At a rest stop along Interstate 85 southbound, where Virginia meets North Carolina in the Piedmont, I stretched my legs and struck up conversations with fellow travelers.
“How much does it cost to fill up?” I asked Patricia Odom, who sat in the cab of her diesel-powered, 53-foot 18-wheeler.
“Six hundred dollars,” Odom said, her eyebrows raised for emphasis. “I made $158,000 last year, and $82,000 of it went for fuel.” I figured her to be a Mitt Romney supporter; the Republican presidential nominee has been campaigning hard as Mr. Oil and Gas, vowing to increase domestic oil production and lower the price of gas.
“I’m all for refineries,” Odom said. “But I’m for infrastructure, too, and I’ve seen the roads improve under President Obama. I haven’t seen any evidence that Romney can do what he says.”
I was visiting my parents in Shreveport, La., last week, having set out from Maryland. A fuel gauge light and growling stomach made for random stops. Nothing scientific about the sampling, just chance encounters along a 1,100-mile stretch of roadside America.
“I don’t make a lot, but 21 percent of it gets taken out in taxes,” said Sonya Harrell, 19, who was working the cash register at a Burger King in Fredericksburg. A graduate of Colonial Forge High, she’s trying to save what little she nets by living at home with her parents.
I asked if she’d been keeping up with the presidential race.
“During my breaks, I watch TV — usually Fox News,” Harrell said. “If you separate the facts from the comedy, you can see that Obama empathizes with everyday working people more than Romney does.”
Jobs, taxes, the deficit — the subjects came up again and again. No doubt many will be tuned in to Monday’s presidential debate on foreign policy. But to some of those I met, a “foreign” policy could just as well refer to the candidates’ domestic agenda — incomprehensible, inarticulate plans to address the nation’s most pressing economic problems, always on the horizon if not at the end of the rainbow.
What greater threat to national security than high unemployment, low academic achievement and ever-widening income disparities?
“Jobs, that’s most important,” said Mary Hudson, who was riding with her husband from their home in Church Road, Va., to visit a daughter in Charlotte. “But I believe businesses should be creating jobs, not government,” she added, echoing a theme from the Romney campaign. “I do not want more government encroaching on my life.”
Driving through the Carolinas, with their battalion of state troopers patrolling the highway in souped up Dodge Chargers, Mustangs and Chevy Suburbans, I, too, felt disdain for government encroachment.
Near Carrboro, N.C., billboards began to appear that showed a photograph of Obama. Written below the image: “Four More Years? No Way. Dethrone Obama.”
It made for a striking contrast with the people in hard hats and reflective vests — black, white, Hispanic — who were repairing bridges and resurfacing long stretches of highway, most of the work paid for with federal funds.
Around Greensboro, N.C., billboards featured the Obama campaign symbol — a blue-and-white circle with red stripes — and the words “Obama for All of Us”.
“Why is it always if one wins, the other loses?” asked Aaron Ames, a unit manager at a Waffle House in Charlotte. “We can’t get a jobs bill passed because it will be a win for one party, a loss for the other. Raise the minimum wage, businesses hire fewer people.”
I recalled a saying about corporate campaign financing: When Wall Street-backed donkeys and elephants fight, the grass roots always gets trampled.
“I just want an economy that’s a win-win for businesses and residents,” Ames said.
Most of the people I met remained optimistic despite the economic downturn.
Odom, the trucker, personified that spirit. An Atlanta native, she’d left a job as a secretary six years ago to become a long-haul trucker. “I traded in four walls so I could see America,” Odom said. “I’ve already driven over a million miles.”
She wasn’t sure what it would take to bring down fuel costs, but what she needs just as much is easily doable, would create jobs and would make the roads safer, too. “We need more parking spaces, places for truckers to rest,” Odom said. “I was lucky to find one last night.”
With a smile and a wave — and two blasts from her air horn — she pulled out of the rest stop, on the road again.
To read previous columns by Courtland Milloy, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.