Mapping the American spirit

In the spirit of Alexis de Tocqueville and of John Steinbeck's 'Travels With Charley,' a writer sets out to discover the heart of America – and what it means to be American in the summer of 2002.

During the past year I read countless news stories about the American spirit, American values, and what Americans supposedly would be doing and thinking about this summer, almost a year after the terrorist attacks. I began to wonder: Just who are all my fellow Americans that are mentioned in these polls and statistics? What are their names? Where do they live? What do they look like?

In July I decided to find out. I grabbed a tape recorder and a digital camera and racked up almost 8,000 miles driving across the country, talking to average Americans wherever I found them.

Looking at the US through the small oval window of an aircraft is great for appreciating the contours and topography of this land. But I wanted to taste and smell the middle of the country, to see if Americans – and if America itself – had changed in any dramatic fashion, not only since my last big extended trip in the 1960s, but since Sept. 11, 2001. I wanted to find out what working Americans were thinking – and doing – this summer of 2002, and how they felt about being American.

In my rented El Monte RV I hit the road, trying to avoid the big cities.

It is no secret that the semiotics of the American interstate system are the same all over the country: well-lit signs soaring into the sky, announcing another Subway, McDonald's, Wal-Mart, Exxon-Mobil, Pizza Hut, or Hampton Inn at the next exit.

So, whenever possible, I tried to get off the Interstates and onto the less-predictable roads.

There, the change I noticed in America was not so much in the physical layout as in the subtle ways people were relating to one another.

Sure, cities have changed physically, renovating downtowns with historic districts, parks, Starbucks or cappuccino cafes, a new Borders bookstore, a farmers market. But in most areas America's scenic beauty has not been diminished. The Blue Ridge Mountains, the Tetons, and the Southwestern desert are all spectacular. The summer winds in the Dakotas still smell like a field of wild flowers, and sun-splashed southern California is, as always, all sunglasses, Porsches, palm trees, and ocean fog.

But in speaking with Americans this summer I was stunned by our newfound ability to communicate with one another, despite our lingering social and political differences. The issues that unite us, at least during the summer of 2002 – foreign terrorism, corporate greed, child abuse in the church, kidnappings, high gasoline prices – have superceded the issues that used to divide us – race, politics, capital punishment, abortion.

Thus, this was a good season for a wandering journalist to be invading backyard barbecues, urban stoops, Main-Street benches, and lakeside beaches, talking with locals about American ideals we could, finally, all agree on.

I felt at home. I had a sense that in these small towns and villages across America I could communicate, one on one, with anyone I spotted outside the windows of the RV.

Perhaps I could have done this years ago. But last year all of us shared an experience that brought us closer and, in some ways, has given us a sense of being part of an American family.

Writer Richard Todd once wrote that the soul of America can be found in a Happy Meal. I am not so sure. The American soul is more complex than that, almost impossible to describe. But it can be experienced talking to average Americans and witnessing simple American pleasures: watching families gather in the outfield for the fireworks display after a minor-league ballgame at BellSouth Field in Chattanooga, Tenn. Listening to children during a Pledge of Allegiance contest at the Piggly Wiggly grocery store in Meridian, Miss. Even spotting the red neon glow of a Sonic Drive-In in Fort Stockton, Texas, against the wide prairie sky as it turned purple at sunset.

What made my trip so stimulating is that, while there is no quintessential American experience, it seemed that every person I met was so quintessentially American.

So, as I traveled I asked questions: What does it mean to you to be an American? And what are you doing this summer?

Out of a possible 287 million answers, here are a few of them – just a small part of the spirit of America.

Epes, Ala.
Sylvester Pratt, farmer

Summer 2002: Traditional African-American farming in the Southeast can be traced back to the post-Civil War years, when slave land grants provided rural Southern blacks with a certain amount of farmland.

In the early 1900s there were more than 1 million black farmers in the southeastern United States. Today, that figure is less than 18,000, and only 175 of these black farmers are under the age of 60. One of them is Sylvester Pratt, 46 years old. On a brutally hot July day he was cutting weeds that threatened the new growth of kale on his 249-acre vegetable farm, which is on land leased from a neighbor. "I've been farming my entire life," he said, stopping his tractor long enough to talk to a stranger leaning against his fence.

