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Back Roads and Better Angels

A Journey Into the Heart of American Democracy

Back Roads and Better Angels Buy Now
Format Hardcover
ISBN 978-1-58642-388-9
Published Jun 4, 2024
Imprint Steerforth Press
21st Century U.S. History Domestic Politics History - United States - 21St Century Travel Travel - Special Interest - Roadside Attractions

Bringing together two of America’s unifying loves—road trips and Abraham Lincoln—a journalist takes readers on a thought-provoking journey into the soul of our country and shared history

A year into his marriage and having never driven an RV, Frank Barry and his wife Laurel set out from New York City in a Winnebago to drive the nation’s first transcontinental route, the so-called Lincoln Highway, which is just a series of local roads that zigzags from Times Square to the Golden Gate Bridge.

The idea was to use the spirit of Abraham Lincoln to guide them across the land, in hopes of seeing more clearly what holds the country together — and how we can keep it together, even amidst political divisions have grown increasingly rancorous, bitter, and exhausting.

Along the way, Frank and Laurel meet Americans who help readers see the nation’s divisions through a more personal perspectives — and encounter historical figures and events whose legacies are still shaping our sense of national identity and the struggles over it.

This unforgettable journey is full of what makes any great road trip memorable and enjoyable: music, conversation, and laughter. By the end, readers will have a clearer picture of how we have arrived at a period that carries echoes of the Civil War era, and—using Lincoln as a guide—where the path forward lies.



No, we’re not going to Yellowstone.

That was the reply Laurel and I gave to the most frequent first question friends and family asked when they heard of our plan – a year into marriage and six months into a pandemic lockdown – to drive a motorhome across the country. They always seemed taken aback by our answer, as though we were traveling Egypt but passing on the pyramids, or crossing China without walking the Great Wall, or touring Ireland without slipping into a snug with a stout. Who would dare? Snubbing Old Faithful on a road trip west – and through Wyoming, no less? We saw their heads cock, noses crinkle, and eyes dart sideways, too puzzled and polite to say anything.

National Parks occupy a sacred place in the American heart, and road trips have an unrivaled hold on the American imagination. The liberating pull of our open roads inspires romantic visions of the nation in its most idyllic form. When parents take the family wagon for a cross-country vacation, or kids cannonball like Kerouac and Cassady across the land, or retirees take the trip they’ve long dreamed about, national parks shape the itinerary and interstate highways speed the way. I had another kind of journey in mind.

The idea of driving the old Lincoln Highway – the nation’s first transcontinental route, running from New York City to San Francisco – came to me in January 2016, when America seemed to be coming apart in ways I had never seen, as Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy enthralled conservatives, enraged liberals and sent both into delirium. After the election, Republicans rejoiced while many Democrats chanted “Not my president!” at protest marches and spoke of impeachment even before his inauguration. In the months that followed, resentments deepened and passions burned hotter, each side increasingly unable to abide the other. After the white nationalist rally at Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, when bigotry marched by torchlight and Trump failed to take an unequivocal stand against it, echoes of 1861 became impossible to ignore, and references to the Civil War grew more frequent.

On the left, a continual state of shock and disbelief mixed with fear and loathing – fear of what lay ahead for the country and loathing for what the Republican party had become: a toxic brew of intolerance, incompetence, ignorance, corruption, criminality, cowardice, racism, misogynism, and nativism, all debasing America’s standing in the world and defiling our constitutional values. The left stopped using the word “deplorable” but many never stopped thinking it. Yet with every new outrage there was hope – hope that this time it would be different, that Trump had finally gone too far – only to see it forgotten within days or even hours, displaced by the next scandal more outrageous than the last, with the process repeating itself in and infuriating and exhausting loop.

On the right, a continual state of defiance and grievance mixed with fear and loathing – fear of what lay ahead for the country and loathing for what the Democratic party had become: a toxic brew of elitism, socialism, and atheism, hostile to traditional family values, unconcerned with working people, overrun by political correctness, captive to gender and racial ideologies, blind to government dependence, hateful of American heroes, intolerant of dissent, disdainful of rural communities, and steeped in arrogance. No one had ever given voice to it all like Trump and his no-holds-barred brashness and braggadocio, which won him deep loyalty and admiration among many Republicans. The enemies he made and the battles he fought inspired a sense of hope on the right that what had been lost – factories, family farms, coal mines, traditional mores, the Protestant work ethic, the good ol’ days however defined – could be regained.

