The Journey is Complete!

Travis Fox/

Washington –The circuitous route I took between Santa Barbara and Washington totaled nearly 5,000 miles, but in a nation riveted by perhaps the most historic election in American history, it was also so much more. A month ago, I went to Google Maps to define a route that would take me across America, through mountains and desert, big cities and small towns, and, inevitably, through parts of this country both red and blue. After three rental cars, 17 states and almost a month on the road, I returned with a snapshot of this nation wracked by economic crisis and fears of the future, where Americans of every stripe have one eye on the problems of the present even as the other looks nervously toward nation’s next chapter after Election Day.

There are so many examples of how people are already being affected. The Clements family in Santa Barbara is now homeless for the first time, a fact they attribute to the economic situation.

Young Rae Cho’s apparel business in Milwaukee is off 50 percent.

Anna Lear has lost 40 pounds because the increased cost of food and gas. She keeps the meat for her children.

Many of the people I met preferred not to appear on camera. Someone who sticks in my mind is Mary Wong, who runs the Golden Harvest restaurant in Halstead, Kan. Wong was born in China and first immigrated to Australia. But it was the American Dream that convinced her to pull up stakes and start over again. She wound up in this small town in southeast Kansas.

Wong said her family is among the only minorities in this part of country, but that didn’t matter. She and her husband worked hard, earned the respect of the locals and now own two restaurants, where they work seven days a week.

In the last few months, business is way down, but that doesn’t matter to Wong. What’s important is her 16-year-old daughter, who has recently been diagnosed with cancer. She’ll survive. The family has medical insurance, but they’re still getting bombarded with bills.

Once the bills are taken care of and the evitable battle with the insurance company is complete, Wong worries about how her daughter will continue the family legacy by taking over the restaurant. How will she ever afford health insurance with a “pre-condition,” Wong wonders.

All of this had led Wong to one difficult conclusion: her American Dream is over. It’s painful for her to admit, but if she wasn’t rooted in rural Kansas, she says that she’d return to Australia. She feels that it’s not the same as it was a decade ago. Even with hard work, she can’t make it here any longer.

The hard times I found across the country have also effected how people view the presidential election. As polls indicate, the economy has pushed more people into Barack Obama’s camp.

I saw this firsthand in Colorado Springs, Colo. The “Springs,” as it’s called locally, is among the most conservative places in Colorado. It’s the home of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family and the New Life Church.

I met up with Jon Wuerth, a volunteer for Barack Obama, as he went door-to-door, trying to convince registered independents to vote for Obama. He said 90 percent of the people he met quickly identified the economy as the most important issue.

At one stop, Wuerth got into a long discussion with a man wearing a NASCAR hat who said he voted for Bush twice.

“With the economy the way it is now, we really do need change,” the man said, but then complained about the Democratic Party’s support for abortion and gay rights, “That’s the tough part right there because I don’t agree with that stuff. I don’t agree with that, but I do agree that we need change.”

As he stood up to leave the man’s apartment, Wuerth heard what he was waiting for.

“If you were taking a poll right now, I’d probably have to say I’m going with Barack Obama,” the man said.

Obama was a constant theme throughout the trip. Whether they were supporters or detractors, everyone wanted to talk about Obama. A lot of what I heard I couldn’t capture on tape. I heard the N-word more often that I expected, once even in conjunction with “half-breed.”

More often, I heard Obama described as a Muslim.

In Oakley, Kan., I stopped in an antique gun store to talk to the owner. He was convinced Obama was a Muslim. I told him that everyone, including John McCain had denied the rumor. But he refused to listen. He was sure that he’d seen Obama himself on television “admitting” to being a Muslim. He went on to say that folks here were burying guns in the backyard because they were worried that an Obama administration would curtail the rights of gun owners.

Around the corner from the gun shop, I found a family sitting out on their front porch. As soon I identified myself as a journalist, they all blurted out-- almost in unison-- that Obama is a Muslim. Then one man said that he expects Obama to be assassinated soon, other sentiment I heard often. When I asked him whom he’ll be voting for, he replied Hillary Clinton, unaware that she’s no longer running.

Mostly, I found people who were engaged in the campaign, opinionated, but not in a partisan way. They were voters who were trying hard to understand the issues and make the best decision. After getting bombarded with political rhetoric from pundits on cable TV and seeing the country displayed in maps of bright red or blue, it was refreshing to talk to so many reasonable voters.

Near Garden City, Kan., I spent the morning harvesting corn with Greg Stone. He’s a third generation farmer who’s torn between the candidates. He likes Obama because of the Illinois Senator’s support for ethanol subsidies and because Stones suspects he has overall better farm policies. But as a socially conservative Christian, Stone typically likes Republicans because of their stance on social issues like abortion. When I was there he was leaning towards McCain, but said he wouldn’t be horrified with an Obama administration.

In my neighborhood in New York, you would never see a McCain poster in anyone’s window. I don’t know a single neighbor who votes Republican. In some ways, I expected places like Garden City, Kansas, or Cimarron County, Oklahoma, to be mirror images of that. Although I met more people supporting the Republican ticket in “red” areas, I also found more diversity than I expected. In Oakley, where I heard Obama bashed for being a Muslim, I also saw several Obama signs in yards.

I think Obama volunteer Jon Wuerth summed up the reason during our time in socially conservative Colorado Springs.

“I think we’re getting a little more progressive in this community,” Wuerth said, “And I think the economy has a lot to do with that.”

By Travis Fox  |  November 2, 2008; 11:20 PM ET
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