Reflections on driving across America

Why aren’t rural people even crazier than they are?

Over the last month, I’ve driven nearly six thousand miles. My wife and I started in Massachusetts, where we live, and went first to central Illinois, where I grew up. From there we struck out towards Sedona, where the red rocks are, and towards the Georgia O’Keefe landscape of Santa Fe, home of one of my favorite cuisines. On the way home, we saw family in Nashville.

Between those highlights, we strung together a series of roadside attractions, like the otherwise undistinguished corner in Winslow that the Eagles sang about, or the figuratively (but not literally) tasteless Uranus Fudge Factory in Missouri. We considered stopping for many other diversions, like the Superman statue in Metropolis, Illinois, but kept driving. We passed maybe dozens of Route 66 museums, and countless Native American trading posts that seemed far too small to contain all the wonders promised by miles and miles of billboards. My best eating days being behind me, I did not try to win the free 72-ounce steak in Amarillo.

In other words, I have been seeing America, the “real America” that gets lauded at Republican rallies and NRA conventions.

A lot of it struck me as depressing. Through much of the drive, I was plagued by the thought “Why does anybody live here?” Or, more accurately, “Why will anybody live here?”

Of course I knew why people had settled the farm country where I grew up: The soil was rich, the Native Americans had vanished through some process we preferred not to think about, and the Homestead Act had divided the newly empty land into 160-acre plots that an ordinary White man could afford. Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a nation of yeoman farmers — who might never get rich, but would have the independence that comes from owning the land they tilled — was becoming real.

That agricultural land produced surplus, which needed to get to the cities somehow. So there were river ports like Cincinnati and Louisville and (eventually) St. Louis. In return, the farmers needed whatever tools and luxuries they couldn’t produce themselves, so trading posts developed into small towns, where doctors, dentists, lawyers, and accountants could hang a shingle. Eventually you had a real economy.

When industrialization happened, those small towns turned out to be ideal places to site factories. They had transportation, and surplus labor coming off the mechanizing farms. So you had John Deere in Moline, Caterpillar in Peoria, and countless lesser enterprises dotted across the landscape.

In the mid-20th century, it all made a lot of sense. But it doesn’t any more.

For decades I’ve been making the 300-mile drive from Chicago to my hometown, Quincy, Illinois. Quincy itself has been holding steady at around 40,000 people. It’s the biggest thing for 100 miles in any direction, so it has become the regional retail center. It has lost most of the factories I remember from my youth, and the ones that remain employ far fewer people, but there appear to be jobs (of a sort) at the Home Depot and the Walmart. The small hospital where I had pneumonia when I was three is now a sprawling campus that gets bigger every time I visit. Upper-middle-class people from St. Louis or Chicago can retire to Quincy and build mansions, so a number of them do.

Population-wise, it more or less balances out.

But the drive from Chicago goes through a lot of dying towns, ones that are too small or too close to something else to become regional centers. Homestead Act farms have been amalgamated into agribusinesses that support far fewer families. As the countryside depopulates, the towns lose their supermarkets and general stores, and then eventually even their gas stations. Where two or three restaurants used to compete, now there’s maybe enough traffic to support a bar. If you live there and want a gallon of milk, you need to drive a few dozen miles to a regional center like Quincy.

While the voices coming through my satellite radio debated the future impact of artificial intelligence, I was picturing electric robot combines roaming across the endless prairie, powered by automated windmills.

Why will anybody need to live here at all? And if some people want to live here, maybe because their families have lived here for generations, what will they do?

On the way from the fudge factory to Nashville, I resisted the macabre urge to see Cairo (pronounced KAY-ro). Cairo sits at the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi, which sounds like it ought to be the site of a great city. St. Louis, Pittsburgh — lots of cities have been founded at the confluence of rivers. The rich, fertile land surrounding Cairo is said to be the source of the region’s nickname “Little Egypt”. As Jacob’s sons made their way to Egypt to escape a Biblical famine, so did the surplus of Little Egypt feed the areas around it.

So Cairo’s original settlers must have had visions of empire. It never quite worked out that way, but the town did prosper as a minor transportation hub, growing to about 15,000 people by the 1920s. Mansions were built there in the late 1800s.