As the pandemic stretched into the summer of 2020, and the passions aroused by the presidential election burned hotter, I realized that it was now or never for driving the Lincoln Highway. I began researching RVs, which I knew almost nothing about. I’d ridden in one only once, at the end of senior year in college. About 10 of us rented a motorhome to drive from South Bend, Indiana to the Kentucky Derby in Louisville. We broke down about halfway. The dealer agreed to deliver a replacement vehicle in a few hours, which turned into half the night. We didn’t mind, since someone had the foresight to bring along a keg of beer. We didn’t sleep and pulled into Churchill Downs at daybreak, not needing mint juleps but having them anyway and taking in the bacchanalia of the infield. This, it turns out, was not an accurate representation of RV life, except for the part about waiting for repairs.

After consulting with friends who had recently rented motorhomes, I zeroed in on the largest one I wanted to drive and the smallest one I wanted to live in: a 25-foot Winnebago Navion with a full bed, toilet, shower, sink, stove, oven, dinette table, and even two televisions, plus a sleeping loft over the cab. Dealerships were sold out, listings were light, and long-term rentals were quite expensive – I was far from the only one to have the idea of RVing to escape the lockdown. But an online ad had just posted for a 2017 model with 30,000 miles. I put in an inquiry without mentioning it to Laurel, who had scoffed at the whole idea of the trip. “Frank, there’s a pandemic happening!” When she begins a sentence with my name, it usually means the matter is settled. But one of the many reasons I fell in love with her is her sense of adventure and openness to ideas of mine that fall somewhere between half-baked and hare-brained. She loves to travel, she’s taken to camping, and she’s always wanted to see the country. And so I began working on her: I know you have a full-time job, and I will need internet access too, I told her – we would figure it out. She wasn’t buying it.

The Winnebago’s owner, Kim, replied the next morning. As we traded emails, I tried showing Laurel the listing, but she waved it off as ridiculous. Eventually, over dinner and a bottle of wine, with Taylor Swift’s just-released Folklore playing, she agreed to look. It helped that when I initially raised the idea of the trip, I had proposed doing it a van. The Winnebago was bigger than she had expected – about 150 square feet, the same size of Henry Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond. If he could “drive life into a corner” in a tiny cabin in the woods, surely we could – after being trapped by Covid for months – drive life back out of the corner in a tiny cabin on wheels. I confessed to her that I’d been emailing with the owner. She wasn’t fazed.

I spoke with Kim the next morning to go over some additional questions, and she delivered the message I’d been fearing: She already had a buyer. Since I was her first inquiry, she would sell it to me, but the price was non-negotiable and she needed a decision. Today.


As daily subway riders, neither Laurel nor I had ever bought a car. Were we really going to make our first motor vehicle purchase a Winnebago? The process was moving faster than I had expected. I hadn’t even yet pitched my boss at Bloomberg News on the idea of taking the trip and writing a weekly column about it. I was putting the cart before the horse, and it was not an inexpensive cart. But we had the savings to do it, the price was reasonable, and unless we wrecked it, it would hold most of its re-sale value.

I asked Laurel: What do you think? She didn’t hesitate: “Let’s do it!” I asked if she wanted to see the listing again, to be sure. “No. Just do it!” I asked again: Are you positive? “Frank, let’s buy an RV!” She’s the decisive one. It usually takes me a long time to make a major decision – we dated for 8 years before I finally proposed – but with the world collapsing around us, it was easier to let go. I called Kim and told her: We’ll buy it.


Many people are not big on surprises, Laurel included. So before I go further, I should say a word about what, and what not, to expect in the pages ahead.

First, this is not another book about Trump, but like so much of American life now, he hovers around it. Nor is it about two people from different parties who argue their way across the country, nor a book to explain Republican voters to befuddled Democrats, a mission that liberal writers have spent two decades attempting with little success. In What’s the Matter With Kansas, a bestseller published during the 2004 election, Thomas Frank looked back on his home state and painted its voting majority as suckers who failed to understand what was best for them, continually bamboozled by Republican candidates who sell them on cultural conservatism and then sell them out to Big Business. During the 2016 election, Democrats turned to J.D. Vance’s memoir about his Appalachian roots, Hillbilly Elegy. The impulse behind his undertaking – As someone who made it to the Ivy League and Silicon Valley, let me explain these strange but good people – was noble enough, but his attempt to particularize the Appalachian mindset mostly reminded me of how much of it is shared by Americans of all regions and races. The book was another example of our national predilection for elevating and magnifying differences, while ignoring and downplaying commonalities. Nevertheless, liberals swooned over him, until he ran for an Ohio Senate seat in 2022 as a Republican, whereupon his conciliatory tone turned angry and combative and his disdain for Trump turned into fawning admiration – “kissing my ass” was how Trump put it – while Democrats reversed the other way, heaping contempt on him and the book they had once admired.

