Saturday, July 13, 2013

First Day on the Road


©2013 text and photos by LeeZard
July 12 – Anacortes, WA to Spokane – 326 Miles

The Cascade Mountains divide Washington State in more ways than one. Physically, they are the north-south spine between the densely populated western third of the state – Seattle and the Interstate-5 corridor – and Eastern Washington, the so-called “Inland Empire” that runs all the way into Idaho.
The mountains are also called “The Cascade Curtain” because crossing them is like going from one dimension to another. While Washington is called The Evergreen State, most of the evergreens are west of the Cascades. So are most of the liberals, most of the money and most of the votes. The late Democratic Senator Warren Magnuson famously said, “You can see all the votes you need to get elected statewide from the top of Seattle’s Space Needle.” It drives the folks in Eastern Washington crazy.
Talking about driving, I left Anacortes this morning for Spokane looking forward to a long, leisurely drive on one of the country’s most scenic and rugged roads, State Road (SR) 20, The North Cascades Highway. The highway was completed in 1972. Before that, if you wanted to drive from northwestern Washington to east of the Cascades you had to go many miles south to U.S. 2 out of Everett or Seattle and I-90.
As you begin to climb on SR 20 the glacier pocked cascades peekaboo through the foothills, teasing you for the magnificent show ahead. Climbing higher, the road twists and turns its way between the now towering peaks on either side. Waterfalls cascade down the rocky mountainsides to the creeks and rivers below.
At Washington Pass (elev. 5,477 ft.) Washington State changes, physically, politically, socially and economically. Before passing through the Cascade Curtain, though, I paused at Washington Pass to enjoy one of the most spectacular views in the state. Unfortunately, I was saddened by what I saw.
Thirty-nine years ago, in the summer of 1974, I stopped at this exact spot enthralled by it all. The viewpoint is two miles from the highway and the silence is loud. In 1974 the surrounding peaks were full with glaciers and in that silence you could hear them cracking. Awesome!
Today, the glaciers are a fraction in number and size. If anyone doubts the affects of global warming they should come here. Still, the view is breathtaking.
Entering Eastern Washington the verdant forests of Douglas Fir give way to Ponderosa Pine. Cities and traffic jams give way to small towns, agriculture and vast spaces, empty except for abundant sagebrush and the occasional tumbleweed blowing across the road.
Northeastern Washington is both the fruit and bread basket of the state. Just east of the North Cascades you drive through miles and miles of apple orchards and huge warehouses. At this time of year, as harvest time approaches, towers of empty packing crates await their bounty.
Further east the orchards turn unto vast wheat fields, much nearer to harvest than the fruit. You can tell by miles and miles of the ripe golden wheat rolling back and forth in the wind. Now I know what “amber waves of grain” really means.
Entering the final stretch to Spokane, I had one more stop to make, the legendary Grand Coulee Dam. This engineering marvel was perhaps FDR’s greatest public works project during the Great Depression. At the same time, iconic folkie Woodie Gutherie was paid with federal money to write such classics as Roll on Columbia (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2sH6CcsTafw) and This Land is Your Land (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxiMrvDbq3s)
Still savoring my daylong visual feast I pulled into Spokane and immediately into the first Starbucks I’d seen in 326 miles. While enjoying an end of the drive cigar and my grande quad latte, I began searching for a place to camp. I located two potential sites in Riverside State Park, a short seven miles from downtown. I knew finding available tent sites on summer weekends could be a challenge and sure enough there was no room at either inn.
The ranger at one of the sites was a very nice young man in his 20s, Danny. He was sympathetic to my plight and asked the purpose of my trip. When I told him about my project he became excited and asked if he could follow me on Facebook. I gave him a business card and asked him to call me if a campsite miracle occurred.
As a backup to camping I’ve arranged the fully packed Jeep to allow Trooper and me to sleep in the back at truck stops or rest areas. As I pulled into a particularly dumpy-looking truck stop my mobile rang. It was Danny.
“Hey,” he was enthusiastic, “I found you a tent site! We have an equestrian campground nearby. I checked and they have one available. Head there now.”
I know truck stop camping is in my future but not tonight. Tomorrow, I will ask the people of Spokane how the Great Recession affected their lives.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Journey Begins, Part One


