Reporter's Notebook

The American Futures Notebook
Show Description +

On this page you’ll find notes arising from American Futures project that Deborah and James Fallows have had underway, with some appearances on Marketplace radio, since 2013. Their full archive is here.

Show 4 Newer Notes

Greetings From Red Oak

I mentioned last night that we’d devised a plan to pick our way through passes and valleys in the Rockies, to get from the western slope — at Rifle airport in Colorado, a little more than an hour’s drive west of Aspen — to the other side of the continental divide. Here, from yesterday’s installment, was the plan:

The Rifle, Colorado airport is the orange dot at lower left. The blue path shows the planned route through valleys and passes to the other side of the Rockies, just beyond the Medicine Bow mountains in the vicinity of Laramie, Wyoming. The path we didn’t want to take was straight across the highest peaks, just west of Denver.

Today things went more or less as forecast. We climbed out of Rifle and headed in the “wrong” direction, down the Colorado River valley toward the west, until we’d gained enough altitude to turn back eastward through the passes. (For the aviation crowd: we did the first part of this trip at 11,500 feet, and then 12,500 feet for the highest 45 minutes or so — and, yes, as is both required by rules and advisable for safety, I had a supplemental-oxygen can that I took hits from.)

Here is how the “actual” route looked today, via Flight Aware — “actual” in quotes, because of the odd mis-readings the Flight Aware recaps occasionally give. The green line is our path, according to air-traffic control radar as rendered by Flight Aware. This version picks up our radar track about 20 minutes into the flight, somewhere around the Kremling waypoint (the RLG VOR, for the aviation crowd). The path we took resembled what we’d planned:

The air-traffic control radar picked up our path as we were going through the passes on the western slop of the Rockies. IBM is the fueling stop in Kimball, Nebraska, and RDK is our overnight stay in Red Oak, Iowa. (FlightAware)

Also as foreseen, we made an early refueling stop in Kimball, Nebraska, which is just past Cheyenne and the Wyoming-Nebraska border and is marked as IBM on the map. I hadn’t wanted the plane to be any heavier than necessary for the high-altitude Rockies portion of the journey, so once we got beyond the mountains, and into Nebraska, we took on more fuel. (There are people who enjoy mountain flying. I am not one of them.) Then onward across Nebraska, at a comfortable distance south of a static line of thunderstorms, to an overnight stay in the familiar town of Red Oak, Iowa, which is not far across the Missouri River from Omaha and is shown as RDK on the map.


An early-ish end to the day’s travels, in a familiar locale (Red Oak, Iowa).

We decided to stop and stay in Red Oak, rather than pushing on across Iowa or into Illinois, because it is in a way responsible for all of the travels and reports Deb and I have done over the past few years. Back in the summer of 2012, when we were headed westward from Washington to that year’s Aspen Ideas Festival, by chance we happened to stop for the night in Red Oak. We were amazed by the intensity of civic activity at the airport itself, as we’ll describe in our forthcoming book — and then spent an evening talking with a family from Jalisco, in Mexico, who had opened a very popular restaurant called Casa de Oro on the main drag in Red Oak. We spent the next few days saying to each other: if so much is going on, by such a variety of people, in a little place we had not paid attention to, what must be happening elsewhere?

This afternoon we came back to Red Oak, in the dead-calm wind conditions that make an approach to landing feel like swimming through the sky. In the evening we returned to Case de Oro, which appeared to be thriving. Tomorrow, on to the east coast.

This evening on Senate Street, in Red Oak. I recommend the carne asada.

Nearly six months ago, I announced a hiatus from online life (except for Twitter), while my wife Deb and I decamped to my original hometown of Redlands, California and a house we rented on the campus of the University of Redlands, to finish a book on what we’d discovered in traveling around the country over the past four years.

