Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

1 day before the election
Population (Estimated): 1,500,000
2004 Election: Kerry 80%, Bush 19%, Other 1%
2008 Election: Obama 83%, McCain 16%, Other 1%
(map)

Tomorrow we as a nation will embark on the wonderful privilege of peaceful transition of power.

Fittingly, our last two stops were in a planned community that is not more than 40 years old: Reston, Virginia and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, one of the oldest places in the nation. Two very different places with two very different populations that will help select the next President of these United States.

If this trip has taught me anything, it is that we as Americans treasure our democracy and our ability to choose our leaders. There is a sense across the nation that we are about to enter one of the most challenging eras in our brief history and a near consensus that who we choose to guide us through the tumult is a decision of utmost importance.

This is perhaps the legacy of the 2000 election. My own thoughts entering that election was that the system was rigged, that the choice was negligible and that my vote in particular did not matter. We watched as the courts instead of the voters decided the election and were left with a deep dissatisfaction on both sides, not necessarily in who became president, but in how he was chosen.

During, the last eight years there has been an effort to harden our stances and consolidate our associations. Parody maps divided into “The United States of Canada” and “Jesusland”, websites devoted to mocking opposition candidates, and discussion of secession and which region represents the “real America.” I hope that the legacy of this election is that the country unites in a healthy debate on how to carry forward together rather than deepening the divisions and disengagement from the political process.

No matter whom we select we’ve come a long way from 2000, both in the quality of our options and in the investment in the process. After speaking with hundreds of Americans of every political persuasion in nearly every region of the country, it is clear that we have narrowed the choice to two exceedingly qualified and inspirational men. I have heard cogent arguments for electing either one. While the campaign has brought out the worst in both, either one has earned the opportunity to handle the burdens of the office.

John McCain has impeccable foreign policy bonafides, the respect of his colleagues in the Senate, and a well-earned reputation as someone who stands on his principles. Barack Obama has rocketed on to the national scene, building a grassroots campaign based on his experiences as a community organizer that empowers those involved. The biographies of both men are remarkable American stories. It’s a wonderful choice to have, eons better than the two spoonfed career party men we had to choose from in 2004.

Only history will tell us if this is a historic election (not another e-mail asking for another $5 campaign donation). But the one great guarantee is that this imperfect experiment will result in a change of leadership in the most powerful nation in the world without a drop of blood.

Reston, Virginia

2 days before the election
Population: 58,439
2004 Election: Kerry 53%, Bush 46%, Other 1%
2008 Election: Obama 58%, McCain 41%, Other 1%
(map)

Reidsville, North Carolina

4 days before the election
Population: 14,981
2004 Election: Bush 61%, Kerry 39%
2008 Election: Obama 57%, McCain 41%, Other 2%
(map)

There’s something happening here.

Although we’ve been pretty much outside the news cycle for the last two weeks, one blog post that caught my eye is one from fivethirtyeight.com in which the author relates the story of a racist couple in Western Pennsylvania cheerfully and matter-of-factly telling a canvasser that they are “voting for the n*****.”

Again our sample is smaller, but in the more than 100 interviews we’ve done, three people have mentioned Obama’s skin color or background as a reason not to vote for him. But one of the interesting shifts from the Midwest to the West to the South has been the answer to “what do you think the effect of a (insert the candidate that the voter supports) will be on this area.

In the Midwest and West the responses focused on the economy, but here in the South there have been considerably more mentions of race. There is a palable joy among African-American Obama supporters. Many mention all of his qualifications, his tax plan, his health care plan, but there is a sense of pride, relief and amazement when speaking of Obama unlike any of the supporters of either candidate. To speak very generally, there is a reignition of belief in the American experiment.

The fascinating question will be what will happen to race relations if Obama becomes president? If he succeeds will patriotism continue to trump racism as it did for the white couple in Pennsylvania? If he fails will it make it that much more difficult for blacks and other races to hold on to their share of the American pie?

Van Buren, Missouri

6 days before the election
Population: 820
2004 Election: Bush 65%, Kerry 35%, Other 1%
2008 Election: McCain 63%, Obama 34%, Other 3%
(map)

Sharon, Janet, and Shirley of Van Buren, Missouri remind me of my mother and her friends. Warm and generous; independent, thoughtful and opinionated.

They are perhaps the most welcoming and most conservative people we have met on this trip. They share a deep concern for this country and speak of this election, without the hyperbole of the campaigns, as the most critical of their lifetime. And they will vote for John McCain.

My mother discusses the election with the same vigor, she cares deeply for the nation and sees the selection of our next leader as among the most important choices she has made in her 60 some years. She will vote for Barack Obama.

As with most people who take more than a passing interest in us and our subject matter, the Van Buren ladies asked after the consensus as to who of the combatants has the most support. Our sampling of a few hundred people is small, but the only agreement we get is not on a candidate, a plan, or a party. But rather a problem.

To hear it out here, America is in trouble. People are mad as hell at the Wall Street bailout. Mad as hell at the Bush Administration. Mad as hell at NBC, ABC, CBS, and FOX. There is a deep distrust of institutions.

And they’re not going to take it anymore. Importantly, I think, Americans haven’t given up on democracy. Although we find our fair share of “I don’t care” and “it won’t matter,” it is counterbalanced–particularly among young people of both political stripes–by an understanding that who our leader is during these unfortunate times, matters.

Thoreau, New Mexico

8 days before the election
Population: 1,749
2004 Election: Kerry 63%, Bush 36%, Other 1%
2008 Election: Obama 71%, McCain 28%, Other 1%
(map)

Is there a place for a hopeless place in an election about hope?

Thoreau, New Mexico is spelled like the philosopher, but spoken like the preposition. Surrounded by other worldly natural beauty, but also a place that one is far more likely to pass through, than to stay.

Thoreau has a quiet violence to it. The locals we spoke to called the town quiet. And indeed, the town that is split between a Navajo reservation and a neighborhood of Angelos and Latinos, misses all the noise of urban live being tucked miles from nowhere with no signs of industry or pollution.

But our brief stay was colored by stern warnings of after-hours muggings. Somehow gangs from LA have infiltrated Thoreau’s calm rural life. With a few notable exceptions the people we meet appear 20 years older than the given ages. The teens we spoke to ranged from airy agitated and red-eyed rebels to entirely furious nihilists. This is not the whole town, as we found serious citizens, too.

Unmistakable signs of a very cruel poverty mark the main drag: abandoned cars, houses and people. The decay is so severe in parts of the reservation, it’s tough to fathom that this place is a long day’s drive from the seductive second homes of Frisco or the credited excesses of Vegas.

No matter how much hope and change is offered, it’s depressingly tough to see a president, any president, accomplishing enough to make an impact in Thoreau.

Las Vegas, Nevada

9 days before the election
Population (Estimated): 550,000
2004 Election: Kerry 52%, Bush 47%, Other 2%
2008 Election: Obama 59%, McCain 40%, Other 1%
(map)

Of course, it was from Las Vegas in 1971 that Thompson looked West with the right kind of eyes and saw “the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back” on the momentum his San Francisco generation.

And if San Francisco represented the social movements of the 60s, Vegas most definitely symbolizes the bawdy credit-drunk America of the 90s and now. Neon Styrofoam nothing in Nevada. The desert feels like it’s the only thing that was here 20 years ago and may be the only thing that remains in another 20. Vegas, in particular, appears to be a place that specialized in selling potential instead of substance.

Would Thompson take any solace in the fact that the ideals of the store-bought American Dream that he so fiestily railed against have met their Waterloo is this town?

Vegas, which exploded on service and sin economy now finds itself teetering. The economic crisis that so many people identify as the issue on which they will decide this election is not on the way in Nevada. The fallout isn’t in the future, it’s now.

You don’t need the right set of eyes to see the shift from boomtown to something else in Las Vegas. There’s no subtly to the signs of depression, its all naked and exposed. Abandoned condo developments, tenantless strip malls, well-stocked tent cities. As one person remarked today, parts of the town feel like a carcas being picked over.

The question is whether Vegas, Mesquite and the other towns that expanded so rapidly across the West will survive this downturn. They don’t feel like permanent places more like transient towns that will snap back to their sleepy past now that the construction has stopped. Will those who moved to Nevada during the explosion will move on to the next place selling potential?

Frisco, Colorado

11 days before the election
Population (Estimated): 2,500
2004 Election: Kerry 59%, Bush 39%, Other 2%
2008 Election: Obama 66%, McCain 33%, Other 1%
(map)

If we stumbled into Sterling running on the potent mix of labor-driven adrenaline and sleep deprivation, we tumbled out of Frisco resuscitated with anticipatory cool.

Gracious hosts, starlit hot tubs, and home-cooked chocolate cake in tiny mountain towns have a way of doing that.

Colorado has been good to us. Starting with the two towns we had no plans to profile.

Frisco is everything that Sterling is not.

