Early in December, with a photographer and his assistant, I drove from Nebraska, near the geographical center of the United States, to the heart of Texas -- more than 700 miles, through empty spaces and sprawling cities and all or part of four states. We headed pretty much due south, no dodging or weaving. And never did we pass within 100 miles of a county that voted for Democrat John F. Kerry in the recent election.
We were voyaging on the Red Sea.
Pam Sackschewsky, left, Merv Ocken and Allen Stuhr in Waco, Neb.
This Red Sea does not appear on any map but one. Or let's say, it appears most clearly on one particular map. This map is marked with the boundaries of the 3,141 counties or county equivalents in the 50 United States. Counties where Kerry won more votes than President Bush are colored blue. The rest, the counties carried by Bush, are red.
Blue islands and blue archipelagos, a blue isthmus here, a blue peninsula there, rise in a Red Sea that stretches from coast to coast. Rise quite literally, in many cases, because blue country is often marked by skyscrapers and high-rise condos and state capitol domes and university clock towers. Red country, as we shall see, is often quite flat.
In some parts of the country, red and blue are as closely intermingled as water and land in the Louisiana bayou.
Where we went, it was wide open sea.
We met dozens of people along the way. We asked them about themselves, about their communities, about their votes. Some were leery of us. Several asked politely: "What are you trying to accomplish?" Others were more blunt: "What's your angle?" Another version: "What are you hoping to find?"
We met Bruce Owen outside Abilene, Kan. He invited us into his home, introduced us to his wife, Donna -- and then seemed to wish he hadn't. He told us he rarely saw people like himself portrayed in "the media," except as objects of derision.
He had a point there.
All I could answer was that we were tired of hearing pundits tell us about "Red America" and wanted a firsthand look. For months, the passions had been running awfully high. A lot of Democrats seemed settled on the belief that Bush supporters were stupid and selfish and sanctimonious, when they weren't downright religious fanatics and bigots. Whereas the Republican op-ed types seemed to feel that every conservative voter west of the Mississippi was somehow endowed with an innate wisdom and bedrock virtue not seen since the last days of Socrates. When I first saw that county-by-county map, I felt drawn to go there, to hear for myself why George Bush was reelected. I did this knowing that Bush voters can be found anywhere. Why not just stay home and hunt for some here? I guess for the same reason a person might visit China and not just Chinatown.
Despite their misgivings, Owen and many others were generous with their time and open with their beliefs. Here, on the eve of the president's second inauguration, is an honest effort to set down what I saw, what I heard, what I thought and what I learned.
But who is doing this seeing and hearing and filtering?
For the purposes of this story, I'd say I'm a man who has lived among blues and lived among reds and never felt like a proper fit anywhere. My current home is one of the bluest places in America -- the District of Columbia, which voted 10 to 1 in favor of Kerry. I have friends and neighbors who were literally in tears the day after the election. Politics for many Washingtonians is more than just a civic duty or an every-few-years diversion. It is a passion and a livelihood. They find the Red Sea hostile, baffling and, frankly, menacing.
On the other hand, my roots are out there. I grew up at the western end of the nation's unbroken red high prairie. Aurora, Colo., has become a populous place, miles of suburb shading into more miles of exurb, but I remember it when tumbleweeds three feet high blew through our yard, and jackrabbits burrowed under the back fence, and asphalt gave way to dirt farm road a scant quarter-mile from our front door.
Twice a year, we piled into the family sedan and set off through Kansas to visit my grandparents in Oklahoma. Having been 8 years old in a car crossing the immense and vacant range between, say, Byers, Colo., and Hays, Kan., I feel well-braced for the experience of Eternity.
This trip to the vast flatness, the Big Empty, was like a homecoming.
In novelist Willa Cather's masterpiece of the prairie, My Antonia, the boy narrator captures the typical first reaction to Red Sea travel when he remarks: "The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska."
We set off from Lincoln heading west along Interstate 80 through wintry fog that blurred the landscape and erased the highway before and after us. Within our gliding cocoon the land was nothing but tawny stubble and chocolate-colored mud. Now and then a few cows half-appeared like ghosts in the gloom, huffing steam as they grazed, and the irrigation sprinklers stood idle in the fallow fields, looking like skeletons of giant wiener dogs.
All but one of the 93 Nebraska counties went for Bush, some by ratios of more than 4 to 1. Thurston County, home to the Winnebago Indian reservation, was the exception: Kerry won a narrow victory there. Our first stop was Waco, Neb., approximately 140 miles from that little island of blue.
"You ask why I voted for Bush? I think he has the right idea about the EPA."
This was Allen Stuhr talking.
He sat that late morning with his hands curled around an empty coffee mug at a table in the back of Hunters Lounge & Keno, which is across the street from the grain elevator in Waco, population 270-ish. At various times during the 40 years that this tavern has belonged to the Sackschewsky family, it has included the Waco grocery store, barbershop, beauty parlor, cafe, gun shop, liquor store, Kawasaki dealership and reception hall.
Now it's just coffee in the morning, a drink at day's end and keno nightly.
A minute ago there were 12 regulars seated in the puddle of light beyond the pool table. Seven men clustered quietly together while five wives chatted amiably at the table beside them. Turns out a good way to get folks moving in Waco, Neb., is to introduce yourself as a reporter from Washington, D.C.
But Stuhr remained, along with his old friend Merv Ocken, a retired seed salesman.
"I'm the village water officer," Stuhr explained. "For more than 100 years, we've lived with arsenic in our water. It is a naturally occurring element. It isn't contamination -- it's natural."
During the Clinton administration, the Environmental Protection Agency lowered the amount of arsenic allowed in water, from 50 parts-per-billion to 10. "Now all over Nebraska, villages are having to build new water treatment plants to remove a naturally occurring element," Stuhr said, which costs "millions of dollars."
Does Washington pay? I asked.
"They'll loan us the money," Stuhr answered. "And whose money is it to begin with? And once we get the arsenic out, why, then we have a hazardous waste problem, because there is nowhere to dispose of it."
Bush would like to restore the previous standard. You might recall that many Democrats howled that Bush was willing to poison people, but in these parts, Bush's proposal was greeted as simple common sense.
Merv Ocken: "The problem comes in when you try to pass one law that will apply to everyone all across the country. In New York or Washington, certain laws might make sense. But you get out here, where there's sometimes just two people living in an entire section, and it's different."
A section is 640 acres, or one square mile.
Average population per square mile of Manhattan: 50,000.
Ever visited New York? I asked.
"I've been to the airport," Ocken said with a grin. He used to fly through JFK on his way to Europe on business.
"I was there in 1958," Stuhr countered. "I was on my way into the service, and I rode from the airport to the bus station. I found you could see the sky -- if you looked straight up."
One of the first things worth noting about the Red Sea is that people live there because they like it. (Several people proudly pointed out to me that there are no houses on the market in Waco.) This basic fact strikes wonder in some city dwellers, who live in cities because they love cities. They love the bustle, the myriad options, the surprises and the jolts and the competition. It can require a leap of imagination to perceive that there are people who seek precisely the opposite, and not just on weekends and vacations.