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Finding Wisdom Along America's Lonely Roads

Surprises await those willing to listen

April 29, 2002|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications.

Late in the evening in back-road America you tend to pick the motels with cars parked in front. There's nothing less appealing than an empty courtyard, with maybe Norman Bates waiting to greet you in the office. The all-night clerk at the Lincoln Motel (three cars out front) in Austin, Nev., who checked me in at 11:30 a few nights ago told me she was 81 and working two part-time jobs to help pay her heating bills because she couldn't make it on Social Security.

She imparted this information without self-pity, saying that business last fall had been brisk. The 57 motel beds available in the old mining town had been filled with crews laying fiber-optic cable, which in the case of Austin meant putting it 20 feet under the graveyard.

Earlier that day, driving from Utah through the Great Basin along U.S. 50, billed as "the loneliest road," I'd seen these cables sticking out of the ground on the outskirts of Ely.

So we can run fiber-optic cable through the Western deserts but not put enough money in the hands of 81-year-olds so they don't have to pull all-night shifts clerking in motels. What else is new?

People who drive or lecture their way through the American interior usually notice that you can have rational conversations with people about the Middle East, about George W. Bush and other topics certain to arouse unreasoning passion among sophisticates on either coast.

Newsman and commentator Robert Fisk describes this experience in a recent piece for the Independent in Britain. Fisk claims on the basis of a sympathetic hearing for his Mideast analyses--unsparing of Ariel Sharon's current rampages--on campuses in Iowa and elsewhere in the Midwest that things are changing in Middle America.

After 25 years of zigzagging my way across the States I can't say I agree. It's always been like that. Even though polls purport to establish that 90% of Middle Americans claim to have had personal exchanges with Jesus and reckon George W. to be the reincarnation of Abe Lincoln, the reality is otherwise.

Some attitudes do change. White people are more afraid of cops than they used to be. A good old boy in South Carolina, whom I've known for a quarter of a century, was a proud special constable in the early 1980s. These days if a police cruiser passes him, he'll turn off at the next intersection. The reason? A few years ago a couple of state cops stopped him late at night, frisked him and accused him of being drunk.

This profoundly religious Baptist told them truthfully he'd never consumed alcohol in his life. Then they said he must be a drug dealer. He reckons the only reason they didn't plant cocaine in his car was that he told them to check him out with the local police chief, an old friend.

I know from the stats that a lot of Americans are poor. So why am I often the only fellow on the road or in town in an old car, aside from some of the Mexican field workers in California for whom such cars are home? Most everyone seems to be in a late-model pickup or a nice new Honda Civic. I know, I know. The poor are out there, lots of them, but the whole place just doesn't seem to feel as poor as it often did in the early '90s in the Senior Bush recession. You could drive through towns that felt like graveyards, with no prospect of fiber-optic cable running under them.

Take Grants on Interstate 40 in New Mexico, which became the nation's self-proclaimed "uranium capital" in the 1950s after Paddy Martinez heard descriptions of what uranium ore looked like and led the mining prospectors to the yellow rocks he'd been looking at through the years. The mines closed and I recall from the early 1980s Grants looking sadly becalmed, with its Uranium Cafe and souvenir motels from the great days of Route 66.

Well, nostalgia is still strong in Grants, but aside from the Lee Ranch coal mine, the juice in Grants' economy now comes in large part from three prisons, one federal, one state and one private.

As I was driving through Lake Valley in eastern Nevada along Highway 93, listening to the radio, I thought, "Why not relocate the whole West Bank to this bit of Nevada where the Palestinians could have their state at last, financed by a modest tax on the gambling industry." The spaces are so vast you wouldn't even need a fence. Then reality returned in the form of the usual sign heralding a prison 'round the next bend.

West along U.S. 50 from Austin, I came to Grimes' Point, the site of fine petroglyphs. A sign informed me that "the act of making a petroglyph was a ritual performed by a group leader. Evidence suggests that there existed a powerful taboo against doodling."

Some things never change. On the other hand, they do.

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