People visit Frisco when they want to be free from the confines of their day jobs. People visit Sterling when they get sentenced to the confines of the local prison. For fun, the post-hippie kids in Frisco blaze up the locally grown pot, while the hard pick-up truck youths in Sterling mix meth in their bathtubs. Sterling’s college students plan on getting into the local agribusiness. Many of Frisco’s have come from somewhere else with the intention of working so they can play in the snow.

Both run a deep streak of independence. And as we’ve found everywhere, there’s a mix of governmental skepticism and confident defiance as the economic news worsens.

Politically colored, Sterling is scarlet and Frisco, deep indigo. It says much about the pendulum position of the state (where our visit overlapped with that of John and Cindy McCain, Obama will be in Nevada when we pass through) that two of the more compelling stories we heard were from people from opposite sides of the spectrum in the town not attuned to their opinions.

In liberal Frisco, Josh Poland, who by all outer appearances could have been another crunchy kid bumming around a ski resort, but in fact, is a deeply conservative seasonal worker who finds McCain to be too moderate. He offered an intelligent assessment of the tax system that would have made Milton Friedman’s day.

And in traditional Sterling it was stay-at-home dad Matthew Propst, who believes an Obama presidency will give his daughters the chance to get the college education for which he never had time or money. He matched Josh for his detailed evaluation of tax policy, but his would have had JK Galbraith beaming.

If these two towns are at all indicative of where Colorado and the West are moving, no state save Morman Utah can be considered “safe” for either party. Demographics may change, but independence still rules out West.

Sterling, Colorado

12 days before the election
Population (Estimated): 12,000
2004 Election: Bush 70%, Kerry 28%, Other 2%
2008 Election: McCain 67%, Obama 32%, Other 1%
(map)

This is madness.

18 Episodes. 18 Days. 18 Hours of Sleep.

Total.

And then there was Nebraska. Perhaps annoyed that she is the first state we was pass through without plans to shoot or sleep, she did everything she could to keep us at bay. What can you say about a state that we crossed in 18 hours without escaping the downpours of an occluded front?

11 miles inside the border and 11 miles over the limit, flashing lights and $119 later, we made our acquaintance. No strong radio signal left me following the first World Series game played by my cherished Phillies in 15 years via text messages from my sister in California. Then the steady rain turned to tempestuous snow slowing, then halting forward progress.

Flakes ran horizontally across the highway and for the first time on the trip we indulged in a motel. But while the trip could not go on, the show must. At 6:30am, Graham wrapped the Denison episode and at 7:30am we were traversing I-80 again.

At 7:40am we were on the side of I-80 with a useless right front tire.

But that was the last and best Nebraska could muster. A kindly tow truck driver, a neighborly tire center and the flexibility to change our shoot location kept us on schedule

The appealing tale of urban Greeley, Colorado became the compelling story of rural Sterling, Colorado. Location, it is clear, does not matter. While the stories are unique at each stop, what remains the same is the plethora of engaging local issues, articulate characters, and spectacular scenery to be documented in each area.

Denison, Iowa

13 days before the election
Population (Estimated): 7,000
2004 Election: Bush 55%, Kerry 44%, Other 1%
2008 Election: Obama 52%, McCain 47%, Other 1%
(map)

Apprehension. Alarm. Anxiety. Dread. Disaster. Disorder.

There’s a shortage of funds, but no lack of alliterated words to capture the state of the collective psyche from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin. Even doctors in Chicago worry about the end of America as superpower.

But then there was Denison. Our choice of locales in Western Iowa, presented us with a town where the concern isn’t closed storefronts but what’s in them. Where there’s enough work to go around and no great fear that it will shrivel away with the collapse of the stock market. How is Denison fending off the feisty dogs of financial destruction?

Immigrants. Lots of them.

One question we ask everyone is how their town has changed in the last 8 years. And everywhere but Denison the response was related to the town’s economic situation. In this town of just under 8,000 the answer immediately turned to the town’s demographic situation and all the issues: legal status, language barriers, school expansion, racism, that go along with the arrival of a new population.

Denison may indeed be our shift from East to West, each of the next few stops, in Colorado in Nevada are among the fastest growing communities in America. Are they fragile Jenga towers waiting for the wrong piece the be pulled out or firm structures built to withstand the tornado that is wiping out the East?

Hazel Green, Wisconsin

14 days before the election
Population (Estimated): 1,200
2004 Election: Kerry 51%, Bush 48%, Other 1%
2008 Election: Obama 61%, McCain 37%, Other 1%
(map)

John McCain may be in deep shit.

