Economic news dominated headlines in late 2008. The United States government had taken over the ailing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which together owned or guaranteed more than half the US mortgage market. Lehman Brothers had filed for bankruptcy protection; the Federal Reserve was propping up AIG with an $US85-billion loan; Congress had allotted $700 billion to an ambitious bailout program for the banking industry; the stock market had endured its worst week in 75 years and mass layoffs were announced daily. 

But it took the hungry faces of one family for me to recognise the real human struggle behind the business headlines and statistics.

It was a chilly weekday in late October 2008—an odd time for parents to take two young children camping. With a sporty Subaru and yuppie outdoor gear, the family almost looked ready for a photo shoot in the verdant forests near Great Falls, Maryland. But as my group hiked past their camp, I noticed their dirty fleeces and frayed khakis, their faces tired and drawn. They didn’t even acknowledge us and we continued in silence, subdued by our sudden realisation that this family was not living in the woods for fun.

The memory of that family’s hollow eyes, tattered clothes and desperation haunted me. Within weeks I had developed an obsession. America’s open roads called. 

During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs commissioned unemployed writers and photographers to cross the country documenting daily life. Barack Obama’s stimulus program was regrettably not as generous to creative types, but The Atlantic magazine seized on my idea to drive through 48 states chronicling the human side of the year’s biggest story. 

Before embarking on the ‘Recession Roadtrip’ in June 2009, my only expectations related to mileage and timeframe. But instead of four months and 16,000 kilometres, the odometer clicked through more than twice that before I returned to Washington, DC at year’s end. 

The ‘Recession Roadtrip’ was primarily to discover how ordinary people were adapting to abrupt and extraordinary upheaval. The simple answer was: quite well.

During his early 19th-century expedition through the nascent democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville noted a distinctly American response to turmoil—an aspect of national character I believe makes the United States well-suited for vibrant recovery: “Born often under another sky…the American has no time to tie himself to anything, he grows accustomed only to change, and ends by regarding it as the natural state of man. He feels the need of it; for the instability…instead of meaning disaster to him, seems to give birth only to miracles all about him.”

Conceptually rooted in the transformative mythos of its unique historical experience, American cultural DNA inherits a high tolerance for personal risk and an extraordinary capacity for re-invention. On numerous stops during my journey, I encountered flesh-and-blood examples of this.

Pat Poole was laid off from his construction job in April. Someone stole his motorcycle in May. When I met the 49-year-old at a gas station on US Route 40 in eastern Utah, three dollars and change represented his entire net worth. Pat had been on the road for more than a month, hitchhiking thousands of miles from Sarasota, Florida, driven by strangers and sustained by hopes that he would find a more fertile job market in Utah.

"Life is too short to be hung up on bullshit," Pat said, explaining his unflappable exuberance. "If you're not waking up in the morning with a smile on your face, then something's wrong. Who gives a shit if you're driving a Ford or a Ferrari? It still gets you down the road."

Facing bleak prospects in a poverty-ridden neighbourhood of Phoenix, Rosa Jurado packed up her four children to start a new life in rural north-western Arkansas, where unemployment was running below the national average.

"If I could get a job cleaning toilets...that's what I would do," said Rosa. Fortunately, she landed an office job. Now settled into a house with a big yard on a quiet country road, Rosa's children fill their days with blueberries and cartwheels, forgetting the gangs and gunfire of the city.

Although Michael and Lisa Babins had to walk away from their large Las Vegas house, they found happiness in a 10-metre travel trailer outside Dallas, Texas. Like many people I met, Michael was grateful for lessons learned from the recession.

"I used to think I would buy a house, pay it off, then retire in it," he said. "Now I wouldn't even consider buying another house...My father worked his whole life to pay for his own prison. I don't want that."

While I did meet some bitterly cynical folks, they were a blessed minority, and ironically, often had suffered the least. Those who had lost their jobs, retirement, savings, or homes were the ones who said: "It could always be worse."

That kind of dogged positivism was pervasive. One of the most upbeat interviews was with an Idaho family of six just recovered from nearly two months of homelessness. Crystal was halfway through a government-subsidised six-week nursing certification course. Robert was launching a software package he had been programming for two years. They were only a few days into a new apartment after sleeping in churches for six weeks. And they couldn't have been happier or more optimistic.

When I reflect on the lessons I've taken away from the 'Recession Roadtrip', I think of something Crystal said and wonder if in the long term, her view might represent a microcosm of the national recovery experience: "We've been able to re-build our lives from the ground up. We're cramped, crowded, living on top of each other, but we're so happy...And we're actually glad the kids have had this experience. We always taught that the material things aren't important, but now they've actually learned through experience. They've learned not to take anything for granted...This is a lesson they will take with them."