A few years have passed since I last tent camped, and the irony struck me at dawn: While I have never been more well-padded, I have never felt the earth more sharply. Put in terms of inverse proportion, apparently as I get softer the ground gets harder.

I am typing on deadline at a streamside picnic table in Montana. The tent is folded, the van packed, and Beartooth Pass awaits. When we departed on this trip, we stopped to check in with our neighbor Denny down the hill, and he said he got started on the Beartooth once but had to turn around and go back, which is to say, hills are relative. Denny’s not a timid man, so I’m a little nervous about the itinerary. I claim no victory before its time, and we are furthermore driving a big honking van.

I don’t want to turn this into the prose version of trapping you with our family vacation photos, so I’ll keep the observations random. It is a distinct time to travel. The open road feels more freeing than ever, but at each refueling stop we put on our masks and feel a bond with anyone similarly attired, and slightly foolish in the face of the others. So it goes. We are traveling in a family pod of four and hiking outdoors so in the main, mask tensions are low.

Long hours behind the windshield are conducive to reviewing your worldview, and so far my most profound observation (I’m claiming it as profound, since no one else will) occurred while crossing North Dakota and considering gophers. All my life I’ve been entertained by the way they scoot across the road, their little legs spinning like an overwound toy as they sprint to avoid the onrushing traffic. Or at least that’s how I’ve always interpreted their mad dash. But somewhere out there on the prairie, when yet another striped rodent shot across the centerline, it occurred to me: Maybe that’s how they always cross the road, even if there’s not a vehicle in sight. Perhaps they scramble because they know the pavement leaves them utterly exposed to hawks. They’re not avoiding death by radial, they’re avoiding death from the air. The question at hand is a slight alteration on the popular “tree falls in the forest” thought experiment: If a gopher crosses the road and you’re not there bearing down on him at 70 mph, does he still run?

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