Sandy Tolan, his wife Andrea Portes, their son Wyatt and dog Rascal enjoy their first morning back home after their road trip.

Our mask-wearing road trip across a battered America

Updated 10:32 AM ET, Sat February 20, 2021

Sandy Tolan (@sandy_tolan) is the author of three books, including "Me and Hank," about his boyhood hero Hank Aaron, and "The Lemon Tree," now out in a children's edition. He is a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

(CNN)In January, as Covid cases spiked in California, refrigerated morgue trucks rolled into Los Angeles, ICUs overflowed, oxygen supplies depleted and full ambulances waited in lines for hours, my wife, Andrea, and I faced a dilemma. The two of us had spent Christmas in Tucson, and planned to drive home to Los Angeles, but our 11-year-old son was in Florida with his biological dad. Andrea had a plane ticket to bring Wyatt back. But flying, especially out of Los Angeles International Airport, seemed too risky. Better to stay at super-clean Airbnbs, order contactless food, and drive across the country to Miami.

And so on January 18 we embarked on the strangest of American road trips, crossing eight states and back, 6,000 miles in 18 days: a surreal and spectacular journey, sure to reveal truths about our battered nation, our resilient people, and ourselves.
A trailer with "WYATT" written on the back reminded Sandy Tolan and his wife, Andrea Portes, of why they were driving across the United States.
It was quiet and chilly for southern Arizona, maybe 35 degrees, when the eastern sky in the Patagonia hills, just north of the border, began to yellow. A cloudless day, soon to warm; a good day for traveling east into Texas.
We rolled through dun-colored hills dotted with mesquite and scrub oak, dipping into washes, past ranches and brick farmhouses. To pass the time we listened to Barack Obama narrate his story in "A Promised Land," his voice a reassurance that we were easing into a more "normal" time, caring for each other again.

So close, we could call out to a friend in Mexico

In New Mexico, we climbed a pass through the jagged-toothed Organ Mountains, then plunged into a desert bowl stretching toward Alamogordo, and the birthplace of the atomic bomb. Our destination was gentler — the gypsum dunes of White Sands National Park. A trickle of tourists, only a few wearing masks, rode down the soft sand hills in rented sleds, another sign of life as it was, and could be.
At dusk we reached El Paso. To our right, Cíudad Juárez spread out, vast and twinkling beyond the Rio Grande; so close, it seemed we could call out the window and talk to a friend in Mexico. For years in the Trump era, we'd heard the language of hate: walls and cages, "animals" and "rapists." Now, it seems, we have a chance to heal the wounds.
We spent our first night in the art-colony town of Marfa. I'd been here 46 years ago, when I was 19. I'd stayed at the Hotel Paisano, swilling down Texas Pride beer with a couple of local teenagers. Back then my room cost me $6 a night. Now suites run nearly 50 times that.
On the second day, we drove south toward Presidio and Big Bend. The Rio Grande wound into view: silent, green, opaque. Here no border wall blocked our view; the Chihuahuan desert remained united by creosote, tamarisk, ocotillo, prickly pear. We stopped, listening for the faint voices carrying across the water, from ranches on the Mexican side.
Sandy and Andrea overlook the Rio Grande during a hike.
Often the river runs swift a