The Magic that was this Journey

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Southern Conversations – The Natchez Trace National Parkway, The Blue Ridge Parkway and Traveling Through the South/Southeast

I’ve gone silent since Ash Wednesday. Perhaps it is in respect to the Christian tradition of Lent, a time of introspection, fasting and preparation.  Perhaps it is because being in the South, my ancestral homelands, brought some grief and longing for links to my father’s family, which have long since disappeared.  

Perhaps I’ve been silent because ever since I left the Natchez Trace (just south of Nashville, about 10 days ago), traveling has been difficult and mostly unpleasant.  The roads are bad (the infrastructure deficit, especially in states with more roads to maintain like these easterly states?) and crowded with aggressive drivers and towns.  The back roads are a test of the structure of one’s vehicle (and we know this old RV is an old girl, with many loose parts) and a test of one’s patience. Even the lovely Blue Ridge Parkway was not drivable in this old RV.

Yesterday, I drove the worst road I’ve driven in my life, through the foothills of the Appalachians in West Virginia.  And, excepting for stopping for gas, it felt like there were few reasons to stop along this mean road. The intention was to get through it, be rid of the road and get to the next place.  That describes my traveling for the last 10 days or so. I’ve had some lovely visits with friends and stayed at a captivating state park in North Carolina (Stone Mountain State Park), but the destinations have been the highlights, not the traveling.  This is not the intention of this expedition.

I also realize I’m not as captivated by place in these southerly/easterly states as I was during my travels in the Pacific Northwest, California and the Southwest.  Yes, Natchez, Mississippi and the unspoiled antebellum mansions and plantations spoke of place, but it was not a place that speaks to me.  Actually, I want to speak out to it: “how can we glorify and make tourism around a tradition that would not have existed without slavery and how do we explain the tin-roofed shacks up the road where black folk are living today, not much better off than they were then?”

The Natchez Trace Parkway, a highway that is part of the National Park System (see a later blog for ponderings on national, state and county parks), runs from Natchez, MS to Nashville, TN for approximately 400 miles.  It, roughly, traces the original “Trace” or path that was used by the first people who inhabited this continent (the Chickasaws called it “the Path of Peace”) and, later, by traders and settlers. The Trace seems to ooze Southern living – the speed limit is 50mph and you can’t rush through it.

William Heat Least Moon, in Blue Highways has this to say about the Trace:

…[the Trace], like a river, followed natural contours and gave focus to the land; it so brought out the beauty that every road commissioner in the nation should drive the Trace to see that highway does not have to outrage landscape (p. 107).

Perhaps another reason I’ve gone silent is that I feel the landscape becomes more outraged, as one moves from “West” to “East.”  

High population density, many highways and byways, the same damn chain restaurants and stores (including, yes you named it, the ubiquitous Dollar General and Family Dollar stores), too many cars on the road – it all outrages and overpowers a landscape that has less drama, less spectacle, and is more muted than those landscapes of the West.

These south/easterly landscapes are still magnificent (I’ve just passed through the Appalachians and, boy howdy, these are some amazing mountains).  But, somehow, for me, place is getting lost in the outrages of too many people, too many towns/cities, too many convenience stores—too much of everything.  Many apologies to my friends and loved ones who live in these parts of this country, are attached to place, have a sense of place, and love where they live.  No disrespect intended. And, apologies to the eastern and New England states (is this even possible, this apology?) for traveling around you  (sorry, Greg, for not traveling in New York).

These south/easterly places meld together, as do the voices of the people I talk to. They are starting to sound the same, not just with regard to sweet southern accents, but also what they have to say about government.

I’m surrounded by a cacophony of voices saying government is inefficient, wasteful, overly controlling, needs to get out of the religion business, needs to be run more like a business, needs to downsize and reorganize, needs to stop spending more than it has, stop giving stuff to freeloaders, stop giving everything to minorities and stop falling all over itself in trying to acclimate to minority views.  The modal view, no matter where one stands on the ideological or political spectrum (but, mostly I’ve talked to those who would be considered conservatives), is that government is corrupt and broke, not trustworthy and has forgotten its purpose: to represent the people.

