In the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, as in many other places, it's the season of change.
The maple trees have gone green to red, the persimmons are primed for picking, the winter squash is fat and plentiful.
And Joanne Neft, despite her sterling silver elephant earrings, is stumping for a Democrat.
"Would you like to meet Charlie Brown?"
Handshakes are exchanged among a motley threesome standing outside the Newcastle Post Office: Neft, in scarlet T-shirt proclaiming, "Republicans for Charlie Brown." Roland Neary, a long-haired Democrat with Red Bull in hand. And Brown himself, an upstart congressional candidate looking to unseat an eight-term Republican incumbent.
Neary: "Any way we can get ... some new blood in there, it'd be great."
Neft: "So we're on the same page."
Neary: "Oh, we are. Yeah. Yeah."
Brown looks from one to the other, grinning like the cat that caught the canary, remarking about people discovering how many others share a burning desire for "change."
That word has been everywhere this political season, on campaign signs, Web sites, editorial endorsements. It has been on the lips of an embattled president whose mantra of "stay the course" in an unpopular war became "constantly adjusting" as Election Day neared. This vote could result in enormous change, the first congressional power shift since 1994.
But change has become much more than an Election Day rallying cry.
For voters it encapsulates who we are as a nation, where we're headed or should be heading - an end to polarization, a return to common sense, a reasonable reaction to uncertain times, when the one thing Americans seem sure of is how unsatisfactory the status quo has become.
"We're stuck right now," says John Reddish of Chadds Ford, Pa.
Reddish knows about stuck. A former consultant to both major political parties, he now advises Fortune 500 executives and entrepreneurs about managing growth, transition and succession. "I go in and clean up messes and make changes."
Change - in business or politics - happens, he says, when "the pain or the animosity reaches a level where people say, `OK, it's time to throw the buggers out and go on from there.'"
In Election 2006, there's been plenty of pain, animosity and more.
It stems not only from a prolonged and deadly war. Or the sex and corruption scandals that make everyone grimace. Or an immigration problem with no easy solution. Or an economy citizens worry about, despite recent gains on Wall Street and declines at the gas pump.
It surfaces when moderate Republicans question where their party is going. And when typical Americans, sick of the division and partisan score-settling, are willing now to consider a third party or write-in or, yes, tossing out a political label to vote for "the other side."
It echoes in questions about what happened to that independent spirit, that belief that your man or woman in Washington is putting you - not party, president, or lobbyists' cash - first.
In the words of Ohioan Larry Wilcox, there's a feeling that politicians, well, "They're not normal."
"They don't care about the price of gas; somebody's driving them to work in a limousine. They talk about the economy. Well, they're talking about Wall Street and the stocks, which is just a bunch of paper. When this country totally quits producing everything, then they're gonna find out what the economy is. There won't be any."
Wilcox, 63, owns a general store on Main Street in Woodsfield, Ohio, the hub of a county whose 9 percent unemployment rate nearly doubles the 4.6 national rate recorded in September. Neighbors lost jobs when the county's largest employer shuttered two aluminum plants last year. He understands the antiques and saddles he sells become luxury items when people are struggling to feed their families.
A registered independent, Wilcox twice voted for President Bush. "Not happy," he says now, although he remained undecided about his congressional and gubernatorial races heading into Election Day.
"I just keep reading, thinking there must be something good about one of these people. I still can't find it."
He fears too drastic a change - "internal revolution," he calls it. He only knows he wants ... something different.
Dan Snyder, a retiree and Rotarian living in Kalispell, Mont., has more specific reforms in mind:
(a) Voting for Democrat Jon Tester over Republican Conrad Burns in a closely watched U.S. Senate race.
(b) Waking up Wednesday to find the Democrats in control of the Senate if not all of Congress.
(c) Getting out of Iraq "as quickly as possible."
(d) Eliminating the Bush tax cuts to "help us with the deficit."
"You must understand that I am a Republican, and I'm a great admirer of Ronald Reagan," Snyder, 80, says, explaining his anti-GOP plans as an effort to "slow Bush down" in his final two years.
In Waconia, Minn., Elizabeth Peterson is a high school senior busy preparing college applications. At 17 she can't even vote, and yet her words appear at the top of U.S. Senate candidate Amy Klobuchar's Web site index of "101 Reasons for Change in Washington."
Scroll past the laments about prescription drug coverage, renewable fuels and the national debt, and there is the teenager's quote:
"The people in Washington have forgotten about my future. All these scandals about money and power make it hard for me to believe in what's going on there. ... Real leaders should inspire us to trust and get involved in our government."
Peterson spent the summer volunteering for the Democrat's campaign and dreams of becoming a U.S. senator one day herself. Why? "There's so much corruption and stuff ... we need change."
That word again. But everyone defines it differently.
Politics of scandal, Iraq
Back in the Sierra, at the Newcastle Post Office, Angus Maxwell, a Republican, confessed to Democrat Brown that he already had his vote over opponent John Doolittle - on an absentee ballot.
"I don't trust Doolittle," Maxwell said. The GOP incumbent has been mired in the Jack Abramoff scandal, after assisting the lobbyist's tribal clients in dealings with the Interior Department and helping Abramoff win a contract from the Northern Mariana Islands.
Doolittle has denied any wrongdoing and refused to get rid of the $14,000 in campaign donations he got from Abramoff.
Maxwell, a 55-year-old surveyor, wants the war over as much as anyone; his son is a Marine on his second tour of duty in Iraq. Nevertheless, Maxwell still supports the cause, and the president, and fears any power shift in Congress would spell doom for efforts to finish the job and bring his boy home.
A gray America
Change is just fine, he says. In small doses.
Whether it's a Republican leaning Democrat in one race, or a Democrat hoping for a landslide, voters express a collective feeling of being off-balance, a hunger to quiet the extremes, to center the scales, to find a middle ground rooted in compromise.
Many voters will tell you they're neither members of the religious right nor the radical left, that Republicans can be pro-choice while Democrats may disapprove of abortion. America, they believe, is much more gray than black and white.
Newcastle is a 30-minute drive from Sacramento, a tiny village in a Republican-leaning county. Yet folks here care as deeply about their environment as their values and pocketbooks.
Still, self-described "lifelong Republican" Barbara Read, 46, fears discussions about global warming or against the war could leave her branded a "liberal." Real change, in her eyes, means "that we start thinking and stop making choices based on what we're told, based on labels."
Tony Rocha puts it more bluntly. "I think this party business ought to go down the toilet," grumbles the 78-year-old Newcastle resident, an ex-Marine, Republican and Brown-voter.
Software executive Ken Krugler, another area Republican, is dismayed over the current Congress' willingness to deviate from laws "that have stood the test of time," whether it's warrantless wiretapping or the recent authorization of military trials of terrorism suspects.
"If you're a conservative, you should have concerns about that," says Krugler, 45.
For reasons like these, Joanne Neft switched sides this year.
A big fan of Barry Goldwater, a registered Republican "born into a family of Republicans," Neft founded her pro-Brown group after Doolittle's Republican primary opponent lost.
She wants to see a return to the ideals she once believed defined her party. Fiscal conservatism "is gone," she complains. Honesty and integrity? "Oh, dear. I don't know where to begin."
"I believe we're all ready for something better," says Neft, 71. "We've been down on our knees for a while."
She's thought long and hard about change this year, what it would mean for her.
Inspiration, she says. Higher expectations. "Someone to make me feel proud, once again, to be an American."
Change for her means renewal then, like the maples whose leaves will soon drop, only to sprout green again come spring.