The Delicate and Beautiful Diversity of these United States

June 29, 2020

Four thousand, seven hundred and seventy-eight miles!  That’s the approximate distance my beautiful and wonderful and trusting wife Jill and I travelled along with our adventurous and soon-departed foreign exchange student Ola earlier this month.  In a 31-foot Class C RV no less, and with our little dog Tucker!  It’s a good thing gas is relatively affordable, because we burned A LOT of gas!  Spent our whole economic stimulus debit card, and then some.  But we crafted many great memories and were able to show Ola 10 BIG states, of which 9 were new to her.  

This blog post may read more like a travel log, but it’s hoped there are some useful make-you-think items along the way, about business and life and the beautiful and hopefully stretchy fabric that ties this nation of states together.  I’m realizing as I tell people of our travels, that the “Great American Road Trip” is a rare thing for most anymore, and so I hope you may find some inspiration in these short tales.  

Our destination was Tacoma, Washington - where Jill’s twin sister Erin lives, and where the girls would be together for their 40th birthday on Thursday, June 11, with a long weekend together before we struck out for home again.  We took off on Friday evening, June 5th - later than we’d hoped but with plenty of time to make it to Vail for a non-RV night’s stay with friends.  From there we headed to Moab, and took that squiggly little road with no guardrails, and stopped for a rest, cold beer and snack at Moab Brewing.  Pretty busy! - socially distanced tables and masked staffers greeted us warmly, happy to be recently reopened.  We were soon departed on the way to Arches National Park - but the sign on the way said “Park is Full, 2 hour minimum wait”.  That ain’t gonna work, and Canyonlands is too far off the path we need to follow, as we’re headed for the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Rollin’ down the road, hot and windy, and getting a taste for driving a sailboat in the desert, but we made it to Flagstaff after 9 pm and pulled into the trusty Walmart parking lot for a free night stay...and were just getting settled when a flashlight-brandishing security guard let us know they don’t allow overnights at this Walmart anymore, but the Cracker Barrel down the road allows it.  Huh, I thought all Walmarts were camping areas - there’s some diversity for you right off the bat!  Off through the beautiful hills to the NW toward Grand Canyon by 5:30 am (with the girls sleeping in their respective caves) found us at the gates by just after 7.  We were excited to get our annual All National Parks pass for the first time in a while, as we planned to hit several along the way, but they didn’t have any of those passes in stock due to covid supply chain issues - they’d only been open about a little over a week.  Huh, maybe have somebody mail you some?  Anyway, she was sweet and let us in for free instead!  Thus began our free and empty National Parks tour!  

B E A U tiful!  OMG.  If you haven’t got the Grand Canyon on your bucket list, put it there now.  Everyone should see it at least once, and I recommend when there’s only a few dozen other people in the whole park, as when we went!  Hopefully this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as I’d hate to see viruses chasing humanity around for the rest of our lives.  We spent a half day at the Grand, but couldn’t drive through the park due to Native American lands at the east entrance - they’d completely closed off, including the highway to pass through.  I read a report later that if Tribal Lands across the US were counted as states, that the 5 most-infected Coronavirus states would be Native Tribes, with New York dropping to No. 6.  Close living quarters, and 40 percent of homes without running water?!  Waah?  Feeling my privilege a bit, and realizing I’ve been a bit cavalier about this virus at times.  This virus has hit poverty and old age the hardest, and especially when both are in play.  What can we do to help tribes to attain a foothold in the economy of these united states?  Giving them free college and a modest check every month hasn’t worked, and allowing casinos on tribal lands doesn’t seem to do the trick - and in fact at times seems counterproductive.  I don’t have the answer; it’s an ugly question that must acknowledge as dark a past as our recent focus on equality for blacks and a frank examination of our history of slavery.  

But we must move on, because we’ve got to make it to Las Vegas tonight, and because that question is too hard for this forum.  Our drive to Las Vegas was a beast, bucking a 25 mph wind right into our nose, we registered 5.6 miles per gallon during this stretch, and our check engine light went came on intermittently and eventually moved to steadily flashing.  Without other options, we limped through Zion National Park just before sunset - and went through the crazy tunnel unaccompanied - with cars scooching way over for us on at least 4 occasions.  Zion is pretty amazing, its’ sandstone formations glow like the golden city in the sky imagined by its’ namesake, and it looks like it might be as dry as any desert - yet trees and bushes spring forth from the rock in all sorts of unexpected ways.  Jill and I acknowledged our obvious oversight in not motorcycle touring in Utah yet - we’ve always talked about it, but not done it.  Now on the list with an underline, and 2021 should be able to find space for it.  

