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Along The Beltway, An Instant Obamaville

The phone started ringing at Cherry Hill RV Park the morning after the election, but Mike and Linda Gurevich didn't really believe it until the recreational vehicles started lumbering in by the hundreds. Winter's a quiet time at the Gureviches' campgrounds in College Park, but yesterday, their 60 acres hard by the Beltway turned into an instant Obamaville.

It was a community of people from all across the land who felt compelled to be here this weekend, not because they're political types, not because they worked for Barack Obama's presidential campaign, but because they believe to their core that there's good mileage left in this battered old tin can of a country.

They came without tickets and without connections, they came even without a map. They came, in many cases, even though they'd never driven an RV before, but hey, it can't be too hard, right?

All night long on the way from Alabama, Donna Robinson couldn't get the heat working right in the 32-footer she rented with money raised from selling cakes and Obama T-shirts. "It was like the tundra in there," she said.

Ron Sorenson drove up from Florida by himself because his fiancee didn't want to die while he figured out how to manuever a land yacht. Kathy Kafka flew, thank you very much.

In the park's general store, Mike Gurevich stocked up with Obama souvenirs, newspapers and schedules for Metrobus, which added seven extra buses from the RV park down to the Greenbelt rail station. Gurevich hosted a couple of dozen folks back when Bill Clinton was first sworn in and a handful for George W. Bush ("mostly protesters"). Yesterday, he was full up, 270 RVs.

Inside them were people who refuse to be thrown off by bad times.

Sorenson built houses, for good money, and then he didn't. When the music stopped, he was left with three houses no one would buy, at any price. He could have settled into the couch, like he's seen too many of his friends do, moping and grousing and waiting for who knows what to happen.

Robinson was getting by. A disabled Marine, she had it tough, but at least she had the house and her daughter was in college. Then she came home one day to find that the pipe in the master bath had ruptured, and the house was finished, flooded. She ended up in a motel with her daughter for months on end, out of work, out of cash, out of exits.

Gary Doring drove 3,221 miles from Oakland, Calif., with his dachshund in a 26-footer. "I just knew I had to come," he told me after he sang the praises of Mountain Dew, the sacred elixir that got him across the continent. "Obama's got a tough, unbelievable job ahead of him, and he just needs all the energy and support he can get."

Doring, 61, ran a restaurant in Sausalito for 25 years, then discovered the miracle of real estate, becoming a landlord and scoring enough green to keep him living in golf course houses on both coasts.

"We got sort of lost in all the money," he said. Then he woke up, saw the pain on his city's streets, decided things had taken a wrong turn. His wife, a Pan Am flight attendant for years, lost her retirement income, and Doring realized how many people in so many fields had worked for decades only to find themselves dumped into old age without the security they thought they had achieved.

Obama, he said, feels like someone who won't accept that kind of breach of trust. "There's a presence about certain people, you can just feel it, that's he's a more enlightened person, and the greed has just gone too far. I should be a Republican, too -- for the low taxes -- but Obama makes me feel there is hope, something much bigger than us."

Down in Weaver, Ala., Robinson felt that presence the first time she saw Obama on television. "I thought, 'Wow, who is this guy?' And I don't know why, I just started reading Joshua in the Bible."

Robinson, 43, knew she had to come to Washington. She teamed with 12 cousins and other relations, taking the kids out of school. (She has given them assignments -- every day, they must write reports on everything they see and learn.)

"I just want to stand with my children on the place where Martin Luther King said that one day this world will be able to be the same for everybody," she said. "Maybe I'll come back to Alabama and nothing will be changed, but I'll still be there with my two girls and my arms around them showing them what hope can bring. I know I'll be crying. I don't know anything else to do."

Sorenson spent $5,000 wrapping his rented RV with giant portraits of Obama and King, as well as texts of some of Sorenson's poems, stream-of-consciousness pleas for love and compassion, the result of a life that didn't always go as he had planned.

Not long ago, he was building millions of dollars of houses on Florida's Gulf Coast. Then he watched loan companies take those houses. Not long ago, his son was filled with dreams. Then Ron went with his boy to Arlington National Cemetery to bury the boy's sergeant. "War, it's close," Ron writes. "Killed, gone from here. . . . Life is time, there's not enough to fight."

He has always been a Republican, it's how he was raised. Now, at 51, he's driving up the coast with Obama's face plastered all over an RV. "I saw him and I said, 'That's the president,' " Sorenson said. "He inspired me to get up. He sucks me right in. Three years ago, I could have retired and now I've lost everything. But Obama got me off the couch -- quit complaining about how bad everything is."

In Obamaville, nobody talks about the historic moment. As I wandered around, I decided not to mention race, and sure enough, not a soul said a word about it. No need.

What matters in this RV park is not what's different, but what's in common: Somehow, despite Wall Street crooks and lost jobs, despite divisions of war and class, the RVs roll in packed with people who still think they own this thing. They believe they have a duty to be here because, in the end, they're in charge. Which is why it works, why it has a future, even now.

By Marc Fisher |  January 18, 2009; 9:00 AM ET
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