GOODLAND, KAN. — Around here, Ivan Parks and his wife are almost synonymous with summertime celebrations. Their Sno-Cones have been the salvation of overworked high-school football teams up in Nebraska and the guilty pleasure of fair-going teenagers in the tiny farm towns of western Kansas - who know the Parkses' electric-blue kiosk by sight.
Yet this Independence Day, along with the unfurled flags and thunderous fireworks, there comes a discordant note for the Parkses amid the brassy marching tunes. The gnarled brim of his green cap pulled low, Ivan worries about $60-a-barrel oil and the end of Social Security as he has known it for his whole life. Glenda wonders if the loss of life in Iraq is worth it.
Here in America's Heartland, the love of country is all but unquestioned, but concern over the nation's course spreads to every corner of the wide-open plains. Some of it is surprisingly candid - invectives against a president and his policies that would make a blue-stater blush. But more often, it is simply a fact to be accepted and overcome - like a poor harvest or a cold winter.
Indeed, on street corners from Rock Springs, Wyo., to Cambridge, Ohio, Middle America remains much as it ever was - straightforward, unfailingly polite, and above all resilient. It is in this resilience that these farmers and teachers and Sno-Cone salesmen put their hope. To them, America is its people and its laws, and these will endure policies, oil prices, and wars.
"That's the American dream," says Ivan. "Things get better."
For now, that remains just a hope for most Americans. Satisfaction with the direction of the country is dropping, according to Gallup polls, but at 42 percent it remains well above historic lows. Troubled but not panicked by the war in Iraq and a fitful economy, Americans have slipped into a lingering sense of unease.
American satisfaction levels are below average, "but it's not as catastrophic as we've seen at other times - like the early '90s and late '70s," says Frank Newport of Gallup.
It is an attitude that stretches to the Civic Center in Rock Springs, Wyo., where supervisor Laurie Barton watches children scurry past the front desk to the pool and basketball court. "I don't feel a lot of hope, but I also don't feel a lot of gloom and doom," she says. "We're at a stage where we have to be very careful."
Colleague Anne-Marie Orester is more blunt: "There are some bad things going on."
Squeezed between the barren crags of the Leucite Hills, Rock Springs is as close as this century comes to the Wild West of old. Beyond the Wal-Marts and McDonald's that crowd alongside Interstate 80 thrive modern-day prospectors and fortune-seekers, come to Rock Springs to ply the Jonah natural gas field north of town.
Ms. Orester eyes them with suspicion. A student and a lifelong resident, she says prostitution and violent crime are on the rise, and there aren't enough police to keep up. President Bush's overeagerness to throw open the door to energy exploration is part of the problem, she adds, and she doesn't stop there. Rattling off references to British MI-5 reports on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, she begins a diatribe against the Iraq war that would have Michael Moore giving her a Palme d'Or.
To be sure, this is the heart of Bush Country, but these states are not as monolithic as they would appear on an electoral map.
There is a deep concern about whether America is on the right path - and there is a diversity of opinions.
At the Stein House Cafe in Boonville, Mo., waiter Seth Bailey is holding forth. The subject is the war and the economy - the two subjects that Gallup pollster Mr. Newport says most influence public opinion - and the exchange is an echo of others from Rock Springs to Goodland.
Standing behind the mahogany counter, Mr. Bailey insists: "I don't think we should be playing supercop. We should be focusing more on trade and the economy."
Dressed in a crisp red and white sports jersey that shines faintly, Tom Filbert retorts: "During World War II we all came together, and everybody stayed focused. It's only a few years after [the Sept. 11] attacks, and our focus seems to be going away."
Around the counter, there is just as much chatter about the plans for a new Wal-Mart and what that could do to business in downtown Boonville. The consensus is that America can overcome its troubles better than Boonville.
For her part, Orester has faith in the foundations laid by America's Founding Fathers. "We have survived other things in the past, and we will survive this," she says with a flourish fit for parchment and quill. "What makes us a strong nation is not changing: our fundamental freedoms."
Across middle America, however, faith in the future of the nation comes from a variety of sources. It comes from the very nature of the place - the rhythms of a land where storm clouds line up like battleships on the horizon, and the fortunes of many are bound in the hope of a seed and a good season. Difficult days bring hard labor and patience, and these times are no different. So people do what they can, and hope for better.
"I'm not much of a bookworm," says Ron Schumacher of Rawlins, Wyo. "But give me a shovel and a pitchfork and I'll get after it."
Yet Mr. Schumacher also hints at perhaps an even deeper thread in everyday life in the Heartland. Sitting in front of his church, his straw hat filtering the glare of the midday sun, Schumacher says Americans need to "get down on their knees more."
For some, religious faith only adds to the angst about the direction of modern America. "The spiritual level of the country is declining," says Lamar Lapp, who sells flowers at a farmers' market in Cambridge, Ohio, every Friday. Mr. Lapp has gone so far as to banish televisions and radios from his house to keep his six children from the "filth that comes over that stuff."
"I want them to grow up and see the good," he adds. "And there are plenty of other things to do."
For others, though, religious faith is intertwined with their unfailing optimism for the nation. In Bush, they have a president whom they trust and understand. "The president is a man of deep conviction, and the decisions he makes are based on faith," says Tim Robertson, a teacher who has come to Salina, Kan., for a conference. His wife, Sharron, adds: "As a person of faith, I tend to look at life optimistically.... You have to go through the hard times before you build things up."
At the farmers' market in Cambridge, Violet Cummings is hovering over a collection of her homemade jams, trying to build up a better America one person at a time. At the moment, it's a gray-haired customer whom she greets with a broad smile and friendly chatter. Later this year, it will be all of Cambridge as she runs for a seat on the school board.
She's not happy about the way things are going in America right now, but she's already worked out the perfect solution: the people. "If politicians went to farmers' markets and talked to people, they'd realize that the people have good ideas," she says. "They flat out don't listen to the people."
So this fall, Ms. Cummings is going to try to make them listen. After all, she twinkles with the enthusiasm of an 8-year-old, "This country is awesome."