Travel

I Drove 14,000 Miles in Search of What Americans Have in Common

One day, this summer, I took off to look for the pockets of purple in an America usually divided between the red and the blue. And I found them—sort of.

by Lucile Scott
Nov 21 2016, 5:00am

A highway in Texas. All photos by the author

Bruce says he's the "last timber man in Harney County," then spits onto the pavement of the hotel parking lot. He's spent the day, a blistering eastern Oregon late July Saturday, salvaging timber from a swath of land recently scorched by a wildfire, and his white T-shirt is streaked with dirt and ash as he leans back against his stripped-down, rusted-out Jeep.

"Used to have the largest covered saw mill in the nation just down the road, next to the smokestack that you passed when you drove in. And this town didn't used to be the dead thing you see now," Bruce goes on. We're in Burns, Oregon, a hamlet of 2,700 not far from the wildlife refuge the Bundy brothers made famous by occupying earlier this year. A once thriving community, it has gradually lost its economic base since the regional timber industry was largely shuttered partly thanks to a series of government rulings in the 1990s that prevented loggers from cutting down trees in areas where endangered spotted owls lived.

"We never got to vote on it," Bruce says. "The government just told us this is how it will be and stopped it. But it's supposed to be a government by and for the people. And we're the people."

Bruce, who is 50ish and white, informs me he "doesn't like Trump and can't stand Hillary," but if he were to pick, it'd be Donald Trump—as he is a successful businessman, and what they need in Burns are jobs. However, he won't be picking, because he doesn't vote. Doesn't see the point. He's voted once, only once, though he can't remember who the candidate was or what exactly he cared about so much it drove him to the polls, just that his guy lost and none of the things he wanted ever happened.

Bruce in Burns

This moment in this hot motel parking lot is halfway through a two-and-a-half-month, 14,000-mile road trip through 32 states that I embarked on in my MINI Cooper, accompanied by my ten-pound dog Vinni. Like so many Americans who have hit the road, I wanted to understand my country better. I wanted to chat with people from all walks of life—from movie moguls and Senate candidates to out-of-work coal miners and stay-at-home moms—about their lives and politics in election-year America.

My mission was to find our commonalities, the vast swaths of "purple" I knew were out there. I grew up in deep-red Kentucky but currently live in the bluer-than-blue enclave of Brooklyn, so I knew that underneath all the rhetoric, the fake Facebook news stories, and divisive campaigns, there had to still be a thing called "America" that we all belonged to—something that we were all in, together, even now.

But what you find doing this continental criss-crossing is dozens of enclaves that can feel thousands of miles apart even when they neighbor one another. Before Burns, I was in Portland, where casual eavesdropping yields chatter about locally grown kale, startups, DIY artistic endeavors, and rising housing costs. Then I drove east through the lush, temperate national forest that houses Oregon's snow-capped Mount Hood and discovered it suddenly ceases, like you're penetrating an invisible barrier. In the blink of an eye, you are cruising past rolling dry tumbleweed-strewn hills and plateaus, dotted with hints of the pastel and loping cattle. This is the line dividing America's West Coast from the American West. And in the West, people talk of decline, abandonment, lost ways of life, and fleeing youth.

You can find these divisions from coast to coast. It boggles the mind that it took Donald Trump to make those of us in capital-rich metropolises sit up and pay attention to the nation's interior, the places in between. It's just so damn blatant when you're out there. Or as Rachel, a DC native recently transplanted to the small town of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, put it, "It's like the Hunger Games. In certain wealthy cities, we're just obliviously jetting off to brunch and yoga, and everyone else is..."

"In the District 12s of the nation," I offer.

"Yup."

It's an awful way to look at your country, but what about it is wrong? The lessons of the 2016 election are still being argued over, but the undeniable takeaway is that the inhabitants of rural areas, left behind by globalization and struggling, rose up, as the dispossessed inevitably do, and picked the path of rage. And whatever the consequences of that rage, we will all bear them together as a country.

