Deb leaned over and asked, “What was the most troubling thing you saw on your journey round our country?”
We were in her lovely family home, in Hellertown, Pennsylvania, catching up with each other’s lives after six years, while bemoaning the state of our nations. I was berating the British political class for Brexit, all she had to say was “Trump”.
Her question caught me off guard for a moment. I had just spent the last ten minutes extolling the virtues of America, from its wide-open spaces to its wide-open car parks, perfect for our campervan.
“Troubling? Oh, the little boy living in a car in Aberdeen, in Washington State,” I said.
“The memory of his sweet, trusting face as he showed me his pet frog will stay with me for a long time. And the poverty in Alabama, and on the reservation in Montana.”
I was on a roll. “The cost of housing in San Francisco, and the homeless people in Seattle and Portland. Oh, and Trump. Always Trump.”
“I think it was the inequality that will stay with me,” I finished. “Millionaires living next door to people with nothing. Oh, and the cost of food. It’s much higher here than it is at home.”
America has always been a country of winners and losers, but in recent years the gulf between rich and poor has widened and deepened.
Fifty years ago, the Poor People’s Campaign, organised by Martin Luther King Jr, campaigned for economic justice for all Americans, black and white.
Pointing to the Declaration of Independence, and its promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, Dr King declared at the time that, “if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists ...”
Five decades later, and tens of millions of Americans merely exist. In 1968, a full-time worker on the minimum wage would have earned $20,600 a year (in 2017 dollars, about £16,100). Last year, a full-time worker paid the federal minimum wage earned just $15,080 (about £11,800).
Wandering round Walmart, the cheapest of the supermarket giants, it is impossible to imagine how an American family even “merely exists” on the minimum wage.
Groceries are around 25 per cent more expensive in the US than here; little wonder that the European discounters, Aldi and Lidl, have set their sights on the American market.
But it will take more than a German invasion to bridge the economic and social divide that segregates American society, and led directly to the election of Donald Trump.
Earlier this year, prominent economist and former US Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers, went on a two-week road trip from Chicago to Portland, following much of our route through the plains of Montana, South Dakota and Iowa.
Like him, we were mesmerised by the empty vastness we encountered in these rural states. Montana is the fourth largest state in America. It is bigger than Japan. And it has a population of only one million people.
And just as Summers discovered on his road trip, we soon realised, as we left Wisconsin and drove into North Dakota, that life in the rural states is very different from that in the outer boroughs of New York, or the suburbs of Philadelphia. The population is much less diverse for a start. And the phone network doesn’t always work.
At the end of his short trip, Summers admitted that policy-makers like him should spend more time outside Washington.
“The US is a remarkable place because it is an amalgam of remarkable places,” he wrote.
“Americans want to live in very different ways. Perhaps more appreciation of that on the part of those who lead our society could strengthen and unify our country at what is surely a complex and difficult moment in its history.”
This mea culpa by an economic adviser to both Clinton and Obama is illuminating. If even progressives like Summers don’t properly understand their country, its economy and its people, what hope is there that life will get any better for those millions of Americans who are merely existing?
Now that I am back home, people ask me what I liked most about America, and I respond without hesitation. “Its energy. Its enthusiasm. The endless possibilities.”
The very idea of the United States of America, a country that was inspired by the Enlightenment and created on the principle that all people are created equal, continues to fill me with hope, despite the hard, heart-breaking evidence of stark inequality.
There is poster in our flat of Barack Obama with one of his most famous quotes: “In no other country on Earth is my story even possible”.
It is worth pausing to remember for a moment that Obama was born to a white teenage American girl and a black African father. He was largely raised by his working-class grandparents in Hawaii. His middle name is Hussein, and yet he became the first African American President only 40 years after Martin Luther King was assassinated.
It is unlikely that, even in 2018, a British man, or woman, with a similar modest, diverse background, would become Prime Minister.
America, for all its faults, even despite Donald Trump, remains at heart the country Thomas Jefferson imagined as he scratched out the first draft of the Declaration of Indepedence.
It is a country that believes, in its soul, that all its citizens are equal, and that government can be a force for good.
On our very last day we visited Franklin D Roosevelt’s Presidential Library in upstate New York with another of our good friends, Nan. “To remind us of America at its best,” she grimaced.
Speaking in 1932, at the height of the terrible Depression that almost destroyed America, Roosevelt said, “In these days of difficulty, we Americans everywhere must and shall choose the path of social justice ... the path of faith, the path of hope, and the path of love toward our fellow man.”
His country may have wandered slightly off that path for the moment, but I am confident that, before long, it will be back on track, marching hopefully, as it did under Roosevelt, Kennedy and Obama, towards social and economic justice.
That is why I love the United States of America. That, and Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups.