A journey to the heart of a divided nation

As the United States approaches its most important presidential election for a generation, Andrew Buncombe drives coast to coast to find the crucial swing voters who will decide the contest
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Out in the Mojave desert, on a scratchy scrap of land alongside Route 66, a veteran of the Korean War has something to say about the current American commander-in-chief.

"I don't like Bush, I didn't like his father. This one reminds me of a cocky little rooster," says Ron Ellisor, a wizened, white-haired man, whose bomber was shot down somewhere near Seoul half a century ago. "He's too arrogant. Last time, I voted for Al Gore, this time I'll vote for John Kerry... The main reason is to get this one out. Kerry's the only choice."

It's hot and dry and the air burns the throat, like sucking on a hairdryer. Although there is an awfully long drive ahead, I am inclined to linger and listen to Ellisor and his political views, which are as clear and uncluttered as the desert landscape. "The country is worse than it was four years ago. Every day it's slipping further into debt," he continues. As I start to head back to the car, the door of Ellisor's trailer home opens and his wife, Randy, appears. "It's just me and that crazy old woman out here," he says. "We've been married 22 years. I don't know how she puts up with me."

Strange as it may seem, it is the opinions of 69-year-old Ellisor and those like him that have brought me, on this sun-blasted morning, to the back country of Arizona and beyond for what was somewhat grandly conceived as a transcontinental political pulse-taking - a coast-to-coast vox pop - as America prepares for the most important presidential election in a generation.

The original scheme - planned, it has to be said, without proper recourse to a detailed map - had been to traverse this vast country using only its backroads. The more out of the way a place was, the better. Surely that was where the heart of America beat loudest? The map and the calendar brought reality: if the journey were to be done in a realistic timescale, the interstate highways were unavoidable. Even then, the undertaking is not be sneezed at: this week-long, coast-to-coast trip in search of a forecast about the election will cover more than 3,000 miles, travel through four time zones and pass through 12 states (and the District of Columbia).

Starting in Los Angeles on the West Coast, the open, empty sun-scarred deserts of the South-west will give way to the sparse grazing country of the Texas panhandle. Easing eastwards, the road will enter the vastness of Oklahoma, getting greener and more lush by the mile. In Arkansas, one finally hits the American South, heavy and damp. Heading north-east, the road pours through sleepy Tennessee, Kentucky and then the Virginias. From there, it heads into the populated cities and suburbs of America's East Coast. The journey will end just a short distance from a seaside boardwalk in the state of Delaware.

As remarkable as that landscape is, it's the people who will be most memorable. I will speak to black and white, Hispanic and Native American, those who wear their religion on their sleeve and those who do not mention it. I will meet the oldest Americans - but not the oldest American - and students who haven't voted before. Some people will be well informed about politics, many will be clueless. And while the original idea - to drive along the historic east-to-west Route 66 - wasn't practical, the journey will be very much in the spirit of Main Street America - a journey of cheap motels and diners.

Tellingly, it will also show how, for all its friendliness and confidence, the United States is not a happy place. Across the American heartland I will encounter anxiety and concern, be it about the economy, soaring unemployment, the war in Iraq or the threat of another terror strike.

And, while this trip will offer nothing more than a snapshot of America as the election approaches, if I were President George Bush I should be very concerned.

Enough scene-setting. There's a lot of road ahead, and somewhere up there near the city of Kingman (like everywhere else with more than five people, the locals call it a city), Route 66 should meet I-40, the interstate that traverses the nation.

I'm making good time. I'd left Los Angeles the previous afternoon, taking a quick dip in the Pacific by the pier in liberal Santa Monica, where gentle souls turn their backs on the excesses of Hollywood. Despite its musclebound Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and its apparent obsession with conservative talk radio - a constant in-car companion - California is decidedly Democrat. Four years ago, Al Gore won 53 per cent of the vote, with George Bush on 42 per cent.

That evening, I'd stopped at the border town of Needles, where even at 9pm it was 120F. I paid $33 for a room in a dingy motel that was run by a delightful Indian couple from Delhi, who complained about the heat. I ordered a burger in the Hungry Bear Restaurant, sitting at the counter on a red vinyl seat beside a vastly overweight man who ate with a rhythm and purpose that called to mind the character in Raymond Carver's short story Fat.