©2013 by LeeZard
In reality, my journey begins tomorrow when the rubber literally meets the road and I begin THE Road Trip. My literary journey began today in Everett, WA, however, with my first set of interviews.
For those of you who’ve missed the agonizing run-up to THE Road Trip, I am driving around the country to gather people’s stories about how their lives were affected by The Great Recession. You can follow my journey here on the blog and, ultimately, in the book that will follow.
The journey began today because I squeezed onto the schedule of Mayor Ray Stephanson at ten this morning. I made a couple of stops before my meeting and gathered some other stories. 
First, an observation; if you tell someone you are writing a book, more often than not they not only open up to you, they are both friendly and encouraging. That might change down the road but that’s they way it is in Everett.
The City of Everett (pop. 103,000) sits in Seattle’s shadow 25 miles to the north. This old mill town is a fitting place to start my journey. Early in its history Everett rode the economic ups and downs of the railroad, mining and timber industries.
In 1916 the city endured one of the early labor movement’s most violent confrontations, The Everett Massacre, between members of the Industrial Workers of the World (The Wobblies) and local authorities aligned with the business community. It came during a shingles workers strike and an economic depression. Twenty people died with more than 40 wounded in the gunfire.
While big brother Seattle to the south is the great Northwest Metropolis, Everett basks in its small cityhood.  Parking on many of the downtown streets is still diagonal and traffic-clogged streets are nonexistent. Most of the businesses are small, locally owned shops and pedestrian traffic is steady but light.
What sets Everett apart from most small cities are two major economic engines: one of Boeing’s major airplane construction plants and a U.S. Navy Home Port. Both provide thousands of local jobs while the Navy alone pumps an estimated $300 million into the area's economy. As a result, the city is ahead of the nation’s economic recovery. Its county, Snohomish, has the second lowest unemployment rate in the state at 4.9% but that doesn’t mean the Great Recession went down easily here.
My first stop was a Safeway along Highway 99 about seven miles south of downtown Everett. This part of 99 is six lanes peppered by traffic lights and dotted with strip malls, used car lots, casinos, cheap apartments and cheaper motels. Safeway’s customers reflect the surroundings.
Standing for about a half hour in the parking lot I talked to a retired Boeing engineer who told me the recession left him mostly untouched. “Maybe inflation hurt a little,” he said, “but I kept my head down and Boeing’s pension plan is pretty good.”
Not true for the woman who is both nameless and homeless. She wouldn’t share her name but she did share her story. Before the recession she’d been in her home for fourteen years, supported by her boyfriend’s income as a carpenter. As the housing market crashed, the carpentry work dried up until her boyfriend could no longer meet his house payments. Unfortunately, he turned to dealing, then using, methamphetamine (meth) to try to make ends meet. You know how that story ends. This 46-year old woman, who looks at least 15-years older, now lives under a bridge and takes in small sewing jobs to buy food. The boyfriend is gone.
Moving north to the Amtrak/commuter rail station and transit center near downtown, I heard from a 25-year old woman who writes materials for corporate clients. As the recession deepened the jobs became fewer and fewer. “It was tough,” she told me, “but I learned how to persevere and how to handle a crisis. Today I save more of my income than I did before the recession.”
Then there was Neil Tilly, a 35-year old roofer waiting for an Amtrak train to take him home to Wenatchee, across the Cascade Mountains in Eastern Washington. Before the recession he spent four years working construction in Reno. As construction slowed to a standstill he found himself out of work and back home in Wenatchee.
“Instead of working,” he says matter-of-factly, “I was sitting in bars and drinking too much. I got into a bar fight ended up with a two year prison term – first time I’ve been trouble. The whole experience changed me, both unemployment and prison. Today, I’m more cautious in life and I don’t drink anymore.”
Tilly is employed again, doing commercial flat roofs in Wenatchee but, he says, there’s not as much work as there was before the crash.
My last interview was Mayor Stephanson. It’s a whole different ball game on the tenth floor of the commercial building that serves as City Hall. Mayor Stephanson’s emerges from an earlier meeting dressed in a conservative yet natty suit, his blonde hair streaked with grey and neatly coiffed.
We sit in a big conference room with a huge picture window showcasing one of Everett’s greatest assets, a panoramic view of Puget Sound to the west and the mighty Olympic Mountains hovering on the horizon across the sound on the Olympic Peninsula. I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest for 39-years and it still staggers me.
Stephanson has ten years in office and even before the recession, he says he took measures he called protective in the face of any economic situation, cutting costs, reducing debt and basically streamlining. Still the recession hit hard.
“Because we were as ready as we could be,” he told me, “we did not have to cut first responders’ services but we cut in many other small ways to face the crisis and we came through it pretty well compared to other cities.”
Post recession, though, things are different. “It significantly affected peoples’ spending habits,” he says. “Our sales tax revenue hasn’t recovered yet; it is down 20% from pre-recession years and I call that the ‘new norm.’”
In 2012 the mayor earned $154,956.72. I have no idea how the city council arrived at that figure. During the recession, though, the belts tightened in the Stephanson household.
“No more new car every year,” he said. More significant, however, is the Mayor’s housing situation. He’s an empty nester but, because home prices dropped so dramatically, he cannot afford to downsize out of a house that is now way too large for he and his wife. Even at the top, “hard times" happened.
Tomorrow I set out northward again, stopping for a quick farewell with to dear friend Jim Stutzman on Guemes Island (http://leezardonlife.blogspot.com/2013/02/time.html?zx=7d3f316a50e11dbc). On Friday I'll turn east across the magnificent North Cascades highway and the real journey.