The Magic that was this Journey

Saturday, February 26, 2011

6.2/26/2011 – The Mystery of Marfa and Cowboy Poetry

In the week or so since I last posted, I’ve overnighted at the best state park, so far – Picacho Peak State Park, about 40 miles west of Tucson. Also had a great hike there that, unfortunately, left Lucy Lou with cut paw pads from the sharp rocks (she is recovering). I spent one very pleasant night driveway surfing in Tucson with someone I’ve not seen since high school (the “miracle” of Facebook). I blasted through the eastern portion of southern Arizona and spent two days and one night blowing through a corner of New Mexico.  Last night, I stayed in Van Horn, Texas.  

I found the interstate (I-10) outside of Joshua Tree and didn’t leave it until today. In all, the interstate allowed me to put about 600 miles behind me and also lulled me into a state of convenience and ease that was hard to leave.  I’m glad I put a goodly amount of miles behind me – I felt like I was behind schedule. Yet, I’m happy to be quit of the interstate for now and thank my friend Mark for reminding me that the interstate is not my destination on this journey.
This morning, I cut myself free and meandered down Highway 90, through ranching country, destination Alpine, TX.  I passed the McDonald Observatory and gave thanks for Star Date. Along the way on this trip, I've passed numerous cattle farms with the animals stuffed into cramped and smelly quarters.  On one, I estimated 3,000 or more cows!  It made me seriously reconsider eating beef.  Today, I passed mile after mile of ranchland (and I knew they were ranches because they all had their signs and brands displayed).  Here, the cattle were spread out, naturally grazing.  And the land went on for as far as the eye could see.

I’m deep in the heart of West Texas.  Deep in cattle country (passed a pickup with the license plate, “beef.”)  It’s the place of pick-up trucks with dogs riding shotgun or in the back, cowboy hats and boots and that deep Texan drawl.  It’s also the place for the annual Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering which just happens to be going on this weekend in Alpine, TX. I’ve arrived at the tail end of activities but a few cowboy poets are staying in this RV park.  Meeting them is on my agenda for tomorrow.

On the way to Alpine, I passed through Marfa—an odd little outpost that appears to be an arts community.  The classic Texas film, “Giant,” was filmed here (if you’ve not seen Giant, I highly suggest it – Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean) as well as the Coen brothers’ film, “No Country For Old Men” (which puts it even higher on my must-see list).  Marfa is also known for the mysterious Marfa Lights (read about them here).

Marfa will be on my map from here to perpetuity because I was serenaded all along the drive from Van Horn to Alpine by the best public radio programming I’ve ever experienced. Bar none.  Hands down. KRTS 93.5 FM.  According to their website, I listened to the following programs (which may only occur on Saturday and, yes, you can stream them):

10-11am Folk Music
11-12pm World Music
12-1pm The Spark, with Tift Merritt
 1-3pm Afternoon Music

It was the best combination of music I've heard in a long time and it wasn’t just the songs themselves, but someone put effort into transitions – they were beautiful.  I only knew three of the songs I heard – I presume the station is tied into the Austin music scene.  I also see on their website that they were recently awarded the public radio contract for the Midland/Odessa area. As a former resident of Midland (yes, it’s true, a lifetime ago), I can say with some certainty that this station will be a breath of fresh, cool air in that dry and dusty place. 

More soon about conversations with folks, staying down the road from where Congresswoman Gabrille Gifford and others were shot (literally, down the road), southern Arizona wanting to secede--becoming Baja Arizona—Senate Bill 1070 and further like-activity is the straw breaking the camel’s back, parking lot surfing in Walmart parking lots, high school football in Texas and more!  Also, look for a photo slideshow to appear soon.

And, finally, for my friends in Olympia and everywhere else it seems.  I’m sorry to hear of your wintery weather.  Russ (house-sitter) sent me a picture of my house in snow.  Truly, it was the weather that kept me from turning back on that dark day in Fresno, CA.  It was 77 degrees today here and the dogs and I, being true Northwesterners, thought it far too hot and uncomfortable (and the pool isn’t even open!). They laughed at me when I asked about the pool...

