The Ties That Bind

I love football and the Seattle Seahawks.

I love the game of football even though I am not very good at it.  My brief high school career was spent mostly as a bench-warming tackling dummy. In college I was able to take the field as a receiver for a lousy team where my position coach nicknamed me Roberto Duran (Hands of Stone.)  These personal failings did not diminish my love for the sport because of its physicality and strategy.  You must both physically dominate and out-think the other team.

I have loved the Seahawks since their inception when I was a teenager in Alaska.  Every Sunday for 40 years found me glued to the TV to follow their history of long-term futility and more recent glory.  Since moving to Seattle 25 years ago, home Sundays brought me to a stadium with 65,000 other passionate, rabid Seahawks fans.  The “12’s”, as they are known, extend beyond the tens of thousands in the stadium to hundreds of thousands that religiously don blue, grey, white or putrid green jerseys each Sunday to support their team.  As I watch the games, I am often struck by the irony that my BFFs around the city of Seattle during a few hours on a Sunday afternoon have very little to do with me politically.  Seattle is a very blue city in a mostly blue state.  I am neither Republican nor Democrat but I personally find most of the politics in Washington a bit on the loony side.

And yet, it doesn’t matter during those Sunday afternoons. The ties that bind us during those games are the shared suffering of 40 years of mediocrity rewarded by recent success, the shared respect for a team with tenacity, grit, and brotherhood, and by the shared passion for a glorious game with the orgasmic highs and soul-crushing lows that come with it.  So how do these ties differ from our national entanglements?

You might argue that NFL teams don’t tax their fan base as governments do but remind me of that argument when I pay for season tickets. You might tell me that NFL teams don’t enforce mind-numbing, bureaucratic regulations and I will tell you about how much fun it is to go through screening to get into the stadium. I take pride in being a 12 just as I take pride in being an American.  The denigration by Seahawks fans of mouth-breathing 49er fans or room-temperature IQ Cardinal fans is just as xenophobic as the argument for American exceptionalism.   There are, of course, limits to this metaphor since the Seahawks will not draft me to invade Los Angeles, but then I might volunteer if the uniforms were cool.

But why are we able to overlook our cultural, political, and economic differences for the sake of NFL fandom, and yet we as a nation are failing to overlook those same differences for the sake of the far deeper American ties that bind?  Our creeds, our system, and our shared history link us together far more meaningfully than shared laundry.  Debates over those creeds, this system, and that history offer myriad opportunities to disagree, but we cannot lose sight of the unifying power of our shared experience.  If I am willing to share a drink with my seat neighbor in Century Link Field, I should be willing to share a drink with any fellow American despite our social and political differences.  If I can constructively debate with a fellow 12 on the matter of Richard Sherman and his inability to keep his trap shut, I can also constructively confer with an advocate of higher minimum wages on the best way to address income inequality.

Admittedly, a sports metaphor weakens when you think about the broader set of divisive social, economic, and political issues that dominate American conversation and the vitriol, fear, and frustration that too often boil to the surface.  When the final whistle blows, the game is over and fans go back their real lives, as fortune may favor them or not.  Fandom is over for a time while the real world and this society never ends.  The friction of the real world is proving it difficult for Americans to maintain a civil, respectful dialog.  Rather than admit that as a given, I choose to at least attempt civil, respectful dialog until someone proves themselves unworthy.

I am fortunate that I can walk into most any establishment along this road trip and engage in a conversation without having to worry.  Unfortunately I am very capable of putting my foot in my mouth, saying something stupid, and then indeed having something to worry about.  I imagine most people we encounter will treat us with respect until or unless I prove myself a jerk.

There are ties that bind, and there are ties that matter.  Treating fellow Americans with respect is a tie that matters.  So this road trip is about treating fellow Americans with respect while listening to what they say about that evergreen question that impacts us all: “What’s Next?”

EML

First Day’s Take-Aways

We grabbed that cash with both hands and made a dash. Not quite Pink Floyd’s line. But we took the Camaro convertible and hit I-90 from O’Hare. No ether or other intoxicants were involved, only the automobile and the general middle-finger-to-the-world of Metallica’s Enter Sandman at a conversation-quelling volume. When leaving the rental garage we asked the young lady checking us out into the Great Wide Open the question that motivates our quest: “What do you think comes after Trump?” She gave us a laugh and then gave the question some thoughtful consideration. She wanted Hillary to run in 2020. She said Hillary was Bill’s rock, and that she deserved another chance. We teased her and asked if she thought Bill was Hillary’s rock. She didn’t think that was the case, but affirmed that she wanted Hillary to run again.

