Beauty and Suffering in Rural America

Beauty and Suffering in Rural America:

25 States, 10,000 miles

Spring 2019


Drive across America and find the most incredibly scenic country.  I’ve been around the world – to remote as well as well-traveled parts of Africa, Asia, Oceania, Europe. I’ve been to the high Himalayas, the rainforests of New Guinea, the grasslands and steppes and deserts of Mongolia, the splendors of India and Burma, the splendors of Congo and Rwanda, and much of Europe.  Born in the U.S., I may be biased, but the diversity and depth of physical beauty in America is hard to match anywhere.  Even apart from the stunning vistas, forests, and coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington, and the expansive beauty from Nevada to Montana – explored in previous trips – the natural spectacle of nature in America we witnessed this time is simply 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 the 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 – the sheer beauty of the American landscape is simply breathtaking. In early spring, one sees this all the more richly in moods of changeable weather — and without summertime crowds and traffic.

Single lane state routes are the best way to see rural America, and that is what we opted for, perhaps 90% of our two-month trip. Away from the interstate, one finds nooks and crannies, the local that is unexpected and the unexpected that is local, both geographically and culturally.

The bittersweet human side of rural America is at least if more poignant than the splendor of nature 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, across our rural landscape.  You see it in town after town after town after town, in state after state.  It is absolutely heartbreaking to come to towns and crossroads, across farmlands and forests and open ranges, that so obviously used to be so viable for its people just a few scant years or decades 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 wood rot, unrepaired roofs, broken and boarded up windows.  Often they are totally abandoned, but often as well they reveal remnant signs of despondent life inside:  a pickup truck or van in the yard or driveway, 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. We couldn’t help wondering — but had no way of knowing — how much of what we saw was informed by the opioid and methamphetamine and related drug crises, in addition to alcoholism.

It’s hard to convey how common, how horribly common and regular, the above scenes have now become in rural America. We took scores, hundreds of photos of 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.  You can imagine a string of these pictures accompanying this narrative, an ongoing tableau of decay and despondency set off against the incredible natural splendor of America’s non-human nature.

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 used to keep 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 old cleaners next to the used-to-be movie theater, soda shop, tailor, shoe store, and the abandoned motels – back before internet, when families drove by and actually just stopped for the night.  Now instead one drives for miles to find a sprawling Walmart in the middle of nowhere, perhaps accompanied by a Target and a Dollar Store – the breadbasket of rural places, and closer to larger town or suburban area, a chain Best Western or Comfort Inn.

The surviving locally run businesses, if often run down, are the auto-repair and tire shops, the chain auto parts store – perhaps along with an ACE hardware, and the ubiquitous dollar stores, such as Dollar General, Family Dollar, and Dollar Tree.  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. At no matter what cost, Jesus saves. John 3:16. Sodomy is sin.

The suffering is variable, of course.  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 much of rural America. When you lost your local job or were retired during the 2008 crisis, you couldn’t pay your mortgage or even your taxes.  Your heart medication cost more than fixing the roof, and there was nowhere to go but to the crowded trailer park a three-mile world away from the place that had always been home.  What do you do?

A case study is Ishpeming, UP Michigan, not far from Marquette. In the 1940s-60s and into the 70s, it was a lively and well-built town fueled, like most of the area, by logging and especially mining – iron for the steel of the Michigan auto industry.  As Kate remembered, and 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 the lower slopes.  People kept up values and appearances, nice cars, nice houses, good clothes, commemorative parades, and civic events.

Now Ishpeming is the hollow of a derelict shell, a monument to decrepitude and despondency.  The large-scale graffiti on the buildings includes “LOVE” that puts a crying face in the “O.” Almost all the major privately owned building is boarded up or abandoned, the shops vacant, the houses rotting and falling town.  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.

We learned a lot from these experiences.  We sensed how demeaning it would be for someone living in such a place to be told by outsiders that now you have to re-tool, re-educate, and 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, and tried 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 escapism of alcoholism, drug use and abuse, domestic violence, and the vengeful reassertion of those family values it can no longer really maintain, either economically or emotionally.

The worst we saw was the sprawling Hopi reservation land in northeast Arizona.  We traveled across it for the better part of a hundred miles, across breathtaking mesa vistas.  Strewn along the only road were stream upon intermittent stream of hovels and shacks and run-down trailers. In the parched middle of nowhere, without water or grid-line power, and virtually no private commercial businesses or enterprises anywhere, what do people do?

