Worries about now, yearnings for then Wrong turn: Many Americans are convinced their nation has gotten off the right track -- morally, economically and socially.

July 28, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF


With the election year as a backdrop, Sun reporters visited cities and towns along U.S. 40, the road once known as "The Main Street of America," asking hundreds of people about their hopes and fears, seeking their insights, most of all listening.

HEBER CITY, Utah -- "Here, it just seems " Kenra Stephenson pauses, searching for the right word to describe her life in this scenic, sun-baked valley. "It just seems good."

And so it does. Neighborhood kids romp and squeal on the trampoline in the back yard of the new $164,000 house the Stephensons and their three boys recently moved into. In the snowy winters, you can peer through the windows and see deer and elk on the mountainside.

Tonight, there will be a children's baseball game at the park. Maybe a shake afterward at Granny's, which boasts 44 flavors.

But scratch the idyllic surface and you find that the 28-year-old wife and mother has had dreams for months that her children are kidnapped. She fears that the gang violence in Salt Lake City she has read about will eventually reach her rural, yet booming, community where cows graze by the road.

Mostly, she's afraid her children won't have the carefree childhood she had. The world, she says, isn't like it used to be.

From this quiet small town in the valley of the Wasatch and Uinta mountains, across the country to Atlantic City, N.J., where the noisy slot machines chatter around the clock, Americans say they are feeling insecure and anxious about their lives and their ,, futures, and particularly what lies ahead for their children and grandchildren.

Conversations over the past two months with hundreds of Americans in the towns and cities that dot U.S. Route 40 -- the first national highway that now crosses much of the country -- revealed an edgy electorate that, despite its economic hopefulness, still believes the country is on the wrong track.

In many ways, those living and vacationing along the westernmost portion of Route 40 -- from the conservative, anti-government "constitutionalists" of Utah to the liberal "granola crunchers" of Colorado -- echo sentiments heard all across the nation.

Along with crime -- voiced even in tiny, remote towns like Roosevelt, Utah, where 23-year-old secretary Judy Smith says she would be afraid to go to school if she were a child today -- topics heading the list of concerns of most Americans interviewed are the family and the nation's moral health, the scope and efficiency of government, and the welfare system.

There appears to be general agreement among all political parties and ideologies, for instance, that the welfare system needs reform.

Typical is Clinton supporter Rebecca Lamb, 41, a single mother and teacher in Golden, Colo., who says, "I wish there was a way to help people find jobs and train them, and help the people who really need the help, as opposed to just give, give, give -- if you have another kid, here, we'll give you some more."

From Utah to New Jersey, a warehouse of other concerns revealed themselves: education, the deficit, immigration, the court system, health care, abortion, burdensome regulations, lax regulations.

Though there are numerous complaints about taxes, voters aren't necessarily as gripped by economic worries as they were four years ago when they headed to the polls. In Craig, Colo., a small coal-mining and ranching town noted for its annual Wild Game-Roadkill Cookoff, a radio station spent 15 minutes reading off a list of job opportunities in the area.

"Things are going pretty well for the working man right now," says David Sheppard, 50, a builder from Hilton Head, S.C., vacationing throughout the West with his family.

Indeed, as the economic recovery continues, unemployment dropped to 5.3 percent last month, the lowest point in six years, and wage stagnation appeared to lift, at least temporarily.

Still, there is insecurity about keeping jobs. And somehow, any sense of financial comfort or even prosperity has not translated into a feeling of well-being, has not wiped out a pervasive, often shapeless discontent that, in some cases, appears as contradictory as the snowcapped mountains in July.

"Where are we going?" says Jim Bauer, 40, a Boston musician, viewing with his wife the 200 million-year-old apatosaurus bones at Vernal, Utah's Dinosaur National Monument.

"I don't have any sense of direction at all. For whatever reason, we keep thinking about leaving the country."

"This is a wounded country," says Katie Muldoon, 40, a Laramie, Wyo., acupuncturist sunbathing by the hot springs in the tony resort town of Steamboat Springs, Colo.

"There's been a ripping open of the fabric of what I grew up to know as patriotism."

Range of discontent

Some have concerns that are peculiar to their locale, especially in the West where to many the environment is paramount:

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