It may be our subject matter, our plates, or well-understood skepticism of two crazed guys with a camera and a wireless mic, but for the second day in a row we had to scramble to find supporters of the GOP’s leading man in area we knew to be at least half Republican.

To be fair, in Porter County, Indiana, an area that W won by five touchdowns, no one wanted to talk to us outside in the rain and the odds of finding the one McCain supporter that we did in Detroit were never better those that Tampa Bay had of playing the World Series against my beloved Fightin’ Phils. (Give ‘em hell boys, I’m expecting big things.)

But in Hazel Green, Wisconsin we had a crispy baked fall day in a county that John “Depends” Kerry and W split down the middle. We spoke to dozens of farmers, hunters, factory workers finding any number of Democrats and Independents and no shortage of Republicans pledged to Obama. Ron Paul, nobody at all and don’t care garnered more vigorous affection than Arizona’s senior senator.

But then just as we were prepared to retreat from the far corner of Wisconsin, we met John Folmer, a 67-year-old charter bus driver, who delivered a cogent argument for putting a man with keen foreign policy credentials in the White House instead of a 47-year-old Chicago lawyer. John has examined this election and these candidates as much as anyone we’ve talked to on the trip. He was deliberative with his decision and will vote for what he thinks is best for the nation.

The counter balance to John was the equally reflective 19-year-old Kassidy Donovan. Kassidy, at first apologized for not studying the election enough, but our brief conversation proved her to be a veritable electoral professor compared with ill-informed campaign volunteers who sup on punditry and confuse well-articulated sloganeering with knowledge.

Under the influence of her conservative parents Kassidy initially swayed right, but as she learned about McCain’s health care plan, she pivoted towards Obama. She has not made a final decision, but clearly she doesn’t agree with David Sedaris’ assessment that she’s choosing between eating chicken and eating shit with glass in it.

Chesterton, Indiana

15 days before the election
Population (Estimated): 11,000
2004 Election: Bush 54%, Kerry 45%, Other 1%
2008 Election: Obama 53%, McCain 46%, Other 1%
(map)

In a weeping drizzle and the uncomfortable fire breath of sinking daylight, we arrived in Chesterton, Indiana, a factory town turned affluent suburb with only three hours to complete our next episode.

But with the help of five pliant locals we were more than halfway done in half an hour. After just a few interviews it became clear that to tell our own abbreviated story of Chesterton, we would need a shot of the steel mills that grind away on the proximate shore of Lake Michigan and have been an indispensible reservoir of local jobs for decades.

We decided to wait and shoot the mill on our way to our night’s place of rest in Chicago. We were, after all, ahead of the game and we had to record three more voices if we were to reach the eight we do our best gather.

But the rain started and our momentum, always a fragile commodity, stopped. Rejections piled up and we soon found ourselves short an interview in a quickly dimming Kmart parking lot talking with the exact wrong kind of person: a woman who wanted to speak at length, but not on camera.

The mills were miles away. One of our day’s more helpful interviewees had passed along a password to the gated community of Dune Shores, a place he guaranteed we’d find the best vista of the belching behemoth.

But navigation was not on our side. We went south, when we should have gone north and by the time we reached the one man security detail on the edge of Dune Shores, we had less than ten minutes before the sun faded and with it our hopes of a cohesive episode. Graham conveyed the password to the guard and the man waved us through.

But we quickly found, through a series of dead ends, no way to reach the beach in an automobile. So we abandoned the car in a driveway of a home we hoped was unoccupied and hiked up and down a private dune mountain. And there in front of us was the promised stunning shot of the mill with the last moments of daylight adding to its foreboding industrial massiveness on the wave-crashing shores of the lake.

Detroit, Michigan

16 days before the election.
Population (Estimated): 800,000
2004 Election: Kerry 70%, Bush 30%
2008 Election: Obama 74%, McCain 25%, Other 1%
(map)

A reference to Detroit is almost always accompanied by a warning or joke.

And the city we found on Sunday is indeed filled with houses so empty that they are folding in on themselves. A small garrison of homeless folks patrolled the strip in the center of town looking to convince some of runners from the Detroit marathon to spend a bit of their money on a local before returning to the suburbs. Graham, who grew up in the nearby communities of Ann Arbor and Gross Pointe and has covered the underbelly of the city extensively, related that in all but a few blocks of the city, police officers expect to be fired upon in many situations.

But there are those few blocks. A bubble of downtown where newly constructed casinos rise to join the skyline dominated by GM’s Renaissance Center, which itself is only 12 years old. But since the economic struggles of the city go back decades not years, so much so, that they are part of the fabric of the community, these renovations were not mentioned by the folks we interviewed. The only person we found on Sunday who said things were getting better in Detroit, was youthful devout Christian.