These days, it can feel like there are two Americas divided by some insurmountable wall looming past the cloud line. And I won't try to talk down or understate the danger of Donald Trump, but after a coast-to-coast and north-to-south drive, I have to disagree with the idea of the wall.

A landscape in Utah

Of course, we have many differences between us. But why would anyone expect everyone in this country to see things the exact same way they do? What you understand much more viscerally by driving around this great big country is, well, just that: This is a great big country, settled by different peoples who came from different parts of the world at different times. These groups have different heroes, different villains, different problems. Our politics will always be messy; we'll never reach a 100 percent consensus.

Now, not all disagreements between us are civil; not everyone I met on my travels was kind. Some enthusiastic Trump supporters told me, "Obama should go back to where he came from" and other bigoted remarks—but these were few and far between. The vast majority of conservative folks were choosing between begrudgingly voting for Trump or not voting for president at all. And some had come over to team Hillary Clinton. Even a woman I'll call Georgie, from Mobile, Alabama, who said she had been an early and dedicated "Trumpette" had lost all enthusiasm for the man—though she still planned to tick his box come November. What had been the moment things turned? "I don't know," she told me. "He just kept talking."

There is undeniable hatred out there, undeniable ugliness that has been stirred up by this election—we saw some of that at Trump's rallies, and see some of it now in the frighteningly frequent reports of hate crimes and harassment. But these atrocious acts are committed by a small, but very vocal, minority, and do not represent the totality of the 47 percent of voters who picked Trump.

So many of our disagreements, no matter how heated the discussions over them are, come down to fissures in culture. And after all my hours in my tiny car, all those miles watching American landscapes and homes glide by, I wonder why, instead of bemoaning differences of opinion as signs of stupidity or laziness, can't we just set those differences to the side and look at what remains.

A train in Utah


According to the latest data from the United States, just over 58 percent of eligible Americans voted, meaning turnout has not dropped relative to recent presidential elections. Still, over four in ten of us declined to participate despite both parties proclaiming this the most important election of all time. More people did not vote than voted for either candidate.

I found evidence of this disillusionment with the system from Mobile to Detroit, the same belief that nothing concrete or fundamental will improve—or even really changed—regardless of who takes the top slot. But this attitude shouldn't be mistaken for cynicism or laziness.

Especially in Appalachia and the West, where the rugged frontiersmen and women of yore still loom large in the cultural ethos, the divorce between essential civic duties and voting runs deep and contributes heavily to the fact that when they do vote, they often vote Republican. Most people I met in these regions didn't like either candidate, sure, but they also held a common belief that they'd always gotten by on their own, working together as a community, outside the fringes of bureaucracy that they don't see as operating for their benefit anyway. Many would rather be free to make their own mistakes, instead of living under the thumb of some distant, powerful government that regulates everything from their water usage to when they have to have their dog on a leash.

"It's death by a thousand pricks," explained John, an undecided conservative-leaning high school teacher in Greeneville, Tennessee, as we sat in a local coffee shop on a picturesque Main Street dominated by church steeples. He then pointed at the large gray bag resting—and occasionally shifting and wheezing—by my feet, which he knew surreptitiously harbored little Vinni. "Take your dog. He's fine in that bag, sure, and safe. And that's like living with all this government or socialism. But I'd rather be a dog roaming and running in a field, and maybe I get kicked in the head by a donkey, but at least I'm free."

In many areas, especially the Deep South, local politics seemed more immediate and important than the competition on the national stage between two well-heeled New Yorkers. In Greensboro, Georgia, when I asked locals for their opinions of the election, they immediately started discussing the race for county sheriff, not president. For many, the small-scale corruption and nepotism they had seen in local politics had bolstered their lack of faith in government—and an accompanying desire for less of it on every level.

Start looking for it and you'll find this oppositional attitude—a bedrock American value—everywhere you look.

When I arrived in Pensacola, a Navy town on Florida's Panhandle, the top news stories were Brexit and the Orlando shooting, and the rain was coming down so hard I couldn't see anything but water outside my window. The local radio station informed me that they played "more hits than regulations allow," and inside a coffee shop where I took shelter, a regular patron and the barista bemoaned that EPA regulations precluded them from pumping the water out of their overflowing parking lot—something to do with being so close to the ocean.

