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During cross-country trip, a search for hope

Driving across the country — it’s as American as Apple pie and baseball. Every time I mentioned my upcoming road trip from D.C. to Seattle, I was met with deep sighs of jealousy and only half-joking exclamations of “take me with you.” I think the 3,000-mile drive should be a required part of a college degree.

Each time I make the trek, I learn so much about myself and my country.  At least once each trip — and usually several times — I see something so beautiful it fills me with awe, pride and gratitude at my good fortune to be born in such an incredible land, and it fills my eyes with more than a little mist. By now, I've made the drive about a dozen times, usually in search of a new job or a new opportunity. In fact, that's how America's romance with cross-country treks began.

In "The Grapes of Wrath," John Steinbeck dubbed Route 66 the Mother Road, back in 1939. The dusty, windy road from Chicago to Los Angeles was no drive in the park, but it gave hundreds of thousands of Americans a little bit of hope as they tried to escape the Dust Bowl. The road had actually opened in 1926, and in some places, it was barely more than a clearing in the tumbleweeds.

My own love affair with the cross-country drive comes from my father, who was an (almost) original Route 66-er. He served in the military in Arizona during the 1950s and drove back and forth from New Jersey to Fort Huachuca several times – legend has it he sometimes did it in two days. He became a teacher and never lost his wanderlust, so all us kids were packed in the car every summer and drove out west. I've loved rest stops, hotel ice machines and surfing for distant baseball game radio broadcasts even since.

But America's real sense of wanderlust dates almost to the beginning, with Lewis and Clark's harebrained trip to the West Coast. Tales of their journey filled generations of Americans with that quintessentially American sentiment: Somewhere out there, beyond the next mountain range, in the next town, along the next river, there's a better life.

Every journey is a vote for faith and hope. I wondered as I began my Hidden Fee Tour of America during what is still the worst economic calamity since the publication of "The Grapes of Wrath": Do Americans still have hope? Or has cynicism replaced optimism? I will be working on that story for the next few weeks and probably for the next several years. With consumers so beaten down by corporate misbehavior, with Wall Street raking in bonuses while 1 of out of 10 Americans can't make their mortgage payments, with a multinational giant turning our beautiful Gulf of Mexico into a useless sewer, you might think it hard to find hope.

I'm in Montana, which means I'm barely more than halfway across. But I've already found a lot of answers. Here are a few:

* America changes so much once you head west of Chicago.  It's so big, beautiful, clean and calm. As soon as I paid the last charge on the Illinois Tollway heading west, I felt my blood pressure drop.  The right turn up to Wisconsin can fill even the coldest soul with warmth. If you're feeling blue and you have the means, travel at least that far west. I promise you'll feel better.

* Big hearts grow up in small cities, but tragically, they don't stick around. In Fargo, N.D., I heard the same joke from several folks: "Our biggest export is our children." There's nothing to keep the kids at home. Despite a fantastic lifestyle, there are few opportunities. In every small town in America, the young folks are fleeing to the cities. The main industry in great second-tier U.S. cities like Fargo, Billings, Missoula or Bismarck seems to be coffee shops.  If you want more, you leave.

* There's an equal and opposite reaction to that exodus, however. At the very first stop on my trip, in Pittsburgh, I pulled up in front of my meeting place to find a group of men carrying furniture from an apartment into a truck. "Moving out?" I said to the woman there, smiling. "Moving back home," she said back, darkly. Only then I noticed the furniture was going into a garbage truck. She couldn't get a job in her chosen field, school counseling. She couldn't afford to live on her own any longer.

Young people who move to the cities are finding they have little hope of buying a home and raising a family there. They are welcome as young, struggling singles in one-bedroom apartments. But I didn't meet a single 25-year-old who felt confident in his or her prospects to get a yard and have a dog some day. They are faced with this impossible choice: Do they move home and give up opportunity or stay in the city and give up the family? This is the most troubling aspect of American economic life today. We must give our young people hope.

