Thursday, June 27, 2013

Ready to Roll


©2013 by LeeZard
While my upcoming road trip is a lifetime dream, I must admit to some fear and I’m not sure what I fear. I am a road guy; I love driving. I love driving long distances and I love going to new places. Do I fear the unknown? Perhaps, but that is usually not me. Sometimes it feels like I am taking a huge risk. But, what am I risking?

Whatever it is, it certainly won’t dissuade me; my joy and excitement far exceed any trace of fear. As a writer and observer of life, I just thought I’d share all that I feel. After all, isn’t that what art and writing are all about?

With less than two weeks until my departure, it is looking more and more like I will be my only “sponsor” for this journey. I’ve tried mightily to secure a commercial sponsor and/or a national media outlet for my on-the-road reports – Plans A & B. With either a sponsor or a media outlet I would more slowly meander the country to seek stories from as great a cross section of people as I could.

Plan C: On my tighter budget, I will take a more direct, northerly route toward the east coast, often dropping off I-90 into towns and cities to get my interviews. My return will cover a more middling route to get a greater variety of stories. If I happen into a city large enough to have one or two news/talk radio stations, I will peddle my services to report on what I find in their market. Gas money?

Plans A & B were never meant to make me rich merely help cover expenses. For me, the gold at the end of the rainbow will be a book publishing deal, a publisher other than moi. And so my preparations are in full swing.

I’m driving a 2006 Jeep Liberty with relatively low mileage. It’s my second Liberty and despite a mere 18-20 miles-per-gallon I find it to be a reliable ride. My ace mechanic Doug and his crew have been over it top to bottom – oil change, new spark plugs, front brake pads, cooling system flushed and all other fluids replaced.

I am looking forward to camping when the locale calls for it (Yellowstone Park!!) but I am also set up to sleep in the Jeep with my traveling companion, Trooper. There’s a lot to be said for body heat on cold mountain nights, alas, even if it is canine body heat. No offense Trooper. He is a faithful and loyal companion, albeit a little crazy sometimes. Aren’t we all?

Today, final preparations kicked into high gear. Wende and I cleared space in the garage for my “staging area.” She bought me a going away gift, a good-sized rooftop cargo box. It will probably cut into the Jeep’s mediocre mileage but it also will save us from sleeping like sardines. I love ya, Trooper but not that much.

All that is left is some shopping to fill in the gaps. A trip – 60 miles south – to Cabela’s Outfitters for things like a mess kit, a new ax, first aid kit, etc. Honestly, I thought about a handgun for protection; I might spend some nights Jeep-sleeping in a truck stop or an interstate rest area. The cost, however, would take a big bite out of my tight budget and, I wouldn’t go on the road without some lessons and practice – not enough time. I’ve opted instead for a baseball bat.

So, it looks like Plan C. Instead of heading right out on I-90 East, though, I am going to start northward with a stop in Everett, 25 miles up I-5 from Seattle. I’ve chosen Everett for my first interviews because of its strong (and sometimes violent) labor union history and it’s life as a “company town,” first for Weyerhaeuser (lumber mills) and now for Boeing. From there it will be further north to Guemes Island for a good-bye visit to dear friend Jim Stutzman (“Time” http://leezardonlife.blogspot.com/2013/02/time.html).

The real journey will commence with one of the most beautiful and dramatic drives in the country, State Route 20 east through the picturesque North Cascade Mountains. Then, the real adventure begins.

See you on the road.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Changes


©2013 by LeeZard
NOTE: The following is the preface for a book unwritten. As many of you know, I am hitting the road (in two weeks!) to seek the personal stories of people across America about how they were changed by The Great Recession. I think the changes are significant and all-encompassing. I will be writing the book - and blogging - along the way.
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This book is about a road trip. No, it’s not just another “On the Road” book because this was not just any road trip. I was seeking answers and I needed to talk to Americans across the country to find them.