The book is now (nearly) done; we’ve been occupied wall-to-wall over the past week-plus at the 2017 installment of the Aspen Ideas Festival; and tomorrow we begin the small-plane journey back to the East Coast, where we’ll rejoin the Atlantic staff, actually finish off the book, and get ready for our upcoming relocation to England.

This is a placeholder note with an aviation angle, on the way you deal with the Rocky Mountains if you’re flying a small, piston-powered, single-engine airplane.


Usually we have had to approach Aspen from the east, coming from Washington. Twice I’ve flown our propeller plane into the Aspen airport, and — having survived  — I choose never to do that again. Instead we’ve landed at some flatland airport in the Denver area, either Centennial to the south of Denver or Boulder to the north, and then rented a car for the three-to-four hour drive into Aspen.

This year we were coming from the west, from our early-2017 base at the San Bernardino airport in California, with its elegant facility called Luxivair. A week ago we flew from there to the airport in Rifle, Colorado, on the relative flatlands of the Colorado River valley on the western slope of the Rockies, and rented a car for the hour-plus drive into Aspen.

Tomorrow, we start the route back east, in placid weather and with a comparatively benign course plotted to get past the Rockies and out onto the long descent eastward — across Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and then over the Appalachians to the eastern seaboard. Here are the waypoint for the lowland route out of Rifle, through a series of valleys and passes, until we escape from the really challenging terrain around Laramie, Wyoming:

The Rifle, Colorado airport, where our airplane has been for the past week, is the orange dot on the lower left; our current location in Aspen is the light blue dot at the bottom; and the path our plane will take through a series of valleys and passes, until the end of the Rockies near Laramie, Wyoming, is shown in darker blue. The metropolis of Denver is in the white box at lower right. (From the Foreflight flight-planning program.)

Then we’ll spend tomorrow night somewhere in Iowa or Illinois — maybe Red Oak, maybe Ottumwa, maybe Peoria, all dots on the map below, and all depending on how we feel, and the weather — and then onward to the DC area in time for festivities on the Fourth of July.

Various waypoints for gas and possible overnight stays.

I’ve sort of missed, sort of not, having an online outlet. But ready to re-enter the fray. More to come — and if you’re in Nebraska or Iowa tomorrow, look up and wave.

The scene this morning in Burlington (Josh Brown, UVM).

This morning I had the privilege of giving the commencement address at the University of Vermont—UVM, home of the Catamounts, in Burlington. My wife Deb and I, and our colleague John Tierney, visited UVM several years ago and wrote about it in our American Futures series, notably with John’s piece about the school’s emergence as a “public Ivy.”

Seven Days, the financially-and-journalistically successful weekly based in Burlington (which I’ve also written about), has a story about today’s commencement, here. The University’s story is here. Since the talk drew on various themes that recur in this “American Futures” thread, I’m attaching the text, below.

Go Catamounts!

* * *

Commencement remarks

University of Vermont

May 21, 2017

James Fallows

President Sullivan, Governor Scott, honorary degree recipients, faculty and staff, friends and family, people of Vermont and beyond, and above all members of the class of 2017 — greetings, and congratulations!

On behalf of your parents and grandparents, your brothers and sisters, and all the known and unknown supporters who have cheered and aided your journey to this glorious day, I salute you on your achievement. And I am glad as well to use the words I heard at my own college commencement many years ago, and officially “welcome you to the company of educated men and women.”

Every one of you realizes that not a one of you made this journey entirely on your own. Thus I’d like you to take a moment to stand and turn around, and look for a face of one of those crucial supporters in the crowd —or to envision an absent one in your mind—and express with cheers and applause your gratitude for what they have done.

I’ve just completed the first part of my job, which is to celebrate this moment. I turn now to the second part, which is to be brief.

In these next few minutes I’m going to try to convince you to feel good—energized, confident, important—about this very uncertain-seeming world onto which you’re about to make your mark. I’m going to argue that the generations ahead of you, including people like your parents and grandparents, and me, and those that will follow you, like the children and grandchildren you will someday have, need you to feel as if you can change the world, and to get busy doing so by putting your UVM training to maximum use.