But, how can we adequately represent people who are as diverse as we are in this country?  Forget about the multiple positions our diversity could lead to: how do we represent a “people” that do seem to be sitting on two sides of the ideological fence?  While we may agree with each other about what is wrong, we don’t agree about what to do. 

For one side, a Madisonian—or, perhaps, Reagan approach is preferred.  For the other side, a more Jeffersonian/Lincoln/FDR approach is preferred.

One side thinks if we just let the market do what it does best, radically cut government/spending (except for military), return to a representative government run by the elites (some have even suggested taking away citizenship rights from some groups so they can’t vote) and leave folks alone to pursue their individualistic needs, we’ll be in better shape.  And, don’t presume that these folks are all privileged; many of the folks I talked with were working poor. 

The other side says government has abandoned the people and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. They want government to do what we can’t do as individuals (regulate water, air, food, workplace safety standards, etc) and to exercise responsibility for the public good. They want safety nets and businesses required to participate in safety net programs because they don’t trust business to do right by their employees without being required to do so. They want government to keep us out of war.

One side says government meddles too much in their lives; the other side says that government has abandoned the people and the public good and is on a very slippery slope toward doing more harm than good.

(As I write this, I am slightly aware that we are bombing Libya—along with the French and Brits—and while I don’t know the right thing to do in this case, I wonder about our intervention and the money going toward that effort.  Also, I’m remarkably cut off from news as not much news is played on backcountry radio, I’ve been without an internet connection for more than a week and the newspapers I’ve seen are all local papers, published a few times a week, and reporting on world events is not their purpose. One would think, in this information era, people would be bombarded with information no matter where they are.  I don’t think this is the case, especially if you have to rely on satellite connections to the internet and on local papers.  This may partially explain why so many people seem ignorant of current events. Even in the information era, it can still be difficult to get information.)

Those that lean toward individualism and the free market are either nonplussed by income inequalities or don’t care about them—are either ignorant of how our tax systems favor the rich and disfavor the poor, or don’t care.  Those that lean toward a more activist government point to the failures of early 21st century capitalism as the reason why we need a more activist, populist, people-friendly (versus business friendly) government.

There has to be an in-between in here somewhere.  This becomes the next question to talk about and ponder.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

9 – 3/10/11 – Mardi Gras! (literally translated to “Shrove Tuesday,” the end of “Shrovetide” a traditional time of merrymaking before the Christian period of Lent)

This expedition entered Louisiana under a dark cloud, literally and metaphorically. Our last day in Texas was unpleasant (except for the great seafood lunch, consumed al fresco behind the restaurant, with the dogs – Texans get less bent out of shape about dogs in restaurant spaces).  Man met nature, industry was ubiquitous and the state route we were on took us through depressing town after depressing town, remarkable only because of the unbelievably huge industrial plants and the ever-present national chains and small box stores.  It was unpleasantly hot and humid. We were chased from the campground by mosquitoes big enough to ride and left every member of this expedition uncomfortable.  I skirted around Houston and ended up on Interstate 10 toward Beaumont and Louisiana. The traffic was thick and the drivers fast and aggressive. The Beast (bless her) can’t go much faster than 62 mph and for folks driving the limit (70-80 mph) or higher, she’s a hazard.  This makes driving, in high congestion areas, unbelievably difficult and stressful. 

After the dark day in Fresno, in which I almost had to turn back, my trip mantra is now: have a strategy (intention – traveling, the research) and plan one day at a time.  Big plans, made before one is aware of the realities of actually putting a plan in motion, sometimes need to be revised (maybe this is also a good practice for public administration? Have a strategy; plan one day at a time?).