Next morning, back for coffee and toast, I asked the waitress about Needles and whether the Bush presidency had brought any changes. "I couldn't tell you," she said. "I'm not from Needles, I'm from Mojave Village. That's 10 minutes away."

If California is a certainty for the Democrats, Arizona, where the desert backroads twist like angry rattlesnakes, is not. The Republicans won it 51-45 last time, making it a battleground state this November. Both parties are fighting to win over undecided voters.

At the small town of Seligman (elevation 5,020ft), I stop at a store. Barbara Baker, serving behind the counter, says there are now few jobs with decent wages or healthcare. "There's the lime plant on the edge of town, but other than that there's just the restaurants that pay the minimum wage," she says. "You need to have two or three people in the family working to get by." Baker, 73, is a fan of Arizona's Republican Senator John McCain, but says that she'll vote for John Kerry. A friend, Mary, nods in support. "I'm sorry, but I just don't believe Bush any more."

The town of Flagstaff still has a whiff of the old West about it. At a gun store packed with enough weapons to have saved General Custer, the manager, Eric Soderblom, 33, says he feels he should vote Republican again to preserve his job, but he's not sure. "Every month I pay $819 in healthcare for my family. I'm working 60-hour weeks. Everyone I know is working 70 to 80 hours a week."

East of Flagstaff, it starts to rain. The red sky turns black, and lightning pulses across it. The desert is sodden. The interstate eats up the miles. I visit a meteor crater so deep that a 60-storey building would fit from base to rim. There's a story on the radio about a tiger on the loose in Florida. Close to the border, I stay at a motel in Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo Nation, the country's largest native American reserve.

The next morning, in the town of Ganado, Elmer Yazzie, a Navajo/Laguna, is selling yeast bread from the back of a truck that smells as sweet as a bakery. He says he's a registered Republican and will vote for Bush. "I think he has done the right thing with the terrorists and going to Iraq."

A diversion 100 miles to the north takes in the astonishing Hopi reservation, the oldest continuously inhabited community in the US. The villages, on rock mesas over the desert, date back to the year 1100, and are dirt-poor. A guide in the village of Walpi, Dinah Pongyesva, is not impressed with Bush. "I think he should concentrate more on what is happening in the US."

The kind people at Hertz have given me a free upgrade to an Oldsmobile sedan that races across the emptiness of north-eastern Arizona. The sky is huge, the horizon endless. I drive all afternoon, and pick up I-40 again east of Albuquerque, New Mexico's largest city. In 2000, this state was home to the nation's closest contest - closer even than Florida - in which Gore beat Bush by just 365 votes. Democratic Governor Bill Richardson was the chairman of his party's recent convention. He knows he needs to deliver.

That evening in the Blue Corn Cafe, close to Route 66, I get my kicks drinking their home brew and having a heavily inebriated local - unable to vote because of a conviction for marijuana trafficking - scream and spit in my face about Iraq and Vietnam.

Another Blue Corn barfly, Mark McCallister, a student, tells me that when he was young both his parents revealed that they were gay. His brother is gay. He is straight. He cannot understand why America is so conservative. He'll vote for Kerry. His friend, Howard Kaibel, would like to vote for the independent candidate Ralph Nader, but he has made a tactical decision to back Kerry. "I think there are plenty of Americans who feel we don't have the support of the rest of world."

I'M BACK on the road next day, badly hung over. A Christian radio channel features a woman called Nancy, who gives tips on how women can become better hostesses. She says it is pleasing to God. At a petrol station near the town of San Jon, a Hispanic construction worker, Bobby Echerivel, bemoans the problems young people have getting a job. He has five children but no health insurance. He voted for Bush in 2000 but will vote Kerry this time. "People who have jobs only get the minimum wage."

For hundreds of miles heading to Texas (Bush 59, Gore 38) there have been roadside hoardings promising a free 72-ounce steak in Amarillo. The road is straight. I jot in my notebook: "Vast panorama, greener, cattle, puffy clouds, bumper sticker saying 'Liberals hate Christians', grasslands." There is another sign for the steak. The restaurant is called The Big Texan.

