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OPINION | Two drives across America in crisis

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THE last time America was so thoroughly knocked back on its heels, the highway felt different.

In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, the airlines were grounded, so I traveled across the Midwest by road. On just about every block in every town were signals of anger, heartache and resolve. American flags in front of house after house, business after business. “Our Prayers Are With the Nation” on the signboard of a Lutheran church in Indiana. A snack bar in Ohio, with a handmade banner: “God Bless America.” In front of a miniature golf course: “Our Country Will Prevail.”

This summer I traveled by highway again — a 24-hour trip from southwestern Florida to Chicago, 1,340 miles up through Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois. It felt a little like the Sherlock Holmes mystery in which the clue was the dog that didn’t bark: What was visible on the roadside was not as meaningful as what wasn’t there.

If you didn’t know the nation was in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic, you might not grasp, at first highway glance, that this summer is divergent from those past. All the momentarily lulling sights: A shopping area called Celebration Pointe, so cheery-sounding, comes into inviting view, and then you notice the sea of empty parking spaces. A minor-league ballpark is bright and alluring from the outside, until you remember that the minor leagues nationwide have canceled their seasons.

Darkness where there should be light: restaurants that appear closed for the night but are in fact closed for good; schoolhouses with dimmed windows, locked up not for the day but for the duration; movie-theater marquees with the electricity switched off because the screens inside are showing nothing. Front-yard posters wishing 2020 graduates good luck in college, with the implied qualification: if there is college this September.

The masks, though — those are new, those you discern everywhere, but in a context that in years past would have been bewildering. Until a few months ago, the sight of people in masks hurrying down city streets would have raised alarms: What bad deeds must they be up to? Now, you barely take note, except when something jars you: A dozen or so people walk single-file or in pairs down a Florida sidewalk, diligently wearing their face coverings; a maskless man weaves among them, making a show of exhaling a misty white vape cloud, as if to taunt the others.

The sky seems to go on forever; this country is so big, what could ever be potent enough to imperil it? You recall, after 9/11, the baseless rumors of anthrax being released through HVAC vents. People sighed in relief when it didn’t happen. A deadly and unseeable adversary hiding out in the air we breathed seemed ultimately unlikely, then.

A new sunrise breaks, the universal moment of hope; the summer highway stretches on. A mallard and her babies decide to cross a road, then, in the middle, halt. The cars going both directions stop and patiently wait, granting another day of life to the sitting ducks.

Mr. Greene’s books include “Chevrolet Summers, Dairy Queen Nights.”

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