Let’s go into that case. What’s most worth noticing about the circumstances in which we meet — right here, right now, as you begin your post-college life?

Some of the people behind a new video about economic and technological promise in Erie, Pennsylvania. We have met most of these people over the past year. (Jefferson Educational Society of Erie.)

As we’ve been working away on our book based on our “American Futures” travels over the past four years, my wife Deb and I have increasingly come to think of Erie, Pennsylvania, as the representative American city of this moment.

OK, there are a lot of other candidates: Fresno and San Bernardino, in California; Columbus and its neighbors in Mississippi; Greenville and Greer in South Caroline; Eastport in Maine; Duluth in Minnesota plus its neighbor Superior, Wisconsin; Sioux Falls in South Dakota; Dodge City and Garden City in Kansas; several cities around Bend in central Oregon; and …

But in all of these, with particular sharpness in Erie, you see the shoulder-to-shoulder juxtaposition of two crucial realities in modern American life. One is the human pain, dislocation, and disruption caused by the overlapping forces of technological change and global competition. The other is the human ingenuity, passion, practicality, and optimism involved in figuring out responses.

Deb and I have written extensively about the way this drama has played out in Erie, for instance: here, here, here, here, here, and here, with more coming in our book. For now I want to highlight a video that some of our friends in Erie put together and released today. You can see it below, or go its Facebook page here.

This video, powerfully narrated by hip hop artist Charles Brown, was in response to a long series of pre- and post-election broadcast reports about Erie that covered only one side of its saga: the mainly older people who had mainly held big-factory jobs, and having lost those jobs were mainly angry and downcast about the prospects for themselves, their city, and the country as a whole. Shorter version: Erie as background for pieces on “the making of Trump voters,” although the city of Erie itself stayed Democratic last fall. (The surrounding suburban and rural counties went for Trump, as of course did Pennsylvania.)

Charles Brown of Erie, who narrates the video (Facebook).

The video touches on many aspects of a renascent Erie, as covered in dispatches about and others: the Jefferson Educational Society, an unusually ambitious and vibrant civic organization; the Behrend campus of Penn State, with many advanced-manufacturing projects; Hero biofuels, covered in our Atlantic video about Erie; the Erie Reader, part of the diaspora of revived alt-papers we’ve seen around the country; the Radius CoWork space, also covered in our Atlantic video; the county Gaming Authority, with an unusual civic-investment strategy; Erie Insurance, which is making huge new investments downtown; the many local universities; a wonderland of breweries; the MenajErie design studio, which helped create this video; and Epic Web Studios, which does international-standard web-design work from downtown Erie—and which, in fact, I and a group of colleagues in Washington hired to design a site for a local civic project.  (More about Epic and others, to come.) And many more. After the video itself, which was produced by John Lyons of Lyons Den Productions in Erie, I encourage you to stay for the credits list, which starts at time 4:20 and shows how many local organizations were involved in creating this project. You don’t get that scale of involvement without the sort of civic fabric that holds communities (or countries) together and allows them to thrive.

Congratulations to our friends in Erie—who face lots of challenges, and are fully aware of it, but who have prepared themselves for the struggle. Please check this out.


Maitham Basha-Agha, the Iraqi-American who photographed Erie's "New American" refugees for the Erie Reader. Maitham Basha-Agha, for Erie Reader

If you’ve read or heard about Erie, Pennsylvania, since the election, it’s likely to be with framing as “declining Rust Belt city that illustrates the fears and dislocations that led to Trump.”

Over the past six months, my wife Deb and I have presented a different take on the city, as briefly mentioned in this magazine piece and laid out in more detail in this web post and others collected here. We’ve been struck by the difference between older Erie—the people of our own generation, who had grown up expecting to work at the giant GE plant and are still devastated by its slow-motion shutdown—and younger Erie, people who never expected to work in big factories and are starting new businesses. This is an illustration of an old/young split we’ve seen across the country.