The offer is not all it seems. Several hours later - having passed 10 Cadillacs set on their ends in the middle of a vast prairie owned by a helium millionaire - I discover the steak is only free if the diner can eat it, and a shrimp cocktail, baked potato and bread roll, in one hour. If the diner fails, the bill is $54. One in seven diners manages it. Today there are two winners. One is a large man called Tim Martinez, from Flint, Michigan (also the home of the Fahrenheit 9/11 film-maker Michael Moore) who does it in 48 minutes. The record is nine-and-a-half minutes. Martinez is not a Bush fan. "I think the war in Iraq was wrong," he says. What was the hardest part of the steak dinner? "The shrimps. I didn't like the sauce."

Outside Amarillo, there is a sign advertising the "biggest cross in the western hemisphere". Walking around this vast white cross, erected by the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ Ministries, is Jackeye Montes, 42, and her children. She works at a college and will vote for Bush. "I like his family values. He is a Christian man." The road pushes on through an increasingly lush landscape. Entering Oklahoma, the soil * * reddens, the landscape becomes greener. A friend calls from London to tell of an impending trip to Spain with his girlfriend. Time zones, continents and lives collide.

At the town of Clinton, the Route 66 Museum is shut. Emily Gastineau, 20, a medical student, is in the practice nets working on her softball swing as the sun sets. "My dad is a Republican and I will probably vote Bush, though I don't agree with him on stem cell research." I make it to Oklahoma City by 9pm, having completed almost 600 miles that day.

Near the granite walls and water pool of the Oklahoma City National Memorial, the monument built on the site of the Alfred P Murrah federal building that was destroyed by the bomber Timothy McVeigh, I meet John Stewart, a 36-year-old paralegal. Stewart says he's been a Republican since he was a child. He wears a "Bush-Cheney 2004" T-shirt. "I think things are better than they were four years ago," he says. "The tax cuts have revved up the economy."

Back on I-40, there are two advertising hoardings. One says "Kerry for All Americans" and the other "Charlie's Chicken - All You Can Eat". There are signs to places called Stillwater, Perkins and Teaumegh. The roadside is littered with dead animals - dogs, deer, cats and raccoon. The radio reveals that a record number of people in Oklahoma are receiving food stamps.

At a petrol station near the town of Henryetta, a Vietnam vet, Don Arnold, says he'll vote for Kerry. Bush has done nothing for veterans, he says. A gallon of petrol costs $1.83. At a rest stop near the Arkansas state line, a woman and her brother-in-law argue about Bush and Kerry. Their votes will cancel each other out. In 2000, Oklahoma was solid Republican, by 60 per cent to 38.

Arkansas is damp and green. In the town of Ozark, south of the famous mountains, Vickie Bateman is sitting on a swing chair with her daughter and grandchild. She and her husband have day jobs, but they also farm. "I voted for Bush but I don't think I will this time. Economically things are all right for now, but I don't agree with some of the things he has done. He does not seem to think he can make mistakes."

Two hours later, I'm in Little Rock. The water of the Arkansas river is slow, turgid and brown, and the air is thick and damp. At the bus station, close to the State House where Governor Bill Clinton announced his run for the presidency in October 1991, Lucius Rogers, 33, an African-American, says - like most black voters - that he'll vote for Kerry. "Jobs here pay $5 [an hour]. You can't raise a family on that," he says. An hour later in Forrest City, the only place to eat is a lousy Mexican restaurant.

Weary, yawning and gulping down the brewed-all-day coffee in which roadside diners specialise, I cross next morning into Tennessee, Al Gore's home state, which he fatally lost in 2000, by 51 per cent to 47. Memphis rears up besides the Mississippi. It is stinking hot and horribly humid on the way in to Nashville. Outside the auditorium that houses the Grand Ole Opry radio show, a black man wearing a black T-shirt, whose name is Derrick Black, says he'll vote Kerry. "I think Bush misled people over Iraq," he says. "I saw Fahrenheit 9/11. It has given me a little more insight."

Close to a museum established in honour of the country musician Willie Nelson, Jack Bishop, also wearing a black shirt, says he's not sure who he will vote for.