"Farming has been in my family for generations, back when my ancestors were slaves here in Alabama. Nothing ever comes easy here in this part of country," he said, pulling the brim of his hat down low over his eyes as he started back to work.

Being an American: "Well, it means everything, a lot. I can't think of anyplace else I would rather be. No sir, there's nowhere else I would rather be but right here in America."

Roanoke, Va.
Jennifer Pitts, law student and Miss America contestant

Summer 2002: In its early years the town was called Big Lick, after the many salt "licks" that surrounded the Roanoke River. This summer, the downtown convention center is where Jennifer Pitts was crowned Miss Virginia 2002. For the third-year law student at George Mason University, winning the state pageant means going on to Atlantic City in September and competing in the Miss America contest. "I've being doing pageants for the past five years, mainly as a way to earn college money," she said in the hours preceding her talent part of the pageant, a contemporary ballet performance. If she hadn't won, she would have worked this summer for a local attorney, who's running for the state Senate.

Being an American: "Right now, especially with what's happening in our country, to be an American means you look outside of yourself, and you give back to society. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that everybody has the opportunity to be great because everyone can serve. I think that's what being an American is all about."

Lafayette, La.
Mitchell Reed, Cajun fiddle player

Summer 2002: Bandols is a dance hall in Lafayette, La., the center of Cajun culture in the United States. On hot summer nights, with the dance floor packed with locals and the soft-shell crabs overflowing the long wooden tables, the atmosphere is truly electric. Mitchell Reed is the lead fiddle player for the house band, the Lafayette Rhythm Devils. "I come from a family of musicians, mostly accordion players, and they needed a fiddle player for their band, so my dad took me to the older fiddle players around here, and I would hang out with them and learn tunes from them," Mr. Reed said between breaks in the music. He studied classical music for a few terms at the University of Louisiana, but then dropped out to concentrate fully on the fiddle and folk singing, Cajun style. He planned to spend a few weeks this summer in Denmark teaching Cajun music to children.

Being an American: "I come from a military family: My grandfather fought in World War II, my dad fought in Vietnam, so I will always stand by this country."

El Paso, Texas
Josephine Rey, office worker

Summer 2002: Josephine Rey was born in southern Mexico and moved with her family to Juarez when she was 20. There she met the man who became her husband – an American citizen – and moved to El Paso, Texas, two years later, working as a cashier in a grocery store. She studied English, earned a two-year degree at a local community college, and has spent the past several years working for Firestone Tire Co. "I already took my vacation this year," she said, "so this summer I will just be working in the office every day, which is OK, because it is very hot here during the summer, so the office is a cool place to be."

Being an American: "I became an American citizen five years ago, and it means a lot. I have all the rights of an American citizen, including jury duty and the right to vote, which is very important. I feel part of the country, like a regular American."

Yuma, Ariz.
David Rangel, officer, Yuma County Sheriff's Department

Summer 2002: Yuma has a reputation as an old-time Western gun-slinging town that has left its cowboy past far behind. The only guys who tote guns these days are at the nearby Marine base or law enforcement officers such as David Rangel, who has worked for the sheriff's department for the past 15 years. "My wife and I tried living in California when we first got married," Mr. Rangel said, "but we both missed the Yuma area and decided to come back home because of the lifestyle here."

Being an American: "It's more than just being born here. I believe that America offers its people the opportunity to express themselves in whatever way they feel suitable and also in their freedom to choose a religion, political beliefs.... I'm proud to be here."

Las Vegas
Amy Warren, dancer

Summer 2002: Twice a night, every week for the past several years, tourists have packed the theater at the Stratosphere Casino in Las Vegas to watch American Superstars, a musical revue of talented but unknown performers who imitate famous singers such as Elvis, Madonna, Charlie Daniels, and Ricky Martin. Amy Warren is the lead dancer in the show, a major production that involves more than 30 costume changes and several hours of exhausting routines.

