In the Blogs

Lower Ninth Ward Community Center, New Orleans (Photo: Tim Murphy).Lower Ninth Ward Village Community Center, New Orleans (Photo: Tim Murphy).San Francisco, California—Now that I'm back in the Bay Area and somewhat settled, I've started to get The Question. Usually there's some sort of buildup, maybe a few softballs to butter me up—"what's the weirdest place you went?" (without hesitation: far west Texas); "Do you like being back?" (occasionally); "Are you broke?" (yes, buy my car). And then it comes, politely, maybe a little earnestly: "What did you learn?"

Focus: James Dobson may have been forced out of Focus on the Family last winter, but his presence is still felt at the Colorado Springs headquarters (Photo: Tim Murphy).Focus: James Dobson Sr. is a constant presence at Focus on the Family's Colorado Springs headquarters (Photo: Tim Murphy).

Colorado Springs, Colorado—In the visitor center at Bob Jones University, you may recall, there was a portrait of the school's founder dressed as Shylock from Merchant of Venice. Well, Focus on the Family has a thing for Rembrandts. Or faux Rembrandts, rather. There are a half dozen of them, filling an entire wall at the organization's Colorado Spring headquarters.

In fact, the salient feature of the Focus on the Family visitors center is the extent to which everything there seems to mimic something entirely different. 

For the first summer in half a decade, Kara Webber didn't have to worry about Colton Harris-Moore crashing a stolen car into the propane tank behind the convenience store she works at. Or emptying out the ATM after-hours with a debit card he'd filched from a neighbor. Or breaking into her home for a quick bite to eat—while she was in the living room. And that, on balance, is a good thing: "He's locked up; we're happy," she says.

Kara explains to me how Colton used to break into her store late at night, then she takes a deep breath: "I mean, kid's an idiot."

Well, sort of. By now you've probably heard about the escapades of Colton, aka "The Barefoot Burglar," aka "the kid who stole all those planes." Raised by his mother in a trailer on Camano, a wooded island about an hour north of Seattle, he graduated from petty theft, to swiping cars, to, eventually and most dramatically, stealing and crash-landing private airplanes. Note the plural. Colton did this five times, at least, the last of which brought him to the Bahamas this summer, and from there, to a federal holding facility outside Seattle.

Moscow, Idaho—Moscow has been called "the Berkeley of Idaho," which is kind of a loaded statement, I guess. Mostly, I think, this refers to the fact that there's a university, and cool bars, and coffee shops (try Bucer's), an arts scene, and even a few honest-to-goodness liberals. That, and the communist thing.

It's a nice little town in the heart of the Palouse, a 10,000 square-mile stretch of rolling hills of golden wheat in southeastern Washington and northwest Idaho. The hills of the Palouse—sprawling dunes of super-rich glacial silt—are steep enough in spots that a combine capable of climbing them wasn't invented until the mid-20th century, and they're sufficiently sculpted so that if you can observe them from an elevation, and at the right time of year (I didn't), it gives the illusion of a technicolor Sahara. Coming from the west, the Palouse is the first real patch of farmland you'll have seen for hundreds of miles and the most stunning in at least five hundred; the wheat fields forms elaborate, symmetrical patterns, drawing a depth from the shadows and a scope against the Big Sky sky that makes the monotony of the corn belt wilt by comparison.

Moscow's a beautiful place—it just shouldn't be in Idaho.

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So just like that, we're back in San Francisco. But stay tuned: I'll be wrapping up the blog this week with some more dispatches from the road, and a few closing thoughts.

Unrelatedly: The Focus on the Family bookstore in Colorado Springs has all your back-to-school needs (Photo: Tim Murphy).Unrelatedly: The Focus on the Family bookstore in Colorado Springs has all your back-to-school needs (Photo: Tim Murphy).Butte, Montana—Somewhere along the road between Slab City and the Big Sky, at a time and place that will forever remain unknown, I developed a serious urge to buy a truck. It started off, as all such cravings do, as just a bug. A longing, when I'd pass a large piece of machinery waylaid on the side of the road, to hitch it up to my Sable and tow it away; a wistful gaze when a 4x4 passed by with a hound dog bobbing out of the cab and a fractured piece of furniture in the back.