Monday, February 21, 2011

5. 2/19/11 – Two Californias: It’s the Economy, Stupid

This research I’m undertaking is best described as grounded theory/ethnographic research. I’m on this journey, talking to people along the way about government.  The research is grounded theory (systematic generation of theory from participant centered data that contains both inductive and deductive thinking) because I’m building theory from the conversations. The conversations are led by three questions and I let the conversation go wherever folks want to go. The research is ethnographic (data collection is often done through participant observation, interviews, questionnaires, etc....aims to describe the nature of those who are studied-- i.e. to describe a people, an ethnos-- through writing) because I’m a bit of an anthropologist, observing my fellow Americans as I move around the country.

A few days ago, I left California and arrived in Yuma, AZ.  I had thought I’d stay at least one more night in California but along the road from Joshua Tree National Park to Brawling, CA there’s nothing but agriculture and small towns that are clearly struggling to survive (they all have a Walmart, though, and, yes, I am shopping at them). As I drove through both the Central Valley and the valleys between Joshua and Brawling, I was acutely aware of how much of what we eat originates in these places. I was hoping to stop at a fresh-from-the-farm store but missed my chance on the road from Fresno. I did, however, stop at Dateland, AZ, was wowed by the date tree grove and bought some terrific dates.

I was relieved to get out of California.  I had good experiences in there, from the wild coast to redwood forests to friends’ driveway to Joshua Tree.  It just took SO long to travel the length of that incredibly long state.

The three questions that are leading conversations with folks are: 1) What comes to mind when you think about government?  (Probe: Do you distinguish between politics and administrative government: why or why not)? 2) What do you want from government?  3) What do you want from/what are your obligations to the government(s) that provides services and infrastructure? 

My premise for this research is that we in the field of public administration aren’t listening to citizens. That citizens can articulate what they want.  That, when we do listen, we use managerial frames to interpret what citizens say (e.g., citizens say they want accountability so we do performance measures – what folks mean by accountability may be something completely different) and once we have something that fits our frames, we stop listening. It’s also clear, without doing this research, that there are many “American” perspectives and our challenge, as a field, is to listen to these various perspectives and figure out what to do.

What I thought I’d hear from people is a lot of talk about accountability and disconnection (because those are the things I write about).  What I am hearing is a lot of talk about the economy.  And, it doesn’t matter who I talk to—where folks stand on the political/ideological spectrum—it’s all about the economy.  Depending on where one stands (have/have not), one wants something different from government with regard to the economy.  And this is serious business, enough to move people to change political parties. The one Democrat I talked to who switched to the Republican party after “Obamacare” was passed is balanced by the one Republican I talked to who has switched to Independent after seeing how cost cutting is affecting his retired military benefits.  Everybody realizes that things are a mess and no one has a magic bullet.

I’m also hearing an across-the-board sentiment that government is not listening to citizens.  Here, people make no distinction between political and administrative government. 

Also, there’s an interesting bi-modal response to the role government plays in citizens’ lives.  Some want government out of their lives, especially the ways in which government limits and drains businesses (let the market do what the market wants and can). Others think government is failing the people because they are so far out of our lives—they say the government has no sense of, or empathy for, what folks are going through in this Great Recession.

I talked with one woman in the restroom of the RV park in Barstow, CA (she is a “permanent” resident of the park) and she said that government has too many bad laws and not enough good ones. She said it didn’t matter because “government isn’t listening to us anyway.”  She bounced back and forth along the political spectrum, not landing in any one place (which is not unusual with the folks I’m talking to), from libertarian to radically liberal to conservative.  She talked about how many people are needlessly incarcerated and how she is embarrassed to live in the country that has the highest incarceration rate of all developed nations.  She said so many of our criminal laws are bad laws.  She gave voice to deep sentiments that exist in Southern California and Arizona about undocumented workers and “illegal aliens,” saying that government is too chicken to make the laws needed to control immigration, but not chicken to incarcerate their own.

