A Long, Lonesome Look at America
I was only a few days into a meandering trip across America, 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 crackling 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 camping stove, I stepped outside into a light rainfall and, under a tall canopy of trees, lit the burner.
All night I’d been enveloped in a thick foggy haze: not much to see, wipers running full tilt. I hadn’t interacted with anyone in days, and now even the landscape was hidden from view. But the rain seemed to be letting up — enough in this small glade, at least, for me to heat a pot of water for a solitary cup of tea. In the morning, I thought, if things cleared, there’d even be hope of seeing the surrounding mountains in their autumnal glory.
So it went, it seems, with much of 2020: our lives — and our country — enveloped in a haze of uncertainty, without our knowing whether the next day would bring a modicum of relief or a deepening of our solitude.
In October I set off on a trip to witness and document this singular moment in American history — to look quietly and intently at our country, to parse its scenery.
To limit interaction and prevent exposure, I outfitted my car as a makeshift camper van, removing the rear seats and installing a sleeping (and living and working) platform in their place.
After stocking up on food and water, I headed southwest from my hometown, Hudson, Ohio, largely avoiding highways and preferring instead to pass more slowly through less populated areas. Most nights I spent at remote, unimproved campsites — away from any developed campgrounds — in our sprawling network of national forests.
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, was 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 — both natural and built — became my focus.
Often it felt like a companion. Often it felt like a manuscript, open to interpretation.
Reviewing the photographs from my trip, I found that my eyes were drawn to projections of my own isolation: lone structures, unpeopled scenes, solitary sets of tire tracks.
Looking outward, I saw within.
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 threaten the future of brick-and-mortar stores and streetside businesses — the economic and communal mainstays of small towns throughout America.
The economic fallout wasn’t the only visible trauma. In Colorado, Oregon and California, the widespread effects of the worst fire season on record were ubiquitous.
Heading west from Fort Collins, Colo., along State Highway 14, I watched as crews scrambled to battle the Cameron Peak fire, the largest in Colorado history. The devastation along Highway 22 in Oregon was astonishing.
Our country’s political divisions were also omnipresent — in the form of yard signs, flags, billboards.
In some places, the public posturing read like 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 natural treasures reflected in their own forms.
If much of the American landscape can be read, then much is also continuously rewritten — particularly in our forests, grasslands and wildlife refuges, the arenas for 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 in, I woke before dawn in the southern stretches of Bitterroot National Forest, near the border between Idaho and Montana. Temperatures outside had fallen into the low 20s; cocooned in my car, I hadn’t noticed. But, cracking the door open, I felt a rush of cold air.
I peered out into the darkness.
Startled by the cold and beckoned by the Montanan scenery, I opted for an early start, descending the mountains north toward 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 Trapper Peak, purple and majestic, dressed in unspeakable beauty. Somehow, inexplicably, I hadn’t noticed its 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.