Later, after rain and lightning and large trucks closer than Louis Chevrolet was to his wife, we arrived in Mauston, Wisconsin. We drove around a while and found the Juneau County War Memorial. Mauston is the seat of Juneau County, named for Solomon Juneau. Solomon founded the city of Milwaukee, which is not in Juneau County. Solomon, a fur trader, is the uncle of Joseph Juneau, who founded the city of Juneau, Alaska. Both Juneaux were Canadians, but they left their names on the United States.

Juneau County

After that bit of local history, we stopped in at Carl’s Bright Spot. Carl’s doesn’t have a rating on Yelp. When we walked in and asked the bartender what bourbons they had, she didn’t know. She was friendly and starting rummaging around behind the bar to find the bottles and gave us our choices. A pair of guys at the bar laughed and commented that we must not be from around there because the locals drank beer. Or Sambuca. The place was friendly and folks asked us about our trip. We learned that professional rodeo is the only professional sport where you do not get paid just for showing up. That was an interesting perspective on the other major professional sports. That meant we had run into some cowboys, and not some Packer fans.  We were only talking to a small group, so that does not mean the attitude was representative of the town. There were Packers and Brewers signs and schedules all over the bar.

We asked a woman who had grown up in the town if it had changed. She said it really hadn’t, except there were more druggies now. She liked her town. The older of the cowboys, who had lived all through the Midwest, told us that 2016 was the first time he had voted. He was so upset at the notion of Hillary Clinton being commander-in-chief that he voted against her. We didn’t ask who he had voted for, but he didn’t seem like a third party guy. “You guys aren’t Democrats, are you?” he asked us. We were told that ranch where the cowboys worked got a lot of business from people coming up from Chicagoland, for fishing (norther pike, bass, and bluegill) and for horseback riding. We also learned that the Harley Davidson Museum in Milwaukee is an excellent place to visit, even for non-fans of Harleys. That was our time in Mauston.

Juneau Sign

Day 2 – Higher Up and Further In

 

We began the day with breakfast in Adams, Wisconsin at The Country Skillet (which has 5 stars from 5 reviews on Yelp). Breakfast was good, and we overheard several interesting conversations at adjacent tables. Apparently, the home construction industry in the area is doing well. Transgendered folks have more rights than traditional genders. People spend a foolish amount of money to have cell phones and other computers. And people are trying to cash in on the eclipse in absurd ways. After our meal, we spoke to a couple of the gentlemen whose conversations we overheard. We described our road trip to them and then asked the question, “What comes after Trump?” One guy replied that it was too far into the future to even think about, at least for him. He said he did not have the energy for that. The other gentlemen said he thought there was nothing in the future after Trump, and then added that he hoped Hillary wasn’t in the future. Neither elaborated on his thoughts, I think we genuinely surprised them with the question.

Before we left Adams county, we passed through the town of Friendship. We came upon my favorite juxtaposition of business signs: the Who Cares Bar next to the Friendship Café. With that Readers Digest moment behind us, we drove on.

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We briefly stopped for fudge in Wautoma, in Waushara County. We asked the proprietress when the building had been built: 1888. She told us the history of the businesses in that spot, almost continuously in use for 129 years. There were always interested merchants to take over the space, in contrast to towns we visited later where old boarded up businesses seemed to be the norm. I think it would be apt to describe Adams, Friendship, and Wautoma as thriving small towns, in productive agricultural areas.

We then went to Waupaca, in Waupaca County. This was a shorter visit, with just a drive through downtown. This was another prosperous small community. The farms in the area were well-maintained and looked busy. We drove through Merrill in Merrill County, making similar observations. We then drove to Crandon for lunch, at Tricia’s Treasures (6 reviews, 5 stars on Yelp). Getting to Crandon from Merrill required a lot of driving on county roads. The area was a little more forested and a little less agricultural than the counties we visited earlier, but the town was pleasant with plenty of foot traffic at lunch time.

