A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Truth of the Road

The Road is both the truth and a lie: it is the way to see for yourself. It has to be the truth because it is what is; and it is a lie presented to the passerby, not from diabolical intention, but only from that common desire to put up a good face.  The trick is to see it.

What does a healthy community of humans look like? What about healthy farmland, forest, river, desert or wetland? How do I measure what I saw?  Not that I intend to answer these questions, but they need to be before us.

I traveled 3641 miles from my doorstep and back again, mostly on small roads and though small towns, through 6 states (could easily have been 7 or 8 states, but Texas is, as one person put it, God-awful big).  I camped in state parks and so felt the air, weather and landscape; talked with local people as well as travelers on the road.  (In an interesting violation of the anonymity of the road, my travel-packed motorcycle was sufficiently unique that some other same-way travelers came to “know” and watch for me when I was on major highways, and so, became familiar enough to feel a connection when stopped at the same gas station or restaurant; in one case this played out over hundreds of miles.)

My first and overriding impression – as always – was the ubiquitous presence of the human footprint.  Except for the “empty” spaces in the far west, especially New Mexico, and a few miles of deep and trackless swamp in the south, especially Louisiana and Alabama, we humans are everywhere. From the first of the great irrigated farms on the margins of the Llano Estacado of northwest Texas to the “managed” forests of Florida the whole of the land surface and much of the water surface is regularly dominated by the plow, the earth mover, the road and car, the boat, the net, the drill, insecticide and herbicide, the chainsaw, the lawn mower.  Every federal road spawns state roads, spawns county roads, spawns farm roads, logging roads, construction roads, user created roads. 

An interesting pattern in this mold is the gentrification of the land surrounding state parks.  It would seem logical that the approach to such a park would be through increasingly more isolated and native spaces, gradually leaving human concentrations until finally arriving in the protected natural landscape.  That is not so.  Usually a brown sign is seen identifying a state park a certain number of miles ahead.  Other brown signs lead the way with appropriate directions, but not into greater and greater wilderness, rather into communities with larger homes on larger well-tended lots.  The roads improve until that final turn into the park and often, though not always, the abrupt sense of wilderness.  And once in the park’s campsites there are air-conditioned homes on wheels with satellite TV dishes, not tents with scrappy campers living on a diet of beef jerky and Deep Woods Off.
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The many little towns along the way, when reported on the greeting signs, have population numbers like 411, 647, 1483 or 4512 citizens (it is my guess that not all the counts were up to date). The towns almost all had the same form: a gas station with ‘convenience’ store or a few, maybe a tiny barbershop, often a Sonic drive-in and/or a Pizza Hut and some metal building specialty business or two serving some local commercial activities, all surrounding a ‘down-town’ core of empty commercial buildings (with one or more of these converted to selling antiques, but now also closed or with limited hours): these are usually brick storefronts with large windows, ‘square’ facade and top cornice that says ‘here is a drug store, dress shop, a dry goods store or other supplier of the needs of the town’s people.’  Around and between the margins of commercial activity, present and historical, are the people’s houses.  These are almost always reasonably well maintained, grass mowed with a generally tended look.

While each little town would have its own story, there must have been some general process beyond the untimely death, shifting of a river or bankruptcy since almost every town that I rode through, traveling over 2000 miles of secondary roads, had this pattern: a once, more or less, self-contained community with a doctor, barber, food store, restaurant (or two), hardware/dry goods store, a couple of churches, repair shops of various types and so forth, now has half the population and almost all the services gone, many, even most, buildings empty and unused.

But not only is the commercial vitality of the small town gone, so is the social and psychological security, confidence and continuity that grew around and through the people whose lives formed in that world.  There are, of course, remnants of those social/psychological structures, but they are clearly tattered, juxtaposed as they are against the overwhelming commercial power of the interstate highway, the Big City domination of vital services and a nagging suspicion of inferiority. 

It should be noted that these are not new changes, but have been going on for the last 100 years and especially since the end of WWII.  These are the processes of the road, the car, economic growth, privatization and concentration of wealth, technological and communication changes and are really the present manifestation of the processes that have made the human cultural product more important that human lives – a process thousands of years old.
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However, even recognizing what has happened to small town America, there is nothing seen immediately from the road that would give a clear impression of environmental challenge or even economic uncertainty.  Since I know the numbers – loss of income for the great majority of Americans, home foreclosure rates, unemployment figures, real inflation numbers and the changes in average temperature, gradual movement of plant and animal species northward as first and last frosts move closer together, increasing numbers and influence of invasive species – there is, at least the suspicion that some of the affects might be there to see. 

But these changes are statistical on the one hand and, on the other, hidden by the marginalizing of those most influenced by change: the average time that a family keeps a car before replacing it may increase by several months as middle class economic conditions weaken; few people notice that the red buds begin to bloom a week earlier than they did 5 years ago; reducing food spending from $400 to $350 a month is hidden by the walls of the house.  Yet, these, and a larger systematic collection, are all movements toward a new and different future almost completely unrealized as to its irrepressible momentum and consequences.

I have looked in vain for a galvanizing condition that might alert people to the dangers that have formed in the economic, environmental and social motions that swirl around them.  It is unlikely that there can be a generalized response without some unavoidably obvious event or events: One truth that the road powerfully points out is the hugeness of the human enterprise, the incredible investment of wealth and emotion in the present way of doing things.

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