America, 1999: I hear the anguish of the 'red' states

In these divided domestic times, I look back with a knowing glance at the halcyon year of 1999, when my husband and I were on a road trip across America. We traveled to all 50 states, intent on taking the pulse of our homeland on the eve of a new millennium.

Economically, it was a gilded age. Homeland security was an unknown phrase. But just as liberals today feel that the country is under siege from conservatism, so in 1999 did conservatives feel offended and betrayed by the administration in power. The moral vicissitudes of the sitting president were of destabilizing concern to them.

We detected an underdog quality in the atmosphere in what have since been dubbed the "red" states - a feeling of being imposed upon by the liberal elite.

People we met in the "flyover" states between coasts made it clear that they did not like being told what to do by a bunch of intellectual Easterners who had no clue about the real America. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, the other half of the United States is profoundly alarmed. It's either, or, but never and.

When I was growing up in Connecticut, my parents set a healthy precedent that has shaped my life: Our family was encouraged to engage in lively debates at the dinner table and to carefully consider the merits of the opposing argument. "Nobody is entitled to his opinion," my father would intone. We had to earn the right to speak our minds.

So when I went in search of America, I was determined to keep my mind as open as possible. An awareness began to dawn on me that geography is destiny, wherever you live. People in rural areas felt very differently from those in cities. Regions with sparse, homogeneous populations had issues that would never occur to a resident of a diverse city - and vice versa.

In Montana, we were guests on what was considered a "small" ranch of 50,000 acres. After a century of overgrazing, the land could no longer support enough cattle to make a go of it. So the owner, a third-generation rancher, had started a bed and breakfast for city slickers who wanted to drive cattle on horseback. (Real cowboys use four-wheelers these days.)

He decried the environmentalist agenda to curtail grazing rights on federal land. His clan and his land (which had been in the family since his pioneer ancestors settled it) were most important to him, and he felt threatened by the changes.

A few years earlier he'd gone to Houston to earn more money, but he found congested city life intolerable. Gazing out from a ridge on his ranch, he admitted that he was lucky to enjoy a dying way of life - and he wasn't going to give it up without a fight.

We met a family in Kansas whose patriarch also raised cattle - but as a hobby, during his off hours from a demanding job selling farm equipment. He said the physical work and the time spent outside with the animals helped rid him of stress. Their children grown, he and his wife were bringing up their granddaughter. My husband and I accompanied grandfather and grandchild on a visit to the herd.

As we enjoyed the pastoral scene, making small talk and watching the girl's playful interaction with the jumpy calves, the man shocked me with the words, "You know, if my daughter had had an abortion, we would never have had the privilege of raising that sweet little girl."

I was taken aback by his bluntness, but also touched by the emotion in his voice, which added a different kind of poignancy to my understanding of the issue. In the Midwest, abortion is literally part of the scenery: We had passed countless billboards emblazoned with "pro-life" messages stated in equally direct ways.

Also in Kansas, we gave a presentation about our road trip to a small-town public middle school. The town's Mennonites got wind of our presence and invited us to talk to the kids - and some of their parents - at their private school. After our presentation, we sat down to eat lunch with them.

Soon we were engaged in a probing conversation with a thoughtful couple who informed us that Mennonites do not vote or hold office. They live in self-imposed exile from secular American culture, about which they are nonetheless very well informed.

As we talked, it struck me that they were fortunate to live in a country where their right to adhere to their faith and lifestyle is constitutionally protected. I asked them where they would prefer to live: in a nation where everybody thought the same as they did, or in the US, where a range of beliefs is officially tolerated.

There was an awkward pause as they considered the question. Perhaps they had never considered this, or perhaps I had overstepped my bounds by asking, but neither husband nor wife could give me an answer.

I think you can guess mine. A diversity of opinions keeps the dust from gathering. The great thing about the American experiment in democracy is that it is our birthright not to settle for anything. And as long as we are not divided against our collective good, America will stand.

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