My big plan to travel along the perimeter of the country, more or less, is not doable. If I focus on the big plan, I end up not being present to where I am in the moment because I'm thinking about where I need to get to, or be, by a certain time/date.  I’m thinking about the destination instead of the journey. Also, I simply cannot countenance extended driving in high traffic/dense situations. The Gulf Coast in Texas was enough for me – I didn’t need any more Gulf Coast experiences.  So, the plan changed.

Another reason why the plan, at least the Louisiana plan, needed to change is because this past week was Mardi Gras!  Who knew?  Well, apparently, everyone in Louisiana and the bordering states knew. And, apparently, anyone who has every lived in these areas knew.  And, apparently, everyone who has any Cajun or Creole in their family lines knew.  And, Christians fixing to celebrate Lent knew.  But, I had no idea.

A good portion of this trip, so far, has turned on chance. I didn’t plan to enter Louisiana on the Friday before Fat Tuesday (which is the unofficial beginning of Mardi Gras).  But I did.  I learned what was going on as soon as I tried to find a place to stay for a night or two.  There were no rooms (metaphorically speaking) in any RV parks/campgrounds anywhere in this part of Louisiana!  I was in Lake Charles, it was dark, I was lost, my GPS wasn’t working and the dark cloud that had been over my head that day got darker (it later literally exploded with massive thunderstorms, tornado watches, etc – this weather pattern followed us through Louisiana and is now wreaking havoc in the Midwest/East, bringing more snow your way,sorry).
By luck, we finally found a Walmart in Lake Charles, at which we could overnight. Most, not all, Walmarts allows RVers and truckers to overnight for free in their parking lots.  It’s a smart move. Walmart parking lots are usually so big, shoppers only come close to filling them on a couple days of the year.  The rest of the time, an appreciable number of folks like me overnight in the lots and, usually, spend some money in the store before we leave. This policy has me thinking differently about Walmart (well, this and seeing that it is the Dollar stores that are everywhere in small town America, not Walmart). 

We know that big box stores, malls, etc., engineer their parking lots based upon maximum load (so to speak). For most stores, the maximum load day (yes, only one day) is Black Friday.  Christmas shoppers will get close to maximum load, but never fill up the parking lot. The rest of the time, all that impervious pavement is not being utilized, creating year-long unnecessary storm water problems, etc. At least most Walmarts are putting these acres of asphalt to some use.  Catherine Horiuchi says that some commuters in the San Francisco Bay Area actually “live” in Walmart parking lots during the week.

So, Walmart parking lots became my “home” during most of my stay in Louisiana.  Thank you Walmart.

When folks get their Mardi Gras on, they get it on!

I did find a spot in a state park for one night and will write about the great folks I met there in my next blog (a shout out to my new young friend, Chase, who wants to travel for a living when he grows up – Chase, maybe you should become an anthropologist)

Big strategy, daily plan: I did not head down to New Orleans; instead I headed a bit north and then east. Part of me is very sad over this new direction – north/northeast.  No disrespect intended for the parts of the country that are in this direction nor the loved ones who live there, but I am leaving the south and it’s getting colder.

I was also sad about not heading down to the New Orleans/Gulf area because one of the things I most wanted to experience in Louisiana was a bit of Cajun culture.  Yet, I knew Mardi Gras was NOT the time to be poking along in Gulf Coast Louisiana so I headed for Highway 190. It looked like a nice route that would allow me to eventually skirt around Baton Rouge and head toward the Natchez Trace National Highway, my next destination.