What initially drew our attention to the city was its purposeful role as a welcoming point for immigrants and refugees. If people from the area were moving away, why not attract those who historically and actuarially have a higher-than-average rate of entrepreneurship and business formation? Today the weekly Erie Reader published a magnificent feature: a large-format photo display of refugees who have made Erie their home.

I’ll let you go to the feature, on “Rust Belt New Americans:  A Showcase of Erie’s Refugee Population,” to see the several dozen portraits, by Iraqi-American photographer Maitham Basha-Agha (with accompanying narration). I’ll say that this conveys part of what we saw in Erie—and Sioux Falls and Burlington and Fresno and other places with significant refugee populations—and is so much at odds with the fearful national policies of the moment.

Here’s one portrait, of Afrim Latifi, originally of Kosovo, now an insurance agent and soccer coach:

Afrim Latifi, originally from Kosovo, now of Erie. (Maitham Basha-Agha, for Erie Reader)

Another of our friends in Erie who is featured in the story—Ferki Ferati, now executive director of the civically important Jefferson Educational Society in Erie—also arrived as a young refugee from Kosovo.

And here are two Muslim sisters now in Erie schools:

Sisters Maryan, age 15 (left), and Kaltuma, age 17, in Erie schools. (Maitham Basha-Agha, for Erie Reader)


While I’m at it, here is a story from, with videos of people coming out on a frigid-cold Lake Erie day to rally in support of their refugees and immigrants, and against the new ban.

The psephologists and other polling experts have confirmed it: the areas with the greatest anti-refugee or -immigrant fear and fury are the ones with the least first-hand exposure to newcomers. Congratulations and respect to our friends in Erie for the spirit they are showing.

The old Hotel Virginia in downtown Fresno, latest site of expansion by the tech incubator-and-training firm called Bitwise Industries. (Historic Fresno)

We could use a little positive news at the moment, right? Here you go:

Over the past three years we’re written a lot about Fresno in general, one of the unglamorous cities of California’s Central Valley that is fighting its way back as a tech and cultural center, and about Bitwise Industries in particular. Bitwise, which we wrote about here, here, and here, is one of several organizations around the country (like the Iron Yard in Greenville, S.C., and Radius and Epic and others in Erie, Pa.) that are pioneering the ideas of creating opportunities in left-behind areas; of expanding those opportunities to left-behind people; and meanwhile helping redevelop downtowns and bring a sense of pizzazz and possibility to their cities.

Yesterday in Fresno, Bitwise made another big announcement, of a physical expansion combined with a social and civic goal. The physical expansion was the steady growth of its business to several more historic downtown structures, including the Hotel Virginia and old warehouses.

Concept drawing for Bitwise facility the State Center warehouse.

Tim Sheehan’s story in the Fresno Bee about the announcement said:

Bitwise, the self-proclaimed “mothership of technological education, collaboration and innovation” in Fresno, announced Wednesday that it will grow … into three additional sites....

And for the first time, Bitwise is including a residential component in its plans – a four-story, 28-unit apartment building next to the State Center building.

“It’s great. I like the fact that they are getting into real estate – the residential side of things,” Aaron Blair, president of Downtown Fresno Partnership, said at a news conference where the project was announced. .. The expansion will make a dent in, but not completely satisfy, a Bitwise waiting list of software and technology companies for as much as 500,000 square feet of office space.


N435SR parked at its new home at the San Bernardino Airport in California Deborah Fallows

Arriving in Tucson, we felt the inklings of coming full circle with our American Futures project. Only one more leg of our journey, about 400 miles, before we reached our destination of the San Bernardino airport, and on to a writing base at the University of Redlands in Southern California. For the record, here, here, and here are the three previous road reports since we departed from Washington D.C.

