Ros Atkins' journey

Ros Atkins' journey

Ros Atkins

Ros Atkins is hosting the first part of the bus journey

Ros Atkins, host of the BBC World Service global discussion programme World Have Your Say, will be the main presenter for the first part of the journey - the West, from Los Angeles to Dallas.

He will be bringing his highlights from the cities along the route - including Las Vegas, Phoenix and Albuquerque - in a diary on the Talking America site.

If you want to contact the bus, click here

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Part 13: Ros' wrap

Public transport system in Dallas

Issues like public transport are the fault lines between community and individual

My time on the bus ends here in Dallas, so it's time for a little reflection.

Barack Obama says he is tired of hearing about two Americas - but I'm afraid I'm going to disappoint him.

Whether I've been listening to Democrats on Venice Beach, or Republicans at a gun club in Arizona, there's been a real fear of and disdain for the other side.

"Sarah Palin's a fantastic vice president in waiting"; "Christians should support abortion and gay marriage" - these aren't treated as valid opinions, but often as nonsense.

I wondered if George Bush had caused this polarisation - not deliberately, but because he divides opinion like no other.

But he is going, and the divisions do not seem to be.

When in New Mexico, I asked an Obama campaigner how she'll feel if he loses. "Oh, I'm sure the hope will turn to hate," she replied matter-of-factly. I can easily believe it.

There's an organisation called Divided We Fail which wants more communal and non-partisan policies.

And this seems to me the real decision Americans have to make.

Do they want to share responsibility for caring for the sick? For helping hurricane-ravaged towns? For getting more done in Washington? For getting from A to B?

The answer from many people is a passionate yes. Many others, though, put their convictions and commitment to personal responsibility above all else.

Community versus the individual. Partisan versus non-partisan. These are timeless political debates given a striking and fascinating immediacy by Americans.

One quick story to end with.

A Republican was explaining to me the different Christian factions within his party. "Wouldn't all this be easier if you just left the Bible out of it?" I joked with him.

"Probably would," he replied, "but then we'd be liberals and we can't do that."

So that's me done. When Governor Bill Richardson dropped out of the democratic primaries he had what he called a period of decompression. I can feel one of those coming on myself. The BBC's World Affairs Correspondent, Allan Little, is now taking over. Over to you Allan...

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Part 12: Pride and politics

Turtle Creek Chorale

The Turtle Creek Chorale sang live on Newshour from the festival

I'm at Gay Pride in Dallas, Texas, and it's getting busier and busier all the time.

As the parade ends, people into the park where I'm sitting. There's the usual variety of styles that veterans of Gay Pride events come to expect: several men wearing little apart from very tight swimming shorts; a guy with a leather thong and jacket; and there are definitely more white vests than your average day in the park.

So far so predictable.

But this event is dealing a blow to any assumptions we may make about the politics of being gay: nearby is the gazebo of the Log Cabin Republicans.

Most are wearing tight t-shirts with "McCain for president" written across the front, and Sarah Palin badges on their pecs.

"How does this work?" I asked them earlier. "You're supporting a man who opposes gay marriage."

"That's true - but look: I’m an American first, a Republican second, and a gay man third," David replied.

"I believe in small government and keeping our country safe from terrorism – that's more important right now. Gay rights we'll get anyhow, if we keep chipping away."

Ranil joined our conversation. His t-shirt read "Republicans for gay equality. Vote McCain."

"Did you hear our convention? There wasn't a single bit of anti-gay rhetoric." Ranil insisted.

"Things are changing, give them time. This election is about the economy and national security and so it should be."

A little later, I met Russell, a Democrat. "We're the new blacks," he said angrily. "It's taken them 50 years to get this close to the presidency, and we're way behind.

"We need Obama, we need to sort out our rights now."

It was fascinating. They all want the same thing, but how they want to get there couldn't be more different.

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Part 11: Cheese capital

We’re driving through vast grassy plains with very little else around except for the occasional mile-long coal train.

Our next destination is Clovis, the cheese capital of New Mexico. We'll see what's there - but large amounts of jack, Swiss and cheddar seems likely.

But my mind's still on an amazing man we met at the State Fair Rodeo in Albuquerque - Corey, an American bullfighter. He's all taut legs and arms, and hands that vouch for his 18 years in the business.

Bullfighters in the States don't aim to kill, but to distract.

It goes like this. The bull is quietly raging in a tight cage. The cowboy adjusts his jeans, chaps and hat and sticks a foot on the metal bars on either side of his foe.

Then when he's ready – which is something I can't imagine ever being – he drops down on the bare back below him, the gate springs open, and the bull bucks violently until the rider has been dispatched to the floor.