Born and raised in Olympia, Wash., Warren took her first dancing lessons at age 6 and hasn't stopped dancing since. "I knew since I was 8 years old that I wanted to be a professional dancer," she said during the short break between performances of a patriotic-themed show. She dances six nights each week, which is tiring, she admits, but she's happy to be doing what she loves.

Being an American: "I think being an American is having the freedom to choose to do and be who you want to be, and not have to follow anyone else's rules and ideas on what you want to become. I think what happened on Sept.11 changed a lot of people's ideas and made them realize how important – and special – it is to live where we have that freedom."

Cedar City, Utah
Marlow Imlay, barber

Summer 2002: Born in Cedar City, Marlow Imlay has not ventured far from his roots. "This was a great little town to grow up in," he said as he finished up a customer's haircut in his one-chair barber shop on Main Street. "We created our own fun here, got part-time jobs through high school. I thought barbering looked like a good opportunity to make a decent living, so I've been doing this since I was 19 years old. I've been around long enough to quit, but I don't know what I would do if I did stop."

Mr. Imlay has seen Cedar City grow from 5,000 residents to 22,000. His barbershop continues to draw steady customers, mainly middle-aged men who started sitting in Imlay's chair as children, and now return weekly to keep their thinning hair looking neat. Many of the town's young kids go to the new chain salons in the strip malls outside of town, where prices are lower and the stylist is apt to wear a ponytail and play 'N Sync CDs.

Being an American: "I feel that we're in the best place in the world."

Crazy Horse Memorial Site, S.D.
Donovan Sprague, native American craftsman and historian

Summer 2002: When it is finally completed, the Crazy Horse Memorial, near Custer, S.D., will be the world's largest sculpture, measuring 641 feet long and 563 feet high. Crazy Horse's head alone will be 87 feet high. (The heads on Mt. Rushmore, just 10 miles away, measure 60 feet.) Established by the Lakota Indians to honor their great warrior, Crazy Horse, the project was started in earnest by Chief Standing Bear, who commissioned a sculptor named Korczak Ziolkowski to begin the construction in 1947. Donovan Sprague's great-great-great-grandfather was the Sioux warrior known as "Hump," who once saved Crazy Horse's life, and became his lifelong friend.

Being an American: "We all know that we were the first Americans here, and everyone came later. Our tribe didn't have good relations with the original English settlers who came here, but we did get along with the French, who came solely for the fur trade. [Now] we are all here together, even the European groups, all somewhat like indigenous nations.

"To be a warrior was always one of the most outstanding things a native American could do in our society, and we also feel that way about defending the United States. Native Americans turned out in record numbers to defend the country in World War I, and because of that we were allowed to become official citizens of the country. More than [190,000] native American men are veterans, which far surpasses any other group."

Norfolk, Neb.
Brandi Bolte, National Polled Hereford Queen

Summer 2002: As a little girl growing up on a Nebraska farm, Brandi Bolte was introduced to cattle ranching and breeding at the age of 3, helping her father feed the heifers and then being given the job of naming the newborn calves. Her parents encouraged her to get involved in everything at school – sports, quiz bowls, debating clubs – but her favorite activity was working with the animals. After winning the National Polled Hereford Queen competition last January, Ms. Bolte is spending the summer working on her parents' farm, and traveling to cattle and breeding events around the country as a spokeswoman for the industry.

Being an American: "Being an American and a farmer is very important in my life. I have the freedom to choose what I want to do in my life ... to raise cattle, to sell them, opportunities to show them."

Sioux Falls, S.D.
Tyrone Pendergrass, center fielder, Sioux Falls Canaries

Summer 2002: "Growing up in South Carolina, that's about all I did, play sports, especially baseball. I played ball in college, and then signed with the Braves organization, and have been playing in the minors for the past six years," said Tyrone Pendergrass, center fielder for the Canaries, who play their home games in a stadium nicknamed "the Bird Cage."

