Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The New America

Tuesday September 17-Thursday September 19 – Sheridan, WY-Butte, MT-Spokane, WA-Renton, WA
After completing my final interviews in Sheridan and writing them up, I make a beeline for home and hearth. Even so, it is still a three-day drive. Now that my work is done I can revisit a couple of favorite campgrounds from early in the journey – the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest near Butte, MT (where a galloping herd of elk greeted me at sunrise one day) and Riverside State Park near Spokane, WA, out in the boonies but ten minutes from downtown.
I relax and enjoy driving I-90 as it heads for the Rocky Mountains. From this point on, even the Interstate cannot detract from some of the most beautiful country in America.

After 70 days and 10,244 miles I am home. In a sense, it feels strange to be off the road. Faithful canine companion Trooper and I have been in a pleasant routine. Every couple of days it’s been a new location, new people, new experiences and new stories. All of a sudden, it’s over and I am at loose ends. Trooper is nonplussed.
As road weary as I am, it’s been an amazing journey and I know I will soon miss being on the road. It may be a clichĂ© but it has truly been the trip of a lifetime. And, as good as it is to be home, I feel a bit of a letdown.
The good news is, I found The New America. The better news is a lot of the best characteristics of the “Old America” remain intact – perseverance, personal strength, a healthy patriotism and, most of all, resilience. The bad news is, there is no widespread national recovery.
In many of the places I visited, the recession arrived late and, in some places, hasn’t left yet. There is still a lot of pain and suffering in America. I don’t know if this is a story the denizens of Washington, D.C. want to hide or if they are simply unaware of what’s going on outside The Beltway.
While it’s hard to generalize, I saw enough similarities and trends to make some overall observations, with this caveat. I visited “only” 16 states and 26 communities, far short of my initial goals.
My original plan was to hit as many different regions as possible but return west in time to avoid an autumnal bad weather re-crossing of the Rocky Mountains. I wanted to stay out of the big cities and visit what I call the real America. Eastbound I was going to work my way down from the Pacific Northwest toward the Denver-area, across America’s mid-section, finally curving up to New York City. That part of the plan worked out fine.
My hope for the return trip was to travel through Dixie and the Southwest to capture their widely differing economies and cultures. In that way, I hoped to experience a full cross-section of America’s recessionary experience. It was not to be. Gas prices and my below poverty-level income – read that living on Social Security – conspired to restrict my journey. Instead of turning south from New York, I had no choice but to take a more direct route home across the top of America. Still, there was much to observe and learn.
Uncle Fed tells us America’s economy is growing at the rate of two-and-a-half-percent a year. All the charts and forecasts may point that way but don’t tell it to people in towns like Dodge City and Fredonia, KS. In Dodge City, where tourism and farming drive the economy, the recession didn’t show up until recently. Tourism has dropped by a third. The cattle business – once Dodge City’s claim to fame – is all but dying. 

The small, isolated town of Fredonia, KS is literally dying. Surrounded by large, thriving family farms, Fredonia is several miles from state and U.S. highways. There is no John Deere dealer or large agricultural supply stores so the farmers take their business elsewhere. In Fredonia, nearly every other downtown store is shuttered; petty crime is up and the population is shrinking.

Don’t mention recovery either to the retailers in downtown Cooperstown, NY, home of Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame and where tourism is king. Most of them sell baseball related merchandise and as The Hall goes so goes their business. It’s all down from 10-25 percent, both visitors and business.

Many small towns and cities depend on one or two big manufacturers for their economic health. In town after town I heard stories of factories closing tossing hundreds of people out of work. Or, in the case of Sheridan, WY, it was the mines. Energy production might be Wyoming’s largest industry now and around Sheridan it is coal, natural gas and oil. During the recession the bottom prices dropped and some coal mines closed while others cut back drastically on production.