I was very excited about finally getting to Tucson. During our several visits to Ajo, Arizona, about 130 miles to the west of Tucson, I first learned about one of the fearless, indomitable and I daresay under-appreciated women who left a mark on America. Isabella Greenway was Arizona’s first Congresswoman, as part of FDR’s New Deal Democratic majority. But before that she helped build and bring the beautiful copper-mining town of Ajo, Arizona to its heyday. We visited Ajo several times over the past three years, and have chronicled some of its creative rebirth.

Arizona Inn (Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers collection, Wikimedia Commons)

In 1930, after her time in Ajo and before her time in Congress, Isabella Greenway also founded and opened the Arizona Inn in Tucson, which was, I had heard, still thriving today under the family eye.

Over our three years of landing in the towns of America, we could never be too choosy about hotels. We considered ourselves lucky if we found a place with “suites” in the name, as in “Homewood Suites” or “Best Western Suites” or “Hampton Inn & Suites.” This was mostly because “suites” suggested an on-site place to do laundry and a little extra elbow room, which were both welcome attributes when two people were working in the same space and also generating a lot of dirty clothes.

So, a visit to the Arizona Inn was very special, and it turned out to be exactly what I imagined. Isabella Greenway herself described it as “a simple, home-like, cottage hotel” but it is much more than that, with high-ceilinged-oversized rooms, quiet green spaces, a big pool (almost 20 meters by my stroke count), wonderful food, and a hospitality still imbued with the family’s sensibility.

On a whim, I emailed the current proprietor, Patty Doar, who is the granddaughter of Isabella Greenway. To my surprise, she emailed right back. We met the next morning with her and her son and co-proprietor, the writer Will Conroy, swapping stories and photos about the different pieces of the story that we each knew.

We all had stories: Our updates on Ajo; their recollections of Isabella Greenway; connecting the dots between Ajo and Eastport Maine, where we also spent several American Futures visits; Isabella’s lifelong friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt; and her visit to the Roosevelt’s summer camp at Campobello Island, right across the water from Eastport. Such serendipity was a special feature of American Futures that we had come to relish and appreciate.


Banking to the right, looking through the clouds toward the water and the ground. Deborah Fallows

We took off west from Demopolis, Alabama, prepared for a lot of flying ahead on this last journey for The Atlantic’s American Futures project. (First two installments in the series, taking us from D.C. to Alabama, here and here. ) We passed over Meridian and Jackson, in Mississippi, just a ways south of Columbus, Starkville, and West Point, where we spent several reporting trips to the booming manufacturing center of the so-called Golden Triangle.

I have always looked forward to crossing the Mississippi River. We’ve done that in just about every state through which the mighty river flows, especially in the upper Midwest: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois. There it would be today in the state of Mississippi, below us just around Vicksburg. I was worried about even getting a glimpse because of the low-overcast clouds, which we were flying above (on an “instrument flight plan” because we were expecting to have to land in cloudy conditions). We watched the navigation maps on the cockpit monitors, and just as we were about to cross, the clouds parted. Jim banked the plane so as to dip the wing on my right seat side, and I stole enough of a look to recognize the unmistakably mighty Mississippi.

Being guided in for refueling in tiny Minden, Louisiana (Deborah Fallows)

We stopped for fuel in Minden, just shy of Shreveport, aiming for Dallas to install the software patch that we needed for weather readings. There’s always something, even in this little plane; it amazes me that the big boys fly around with as few mechanical and technological delays as they do.


By the time we were ready to take off from Dallas the next day, a cool drizzle had moved in, reminding us why we avoided winter during most of our flying in the last three years. For the next three hours after departure (again on an instrument plan), we were either in the thick cloud layer or just above it, barely seeing the vast stretches of west Texas below us or the sun above.

