We’re driving in a dust storm somewhere in the Navajo Nation in Arizona. We’ve just passed “Church Rock,” and to the north in Utah is The Valley of the Gods. We can barely see the road, and the tumbleweeds are dancing on the highway, careening off the windshield and dashing madly across the desert. 660 AM is on the radio, the Voice of the Navajo Nation, broadcasting from Window Rock, Arizona. We listen to the Navajo language , not comprehending a word, waiting, and then the DJ says, “Skeeter Davis, The End of the World.” The interjection of English always startles us.
For ten years now, we have been driving the highways of the United States, sometimes stopping in a town for a year or so, sometimes just drifting from place to place. The last year-long stay was in Boulder, Colorado. We left there in February 2010, and we have been traveling ever since, living in cheap motels and still cooking our food on a hot plate. Like the song says, “I’ve been everywhere man.” If we meet you on a hiking trail, in a grocery store, or on the street, the chances are good that there is some place we both know about.
If you don’t know our story, here it is in brief. I quit teaching at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown in April, 2001. I taught there for thirty-two years, and, at fifty-five, the prospect of teaching uninterested kids for another ten years didn’t appeal to me. So, I gave my notice, called the pension administrators, and with Karen plotted out a new life. We gave almost everything we owned away. When our first plan—to move to New York City where I would work for Monthly Review magazine—fell through, we regrouped and got jobs at Yellowstone National Park. After that, we did move to Manhattan. From there, we lived in Portland, Oregon, Miami Beach, Estes Park, Colorado, Amherst, Tucson, and Boulder. When we left each of these towns, we took long road trips, with roughly planned itineraries, sometimes staying a couple of days in many locations and other times digging in for a week or a month in a place we really liked. We’ve been nearly a thousand days on the road like this.
What have we learned in a decade of travel, about ourselves and about our country? The short answer is “a lot.” The long answer follows.
We need adequate incomes to enjoy our lives, but just as important, these incomes need not and should not be so unevenly divided. In 2010, Karen and I had more than enough income on which to live. Neither rich nor poor, just about in the middle. This means both that roughly half of the population has less than us, and that everyone in the United States could have as much as we do. Everyone! While low incomes mean that too many people in too many places we have been suffer from an absolute lack of the food, clothing, and shelter we all need, the grotesque gap between rich and poor does more insidious damage. Those at the top gobble up all the resources: the houses, the land, public spaces they use their power to have privatized, the schools, the water, everything. They get the good stuff, and most of us get the leftovers. Just about everywhere, a small number of very rich individuals have driven the prices of land and housing into the stratosphere. They buy beautiful objects and travel to scenic places, while the lives of the majority get more pinched, isolated, and ordinary.
The great Lakota leader Crazy Horse said about the European settlers, “The love of possessions is a disease with them.” If he were alive now, he would be astonished at the needless consumption that more or less defines life in the United States. We are judged by what we own. When Karen worked in daycare in Pittsburgh in the 1990s, children as young as two would look inside each other’s shirt collars to see the designer label. They already recognized the letters GAP. Towns, housing and condominium developments, and hotels are typically advertised in terms of how many shops and restaurants are nearby. What are the streets of any city but monuments to shopping? There are at least two shopping channels on every cable television. We can’t get enough stuff. Watch HGTV (House and Garden Television), and you will discover that house buyers want large houses with several thousand square feet, enormous kitchens, and gargantuan walk-in closets. Three-car garages seem de rigeur. On shows that feature furnished homes and apartments, goods are everywhere: several televisions and computers, every manner of electronic devise, kitchen equipment galore—though so few families appear to do much cooking—scads of furniture, multiple bathrooms, jetted tubs, entertainment rooms with home theaters, man caves, hobby rooms, cars, trucks, boats, RVs, ATVs, mountain bikes, sports gear. And these are people who are not by U.S. standards wealthy. We met a man in his sixties in Gilbert, Arizona who loved and wanted to live in the beautiful Sabino Canyon area of Tucson. But he didn’t buy a home there because he said he got more square footage for his money in Gilbert.
