The Recession Roadtrip: A Retrospective

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I've been back in Washington, DC for two months now, though feel like I'm still processing the extraordinary experiences of the Recession Roadtrip. Six months on the road winding my way through the Great American Recession granted such privileged insight into the national sentiment; I barely know where to begin the retrospective account.

First some basic facts and stats:

Total miles driven: 20,257
Total words written: 80,0036
Total number of Priuses: 6 (But I only totaled one!)
Speeding tickets: 2 (Not sure I'll be allowed back in Arizona.)
Parking tickets: 10+ (St. Paul, MN seemed the ticketing capital of the country.)
People interviewed: 500+
Nights spent sleeping in the car (usually in a Wal-Mart parking lot): 22
Nights crashing with strangers: 10
Camping: 8
Sleeping outside with homeless people: 4

I'll answer some of the most common questions I've received since completing the journey, and welcome readers to ask additional ones in the comments below.

Who was your favorite story subject, or who impressed you the most?: That's a hard one to answer. For their dedication to family and their will to keep fighting to re-build a life upended by hardship, I have enormous respect for Rosa Jurado in Arkansas, the Daneris of Idaho, Rebecca Polston in South Carolina, "Emma" in Seattle, and "Princess" in Philadelphia.

For their dedication to helping others and their community, I would name Rita Wilson in Mississippi, Jerry Voiles in Tennessee, Alan Eldridge in Virginia, and Sean Cummings in New Orleans.

For the way of accepting their own layoff or foreclosure as a positive opportunity to re-invent their lives or careers, I often think of Michael Babins in Texas, David Walters and Laurel Sprague in New Mexico, the Brothers Tartamella in Brooklyn, Antony Ellington in Texas, Shaz Schwartz in Colorado, Alex Gargarita in San Jose, Edwin Duterte in Pasadena, the Moore family in Indiana, and Andy Moore in North Carolina.

Did you notice any common themes, trends, or perspectives emerging from your conversations with people across the country?: A phrase I heard repeated many times was: "It could always be worse." What was interesting is that I most often heard that from the people who had it the worst.

In general, it seemed that those who had not personally suffered a direct hit from the recession were most vocally expressive about how bad life had become. I eventually learned that if someone I met responded to my initial query about the recession with a groan and complaint of how miserable everything had become, their recession story would be about the price of fuel and their efforts to cut back on regular expenses.

But those who had lost their jobs or their homes would hold more tightly to what they still had, and take from that whatever optimism they could muster. Michael Babins in Texas, who had to walk away from his over-mortgaged home in Las Vegas, was grateful (and happy) he and his wife had a travel trailer. Pat Poole, who was laid off and homeless when I met him hitchhiking across Utah in search of work, said: "It could always be worse. At least I have my health." Doug Coates, who was laid off and living in a homeless shelter in Rhode Island, knew it could be worse: "I could be sleeping on the street," he told me.

Also, those enduring the greatest hardship because of the recession expressed--almost without exception--a gratitude for the experience. The common explanation I heard for that was that through the recession "we've learned what's important." What they've learned is that experiences are more important than possessions, and that family takes precedence over all else. The bit about family would seem like nothing new to the average person, but those who have had to call on their family for assistance or shelter because of the recession--like Porsche Christiansen in Utah or Rebecca Polston in South Carolina--have a new and deeper appreciation of the importance of blood ties. 

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Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer, and book editor who specializes in national security, terrorism, and war. She also writes for the food blog Feed The Masses.

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