Monday, August 16, 2010

Thoughts on a Road Trip

While I play hurry-up-and-wait for phone calls regarding apartments and car repairs (the brakes failed on the way to Florida; good times) and Debbie works her first day at her new job, I thought I would jot down some things that struck me as we drove through various parts of 16 states over the last three weeks or so. This will not be a happy post. I know; shocking.

Michigan is a basket case. Northern Michigan is empty houses, empty businesses, failing businesses, and roads lined with stuff for sale. Anyone with cash to burn can pick up deals on any kind of automobile, boat, motor home, mud truck, travel trailer, dune buggy, dirt bike or home-furnishing that your heart could possibly desire. When we left the state, we took US 23 south past Detroit and into Ohio during peak rush hour. Except there wasn't one. In a past life, I drove that same road from Flint to Domino Farms and back every day, and it was bumper-to-bumper most of the way. This time, we blew through without even taking the cruise off 70 mph. We didn't go into either our birth-town of Flint or anywhere near Detroit on this trip; from what we heard from family, there isn't much left to see. Flint is well on its way to becoming a ghost town with nearly all the former auto factories not just abandoned, but torn down and even the roads renamed to erase all evidence anything was ever there. I seriously doubt there will be a V-shaped recovery in Genesee County. As for Detroit, from what we could gather from talking to family who live in the area, there are still pockets of relative prosperity floating in a sea of poverty and empty neighborhoods.

We didn't see anything like a representative sample of the states we drove through from New Hampshire to Michigan and back, but based on the condition of the roads, I'm guessing they are having serious economic problems as well. Snow plowing, road salt and frost all do a number on paving, so any disruption in road maintenance becomes quickly apparent. None of the roads we used could be safely driven at posted speeds. We did see a lot of stimulus projects, but they seemed to mostly involve putting up guard rails where none have ever been needed before, and erecting huge, elaborately decorated concrete sound barriers along the deteriorating pavement. I guess that's so you have something pretty to look at while your car careens off the new guard rails after hitting a pothole at 65 mph.

New Hampshire itself in some ways seems to have escaped the worst of the current troubles. We're leaving mainly to get closer to family and to escape the cold and insane cost of living; it takes most of one of our incomes just to pay rent on an unremarkable two-bedroom apartment. But it seems like there are still a relative abundance of jobs, many involving the actual building of things. The infrastructure is primitive compared to other areas of the country, but that now looks like a wise move as other states are forced to watch much that they built over the last 20 or 30 years crumble. Still, when we told our landlord we were breaking our lease, we discovered we weren't alone; out of the 90 occupied apartments, 10 will be empty by the end of August. But the landlord isn't expecting them to stay that way for long as she anticipates there will be a rush of people moving in after abandoning their homes that didn't sell over the summer. Would that be optimistic pessimism or pessimistic optimism? Either way, we sort of feel like jerks hoping she's right so we don't have to pay out the balance of our lease.

The second leg of the trip took us down most of the east coast along the I-91/I-95 corridor. Again, the condition of the road ranged from bad to abominable until we got into the deep south. I don't know if the improvement as we went south through the Carolina's, Georgia and into Florida was due to better maintenance or simply lack of the winter assaults that roads in the north must endure, but it was a pleasant change to be able to relax the death grip on the steering wheel and chill into some old-school highway motoring. The beginning of the trip was unremarkable with what has come to feel like a "normal" (amazing how fast that word changes meaning) number of empty shopping malls and office parks abandoned mid-way through construction, along with endless billboards advertising for law firms that specialize in bankruptcy or suing for real or imagined harm caused by various deep pockets. That is, until we happened upon Washington DC, the Imperial City of America. We sat in total gridlock, making a whopping 100 miles in three hours on the road. The primary cause was the expenditure of stimulus dollars on road construction; doubling the width of the interstate as well as the addition of huge, arching bridges that currently go nowhere, but I assume will all be tied together to make it easier for subjects to pay tribute at the gates of the presidential palace citizens to view their elected officials doing the will of the people. The secondary cause was a five-car pile-up that happened directly beneath a large sign warning everyone to drive nice because "aggressive driving detection" was in use. We didn't see the accident happen, but from the aftermath, it was obvious that there was either some pretty aggressive driving going on, or a physics experiment to see if multiple objects can occupy the same space.