Imagine my surprise when I found that Highway 190 is the Acadiana Highway and runs through the heart of Cajun country.  At the heart of the Acadiana Highway is Eunice (where the Cajun cultural center is located), the town to which someone sent me for “the best BBQ you’ll ever have.”   I had the best BBQ I’ll ever have and took the girls for a walk in the charming neighborhood around the restaurant.  I heard music a few blocks up and went to investigate.  And, what do you know?  The girls and I happened upon the start of Eunice’s Saturday (children’s) Mardi Gras parade (see the photo of the girls strutting their stuff in their Mardi Gras beads).  We stayed for the parade, had several great conversations with folks and learned about the traditional Cajun Mardi Gras practice of a “run” that takes place on Fat Tuesday (folks run from house to house, begging for something to put in the “pot” – a chicken, some okra, etc – and they a fantastic supper is prepared with whatever is given during the “run”).  The woman who told me about the run ran it last year 9 months pregnant; her daughter was born 1 week after and the baby was at the parade this year celebrating her first Mardi Gras.

We ended up spending Fat Tuesday at a RV park in Vidalia, Louisiana across the Mississippi from Natchez, Mississippi.  It was a dark and stormy day and this expedition stayed indoors (the girls are traumatized by thunderstorms). On Wednesday, we saw plenty of evidence in Natchez that a great party had taken place the day before.

Next entry: Southern Conversations and the Natchez Trace National Highway

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

8. 3/8/2011 - Man meets Nature; Nature meets Man

(Note: because of a lack of access to Wifi and a desire to post (somewhat) shorter entries (thanks for the good advice, Deane), I’m posting one today and one tomorrow.  Today’s blog is about the Gulf Coast region of Texas and Louisiana, which I left three days ago. Tomorrow’s blog is about Acadiana Louisiana, Mardi Gras (who knew?) and Fat Tuesday, which is today, so if you are planning on getting your Mardi Gras on, as Maggie Mae and Lucy Lou did, best get at it).

After the BP spill/disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last summer, I was naively surprised to learn that Gulf Coast residents want the oil and gas industry in their backyards (so to speak). There was a particular man who was a media sweetheart at that time – Billy Nungesser, the Plaquemines Parish president. (a Louisiana parish is akin to a county in other states). He spent a great deal of time on the air, saying the Gulf states residents do not want the oil and gas industries to pull out of the area, that Obama had no right to restrict drilling (the first contract to drill, since the disaster, was just approved this past week) and that the fishing industry will survive this disaster, as they had so many before.  He represented the local view in this area that an intrusive, over-regulating federal government is the problem, not industry (he also, by the way, has been accused of being a bit too cozy with industry).  And, while he had a great deal of respect and empathy for what the flora and fauna of the region were experiencing as a result of the disaster, he also represented the local view that there are too many environmental regulations and they are getting in the way of job-creating, family-feeding industries (by the way, I heard this over and over again talking to folks who live on the Gulf Coast, both in Texas and Louisiana.  I mean talking to folks who live there, not folks who have second homes and vacation there).  He also, by the way, was plenty pissed that the disaster was not managed better, that the spill was not contained sooner, etc.

Living within the lovely Olympia bubble I inhabit (as many of us do – may not be an Olympia bubble but another form/place), I had no idea how thick industry is along the Gulf Coast, in particular oil and gas (refineries and the like) and chemical industries. Imagine my surprise as I leave Padre Island (outside of Corpus Christi, which in and of itself was no peach – mostly spring break haven, excepting the charming town of Port Aransas) and start traveling along the back roads and byways along the coast.  The sky started to cloud up with dark, thick clouds making the drive ominous.  Large, sprawling industrial complexes are everywhere.  And, we are not talking about a few buildings with a smokestack or two.  We are talking acres upon acres of scary and menacing industry structures.

I had planned to stay one night at what looked to be a very charming county park, Quintana Beach County Park. The website had beautiful pictures of the park and there were several excellent ratings by users.  Indeed, the park was charming, but I almost had a heart attack getting to it because of what I had to drive through (mile upon mile of frightening industry) and what was directly behind the park.  It’s like that great video that recently went viral – of animals doing silly things and given human voices.  In particular, I'm thinking of the bird that plays the “daytime/nighttime” game.  On one side is nature, on the other side is man’s ugliest creations.  Turn in one direction, “nature.” Turn in the other direction, “man.” “Nature.” “Man.” Etc.  And this repeats itself all across the Gulf Coast.  Wildlife sanctuaries are butted up against industrial plants spewing ungodly chemical smells with squadrons of pelicans flying among the billowing stacks.  Quite the sensory contrast.