As everywhere – 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 ner-do-wells to establish a thriving one-woman tourist business – while she completes her MA in trauma art therapy.  The young Jewish man in Antonito, Colorado, on the desolate border with New Mexico, who spearheads thriving NGOs dedicated to organic farming, good nutrition, and educational outreach with local youth. The middle-aged female motel operator in UP Michigan who shovels foot after foot of snow off the roof, cheerfully keeping her family business alive continuously for 52 years. The 60-ish male free ferry operator at Whitehaven, Maryland, who works all day at his post at the Wicomico River even when he has to turn away cars, like ours, that arrive on Route #352 trying to cross to its other side at high tide. Then there is the 20-something young man in rural West Virginia who proudly makes your subway sandwich as 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 stereotypes born of casual observation — without lived experience and talking with people at length about their lives.  Essentialism is a constant risk in assessing broad-based conditions of others.  But across 25 states if not twice that number, it would take many lifetimes to do this. Amid other work on the political and economic and cultural understanding of contemporary America, and especially its critical theorization, I think that a passing broad-scale exposure to large swaths of contemporary rural America, Trump’s America, is much better than none at all. Drive 10,000 miles across the U.S., away from cities and interstates, and talk with people along the way, and you do get a strong and palpable vibe, as intangible as it might otherwise seem.

There are many permutations, of course.  On the whole, unsurprisingly, rural America is suffering more deeply in red states, which tend to be poorer, than in blue ones, which tend to be richer.  And things change revealingly if you travel within a couple of hours drive of a bigger city much less a metro area.  You can literally see how the money has flowed out, a penumbra of urban wealth, into second homes, retirement communities, and health-care facilities.  It flows into upscale shopping centers, chain-store services, colleges and universities with their local monied economies, and support for natural attractions and parks within striking distance of 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 along. What a contrast this is to the mainland other side of the Chesapeake Bay – the I-95 corridor south of Baltimore and Washington, the southern swath of America’s east coast megalopolis, so heavily built up and monied — amid it own haunting problems and underclass.

The biggest contrast, though, was Canada.  It felt like something of an empirical test as we drove across the locks of Sault Sainte Marie into Ontario.  To begin with, 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 accoutrements, 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, a well-maintained lawn.  Trash around homesteads, along with run-down trailers, were rare rather than commonplace.  Cheek-by-jowl trailer parks seemed few and far between. By contrast, the presence of 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 both more frequent and smaller in scale than their industrial-sized American counterparts.

Perhaps our experience was idiosyncratic.  And there are various possible explanations.  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 to what they are in the US.

Our walking tour guide in Quebec City had a simple answer.  He said that taxes are higher in Canada than in the US – much higher, especially for the wealthy.  But as a result they had more plentiful and active government services, and, as a big part of this, 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 heart medication.  The latter-stage life trauma of fearing and then actually going broke from health care costs — amid an inability to pay taxes much less mortgages — seems far less in Canada than in the U.S.  And for younger families, there is government mandated and supported maternity and/or paternity leave, after which you can’t lose your job, as well as subsidized child care services.  The sense of government aid and support, not as a handout but as a national resource and valued benefit, seems much higher.  This doesn’t appear 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-Anglo divide seems to have softened many of its previous rougher edges.

Of course, the grass easily looks greener on the other side of the border – and with global warming, Canada will, for better or worse, 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 Canada’s.  Given this, it is not totally surprising that the percentage of people living in poverty is a whopping 31% higher in the United States than in Canada.  We 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.

The final striking trend that threw into relief the suffering of rural America was the contrast between poor and rich in American rural areas and small towns themselves.  If the ruins of a previous life are etched deep in its present landscape, much of the rural US shows its destitution against the stark relief of richer houses and corporate commercialism nearby.  As striking as the frequency of run down and abandoned homes and businesses is the contrast of a big opulent house with a fine lawn and two late model cars just down the road.  Some of 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 to 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 economy of rural America or retired from urban areas elsewhere or.  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, and living in poverty so close beside those who are doing so apparently well, how could you avoid feeling despondent and resentful?  Whatever the overall economy of these rural communities, it is thrown into relief by the stark contrast between rich and poor in rural areas, farming regions, and small towns in America. The realities of brutal inequality deeply haunt the land of asserted freedom and liberty in the heartland of America.

In retrospect, it is not hard to see how this occurred.  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 small towns and countryside areas got 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 village, a “ville.”  Now, that sense seems highly compromised if not gone.  Against community, there is deep 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 resentiment, of ressentiment.  Much of this is against blue literal whites.  But all too often, it goes hand in glove with discrimination and potential 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 (Housing Assistance Council Rural Research Brief).  But the resentment again dispersed minorities in thinly settled rural areas and everyone-knows-everyone small towns can be qualitatively greater. How race inflects the dynamic of rural America goes to the heart of the whole larger issue of American class/power.  Race provides the ultimate Other against which the ressentiment of rural America can be stoked. But exactly how this has is 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, however partial, did soak and seep into the fabric of rural American life.  But now that seems gone.

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 simply economic.  And this amid many of the most naturally gifted, bountiful, and beautiful scenic lands that our planet 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.

Beyond this, however, is simply respect for the plight and for the desired values of integrity and propriety in rural areas of the US.  This even and especially when what seems the best path forward is so refractory to and opposed by the sensibilities of rural Americans themselves.  We need much deeper understanding of suffering in rural America.  And fuller compassion for those who so deeply experience its causes and conditions.

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