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Thoughts from a cross-country trip to find America with Mark Sanford

Along for the Ride

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As I found myself driving cross country recently, I was repeatedly reminded of that Neil Diamond song, "America." The one with the line, "On the boats and on the planes, They're coming to America." As an immigrant from Iran, I get nostalgic at times.

For one week, I went on a road trip of epic proportions, with an unimaginable purpose. A colleague and I rented an SUV in Charleston and drove it to Philadelphia to pick up former Gov. Mark Sanford. In case you hadn't heard, he is seeking the Republican nomination for President of the United States.

On Independence Mall, that song came to life: There I was, an Iranian-American, standing outside of Independence Hall with a presidential candidate. A self-admitted long shot candidate, but a candidate nonetheless.

From there, we drove that GMC all the way to Los Angeles, where my American experience started back in the 1980s.

Even though I'd driven cross-country several times with my canine sidekick, Finn, we never really pulled over to meet people and explore the towns and cities that appear out of nowhere on the horizon.

I made it a point to explore as much as possible during this trip. But things didn't start out well. After a grueling 11-hour drive to Philadelphia, our morning started on a gloomy, rainy Wednesday. No offense to my Philly friends, but without a doubt I can attest that the City of Brotherly Love is anything but loving. Instant remorse set in. Especially after a local reporter completely misrepresented the purpose of our trip.

But, on we went, with at least three media stops a day. Fast forward to Saturday night's arrival in Denver after we must have driven through thousands of miles of farmland. Cattle and cornfields as far as the eye could see.

Sanford, of course, did what he is remarkably good at: retail politicking. I overheard a man in Iowa say, "Oh look, there's that Trump hater." After he spoke with Sanford, he turned to his wife and said, "He actually makes sense."

I did my best to talk to as many people as well, just to understand what's happening in their worlds. I was disappointed with myself if I'm honest. I harbored a sense of elitism I thought had been lost when I moved to Charleston from D.C. But there it was, rearing its ugly head.

I had plenty of time to reflect, to compare the experiences of the people I met — knowing how diverse we are as a nation geographically, demographically, politically, and culturally.

At a farmer's market in Iowa, for example: I saw an Asian immigrant couple that spoke little English selling dumplings, next to an Ethiopian family selling produce, next to a white guy in a cowboy hat selling an assortment of beef jerky in front of a pub owned by an Irishman.

Experiences like that are how that chip on my shoulder began to wear away. Being a not-so-shy person, I started asking folks more personal questions. Where are you from? Are you Republican or Democrat? If you're a Republican, do you like Trump? If you're a Democrat, who do you support, and so forth. Some people gave me easy answers. Some were uncomfortable and didn't want to answer at all. Most were polite about either telling me they didn't want to answer or gave their answer pretty straight-forwardly.

After getting off my high horse, I came to a few conclusions. First, it's a humbling experience to travel from coast-to-coast. Once you get out of your comfort zone a bit, an entire world opens up. Talk to the down-on-his-luck guy at the gas station. Talk to that man or woman at the bar. The only way you'll change and have any shot at having an impact in this world is to do something different. But don't go all in at once — I don't want the angry emails as you find yourself in a spiral in the middle of nowhere.

Second, we live on a beautiful continent with over 300 million souls. One person who grew up during the Vietnam War era, exhaled and told me she never felt this country being so divided. I find that incredibly sad. Why? Because just like that Neil Diamond song says, "We huddle close, hang on to a dream." Those individuals at the Iowa market couldn't be more different, but they were all there because of a dream. The same dream you and I have. You, me, and those folks may look different, behave differently, and believe in opposing politics, but we all share the same freedoms and burdens.

Rouzy Vafaie is a Mt. Pleasant resident and former Charleston County Republican leader currently involved with former Gov. Mark Sanford's presidential campaign.

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