Beauty and Suffering in Rural America
50 States, 10,000 miles
Beauty Before the Beast
Drive across America and find the most stunning natural beauty. I’ve been around the world – to the rainforests of New Guinea, the grasslands and steppes and deserts of Mongolia, the splendors of India and Burma, nine countries in Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and much of Europe. Born in the U.S., I may be biased, but the diversity as well as the depth of physical splendor in America is pretty hard to match. Part of this is a function of access: beyond being a physically big and varied country, the US has a road system that makes so much of it so easy to see. Perhaps only China now comes close. Even apart from the vistas, forests, mountains, and coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington, and the expansive beauty from Nevada to Montana – which I explored in previous coast-to-coast ventures – the natural spectacle this time around was pretty amazing. From north Georgia to the Ozarks to the Texas panhandle and New Mexico; from the Grand Canyon to the Rockies to the Black Hills of South Dakota; from northern Michigan forests to the Maine coast to the Berkshires; from the Taconic Parkway to the New Jersey Delaware gap to the East Chesapeake Bay; from to the lushness of Virginia to the Appalachians in West Virginia to the tiny towns of the Blue Ridge – and back to Georgia – American landscapes are pretty beautiful. In early spring and traveling mostly on state highways rather than interstates, one absorbs this richly through moods of changeable weather and without summertime crowds and traffic.
The bittersweet human side of rural America is just as poignant as the natural splendor against which its depression and despondency are cast. Rural America is suffering. It is suffering plain as day, plain as the lines on your face. It is seared and littered countlessly, endlessly, literally, across our rural landscape. You see it in town after town after town after town, in state after state. It is just heartbreaking to drive into towns and through crossroads, across farmlands and forests and open ranges, that so obviously used to be so viable for its people just a few scant years ago. House after house is dilapidated, falling down, crumbling. They and their communities are often beyond repair, a monumental testament to rural ruin. Often the worst is the center of town, the heart of the community, Main Street. Houses big and small, once stately or at least respectable, physically sag with the weight of rotten wood, unrepaired roofs, broken and boarded up windows, and paint-peeled siding. Often the structures are totally abandoned, but often as well they reveal remnant signs of despondent life inside: a pickup truck in the yard, laundry on the porch, household items strewn on the yard, a tattered flag still flying. On the farmhouse plots and sometimes in town, one often sees aging and run-down yet occupied trailers near the main house, an adjacent place of partial habitation.
Distant but close to home
It’s hard to convey how common, how horribly common and regular, scenes of decrepitude now are in rural America. Photos catalogue this dereliction, from Arkansas to Arizona, from Michigan and Maine to western Massachusetts to eastern Maryland, from New Mexico to North Carolina, from central Colorado to northern Connecticut. These paint an ongoing tableau of decay and despondency set off against the splendor of America’s non-human nature.
[Note: We can select from these photos to accompany this account.]
Alongside the broken–down houses, ramshackle residences, and sardine-packed trailer parks of its refugees are the remnants and detritus of businesses and commerce that not so long ago kept rural America alive, along with its farming and mining and logging. Here are the closed up local shops and services, the mom and pop store with a “Keep Out” sign amid its broken windows, the dilapidated furniture outlet, the shuttered clothes cleaners store next to the used-to-be movie theater, soda shop, shoe store, lawyer’s office, and the abandoned motel – back before internet, when families drove by and actually just stopped for the night. Now one drives through miles through mostly boarded up or abandoned local business to find a sprawling Walmart in the middle of nowhere, perhaps accompanied by a Target and a Subway, and, in a more major town, a Best Western or Comfort Inn.
The surviving local businesses are typically the auto-repair and tire shops, the chain auto parts store, perhaps along with an ACE hardware, and the occasional beauty salon. But the biggest and cleanest and most well-maintained and manicured buildings in rural America, really everywhere, are the Churches. Almost no remaining community is without a church, and proudly kept up in the bargain, against all odds. Jesus continues to save at whatever cost. John 3:16. And sodomy is sin.
The suffering is somewhat variable, and the remains of houses and stores can be just a veneer. Everything crumbles eventually, and some people may have gone on to find better and more productive lives elsewhere. But not for those remaining in rural America. When you lost your local job or had to retire during the 2008 meltdown, you couldn’t pay your mortgage or even your taxes. Your heart medication cost more than fixing the roof. Often there was nowhere to go – except the packed-in trailer park not so distant but a world area from the lifestyle and hopes left behind, the place you always called home.