While the Great Recession is in our collective rear-view mirrors, its affects are not. The recovery for many has been slow and, as I suspected when I started my trip, nonexistent for others. What I do know is the recession changed everything. It changed the way governments govern (and pay to deliver their services), the way businesses, large and small, conduct their business and, most importantly, it changed the way families finance their lives. This trip was about chronicling these changes through the stories of people across the socioeconomic spectrum of this great land.

The idea for the book germinated as I experienced my own dramatic changes. The Great Recession altered my life forever and in ways I never imagined possible. It is appropriate, then, for me to start with my own story.

Throughout my career, first as a broadcast journalist and again as a marketing/public relations professional, I experienced varying levels of success. The one constant, however, was that I continually maintained a comfortable lifestyle; I could always pay my bills while also enjoying a few simple luxuries – and one BIG one.

Following my 2005 divorce, and subsequent sale of our house, I fulfilled a lifelong dream and made the most extravagant purchase of my life, a used, cherry condition 2003 Porsche Boxster S. It was midnight blue with a lighter blue convertible top and saddle tan leather throughout. The 256 HP engine, mounted behind and below the two seats, howled at the top end like a jet engine. With the mid-engine configuration, the Boxster S is one of the best handling cars in the world. It sparkled on the road and in my heart.

Honestly, I am not an extravagant man. I never went in for all the “toys” that go with middle-class success. The Porsche was the one exception and I never regretted it.

In January 2007 I made a series of decisions aimed at improving an already good life. I left a long-standing, comfortable position for a new challenge. Safeco Insurance, a Fortune 500 company and Washington State’s largest insurance carrier, hired me as their Media Relations Manager. Not only was it my first high-level job with a major corporation, it would also pay me more money than I’d ever earned in my life.

Shortly thereafter I rolled over my retirement account, nearly $250,000, into a down payment on a beautiful townhouse along the Green River in Kent, about 20 miles from Seattle. The manager of my retirement fund agreed it was a good move; the fund was earning about 9 percent annually while housing prices were racing ahead at almost 15 percent. Indeed, life was good. Then, it turned worse than bad.

Like dominos, my good decisions began to fall, each one knocking down the other. A few months after I closed on my townhouse the real estate bubble burst and values began to slide. Not too long after that, The Great Recession became official. In December 2007 a series of record storms swelled rivers throughout the region and the Green River’s Howard Hanson Dam began to leak.

The earthen Howard Hanson Dam was built in the mid-20th Century to control catastrophic flooding in the verdant Green River Valley. When it began to leak at the end of 2007 the Army Corps of Engineers warned the threat of catastrophic flooding had increased threefold. My home value no longer slid; it began to plummet.

Finally, in January 2008, the last domino fell. Immediately after I started at Safeco in early 2007 I heard rumblings of a possible acquisition by a national insurance company. Almost one year to the day after I was hired, Safeco began eliminating “headquarters positions.” Mine was the first job axed. Safeco was eventually taken over by Liberty Mutual.

I know how to job-hunt. I have a very strong resume and I interview well. There was one problem; I was 61 years old. Even as I made it to the final round for several jobs, the term “over qualified” began to sound to me like “too old.”

Over the next 18 months I went from sitting with my ass in a tub of butter to losing my Porsche (sob!), watching a pile of unpaid bills take over my desk, losing my health insurance and, finally short selling my townhouse one week before the foreclosure hearing. It sold for $140,000 less than I paid. I’d never faced poverty in my life and now I was about to be homeless. The good news is I am blessed with amazing people in my life, including one very special woman who took me in and gave me a home.

The best news is I refused to feel defeat or despair. After a fruitless three-year job search I started a small business with limited success. It was at that point the germ for this book began to blossom. I was certainly aware of the dramatic federal budget cuts and those at the state and local levels but I began to wonder about the personal toll left in the Great Recession’s wake.

So, I hit the road.