Tag Archives: hope

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.