Solitude and Tension : The Wounds are just so evident on a 10,000-mile journey along the back roads.

I was only a few days into a meandering trip across the United States, and already I was easing into something of a nighttime routine. Earlier in the day I’d pinpointed a promising campsite in Ozark National Forest. Now I found myself ascending an isolated forestry road to get to it, my tires cracking over its rough, potholed surface.

When I could no longer hear the road noise from the scenic highway that carried me into the mountains, I found a small clearing in the woods, shimmied my car into a level position and climbed into the back. Gathering my camp camping stove, I stepped outside into a rainfall and, under a tall canopy of trees lit the burner.

On many of my previous trips across the country, my spirits have been buoyed by the fleeting social interactions that occur sporadically throughout the day at diners, motels, knickknack shops, campgrounds. Traveling in isolation, though, as a categorically different experience.

Even in the casual places where travelers still gathered - gas stations, coffee shops, rest areas - there were generally no offhand conversations, no sharing of experiences, no sense of spontaneous connection. Strangers transacted, and, still strangers, went their separate ways.

Without the promise of social interaction, the landscape itself became my focus. Often it felt like a companion. Often, it felt like manuscript, open to interpretation.

What also struck me were the scars. In town after town I saw sidewalks emptied, shops struggling, restaurants barely clinging to life.

It all added up to the same bleak assessment : The pandemic has acted like an accelerant, hastening trends toward online commerce that threatens the future of brisk-and-mortar stores and streetside businesses - the economic and communal mainstay of small towns throughout America.

The economic fallout wasn't wasn't the only visible trauma. In Colorado, Oregon and California, the effects of the worst fire season on record were ubiquitous.

The country's political division were also omnipresent - in the form of yard signs, flags, billboards.

In some places, the public posturing read like a communal declarations. More than at other points in recent memory, businesses [as opposed solely to individuals or residences] seemed to trumpet their political affiliations.

There was, of course, an endless array of beauty. Gazing at the sandstone arches in eastern Utah, standing silently over the pristine waters of the McDonald Creek in northern Montana, looking out at a herd of bison in Southern Colorado, I saw the sublimity and the precariousness of our national treasures reflected in their forms.

If much of the American landscape can be read, them much is also continuously rewritten - particularly on our forests, grasslands and wildlife refuges, the arenas of our never-ending attempts to strike a balance between conservation and extraction, between profit and preservation.

In many ways the trip felt like an extended ode to such places - our national forests in particular.

Twelve days and some 4,500 miles, I woke before dawn in the southern stretches of Bitterroot National Forest, near the border between Idaho and Montana. Temperatures outside had fallen well below freezing; cocooned in my car, I hadn’t noticed. But, cracking the door open, I felt a rush of cold air. I peered into the darkness.

Startled by the cold and beckoned by the Montana scenery, I opted for an early start, descending the mountains north towards Missoula. I fell into an early morning trance-until, 20 minutes later, I saw a fellow traveler who’d pulled his car to the side of the road and exited it. He was staring into the distance.

I turned to my left, in the direction of his gaze, and saw Traper Peak, purple and majestic, dressed in unspeakable beauty. Somehow, inexplicably, I hadn’t noticed it’s grandeur.

I pressed the brakes and slowed to a stop some 100 feet away. I, too, exited my car and stood alongside the road.

Together in solitude, we took in the scene.

The World Students Society thanks author Stephen Hiltner, an editor on The New York Times's Travel desk.


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