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A journey into the heartland

The last time Ron Bernthal drove from coast to coast was back in the 1960s.

"At that time it seemed that all the important life-changing events were happening on a daily basis, all across America," he says now, "and I tried to experience them all."

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Mr. Bernthal was on the scene for civil rights demonstrations, anti-war protests, the first performance of Bob Dylan's all-electric band.

Living a hippie lifestyle, he felt most at home on either coast. At that time, he says, America's heartland "was filled with people who didn't look or think like I did."

Today, Bernthal is a professor at a community college in New York. And this summer he began to wonder how the country and its people had changed – not just since the turbulent 1960s but especially since last year's terrorist attacks. So he, his wife, and their 12-year-old daughter, Marisa, set off in a rented RV to find out. (See story.)

This time he felt very much at home in the heartland and in step with his fellow Americans: "There does seem to be a common bond out there, so conversations were easy and informative, and the American landscape continues to be exciting – even the long expanse of emptiness crossing west Texas."

As Bernthal chatted with people, his daughter fell in love with regional accents and foods, joined Cajun families on the dance floor in Lafayette, La., and is now rooting for Miss Virginia in the Miss America pageant.

While the definitive definition of "the soul of America" eluded him, he discovered something just as important: His family – every family in its own way – is woven together into the fabric of America.