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Two days before Christmas 2001, I drove west over the George Washington Bridge, into Homeland America. Fifteen weeks had passed since I'd stood on my uptown rooftop and watched the second tower fall, the black cloud billowing over lower Manhattan. That day my gaze was drawn beyond the New Jersey Palisades; I wondered about the middle of the country. I knew that a genie had been uncorked. I of course had no idea what the genie would do—but clearly we were about to see new evidence of what novelist Philip Roth calls the "indigenous American berserk."
At a Pennsylvania truck stop, I sat over bad coffee with my notebook. "Weird leaving New York," I wrote. "Depressed. Separation anxiety."
Flags were everywhere—on vehicles, poles, in windows. The business marquees all read GOD BLESS AMERICA, or GOD BLESS THE USA. That first night, at a Motel 6 in Youngstown, Ohio, a flag poster thanked me for traveling.
The following morning, Christmas Eve, I drove on to Cleveland. This was my personal homeland—the region where I grew up. First I visited the suburb of Parma, where a white man had driven a Ford Mustang at high speed into the front door of a mosque right after 9/11. I stood looking at the boarded-up entrance.
That afternoon I stood on the edge of the Cuyahoga Valley, where both my grandfathers had worked. One had a job on the B & O, the other at Otis Steel. The railroad is long gone. What remains of the steel mill (in its latest incarnation LTV Steel) was silent and smokeless. The works were on "hot idle." LTV was in bankruptcy. If a buyer didn't come forth, the works would close for good.
As I moved west out of Cleveland, usually sticking to back roads, I spoke with and listened to people in towns small and large. My travels encompassed thousands of miles and hundreds of interviews over the next two years. At first subconsciously, but later with deliberation, I acted as if I were a foreign reporter working in the United States. It wasn't difficult, for the changes were so great that it seemed I was witnessing the dawn of a new nation.
I found two distinct Americas, one in the exclusive preserves of California's Silicon Valley and Manhattan's Upper West Side, the other in the country's middle—in unheralded and wounded towns with names like Celina, Girard, and Lusk. The first country was living as if the 1990s boom would never cease. The second country was languishing, as if locked in a 1930s Great Depression time warp.
On one trip Michael Williamson, my longtime photographic collaborator, and I drove from Chicago to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. In places like this, the abandoned shells of factories, all broken windows and rust, make this country look like it was bombed in a war. In other places it's as if an economic neutron bomb hit—with trees and houses intact but lives decimated, gone with the good jobs.
* * *
In April 2003, during the war in Iraq, Michael and I were on Forbes Avenue in Pittsburgh on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University, passing the Delta Upsilon fraternity house. There was construction in front. Spray painted on raw plywood were the words,
GOD BLESS AMERICA
support our troops i drive an suv
As I approached the door, lying against the house was a sign that, I learned from the occupants, had hung during the first days of "shock and awe":
we want their oil
"Since the war started, the stock market went up and the price of oil dropped," a man inside told me with enthusiasm.
I typically heard this kind of approval in the most economically depressed areas, from people who stood to gain exactly nothing from a surge in the markets, just as they had gained little from tax cuts aimed at the rich.
* * *
My last journey across America was the third winter after the attacks, the winter of 2003-04. It was my fastest trip—I was making time from the East Coast on my way back to the other side. The road came at me as I passed from the so-called blue states, solidly Democratic, into the red Republican strongholds. I dodged bad weather. An ice storm in Missouri just ahead of me left semi trucks flipped on their sides like cast-off Tonka playthings. Then Kansas and a break in the cold fronts—a waning moon illuminating the snowbound prairie—and distant farmhouses, their lights like those of ships on the ocean.
I thought of the anonymous lives in the scattered houses, the millions of Americans whose voices are not heard in the media. This is a country that is afraid, a new terror attack just one of many specters. What happened on 9/11 was not a genesis, but an amplifier of unease that had long been building. Before that day we were already a nation in which executives burned shareholders' money on $2 million toga birthday parties, while men and women who worked Wal-Mart jobs pinched pennies and still ended up begging for charity food for their children at month's end. The economic well-being of so many Americans is as brittle as was the frigid air rushing over my windshield.
Americans are waiting. For what? We have no idea. We wonder what we are becoming and we don't even understand what we are.
Writer Dale Maharidge and photographer Michael Williamson have published four nonfiction books together, including And Their Children After Them, for which they won a Pulitzer Prize. This is excerpted from Homeland, by Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson. Copyright © 2004 by Dale Maharidge, and published by Seven Stories Press. Excerpted with the permission of the publisher. You can buy Homeland at Amazon.com.