I had a similar experience driving through the part of El Paso where you can see El Paso on one side of the freeway and Juarez on the other. Guess which side had the billowing factories and which side had nature?  Or, at least, a more attractive view of humankind?  And, the most remarkable maquiladora visible from the freeway is Asarco, the company that left the brownfield/Superfund site in Tacoma which is still in the process of being cleaned up. The lack of environmental regulations right over the border (as well as cheap labor) is sometimes a motivator for companies to move (I can’t say that Asarco did this as I have no proof).

Even more dramatic than the “nature/man” contrast at Quintana County Beach Park was the degree to which the folks staying, and working, there paid no never mind to what was just behind them.  The park employee who checked me in said that I shouldn’t be concerned, just look the other way.  If anything were to happen at any of the plants, they would call the park and we would be told to go into the water (!).  She also told me that there are 6,000 oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.  The folks I talked to in the campground were oblivious. Several of the people come back to the park every year; most said, “oh, I don’t even notice it.” (And I'm not even talking about the mosquitoes!)

Almost everyone I’ve talked to, so far, no matter where they fall on the political ideological spectrum, are talking about bringing good, production jobs back to the U.S., That we can’t continue to survive as a consumption/information economy.  I have to admit that the (very) small part of me that is Marxist (production related) agrees with both the conservatives (who are saying let the free market do what it can) and progressives/liberals (who are saying NAFTA and other like treaties/agreements/move toward globalization have torn the heart out of working/middle class in this country). We need better jobs in this country.  But, do we want what I saw on the Gulf Coast?   What to do? Maybe some answers will emerge with more time on the road and more conversation with others (and, using more gas, of course).

p.s., I’m deeply aware of the irony of my reaction to the oil/gas industry and my reliance on it in order to take this trip/have these adventures/do this research.

Friday, March 4, 2011

7. 3/4/2010 – East by SouthEast

I’ve been on the road for a month and a few days and have gone a bit more than 3,000 miles.  More than half of this time I’ve spent in deserts, traveling east by southeast (and, by the way, were we happy to see bodies of water again!).  Even the Central Valley area of California is a desert, albeit one that has been transformed from to rich farmland through the miracle of irrigation. The miracle of irrigation is also part of the reason why great and mighty rivers, like the Colorado, are no more than trickles in culverts by the time they reach the Pacific Ocean.

There are four things ubiquitous to the deserts I’ve traveled, no matter if one is talking about Southeastern California, Southern Arizona, Southern New Mexico or Southern Texas:
  1.  Plastic grocery bags snagged by cacti, fence posts, what have you and blowing in the wind. They are everywhere and I am not exaggerating.  They seem to be a statement of contemporary Americana, one that I’m resisting interpreting.
  2. The wind (oh, how difficult it is to drive a vehicle with a relatively high profile and virtually no aerodynamic elements in high and gusting winds – especially when other desert dwellers/travelers are accustomed to moving at fast speeds (the Beast is happiest at 60 mph, tops – the speed limits in these desolate deserts run between 70-80mph. I had to sit out two wind/dust storms: one in the Mojave and one in Alpine, Texas.
  3. Dollar stores, either Dollar General or Family Dollar, or both (often across the street from each other). Every small town, particularly if the economy is as arid as the land and air, has one or both of these stores.  It is not true that every town has a Walmart (more on Walmart later). If we are going to be protesting how national chains are destroying small town economies, we should be looking into these companies. And, of course, the fast food chains. 
  4. The Border Patrol.
Apparently so many illegal aliens (what a term) try to enter the country every day/week/month and/or untold amounts of drugs are smuggled across the border to justify the most law enforcement personnel that I have ever seen in one area.   (Actually, many people believe there aren't enough Border Patrol agents and that the agency has suffered terrible post-911, when more federal money went to combat terrorism.)

