Criticisms of Americans for being insular, while often valid, usually fail to grasp the sheer scale of the place. Texas, the country's second largest state, is the size of Germany, Italy and Denmark combined; its population would fill Switzerland, Portugal and Ireland. Those who accuse Americans of being parochial must first concede that America is a huge parish.
New England, where I started my journey, and west Texas, where I ended it five weeks later, could be in two entirely different nations. Not only had the topography, climate and architecture radically altered, but so had the people and their attitudes towards everything from religion and government to taxes and guns.
One of the few things that has remained constant while on the road has been the ubiquity of the stars and stripes. The national flag billows everywhere. It flies from porches, hangs from store fronts and decorates the bumpers of many cars ahead of me. The interstate highway, network television and chain stores aside, the ever-present national flag has been the one constant indicator that I have remained in the same country all along.
But these demonstrations of patriotism offer little or no suggestion of which side of the political divide people are on. You are as likely to find them among Republicans as Democrats. In normal times this strong sense of national identity is the thread that keeps this diverse patchwork of states, cultures and ethnicities together. On the left are those who believe the nation is being transformed by a corporate theocracy. Trekking through the suburbs of Derry, New Hampshire, Pam and Patrick Devaney overcame their shyness to go knocking on doors in search of progressive voters. "I'm not comfortable doing this but it has to be done," said Pam. "Our democracy is at stake. This is the most important election in my lifetime."
On the right are those who fear the encroachment of secular liberalism. "I fear for this country if Kerry wins," said Burton Kephart, from Franklin, Pennsylvania, whose son Jonathan was killed in Iraq. "God has a plan for the ages. Bush will hold back the evil a little bit. He is a God-fearing man. He believes in praying to a God who hears his prayers. He's a leader."
Many Americans of course, lie in between these two extremes. Like the hotel worker in Dearborn, Michigan, weighing her opposition to abortion with her opposition to the war who was rooting for Kerry with reservations, they do not fit easily into either camp.
On these rare occasions when people are presented with the same raw data, the two camps have managed to fashion conclusions that are not just different but almost entirely contradictory. So rather than partisan arguments adjusting to take account of reality, reality is altered to suit the argument.
A recent poll, released by the Program on International Policy Attitudes, showed that the overwhelming majority of Bush supporters still believe that Iraq had ties to al-Qaeda or the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and had weapons of mass destruction or a program to develop them.
It follows that from this different understanding of the problems comes entirely polarized conclusions about the solutions. Lisa O'Neill, who lives just a few minutes away, supports Kerry and opposes the war for almost entirely the same reason. "I have an 11 and 13-year-old who could be drafted if this carries on," she said. When I called them both the day after the first debate each one thought their side had won.