But transportation routes changed. Symbolically, Cairo used to be a stop on the City of New Orleans train made famous by Steve Goodman’s song. But although that train has still not disappeared (as Goodman mournfully envisioned) it doesn’t stop in Cairo any more. Hardly anybody does.

In addition to its economic challenges, Cairo had a history of lynching, and did a bad job managing the racial conflicts of the 1960s. And now the town is down to about 1700 people, barely a tenth of its previous size. The downtown is mostly boarded up.

I grew up picturing ghost towns as artifacts of the western deserts. Mines created boom towns, but then the mines played out and there was no reason to live there any more. As a child, I could not have imagined ghost towns in the farm country, but now I can.

The outlook gets even worse as you go west. Much of the agriculture of the Great Plains is based on pumping water out of the ground, which has gradually depleted aquifers like the Ogallala. Long term, that land won’t even support the robot combines. As far back as 1987, Deborah Epstein Popper and Frank J. Popper were envisioning letting the whole region go back to nature, restoring the “buffalo commons” that existed before the White man came.

Driving through this empty land gives you a lot of time to think, and one of the questions I considered was “What does living in a place with no future do to your outlook on life?”

Of course, the individuals who grow up in these places do have viable paths into the future. They can, for example, do what I did: Get a scholarship to a state university and earn a marketable credential they can cash in somewhere else. In this era of diminishing state education budgets and correspondingly higher student debt, that path is not as smooth as it used to be. But it is still there.

But what if you love your home in more than just a sentimental way? What if the people and the landscape and the way of life has burrowed deep into your soul? What if catching a lifeboat out seems less like an exciting adventure and more like exile?

And what if you’re older? What if you have children and grandchildren you’d dearly love to keep around you, but you know you can’t? For their own sakes, they need to go. And they need to leave you behind.

What does that do to your outlook on the world? Maybe in that situation, you wouldn’t like thinking of yourself as the victim of History’s impersonal forces. Maybe you’d prefer to imagine conspiracies that have stolen your future from you. Maybe those conspiracies would center on your children, on pulling them away from you or turning them against you or making them unrecognizable. Somebody — let’s call them “liberals” (or maybe “Jews”) — wants to make them “woke”, or turn them gay or trans, or replace them with dark-skinned immigrants.

Imagining such things may not give you hope, but at least it gives you someone to blame. Maybe that helps.

Last week I was writing (yet again) about fascism. I observed that the Trumpist brand of fascism isn’t even pretending to offer solutions to its rural supporters. Rather than a new deal, Trump promises vengeance. “I am your retribution,” he has been telling his rallies.

Maybe that’s what passes for “telling it like it is” in certain circles. Once you see that the future is hopeless, then it’s the people making plans and promises who sound like grifters. The “straight talkers” just promise to make other people suffer, which you are confident they can do.

How do we deal with this? I keep coming back to that Obama “Hope” poster. Somehow, we have to address the widespread sense of hopelessness in America without sounding like bigger grifters than Trump is. In a contest of solutions, liberals have it all over conservatives. But if there are no solutions, why not just lash out against the people you hate?

So anyway, I have been to the wilderness and seen a vision. Now I’m trying to get it out of my head so I can get on with life. If I’ve transferred that vision into your head, I apologize.

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  • Professor Tom  On April 24, 2023 at 10:40 am

    You clearly don’t like the rural area of our country and still visit your own home place driving there – why?

    My roots are in a such rural area in Finland and I also drive there if visiting Finland for a couple of days – why?

    I guess my roots are calling me and I gladly get back to Helsinki which is a city of 1 million today but my cousins still live there and are the same kind helpful people I recall from my childhood in the 50-60s and I have no idea how they vote as we never talked politics.

    Finland had elections a few weeks ago and 2/3 rejected the 50 year dominating progressive green left social democracy that the UN used to measure who were the happiest people on earth.

    With being the first country 1906 to give full suffrage to women, it was no surprise one female pm SANNA was as vote magnet replaced by another female vote magnet RIIKKA.

    Maybe the highest taxes in EU the high borrowing and 70% debt of GNP swung the vote or maybe the forget dependency on Putin energy or open borders did it – depends on who you ask.

    Only Denmark of Nordic Baltic 8 countries is high tax and high social democracy in harmony because services are effective and borders were sealed they told me.

