A brief note on the state of America

Tooele, Utah. 4:37pm.

Some thoughts and feelings about America have been brewing inside me for a while, and they are just that – thoughts and feelings. Not truths. Any complaints you may have with this post, blog or really anything else concerning me will be taken care of by my legal representative Eric Olson.

Yesterday was a little bit different from most other days of this trip. Daniel and I rode in a more urban environment than I’m used to for most of the day, coming through Springville, Provo and Lehi. These are all towns that I assume began their existence as that – towns – but which have now melded together into one long row of strip malls catering to the growing number of people on the outskirts of the mighty Salt Lake City.

And I actually mean it when I say that we did spend about 4 hours riding through shopping center-lined roads. That’s what it was. You’d see a sign saying “welcome to Provo” ledged in between two malls – there were no actual boundaries between these towns. Construction was heavy everywhere – roads needed to be upgraded, widened and enlarged in order to accommodate the steady increase in SUV’s and heavy duty pick-up trucks that these suburban dwellers imagine that they need.

The shopping malls – all with made-up sounding names like Rosewood Mall and Creekside Center – all housed the same stores. Sprinkled between the malls were residential areas – also with names the result of unimaginative brainstorming sessions and houses difficult to tell apart from its neighbor. A few times I thought we must be backtracking because we kept seeing the same shit over and over again. Walmart, Dollar General, Dollar Tree, Ace Hardware, The Home Depot, Target, Arby’s, McDonalds, Burger King and Subway. You know this shit already. It’s the same almost anywhere you go in America. I haven’t seen too much of it because I’ve been riding on the Transamerica Trail, which is routed almost exclusively through very small towns where this pattern of consuming is not as overwhelming. In fact, the Trail showed me the exact opposite – or rather, the result – of the quick urbanization that has led to these towns centered around malls: the Trans America-trail put on display all the dying small towns of America.

Many of these towns, which in their booming years in the 50’s , 60’s and 70’s housed several grocery stores, bars, a car dealership and a post office are now slowly withering away completely. One example that springs to mind is Coyville, Kansas, which 40 or so years ago had a population of a few thousand and all of the above amenities – and when I passed through it in July had a population of 96 people and not even a gas station. The steel mill had moved and the railroad had been re-routed to not go through town anymore. All but 96 left town. This story rings true of just about every single small town I’ve passed through on this journey: booming many years ago, industry left town, and now the towns are descending into misery with sky-high unemployment rates, crime and drug-use among young people.

The bigger-sized Springville, Provo and Lehi seemed to be booming right now. I felt like an alien on my bike. So many cars, or personal little prisons rather, with one person in each cell. The drivers are locked in, too. Not sure if it’s by choice or if cars in America these days automatically lock its prisoners in at speeds over 5 mph. Either way, people are locked inside their cars – protected by efficient AC from the ever hotter outside temperature, anxiously hopping between stores, work and home. It struck me yesterday how tragic it is that this is reality now. The car, which was supposed to liberate people, now serves two purposes: it keeps you from the discomfort of having to walk, and it also keeps you at a safe distance from the climate and other, potentially dangerous, people. “Within walking distance” seems to be a term rarely used in the Midwest.

We went into one of the many Walmart stores yesterday. They all look literally the same, and it’s probably a corporate policy to keep it that way. Hungry, we grabbed two burritos out of the deli section to eat while shopping and pay later. Could they please be heated in the micro-wave oven behind the counter, we asked. Anxious, the young “associate” turned to ask her supervisor, looking for the answer. “Sorry, we don’t do that. Corporate policy”. I stood there in awe, wondering if it was true or if the supervisor made it up on the spot out of laziness. We kept pushing our cart, stocking up on the necessary supplies. Everywhere, there were signs, screaming: “30% more in the package”, “Now, half price!”, “New and improved formula”, “Buy now, pay later!”. The ads urge us to consume more, go beyond our limits and become happier. The people in Walmart abide. Family of 4 – net weight probably exceeding 800 lbs – trudge by us. The seat in the cart intended for a small child carries no child but instead a thick binder containing page after page of coupons, neatly organized. In the main compartment of the cart, stacked high, are cases of generic Cola and grape drinks, frozen pizzas, microwave-ready hamburgers and packages of Rice-a-Roni.

