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America didn't invent the road as an art form, but each generation of pilgrims has helped perfect it, and every road has a story to tell. This story belongs to Highway 50. It's a cautionary tale, slipping through proud towns that died slowly, and a success story, widened and paved through the towns that were born again. It is a history book, surveyed by George Washington, planted by Johnny Appleseed, portaged by Daniel Boone. It is a tragedy in a mountain pass, winding round a curve at 11,000 ft. where the bus carrying the high school football team went over the edge in 1971. The road gossips down Main Street and dresses up for the cities and, when it reaches the desert, stretches to the horizon and falls fast asleep.

When TIME decided to take a trip and ask some questions about what is holding us together as a country and what is pulling us apart, we took to Highway 50 because it would let us take our time. As transcontinental roads go, it is more like a street than a highway, a long, lazy course that skips the Beltway and heads right downtown through the clutter of our lives, with plot twists and cattle crossings and slow, shaggy climbs through the mountains with warnings to stay in low gear for the next 17 miles. The road begins in Ocean City, Md., and by the time it runs out in California, it has crossed 12 states, the Great Plains, the Great Basin, passed Pancake Summit and the Confusion Range in Utah and Starve Hollow in Indiana, gone through towns like Strong City and Stagecoach and Hasty and at least three Salems. A few years ago, a man named Skip walked across it--backward.

All along the road are laid out in miniature the four enormous changes this country is living through, all at the same time. The shift to a single-superpower world plays out not only in summits and treaties but also in the Utah desert, where patriotic citizens who once loved the Pentagon now distrust it enough to wonder about all the chemical-weapons stockpiles waiting to be incinerated in their backyard. The NORAD installation in Cheyenne Mountain, Colo., built to track Soviet missiles, now scans the skies for space junk.

Second, the reality of a multicolored society is outrunning the debate over it. At the very moment that some of the tenets of the civil rights movements are being closely questioned, America is more diverse than ever. We are living through a period in which 1 of 10 Americans is born abroad and the Lutheran church in St. Louis, Mo., helps pay its utility bills by sharing its sanctuary with Haitian Baptists. More than half the schoolchildren in Garden City, Kans., speak English as a second language, not just the children of Mexican and Vietnamese meat-packers but those of German Mennonites from Argentina as well.

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