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Cyclist discovers voices of hope and anxiety on a 700-mile ride across the Gulf South

On his long bike ride from St. Augustine, Fla., to New Orleans, John Burnett was often joined by his wife Margaret Justus, who pedaled part of the route and drove a support vehicle the rest of the way.
John Burnett for NPR News
On his long bike ride from St. Augustine, Fla., to New Orleans, John Burnett was often joined by his wife Margaret Justus, who pedaled part of the route and drove a support vehicle the rest of the way.

This election year, America seems restless, divided, and at times grouchy. So reporter John Burnett set out on his bicycle with an audio recorder to find out how people across the Gulf South are feeling.

From St. Augustine, Fla., to New Orleans, he asked people he met along the way a simple question: What are you concerned about?

These are portions of his interviews, edited for length.

Lakesha Hills in Florahome, Fla.

 Lakesha Hills is a 40-year-old correctional officer at a Florida state prison. She has three children — ages 13, 11 and six months — and lives in her hometown of Florahome, population 1,471<br>
John Burnett for NPR /
Lakesha Hills is a 40-year-old correctional officer at a Florida state prison. She has three children — ages 13, 11 and six months — and lives in her hometown of Florahome, population 1,471

"[I want] peace and safety for my children, and for them to remain kids. Keep that innocence as long as they can."

"Florahome is a good place to raise a family. I’ve been here all my life. We still open the doors for women and older people. We move to the side of the road and let drivers go around."

"We’re still holding on to what we lost years ago, when television stopped. You remember when television went off at 11 o’clock and they played the national anthem? And for the rest of the night it was like that… Let’s go to bed. Let’s calm down...until 5 o’clock when the news came on."

Weston Gallop in Alachua, Fla.

Weston Gallop, 39, is a financial adviser and father of three in Alachua, Fla., population 10,969.
John Burnett for NPR /
Weston Gallop, 39, is a financial adviser and father of three in Alachua, Fla., population 10,969.

"I don’t like the vitriol in the political climate that we’ve gotten into. If you’re Democrat and I’m Republican, we can’t even do what we’re doing now. You gotta fit in my box and there’s nothing else to be discussed."

"I feel like we’re just fed negative news constantly and we dwell on it and I think there’s so much more than that. There is hope and positivity, and we see that a lot of times in a small town, just different folks helping others in need."

John Henson in Quincy, Fla.

 John and Robby Henson are the proprietors of White Rabbit Market in the historic county seat of Quincy, Fla. A local Presbyterian pastor married them here last year.
John Burnett for NPR /
John and Robby Henson are the proprietors of White Rabbit Market in the historic county seat of Quincy, Fla. A local Presbyterian pastor married them here last year.

"We’ve met multiple same-sex couples that live here in town and they all say the same thing: they love the town. They’ve been accepted. It’s surprisingly very open and accepting… People have a misconception about the Bible Belt. Maybe it’s different in other towns. But in Quincy we have not felt anything negative towards about us being a same-sex married couple."

"Times are changing and people are changing with it."

Angie Sutton and Chris Campbell in Suwannee River State Park, Fla.

Chris Campbell, 49, maintains power lines; his girlfriend Angie Sutton, 46, is an auditor and retired from the Air Force. They were interviewed in Suwannee River State Park in Florida, wearing T-shirts that read “The People ARE PISSED OFF.”<br>
John Burnett for NPR /
Chris Campbell, 49, maintains power lines; his girlfriend Angie Sutton, 46, is an auditor and retired from the Air Force. They were interviewed in Suwannee River State Park in Florida, wearing T-shirts that read “The People ARE PISSED OFF.”

Sutton: "It’s the media. They use those inflammatory words and the country just gets mad at everybody. I don’t see any hope, I really don’t. All we can do is prepare for what might come. That means ammunition, and buying rice and beans if s*** really does go down. It’s bad now."

Campbell: "The border crisis, people just pouring across. They want to give money to Ukraine to secure their borders. Our borders aren’t secure. They should take care of the U.S. first."

Sutton: "I can remember just being so proud to be a United States citizen. And now it’s almost embarrassing. I’m really ashamed to say that but it’s true. It’s nothing like it was when we were growing up. It’s terrible."

Rev. Alponso Petway in Bayou La Batre, Ala.

Alphonso Petway, 79, is a retired pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal church living in Mobile, Ala. He was also a Freedom Rider who, in 1961, flew with his family into the segregated Jackson, Miss., airport and was arrested for using the whites-only water fountain. He was interviewed in Bayou La Batre, Ala., fishing for flounder and redfish.<br>
John Burnett for NPR /
Alphonso Petway, 79, is a retired pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal church living in Mobile, Ala. He was also a Freedom Rider who, in 1961, flew with his family into the segregated Jackson, Miss., airport and was arrested for using the whites-only water fountain. He was interviewed in Bayou La Batre, Ala., fishing for flounder and redfish.

"At the age of 16 years old, I was in Hines County Jail, my daddy and I shared a cell together. My sister was in the women's department. For trying to get a drink of water. You talk about a political prisoner, I know it firsthand."

"I’m always optimistic. My faith and my trust is in the Lord. But if you’re trying to go back to the '50s or '60s, Making America Great Again. If that’s what you think a great America is, you just wanna take human rights away from people."

"If you’re not careful, you’ll have colored and white signs over water fountains again."

Merileigh Miner Furr in Ocean Springs, Miss.

 Merileigh Miner Furr is the owner of Miner’s Toy Shop in Ocean Springs, Miss.
John Burnett /
Merileigh Miner Furr is the owner of Miner’s Toy Shop in Ocean Springs, Miss.

"To me, to live in integrity is very important. And I’ve decided that this is the only little part of the world I have any influence or control on. When I’m here at the toy store, I am inspired to be kind and be liked and be honest. I hope the people who come into my store feel better than when they came in. That’s what I aspire to every day."

"I think the noisiest people are the most pessimistic people. And the optimists don’t get heard, or maybe they’re just quiet. But I know they’re there. So I think America is going to be great."

Copyright 2024 NPR

John Burnett takes an end-of-the-road selfie in front of Cafe du Monde, across the street from Jackson Square in New Orleans.
John Burnett for NPR /
John Burnett takes an end-of-the-road selfie in front of Cafe du Monde, across the street from Jackson Square in New Orleans.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.