From there on, the conditions visible along the sides of the interstate deteriorated even as the road surface itself improved. The deep south seems that have gotten creamed pretty good, and Florida is nearly as big an economic disaster as Michigan. The difference is Michigan had a thirty-year head start, never having recovered from the last big economic leg down (the movie to see is Moore's Roger and Me). We are seriously questioning our decision about coming here even though Debbie already has a job. Will her job last? What happens to Florida in a double-dip recession? Will I be able to find a permanent job or will I continue with my series of temporary and/or part-time jobs? Unlike Michigan, the people here in Florida don't seem as willing (yet) to abandon the state, which could prove to be bad in the short term by keeping the ratio of job-seekers to jobs high, but good in the longer term. Of course in the very long term, more people means nothing but problems when we begin the tumble down the backside of Huppert's Peak in earnest.

In any case, we are here for better or for worse. Debbie is here to stay, but I get to fly back to New Hampshire and recover our Stuff from our old apartment. We figured we have to pay rent on the apartment there anyway, so why bring our Stuff down here and pay to store it somewhere while we find a new apartment. Of course, it looks like we may get into an apartment more quickly than expected because we were planning otherwise, but that just means we move out of the hotel sooner. The apartment will be mostly empty for the first week or so, but we can make it livable for Debbie while I go get the Stuff. Now I just have to find someone with a strong back and a weak mind to help haul the heavy Stuff out to the moving van. We scored a ground-floor apartment here, so the two of us should have no trouble getting everything from the truck into the apartment, but I don't think I can wrangle everything down the stairs in New Hampshire without a bit of assistance.

Given that I've already rambled on for a fair bit, I'll spare all two of our regular readers my usual link-fest. Except this bit on what a double-dip recession would look like. I've been saying it for ten years and it is more necessary now than ever; be the rodent, not the dinosaur. Get fast. Get small.

Take care.


Jim said...

Good write-up. Followed the link from Archdruid Report. Did you get into any towns of rural areas, or was it mainly Interstates? Most important, did you get to talk to any people to get their perspectives and opinions? I know you said it was a short write-up, but it's always fascinating to get other perspectives from other places to help connect the dots. Loved your comment on the new and changing "normal" - same experiences I have.

Ric said...

Being pressed for time, we were stuck on interstates with minimum interaction with locals other than the end-points (Michigan, New Hampshire, Florida). We would have loved to spend more time in several places we blew through, but it wasn't possible at this point.

gaias daughter said...

Hey, Ric, I also followed your link from the Archdruid Report and appreciate your comments on your trip. However, I found your comment on the role of teenagers to be the most interesting point of all. I'd had never considered how much youth has contributed to the world in ages past, but you are right that the energy, creativity, and idealism of the young are gifts that need to be cultivated, not suppressed. I've always thought that the old method of apprenticeship made a lot more sense than herding teens together thereby reinforcing the craziness that also accompanies that age. I am hoping that as things fall apart, we will find better ways of educating our children.

And welcome to Florida! We live in the panhandle, so not neighbors, but welcome all the same.

Ric said...

Thanks for the welcome and kind words. We're still adapting to the climate; growing up in Michigan made us used to humidity; living in Arizona got us used to heat. Now we have to learn how to function with them combined.

My wife and I worked with high-schooled-aged people for several years; the complete and utter waste was depressing. Of course, now the waste is extended into people's 20's as they burden themselves with a life-time of debt that will (if they are lucky) land them a job at Burger King.

And despair is a sin. As you say, our best hope is a resurgence of the apprentice system.