Several times each year I drive between Seattle and north-central Arizona, shunning the interstates wherever possible and passing through small- and medium-sized towns in Oregon, Idaho, northern California, Nevada, and sometimes Utah.
You can see the signs in these towns of past struggles lost and won — of long-closed mining sites, dark downtown theaters, spruced-up historic restorations, small downtown parks and squares, and new school buildings and gymnasiums. Near national holidays, their main streets typically are covered in red, white, and blue bunting. Stores and homes display American flags. Grocery store signs announce the starting times of local parades.
A January trip through these towns was demoralizing. Since my last time through, I found Tru-Value stores, corner service stations, local variety stores, and neighborhood restaurants newly shuttered. One of personal favorites, a Black Bear in Alturas, California, was empty and up for sale. There were few start-up signs in evidence.
Local lunch-counter talk along my route centered around the anticipated efforts of the new Obama administration to seize guns and ammunition from the hunters, farmers, and ranchers in the area. (In northern Arizona, a local Wal-Mart reportedly had sold out its weapons and ammunition stocks several times over). Local newspapers along the way headlined state and local budget cuts, job losses, and, especially in southern Nevada and northern Arizona, concern about crime and social-service burdens associated with illegal immigrants. The new conservative governor of Arizona, replacing the newly named someland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, had announced big cutbacks in public-education and social-service funds, as well as in the liberal state attorney general's budget.
Many of these communities have been fighting the tide in the best of times. Now they are teetering or over the edge. The families who live there really have only two options: To stay and tough it out or to start new lives elsewhere.
Small-business failures and job losses, so evident in main-street towns, are less visible in big metro areas, but they are there nonetheless, reflected in month-to-month economic and employment data. They are here in Seattle, in greater number than we suspect, and are certain to increase in the months ahead. We are nowhere near Grapes of Wrath or Hooverville times, but we will be tested more greatly than at any time since World War II.
From our freeways we see skylines, shopping centers, suburban tracts, harbor and lake traffic. Only a short distance off those busy arteries there is growing stress and poverty no less real than in the sad places and brave people on my travel route.