Leslie and I stayed off interstates for the most part, sticking to old routes like the Natchez Trace, blazed by early American settlers, and the Lewis and Clark Trail, a network of major highways and back roads following the route taken by the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804 to 1806.
At a Montana dude ranch, we rode alpine meadows with a young wrangler, Annaliese Apel. Barely five feet tall, Apel described herself as a onetime “girl gangster” who’d grown up on the east side of St. Paul. She’d turned to wrangling horses to save herself from that life.
Apel embraced the dissension I feared was tearing at the nation’s seams.
“I think the country definitely is in disarray,” she said. “At the same time, to grow as a country, we need to have conflict, and conflict is healthy. But the media has this awesome way of blowing it out of proportion.”
The Lewis and Clark Trail eventually brought us to the Pacific Coast. We headed north, crossed the Canadian border, and made our way up the storied Alaska Highway through British Columbia and the Yukon into Alaska.
There, north of Fairbanks, we picked up the northernmost road in the United States: the Dalton Highway, more than 400 miles of gravel and buckled asphalt. Road conditions make it a risky drive, and the scenery—endless stretches of mountains and tundra, the trans-Alaska oil pipeline crossing and recrossing the landscape—can be hypnotic. But we had only one mishap, a flat tire, before reaching our goal. Seventy-nine days after starting out from Key West, we stood on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.
We dipped our toes—briefly, because polar bears had been seen nearby—and I added Arctic water to a bottle I’d already filled partway with water from the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean.
Five thousand miles and three weeks later, I dropped the Airstream off in Breckenridge, Texas. There, I heard the most succinct answer to my Big Question. It was given by the Airstream’s owner, Erica Sherwood, a 37-year-old small-business owner. As I sat telling traveler’s tales to Erica and her husband, Jef, she turned the tables by throwing the question back at me.
Taking my cue from Annaliese Apel’s remarks about conflict, I used a metaphor from astronomy: A star remains a star because of the “dynamic disequilibrium” between its gravity, which pulls it inward, and nuclear fusion, which sends its matter flying outward. If there is too much of one or the other, it either collapses in on itself or blows apart.
Almost from its birth, America has been pulled in the direction of maximum individual liberty by Thomas Jefferson’s idea that the government that governs least governs best, and in the opposite direction by Alexander Hamilton’s belief in centralized power. It is the perpetual but equal conflict between these extremes that generates the binding force, I said. Too much Jefferson could lead to anarchy, too much Hamilton to tyranny.
Erica and Jef found that a little weird and abstract, so I asked for Erica’s thoughts on what united Americans, and she nailed it.
“It’s hope,” she said. “Isn’t that what it’s always been?”
Philip Caputo is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and the author of 15 books. His newest is The Longest Road, from which this essay is adapted.