Playing minor-league baseball, despite its surge in popularity among fans, is not an easy job. Locker rooms are often no more than steel lockers and concrete floors. Long bus rides connect small towns, there are few days off, and the pay isn't great. But the dream, to make "the show" – the big leagues – is as strong among ballplayers today as ever. Perhaps even stronger, considering the salaries that major leaguers make these days.

Mr. Pendergrass plays his heart out in every game, hoping for his big break – that one big-league scout who might see something special in his swing or the way he chases fly balls. That keeps him going.

Being an American: "It means a lot. I'm free. I see other cultures, other places, and I'm just glad to be here."

Chattanooga, Tenn.
Shani Hedden, singer

Summer 2002: The Chattanooga Theatre Center is located on the banks of the Tennessee River, with beautiful views of the city's revitalized downtown just across the water. One of its shows this summer was "Always Patsy Cline."

Shani Hedden, a young singer from nearby Harrison, Tenn., starred in the show as Patsy. "I always loved to entertain my friends when I was growing up," she said during a July rehearsal session. "I would stand on the couch with a stick microphone and try to make everyone laugh."

She moved to Nashville a few years ago, singing country-western in little clubs around town. "Honoring Patsy Cline's memory is very important to me," Ms. Hedden said. "In her short life she opened up doors for so many women country singers."

Being an American: "I absolutely love the sense of community that Americans have with each other. And the fight to end racism, sexism, homophobia – that is super important. Sure, there are excesses in America, like consumerism and corporate fraud, but there is no magic system anywhere. In America I feel comfortable and safe, and here I can go after my dreams...."

S.S. Badger, Lake Michigan Ferry
Dean Hobbs, ship captain

Summer 2002: At 3 a.m., Capt. Dean Hobbs stands in the pilot house of the 410-foot S.S. Badger, staring at Lake Michigan's dark waters. Tonight the ferry is carrying 125 passengers, 27 cars, several RVs, and a few tractor-trailers. "I grew up along the St. Mary's River in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and left high school to work on the Mississippi," he said. But it didn't take long for Hobbs to figure out that a captain had a better life than an ordinary seaman. "One winter day, in Peoria, Ill., the temperature was about 10 below, and I'm working on the deck of a ship, wearing every piece of clothing I own, watching the captain standing in the pilothouse, nice and warm, drinking a cup of coffee. The next day I ... enrolled in the Great Lakes Maritime Academy...."

When the lake freezes and the ship suspends service, Hobbs takes the winter off, but can't wait to get back. "By the end of October I'm ready to leave the lake, but by spring I'm thinking of the crew, and the sound of the gulls, and the pure excitement of taking the ship across this big lake."

Being an American: "I've spent a good deal of my life traveling around the country ... and I am always impressed by the magnitude of this country and how diverse we really are. I'm proud to be ... part of a people [who] tamed this country. When you get on the Mississippi River, and see parts of the river that are several miles wide – and it keeps churning with so much energy – and you see the seawalls that were built all along the river, and how the people keep rebuilding after floods – all that impressed me as a young man, and it still does. The fact that we, and all those people living in the river towns, are still here is a testament to me about what it means to be an American."

Idlewild, Mich.
John Meeks, motel owner and town promoter

Summer 2002: "I came here for the first time in 1954, at the invitation of other black Americans, who said this was the only place where we could go for a weekend of fun and entertainment without feeling any kind of racial prejudice," said John Meeks, as he stood outside his motel in this quiet, rural, lakeside village. Idlewild was started by middle- and upper-class blacks as a place to bring their families for summer weekends. "Visitation to Idlewild declined after the civil rights era, when individual blacks could then travel and stay anywhere they wanted. The village lost a lot of its luster, so I bought this motel because I want to revitalize Idlewild and make it a prosperous and fun place again for everyone. I think it will come back, because I see that lots of new people, blacks and whites, are buying lots near the lake and putting up their own cottages. Our goal is to keep planning activities every week so the kids and the families will enjoy Idlewild as much as we used to."

Being an American: "To be an American, to me, means the greatest freedom, the greatest opportunity. This is the only country in the world that you can come to and make all the money you have the knowledge and time to make."

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