We were at a friend's house in Asheville, North Carolina perusing the Internet late on Wednesday night when Lauren made a pivotal discovery: "Donald Trump has a rally in Charleston, West Virginia tomorrow night," she said. "And Bernie Sanders has a rally in the same town starting at noon." I was incredulous. "Seriously!? How did we not know about this?" I stammered. "Because you never checked." This was true. But it wasn't too late. We checked the drive time from Asheville to Charleston and learned that it was just five hours away. "We can do this," I said. "I mean, we've got to do this. I'll go tell Peter."
We awoke at 5:30 a.m. the following morning and drove up and over the Smokey Mountains through beautiful countryside, a thin mist clinging to the dips in the rolling landscape. As the sun came up we were passing through Appalachian farmlands and churches in golden green meadows between the endless trees. By noon we had made it through North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, arriving at the South Charleston Community Center just in time for the doors to open up for a crowd of several hundred people waiting in the parking lot.
We approached some official-looking people at the entrance and met a woman named Jean, asking her if it was okay if we set up the scroll. "Oh, that would be wonderful!" she said. "But I have to check with the Secret Service." She consulted several federal agents, cops and security guards inside and came back out with an enthusiastic thumb's up. "You can do it!"
Wasting no time, we ran back to the van, pulled out the massage table, dowels, banner, duffel bag with the scroll and several backpacks full of camera gear, setting up the Manuscript Across America table in a frantic but organized Daytona 500 pit-crew/fire-drill style that by now had become a pretty well-oiled maneuver. The moment that we got all the pens out on the table, they opened the doors for the crowd to file in. Fortunately, everybody had to pass through metal detectors at the doors, so the line moved slowly enough for us to interact with most everyone as they passed by.
People were happy to see us out there and anxious to share their thoughts about Bernie Sanders and their hopes for what he would bring to their community. Many West Virginians had concerns about the environment, several folks mentioned wanting cleaner drinking water, and a handful of mothers and fathers expressed concerns about their children having a viable future. We interviewed a guy who was tired of corruption in the government and another woman who was brought to tears when asked about her daughter. "Save us Bernie!" was a common theme, voiced with a hopeful desperation as if there was no other path to salvation.
Jean came running back up to us at the table. "I've got good news!" she said. "I've reserved three seats just for you in the VIP section." We thanked her for her overwhelming kindness. To put the cherry on top, she even invited us to stay in her home in Floyd, Virginia if we needed a place to stay.
We hustled to take down the scroll table and stash everything back in the van so it would be ready to take to the Trump rally across town a few hours later. I was able to get through security with two cameras, three lenses and an audio recorder. Their only stipulation was that tripods weren't allowed. Easy-peasy. Jean escorted us to our VIP seats to the right of the podium and we mingled with locals as a representative to the state legislature played guitar and sang for the crowd. "Country Roads" was a hit, with extra emphasis on the "West Virginia, mountain momma" part of the chorus.
Bernie came to the stage with an uproarious welcome from the crowd, though there couldn't have been any more than 1,000 people in the gymnasium-type setting with 20 - 16 in red letters on the scoreboard. His speech was moving - a series of peaks and valleys that always came to a crescendo of applause and the unanimous raising of "A Future to Believe In" signs. He spoke about making healthcare available, honoring Native Americans, increasing jobs, promoting education and even gave Peter a shout-out with his "Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for Bernie" sign.
Two-thirds of the way through the speech, Lauren let me know that if we wanted to get to the Trump rally, we'd have to leave now. We did want to get to the leading Republican's event - not to support it, but to experience the other side of the coin first-hand. Our journey had been largely defined by liberal - but beautiful - interactions up to this point, and it was time to get a sense of the opposite extreme...
It was about a ten-minute drive from the Bernie Sanders rally to the Charleston Civic Center where Donald Trump was holding his own West Virginia event, but it might as well have been on the other side of the world. The sensation was like leaving the beach in a slight breeze and being swept up by a tornado a few blocks inland.
We managed to find a parking spot in a multi-level garage and scrambled to get all the scroll table gear assembled once again, this time bringing the pop-tent as well to protect the manuscript from the rain. An endless line of people had formed at the entrance to the Civic Center that newspaper's had said could hold up to 15,000 people. We began to set up the table under the awning by the front entrance. A few seconds later, private security and several cops were shooing us away from the door, notifying us that we couldn't be there. "It's just a community writing project," I explained. "We're taking a thousand-foot scroll across the country and letting people share their thoughts on it." "Well you can't do it here," they said. I instructed Lauren to start filming and pleaded with the cops a little longer. Eventually they struck a compromise with me, saying that we could set it up a short distance away, as long as it was off the curb and not under the awning. Right on cue, the rain stopped falling and we seized the opportunity to set up shop, front and center.