Where dad made his living
A case study is Ishpeming, UP Michigan, not far from Marquette. In the 1940s to 60s and into the 70s, it was a lively and well-built town, fueled, like most in its area, by logging and especially mining – iron for the steel of the Motown auto industry. As old pictures attest, the town hummed with a bevy of local stores and businesses, commercial and cultural monuments, a large Carnegie Library, fancy buildings, large posh houses on the hill, and more modest ones well-kept on lower slopes. People kept up values and appearances, nice cars, nice houses, good clothes, commemorative parades, and civic events.
Now Ishpeming is a derelict hollow, a physical shell. It’s graffiti gives “LOVE” a crying face in the “O.” Almost every major privately owned building is boarded up or abandoned, the shops vacant, the houses rotting and falling down. Trash heaps and strewn goods fill the former lawns, while muddy lots of live-in trailers are scattered on the outskirts of town and on the way to the state highway. There seems no way out. Pictures tell the story.
In such a place, as in so much of rural America, how demeaning it is to be told that now you have to re-tool, re-educate, re-make yourself in some liberal guise of urbanity. How patronizing for those who have worked so hard and sweated so long with their bodies, who have pushed within an ounce of their life to keep honor and value and commitments intact. How insulting to be told that you need rehabilitation, that your values are backward, your livelihood untenable, your way of talking unsophisticated, your belief in God outmoded, your computer skills worse than bad. No wonder this is Trump country through and through. No wonder on election night those vast rural areas look so red even in the bluest of states. No wonder rural America is now soaked with the escape of alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, and the vengeful reassertion of those family values it can no longer maintain either economically or emotionally.
Bright attempts in dark places
In the US as elsewhere – even in the most destitute parts of Africa or India – one finds some signs of resilience. The Navajo woman in Arizona who damns whites and men and her fellow ne’er-do-wells to establish a thriving one-woman tourist business – while completing her MA in art therapy for trauma victims. The Jew in Atonito, Colorado, on the desolate border with New Mexico, who spearheads NGOs dedicated to organic farming, good nutrition, and progressive outreach with local youth. The middle-aged female motel operator in UP Michigan who shovels two feet of snow off the roof, cheerfully keeping her family business continuously alive after more than 50 years. The 60-ish male free ferry operator in at Whitehaven, Maryland, who works all day at his post at the Wicomico River crossing even when he has to turn away cars, like ours, that arrive on Route #352 at high tide. The 20-something young man in rural West Virginia who proudly turns your subway sandwich into a work of happy art.
But these are exceptions. As an anthropologist, I’m painfully aware of the weakness of ‘guerilla ethnography,’ of drive-by generalizations born of casual observation rather than lived experience in a community for months if not years. Stereotypes are a constant risk. But across 25 states if not twice that number, it would take several lifetimes and more to do this. Amid other work on the political and economic and cultural understanding of the contemporary US, a broad-scale exposure to large swaths of large of rural America, Trump’s America, is better than none. Drive 10,000 miles across the U.S., away from cities and interstates, talking with people along the way, you get a strong and palpable vibe, as fleeting as it might otherwise seem.
Differences – and Canadians
There are many permutations of rural decline in the US. On the whole, rural America is suffering more deeply in red states, which tend to be poorer, than in blue ones. And in any state, things change quickly if you get within a couple of hours of a city much less a metro area. You can literally see how metropolitan money has flowed out to create a penumbra of rippling wealth, including second homes, retirement communities, health-care facilities, local college facilities, and up-scale commercial services and shopping malls. It trickles down into strip malls and chain stores. Sometimes the money flow is reinforced by regional natural attractions and tourist destinations that are fortunate enough to be within striking distance of an urban centers. A sharp contrast here was the east versus west sides of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. The east coast, furrowed pretty much only by state highways, is rural farmland, small towns and villages, better off in fact that most of rural America, but nonetheless struggling. What a contrast this poses to the mainland other side of the Chesapeake Bay – the I-95 corridor leading to Baltimore and Washington, the southern swath of America’s east coast megalopolis, so heavily built up and monied — amid its own haunting challenges and underclass.