Fifty-five year old Don Barrett is an accountant who works in the natural gas industry. He told me, “Business was good until natural gas prices collapsed during the recession and they still haven’t come back. It’s a big problem. About two-thirds of our employees were laid off, about 70 people. Even the oil industry suffered.”
In many of these small towns and cities the ripple affects are still rippling; businesses are closing, the housing market is still slow and unemployment remains high. Small city downtowns across America are pockmarked with empty stores for rent or sale. Their decline began with the advent of Wal-Mart and other big box stores but the recession exacerbated their demise. In tiny Delphi, Indiana, I interviewed a third generation appliance storeowner in front of his shop on the town’s courthouse square. “There used to be 40 viable businesses in the square,” he told me. “We had traffic control and you couldn’t find parking. The recession accelerated the process. Today I’ll bet there aren’t five viable businesses here.”
Keokuk, Iowa is still home to a very large employer– French multi-national food products manufacturer Roquette – but the recession still left its mark. Other, smaller manufacturers closed and unemployment still hovers at around 10 percent.

These are just a few examples of the many small towns and cities I visited that are still in the grip of economic hardship.

Conversely, there are pockets of America where the recession had little or no major affect; places like Butte, Montana and Rapid City, South Dakota. In the former, an economy diversified away from the area’s historic roots in mining made the difference. In the latter, a proactive and dogged private sector downtown development group refused to let a slump in the energy production business drag the city into a slide. The result is a vibrant downtown Rapid City.
La Crosse, Wisconsin is another small city that dodged the economic bullet. The combination of strong national companies based there and a large health care presence, led by the Mayo Clinic, protected this city of 51,647 (in 2012). The downtown is diverse and healthy. I drove around and saw no closed, empty shops.
When I set out on my journey I suspected The Great Recession had changed America forever. I wasn’t surprised to have my suspicion confirmed. What did surprise me was how deeply the downturn reached into the American psyche.
The two prime examples:
  • The male ego – it’s no secret that in many homes, both spouses have careers. The surprise here was how many men took a blow to their testosterone when they lost their jobs while their wives kept theirs. “I’ve always seen myself as being able to provide for my family,” they told me. “It’s been a huge blow to my self-esteem that I am not the one putting the bread on the table.”
  • Parenting – “The recession made me change the way I parent my children,” was a surprisingly common theme. “It used to be that I gave my kids whatever they needed or wanted. Now, they have to know how hard it is to pay for those things.”
Some other recurring themes:
  •  “We were forced to cut spending on a lot of things we didn’t really need. We don’t go out to the movies or for dinner as much as we used to.”
  • “I’ve become much more conservative in how I manage my personal finances. Even when this thing is over, I will never go back to the old way of just spending money because I can.”
  • “I was forced to dip into my savings (in many cases to the tune of five figures). As a result, I’m making sure I save more.”
  • “We are taking vacations closer to home.” From the couple in the equestrian campground near Spokane, “We used to go wherever we wanted. Now, we have to save for a month to come here, just 15 minutes from home.” To the family from Chicago, “We really couldn’t afford a distant vacation this year, so we just drove to Springfield (IL).”
  • “I had to turn to my family for help.” And, it wasn’t only kids going back to Mom & Dad; I talked to fathers living with their kids and Aunts/Uncles living with nieces or nephews.
  • “The whole experience made me stronger and tougher.”
  • “I’m much more skeptical about what I hear and whom I trust.” Sadly, I heard this more and more from young people.
  • “Looks like I’ll be working a few more years before I can retire.” Whether they had to dip into their retirement funds or their funds took a dive, many Americans’ later years look a lot different now.

  • American Flags – A major trend and not a surprising one – yes, there is the widespread mistrust and disgust with the aforementioned denizens of D.C. Yet, we still love America. I saw American Flags displayed everywhere; on downtown streets, flying from front porches, from business storefronts and in store windows. I saw American Flag decals on countless pickup trucks, RVs and family sedans. Even in a town that is wallowing in poverty and dying, I saw in a city park the biggest American Flag I’ve ever seen proudly waving in a stiff breeze.
  • The Wind in the Willows – Like a soft southern breeze, the wind energy production industry has quietly established itself in America. Regardless of geography, huge wind farms are everywhere.