Long talks with my hosts in Sacramento illuminated another side.  Wayne, a retired lobbyist for nonprofits and, for the last 20 or so years of his working life, the railroad, says he spent his working life trying to get government “off the backs” of business so they could do what an unregulated market should allow them to do: create jobs, create revenues in communities, etc. He said he did very little in his time as a lobbyist to support or pass legislation; most of his work was in opposing legislation. Wayne and Catherine say Keynesian fiscal policy is what got us into this multi-trillion dollar deficit/debt…and Keynesian policies (stimulus spending, mandatory health care, etc.) are not going to get us out of this mess.  Government has no idea what it is doing and macro policies end up being punitive at the micro level (administrative evil).

While I was in California, Forbes Magazine published their “America’s Most Miserable Cities” list and five of the top ten are in California (Cleveland, that fair city, is also in the top ten but knocked out of the #1 spot this year by Stockton, CA). Forbes’ variables including housing foreclosures, change in median housing values, unemployment, commute times, violent crime and, oddly enough, how well pro sports teams have fared over the past three years. California, like so many other states, is in deep trouble and the residents are feeling the pain, no matter where they fall on the “have” and “have not” continuum. And, we are led to believe that the “haves” want us to reduce spending and eliminate programs while the “have nots” want increases in spending and programs.  This is not, necessarily, the case as I am hearing from folks. Sometimes people fall cleanly into the place afforded them by where they sit on the continuum.  Sometimes they don’t.  Even the “haves” are worried about cuts in benefits, retirement, Medicare, etc.

The “soundtrack” for this journey has been the protests/revolutions going on in Egypt, Libya and Wisconsin.  While I amble around the country (and I am ambling – see the new map for my actual route), people are rising up against oppression, bad economies and the rights of government/union workers.  All the while the folks I talk to are worried about their place in this arid economy, public workers in Wisconsin are saying, “no, you can’t use this economy as an excuse to decimate the rights won on the backs of our union forefathers and foremothers.” I have sympathy for my fellow public servants and sympathy for my fellow citizens as we see how belt-tightening is affecting our livelihoods and our lives.  I have solidarity with folks who are at risk of losing rights, or have lost rights, simply because of ideology/dogma.  And, yet, I don’t know how we are going to get ourselves out of the quagmires we are in without reductions in spending and without raising revenues.  

Luckily, our future are in the hands of what appears to be a particularly hopeful mix of young generations; this is a good thing. President Obama had this to say about the youthful center of the nonviolent action in Egypt (nonviolence was partly possible because the military sided with the revolutionaries – w/o this, it would have been otherwise, as we are seeing in Libya):  “And above all, we saw a new generation emerge — a generation that uses their own creativity and talent and technology to call for a government that represents their hopes and not their fears; a government that is responsive to their boundless aspirations.”  I had occasion to spend time with a few kids in Sacramento who made me optimistic about the future and this new generation; my students make me equally optimistic. Let’s get these kids raised with hope (not fear) and their boundless aspirations intact.  Let’s get them working on these seemingly intractable problems as soon as possible.

I’ve hidden away for the past three days at a snowbird RV camp in Gila Bend, Arizona.  This snowbird phenomenon is quite the thing to see and experience. RV parks are everywhere. As far as the eye can see is a sea of RVs!  Augie’s Quail Trail RV Park in Gila Bend is a sweet version of the sea of RV parks elsewhere.  The rates are good and there’s no golf/pool/etc. so the place isn’t wall-to-wall RVs. More folks like me, staying for just a few days, are here along with those are camped for the duration of winter as defined wherever they call home (mostly western states and quite a few Canadians).