The lights of Las Vegas at midnight was a peak moment for Ola along the trip - and I must admit they are pretty remarkable.  I find myself thinking about all the wasted energy, and the problems that gambling can cause for people - and find it just not as pretty.  We stayed at the New York New York, and finally got into our room after 1 am - special parking necessary for our RV, and Las Vegas just getting into reopening mode.  Folks were glad to be back to work though, and concerned about the likely slow rebuilding of the crowds of people necessary to support the economic infrastructure of this city.  Gambling dollars act like THE primary employer in a place like Vegas - bringing crowds of people and their money in from far away.  So, when that revenue stream dries up, all those employees no longer needed don’t have dollars to spend at their favorite stores and restaurants, and the trickle down effect dries to a trickle indeed.  I guess what I’m saying is that we’re just barely starting to see the economic impacts of the Covid crisis, we’re still floating on the lubrication that was already in the system, and a place like Las Vegas is likely to feel it sharply.  

A story in itself is my finding a mechanic within a couple miles of the hotel, and his being able to get the RV into his shop by noon (the front third of her anyway!), and with two new coils to replace the ones we’d overtaxed - we were back on the road by 3 pm and only $500 lighter!  Joey at Integrity Mobile Auto Service in Las Vegas - you’re one of the good guys.  (And if you’re reading this, I just completed the promised Google Review - 5 stars, and I’m hopeful we’ll be working on starting our first Las Vegas chapter of LoCo Think Tank by middle of 2022!)    

From Vegas we headed toward Death Valley...and boy, oh, boy is that name on point!  It’s beautiful in its’ own way, I guess, but gosh - the whole way down into that hole in the earth and the whole way back up it felt like we were driving through utterly lifeless territory.  The Amargosa Opera House and Hotel stood as the only beacon of economic activity for miles and miles around - and it’s share of the spoils were meager at best, it seemed.  I read later on the website that they were closed until the end of June and had set up a Go Fund Me in hopes to be able to re-open.  Now that’s got me thinking about this whole race thing again, and particularly of the dire situation in the inner cities of this nation.  Black or not, if you’re living in an inner city neighborhood, things are and have been tough for years.  You’re in a food desert, with high-priced markets as your primary source of food, jobs are hard to come by, gangs are trying to get your kid as a member, and take a cut from legitimate businesses for “protection”, the police are as feared as the gangs, and the schools have no resources with which to try to provide a reasonable education….

Why would a person (or a family, or a business - in general - economic activity…) want to move to a place like Death Valley, or to an inner city neighborhood?  Or, to more precisely ask the question - how can we get businesses and commerce to want to move into the places where our populations have the greatest struggles?  We’re not going to “fix” the race issue in our country without giving people a chance to get a foothold economically..  The last dozen years or so have stripped wealth from many of our poorest populations and they see the American Dream drifting farther away - hence the anger, frustration, and ultimately, riots.  How can we turn that tide?!  It’s not a rhetorical question - what kinds of incentives can/should we offer that would encourage commerce and jobs to move to some of these more-challenged places?  I’m nervous about the federal government rolling out the big “fix” here - maybe best to give some block grants to states to help them try an assortment of smaller fixes?  Maybe matching funds is a good model - “here you states, if you sacrifice elsewhere or find new revenues, and invest in making a difference under these conditions - we’ll help fund it.”  

Wow - moving on because we must or we’ll never make it.  We stayed in the Alabama Hills, outside Lone Pine, California after crossing Death Valley, and woke to some incredible vistas.  We made our way up from there to Lake Tahoe, where we stopped for lunch at a lakeside park - it was closed but like dozens of others we found a place to park off the highway and walked in to see the views and maintain social distance.  Lake Tahoe is an immensely charming town, so visually appealing and all the people seem so beautiful and smart - or born or married into wealth, perhaps.  And the lake! - wow - it’s so deep that its waters would cover the state of California 14” deep if physics and geography allowed - but of course it would all just pool up in Death Valley and put the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel down for good!  It’s hard not to see the contrast, however - the brightest people with the most wealth want to live in a water sports, skiing, and outdoor mecca like Lake Tahoe, and not linger in solitude with hopes of renting a room to the lonesome and weary traveller.    

I think that’s a key learning for me from this trip, is just how diverse a place our nation is.  When we’re trying to guide the Invisible Hand of economics in search of equality and justice, we have to remember that this hand is difficult to get ahold of.  Commerce moves to where there is opportunity, and so we have to be focused on creating opportunities first and foremost.  And I think most of this opportunity creation should be driven locally, by people who care about the town, or the region.  If Uncle Sam starts telling companies “Hey, we need you to move your company to West Virginia, because we’ve shut down the coal mines and there’s a whole bunch of angry out-of-work coal miners who need jobs or they’re going to riot again…” - I think we can all see how that’s not going to work.  

