“People forget that the word ‘illegal’ is right in there in ‘illegal aliens’.”

Road to DC: Chapel Hill, North Carolina —

As I pulled our car into the parking lot of our roadside hotel in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a voice called out across the way. “You’re not coming all the way from California, are you?” 

It’s usually the large ‘Pop the Bubble— a conversation road trip’ magnet on the side of the car that draws questions, but as the miles of our journey stack up, our CA license plate will do the trick too. 

The voice belonged to Ron, a maintenance contractor for the hotel, who was standing outside under an awning in the light rain, smoking a cigarette. 

“We sure did,” I said. Ron was surprised, and a little impressed. 

“That’s quite a journey,” he said. And so I told him a little about why my Dad and I are on the road. 

“We’re just trying to make connections,” I said. “Seems these days the news we see and the people we vote for would have us believe the two sides can’t ever get along. I’ve met all sorts of people on this trip, and there’s not one I haven’t gotten along with one way or the other.”

“If your car breaks down and the person who stops to help you has a Hillary sticker, are you going to refuse the help?”

This seemed to speak to Ron on a deeper level, and he launched in without any further prompting from me. I stood and listened, a deeper sort of listening that this trip has illustrated the power of. I nodded along as he bounced around between philosophies and anecdotes. 

“I’m pretty close to deleting Facebook,” he said, nodding along to my point. “I mean these days it’s just politics or come to Jesus posts. I like a silly cat video now and again. It’s awful to see how angry people get about all of this. Trump and Hillary don’t think about us as much as we think about them. 

“I saw a post the other day, a friend of mine got unfriended because her friend was a Hillary supporter and my friend voted for Trump. I mean, what about your friendship? How many years have you known each other? It all goes out the door because she voted one way and you voted the other? If your car breaks down and the person who stops to help you has a Hillary sticker, are you going to refuse the help?

“I do believe in the wall. And I want the wall on airplanes and boats and rivers, any way that people get in.”

“My transmission crapped out last week. Politics doesn’t have anything to do with the problems you face day-to-day. You think Trump or Hillary would give me the $1,100 I need to fix that? They wouldn’t think twice. But my buddy who’s owed me fifty bucks for a while now hears about it and immediately tells me to come find him for the fifty. How should I care in that situation who he voted for?

“Personally, for me, when it came down to it, Trump was the only option. Maybe Bernie, if I had really gotten involved and out there. But Hillary, I mean it was over when Bill was in office. When you allow your spouse to cheat, that says something; if the person you marry can’t just be with you, that person should not be in the white house. 

“But why do we let it affect us? I have a friend who if I bring up my issues with Hillary, says, ‘don’t you say that, don’t talk about that.’ How can we not even talk about it?

“And I mean that same friend doesn’t like Hooters, either. I mean, it’s a restaurant.” I must have made a face here because he quickly abandoned that digression. “I mean that doesn’t matter, whatever.”  

He took a breath. I decided to wait a beat to see if more would come. I was not disappointed. 

“And you know, I do believe in the wall. And I want the wall on airplanes and boats and rivers, any way that people get in. People seem to forget that the word ‘illegal’ is right in there in ‘illegal aliens’. This country and the help it gives its people is for us. It’s for me, for you and your Dad, doing what you’re doing. Not for the ones sitting back with their hands out saying, ‘no hablo.’ You gotta be a part of it. I served, I’m a veteran, and I’m home now, trying to get by. If I get called back, I go to war again. But I do what needs doing.”  

His phone rang then, and our moment alone was over. Work was calling, and Ron had boilers to install. We shook hands, I wished him luck fixing his transmission, and we went our separate ways. 

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“Is Hillary in jail?”

Road to DC: New Orleans, LA

car-magnetOn the way to New Orleans, we stop at a gas station. My son Will runs in to get me a cup of coffee while I sit in the car, windows down. A local comes up, looking every bit my Louisiana backwater stereotype. He reads our car magnet, and pokes his head through the passenger side window, smiling.