The Border Patrol is background image (and sometimes the foreground) of my trip through the Southwest.  Travel days, particularly those in the more deserted parts of the Southwest, would go by with me seeing a few semi-and pickup trucks, perhaps a few other RVers and scores Border Patrol vehicles/agents.  They were often parked by the side of the road, usually at the gates of ranches. I saw a few officers using long sticks to poke at reeds on the bank of a small river.  I saw a Border Patrol truck dragging a large metal object through the brush (?). I saw 10 or so agents unloading a boat at the Amistad Reservoir (made by a dam on the Rio Grande and sharing a border with Mexico).  There were another 3-4 trucks in the parking lot, idling, waiting for something (I think they were watching my suspicious lunch consuming).  I went through two checkpoints in Arizona (was temporarily detained at one – a story to be told in another medium) and one checkpoint in Texas.  At each checkpoint there were 25-30 (or more) agents working, along with dogs. At the third checkpoint, I was questioned by an agent of Hispanic descent who spoke with an accent, as if English was his second language.  He works for the Border Patrol, keeping out those who are likely like his ancestors (I’m spinning a tale here – I don’t know if he is first generation US citizen, I’m guessing).  He was the first, and only, Border agent of color I saw. I passed several Border Patrol regional headquarters and was astounded at the fleets of trucks and boats. And, I'm telling you, I saw hundreds of Border Patrol vehicles on the road over the few weeks I spent in the deep Southwest.

According to a May, 2010 Washington Post article (Slevin, 2010), a part of the border in Arizona, called the Tucson sector, is a particularly busy section.  In May, 2010, U.S. authorities captured 687 illegal immigrants in one 24-hour period and apprehended 168,000 from December, 2009-May, 2010.  The article also quotes an official saying that officers have “close to daily” contact with smugglers with guns, likely associated with drugs (ah, that must be what they thought I was – an armed smuggler!  I know I look the type). The article also states that there are about 3,200 Border Patrol officers working in the Tucson sector (and I saw more evidence of the Border Patrol in Texas than in Arizona!), a 262 mile section of the border of which 210 miles are fenced. As I observed this spellbinding, yet tragic, phenomenon, I found myself repeating what many folks I’ve talked to about government have said to me about other matters: “is this a waste of taxpayer’s dollars?”  For me to ask this is a pretty serious question; I refuse to call myself a taxpayer (which I am) because I refuse to have my relationship with government be primarily one of exchange, e.g., I give you my money and you give me something back for it.  Citizenship to me is much bigger than paying taxes (and I am, by the way, aware of the irony of using the word “citizen” in this context).  Is there not a better way to deal with the illegal immigration problem?

So many people I talk to, no matter where they land on the political spectrum, think about themselves as taxpayers, and not as citizens.  And, they are pissed off at the way their taxes are being spent.  For every person that is pissed off that so much money is going to “undeserving people who are feeding out of the public trough,” (particularly immigrants, illegal or otherwise) there’s another person who is pissed off that we are not taking proper care of folks and are cutting services. One woman said that the churches won’t provide the safety nets government used to provide and that government was shirking its responsibilities. We proceeded, then, to have a conversation about how local churches (in Arizona) were allowing cell towers to be erected on their properties to make much needed money they no longer have because times are tough and people can’t/won’t tithe to the degree they can when times are good.  So, it may not be so much that churches and faith-based organizations won’t provide safety nets, but that they can't. Of course, for every church that attempts to erect a tower (which can be cleverly disguised as a palm tree!), there is a neighborhood/community NIMBY movement to try to stop them from doing so.  
I use the term “pissed off” for reason.  People in the Southwest are pissed off about illegal immigration and what the government is, or is not, doing about it. It is further polarizing the Southwest at a time in which we do not need more polarization and incivility. Arizona’s infamous SB 1070 has pitted communities and family members against each other in Arizona.  And, it’s not just the infamous SB 1070 that separates people – Arizona is “angry again,” according to a New York Times February 26th editorial.  According to The Times, these recently passed through Arizona legislative committees:  

