Even a divided country can come together to celebrate its birthday. Can’t it?
This Fourth of July weekend, we wanted to see how patriotic Americans were feeling as they hit the road to beach parties, mountain cabins and backyard barbecues across this fractious, fractured country.
Are people still taking pride in a country rippling with waves of anger and resistance, riven by resentments and bitterly divided over issues like health care and immigration? Can patriotism encompass both supporting the president and marching against him? Standing during the national anthem and taking a knee in protest?
To find out, we headed to roadside restaurants, outlet stores and rest stops in Colorado, Georgia and New Hampshire and spoke with about three dozen people as they stopped for bathroom breaks and reheated hot dogs. Some interviews have been condensed.
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‘We can be kind, no matter what’
Jensen Sutta, 39; his wife, Kiha, 36; and their two boys, Perry, 6, and Easton, 5, had been poking through traffic on the way from their home in the suburbs south of Denver to a weekend of camping and fishing in central Colorado’s mountains.
Patriotism to me means appreciating the military, means appreciating our freedom and appreciating the fact that anyone really is free to express what they want to express.
Being with our kids on this weekend, it does give the opportunity to remind them that they can’t control who’s elected or can’t control many things, but what they can control is that they’re kind and they’re thankful. We can be kind, no matter what. I never would have thought of that prior to this election cycle.
‘A good country, regardless’
Sheldon Henderson, 60, and Robbie Robinson, 63, were planning a day of motorcycling around the ski town of Breckenridge, Colorado. Sheldon served in the Navy and Robbie in the Air Force, which helps feed a friendly rivalry between the two.
Sheldon: This is a good country, regardless of the current political air.
Robbie: Fourth of July — I have mixed emotions. Being a veteran, I’m disappointed things haven’t gotten any better than it was when I was in the service. I thought that by now we’d be closer to utopia than we were. We’re no closer.
Talk of the country’s divides took the men’s thoughts to President Barack Obama and the recent uproar over whether to remove Confederate statues and monuments from public squares.
Robbie: If we’re all Americans, we’d treat each other as if we’re all Americans. We actually elected a black man president eight years ago. But here’s the thing: When you have people all over the country in an uproar because they don’t want to bury their rebel flags? The only reason you would want to keep something like that around is for hatred.
‘Not thinking they’re bad’ for disagreeing
Steph Jester, 35, a clinical social worker from Thornton, Colorado, was getting ready for a rugged weekend with her sister and nieces with no electricity and few creature comforts in a camper in the high country. Her husband, a National Guardsman, is deployed in the Middle East, so she said the family was celebrating “just being together and the freedom we’ve got.”
Her view of patriotism, now:
It means respecting each other’s rights to have different opinions. And not thinking they’re bad.
‘We need to respect the position’
Doug Windemuller, 73, a mostly retired financial planner, was buying buns, milk and Coke at the Pine Junction Country Store, just down the road from his home in Pine, Colorado. Traffic gets so bad on the two-lane roads that he and his wife are spending the weekend close to home with friends and having a backyard hot dog roast.
How was he planning to celebrate?
Display the flag, honor it. Believe in country, God. I’m a patriot. Loyal to the government and the president. We need to respect the position, and right now that’s not happening in this country.
That’s how we’re going to get undivided: by being loyal to the country.
‘A lot of people don’t have what we have’
Roger Ash, 51, and his son, Ethan, 14, were in Pine, Colorado, headed for a day of mountain biking before their family flew from Denver to Costa Rica for a vacation. Ethan wasn’t sure whether there would be fireworks down there. Roger, a teacher in Denver, said the holiday made him think back to his days working for the Peace Corps.
Roger: I don’t think many Americans realize how lucky we are. Yeah, we do have people struggling right now, but we live better than everybody in the world I’ve ever seen.
Ethan: A lot of people don’t have what we have.
On patriotism and President Donald Trump:
Roger: I don’t agree with him. I’m a bleeding-heart liberal, but I still have to support the guy because he is our president. If we don’t, we’re just dividing that nation even more. It’s embarrassing that our kids see this.
‘We’re still free to choose, and to be’
Karene-Sean Hines, who teaches middle school English to English-language learners and students with learning disabilities, was heading to Barnstead, New Hampshire, to “eat lots of seafood.”
What are you celebrating most this Fourth of July?
Freedom. We are a country where we’re still free to choose, and to be. It’s so wonderful.
In these divided times, what does patriotism mean to you?
Patriotism really means focusing on what is positive about this country. Our loyalty to our flag, and what it stands for. Our diversity, which is our greatest strength. When you say, ‘Who’s America?’ we are all Americans. We’re a country of immigrants.
How do you express that?
We have a lot of flags, that’s for sure. Yes we do. We make sure everyone knows this is our country.
‘We’re celebrating hope for the future’
Sveta Bartsch, 40, a paralegal, and her husband, David, 54, a landscape architect, were making the six-hour trek from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to drop off their daughter at camp in Canada.
David: We’re celebrating hope for the future of the country, hope for change. We’ve got to get people into office who actually take responsibility for their jobs.
Sveta: I adopted America as my country. I feel proud to be able to live here. There are so many more opportunities here than anywhere else. For that reason, I live here, even though the rest of my family’s in Russia.
Health care costs are a financial stress, and David said he felt his family slipping to the lower rungs of the middle class. But he said the country’s troubles offered some inspiration: It makes me feel more motivated to get this country on track.
‘Realizing how good we have it’
Jonny Aquino, 30, from Boston, and his stepfather, George Bethoney, 52, of Medfield, Massachusetts, were riding their motorcycles up to Old Orchard Beach, Maine, to enjoy a break from their carpentry jobs and, Jonny said, be “a couple of beach bums.”
What are you celebrating most?
Jonny: New life. I had a daughter not too long ago. Her first Fourth of July.
In these divided times, what does patriotism mean to you?
George: Honoring our country, honoring our freedom. Supporting our president and realizing how good we have it. Realizing that we can get on our bikes, ride up to Old Orchard and get back to work.
Jonny: You can call that the American dream.
‘Maybe It Can Bring a Sense of Unity’
Sterlin Jenkins, 34, a mover from Lawrenceville, Georgia, planned to eat barbecue and lie low: “I just try to hang close.” He said his parents’ military service taught him the meaning of the Fourth.
I would say the holiday is more important this year. Maybe it can bring a sense of unity after all of the police brutality and politics and elections. We can just sit back and be one. But we’ll probably wake up on July 5th and get back to the same thing.
‘The South really thinks about it’
Kristy Glass, 36, a real estate agent from Hartwell, Georgia, stopped at a Cracker Barrel for lunch as she headed to the airport for a trip to Las Vegas with Bryan Vassar, 41, who works in the poultry industry.
What does the Fourth mean to you?
Kristy: It just means the freedom of our country and the lives people lost for our country, and the people fighting for everything now.
Do you think people think about what you see as the true meaning of the Fourth?
Kristy: There’s a lot of people who don’t, but the South really thinks about it.
Does that feeling stick around after the holiday?
Kristy: People do sit around and think about these things for a short period of time, but then they go on about your life after that.
Bryan: I still know what I’m here for, and what I stand for.
‘The Fourth isn’t the same’
Arturo Guerrero, 22, a heating and cooling service technician from Gainesville, Georgia, was going to visit family in Texas, watch fireworks and have a cookout. He played with his 18-month-old daughter, Arabella, as he spoke.
The country’s more divided than usual, and the Fourth isn’t the same. To me, the “Sandlot” movie, that’s actually the Fourth of July, when they have the Fourth of July and the whole neighborhood has a cookout and celebrates all together. That doesn’t happen. It’s just so divided, and you can’t hang out with your neighbors and have a cookout together. That’s my ideal, even though it’s a movie.
‘I take it very personally’
Eduardo Lopez, 25, of Watkinsville, Georgia, said the Fourth is one of the few days when the Mexican restaurant he co-owns is closed.
It’s the most important day for us. It means to be free. I’ve been in America for a long time, but I take it very personally. Since I was 10 years old, I’ve been feeling part of it. To be a citizen, I had to study, so that’s where you learn a lot about it.
You think about what is going on and what you have been doing. We always think about the Fourth of July, especially because it’s when all of our family gets together.
‘We need to be protective of our country’
Jan Winter, 61, and her husband, Jim, 67, of Jefferson, Georgia, were planning a low country boil with friends and neighbors.
Jan: We need to be protective of our country. We take it for granted, what we have, and maybe people are realizing that now. We’re a divided country now, but since 9/11, I haven’t taken my flag off my porch, except when it rains.
Jim: Our country is so divided, so people should be coming together instead of trying to be resistant and all that. Everybody thinks about hot dogs, hamburgers and going to the fireworks, but the founding fathers and all the people who served and risked their lives — they’re the ones who should be celebrated.