There were hours of cloud cover like this over west Texas. (Deborah Fallows)

I think Jim enjoys the challenge of this kind of flying. He is always on top of the instruments, pushing buttons of one sort or another, checking gauges, and testing the redundant systems. For me, this opaque flying is unpleasant, sometimes even boring. I don’t like the absence of orientation. Most pilots, I’ve learned, have a zealous passion for flying. It’s something they can’t not do, and they don’t seem to mind the conditions. For the rest of us, well, I for one consider flights like these functional. The plane is getting me west.

At the airport in Demopolis, paper mill in the background. Deborah Fallows

We woke up in Demopolis, Alabama, on day two of the final journey of our American Futures series for The Atlantic. We were one day out of Washington D.C. (first installment here) and already decades away in so many ways. The weather was balmy. In the Best Western breakfast room, Ms. Nettie was making grits and biscuits for us and the out-of-town workers who had come in to oversee the “planned outage” at the cement factory.

Ms. Nettie’s tip box at the Best Western (Deborah Fallows)

Jim was troubleshooting one of the weather apps in the plane; the software wasn’t communicating to bring in the current weather updates, including radar depictions of areas we needed to avoid. Before this technology existed, we had flown many years without such real-time information, but given the forecast for the next few days along our route to Southern California, we preferred to have everything working before we headed up again into the skies.

Now, only two small things stood between us and progress west. One was the needed update part for our onboard-weather system. That would take a day to reach the nearest Cirrus-proficient service shop, which was in the Addison airport just north of  Dallas. The other was the real-time weather. The forecast crosswinds that afternoon for Dallas were gusting above 30 and even 40 knots, far exceeded the safe landing guidelines for the plane.

Historic downtown of Demopolis (James Fallows)

We decided to spend another day in Demopolis, and depart when the winds would be less fearsome and the weather-software part would have arrived. I loved this kind of on-the-go pivot in plans, which had led us to unexpected stays in places like Red Oak, Iowa and Cheyenne, Wyoming and Toccoa, Georgia along our American Futures journey.

Susan and Mike Grayson at Le Bistro (Deborah Fallows)


The night before, at a cozy, delicious  Demopolis bistro, called of course Le Bistro, we ended up in conversation about the town with owner Mike Grayson, who it turns out had been the Mayor of Demopolis for the previous eight years. In small towns like this, we often found that the energetic folks wore multiple hats. In Eastport, Maine, the local theater stage manager by night was the morning barista at the coffee shop, as well as the nephrologist at the town’s clinic and new owner of the dog kennel.

At the top of my list of Grayson’s suggestions was the Demopolis Public Library. Over the last three years, I often found that the local public library showed the heart and soul of a community. I wrote about many of them here.

In Demopolis we strolled down Washington Street, past as many boarded up storefronts as there were ones in business, thinking that the bones of those buildings offered great potential for future success stories.  The public library was indeed the showpiece of the town. In a move showing great foresight, the city engineered an effort to purchase and renovate the former  Ulmer Furniture Company store and warehouse. It is a truly beautiful building, as elegant and graceful as any Carnegie library I’ve seen. The second story mezzanine has a wraparound balcony overlooking the main reading room, with wooden Mission style worktables and lamps. Oversized photos of some of the town’s historic moments lined the walls. There was Woodrow Wilson visiting nearly a century ago for the then-legal cockfighting at a fundraising auction to build a bridge over the Tombigbee River.

Looking over the mezzanine level into the library reading room (James Fallows)

Connie Lawson, the circulation manager and a librarian there for over 20 years, recounted detail for detail a more recent visit in 1998 by Bill and Melinda Gates, who came by to see how one of their first computer donations from the Gates Library Foundation was doing. Connie said that she and her colleagues, intent on making a good impression,  had spent days cleaning the library “down to the baseboards.” They were all so nervous, she told us, stressing that Bill Gates was the richest man in the world then, and it’s not every day you get to meet the richest man in the world.