The biggest contrast, though was Canada. It felt like something of an empirical test to drive across the Great Lake locks of Sault Sainte Marie into Ontario. At first, the Canadian side of the city looked no better than its American counterpart – a down-and-out relic of post-industrial meltdown. But beyond that, as we drove mile upon mile through southern Ontario and Quebec – most of 1,000 miles to the rural Maine border – we found ourselves quite amazed.
Canadian houses in small towns and hamlets were often modest. But rarely were they in ill-repair. The percentage of derelict or abandoned homes went from probably 20-40% in the northern rural US to only perhaps 3-5% in southern Canada. The contrast was at least as stark, actually moreso, for local businesses and commerce. We found very few shuttered, broken down, or abandoned stores, offices, and retail outlets. Though often modest in size and appointments, rural houses and businesses in southern Canada seemed remarkably and consistently well-maintained. For the residences, even if the house was tiny and old, one sensed pride and dignity in the carefully orchestrated window treatments, fresh paint, plants and decorative fixtures, the well-kept lawn. Trash around homesteads, along with run-down trailers, was rare rather than commonplace. Cheek-by-jowl trailer parks seemed few and far between. By contrast, government facilities and domestic services, often with cheerful architecture and trimmings, seemed more frequent and palpable: family counseling facilities, health centers, rehab clinics, day care facilities for children, and school complexes that seemed more frequent and less impersonal than their industrial-sized American counterparts.
Perhaps our experience was idiosyncratic, and various explanations are possible. Residential development across southern Canada may be more recent than in the rural US. And the region may be more of a commercial lifeline for a Canadian nation that is far more rural overall than the US will ever be, apart from Alaska. But much of the general geography and the distribution of towns and hamlets seemed similar along Canadian state routes and those in the US.
The walking tour guide in Quebec City had a simple answer. Taxes are higher in Canada than in the US – much higher for the wealthy. As a result, Canadians have more plentiful and active government services. A big part of this, he said, was a greater sense of outreach to, connection with, and support for rural areas. Added to this, he immediately added, is Canadian national health care. While health care in Canada is not as good as what the wealthy get in the U.S., the farmer or rural proprietor doesn’t have to trade the cost of fixing the roof against paying for expensive medication. The latter-stage life trauma of fearing and then actually going broke from health care costs seems far less in Canada than in the U.S. The sense of government aid and support, not as a handout but as a national resource and valued benefit, seems much higher. This does not seem to be a trumped-up assertion of aggressive nationalism, but a quieter sense of local as well as national pride – including in Quebec, where Franco- and Anglo divides seem to have softened many of their previous rougher edges.
The grass easily looks greener on the other side of the border, of course – and with global warming, for better or worse, Canada will, indeed, be getting more green. But in terms of rural suffering, the U.S. does seem to have much to learn from its smaller northern neighbor. Canada’s per capita income is just 79% of that in the U.S. But the U.S. index of inequality (GINI) is 26% higher than in Canada. And the percentage of American’s living in poverty a whopping 31% higher than in Canada (12.3% vs. 9.4%). I experienced this same contrast yet much greater when driving through rural France and Switzerland last winter. Facilities may be modest. But they sport a core of good and consistent upkeep. Government services abound and are appreciated. People maintain dignity of value and a pride of rural place that now seem largely gone in rural and small town U.S.
GINI out of the bottle
The final striking trend that throws the suffering of rural American into relief is the contrast between rich and poor. If the ruins of a previous life are etched deep in its current landscape, much of the rural US shows its demise against the stark relief of richer houses and corporate commerce nearby. As striking as the frequency of run-down and abandoned homes and businesses is the disjunction down the road of a big opulent house with a fine lawn and two late model cars. Some these inequities are cheek-by-jowl. Along the coast of Maine, we found multi-million-dollar shorefront properties, replete with long driveways, sculpted landscapes, and three or four-car garages, just a hundred yards from ramshackle homes falling down with trash all around and an inhabited rusting trailer beside.