*You see signs bragging about "American Recovery and Reinvestment Act" projects on roads all around the nation — even along seemingly pristine roads that seem to see no more than one or two cars per hour. Because I spend most of my time in parts of the country where potholes are the size of small cars, this is infuriating. There are times where our federalist system seems perfectly silly.

*In a single day, you can easily drive from Columbus, Ohio, to Chicago or even Minneapolis — and drive through about 12 distinct cultures. That's what makes America great. Even in Columbus itself, you can find the Bible belt and you can find a small piece of San Francisco — the city hosts enormous art festivals and gay pride parades. Once you leave Columbus, you hear Rush Limbaugh on seemingly every AM radio station. When in arrive in Chicago, you find the crashing of cultures that gives us everything from Oprah to the Cubs to the blues. Oak Park is a neighborhood of authors and activists that probably rivals Berkeley.  Wisconsin and Minnesota are full of liberal farmers' sons and daughters. But leave Minneapolis and you'll find the heart of sensible conservative America and won't hit a safely liberal region until to cross the Cascade Mountains about two days later. Yet we all live together, somehow. It's amazing.

* Speaking of Limbaugh, he is everywhere.  It seems like his program airs on half the stations in rural America, and his booming voice is inescapable. Having been the target of Limbaugh's misplaced wrath recently, I have my opinion about whether Rush adds cynicism or optimism to the national debate. What's yours?

*Everyone is worried about the oil spill in the Gulf. Everyone.

* I’m still debating whether folks in the middle of the country have more common sense or are more naive than city slickers. I’m wondering who pays more overdraft fees, for example — more on that next week. But in the meantime, some thoughts. These folks sure don’t like cheaters. In downtown Fargo, there’s a huge billboard that reads: “Fargo’s Roger Maris, legitimate home run king.” Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire would probably not get a friendly reception there. On the other hand, many free Wi-Fi hotspots don’t even have sign-up screens, and they certainly don’t have 5,000-word disclaimers. Just connect and surf. It’s kind of nice. I hope the lawyers don’t discover Miles City, Mont. I haven’t paid more than $3 for a beer in the past two weeks, and that’s nice, too.

* Finally, thanks to billboards, small crosses, large memorials on bridges and pictures posted near city halls, you get a deep sense of the ultimate price that's being paid by American families during our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That pain hits hard in small towns, but their pride in serving seems to be an even greater force. On Memorial Day weekend, every one of us should take the time to thank a vet and remember the people who give the best years of their lives — and sometimes, their very lives — in an effort to protect us.

Lucky, a great road-trip companion, makes friends easily.
Lucky, a great road-trip companion, makes friends easily.

I have been humbled by all the efforts readers have made to make my trip easier. Red Tape fans have planned events, suggested roadside stops and, most important, helped me find stories all along the way. One of the best things about being a traveler — a stranger in a strange land— is the generosity you feel overflowing from folks who are so eager to show you their towns, their homes, their quirky traditions. I’ve been able to talk with folks in their cafes, their pubs, their living rooms and their dog parks. Some might have seemed cynical, some liberal, some conservative. But when it came time to see me, all of them shared one thing: They were welcoming. To welcome a stranger is the ultimate act of optimism. And that has led me to this unmistakable conclusion. Certainly, America has hit a bump in the road — no, a large pothole. There’s a lot of yelling and screaming on TV and in newspaper columns. But when you talk to people, when you have genuine encounters, Americans are a generous, loving and optimistic lot.

Not long ago, I saw Arlo Guthrie in concert. He was in Seattle, preaching to "his people," one would think. But he told an incredibly moving story that I'll paraphrase here: He's traveled every corner of the country, and when he was young, he tried to seek out those who agreed with his point of view on things. But the older he's gotten, the more he's seen that there are really two kinds of people in America, and they aren't Republicans and Democrats or liberals and conservatives. There are people who care and people who don't. And he found that he had much more in common with the people who care — whatever their views — than the people who didn't get involved in anything.

My trip has taught me that Americans are angry with being mistreated, neglected and bilked. They are tired of being taken advantage of. But they certainly aren't tired of caring, and that means we'll be OK.

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