I don’t know if you can call the next item a trend, per se but I must write about this American subculture. I preferred to find campsites in publicly owned properties, national parks or forests, Army Corps of Engineers’ sites, state, county or city parks. When there were no public facilities near a place I wanted to visit, I resorted to private campgrounds, RV or trailer parks.
Normally, I hate to characterize entire groups of people with broad generalizations but there is a subgroup of American society that easily fits a general description and it’s not a pretty one. Some call them po’ white trash while others use the term trailer trash. Whatever you call ‘em, they’re out there and they are generally poor and under-educated.  Their trailers are on rented property; they might also farm on rented land. Others live in “trailer parks” dedicated only to fulltime residents while still others set up permanent or quasi-permanent residency in RV/trailer parks. I camped in several of the latter.
Most of these folks are nice, neighborly and, given the chance, hard-working Americans. There are some, however, who are angry at their circumstances and their anger is manifested in any number of ways, none of them productive. Often it is simply grumpiness but sometimes it more severe. The worst example I witnessed was the child abusing couple trailering behind me in Ft. Loramie State Park, OH. The image will always be with me of this bleached blonde heavy-set woman in a floating muu muu yelling, bullying, spanking and then slapping a terrified four-year old girl. The girl’s only crime was crying.

Sidebar: The Highs and the Lows

Best Ride
2006 Jeep Liberty – Before hitting the road my Jeep had 60,000 miles on it. It was running fine but I still spent $400 on a full going over, oil change, sparkplugs, new wipers and all other fluids. For 10,244 miles the Jeep took a lickin’ and kept on tickin’.