A few rainy days turned into clear and crisp desert winter sunshine. I’ve been resting off the physical and mental effects of the stress of the first few weeks of this journey, enjoying the sun (and terrific shower facilities!) and taking long walks with the dogs in the adjacent state trust lands (another public good!).  I’m reading Edward Abbey’s book of essays about the Southwestern deserts, Beyond the Wall, as recommended by my friend Mark.  Apt reading for the desert.  Today, I brought John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America out with me in the sun.  I first read Travels with Charley when Maggie Mae (my eldest dog) and took a month-long road-trip to eastern Ohio and back.  Reading it again (thanks to Daniel/Kana for sending me a copy), I’m drawn to the similarities of our journeys; perhaps I have been seriously channeling Steinbeck without even knowing it.  He travels the perimeter of the U.S., in three months, traveling about 10,000 miles (I had originally planned to travel about 9,000 miles but I’m likely to travel less). He’s traveling only with Charley, his canine companion.

He says this in his preface and it sure fits for where I’m at in this journey:

Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over.  A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike.  And all plans, safeguards, policing and coercion are fruitless.  We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip.  Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the-glass bum relax and go along with it.  Only then do frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like a marriage.  The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it. (Steinbeck, 1962, p. 4)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

4. 2/16/11 – This Old RV

Short note, as I am posting: I couldn’t sign onto wifi in Barstow because my darned wifi switch on the computer was turned off!  Geeze Louise.  But, there’s always gold amongst the dross – if I had wifi there, I wouldn’t be at this cafĂ©, eating an excellent salad (not too many salads being served in the rig) in the warm sun.

It’s been a week since I posted a blog. I’ve been distracted and I haven’t had internet access since Monday morning.

I had a marvelous weekend driveway surfing in Sacramento with friends Catherine/Wayne and their three grandkids (whom they’ve adopted). While I had non-stop access to wireless and was surrounded by people in a global city (also a test-market city), I wasn’t focusing on the research/blog.  I had a first draft of a paper to finish and deliver (two weeks past the re-negotiated deadline) and was shown a non-stop good time by my hosts, particularly Bessa, Arielle (8 year-old twins) and Francis (5 years old). More on my Sacramento visit in another blog.

This Old RV has been taking my time, energy and attention when I am on the road.  I am not an experienced RVer (as a mechanic in Fresno said to me, I will be at the end of this trip). I am traveling in a 1991 Odyssey with a 6 cylinder Toyota truck engine and a Toyota truck chassis.  In the late 80s, early 90s, Toyota sold the chassis/engine combination to a number of U.S. RV manufacturers and there are a variety of “Toys” out there.  Toyota stopped selling to manufacturers in about 1994 so every Toy is an This Old RV. I’ve seen a few other Toys, but only in state or county parks.

I am traveling with a vehicle and a house.  Both are 20 years old.  Thankfully, the vehicle part of this rig is performing with excellence (I feel like I should cross myself or something to ward off the evil eye! I do have a Greek evil eye warder-offer in the rig so maybe I’m ok). I sunk big bucks into engine maintenance before I left and the high performance is likely a reflection.  I was impressed with how the rig did climbing the mountain pass out of California’s Central Valley region and into the Mojave Desert (which is where I am now, waiting out a ferocious wind storm, including sand devils and tumbling tumbleweeds). I climbed about 4,000 feet (started at sea level) and was able to maintain a reasonable speed – even passed a few trucks.  I’ve been a bit worried about how the rig will perform in mountain passes – the real test is the Rockies, but that’s later in the trip.

The folks I bought this rig from took very good care of it but the house part of this vehicle is quite old and has its troubles. Today, for example, I was on the roof in the wind storm, tightening the bolts that secure the lids on the black/gray water tank vents.  They have been jangling in the wind since I bought this Beast and I just figured out today that I could fix it.  I applied new duct tape to a tear in one of the vent covers while I was up there. I’ve had to tighten pretty much every bolt/screw in this place, deal with a shower stall that won’t drain properly, replace running light covers, learn how to be an experienced dumper of waste water tanks, fix various other small problems, etc.  It’s been nonstop!