It took a moment to get the ink flowing from the Trump train, but the second the first pen hit the scroll, it was nonstop action for hours. Once the written contributions started pouring in, people assumed that Manuscript Across America was some sort of pro-Trump petition. To be fair, several people at the Bernie rally thought that we were following Bernie across the country and setting up the scroll at all of his events. Nevertheless, a rather frantic stream of Trump supporters shuffled up to the scroll, picked up a pen, left their mark, and hustled off into the rally. There were plenty of "Build that wall" comments, an abundance of anti-Hillary sentiments, and no shortage of pro-life and pro-God inkings. More common than any actual response to the questions I was asking, though, was that people just signed their names.
I began filming short interviews with the folks as they passed by the scroll. "What do you think America needs most right now?" I would usually begin with. "Trump" was the unanimous answer to this one. "Why Trump?" I would ask. "Because Trump." That happened a lot. But there were, of course, several more thoughtful answers. The vast majority of Trump supporters were hopeful that he would bring an abundance of jobs back to the state that has the second-highest unemployment rate in the nation - specifically by expanding West Virginia's coal industry. Another common response was that America needed a real leader - a charismatic wildcard - to instill all of those values that had fallen by the wayside like Christianity, strict border control and an even stronger military.
A teenager came up to the scroll, confided in me that he still wasn't sure who he was going to vote for, then wrote "Never Trump" and walked away. Moments later, a ten-year-old girl crossed out his contribution and left her own.
The line of people was relentless. There were literally thousands upon thousands of individuals who passed by, many of whom wrote something down. We had to roll out over sixty feet of paper to keep up with the incoming ink. It was also fascinating to notice that more than half of our Sharpies were ruined in the process - either by being taken, driven so hard into the table that they no longer worked, or dropped into puddles on the street. True, people were in a bit of a rush to get inside the rally, but we had also crossed the entire country without so much as losing a single pen cap. At the Trump rally, nine of our pen caps vanished in three hours.
It's hard to put into words the feelings that were elicited in me throughout the event. I tried to approach the rally with an open mind, and did my best to engage people as I had done at any other stop along the Manuscript Across America tour. I'm not trying to pass judgement on Trump supporters or republicans in general, but the experience was so drastically different than any other place that we had set up the scroll that it does give me pause to think. I don't want to say that what I witnessed was ignorance, but it's hard to come up with another word for the responses I got from some - but certainly not all - of the people I tried to converse with. I respect that people have different values in this country. I respect that people's political, environmental, economical, social and religious agendas are all different. What I can't respect, no matter how hard I try, is when people can't respect one another.
I didn't show up to the Trump rally with disrespect in my heart. Yes, I will most certainly admit that I showed up with a long list of stereotypes that I was anxious to see come to life before my eyes, but as much as I had expectations for how a certain facet of Americans would act, I was willing, for the most part, to honor those differences. But the aspect of some of the people in attendance that I didn't, nor can't, nor won't ever understand, is the hate.
I witnessed hate of all types at the Trump rally. Hate based on race. Hate based on religion. Hate based on gender. Hate based on sexual orientation. This is what I can't come to terms with. It angers me. It saddens me. It downright scares me.
A small group of Trump protestors showed up just before we were about to leave. The Civic Center had already closed its doors with a max-capacity crowd of 15,000 people inside, but there were still more folks outside who would have liked to go in. The protestors held up a variety of signs and accused the Trump supporters of being fascists and nazis while the Trump people accused the protestors of being communists. The yelling escalated. Racial slurs. Middle fingers. Hot tempers on both sides. How polarized are we as a nation? How polarized are we as a global community? The scene was frightening. While I can see where the protestors are coming from, I can't say that they were speaking out in the most tactful or respectful way. They were antagonizing the opponent in a way that demanded confrontation.
I'm still digesting. I'm still processing. Today has been the first day I've been able to actually slow down and reflect since we left California. I keep thinking of one of the protestor's signs that read, "Make America hate again." I get it. There's a whole lot of ugly coming out of the woodwork as a byproduct of the Trump campaign. But no matter what side you're on, no matter how different we are, we have to find a way to respect one another or there's not going to be anyone left to hate in this world.