  • A bill to chop up the 14th Amendment to deny citizenship to children born in Arizona to undocumented mothers.
  • A bill requiring hospitals to check every patient’s citizenship status, turning doctors and nurses into the immigration police.
  • A bill to deny education to undocumented children by requiring proof of citizenship to enroll in any public or private school.
  • A bill to criminalize driving by illegal immigrants, and to evict them from public housing.
Across Arizona, New Mexico and in Southwestern Texas, the issue of immigration simmers beneath the surface of every conversation about government.  In Arizona, although Tucson is closer to the border and part of the problematic sector, the southern part of Arizona is talking about succeeding from the state and becoming the 51st state, Baja Arizona. In a February 24th Arizona Daily Star (Tucson) article, David Euchner, Libertarian and Public Defender said:

Republicans were swept into office nationwide on a promise of helping to fix the economic and spending problems. Meanwhile, every bill we’ve heard about here is either anti-abortion laws or anti-Mexican laws. These are not laws that are geared toward solving the real problems that we have.

Interestingly, given the conservative nature of the state and the great divide between the north and south (hmmm…this sounds familiar…) and the apparent distraction of the legislature and governor, the Arizona citizenry did make progress over the past year toward solving the real problems they have, mostly economic. Miraculously, the people of Arizona believe that both increased revenues and decreased spending is needed to deal with their budget crisis.  On February 20, 2011, Phoenix-based The Arizona Republic published their first annual report on an initiative, “Arizona 2020,” which the paper began last year.  Working with state-wide subject matter experts, the paper identified the key issues the state will face over the next decade and explored “pragmatic, practical ideas that could help the state achieve progress in a decade” (McKinnon, 2011, p. A17). 

The issues identified through the initiative are issues most all states are grappling with: Real Estate (key recommendation: slow the progress of foreclosures); State Budget (key recommendation: raise taxes to reduce budget deficit); Government Reform (key recommendation: better align priorities with what the public wants); Economic Strategy (key recommendation: attract and keep new businesses/jobs); and, Education (key recommendation: reduce high school drop-outs; encourage more students to finish college/career training).  And their last issue is an issue particular to the Southwest: Rethinking the Border (key recommendation: attract more business and tourism from Mexico—Mexico is the world’s 13th largest economy and Arizona’s top trading partner).

The Republic reports that very few gains were made this past year. SB 1070 setback relations with Mexico, although Arizona mayors are working to change that. For every issue, it was one step forward and two steps backward. What is most remarkable to me is that voters in Arizona approved a temporary 1-cent-per-dollar sales tax and “rebuffed attempts by the Legislature to divert money from programs for kids and land conservation.”  This shows an appetite for tax increases that many in government think no longer exists amongst citizens. And, this happened in one of the most conservative states in the country.

Perhaps the most dramatic and moving conversation I’ve had, so far, was with two women I corralled at their workplace (in Texas).  Before I even asked them my research questions they said, “oh, you’ll love this, we are complete opposites.”  I asked them my first question, “What comes to mind when you think of government.”  The first woman said “corruption, too much of government is controlled by others.” The other woman said “government is no longer for the people. Basically, it’s just people trying to get away with as much as they can.” Neither woman, as it is with almost everyone else I’ve talked to, distinguish between politics and administration.  As far as they are concerned, the “illness” of government is everywhere, federal/state/local and elected as well as administrative officials. 