Lucinda in Pensacola

This is where I met Lucinda, a recently retired woman with bright red hair and an open smile that, in combination, reminded one of The Facts of Life's Mrs. Garrett. She invited me to her home, a shotgun affair with a pool, and served me homemade egg salad and coffee cake while Vinni and her large black cat stared each other down and punctuated our cordial political chatter with discomfiting battle cries.

Lucinda considered herself a feminist—or at least a pioneering woman, as I don't think she loved that word. In her youth, she had been the only female pilot working at a small aviation company in the south of the state, and had then gone on to get a veterinary degree and help found Pensacola's first wildlife refuge—often spending her nights wrastling errant gators who had wondered too close to town into cages and shuffling them off to safety.

Despite her environmentalist leanings, despite her support of gay rights—though she thinks gay marriage should be left up to the states—she backed hardcore conservative Ted Cruz during primary season, and when we spoke, she thought the Texas senator would be on the ballot "one way or the other," either as a Republican or an independent. And if he wasn't? Well, she really wasn't sure who she'd vote for then, as she thought Trump was a "cartoon character" and a "not a very good person," but that Hillary Clinton had committed numerous—and severe—crimes that she had not been held accountable for.

But I wanted to ask about her support of Cruz, who, like many Republicans, opposes gay marriage and a lot of environmentalist policies. She didn't think those issues were the most critical topic in 2016. What was? Terrorism and getting the good-paying jobs that were once in Pensacola, but had long since vanished, back. Why was she a Republican? "Oh, I don't know," she said. "My parents were. It's just what you are."

Democrats, she said, aren't focused on the right things. "They're just talking about social issues," she said. "But right now, our country is in trouble. And I'm scared. We're in debt, and we aren't as strong as we used to be. It's like Play-Doh, where it's growing soft in the center and slowly dissolving over the edges."

It's not just conservatives who have lost faith in institutions. Due to the perception, whether founded or not, that the Democratic Establishment tilted the primary field in Clinton's favor, some of Bernie Sanders's most ardent fans spent much of 2016 passionately protesting that Establishment. And they aren't the only ones on the left who are full of anger and despair.

Brittany in Dallas

As I stood on a street corner in downtown Dallas on July 9, the day after a sniper attack on police, surrounded by still-flashing police lights, I struck up a conversation with Brittany, a 26-year-old black woman wearing a shirt emblazoned with the slogan, "I Refused. I Refused. I Refused.," and Rosa Parks's picture. She, like many people I met, wasn't much for voting, though she too had done so once—and with great pride—for Barack Obama in 2008, when she was just 18 and full of hope.

But here she and her family and friends were, eight years later, in the same place they'd always been, and she no longer thought her vote would make a difference. But she sure as hell thought Black Lives Matter and what was happening on the streets of her city could. "I don't have any kids, so I'll do whatever it takes," she told me. "If I get pulled over, and it's not justified, I'm not getting out of the car. Even if I get shot. I know my rights. And my generation, we're not willing to accept this, the way things are."

The different angers fueling support of Trump or Sanders or even Black Lives Matter can blur and overlap. In Wausau, Wisconsin, a town of 39,000 surrounded by rolling green farms dotted with red barns and gleaming silos, I met Yee, a 22-year-old second-generation Hmong man with serious eyes and a self-proclaimed love of history. He identified as a Democrat, but didn't believe in voting based strictly on party, preferring to decide based on the individual candidate.

Like many in America, the Hmong community in Wisconsin has been hit with a rash of suicides, increasing drug use, and dwindling job prospects. Yee, an Apprentice fan, initially thought the Trump he'd seen on TV could prove just the leader America needs. Then the anti-immigrant rhetoric started.

Yee's parents emigrated from Laos in the wake of the Vietnam War. Like many Hmong who came here at the time, they were harassed, discriminated against, baselessly accused of being Viet Cong. "I know with ISIS and everything people are scared, but, belonging to a refugee family, I can't bring myself to blame a whole race for what a small group has done," Yee told me.

