Over the past week, I drove 2,000 miles along the freeways of CanUSA and the back roads of Quebec. The crumbling highway system here is in sharp contrast to the northern side of the border. Hour after hour on our roads is spent dodging potholes, blown tires, shit that flew out of somebody’s pickup – I saw a COUCH in the road north of Cincinnati. All this combines horribly well with angry maniacs who care little for themselves and nothing for anyone else.
That said, the back roads in Quebec aint in all that great shape. I blame it on the weather, though, not an utter inability to accomplish anything anymore, as here.
So….. driving through Detroit, past the stark, desolate ruins of industrial society, it dawned on me that that city only had about 100 years of “glory.” From 1880 to about 1980 – at best!
It’s been all downhill since.
100 years ago, in 1910, it was really just ramping up. And now it’s just gone. Innovation is taking the form of letting the prairie reclaim the city.
The same is true for Toledo, Dayton, Buffalo, Cleveland (all of which I drove through) and the rest of the rust belt: a dire warning to any city that gets too specialized. Ah but we here have eds and meds on which to base our economy, and as everyone knows, THOSE are the keys to the future…..
To avoid the tedium I invented the “What’s going on on the highway economic indicator index.” The premise is that I can predict our economic future simply by seeing what’s happening on the roads.
Take the “trucking” indicator. In summer 2008 I did this same trip (and one to Florida to boot) and even though gas was climbing toward $4, it seemed as if the roads had become nothing but conveyors for trucks. It was excruciating to have to thread one’s way between and around the mass of semis. This week, I would go for an hour and not pass one.
Conclusion: the consumer economy, which trucks feed, is still in a deep coma. Don’t for one minute believe anyone – even our dear Barry O – who says that the economy is getting better. It’s not, and the lack of trucks on the highways is visible proof.
I also have the “suburban vacancy where there shouldn’t be a vacancy” indicator. Having a 7 year old means lots of pit stops. So I get to gauge how things are happening in the burbs and exurbs. Some interchanges are still going strong, pure temples to conspicuous consumption. But many others are fading. Empty shells of buildings – once a Stuckey’s here, once a Burger King there – and empty store fronts in strip malls whose main tenants now seem to be check cashing, tattoos and tans, and martial arts. It looks, and feels, desperate. The economy is doing strange things to the country. It’s humming along in a few spots, giving the appearance that all is well, but in so many other places you can read the struggles clearly.
Now consider the “RV” indicator. I have never, ever, seen such a proliferation of RVs on American roads. And not the simple “mom and pop and Junior” types either, but rather giant 5th Wheels, buses, even a bus pulling a camper I shit you not. All looking very new. And the people toting these burdens didn’t look that much older than me.
Knowing I was in Red State Land, I skipped assumptions on how this happened (but….could it be that union workers vote republican and then retire at 53? – something’s happening….). I also can’t imagine what would possess people to want to drive their houses around looking at strip malls. But, God bless ‘em, by doing so, they are keeping a small segment of the economy working.
(Near lakes in Quebec, on a Friday night, you see dozens of tiny cars dropping off canoes and enough provisions to make it through the weekend. Once the cars are parked, folks canoe out to stay on an island somewhere, to live more simply than they do during the week. This is so different than Americans who have to have everything at every moment.)
Hopefully, for our RV’ing brothers and sisters, the economy stays in a coma – because if it doesn’t, and “recovery” happens, then the cost of gas for those monsters is going through the roof. This is surely proof that humans are not capable of staring too much at reality – taking a little time and considering the facts that surround us, no one with any sense would sink their hard earned retirement money in a cash pit that is only practical if gas stays cheap.
We are so addicted to our oil drenched lives that we can’t see clearly the challenges we are facing. But maybe that’s not so bad a thing. Maybe we will get the time to adjust, to just get used to the fact that things are different, and we’ll go down a new path without much conscious thought. I think that road will be better for us too. That was the bright thought for the trip.