    When 1987 our balance in news since 1947 disappeared our polarization started and i for one would like to see compromises in both house and senate instead of extremes and also harmony between rural and cities after all we are all Americans.

    United we need to be as China Russia Iran as autocratic countries challenge us or like the Byzantine Empire we will slide into history.

    What say you – any chance of compromise and mutual respect ?

    • Alan  On April 24, 2023 at 10:52 am

      “Denmark … borders were sealed they told me.”

      No more so than the rest of the EU that they are part of. They’re a Schengen country, so people coming from most of the EU don’t even face border checks.

      • Professor Tom  On April 26, 2023 at 5:03 pm

        Despite Schengen passport since COVID has been checked at airports and if applying for Schengen visa instructions given by each country observed. I have multiple passports.

      • Anonymous  On April 28, 2023 at 2:31 pm

        He refers to Denmark’s strict asylum policy.

    • joel2c  On April 26, 2023 at 4:08 pm

      Professor Tom, how are you so certain the author does not “like the rural area of our country?” Seem a bit presumptious, even offensive.

      • Professor tom  On April 26, 2023 at 4:59 pm

        By the demeaning and derogatory words used it was obvious there was no love lost either of the location or its people so your attack on me for my observation seems not warranted particularly since the last sentence apologizing for planting his picture he wants to erase from his own mind.

    • Anonymous  On April 28, 2023 at 2:41 pm

      I interpret his words as describing the hopelessness of the people whose way of life has been steadily eroded rather than “demeaning and derogatory.” I see this as a sympathetic observation not a critical one. His criticism is for those who, rather than offering solutions, offer vengeance.

  • Bill Dysons  On April 24, 2023 at 11:08 am

    Doug, I think you nailed the problem. The solution may be to help conservatives preserve their small-town values in an urban setting as they are forced to continue migrating away from rural areas. You can observe this happening already with small businesses. Small business owners (even in larger cities) are overwhelmingly Republican. This is because running a small business generates a similar rural/small town community feel – employees who become like family and have roots in the region, having control over your own life (as opposed to having to accept the policies coming down from labor unions, the government, or corporations), a sense of creating something you can pass on to your children that they can take over someday, and a reason to invest, care about, and give back to your local community (through church, etc.).

    City life generally doesn’t this type of community – its community is based more off of impersonal entitlements. Your welfare is based off of impersonal bureaucracy rather than personal family/community. It’s certainly true that in our modern economy city life provides better material well-being – no question – but there’s a real tradeoff here. I think our loneliness epidemic and increase in gun violence is partially the result of the loss of these community values that are harder to foster in city culture.

    • Bill Dyson  On April 24, 2023 at 11:28 am

      Another thought. You wrote “What if catching a lifeboat out seems less like an exciting adventure and more like exile?” I’d take it a step further – what if it feels like treason? I have many friends who are class migrants that went through this process and lost many family relationships as a result. Many class migrants have deep psychological trauma that often carries through their whole lives. The cost of “escape” can be high. There’s a great book that goes into detail about this called “Reading Classes” by Barbara Jensen.

      I’d even argue that for some very conservative families (including my own extended family), moving away for greater opportunity is seen as even more “evil” than being gay, trans, or an atheist. They hate all of these things for exactly the same reason – you’re turning your back on the community/family tradition – but in the case of moving away – it’s literal, not just figurative.

  • Wade Scholine  On April 24, 2023 at 12:25 pm

    Paul Krugman has written repeatedly about the general topic of “how do you make economic activity happen to revitalize dying regions” and concludes (last I saw) that nobody has figured out how to do it.

    The plain truth is that when a place becomes unlivable, people have to move away. And the last ones out are left holding the bag, economically, because our society has no mechanism for bailing them out.

    If the wheels were not already coming off the Republic, we would soon be seeing the situation where 70% of the Senate represents almost nobody, except the survivors of the successive rounds of wiping out and dying off.

    If the US were working properly as a technocratically-run democratic republic, there would be programs for buying these people out. Instead we have Republican plans to make life worse for them, by policies like taking away the Postal Service from them.

