrast between Spain, which is two weeks into a national quarantine where the death toll is doubling every three days, to the U.S., which seems almost too casual before the looming threat.

Brent Bookwalter, his wife, Jaime, and son Waylon, were all smiles after catching one of the last flights out of Spain. Photo: Brent Bookwalter

“It’s been kind of sad and frustrating to see how people in America are handling the situation,” he said. “We were seeing in Spain how serious people were taking it, and how it was ravaging the country. We are hearing the stats about the number of cases, and how ice rinks are being used as morgues. I don’t think people in the U.S. have fully grasped it. I hope they do before it’s too late.”

Like everyone, Bookwalter’s growing family doesn’t know what’s coming next. Racing bikes seems very far away. They’re just relieved they’re close to loved ones to endure what’s a very uncertain future. They made it home, their U.S. home.