Updated Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 10:16 PM
America's in a bad mood. So say the pollsters and pundits, who report that heading into a shiny new year we are grumpy, disillusioned and afraid.
"Poll: Public sours on what 2013 will bring," headlined The Washington Post last week.
Americans now are "less likely to believe that what happens to me affects you, especially if you are not just like me," writes professor Eric Uslaner of the University of Maryland, in a new paper compiling 28 measures of the mood of the country spanning the past 45 years.
A nation of dreamers is becoming one of pessimists, he concludes.
Is this true? I ask Greg Hamblock. Is America in a funk?
"Get out in it," he says from the side of Highway 1 in Pompano Beach, Fla., where I caught up with him by phone last week. "I think you'll see that America is in much better shape than how it's portrayed in the news."
Hamblock, 25, is a former SeaTac motel bellhop. I called him about our collective state of mind because six months ago he quit his job to run, alone, across the entire country.
That's a 3,600-mile run — nearly 20 miles a day. Diagonally across, from Cape Flattery, the Lower 48's northwesternmost point near Neah Bay, to Key Biscayne, Fla., one of the more southeasterly points. Where he was due to collapse in the warm ocean water this weekend.
His purpose was one of those coast-to-coast fundraising odysseys (so popular now that he ran into seven other groups out there traversing America's blue highways for this cause or that). Hamblock's goal was to raise $60,000 for the schooling of two homeless children he met while volunteering in a shelter.
He says he's not going to reach his financial target (he had raised about $15,000 as of Friday). To learn more, see facebook.com/Perspiration4Education.
But this is one of those "it's the journey, not the destination" stories. Because Hamblock was bowled over to get to know a sort of alien America — a place you don't hear much about on Twitter, say, or the screaming cable news shows.
"Generous, kindhearted, unfailingly friendly," he says. "Also hopeful. I did see boarded-up buildings. But I didn't see much pessimism in people."
What Hamblock did is basically the opposite of holing up in an armed bunker. He went out into America exposed.
Each day he jogged — or often walked, due to sore ankles and knees — for 10 or more hours on the nation's back roads. He lingered in towns. At night he slept under bridges, in gullies or behind hedgerows. He got hassled exactly once — by an armadillo that blundered into his bedroll one night.
"I ran through some neighborhoods that before this I probably wouldn't have agreed to drive through," he says, citing east Dallas as one. "But you come running along, looking weird with your jogging stroller, and people everywhere are amazing. As friendly as can be."
Complete strangers offered him food, housing or sometimes money for his cause. Especially in the poorer parts, places hard-hit by the economic downturn.
Example: A homeless man living in an abandoned gas station emptied his pockets of coins, telling Hamblock: "I'll get drunk tomorrow instead."
Or, after a guy in Louisiana unexpectedly bought Hamblock dinner and a night's stay at a Hampton Inn, another Louisianian summed it up by saying the Cajun "has a small wallet but a big heart."
The pollsters may be right that we the people are growing cynical. We're certainly wise to be when it comes to, say, Congress, or Wall Street. It's probably also true that we're increasingly living in bubbles, fed news and information that's mostly for and about people just like ourselves.
Getting out in it clears all that, Hamblock says. It's like journeying into a parallel universe.
"If there's more to a country's capital value than its GDP — intangible things like concern for one another — then we're doing all right," he reports back.
Resolved, then, for the new year: Less bubble. More getting out in it.
And for Hamblock, who as 2013 dawns won't have to get up and run 20 miles for the first time in 191 days: Have a very happy new year.
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.