“You on a road trip?” he drawls.

“Yes, a conversation road trip,” I reply. “We’re driving to DC to attend Trump’s inauguration and stopping to talk to folks along the way. We wanted to get out of California to hear what people are thinking.”

“You from California?” he asks.

“Yep.”

“You hunt and fish out there in California?”

The question is not what I expect. “Yeah,” I say. “Some people do.”

“What do they fish for?”

“Salmon, Trout, ” I say, naming the only two kinds of fish I can think of on short notice.

“You hunt and fish?” I ask.

“Oh yeah,” he says. “Huntin’ and fishin’ is all we do.”

There’s a pause.

“I have a cousin in California,” he says suddenly. “He’s gay. Runs a hair salon out there. A hair salon. Crazy son of a bitch.”

I get a sense he wants to talk. I lean in. “So, how are you feeling about the country? You feeling pretty good? You like Trump?”

“Yeah,” he says. “You?”

“Not so much,” I reply. “But I’m learning to appreciate the other perspective.”

Suddenly his attitude shifts. “I hate the guy,” he confides. “Crazy son of a bitch. Why does a billionaire want to be president? What’s he gonna do for us…other than start a war?”

I did not expect this. “Yeah,” I agree. “It’s getting a little scary.”

“He’s real scary. Crazy son of a bitch.”

Will comes back to the car with the coffee. It’s time to go, but the man has one more question. He asks it like someone who’s suspicious of what he’s heard and now wants to know the truth.

“Is Hillary in jail?” he asks softly.

“No” I say, “She’s not in jail.”

“It’s just that I saw a picture of her, and she was behind bars, in jail.”

“No,” says Will. “That’s a fake photograph.”

“It’s a fake?” he says.

“Yeah, people do that because they don’t want us to get along. But we do get along, don’t we?” says Will, as he puts out his hand.

The man shakes it and smiles.

We drive away.

“It’s a wake-up call.”

Road to DC: Sandy, Utah

Sharon Spaulding is a marketing and communications professional with a passion for helping nonprofits and international NGOs articulate their missions and reach broader audiences about global issues. She’s also associate producer of a recent documentary, 3000 Cups of Tea, Investigating the Rise and Ruin of Greg Mortenson.

We spoke to her in her home in Sandy, Utah, which she and her husband Carl opened up to us during our travels.

How are you feeling about the state of our country?
“I was very deeply impacted by the election, and to a certain extent I’m still grieving, still in shock over what happened.

“It was not just an affront to everything I hold dear in terms of values, it felt like it really invalidated who I am as a person—everything I stood for and worked for and fought for. It was horrifying on a very deep level.

“I also felt that it was to a certain extent a huge wake up call. How did this happen? What are we going to do? Hillary wasn’t elected, so she isn’t going to handle it, her advisors and her staff and her teams, they are not going to handle the environmental issues, the legal issues, the issues of racism and sexism… we have to do it.

“So one of the things a group of us did was to start a Facebook page. We each took on an issue we felt most passionate about, and when we become aware of petitions or actions or marches, or other things we could do around our area of interest, we post them on Facebook.”

Do you understand the Trump voter’s perspective?
“I have friends who voted for Trump, and I still don’t understand the process by which they arrived at the conclusion that they would be better off.

“I’m not talking about out of work coal miners. I’m talking about people who are well-educated, who are financially secure, who have travelled the world, who have what I would consider to be a broader worldview, who I consider to be humanitarian…all of these things. How did you vote for Donald Trump? Why?

What do you mean, she’s had people killed?

“Their answers have not satisfied my curiosity. One person said, ‘Well how could you vote for Hillary? She’s had people killed.’ And I’m thinking, what do you mean she’s had people killed?

“Others are very concerned about terrorism, and Islamic extremism. But I’m still not quite sure how they arrive at their decision at the end, what was it that had them cast a ballot for him. I don’t know.