As we did in Ashland, we found a recurring theme of animosity toward Wall Street and frustration with local and national government. The supporters of Obama, the majority in this Democratic stronghold, have taken on an air of victory. But much of their commentary reflected problems with the current administration rather than endorsement of a new one.

Ashland, Ohio

17 days before the election
Population (Estimated): 20,000
2004 Election: Bush 65%, Kerry 34%, Other 1%
2008 Election: McCain 60%, Obama 37%, Other 3%
(map)

This morning at 6am there was a series of explosions outside our tent. We were camped by a lake in Akron, Ohio and it’s duck hunting season. I warned Graham not to leave the tent without his orange vest for the shotgun blasts continued for most of the morning even as we tried to recover from the nine-hour journey through blizzard traffic in New Jersey and the deceptively long traverse of Pennsylvania.

The inauspicious start to the day was followed sequentially by a dead car battery (always unplug your 12volt power inverter), a mid-Ohio traffic jam to rival the Kosciusko Bridge at 5:10pm on a Friday, and an improvised detour that led to real detour. After our morning meander we arrived in the hard-scrabble town of Ashland round about 12 o’clock in the pm.

Ashland’s the kind of worn town that you find spread across the Northeast and Midwest. It’s a number of factories in various states of decay, with endless strips of strip malls filled with the same institutional stores that fill endless strips of strip malls everywhere.

And at the center is an absolutely decimated downtown that once was, what local Ron Simmons today called “a bustler,” hollowed out of any hustle or bustle. Since Ohio is the swingingest of swing states, political signs for every imaginable office cover the sides of rural roads like crown vetch and storefronts like cobwebs.

The hard-luck we found in Ashland is the recent closure of the Archway Cookies plant. Almost 300 workers lost their jobs without notice on October 6 and according to locals it’s the fourth major plant closing in the last decade. Each of the people we met to today, regardless of the candidate they will endorse on November 4, mentioned the disappearance of jobs from the town and only a handful saw the change in the White House as capable of bringing a halt to the city’s economic decline.

Media, Pennsylvania

18 days before the election
Population (Estimated): 5,300
2004 Election: Kerry 57%, Bush 42%, Other 1%
2008 Election: Obama 60%, McCain 39%, Other 1%
(map)

Two and a half weeks from the election and we’re about to set out on a savage burn across the country. 18 days and 7,000 miles of highly-caffeinated journalism. But this journey did not start tonight as I mull over the sack of freshly cleansed clothes I picked up from the all night Bushwick Laundromat. A place where even at midnight on a Thursday more than one contemplative soul is watching cartoons as the suds rise and fall.

No, it goes back two years to the time I spent several weeks traipsing around Queens with the candidates for state senate and state assembly as a devout cynic in the fall of 2006. As a political journalist, I followed a number of candidates ranging from a Chinese immigrant who had worked her way up through Flushing’s political inner circle to an African-American anti-gun advocate who got bumped off the ballot, but continued to fight on.

As I studied these would-be public servants as they thanklessly marched from door to door pleading for votes as I passively observed and prepared an easy 500 word horserace story, my lack of faith in the great American democratic experiment began to wane.

And here less than two years later, I am myself an elected official, cast in to office by a count of 13-to-7 in the September primary. I am deeply engaged in my community in Bushwick, Brooklyn, an advocate for the system, I once so distrusted, because I’ve sort of seen it work. Or at least how it works.

So why set out to seek the ideas of Americans at this historical moment. The choice to travel was inspired by a man who mastered the language, discovered a savvy understanding of politics, and held a deep love for the potential that this nation holds.

Hunter S. Thompsonc chose February 20, 2005 to fulfill his desire to end life on his own terms presumably because the 2004 election so shook his belief in the possibilities of America. Thompson has always been a hero of mine, not as the overblown drug-addled streotype, but for his tangential insights into the powerful forces that rule both our private and public lives. In 1972, Thompson crashed around America as an important election approached, why not do the same with him gone.

What would Thompson have thought of this election. The one originally pegged as a face-off between the inherited Hillary Clinton and industrial-strength Rudy Giuliani. Can you imagine his take on Obama’s elongated defeat of Clinton or McCain’s nomination after being all but out of cash in mid-2007. And what would he say about Sarah Palin? Would he have the audacity to hope?

If only we knew, but alas we never will. But in 18 days we’ll know who will be faced with the challenges of the next four years. We begin with Media, Pennsylvania, Everybody’s Hometown and mine too.