These contrasts seem to be greatest in Blue states, and also in areas that edge closer the outer penumbra of urban wealth. But they are evident throughout rural America. The few that have made it there have maintained their households and made them new and improved. Often their owners are either employed by the corporate bastions that now run the rural economy or have retired from urban areas elsewhere. But most of those in rural areas have nowhere near the qualifications needed for well-paying and dependable corporate jobs with benefits. Having lost so much, living in such modest means so close beside those who are doing so apparently well, how could one avoid feeling despondent and resentful? Whatever the overall economy of rural communities, it is thrown into relief by the stark contrast between rich and poor in farming regions, small towns, and rural countryside across America. The realities of brutal inequity deeply haunt the land of asserted freedom and liberty in the heartland of America.
Causes and conditions
In retrospect, it is not hard to see how rural America declined. Especially during the 1990s and since the early 2010s, the rest of the country, the Big Country of urbanism and status and prestige and money and power, raced ahead to higher and higher levels. These were the same periods, including during the Presidencies of Clinton and Obama, during which deindustrialization intensified, the digital economy mushroomed — and rural areas were left increasingly behind.
During the years of the Great Depression before FDR, impoverished shanty towns were called Hoovervilles, an ironic dig at the ineffectual then-President. During the 2016 election, when rural voters were so deeply allergic to Hillary Clinton, their small towns and ramshackle communities could easily have been called “Clintonvilles” after the hated liberalism of her husband, Bill, of Obama, and of her own proclivities. But in the 1930s there was a still a sense of community and communitas in rural America, a collective sense that a life of displacement, even if impoverished, was still a collectivity, a “ville.” Now, that sense seems pretty much gone. Against community, there is anomie and individuated separateness. If a stranger pulls too far into your ramshackle driveway, you might well pull out a shotgun. There is a deep sense of resentment, of ressentiment. Much of this is against blue literal whites. But all too often, it goes hand in glove with discrimination and the specter of meanness against rural blacks, immigrants, and other minorities — especially insofar as they are perceived to get special handouts from the government.
The racial composition of rural and small town America is somewhat whiter but otherwise not all that different from the country as a whole – 78% versus 64% white, 8% vs. 12% Black, and 9% vs. 16% Hispanic (Source: Housing Assistance Council Rural Research Brief). But the resentment against dispersed minorities in thinly settled rural areas where everyone-knows-everyone can be qualitatively greater. How race inflects the dynamic of rural America goes to the heart of the whole larger issue of American class and power. Race provides the ultimate Other against which the ressentiment of rural America can be stoked. But exactly how this has become so, and just how this has been so effectively inflamed by Trump, is beyond the present account.
Against this is the disappearance of Norman Rockwell’s small town white America, not America as it is actually was, but, as Rockwell himself said of his portrayals, as you would like to imagine America to be. However distorted or biased this imagination, some of its positive impetus, albeit partial, did soak and seep into the fabric of rural American life. But now that seems gone.
What can be done . . .
The solution or at least the best way forward for rural America requires neither rocket science nor a further digital revolution. A robust local economy will never come back to these areas. And corporatist intrusion or gig-economy training will never spur their catching up. The crisis is cultural and moral and psychological – a way of life that is passing and has passed – as well as being economic. This amid many of the most naturally gifted, bountiful, and beautiful scenic lands that planet earth has to offer.
In the breach, the only way forward seems government — not less, but more. More outreach programs, more respect, more rehab, more government-subsidized lending, more education, more services, more rural subsidies, more national and state parks and facilities. And to do this, much higher taxes on the wealthy.
Not to say that this is easy. Government skewing of projects and programs to the already-wealthy is so legion as to be predictable. A different world view, a different zeitgeist, of the relation between urban and rural America needs developing, including through education and simple experience, supported outreach projects of young urban-educated Americans out to rural areas.
Beyond this but in relation to it is simply respect for the plight and for the desired values of integrity and propriety in rural areas of the US. Rural Americans are for the most part incredibly honest, straightforward, and hard-working. Like Steve at the auto parts store in Cottonwood Colorado who was so concerned that we got our blown fuse fixed that he called us afterwards to make sure it was OK. Or the ACE hardware man outside of Carbondale who took an hour at no cost to trim a sheet metal cover a crack in our sunroof.
More understanding of rural Americans is needed even though and indeed especially because so many of them are so against the projects and government support that they so desperately need and deserve. We need deeper appreciation of suffering in rural America. And fuller compassion for those who experience its causes and conditions.