In a country divided by bitter partisan passions, a country of blue states and red states, of pro-war and antiwar sentiment, of adoring Bush-lovers and adamant Bush-haters, Kathy Finau did her part to help bring the nation together Saturday by selling a couch, a chair and a weight-lifting bench from her vendor's stand at the Bent County Fairgrounds beside Route 50.
It was not exactly a chore. "Oh, we love to yard sale," Finau said when her stuff was all sold. "It's what we do out here on the plains. But this one was bigger, in a way. More important. It was great to be part of something national."
Over the weekend, the local flea market became "something national" for Americans from Sacramento to Salisbury, Md., as the phenomenon called the "Great U.S. 50 Yard Sale" came to scores of communities along the historic highway that was a key transcontinental route before the era of the interstate. The weekend event is in its fifth year and growing fast in a country that seems to be searching for the things it has in common at a time of angry political contention.
Back in Washington, the political experts talk of a "50-50 nation," with an electorate as clearly split as it was in the 2000 election. But Tom Taylor prefers to focus on what he calls the "U.S. 50 nation" -- that is, "this great collection of diverse people and diverse towns who are connected all across America by a single ribbon of asphalt."
Taylor, a high school principal, started the string of coordinated yard sales along a stretch of Route 50 in southern Indiana and has watched it spread along the same road to places as diverse as Carson City, Nev.; Hutchinson, Kan.; Athens, Ohio; and Maryland's Eastern Shore.
"For a while, I was reaching out to county boards and chambers of commerce," Taylor said. "Now they are coming to me, because these towns want to be part of a national thing."
As a concrete metaphor for national unity, you can't do much better than U.S. 50, a road that is older than the nation; indeed, parts of the route were surveyed by George Washington before he became a revolutionary.
The highway starts at the beach in Ocean City, crosses the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and heads due west. Sometimes a 65-mph four-lane, sometimes a stop-and-go commercial strip, the road passes right beside the Washington Monument, spans the Mississippi near St. Louis's Gateway Arch, tops the Continental Divide at 11,300 feet in Colorado and stretches through the vast emptiness of the Nevada desert, where a road sign warns "Cattle on highway, next 110 miles."
Route 50 then crosses the Sierra Nevada and heads to Sacramento. A sign on the eastbound lanes there reads "Ocean City, Md. -- 3037 miles."
From the Atlantic to the Mississippi, Route 50 closely tracks the westward course of the cartographic concept known as the "mean center of population" -- the point where the nation would balance if the country were a flat tray and every American stood at his place of residence. As the nation expanded inland since the first census in 1790, this point has moved west and south, just as Route 50 does, from the banks of the Potomac to central Missouri.
The single highway has countless names. It is "Main Street" in scores of communities and "1st Street" in others. It is Elm Street, Walnut Street, Maple, Chestnut and Sycamore. It is Constitution Avenue in the District and Wyatt Earp Boulevard in Dodge City, Kan. Here in Las Animas, Route 50 is called "Amb. Thompson Blvd." in tribute to a Bent County native, Llewellyn E. Thompson, who went on to become a prominent diplomat and ambassador to Moscow.
For most of its 3,000 miles, though, the road is known simply as "Route 50."
"The idea that a road running right through our town connects our huge country was always powerful for me," said Taylor, the founder of the national yard sale. "When I was a kid in North Vernon [Indiana], I used to ride my bicycle on Route 50. And I'd think, if I just rode far enough, this same street would take me to Washington, D.C., or to California."
Taylor started a series of more-or-less connected yard sales along the stretch of Route 50 between the Ohio and Wabash rivers in 1999. Initial success in his home state suggested that the idea might spread the entire length of the nation-spanning highway. "The idea seems kind of crazy," he said, "that some idiot sitting here in Indiana with the idea of uniting our divided country could get anywhere. But it is working. The practical part of it is, lots of Americans love yard sales."
Americans love the Internet, too, and Taylor has been able to spread the national yard sale concept by piggybacking on a Web site, www.route50.com, started by other U.S. 50 aficionados. "We coordinate the weekend for the national yard sale each year and spread the word. But the rules and the location and the hours, all that stuff, we leave to the local organizers."
"Yeah, Highway 50 has hundreds and hundreds of communities on it, and we happen to be one of them," said Russell Smith, a retired Army officer who works with the Bent County Chamber of Commerce here in southeast Colorado, where the old highway follows the precise route of the 18th-century Santa Fe Trail.
"So we thought, why not do it here, too? This is our second year, and it's growing. People have fun. We raise a little money for our junior chamber. It connects everybody." About 130 miles of asphalt to the east, amid a waving sea of prairie grain, the folks in Gray County, Kan., joined the effort as well.
"We're doing it in three of our communities along Route 50," said Norma Immroth, coordinator in the county seat, Cimarron. "It's fun for everybody, and we use it to raise money for the after-prom party at the high school. Plus the national thing, something to connect communities."
That "national thing" was going to be Kathy Finau's ace in the hole when she told her husband about the furniture she sold here Saturday. "He knew we needed new furniture," she laughed. "He just didn't know it was going to happen this soon. But if you have a chance to be part of the national yard sale, you don't want to pass it up."