I’m biking through the mountains of western Washington, and it’s very slow going. But I’ve been thinking, which is one of the few things I’ve found that I’m good at.
Strangely, I’ve been thinking about Sarah Palin. And no, not in a political sense. I’ve been thinking about how she calls small towns “the real America” and “the best of America.” That’s hardly what I’ve been seeing.
Not that the people aren’t nice. They can be fantastic. I’m talking about the towns themselves.
A few days ago I stayed in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho with the friends of a guy, Casey, who picked me up as I was struggling up one of the huge Rocky Mountain passes. They were having a dinner party of sorts, but it certainly wasn’t jolly.
They were discussing divorce, child rearing, and, above all, finances. Casey, an electrician, was barely getting by. His friend Stephanie, a nurse’s assistant, was doing a little bit better. But his other friend, Julie, who works in an appliance store, was on the edge. This, more than anything is what I see in small towns.
More than anywhere, I’ve noticed it in Washington, which has an OK unemployment rate in the western part of the state, but has an eastern part which is in misery. In every small town I pass, I see diners that have one customer, boarded-up sundry shops, and tons of signs advertising that they take WIC and food stamps. (This was probably most prevalent in Yakima. I never thought I could see a town that was struggling more than Altoona, Pa., but this was Altoona to the tenth degree.)
All I see is fear. Fear of losing houses, cars, and jobs, which are all tangibly falling from small-town people’s grasps. It’s as though small towns are being attacked by the Nothing from the Neverending Story – that creeping, faceless presence that destroys the land in elegant, listless waves and instills a helpless, aimless fear. You can’t fight a foe when there’s nothing to aim your arrow at.
And so people are saving as much as they can, hibernating for the financial future. But, of course, that makes everything worse. Why? America is a service economy. We don’t make anything anymore. We just buy it. There are probably as many manicurists as machinists these days, as many customer service representatives as construction workers.
My grandfather always says a country that doesn’t make anything can’t survive. And he’s probably right.
What options do small towns have? Cities can adapt, becoming medical, technological, or cultural hubs. Can a town of 2,000 in the brown, barren hills of western Washington do that?
We’re seeing everything crumble and politicians appeal to small towns, talking about how great the people are. If they flatter their values, politicians hope small-towners will forget their pocketbooks. After all, when faces with a faceless fear, it’s an easy comfort to think that you’ve got it right, and the rest of the world is what’s crazy.
So much needs to change. We need to stop buying strawberries in December that are shipped from Chile. We need car companies that make cars in America that Americans want to buy. We need Amtrak to have better routes and faster trains. We need to stop shopping at Wal Mart.
We have one of the most resource-rich countries in the world (i’m not talking drilling), yet we import so much we don’t need.
I don’t have a conclusion for this. Just a worry. :(