Things escalated from there. Not just any truck would do: I needed a Chevy Silverado with a 403 horsepower engine and five-ton towing capability. Or a Dodge Ram with a 1,500-lb payload capacity and trailer sway control. Or a Ford F-150 with a whopping 15 miles-per-gallon and a built-in tailgating step, just in case; I'm not sure what I'd do with a tailgating step, but I'd hate to someday find out I needed it and didn't have it. I wanted a big ol', beat-up truck with 150,000 miles on it three times over, and mud splattered amid the rust spots like an industrial-strength Pollack.

I can't tell you when the craving began, but I can tell you exactly where it came from—my radio dial.

Denver, Colorado—Jim Maser, "the pin man," is to-the-point when I ask him why he sells his collection of conservative buttons at tea party rallies: "Capitalism."

Jim's not your typical tea partier. He's quick to point out, for instance, that the proposed Islamic community center in lower Manhattan is just that—"Look, I know it's not a mosque"—and says he wouldn't really have a problem with it at all if it weren't so blatantly pegged to 9/11. Amid a sea of "We the People" and "Don't Tread on Me" banners at the 9/12 rally on the steps of the state capitol, he's wearing a plain white polo shirt and khaki shorts. He is, in other words, all business.

Before the Democratic Convention came to Denver in 2008, Jim just stuck to sports (right there on his card it still says "specializing in sports collector pins"), traveling to All-Star games and the like to hawk his wares. But he started to branch out into politics after Obama came to town. He sets up booths at liberal events too—political rallies, obviously, but also pride parades.

(Photo: Tim Murphy)(Photo: Tim Murphy)"It doesn't matter if it's Democratic money or Republican money, it's all green," he says. Although it doesn't always pay for the same things. "I've done this long enough to know that red, white, and blue stuff sells at events like this and I can't give it away at the other events."

Moscow, Idaho—Okay, a confession: We never actually saw the site of the former Aryan Nations compound in Hayden Lake. We got really bad directions and drove around for a while looking for it, but we had to be in Moscow at a decent hour, so we kept on going. Sorry. Basically, though, the story is this: For about three decades northern Idaho was the notorious base of operations for the Aryan Nations, who'd turned to Hayden Lake because of its isolation and general absence of non-whites. By day they'd attend services at their shrine to Adolf Hitler,* or conduct exercises at their 20-acre wooded compound outside town; by night, they'd unwind to pagan death metal. Once a year, white supremacists from around the world would converge upon Hayden Lake (population 494) for a big conference.

Of course, if you happened to live in Hayden Lake and didn't hate the rest of the planet, this was a really frustrating situation. But it wasn't until 1998 when things finally reached a tipping point. That's when a bunch of Aryans Nations guards opened fire on a mother, Victoria Keenan, and her son, Jason, who had stopped on the side of the road to look for a wallet. The guards—drunk, I should note—hopped in a truck, assault rifles in tow, and followed the Keenans for two miles, spraying the car with bullets until the Keenans swerved into a ditch. Then the guards held them at gunpoint and beat them.

(Photo: Tim Murphy)(Photo: Tim Murphy)

I told you about a mini brouhaha at the 9/12 rally in Denver, but I didn't realize I actually had a photo of the scene until just now. So here you go.

Denver, Colorado—Just a quick sketch: Andrew Breitbart is midway through his keynote address at the Colorado 9/12 rally (on 9/13) when he's interruped, loudly, by a middle-aged black man in an orange Broncos hat and a Hawaiian shirt, with a fundamental disagreement: "You Tea Partiers are racist!"

"Go back and watch television and they'll affirm your worldview," says Breitbart.

Breitbart continues his remarks (about ACORN—maybe you've heard of it?) but the focus shifts away from him for a few moments as the dissenter keeps up his charge. He's quickly encircled, but shows no sign of relenting. "You white people out here are splittin' the country up with your hateful views!" Now he's surrounded, by video cameras looking to capture this moment for posterity, and a dozens faces flush with vindication. This is what we're up against; this is what the media never show you; this is the real racist.

To his right, a man and two women are holding hands tightly and bowing their heads; they're praying, out loud, for his soul. A Tea Partier wants to know: "Did your mother teach you to talk like that?" Answer: "Did your mother teach you to be so goddam stupid?" The situation is not defused. Finally, he unleashes a furious: "Why don't you all go down to Mississippi and burn some goddam crosses," and makes his exit. Throughout all of this, a woman is standing just a few feet away from the spectacle, pleading with the crowd not to encourage him. "Don't give him an audience! Don't give him an audience!"