  • California David  On April 24, 2023 at 1:01 pm

    I’m a sixth generation farmer’s son – who’s a retired librarian. The oddity is that these last six generations have been in a Southern California beach community. Reading about your Midwest ghost towns made me think of my great grandfather plowing the fields in the empty blocks set up with curbs, gutters, and sidewalks in the town they just KNEW was going to explode to 50,000 people just after Los Angeles and San Diego and in the same way. It did, but took nearly 100 years to do it. Meanwhile, the blocks meant for multi-story businesses served by streetcars were developed into big suburban lots instead, or cut through to put in freeways.

    Lots of families moved to town in the twenties, and they miss the inner-city farms. Lots of families moved to town after WWII, and they miss the emptiness of the rolling hills now scraped off and covered with million dollar homes. Lots of families moved to town in the sixties and miss the locally owned markets and restaurants we all knew well and worked at. Lots of families moved to town in the nineties, and miss the malls and franchises that drove those companies out of business.

    I keep track of thousands of friends and family, the vast majority of whom have moved away trying to find horseland, or suburbs with local businesses, or towns with malls that haven’t died and don’t have horrible traffic. Most of these places are Republican, and somehow these folks are ignorant in thinking that conservatism rather than inconvenient geography, bad climate, and poverty kept them back in those obsolete states of development. These same folks complain that the Dems are leading California towards such a high cost of living rather than great geography, great climate, and a high standard of living.

    The Republicans here, during my lifetime, lead by Reagan, have all been anti-tax, anti-services, anti-immigration, all in hopes of actually holding back development. My family has long been Republican, but have been pro-development. Personally, I look forward to those old city blocks finally turning into multi-story small businesses, served by streetcars. I look back at my childhood fondly, but don’t have any desire to hold back anybody from the American dream just so I can buy my tacos from a friend. (Yes, I have three friends who own Mexican restaurants, but each is 20+ miles away, and I’d rather make friends with the restaurant nearby to me. Sorry, guys!) And so, I’m regularly voting for Democratic candidates.

    I doubt that progressive Democrats rather than ultra-conservative Republicans, could do a dang thing to modernize a desolate place with nothing going for it. They are bound to eventually turn back into empty spaces. I’d wish that government would tear down the buildings and scratch off the streets and sidewalks, but there’s no money for that, and so will have to wait for nature to reclaim the land. My town’s waited 140 years to get those street cars, though, and we still don’t have them. I figure those Midwest towns will revert to prairie far sooner than that.

    I can’t help thinking, though, what if folks actually LIKED each other and did things best for everyone including the Earth, rather than vandalizing and cheating and looking for some inexpensive way to get more “treasures” to show off which your children will have to dispose of to thrift stores when you die? What’s left of you after your death if you haven’t been nice and the world isn’t a better place for your having lived there? Treasures?

  • Ann Boyce  On April 24, 2023 at 1:09 pm

    Professor Anne Sherrill of Mills College in her “Social and Intellectual History” class long ago argued that one of the reasons for the Bible Belt was the topography of the Great Plains. When there is nothing to shelter you from the wind and the storms sweeping down from Canada, people had to have faith in something. With the steady decline in church attendance, what is the new source of strength and hope?

  • Dan Eubank  On April 24, 2023 at 1:39 pm

    I think you would find Wendell Barry’s 2021 book “The need to be whole: Patriotism and the history of Prejudice” a strange but compelling look into the rural dystopia you describe. I found parts troubling and oversimplified, but some of it the most original,articulate and thoughtful take on rural decline and the need for real dialogue that I’ve read.

  • Geoff Arnold  On April 24, 2023 at 2:16 pm

    As usual, your piece prompted me to read further. It’s a global problem of course, and the OECD has published several interesting studies. The efforts of Japan to attempt to manage rural depopulation are interesting, but not very encouraging. As for the US, this piece – – is a useful reminder that the statistics can be misleading. And several studies suggested that the “craziest” victims of this situation are not those who are “left behind”, but those who find that their rural life has been swallowed up by growing urbanization.

  • Stephen Morillo  On April 24, 2023 at 2:20 pm

    If you’re gonna credit Steve Goodman (properly) with “CIty of New Orleans”, then the reference to Winslow Arizona should be to Jackson Browne, who wrote “Take It Easy”, and recorded a fine version of it, even if the Eagles version is better known. Or credit Arlo Guthrie with “City of New Orleans”.
    Otherwise, fine column!