Downtown Eastport, from above. The large square waterfront structure on the left, long abandoned, is the site of the new development just announced. The smaller square waterfront structure three buildings over to the right, between the piers, is The Commons of Eastport, where we rented rooms to stay on our visits. The low building next to the Commons, with a white front and red roof, is the locally famous Waco Diner. Aerial photo copyright Don Dunbar

Since our first visit in the fall of 2013, Deb and I have reported frequently on the grit, vision, resilience, and apparently indomitable drive of the roughly 1300 people who live in the little city of Eastport, Maine. For reference, I did a 2014 magazine story on Eastport called “The Little Town That Might”; we did a visit and report with Marketplace radio around the same time; Deb and I, with John Tierney, did a long series of web posts, all collected here; and this past fall Deb and I returned for an update on some of the buffets Eastport had suffered from shifts in the political and economic landscape many thousands of miles away from their Down East locale. For instance: warfare in Syria had disrupted the port business in Maine, through a causal chain explained here. And the collapse of a breakwater badly affected the cruise ship and tourism industries on which the town was placing many hopes.

This past week Eastport got a much-needed dose of very good news. The Arnold Development group of Kansas City specializes in the kind of walkable, environmentally sustainable, mixed-use and downtown-residential developments that make a huge difference in making cities feel “livable.” And this month Arnold has announced an $18 million undertaking, with partners in Eastport, to renovate the most imposing structure in the city’s downtown.

Classic roll-top sardine can (Wikimedia)

This is the now-derelict works of what was once the Seacoast Canning Company, a factory that produced tin cans during Eastport’s early 20th-century heyday as a world capital of the sardine industry. Ever seen old pictures of roll-top sardine tins? This building is where millions of them came from.


Montgomery County traffic, Cirrus Four-Three-Five Sierra Romeo taking Runway One-Four, VFR (visual flight rules) departure to the west, Montgomery.

Rolling down Runway 14 for takeoff from Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg, Maryland. (Deborah Fallows)

And with that, we were off in our small Cirrus airplane for the last official journey of our American Futures series for The Atlantic, flying away from frigid Washington D.C. and its political turmoil, on a southerly route to California.

We have flown over 60,000 miles during the past three-and-a-half years, from the upper Midwest to Maine, south through New England and the Mid Atlantic states to Georgia and Florida, sweeping through the deep south, to Texas and the southwest, up the central valley of California to Oregon and Washington, and closing the loop to Montana, all the while snaking in and out of the so-called flyover country, the middle of everywhere through Wyoming, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, West Virginia, and much of the rest.

Map of the first few legs of our travel, as shown last year in Jim’s cover story.

“Flyover” to us has meant landing in dozens of towns for jam-packed visits of a week or two, often returning for unfinished business, reporting, or nostalgia. The purpose of this last journey is a little different. Our destination is sunny, warm, mind-clearing and political soul-cleansing inland southern California, to Jim’s hometown of Redlands. We plan to ponder all we’ve seen and try to make some sense of it on a more composed canvas than the pointillist collection of hundreds of blog posts that we have written along the way.


Over SoCal on a recent trip. We're headed there again soon. Deborah Fallows

For me this is the third post of the day, and probably the last in this space for quite a while.

Effective today, I’m beginning a five-month book-writing leave from online and print activities for The Atlantic. At the start of June I plan to be back, recharged for the fray, and by then my wife Deb and I should—will!—have finished a book on the America we’ve seen in our travels across the country these past four years, and what that means for the years ahead.