More books will be written to help coastal and urban readers understand middle and rural America, loaded with data and academic studies, but this is not one of them. Nor is it a collection of personal insights gleaned from familial connections to the heartland. Nearly all my extended family lives on the coasts. I do have one cousin in Cleveland, but he’s estranged. I don’t really know why, and ours being an Irish-American family, I have never asked, although I have my suspicions based on fragments of family chatter from long ago that conveyed more sadness than information. Since I am hardly able to explain my own family, and the cousin in Cleveland isn’t the half of it, I won’t be trying to explain anyone else’s. Attempting to explain the American family is a doomed mission best left to novelists and poets. There is at least beauty in their failures.

My aim in writing this book is simpler: To invite you along with Laurel and me on a cross-country journey, in the hope that – by listening to people we meet along the way, digging into the landscape to uncover what it conceals, and remembering the domestic battles we have fought – we might view the country’s challenges a little less rigidly, our fellow citizens a little more empathetically, our history a little more clearly, our common condition a little more amicably, and our national resilience – we have endured through so much – a little more appreciatively. Cynics and partisans will dismiss the whole exercise as naïve. I disagree. Our best hope for greater mutual understanding lies not in combing through research as sleuths, but simply in listening more, judging less, and recognizing more of ourselves in each other – including the notion that conflicting views of our national identity is part of our national identity. “What is American history,” wrote Steven B. Smith in his book, Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes, “but a series of debates over the meaning of our national identity.” We are not out to settle the debates, only to see their blurred lines more clearly.

We are not, of course, the first people to seek answers on the road. Cross-country travel has inspired a uniquely American genre of literature that explores the character of the country and the distances that separate it from its ideals. We are traveling in the tradition that pre-dates even Alexander de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and includes Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, Willa Cather and Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac, Robert Pirsig and Tom Wolfe, William Least Heat-Moon and Paul Theroux, Tony Horwitz and Bill Bryson, and many others. We will draw upon their spirit for inspiration, but to guide the journey, we will track the same North Star that led the nation through our darkest hour: Abraham Lincoln, whose leadership restored our union, whose words redefined our identity, and whose martyrdom has transcended our parties, a fate the poet Richard Henry Stoddard anticipated in his 1865 elegy to Lincoln:

One of the People! Born to be

Their curious epitome;

To share yet rise above

Their shifting hate and love.

We will hear from other American poets along the way, and since this is a road trip, we’ll listen to music – American music in all its forms: rock, country, pop, punk, soul, jazz, blues, bluegrass, folk, swing, hip-hop, Latin, all of them part of our heritage and transcending party affiliation. Song’s unifying cultural force is why Lincoln, in his first inaugural address, declared that “the mystic chords of memory… will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” We’re going looking for those better angels and listening for those mystic chords, in hopes of beginning to swell a chorus that has been drowned out by an ear-splitting cacophony of anger and rage.

We could have no better guide than Lincoln, but we are not out to deify him. He was flawed and fallible, like all of us – and judged by modern standards, he was an abhorrent racist and sexist. Yet in looking unflinchingly at him, we can see paths that lead to greater understanding and a more perfect union. The alternative is deeply unsettling, as Gettysburg University professor Kent Gramm has written, “if we Americans can’t find Lincoln, we are lost.” Or worse. When the two major parties do not respect each other, when each views the other as an enemy that threatens the existence of the country, when each stridently condemns the other in moral terms and judges the other unfit for power, the prospect of a major breakdown in democratic governance – and violence – should not be taken lightly. The name for such conflict, sectarianism, is familiar to anyone who has followed politics in Northern Ireland, where conflicts between Catholics and Protestants are less about religion than group identity and power, and where peace – after decades of paramilitary violence – remains uneasy. The threat of the U.S. descending into sectarianism is more serious than most of us imagined prior to 2020.

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