There is nothing like an 8,000-mile road trip across America and back to restore one's confidence in the resilience of the American people.
This summer my wife and I took such a six-week car trip visiting friends and family and chatting with ordinary folks. We rediscovered a land of extraordinary vitality and remarkable people.
Cruise through the cattle-raising states such as Idaho and Wyoming, and the great grain states of Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas and you are struck by America's prodigious production of food, which nourishes not only millions of Americans, but also much of the rest of the world.
Across the highways of Illinois, Ohio, and New York, huge trucks roll along by day and night delivering machinery, new cars, and consumer goods from factories in the industrialized states to users in every corner of the nation.
America is not only an immensely productive land, it is incredibly beautiful. This beauty is evident in preserved areas, which wise men have ensured we can enjoy forever: the snowcapped glory of the Tetons; the soaring, forested grandeur of the Great Smoky Mountains; the roaring waters of Niagara Falls, sending a curtain of spray into the air that can be seen for miles around; the solitude of Maine's ocean-girt Acadia, one of the smallest yet most visited national parks.
The core strength of the country is of course its people. Their myriad churches, temples, and synagogues in every town testify to the diverse faiths that inspire and comfort.
Then there is patriotism, not just symbolized by the stars and stripes that flutter from flagpoles in every town, or that adorn the shoulder patches of policemen and firemen or the tailgates of trucks, but by a deep love of country and the freedoms it stands for. Praise for America's soldiers abroad is never far from the lips of the new friends you meet along the way. The military seems to be the most respected institution in the doughnut and coffee shops of the American heartland.
Of course, all is not peaches and cream. There is hurt from an economy that is in a state of malaise, even if bottoming out.
In Bar Harbor, Maine, a hotel sign offers off-season rates at the peak of summer. In Idaho, construction has stalled and some builders have gone to Alaska.
In Chattanooga, Tenn., the newspaper reports city fathers are worried about 4-foot-high grass and mosquito-breeding swimming pools at homes that have been foreclosed. The Indian reservations in New Mexico and Arizona look bleaker even than usual.
In many states the car lots are clogged with unsold vehicles (in spite of summer sales and the popular "cash for clunkers" program) and some gas stations are up for sale. Along Cape Cod's Route 6A, fabled as one of the prettiest drives in America, many antique shops have "For sale," or "For rent" signs out.
Yet I never came across a soul who doubted America would bounce back. There was the woman in a little upstate New York town who had lost her job but had opened a restaurant with home-cooked fare in a vacant storefront. "I'm here at5 o'clock in the morning baking pies," she told us, "but I'm actually making more than I did in my regular job."
There was the professional home-care giver "between jobs" in Kansas. He's cheerfully driving a school bus in the interim. And in Maine I asked the woman running a country store and antique gas station how business had been. "Coulda' been better, but we'll survive," she answered with a smile and Maine understatement as she instructed me in the use of a gas pump so ancient that I had to receive help to work it. Observing this spectacle, a fellow driving by in a rusty truck called out cheerily: "It's like everything else around here. It still works – but only just."
The American mood today reminds me of war-torn Britain in World War II. During the darkest days, the British never doubted that victory would come and peace return. Similarly, Americans enduring today's troubled times do not seem to doubt that this great land will rebound and its innovative people triumph.
John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column for the Monitor's weekly edition.