Worst Day
No contest, 20-hours in Yellowstone National Park – thievery, attempted burglary, traffic jams, car crashes and a camping ghetto akin to one of those huge, crowded apartment complexes across the Hudson River from upper Manhattan. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
Best Day
Escaping Missouri’s biblical rains would’ve been enough. I was out of money and spent seven soaked days mostly watching the rain from the cargo area of the Jeep. Finally making my escape, I had to drive all the way to Central Illinois to get away from the storms.
What took the day from good to GREAT was my stopover in St. Louis. Not only did I find a premium cigar store on The Hill (the city’s famous and brazenly Italian neighborhood), the proprietor steered me to Gioia’s Deli (1934 Macklind Ave. 314-776-9410) that served up without a doubt the best Italian hero sandwich I’ve ever eaten. Don’t even look at the menu, just order the hot Italian salami sandwich and ask the person behind the counter to help you with the add-ons.
What took the day from great to SPECTACULAR was my visit to Yogi Berra’s boyhood home and the interview with his grand-niece, who happened to be sitting on the porch.
Best Coffee House That Isn’t a Starbucks
The Stagecoach in Cooperstown, NY (31 Pioneer St. 607-542-6229) is a family owned and operated café that serves up great espresso drinks, excellent food and a heaping handful of sincerely friendly service. The free Wi-Fi is a bonus and made the place my base of operations in Cooperstown.
Worst Day on the Road – Pop-Top Cargo Box
I was flying down the interstate at my usual seven miles over the speed limit when a car pulls up along side me and the passenger starts pointing to the roof of the Jeep. I know my cargo box is funky because of the attempted break-in at Yellowstone. Instead of easily prying open the two cheap locks on the side of the box, the idiots tried to force their way in by breaking the back hinge. As a result, the box’s lid does not align correctly and the locks are even less secure than before. So I know something is not right upstairs.
I pull to the shoulder, engage the emergency flasher and hop out to take a look. Sure enough, both locks have disengaged. Luckily, there are clamps at either end of the box to keep the lid down in just such a situation so I’m wondering what the mobile Good Samaritan saw. I take another look and notice the rear clamp is also disengaged. That’s not good.
I climb to the Jeep’s roof and open the box. Both my sleeping bag and pillow are gone, disappeared, poof. I can live without the pillow but it costs $40 I can’t afford to replace the sleeping bag.
Best Bang For the Buck
Several years ago I spent $39.95 on a tiny Sony digital voice recorder. It’s no bigger than one of those old five stick gum packs (remember those?). I carried it in my pants pocket throughout the trip. Not only did I record my interviews but also any thoughts, observations, etc. It allowed me to accurately and more completely blog as I went.
Lake Erie (NY) State Park
Best Camping at State Parks
Based on their bathrooms alone, I have to go with New York and Pennsylvania. Showers are at a premium on the road and, for the most part they are grimy, moldy and often smelly. Flip-flops on your feet are a requirement. You are often accompanied by hundreds of dead insects. Not so in these two states, their rest rooms are spotless.
Most Embarrassing Moment
Can you embarrass yourself when there’s no one around? I did.
First campground shower early in my trip – I forgot to bring my towel. No problem, right? There’s always paper towels. Wrong. I guess to save money most publicly owned campgrounds have dispensed with paper towel dispensers and rely on electric dryers. Have you ever tried to dry your entire body with a wall mounted electric dryer? It ain’t pretty and adds a whole new dimension to the term blow job.
Best Meals I Didn’t Grill or Pay For
Where else? New York City, more specifically, Brooklyn’s Park Slope. Big brother Steve takes very seriously his role as titular head of the family and, he worries about me out on the road all by myself. When I got to the “auld sod” for a visit, he absolutely spoils me with freshly made New York bagels, dinner at the neighborhood Italian joint and lunch at the local Chinese place. Aaaaaaah.
Scariest Moment – Apprehended in the Missouri Ozarks
It was more like a second but you can’t help but gasp when you think you’re pulling over for a routine traffic stop and two other Sheriff’s cruisers screech in right after the first one with their blue lights flashing. Of course, the fear immediately subsided; there was no plausible reason for all the law enforcement attention. It seems they had me confused with an escaped convict. I drove away from the encounter with a secret smile on my face; they gave me something about which to write.
Moment Where I Almost Lost It
Off Runway 24B at the former Floyd Bennett Naval Air Base in Brooklyn I encountered dear kindly National Parks Police Officer Asshole. Contrary to popular myth, most New Yorkers are very nice, especially to out-of-towners. They are rushed and brusque, but very nice and helpful. Not so for Officer Asshole. He was just plain nasty.
The air base is now a National Recreation Area and home to one of the two publicly owned campgrounds in the city. Whatever you call it, it is still an air base and poorly signed at that. There is no signage directing you to a registration place or to the campsites.
After getting directions to the sign-in place and receiving a poorly printed map of the “campground,” I wandered aimlessly for 30-minutes unable to locate my tent site. Finally, pulling out of a narrow dead-end dirt lane, Officer Asshole appears about 20-30 yards in front of the Jeep with his hand up. I slowed to a crawl and inched nearer to him, which obviously blew his very short fuse because the ensuing conversation, dominated by the officer, took place mostly in bold red letters.
It started off with, Didn’t you understand my command to STOP?” And went downhill from there. He was pissed because I’d entered a “road” labeled – but hidden behind bushes – with a battered  “Do Not Enter” sign.
Even after I explained that I was lost, and had been for a half hour, Officer Asshole continued to berate and harass me, complete with a boldly stated lecture on the vehicle traffic code. When I opened the glove box for my registration he noticed a baggie and ordered me out of the car to explain its contents. It contained the one remaining pill that protected Trooper from heartworm.
Nonetheless, he tried looking through the darkly tinted rear windows with visions of a drug bust dancing in his head and I could smell the wood burning; he was contemplating a complete search. Have you ever seen the inside of a vehicle that’s been on a road trip for more than 6,000 miles? It’s a friggin’ cramped and crowded mess.
Barely holding on to my withered patience I seized the moment. Opening the tailgate I calmly offered, “Go ahead, have a look.”
He stuck his head inside for a quick glance and deferred. Asshole.
Most Heart rending Interview
I was wrapping up my interviews in Fredonia, Kansas, a small off-the-beaten-path town that is wallowing and dying in the arms of the recession. She was a preacher ministering to the town’s children and their families.
“I’ve seen a decline for several years but last year it accelerated and I can tell this year will be worse” she told me.
“We send out our vans to pick up and feed kids every day, not just church kids. We can see that family life is changing. It’s not uncommon for the kids to have one or both parents in jail; thievery is on the upswing. I see more abuse and neglect with the children, a lack of discipline.”
“The schools are stepping in and feeding families, as are the churches. The number of families we feed each week has almost doubled. And, families are leaving town. Over the last few years we’ve lost 25% of our congregation.”
 “I’m just waiting on the Lord,” she said. “God works miracles. I’m ready to see Him provide and I pray all the time. More and more, though, when I pray I am also crying. ” 
Most Awe-Inspiring Moment
Mt. Rushmore! The mountain is much smaller than I imagined but it doesn’t matter. Pictures don’t do it justice. The carvings are electric and magnificent. After photographing it from every angle, I got back in the Jeep and sat there for I don’t know how long, just staring at Mt. Rushmore.

Best Thing About the Whole Trip
Doing it!

*Washington, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota