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And it's not just militiamen wearing fatigues who are disgusted with it; alienation has joined the mainstream, fueling tax revolts and home schooling and the growth of private-security forces. Joanna Daub, mother of two and a nurse assistant in Grand Junction, Colo., still can't get over the time the inspector from the bureau of weights and measures wouldn't let her sell her extra peaches at the farmers' market because she didn't have a regulation scale. "I had this old postal scale, you know, which was working fine. I wasn't trying to cheat anybody or anything," she says. "But he told me I had to go, and I couldn't come back until I had the right kind of scale."
This conflict sits atop something ancient. "We are a nation of individuals and a nation of cooperators," notes Irwin Miller, the 87-year-old patriarch of Columbus, Ind., who used to run Cummins Engine Co. "Both are in our culture. The adversarial and the cooperative need to be kept in balance, and they are a little out of whack." Two centuries ago, the colonists wondered whether they had enough in common to become a united nation at all. Ever since, each generation has struggled with the uniquely American faith that community and freedom must be compatible. It may be that the greater glory of the place is that we are able to be so divided over so many things yet still keep discovering ways to link ourselves and express those differences without flying apart. The telegraph. A love song. A protest march. The voting booth. And if all else fails, there's always the road.
--With reporting by David Van Biema, Adam Cohen, Michael Duffy, Aisha Labi, Eric Pooley and Barrett Seaman/Highway 50
Check out our Highway 50 Digital Diary at time.com/reports/backbone