We decided to keep our consumption to a minimum. After we gave our things away in Pittsburgh, we had to buy furnishings for apartments in Manhattan and Portland. When we left each of these cities, we gave away or sold cheaply most of what we had bought. So from then on, we rented furnished places. Today, except for some framed pictures, family memorabilia, and a few cherished objects that we have stored in the homes of relatives, everything we own fits in our minivan. Besides the car, we have laptop computers (for work, email, bill paying, banking, and news), kitchen gear, a radio, a space heater, a few reference books, CDs, and minimal clothing; we own no furniture, no stove, no refrigerator, no washer, no dryer, no bed. We have no home base.
Aside from replacing worn out clothing, shoes, and the like, the only shopping we do is for food. We rarely eat in restaurants. We keep a basic pantry in our car, and we shop for food nearly every day. Karen has an envelope full of coupons. We look for sales so we can stock up on items we use regularly. We have the “saver card” for most of the grocery store chains in the country. We utilize local farmers’ markets when we can. Using almost all organic products, we eat three meals a day. Our daily food budget rarely exceed twelve dollars.
We spend more time in grocery stores than most, but this has proven valuable; it is a good way to see interesting aspects of how our countrymen live. We talk to the clerks, the baggers, the stockers, the managers, and they tell us things about their town and their jobs. We watch how customers treat the workers. We observe when shoppers seem intent on finding the cheapest products and when they grab goods without looking at prices. We notice how many people don’t know how to use unit pricing, and how stores exploit this by making it appear that, for example, a twelve-pack of toilet paper is cheaper than a four-pack when it is not. And how package-size decreases—with the same price—are ubiquitous; a half gallon of ice cream is now almost always three-quarters of a half gallon. And most of all, how much of our food is junk, full of unhealthy ingredients, from trans fats to corn syrup to fillers of all kinds and disgusting ingredients like ammonia on meat. The sight of parents with young children filling their carts with prepared foods, cases of soda, and fat-filled snacks is too sad for words.
We have been amazed at how much time is available in a day when you don’t shop much or eat in restaurants. And when you’re not caught up in the relentless cycle of “getting and spending,”you don’t become anxious because you don’t have what your neighbor does. Instead of driving to malls or going from store to store on city streets, instead of buying things we don’t need, we enjoy getting our food every day, preparing simple meals, talking, learning about the places in which we find ourselves, hiking in beautiful mountains and canyons, on ocean cliffs and beaches, on the slick rock, seeing the sun rise and set, the stars in the Western sky, working and watching television late at night, just thinking (The Bureau of Labor Statistics “Time Use Studies” found that the average person in the United States spends a mere fifteen minutes a day “relaxing and thinking”). Everyone says life is hectic, too busy, too much to do. I wonder, though, if for most of us, there isn’t plenty of time; we just choose to waste so much of it consuming.
Living as we do has made us more adaptable, and better able to make good, quick decisions. On the road we have dealt with car breakdowns, accidents, automobile and health insurance claims, serious illnesses, surgery, injuries, credit card disputes, hassles with the IRS, a year-long effort to get the United States Postal Service to pay an insurance claim, difficult family problems, legal issues, apartment rentals. I have taught online college classes from motel rooms, and I travel to teach a class at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst every January no matter where we were living. Without an office or a desk, I have written several books, many articles and reviews, and blog entries. As a magazine editor and director of Monthly Review Press, I have edited articles and books and maintained correspondence with writers around the world. I usually work with a computer on my lap while lying in bed. On our hikes, we work through problems, make new plans, compose emails and phone calls in our heads. The chirping of birds and the wind giving voice to the leaves is far more conducive to clear thinking than a claustrophobic office and the misery of a long commute.
Modern life is one of growing entrapment. We are trapped by our jobs, by our inability to find jobs, by our low incomes, by our excessive consumption, by our homes, by our poor health, by our lack of health insurance. By the sheer boredom of daily life. We’ve broken free of some of these traps. We did this by refusing to keep working long hours in meaningless jobs when we didn’t have to, saving instead of spending, keeping on the move, eating less but healthier, and staying in good physical condition. So far, we have no regrets.
To be continued . . .