WASHINGTON — It was a haul, but we finally made it to Washington, coming in with a cold front that has compelled locals and visitors alike to dress as if on an Icelandic expedition as they navigate sidewalks filled with souvenir kiosks and security barriers. It's supposed to warm a bit for the big day -- the combined body heat of a million-plus people alone ought to be worth a few degrees of warmth.
Ours was by no means the direct route. Times photographer Kirk McKoy and I headed out from Los Angeles six weeks ago, meandering mostly by rental car across this vast land and into the lives of dozens of Americans at this moment of transition.
Plumbers and petroleum barons, Las Vegas imams and New Orleans hurricane survivors, auto dealers, music teachers, truckers and mayors, peaceniks, Vietnam vets, even a self-proclaimed prophet of doom -- we met all of these and more along the way.
The viewpoints, as one might imagine, were all over the map, but there were some common themes.
Again and again, we heard people express their frustration with the present and fears about the future, and then conclude with a message of hope. Americans are a resilient tribe, and in these hard times it's a virtue that serves them well. Stoicism aside, concern about the economy crept into almost every conversation.
A member of the marching band at a high school outside Detroit mentioned that his dad would not be traveling here to see him perform in the inaugural parade: "He works in the auto business, and he just got laid off the other day. It's the second time in two years."
The owner of a barbecue restaurant in Cairo, Ill., asked about racial tensions that in the late 1960s tore his town apart, said that there was no longer room for segregationist attitudes: "Everybody's money is green, and that is what this town needs these days."
In Utah, at the end of a strange sort of Bible study led by a Mormon outcast who considers himself a prophet, a transmission mechanic became agitated when we turned the discussion to politics. Squeezed on a couch with other followers, this young man raged about the greed of automakers, the incompetence of financiers:
"And now all of them are coming before Congress to ask for a bailout," he fumed, voice rising. "They want my money to stay afloat! Well, nobody's going to bail out the transmission business, are they?"
His secular passion seemed odd only in that he and the others had just spent more than an hour convincing themselves that the Apocalypse was due any day, and certainly before the inauguration, in the form of a nuclear holocaust.
We saw a lot of country -- cutting across the Nevada desert, through the gorgeous red mountains of southern Utah, down Arizona, across the West to Texas, up from New Orleans to the Great Lakes, through the Ohio Valley and finally over the Appalachians to here.
The beauty and vastness of the land is something that can be appreciated only by this kind of crossing. To get out into the country also is to gain a new perspective about where it stands, and I think we came away feeling better about things than when we left Los Angeles.
"What do you think?" I asked Kirk as we moved through Maryland on the trip's final leg.
"I think a lot of people are hurting," he said, "but there's also a lot of hope out there."
"Hurting and hoping?"
"That's it. Like my dad says, 'Don't need a handout, but I could use a hand-up.' "
Kirk and I hadn't worked together much before, but we got along well. This was a good thing, given the number of long rides we shared, gaping at the scenery and trying to figure out where to stop next. This was a trip with only the barest itinerary -- start West, end East.
We made very few appointments. Instead, we'd drop into a town, scout about a bit, knock on doors. Strangely enough, people would open not only their doors, but often their hearts as well. We came to trust in this openness of Americans.
It seemed as if every small town we visited had a Wal-Mart on its edge, and every Wal-Mart was stuffed with shoppers. Similarly, on every interstate we traveled there was heavy truck traffic.
I remember in particular a Saturday night in Paducah, Ky. I had gone to the sprawling Kentucky Oaks mall in search of a blank cassette for my tape recorder. This was in January, well beyond the Christmas rush and post-holiday sales.
Nonetheless, the parking lot was packed, and so was the mall. Perhaps this was only a reflection of entertainment options in Paducah, but I took it as a reminder that, alarming statistics and doomsday headlines aside, there is still a lot of commerce going on in this country. And if the psychology of fear can somehow be reversed, maybe the numbers will follow.
Which leads us to President-elect Barack Obama, and his message of hope and change.
We met hard-core conservatives who flat-out do not want to grant him even the briefest of political honeymoons.
"What kind of honeymoon did Bush get?" groused an oilman in Midland, Texas.