And, this baby bounces and shimmies across the road with every pothole and bump.  And, let me tell you, there are plenty bad sections of road.  In addition, there is nothing about this Beast that is aerodynamic.  The wind has its way with it – quite nerve-wracking to travel in high winds (already had two high wind days and I don’t think they are over).

The biggest challenge has been the rig’s “front door.” The deadbolt literally fell apart Monday.  It was the end of a harrowing day of driving.  I had been parked in a driveway for three days and needed to empty my tanks but both possibilities near Sacramento ended up being a wild goose chase – I lost a few hours of travel time in these failed attempts. The dogs were anxious (they are best when we are not moving) and the failed attempts to empty the tanks didn’t help, the wind was blowing, the road sucked and I was in heavy, aggressive California traffic for much of the trip from Sacramento to Fresno.  I had planned to make it further than Fresno but it was not to be.  I parked for the night at a Walmart parking lot (not a bad situation and one I will repeat).  I spent 2.5 hours trying to fix the deadbolt situation; I did get a new RV deadbolt from Walmart but it took forever to install and the problem still wasn’t fixed!  It’s a door problem.  And the door SWUNG OPEN ON THE HIGHWAY AGAIN ON TUESDAY!  TWICE! I spent another hour or so today working on it and I’m closer to a solution, but it’s not fixed. Oh, and I had to reapply weather stripping to the door.

At home, James (Kate’s partner) takes care of all my fix-it needs (and I am deeply indebted to him).  On the road, there’s just me and the kindness of strangers (quite a bit of kindness, as it turns out).  I sure am learning my way around a tool kit.

Yesterday there were a couple of men ahead of me, checking into Shady Lane (it is neither) RV park in Barstow, CA.  I listened to the staff member make the same joke to each – that they should take extra candy and put it on “the wife’s” pillow to sweeten her up.  Both the men had similar responses about getting lucky.  Big laughs. No similar joke with me.  After I registered I saw a huge bus-like RV pull in, towing a car, and on the side of the RV it said, “roughing it in comfort.” And I thought, “no, I’m roughing it in comfort, you are doing something completely different.” 

These RVs mostly carry couples – the men do the driving and the women are passengers. I’ve seen many RVs so far – none are driven by women. The only other singles I’ve encountered are men.  In the coupled RVs there seems to be a clear (and traditional) demarcation of duties – at least I presume this as I never see the women until they come out for a breath of fresh air.  All the outdoor work is done by the men.  I’m presuming the interior is the domain of the women. And, there’s not much climbing on roofs or spending inexplicable hours trying to repair a door going on with these fellow travelers because these other RVs are relatively new and spiffy!  (I am aware that at this time of year it's mostly retired folks RVing and there may be some generational stuff going on here.)

One of the compelling stories I’ve heard over and over while I’ve been in California is that there are “two Californias:” the “haves” and the “have nots.” I certainly am seeing both in living Technicolor. Nice is a “have not” town. Barstow is a “have not” town.  Where I visited in Sacramento is a “have” neighborhood.  The two worlds are radically different.  

There also seems to be several RV worlds – one of the men, driving and taking care of business, my world and then the world of folks who live in their RVs full-time (whom I am seeing at all RV park stops).

Earlier, I wondered why all the folks I am channeling for this trip are men.  Where are the great woman travel writers?  Are they not piloting their own journeys? If so, part of me doesn’t blame women for not doing so – this has been more difficult than I imagined.  Some research for the next time I have wifi – women travel writers.  Do they exist?

Next stop: Joshua Tree National Park - Black Rock campground.

Oh, and California is a freaking LONG state.  I’ve been on the road two weeks and it will take 2-3 more days to get to Yuma, AZ.

(written 2/16 – posted 2/17)