We went through Crater Lake National Park (which was also amazing but I’m WAY over on my word count already!, and made our way on lonely roads to Bend, Oregon - where we stopped for lunch at a McMenamin’s - this one the Old St. Francis School.  Do you know about McMenamin’s?  Jill has been to a couple of them before when she was out to see her sister - but this was a first for me.  They acquire and renovate/restore historic buildings all around Oregon, turning them into pubs and restaurants, hotels, theaters, music venues, private event spaces - you name it.  They have consistency in their brand, but embrace the uniqueness of each property, and of each region or community - sourcing locally and becoming active preservationists of each community’s common heritage. Based on my review of their website and wikipedia, they’ve done this 55 times - all in Oregon!  Kudos to the McMenamin brothers, Mike and Brian, for founding and growing such a brilliant concept.  It’s still 75% owned by the brothers according to Wiki, and does over $70 million in revenues annually - maybe not this year though...but the concept looks like a survivor to me.  

Bend was something to behold too - I wish we’d had much more time there.  I picked up a few local papers and flyers, and a theme stood out to me above anyplace else we went on the trip.  Bend, (and the central Oregon region that Bend anchors) is a great place to live because our forefathers (and mothers) set it on a path to be such, and we’re going to keep on making it better and better.  We’ve worked hard on it - building parks and improving the downtown, building and maintaining amazing hiking and mountain bike trails and other recreation options, preserving our water quality which draws in the amazing breweries, and creating a great place to live - thanks for your help in keeping it that way.  (Nothing said all this stuff, but that’s my summation of what I read, saw, and felt while there).  I felt the same tone when I first moved to Fort Collins, and am thankful to say I still feel it today.  

OK - so I’m just going to begin to wrap it up here if there’s anyone still reading.  From Bend we went of the remaining trip were Cannon Beach, where Ola and Tucker were deadlocked in a competition over who loved the ocean more.  After Cannon Beach, we headed up to the SeaTac Airport, where the girls’ mom was flying in to be a surprise visitor for the birthday weekend!  Rolling up to passenger pickup at the airport was something to remember - but she was waiting and ready for us, and the TSA officials didn’t even look cross-eyed at me.  I have a video of the surprise moment, where showing Erin the inside of the RV led to a surprise encounter with her momma on her 40th birthday! - so fun.  Over the weekend we went did a loop around the Olympic Peninsula - you know, cause we hadn’t been driving enough yet, and went to Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle...which was open but eerily empty...I was surprised that the semi open-air market didn’t have more traffic, but the citizens of Seattle had locked down hard and appeared resistant to re-emerging - outside of CHAZ/CHOP anyway.  

We took the almost in Canada route across northern WA and through North Cascades National Park, and had a peak moment near Libby, MT at the Kootenai Falls and Suspension Bridge.  This was an unplanned stop based on a well-placed road sign, featuring a gigantic and boiling aquamarine-colored river, a for-reals suspension foot bridge, and falls so big and close that you could literally get soaked from the spray, or jump right in the river if so inclined - to near-certain death and a never-found body.  Google a video of Kootenia Falls and you’ll perhaps be able to imagine being surrounded by the sound and the spray of this incredible natural feature...but I’m wrapping up.  

Glacier which was mostly closed - including Going to the Sun Road - again because of tribal lands closure on the East entrance of the park.  We camped outside West Yellowstone, and finally at the gates of Yellowstone we purchased our first National Park pass of the whole trip.  We saw two bears (in separate viewings!) and a coyote up close, bunches of bison and elk, and more tourists than we’d seen anywhere else in the nation - but still less than half of a normal Yellowstone crowd I suppose.  A quick drive through Grand Teton National Park - where I successfully goofed with the girls on my “Where did these mountains get their name from?” trivia - and we were to off Thermopolis, WY for our last night away from home and our first hot springs soak of the whole trip.  We took roads less traveled to Saratoga, WY from Thermopolis for another hot springs soak (did you know there’s an awesome free hot springs hosted by the town of Saratoga?), and we made it home to Fort Collins late in the day on Thursday.  

Wow, now I’m tired.  Probably you too.  What’s the point of this one, Curt?  Well, I think it’s an encouragement to recognize, and welcome, and appreciate the beautiful diversity of this nation, and even of each state within the nation.  I was teasing with you a bit at the start, as I used Delicate in my title, but then Stretchy in my intro.  I think it’s both - it’s stretchy, but it’s delicate - we best shan’t stretch it too much - it may tear apart, or more likely be stretched into something misshapen and not nearly as useful.  But it is a beautiful nation and ideal, and I think that’s what we all have to get back to appreciating more.  We are one race, the human race, and we are citizens of what may be the greatest nation ever, populated with the most diverse population, and with the most individual liberty extended to its’ citizens that has ever existed.  That’s something to be proud of, and we can work together to make the whole darn thing, and all the little parts of it, more better still.  I’d like anyone reading this to take a moment to appreciate and respect all the hard work of the generations before us, and to think about ways to keep trying to make their little corner just a little better.  We can do this, if we are responsible to and for ourselves, and responsible to and for our neighbors.  Peace, love, and the unencumbered pursuit of happiness to you this season, and all seasons.  May God bless you, and bless the good ol’ US of A. 

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