This is when Corey moves in. He jumps between the fallen cowboy and the charging bull, persuading it to go for him, before vaulting out of the way with the help of the horns.

As the MC shouts over the blaring dance music, "He's like a firefighter. When we’re running away, he's going in."

It was impressive stuff.

"That looks very dangerous, Corey," I told him, stating the blindingly obvious.

"It is," he smiled back, "but I know the bulls, and you can suss them out. Some aren't as nasty as they look."

They all looked pretty nasty from where I was standing.

"Are you as good as sussing out politicians?" I asked.

"I'm a Republican, so that's how I'll vote - they have my Christian values," he replied.

And if a cowboy replaced his checked shirt with a "Vote Obama" t-shirt - how would that go down at the rodeo?

"Not real good," chuckled Corie. "But I'd protect him regardless - then I'd have a quiet word."

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Veterans were honoured at the New Mexico State Fair

As the veterans marched not everyone was paying attention

Part 10: Troop support

I'm at the New Mexico State Fair in Albuquerque. There's plenty you'd expect like tacos, ferris wheels and cowboy hats.

There's plenty I didn't expect too - like frozen bananas, customised toe rings and a man in Speedos climbing to the top of a 20 metre ladder and jumping into a pool.

But for all the fun of the fair, there was one low-key moment that will stay with me.

Today was Armed Forces Day and as I strolled around just after the gates were opened, a small and slightly disorganised parade made its way through the almost empty fairground.

At the front were two bagpipe players, then three women will silver hair holding flags emblazoned with ‘gold star mums' - that means they've lost children.

And behind them followed a man in his 30s. He walked with a heavy limp and with the help of a stick.

There was a weight about how all of them moved.

Bringing up the rear were twenty or so young troops who marched with purpose and pride if not with fantastic timing.

‘Come on everyone clap your hands,' one man in the last group shouted to no one in particular. ‘There are many men and women who have died for us to be here.'

I found myself clapping.

And no you're not about to hear me taking sides on what's happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. And no I'm not criticising how Americans treat veterans and their families.

It's just the few other people around seemed distracted by the food they were buying, or the call they were taking or the child they were watching. And our collective response, our human response to what has happened to these people's lives just felt dreadfully inadequate.

Across the way, a stall run by the army and the air force was attracting considerable interest from parents and their kids. There were different types of guns and rocket launchers, military vehicles and lots of people in uniform.

I could hardly find anyone who doesn't support the troops, and them being in Iraq for now.

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Part 9: Moving north

Wall in Truth Or Consequences

New Mexico is a key part of the story of America

I'm thinking about giving up my job at the BBC to start a TV series about Truth or Consequences. For a New Mexico town of 6,000, theres a fair amount going on.

In our few hours in T or C I heard about a serial killer, S&M circles, and secret stashes of Nazi memorabilia. I also heard that the post office is a great place to find love, how the now dead fire chief still remains in the job, and that the hot springs have magical healing powers.

If thats not enough for you, there's the film star Jack Black asking for - and getting - more water in the Rio Grande, a local resident who hasn't got out of bed since Christmas, and Deadheads for Obama - a group of Grateful Dead fans who are producing tie-dye Barack t-shirts.

The last bit I know is true. The rest I've no idea, but in a strange way, it doesn't matter. I loved it there, with its Turtleback Mountain and crystal-clear light. Either way, a TV show about a town named after a radio show has a certain logic to it.

Weve now moved north to Santa Fe, which is home to Governor Bill Richardson - who you may remember ran for President.

When he backed Barack Obama he criticised the negative tone of Hillary Clintons campaign. So what about Obama now? A study has shown his guys ran more critical ads than McCain's in the last week.

"Look - Barack is still a positive man with a positive message," the Governor told me.

"Thats not changed, but politics gets negative at this stage."

The man he wants to be President seems to have realised this too.

The attack ads on TV are sharper and more frequent, and he's up in the latest poll.

But hold on - isnt McCain supposed to be in the box seat? Havent we all been saying that Palin's put Obama on the back foot?

"Look," said Governor Richardson, with the air of a man whos seen a few elections, "there are 50 days to go. Believe me, this is the start not the finish."

I'm beginning to learn that he is right.

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Part 8: Truth - and consequences

Rich Strezo, retired truck driver

Retired truck driver Rich Strezo was one of those who came to meet the bus

I'm sitting on the brown banks of the Rio Grande, watching water of the same colour make its pedestrian progress towards the border town of El Paso and into Mexico.

This is Truth or Consequences - once a treasured game show on the radio here in the States, but now a town of 6,000 in New Mexico. The show wanted to find a place which would take its name, and in 1950 the then Hot Springs volunteered.

