Photo credit: Kyle Chesser, Hands On Studio
In the summer of 2009, we returned from nearly four years of living and working in China to an America that was in recession, only beginning to claw its way out. The narrative we heard and read about in the national media was one of despair, sometimes anger, and a sense of helplessness that marked a different, more troubled era for the country. From outside, in China, we had heard reports suggesting that the long, imperfect process of American revitalization had finally hit its limits: the American era had passed. When we got back home to the US, it soon became evident how deep the damage from this financial crash might be.
Because we felt we’d learned so much about China from long trips away from its biggest, most polished coastal cities, we wanted to apply a similar process of reporting-and-discovery to America in this period of setback and (we hoped) recovery. We wanted to meet people would talk to us about their communities and show us how they were leading their lives.
We had no idea what we might find. What was going on in towns where mills, or mines, or factories had closed? What would we find in towns where residents had fled in droves or waves of immigrants had arrived? How were they coping in places we had never even heard of before, or in the neighboring towns that we heard about only when there was a hurricane, or a shooting, or an Iowa caucus?
We were back to China in 2011, but on our return to the US, Jim posted a question on his blog at The Atlantic
, where he had worked for decades, saying that we were heading out to see towns around America with stories to tell, any kind of story, of where they had been and where they might be going. Would you write us? Within about a week, we had nearly 1,000 heartfelt responses from people everywhere, inviting us to visit their towns. That was our second surprise, and a signal that perhaps we were onto something.
So we researched towns, emailed with people who had written us, planned, buttoned up our life at home, provisioned our little single-engine 4-seater plane, gassed up, and took off. We would see America from an altitude of 2,500 feet, land at many of the 4,000 small airports that dot the country, and listen to stories on the ground, whatever those might be.
is a story of America in the early 21st century, as we saw it, flying low over the coast and forests of New England, the plains of the Midwest, the bayous and fish farms of the Deep South, the golden West, the mighty Mississippi and Missouri, and the low edges or dips in the Rockies and Alleghenies.
It is also a story as seen at sidewalk level in the small towns where we landed, and occasionally bigger ones, and where we stayed for weeks at a time, from Maine to Georgia, from Mississippi to Arizona, from California to Oregon to Montana, from South Dakota to Kansas to Michigan to Pennsylvania and many points in between.
We spent much of the next four years flying from town to town, with visits home, time with our grown children and growing brood of grandchildren, zigzagging the country for nearly 100,000 miles.
The map of our journey.
We had never heard of most of the towns that are now as familiar to us as our own small hometowns of Redlands, California (Jim’s: an orange-growing town next door to San Bernardino in the Inland Empire of Southern California) and Vermilion, Ohio (Deb’s: a fishing and farming town on the south shore of Lake Erie, in the heart of the steel and automotive rust belt).
We began traveling in earnest during the early summer of 2013, in a political and cultural era that seems at least decades away from today. When we landed on a rural runway or at a small general aviation airport, we hoped that we had chosen the town well. Depending on the size of the town, we rented or borrowed a car; we usually stayed in motels, hoping for one with “suites” in the name, which promised a kitchenette and a laundry room.
On the first day or two in a town we tried to see those we came to think of as the “usual suspects”: the mayor, the school superintendent, the newspaper editor, and the chamber of commerce officers. We asked for advice on whom we should see, where we should visit, and who were the folks who “made things happen” in their town.
We realized that we could spend the rest of our lives and then some on this amazing journey.
Then we fanned out separately, Jim to learn about economic development, the politics, the city planning, the businesses and start-ups, and Deb to visit the public library, interesting schools, the YMCA, the museums, and Main Street. We attended wood-bat league baseball games, musical performances, and town plays. We joined art hops, shopped at the Saturday markets, schmoozed and ate at local brewpubs, talked to the police and social workers, sought out public art and communal gardens. We rode bikes on the bike paths, strolled the river walks, swam in the public pools or lakes, and ran on the school tracks. When we got sick, we stopped at the clinics and the pharmacies. By the middle of the week, we wondered how we would ever learn all that we had to learn, and by the end of the week, we were planning a return visit.
Over four years and dozens of towns we covered as much of America as we could, wondering why we
didn’t live in this town, or that one, or the next one. We realized that we could spend the rest of our lives and then some on this amazing journey.
During the first few years of our travels, our friends in fashionable or big coastal cities humored us with comments about how charming our adventure was, or how quaint. By late in 2016, those same people were grabbing us by the lapels, wanting to hear more about what we had seen and heard, and how might we interpret the state of mind of the country “out there." What was going on, what were we finding? Was America really full of tortured and angry souls, which is what the bitter rhetoric of national-level politics would suggest?
Our answers are in this book.
Of course we saw the familiar troubles: opioids, abandoned factories, people trying to put lives back together, schools and public institutions under stress. The leaders and citizens of the cities we visited are fully aware of those troubles, and how far they have to go. But what we found that may surprise you are the ways people are not only directly speaking to these problems but are also building and shaping futures town by town, person by person, and how they are succeeding. Where American cities are
may be familiar, in the challenges they face. Where they think they are going
will, we think, come as news.
What we profoundly believe, after 100,000 miles in the heart of America, is a story of optimism, of action, of people taking responsibility for their communities. We found civic groups, businesses, and neighbors being accountable to each other, with more regard for their shared missions than their personal politics. We found the classic American values and practices that Tocqueville found, and the determination and bravery that Lewis and Clark displayed, and the creativity and invention that built America’s seminal companies, and the expansive generosity of welcoming, of personal time, and of pocketbook that defines the best of what we know of the American character.
In January of 2017, we put down gently into a direct 20-knot headwind on the 10,000-foot runway of the former Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino, a runway built for aircraft that dwarf our own hundreds of times over. We settled in for a long, but warm and sunny winter to write this book.
I had come across a bittersweet passage by Mark Twain
at the end of his epic 20-day journey by stagecoach from Missouri to the territory of Nevada. We recognized his feelings. Twain wrote, “It had been a fine pleasure trip; we had fed fat on wonders every day; we were now well accustomed to stage life, and very fond of it; so the idea of coming to a stand-still in a village was not agreeable, but on the contrary depressing.”
We too had “fed fat on wonders every day.” We too were accustomed to and fond of our unusual traveling life. Our ending, coming to a stand-still in a small town, didn’t feel as sad as Twain described his being. But he was young then and didn’t yet understand that you can craft many adventures in a lifetime.
So that is the story of what came to be Our Towns
and of our 100,000 mile journey into the heart of America.
Photo of us with our plane.
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is a writer and a linguist. She has written for The Atlantic, National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, The LA Times
, and The Washington Monthly
. She is the author of two previous books, including Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language
and A Mother’s Work
. Her most recent book is Our Towns
(cowritten with James Fallows).
is a longtime correspondent for The Atlantic
magazine. He has reported for the Atlantic from around the world since the late 1970s, including extended assignments in China, Japan, and Southeast Asia, and within the United States in Texas, Washington State, and California. He has written 12 books and won the National Book Award, the National Magazine Award, and a documentary Emmy. He has also done extensive commentary on National Public Radio.