What Unites These States?

Philip Caputo traveled from Key West, Florida, to Deadhorse, Alaska, asking everyday Americans what holds our country together. In the end, it all came down to one beautiful word.

from the book The Longest Road | Reader's Digest magazine
Pacific Ocean

William Brinson for Reader’s Digest/Courtesy Philip Caputo

When Leslie and I arrived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, that city and most of northern Alabama were still recovering from deadly tornadoes that had struck in a single day about a month earlier. Parts of Tuscaloosa looked as if they’d been carpet bombed.

We volunteered to help with the relief effort. A coordinator at the volunteer center told us that more than 14,000 people from almost every state in the union had pitched in. He asked us to write our initials on an acetate-covered map of the United States that showed the volunteers’ home states. Did I want to discover the force that bound the atoms of America one to the other? Maybe I was looking at it: a spirit that had moved thousands of men and women to travel great distances to aid fellow citizens in distress.

We were assigned to a hangarlike warehouse, where we were buffeted by industrial fans that were all but useless in the 102-degree heat. We loaded boxes with food, medicine, and clothing alongside about 20 other volunteers, mostly young people from church groups. The volunteers were white; their supervisors, from the Seventh-Day Adventist disaster relief services, were black.

This in Tuscaloosa, where in 1963, Governor George Wallace vowed in his inauguration speech, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

William Brinson for Reader's Digest/Courtesy Philip Caputo

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