Twenty of so people joined us for our broadcast - sitting on fold-out chairs on a little shadeless patch of concrete by a bandstand.

Ten years ago, one of them, Dale - now in his 70s - had a heart by-pass which cost $159,000. He went bankrupt trying to pay and seemed still furious that despite a life's worth of work, and four years in the military, he didn't get the help he needed. He wants a national health service.

The local pastor is a barrel-chested guy in his 50s with a check shirt and jeans. His wife became seriously ill last year and with no insurance to cover her healthcare, he too went bankrupt.

"Does that seem fair?" I asked him. "It's not your fault that she became ill."

"It's no-one else fault either," he solemnly replied. "Why should everyone else pay for my misfortune?" Almost half the group nodded.

Next was Eddie - a rancher with no insurance. "What if you break your leg on the way home? What if you get ill?" I asked him.

"I'll take my chances. I look after myself," he replied confidently. "I'd pay the money but the government would waste it."

And so the stories went on. Another lady went bankrupt after her parents had a car crash and she had to pick up the bills.

This is the richest country in the world - and to some it's extraordinary that so many people have their lives turned upside down by paying for healthcare, or not being able to.

But for a good percentage of people here this is better than the tax-heavy communal alternative.

And you can't explain it by thinking people don't care about each other. This is all in a town which raised $17,000 to help a local man get treatment for cancer when the insurance wouldn't cover it.

It was a lesson in the fierce independence many Americans put above all else, even their own interests sometimes.

For them that independence is the truth, and the consequences.

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Part 7: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

Gunman at the OK Corral

The OK Corral stages re-enactments of the famous gunfight

I'm writing this on the main street of Tombstone, Arizona. This is as far south as the Talking America bus is going to go. The Mexican border is under 50 kilometres away.

It's desolate around here. Terracotta rocks and hills are sprinkled with low-lying scrub and a single highway into town is the only sign of life.

It's a small place, with saloons, boardwalks and signs written in the font you'll have seen in just about every western film.

Around 1500 people live here now, and when they turn on their televisions on to follow the election campaign they'll see a 21st century version of something their great- great- great -grandparents might have recognised.

Tombstone was founded in 1879 and despite the beautiful scenery doesn't sound like the kind of place you'd want to live.

In the 1880s it averaged 20 violent deaths a week. If you work that out per person living there, it makes it more dangerous that any peace-time city in the world now.

The disagreements, if we can call them that, went like this.

On one side there were the cow-boys: freewheeling guys who'd settled down here once the trains had brought an end the Texas cattle drives.

And on the other were the businessmen from the north who'd travelled down to run the local mines.

And the way the two communicated most of the time seems to have been by shooting each other dead. Or at least trying to.

And if things were lively anyway, October 26 1881 was definitely a day to stay indoors.

Tombstone had a Republican mayor called John P Clum and he'd made his mind up to see the cowboys disarmed or driven out of town. A local County Sheriff, Johnny Behan, was a Democrat.

It's not clear to be if he really approved of the cowboys, but they'd been on the same side during the civil war, so on this occasion he stood up for them.

What ensued became known as the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

It took place just across the road from where I'm sitting in a low-slung stables and backyard.

It took 30 seconds, three died and the Republicans won. Soon after the remaining cowboys left town, but they didn't leave their beliefs. Years later they'd return to renew the fight.

Of course you've got to be careful with your comparisons here, and it's definitely taking McCain or Obama more than 30 seconds to deliver a knock-out blow, but it does illustrate how long the passion of the two sides in American politics has burned.

And it's a good story to tell anyway.

One last thing to mention - on the way here was a police checkpoint, and 30 Mexicans sat on the tarmac under guard.

Illegal immigration is a massive issue here in the south-west and we're driving to New Mexico to discuss it.

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Part 6: Shooting lesson

The Phoenix Cardinals are hosting the Miami Dolphins this weekend, and so is the hotel we're staying in.

Chicago Bears superstar William Perry was called the refrigerator in the 80s, and all together these guys certainly bear a passing resemblance to the freezer section of the local Walmart.

They are massive, and perhaps more surprisingly, so are their fans.

Arriving at the hotel, the first thing that struck me was the good natured exchanges between two sets of supporters.

Of course this happens the world over, but I suppose I'm noticing it more because on this trip so far the two sides of America don't seem to be talking.

Every day, I keep hearing how far apart people are. It's not that people don't agree, it's the despair and sometimes disdain they clearly feel about each other and their views .

My latest lesson in this was our visit to the Arizona Women's Shooting Association.

We pulled off the highway to stop at the range they use to practice. Greeting us off the bus was a lady called Carol. She looked fantastic.