I push north towards Kentucky. This evening, the light is soft and the green hills are a delight. South of Fort Knox I make a diversion through the woods to Hodgenville, where Abraham Lincoln was born in a one-room log cabin. Birds sing and insects chatter in the woods by the cabin, which is entirely encased by a protective granite building. It is, literally, the source of the "log cabin to White House" egalitarian rhetoric that makes Americans feel so good about themselves. In the car park, a mother and daughter's worth of tourists, Allene and Donna Zwahr of Houston, Texas, say they're voting for a candidate born with a silver spoon in his mouth. "I'd like to see Bush remain in the White House... I don't like Kerry," says the elder Mrs Zwahr.

Lexington is horse country, and the farms surrounding the city have endless white fences and paddocks in which the thoroughbreds graze. By now, with evening drawing in, amid the hills and fields one can sense the blue light that gives this Kentucky grass its name. It is a remarkable sight.

The road passes through Bourbon County. By 7.30pm, I'm driving in an impenetrable mist in the middle of the Daniel Boone national forest. I spend the night at a $36 motel that is, once again, run by an Indian family. Nothing is too much trouble for them.

I've got two days to make it to the coast. Up early. Sandwich from Subway for breakfast. At a flea market, a woman called Darlene says she has to work all manner of jobs to make a living. There have been lots of lay-offs recently. She's a registered Republican, but is thinking hard about who to give her vote to. She likes John Edwards, Kerry's running mate: "He's charming." In 2000, it was Gore who won the charm vote here: he took Kentucky 57 per cent to 41.

Foot down through the forests, and soon the road enters West Virginia, the poorest of the US states. Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans two to one, yet Bush caused one of the biggest upsets here, beating Gore by six points. The state capital, Charleston, has a gold-domed capitol and a series of steel bridges across the Kanawha river. The light flashes off both. Heading east, the interstate twists through a deep wooded gorge.

Sitting outside a craft emporium, another Korean War veteran, Jimmy Halsey, 73, says he's a member of a rare species - an undecided voter. The issues of most importance to him are the economy - "There are very few jobs around for a man to bring up his family" - and healthcare. He chews the fat with me until his family appear and tell him it's time to go. I carry on down the mountains, crossing into Virginia near the city of Covington.

Within a few hours I am in John Denver country, or at least the country of "Country Roads" and its references to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah river. Life may be old here, older than the trees, but I-81 is new and fast. The car eats up the miles as I turn on to I-66 and head towards Washington.

Virginia has a Democratic governor, but it is solidly Republican: there are more executions than in any state besides Texas, and Bush beat Gore by eight points. At a petrol station near Dulles International Airport, a veterinary student, Joanna Galfam, 26, says she was one of Bush's supporters last time but is not sure who to vote for in November. "I don't know anything about Kerry. I need to do more research." That night, I calculate I've done more than 600 miles. I eat a pizza, drink several beers and sleep for 12 hours.

The road to the Atlantic starts straight and busy, east out of Washington through the down-at-heel and overwhelmingly black section of the city. Near to Annapolis, the state capital of predominantly Democratic Maryland, the road is carried over Chesapeake Bay by the long, soaring Bay Bridge, a fantastic amusement-park ride high above the ocean that stretches for several miles.

On the crooked finger of land that is Delaware, the road pours past farmland and shops selling Amish furniture, and past long unused red-coloured tobacco barns. The road is single lane, and it takes three hot, frustrating hours to complete the final 120 miles.

The journey ends at the happy seaside town of Rehoboth, an old-fashioned boardwalk resort of French fries and hot dogs and an overenthusiasm of flesh on the beach. Sitting on a bench looking out across the Atlantic, another mother-and-daughter team, Jeni Leasor and Pat Massey, listen as I tell them about the trip and the views of the people I've met along the way. "We are hoping there is going to be a change," says Pat, speaking for both. She voted for Nader last time, and her mother voted for Gore. This time both will vote for Kerry.

There are just a few sand-under-the-feet yards left to complete the coast-to-coast trip, and I make my way through the mass of bodies towards the sea and step in. On this humid 94F day, the water is shockingly cold. I grab my towel and head for the car.