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As a reminder, we chose these counties because they had voted for Obama/Democrat in 2012 and swung by at least 20% points for Trump/Republican in 2016. There was no indication those counties had especially suffered economic hardships. Economic hardship was one of the explanations for Trump’s success, but it was not evident in the ones we visited in the morning. We also noted that we saw only one Trump sign on the trip (so far). It is hard to make meaningful comparisons, but we both noted that after Obama’s wins in 2008 and 2012, there were plenty of his signs and bumper stickers displayed – at least in the Pacific Northwest. Now, Wisconsin might not do that sort of thing no matter who wins or loses. Or it may be that Mr. Trump’s support was not especially deep, or not a choice that inspired a lot of “hey, I’m on that team” sentiment.
We then drive for several hours north and east into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, crossing the Mackinac Bridge into the southern peninsula of Michigan. The counties we drove through (but didn’t stop in) looked far less agricultural, with areas devoted to seasonal recreation. The small towns here had more closed businesses, more homes that were shuttered or abandoned, more rusting equipment in untended fields. These counties did not meet the criteria we used for stopping to visit, but they did also vote for President Trump in the 2016 election.

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We stopped for the night in Gaylord Michigan. Commercial construction was going on all over town. When we spoke to the person at our hotel counter, she told us that several new restaurants had opened down town. The town was larger than the ones we visited in Wisconsin – and not on our list of counties to visit. We needed to visit a Hertz office, and this one had one that was on our route.

The downtown has an alpine theme, with storefronts painted in that manner. We visited The Iron Pig Smokehouse (excellent ribs and wings with a very smoky flavor). Our server told us that the town had an alpine theme because of a sister city. After our meal, I found that the sister city is Pointresina in Switzerland. The server and bartender confirmed what our hotel clerk had said: the town was growing and things were going well. Our server was not from Gaylord, she had moved away from Cheboygan – a town she said was not growing or thriving. I will note that Gaylord was right on interstate 75, an observation that will be used in tomorrow’s note.

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Day 3 – We Called The Road Our Home

We began the day with breakfast at Rosco’s Restaurant in Roscommon, Michigan. We liked that the place had copies of the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence on the wall. Roscommon looked as if it had seen better days. Interstate 75 used to pass through the town, Business 75 went through town, but the interstate now is a few miles away. There were some of the typical conversations about immigrants taking jobs, but nothing spectacular said, just the usual morning grumpiness. We were entertained by our waitress, who dealt with my inability to distinguish between the numbers 2 and 4, and Ed’s desire to hear of any local specialties on the menu.

We then drove through Gladwin Michigan, another town off the interstate – though the interstate had never passed through. We drove on to West Branch in Ogemaw county. Both of these cities looked in better shape than Roscommon. Keep in mind, we are often just driving into town and looking to see if the place looks prosperous or not. One of our goals on this trip was to get an impression be of how “obvious” it might be that economic hardships drove the 20% changes in voting from the Democratic candidate in 2012 to the Republican in 2016. We really didn’t see much evidence of that in our first three days. Mostly, we heard anti-Hillary sentiments. Our speculation is that Trump was not so wonderful, as Hillary was dreadful. The most common sentiment we heard was that she was not a desirable choice as Commander-In-Chief. Clearly, President Trump has his avid supporters – but I do not think his support is a long-term affiliation change like President Reagan’s victory was for turning some Democratic voters into Republican voters.

After driving through Roscommon, we speculated on the effects of an interstate route moving away from a town. The towns we visited in Wisconsin that were never on major highways, Crandon comes most to mind, seemed to be doing well. Granted, the towns that were doing well in Wisconsin were also in the middle of productive agricultural areas. That must provide a solid base for employment and income and taxes.  Towns that appeared to rely more upon seasonal recreation for people from the bigger cities did not look as prosperous. And the one town that had experienced the move of an interstate had the greatest number of closed businesses we saw in the counties we visited.

We then hit the road, with the goal to get to DuBois, Pennsylvania. We drove over 700 miles today. I wish all states had 75 mph speed limits. We did notice that even with that higher speed limit, a lot of traffic passed us traveling 5-10 miles an hour faster. In a Camaro convertible with California license plates, we decided we were too much of a target for speeding citations to go much over the speed limit.

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One of us has spent a lot of time in Pennsylvania, and DuBois was geographically a common central Pennsylvania town: settled in a valley. The town is off I-80, and the interstate never went through it. The town looked vital: the steakhouse we visited for dinner (the Fort Worth Restaurant and Saloon) was filled with patrons on a Friday night. As simple economic indicators go, that pointed to a town where business was pretty good. We did not see new construction to the extent that we did in Gaylord, so I do not think the town is growing.

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After our dinner, we drove to Hazleton to get lodging. With the Little League World Series going on in nearby Williamsport (77 miles away) a lot of the hotel rooms in the area were already taken. We then found a bar to watch the Seahawks play the Vikings. There were no funny looks or comments when we ordered our drinks.