Can you tell from these opening comments which woman is liberal/progressive (and radically so) and which woman is conservative/progressive (and radically so – a member of the Tea Party which, by the way, held a convention in Phoenix while I was in the state)?  I couldn’t tell and their agreement about what is wrong was telling.  They were, themselves, surprised at their agreement.  When it came to what they want from government or what we should do, they no longer agreed.  And the conversation, at that point, became acrimonious. Their answers were like many of the other answers I’ve received: the liberal woman thought that government was corrupted by big money and corporations; that government is no longer compassionate or empathetic. That government no longer cares about the people.  The conservative woman thought that we needed to wipe the slate clean, politically and administratively, and start all over again with governments that only performed constitutional duties, and let the free market  do what it does best and stop restricting our liberties.  One of the women said that government was no longer honest, trustworthy or ethically-bound (do you know which said this?). She said government does not understand what we want from America.

When I pressed them about what they want from America, the conversation stalled. They became so uncomfortable about their differences, they could not continue with the conversation. They noted that they’ve never talked about what they called their “political differences” before; they were aware of their differences and agreed to disagree in silence.  They noted that this was the first time they’ve talked about these things with each other (they seemed to know and like each well – one was the supervisor of the other). One woman noted that she “never” talks about politics with anyone and was surprised she talked with me and her fellow co-worker.  She said “everyone has the right to their own opinion.” At that point, we started to talk about what we need to do in order to have these crucial conversations - that even though we are entitled to our opinions, we still need to talk to each other and decide what to do.  We need to have these difficult conversations in order to get to a point where we know what to do about what everyone agrees are deep and difficult problems.  The women and I then spent a bit of time processing the conversation so I could feel ok about being the cause of it (I really didn’t feel ok but I think they got to some crucial place by having the conversation – I hope it is not a place of long-term difficulty for them).

And, in Arizona, people are not having conversations about immigration; instead, they are having arguments and the discourse is becoming even more uncivil.   When in Tucson, I visited the shopping plaza where Congresswoman Gabrille Gifford and others were gunned down; everyone I talked to in Arizona wanted to talk about that event and all said that it was, of course, an anti-government action. And, while they were deeply saddened and shocked by it, they were not surprised given the tenor of public conversations in Southern Arizona.

All of this has me thinking, again, about crucial conversation and about John Forester’s new book, Dealing with Differences: Dramas of Mediating Public Disputes (here’s a review).  If I were to summarize what I’ve heard so far from folks (and I don’t want to do so yet!), I would say that future work of administrators is not going to be about putting into action what “The American People” want from government (we want too many conflicting things – sometimes we want the same things, but want to get there through remarkably different paths!). Instead, our work is going to be about mediating conversations amongst and between folks to get to someplace where action can be taken.

I’ve already gone on for far too long…no one wants to read a long blog entry.  To briefly explain the photos: after so many days without bodies of water (even the rivers are underground!) in the desert, when we happened upon the Pecos and Rio Grande Rivers and Amistad National Recreation Area (SW Texas), everyone in this expedition was thrilled.  We spent far too short a time at Seminole Canyon State Park (Texas) and wasn’t able to tour the pictographs and other art forms that date back as far as 4,000 years.  We were, however, able to bike a great trail (well, I biked and the dogs jogged) and do some swimming (dogs swam, I got my feet wet – water was too cold even for a Pacific Northwesterner!).  Seminole Canyon left quite an impression on me – as the dedication (by the artist, Bill Worrell) of the amazing shaman mixed metal piece (The Maker of Peace) overlooking the canyon at the visitor center said, “the prayers of the ancestors are still heard in the wind.” No doubt.

The girls and I are already at the Gulf coast of Texas – next post: Man Meets Nature; Nature Meets Man.

ps – the Beast is performing wonderfully although, daily, something needs to be repaired.  A nice man I met at a dump station (I’m having all kinds of good conversations at dump stations) said “you are carrying around a home, rattling it down the road every day, over every bump and into every pothole.  Of course things are going to rattle loose.”  I thank him for his wisdom and the acceptance that came with it. And, average temperature: 72-75F.  I was actually thankful yesterday was cloudy because I needed a break from the sun.