Her glossy grey hair ran half way down her back, and she wore a long black cowgirl's skirt with an equally flamboyant shirt. She also had a gun tucked into a holster... In fact so did everyone.

They took us into their clubhouse for a sandwich and soda, and there we talked.

Me and my colleagues with our microphones and leads, the women with their pistols, bullets and cell-phones round their waists.

The time had come for my lesson and Carol and I walked out onto the range. It was a surreal scene.

The sky blazed red and orange with the sun's last light, and the snap and crackle of gun fire echoed all around.

"I'm nervous," I told Carol. "I've never fired a gun before."

"That's okay," she replied. "The first time I did it I cried."

As I pushed a magazine of 10 bullets into the shiny chrome pistol in my hand, I wanted to know why Carol and her friends are so worried about Barack Obama.

"He doesn't get us," she fired back. "He doesn't understand what generations of our people went through, and he doesn't want to learn. America was made by the gun."

I fired my first shot, and felt marginally more relaxed. But the dead weight of the gun in my hand still didn't feel right.

Carol carries a gun all the time. "Is that about security?" I asked.

She looked at me straight, her eyes wide with emotion.

"It's not just that," she said. "I carry my gun because it's my constitutional right. I wish they'd understand how important that it is to us."

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Part 5: On Route 66

I'm up the front of the bus with our driver Bo and we're heading away from Las Vegas on none other than Route 66 - and while getting your kicks recording a radio piece may not be the most rock'n'roll behaviour, it'll do for me.

We've got the Temptations on the stereo, have just crossed Rattlesnake River, the first cactuses and motels of the trip have been spotted - and the pale greens and browns of the Arizona desert hills are all around us.

This is classic America- the way we imagine it was years back, and how we've seen it on the silver screen.

But while it may look and feel familiar, I've spent lunch hearing how things have changed.

Ros with the Route 66 bikers

Ros interviews the Route 66 riders at the Phoenix Grill

Kingman is a small Arizonan town laid out along the highway, and is home to a wonderful group of genial retirees who belong to the Route 66 Riders Club.

They wear matching red shirts, jeans and boots and like to see their country from the seat of a Harley or a Honda Goldwing. And having just taken a spin on the back of one, it's not hard to see why.

Dave moved down from Michigan when he finished working in the car industry. "The kids they want it all," he told me, "and I know they do work hard, but they don't get that community matters too.They're too busy to realise. We used to look after each other much better." The others nodded.

Lucy continued. ‘We've started to think we can have everything, but we can't. We can't buy everything we want, can't fix every problem in the world that we choose. Maybe at the moment Americans are finding that out the hard way', she said softly.

"But you seem so happy here,' I told them. Would a new President lift your mood about America?

"You bet," they chimed back laughing. We've just got to straighten some things out, they all agreed. "Let's hope it's John McCain doing it," added Dave.

Those saying America's famous optimism has disappeared may be jumping the gun, and the same's probably true for Barack Obama's presidential hopes. But it is beginning to cross people's minds.

While it was once his election to lose it's now John McCain's. And he represents this state in the Senate.

We're heading to Phoenix to find out what the new front-runner is all about.

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Part 4: Losing in Las Vegas

I'm writing this amid the din of bleeps, rings, chinks and chimes.

Outside another blue sky day is bathing the Nevada desert in light, but you wouldn't know it in this gaming hall. It's chilly, there are no windows or clocks and the air has a really strange taste thanks to the cigarette smoke and the hard-working air-con.

Around me are attention-seeking slot machines, and just over there is the ‘winners wall of fame' with a framed picture of a lady called Rose with a pile of dollars in her arms.

But not everyone is winning in Las Vegas - and while the folks here will lose a few hundred bucks at worst, I'm just back from meeting two people who've lost far more.

Brian's an estate agent, with a wife, two kids and an effervescent demeanour.

A year ago he owned three houses - one for his family, and the other two were done up nicely and ready to sell.

Except they didn't - not at the price he wanted, not at the price he dropped to, not at the price his bank named. He lost them all, and now has a credit rating so bad he can't even get a cell phone.

"Who do you blame?", I asked Brian. "No-one," he replied. "I tried to take advantage of a situation, and it didn't work out," he added, with the air of a man who badly wished he hadn't.

Danielle's a book-keeper and has lost $200,000.

She bought knowing she'd have to refinance in two years - but despite never missing a beat with her mortgage, no-one would do it. She sold up at a cut price before the bank took her home.

"What do you want your next president to do about this?" I asked them both. Danielle was adamant. "Those banks suck - we've got to stop them just pulling the rug from under us."

And Brian? "I'd just like a loan," he said, with a rueful smile.

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To read parts 1~3 of Ros' diary, click here.