Day 4 – The Proposition That All Men Are Created Equal

The day began with no sign of rain, the first such day of the road trip. We converted the convertible and drove to the town formerly known as Mauch Chunk. The town had been renamed Jim Thorpe in honor of the man named the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century, buried there. I had read of his amazing exploits when I was a kid, but had not thought of them for a while. His memorial park had two dramatic statues of him, one of him throwing a discus and one of him carrying a football.  The park was well maintained and the placards were informative.

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Jim Thorpe is the seat of Carbon County. We passed several slag heaps as we drove through this part of Pennsylvania, signs of the roll that carbon has played in that area. We had breakfast at Bob’s Restaurant (3.5 stars, 3 reviews). The place was so small that our waitress was also our cook. When choosing which counties to visit on our trip we looked at various factors that correlated with the swing in party votes: education level, median income, portion of children living in poverty, obesity, suicide rates, opioid overdoses.  The factor that correlated highest with the greater than 20% swing to Trump 2016 from Obama 2012 was percentage of population with less than a high school education. One of the other factors with a greater than 0.2 correlation was opioid overdoses. We were expecting to see signs of drug addiction in the communities. I realize that can be easily hidden. Dealers do not need to stand on street corners and junkies do not need to slump in doorways.  When I lived on Kauai, there was a flat patch at the side of the road about half a mile from my house where dealers and clients met up in their cars. I never felt unsafe from that sort of thing, and it would have been easily missed, if I were not a resident. I mention this to make the point that we saw no obvious drug users except one person in town. She had the meth addict’s teeth. I do not dispute the statistics, but I will make the same comment that others have: drug addiction in a rural area does not leave the same footprint as drug addiction in a downtrodden urban setting.

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One of our goals for the day was to make the Civil War battlefields at Gettysburg and Antietam. With that in mind, we only drove through the three counties of Schuylkill, Clearfield, and Northumberland. We did not stop to interview anyone or eavesdrop on any conversations. One of us has spent a fair amount of time in Pennsylvania. His observations are that those counties looked essentially the same as they had over the last 20 years. There were no obvious signs of economic hardship that post-dated the manufacturing moves that affected the area in the 1980’s and 1990’s. As noted earlier, it did not appear that a new or sudden economic hardship might have hit the area and motivated the change in voting behavior. I remarked that if the houses had been built when the communities were thriving, they would have been 80 to 100 years old. I wonder how well the houses put up in prosperous technology enclaves near Seattle will hold up when they reach that age.

Then we came to Gettysburg. We began at Cemetery Hill. I was almost immediately overwhelmed at the density of the monuments, the spread of the battlefield, and the specter of sacrifice and valor. We then visited Little Round Top and the monument to the 20th Maine. I am not a Civil War buff; my only detailed reading was Michael Schaara’s The Killer Angels. Standing on that slope, looking at what the Alabama Brigade had to attack, and the 20th regiment had to defend, I was overcome with love and fear and hope. Our country is again at a fraught moment, though not as dire as the one we faced then. We need to rise above our petty and divisive president and recall that we the people are our country. Our government is not our country. It can help us be better or help us be worse, but the choice of what it does is up to us.

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The monument that Lincoln dedicated with the Gettysburg Address.

Random Observations from 2900 Miles, Six Days, and Ten States

  • A restaurant advertising Pizza and Sushi as if they go together
  • The “Who Cares” bar next to the “Friendship Café”
  • That look and knowing nod from the one black guy we saw in Pottsville, PA as he looked at two white dudes blasting Parliament’s “We Want the Funk” from their convertible
  • Hometown Hero banners of veterans in small towns in Pennsylvania
  • The sassy waitress in Roscommon, MI
  • Meth teeth in Pennsylvania
  • Jim Thorpe was a stud, winning BOTH the pentathlon and Decathlon in 1912
  • Cowboys in a Wisconsin bar
  • Brag sign for Class D high school team as State runner up for sportsmanship
  • The Alpine motif in Gaylord was a bit of a reach
  • Flags everywhere in all ten states
  • DOI and Constitution on the wall of a Michigan diner
  • Kevlar fence around a Michigan hunting club preventing motorists from becoming the next trophy
  • The regrettably named Ho-Chunk Casino in Wisconsin
  • Pest removal business advertising it’s “Special of the Week – Fleas”
  • Your friend of 38 years choking-up with emotion as he read a draft of his essay on his first experience at Gettysburg
  • Total Solar Eclipses are cool.  See you in Chile in 2021
  • Waffle House is the Breakfast of Champions
  • Taylor Swift Education Center in Nashville. Yeah, right
  • Johnny Cash applied to work at the NSA
  • Kentucky public schools look like prisons
  • People were incredibly polite and friendly everywhere we went
  • Woodford Reserve gives good tour
  • Kentucky and Tennessee drivers believe the Interstate is NASCAR
  • In memoriam for that valiant turtle that didn’t quite make it across the highway in West Virginia.  Our thoughts and prayers go to your family. Our bad.