“There’s a fundamental lack of agreeing on what the facts are. We used to say that ‘perception is reality’…it’s a great old PR adage. It almost doesn’t even matter what the facts are because we’re so caught up in the realm of ‘I like her/I don’t like her ‘or ‘I like him/I don’t like him’ or ‘well, he doesn’t really mean what he’s saying.’”

Would you agree that our institutions are broken, that most things in our country are not working?
“If I look back over say the last 25 years or 30 years, I think that some things are working and some things are not. I think there’s been enormous progress in terms of human rights issues in the US just in the last 10 years. I mean gay marriage—it’s like it’s time, thank god—and having an African American president.

“I went to a small private high school in downtown Chicago, and I remember vividly when we had our first African American student enter our school. It was a huge deal. Nobody would think twice [today]. So I think there is progress.

“But I think there are other things that are not working. Like all of the police shootings; the number of African American men who are stopped in their cars for doing absolutely nothing. That’s horrible. That is not working. It’s horrible that women still make 70 cents on the dollar. That’s not working. And you look at birth control, planned parenthood, those thing are very much our rights and freedoms, and they are very much at risk.”

What has put them at risk?
“I come back to economics. I think we’ve lost the middle class. The divide between ‘the haves’ and the ‘have nots’ has gotten much bigger. And that’s a huge problem. That’s not sustainable. It’s just not.”

Why has the divide gotten bigger?
“The first thing that comes to my mind is greed. One of the things that we’ve lost sight of as a country is the greater good. We’ve become so fragmented in terms of looking at what’s going to benefit certain segments rather than the good of the whole country.”

Why?
“I think it comes down to a sense of scarcity, which underlies a sense of greed. There’s a sense of well, I don’t want to give up what benefits me. That’s what I heard over and over again.

“The school voucher thing was a huge deal here in Utah a few years back. People would say why should I pay twice? I’m paying for private schools, why should I pay for public schools? And to me that’s the prime example. You pay for public schools because you need an educated population. And a private school is a luxury and option if you can afford it.

There has to be ingrained or instilled or taught or nurtured a concern for the greater good. If there isn’t we’re screwed.

“So I think that’s part of it. I also think that probably our economic system, our engine of consumption, is not sustainable. This idea that we have to keep producing more goods, and we have to keep producing more consumers to buy those goods, it’s not a sustainable model.

“I think we have to get back to some kind of a system that where everyone benefits. They’re has to be a recognition of certain fundamental human rights—a right to good health care, to an education, to food, to those fundamental things.

“There has to be ingrained or instilled or taught or nurtured a concern for the greater good. If there isn’t we’re screwed.”

How do we bridge the divide?
“I don’t know. I really don’t know….My first thought is along the lines of going way back to the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the originating principles.

“There really has to be a set of ideals or standards toward which you strive. It doesn’t mean you get it right from the beginning—I mean, ‘all men are created equal’ but we were a slave nation, how contradictory can you be?—but it doesn’t invalidate the principle, and it doesn’t mean that over time you don’t work toward that goal, and toward making those things right.

“So I go back to things like all men, and women, are created equal; I go to things like separation of church and state, that people need to have religious freedom; I go back to a free press, the first amendment. I go back to some of these core principles.”

Anything else you want to say?
“I think there’s also a great leveling that is happening around the world, where developing countries are coming up, and countries like the US are coming down. Is there going to be loss in that? Yes there is. People are going to lose their right to the gilded palaces kind of thing. And in our country we have to start looking at poverty and illiteracy as though we live in a developing country because to a large extent we do, when you really look at the statistics.

I think there’s a great leveling that is happening around the world.

“In a weird way, I almost think this is the death throes. I mean electing somebody like Donald Trump is like a last gasp. The dragon is fuming, right? It’s that last one burst of energy before it collapses, And it doesn’t have to be a bad thing…I mean the word ‘collapse’ has so many negative connotations, that’s the problem with words like that.”

What’s a better word?
“Maybe regeneration, revitalization, renewal, rebirth. Those are words maybe.”