It was overwhelming, really. It makes you want to yell “STOP!!!” and make the whole world just freeze for a minute to think about what the hell is going on. If economic growth is going to continue to be the target, and the personal growth of people rises at a similar pace, where will we end up? Can anything just grow infinitely in a finite space? Logic says no.

I keep seeing bumper stickers trumpeting the supposed fact that America is the greatest country on earth – and the truth is, of course, that this country has been and still is the superpower of this planet. The question I’ve been asking myself these last few weeks is, how long will it stay that way? To me, it feels like the country is on its knees. Fossil fuels are being mined and burnt like there is no tomorrow, drugs are being snorted, shot up, freebased and inhaled, and millions of people who used to work in industries which will never come back are unemployed. The amount of resources this nation goes through on a daily basis – with seemingly no awareness – makes me think of a small greedy child lacking in patience and self-constraint. The child is testing its own and its parent’s boundaries. Who is America’s parent?

Back in the Walmart in Provo, the cashier rang up my items quickly and efficiently. Upon grabbing my bottle of chocolate milk, she said: “ohh, I love chocolate milk, but I never buy it!”
“Why?”
“Oh, it’s so expensive!” I glanced at the cash register. $2.19 for a half gallon. This is the richest country in the world, and it felt like yesterday I was in Aspen, Colorado, where people could fill their swimming pools with fresh chocolate milk every day if they felt like it.

“Maybe I’ll treat my husband to some chocolate milk tonight, he’d love that,” the cashier said, smiling warmly, before ringing up the next customer.

5 thoughts on “A brief note on the state of America

  1. I don’t know if the country is on it’s knees. At least not yet. Or rather, maybe we all should be on our knees. Praying.

    But I will say the consumer mentality is definitely putting people at odds with each other. You have 30% on one side who, unquestionably, want, desire, and buy everything their paycheck will allow. You have maybe 10-15% on the other side who are anywhere from minimalist to at least practical. Then you have the ugly 60% in the middle who, quite often, go along with the consumer life, but somewhere in their gut they wonder if they aren’t helping to destroy their own family and their own community and their own country.

    The civil war was fought primarily by very small minorities. About 10% of the country on each side. The other 80% of the country went about their business (I’m summarizing for brevity). This is typical in many cultural conflicts. You have sides that feel “extreme” and then you have the cloudy, dirty, not-sure-what-to-do middle clump that often takes the path of least resistance, not necessarily for immoral reasons, but because they are conflicted.

    The urban sprawl of America is a result of that ugly middle group. Thankfully, there has been some minor changes going on – but it will take decades before we see more fruit from it, and that is only if there isn’t a reversal to the hard-fought battles communities have already won.

    Case in point: A certain fast-food joint was coming to town here and the town elders kind of screwed up the deal, unintentionally, by being greedy and making too many restrictions on the land they fast-food place was going to purchase. So, the company backed out of the deal. Here you have three views on this: (1) it’s a crying shame our town is so unfriendly to business, (2) why is change always happening? we don’t need no fast-food joint, and (3) is it really important that we bend over backward for another copycat village so we can look like every other town in America?

    Needless to say, I subscribe to the last point along with a minority of people here. I’m all for being friendly toward businesses, but I wish Americans would get off their duff and *create* business rather than waiting like birds in a nest with their mouth open cawing and hoping that some fast-food place or some big-box retailer will come and give the local economy a boost. The laziness is disgusting.

    People blame Walmart and while, yes, they should have the decency to throw some people out, the reality is that small business got lazy after 1980. I’ve talked to dozens of business owners who think that if they can’t compete on price with Walmart, they can’t compete. They do nothing to innovate, the offer no unique service, they place their stores in inaccessible hole-in-the-wall corners of cheap outlet malls, and then… blame Walmart! (Or the internet).

    America isn’t going to ban Targets (or Chick-Fil-A’s… LOL). We aren’t communists. But I think you are right that we are going to have to hit some very low points, both economically and community-wise, before we wake up and start rebuilding good stuff. Maybe one day we will look back at the industrial age of monster corporations littering the landscape as a cute footnote in American history. Maybe. I can only hope.

  2. Walmart is the place to be. Could you please pick up a tube of Hanes Boxer Shorts (5 or 6-pack) size 3XL before you leave the U.S. Colour or pattern doesn’t matter. I will reward you generously when you deliver.
    Push on

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