 

 

EML

Initial Impressions after 1800 Miles

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

  • Frederick Nietzsche

Gettysburg and Antietam are solemn places. As your eyes pass over the lis of tens of thousands of Americans slaughtered on the battlefields you absorb a gut punch of sorrow and painful emptiness.  On Cemetery Ridge, where the rebellion’s high water mark crashed fatally and futilely on the Union line, I found a marker with a quote attributed to Union Lt. Benjamin Rittenhouse:

“I felt proud of that charging column of Americans, even though they were rebels…They were citizen soldiers, American volunteers.”

Incredible.

Lt. Rittenhouse offers respect to rebels that were screaming and charging across hundreds of yards of open field with a mind to murder him. Consider and contrast that sentiment with the loathing, vitriol, and utter banality that passes for our current political discourse.

I conceived of this trip because I was as shocked as anyone by the election of President Trump. I thought he had a chance, but his electoral path to victory by drawing an inside straight through Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania was a complete surprise.  After looking through the county-by-county results I couldn’t believe the swings of more than 20% in counties that voted for Obama in 2012, yet voted for Trump in 2016.  Did this portend a material change in future Presidential elections?  Was the long pattern of two parties dominating Presidential politics coming to an end? Indeed, what awaits us after the Trump era, however short or long, passes?

I wanted to ignore the biased, irrational drivel found in current newspapers, cable shows, and blogs and witness the conditions in these areas with my own eyes and ears.  From looking at the demographic and economic data on the swing counties, I thought the election result was the result of severe economic pressures shaking up electoral politics.

I was wrong.

Yes, many of these counties have been on the receiving end of adverse economic trends, but they are mostly rural and not the manufacturing centers that have been gutted.  I have been through the three states for professional and personal reasons many times and have seen first-hand other areas that have suffered as manufacturing jobs were exported. Our 14 target counties were in places where I have spent less time and, in the last three days we have found these communities to be more prosperous than we expected.

So how did Trump cause more than 20% of the voters in the counties that voted for Obama to vote for a very different candidate in 2016?  I think it may have simply been the alternative that faced the voters.  I am mindful of the man in a Wisconsin bar that told us he had never voted in his life, but pulled the lever for Trump, not because he liked Trump, but simply because he did not want Secretary Clinton in charge of the military.

So given this interpretation, what comes after Trump?  I no longer think that the two parties are less relevant to future Presidential elections. We certainly could have a celebrity like Oprah, Tom Hanks, The Rock or another business billionaire lead a future election ticket.  We might also witness a continued leftward drift in the Democrat party that yields a nomination of a candidate like Bernie Sanders.

But will we see “More Cowbell”?  Will we continue to see more trauma, or perhaps worse?  We are staring into Nietzsche’s abyss and it is staring right back at us from Charlottesville, from a chaotic White House, and from an intolerant, disrespectful national discourse.  Are we so certain of our “side’s” righteousness that we become monsters in our quest to fight the other “side”?  Tens of thousands of corpses at Antietam and Gettysburg scream a warning to us.

Perhaps I am naïve. I choose to think that we will recoil in horror and regain a sense of tolerance and mutual respect.   We are a nation of 325 million individuals with different races, religions, and creeds bound in a constitutional Republic that has survived far worse over close to 250 years.  With luck, each of us will recognize that not every one of those 325 million looks like me, loves likes me, or thinks like me and we are stronger for that.  Hopefully, we will learn to better advocate our personal points of view without legislating or dictating them down the throats of others who don’t share our views. Our strength lies in a system of government that allows us to be different with disparate voices, but binds us in a nation of laws and individual rights.  Given human nature, we will always have different “sides.”  Hopefully we can share more of the sentiment of Lt. Rittenhouse.  As far as I am concerned “What Comes After Trump” can’t come soon enough. Whether that “after” comes in eight years, four years, or even sooner, I hope we gain something from the experience.

EML