Some practical notes:

  • A major satisfaction in writing in this space and its precursors since the mid-1990s has been engagement with readers. But by the final few chaotic months of this year’s campaign, I had given up even pretending to answer reader emails (or any emails), or sorting them for reader-comment posts. There are still hundreds I would like to have quoted but have not managed to use. I will soon forward some of those, and anything that arrives in coming weeks, to the impresario of our Notes section, Chris Bodenner, who has skillfully curated reader discussions. And not for the first time I’ll be considering the “email bankruptcy” option.
  • The last time I took a blogging leave was five years ago, when Deb and I moved back to China for me to finish my book China Airborne. (Her wonderful Dreaming in Chinese had just come out.) Back then, the concept of “blogging” still existed—that is, of frequent, incremental, voicey dispatches on a range of personalized topics—and I had the joy of assembling a stellar cast of guest bloggers to fill in. Really, it was an incredible group: check them out here. Times have changed, and there is no longer a set personal-blog space here for guests to fill. Our site keeps evolving, and I’m not sure what it will offer by the middle of this year. But for now you will just have to make do with the dozens of other items The Atlantic serves up each day.
  • Why a cold-turkey break? For an external reason, and an internal one.
    The external reason involves the new reality of the Donald Trump era. During the final six months of his campaign, I tried to keep up with the “norm-breaking,” unprecedented things the candidate kept doing and saying. That became a nearly full-time activity, and the number of entries ultimately reached 152. Since the election, the pace of Trump’s transgressions and aberrations has only increased. As a reporter you can keep up with this, in the full intensity it deserves, or you can do anything else. I am 100% on board in supporting the reporters, editors, and analysts at The Atlantic and elsewhere who are girding for daily engagement with the implications of Trump. But I think that the greatest journalistic value I can add is not by spending all my time as one more voice in the fact-check/ norm-defense patrol but instead in reporting on how the rest of the country can and should respond. And I know that the latter is the story I am more excited to tell.
  • This leads to the other, internal reason, which involves my personal journalistic metronome. Through my long career with The Atlantic I’ve had a sequence of shifts in topic and location. Through the early 1980s, I was heavily involved in debates about the military and budgetary policies of the incoming Ronald Reagan administration, including with my book National Defense. After five years of this, my family moved to Asia, to spend the late Reagan and early GHW Bush years viewing the U.S. from outside (and for me to do my books More Like Us and Looking at the Sun). I’ll skip ahead several topics and moves to the early 2000s, when I was back in Washington and heavily involved in debates about responding to the 9/11 attacks and invading Iraq (don’t do it!). After four-plus years of that, and reporting on the aftermath, in 2006 my wife and I moved to China, to spend the late GW Bush and early Obama eras seeing that country and viewing the U.S. from its perspective.

    This time, I’ve done what I can through the past year to lay out the consequences of this year’s presidential choice. Those consequences are now upon us. As with every other major shift in national direction, the resulting story needs to be told at many levels. The version of the story I’m most passionate about telling, and that I believe is least likely to tell itself otherwise, involves the implications of what we’ve seen in dozens of places like San Bernardino and Sioux Falls and Erie and Allentown and Ajo and Greenville and Columbus and Charleston and Dodge City and Duluth.             
  • The good and the bad of being in Washington is that what happens in national politics is right in front of you, unavoidably in your face all day long. The good part is why we’ve lived here for half of the past 40 years. The bad part is why we’ve lived elsewhere during the other half, in several-year installments.
    These next few months will be an “other half” period. We’ll be based in inland Southern California, in Redlands, for the writing-camp period. And I’m undertaking a variety of additional “mind in the right place”/attention-protective moves, from reading more things on paper to being less exposed to cable TV. Related: The more time passes, the more I find myself agreeing with Andrew Sullivan’s famed essay on this topic. The public’s attention really has been treated as a free good in the tech-distraction era. We need to fight to protect it. Or at least I do.
  • Might there be an exception to the online sabbatical? Anything is possible. Suppose Xi Jinping were to announce that he’s personally taking up small-plane aviation, in a speech that begins “I often think of the example of the boiling frog” and ends “may God Bless the United States of America!” (which would be quite a speech), all while holding a leafblower in one hand and a craft beer in the other. I’d probably have to say something.  

Online life changes and moves on, even more quickly than life in general. There are inevitable costs to stepping away. But in this case I believe there are greater benefits. See you in June.