  • susanmbrewer  On April 24, 2023 at 3:06 pm

    In Southern California, we think a lot these days about water — usually too little water, sometimes too much water. Instead of arguing over legal rights established over a century ago, I’d like to see a discussion that starts with where we are now; what crops can reasonably be raised in water-challenged areas and what crops (rice? almond orchards?) would more sensibly be raised elsewhere, maybe somewhere they haven’t previously thrived but now would. And what crops would do well here, even though we haven’t previously grown them? Like many, I treasure our extensive agricultural economy, but believe many of the details will have to change to better adapt to the world as it is today.

    I think something analogous would benefit the remnants of the 19th century homestead farm economy in the mid-west (of which I’m a product). The pandemic may have accelerated some movement that will help places like Quincy, IL survive and perhaps thrive — all those small cities of, say, 50,000 to 100,000 that can find some new businesses, pick up some slack from the failing small farm towns, and benefit from more remote work and perhaps some retirement inflow too. I’m aware of a couple other cities that seem to be doing similar to Quincy and I can see how they would appeal to a good-sized slice of our population.

    I think most of the small farm towns (with populations ranging from a few hundred to a very few thousand) are indeed nearly irrelevant and many but not all will fade away, with functions shifting to the remaining small towns and the Quincy size places.

    Robot-run mega farms? Maybe so. Guess my interests center more on villages, towns, and cities small and large.

  • Lionel Goulet  On April 24, 2023 at 4:46 pm

    I saw what you saw, Doug, last fall when I drove to Chicago for my high school reunion. I may have a solution. My mother came out of Nanticoke, PA, a coal-mining community when she was born; her father a coal miner from Poland. Over 2+ generations I saw Nanticoke grow, Grow, GROW and SHRINK, Shrink, shrink as the mines thrived, then closed. In October I saw Nanticoke again. In the next town to the East there is a new Nike plant maybe 10 acres in rooftop size. And Nanticoke is thriving again. Better than ever before.
    The solution to rural decline is MAKE THINGS. Make software. Make specialized IC’s. Make movies. Make music. Make books. Make clothes. Make batteries. And LET the open space become more open.

    • susanmbrewer  On April 24, 2023 at 5:02 pm

      I agree, although it isn’t just making things. Grow specialty produce. Roast coffee beans and sell them. Grow plants/flowers for nurseries and florists. Lots of niche manufacturing efforts that are unlikely to become mega corporations but are still profitably fulfilling a need. (My former investment club always looked especially hopefully at companies in Wisconsin and Minnesota, usually with lucrative results.)

      • Lionel Goulet  On April 25, 2023 at 6:23 am

        Yes! The concept I was reaching for and didn’t quite get to. Make SPECIALTY things.

  • Lionel Goulet  On April 25, 2023 at 6:28 am

    I see Winslow AZ on Google Maps and there are lots and lots of corners. Is there actually a SPECIFIC corner in Winslow, AZ that Jackson Browne wrote about? Is there a plaque there or something?

  • Daughter Number Three  On April 26, 2023 at 5:50 pm

    This makes me think of Stephen Markley’s climate fiction novel The Deluge.

  • Norm Baxter  On April 27, 2023 at 11:23 am

    I believe that Chris Hedges was the first observer to refer to these areas as “sacrifice zones”. This is actually how Capitalism works: start a business, make a lot of profit by the usual practices of exploiting cheap labor, desecrating the environment, and extorting money from local governments. When profits fall, abandon the area and move on to the next “opportunity” and leave your destruction behind to be cleaned up by the citizens and the government you have looted. Unless we find a way to control the predators who run these businesses, it won’t end until the entire nation is a wasteland. And we are well on our way.

  • Donna Victor  On April 28, 2023 at 7:27 pm

    So I’m not so dour on the rural areas. I guess you didn’t drive thru Colorado…the Eastern portion much like Kansas and Nebraska the mountains on the western side…all pretty much thriving. There is a place for farms, ranches, small busineses , families and dreams.


  • By People are People | The Weekly Sift on April 24, 2023 at 12:31 pm

    […] week’s featured post is “Reflections on driving across America“. My time in the wilderness gave me a vision I’d like to get out of my […]

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