Though a fan of many of Trump's economic statements and plans, Yee was an enthusiastic Sanders man. When I met him he was, like many Sanders supporters after the primary, tentatively coming around to team Hillary. "Bernie really spoke to the people—especially to younger people, like myself, who have student loans," he said. "What spoke to me most was when he said that the top one-tenth of a percent [of the American population] owns as much as the bottom 90 percent."

The Maine coast


Despite a presidential election that fractured so much of our politics, there's evidence that many Americans want the same things: safer communities, jobs that can support families, a scaling back of the government's war on drugs. Key ballot measures passed on Election Day beefed up gun control in Washington, California, and even libertarian-leaning Nevada; provisions loosening marijuana laws passed in eight of the nine states where they were on the ballot; and voters in Colorado, Maine, and Arizona approved increases to the minimum wage.

Even on social issues like LGBTQ rights, there are signs that Americans are more united than we typically think. Many conservatives I spoke to on the redder side would prefer that our legal unions (and I say "our" because I'm gay) be called civil, not marriage, but still, they thought our relationships deserved legal sanction and protection, which is not nothing.

As for this year's hot-button controversy over whether or not trans people should be allowed to use restrooms that correspond with their gender identity—sparked by the passage of North Carolina's House Bill 2—most conservatives I met told me they could give two shits which bathroom adults used. However, they were more circumspect when it came to kids.

Many were being led to believe that in areas that had implemented a pro-trans-rights bathroom policy, teenage boys could just demand access to the girl's locker room. But once you explained the reality—that we are talking about a relatively small group of students already living their daily lives as a gender other than the one assigned to them at birth, and that it's the trans kids themselves who are in fact the most likely to face violence or assault if forced to enter a stall that does not correspond with their lived gender—most agreed there must be some kind of solution we can find that is safe for all.

It seems to me that more than anything, what makes the divisions between us so stark is that we hear different narratives, are making decisions and assumptions based on entirely different sets of facts. Some people blame this divide on websites that spread hoaxes through social media, others blame partisan cable news—and there's certainly merits to both claims—but the country's media has always been somewhat split along party and regional lines. That is unlikely to change anytime soon.

But if there's a silver lining to the bitter, two-year fight for the White House we've just witnessed, it's that we've seen how many of us are fed up with a system we view as sclerotic and stacked against us. Most people I met were sick of it—the divide, the rancor, the rhetoric of 2016—and very much long to stop the discord, sit down and talk to the other side, and even buy them a beer or make them egg salad sandwiches. (Thanks, Lucinda!)

A beach in Oregon

"In general, people [from both political parties] want to do what's right for their families, their communities. And I wish you could help people see that almost always the intent is good," said Sunny, a mother of two, and staunch Democrat, who lives in Florida in a neighborhood that has both Democrats and Republican. "Because if you could assume good intent, and then start the conversation from there, rather than from..." she trails off. Yeah.

And not to sound Pollyanna-ish, but maybe we could try to start our post-election conversation from there? I don't think we can wait for Congress—and Trump—to just wake up one morning, pop a collective Xanax, and start listening to the other side again on their own. So we're going to have to do it without help from the government.

The catch is, I don't have the first idea how we actually do that, get to that tolerant place in the midst of this current shitstorm. I especially don't know how to get there while dealing with the current very real and pervasive threats to the rights and physical safety of so many minorities—including myself, should I walk down the street holding the hand of the woman I love. That's for people smarter and more informed than me to figure out.

But if you're a liberal or a conservative who wants to limit Trump's power or tenure, it seems clear that focusing on our shared priorities, not our differing perspectives, is the first step to building a coalition large enough to ensure Trump is a one-term president.

Does that sound too rosy, as a reality TV demagogue stands poised to muck up the fate of the planet? Maybe I'm being hopelessly American with my relentless faith in the possibility for a better future. But then again, maybe being that hopelessly American is the one thing that can save us from ourselves.

You can read more profiles of the people Scott met while #SearchingForPurpleAmerica on Instagram or Twitter.