Unfolding the Map
Are you rooted to your place, or are you rootless? I have felt rootless, but now I have a desire to be rooted for awhile. Americans, surprisingly, are a pretty rooted people overall. So while William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) continues his rootless way, we'll pause for a moment and I'll reflect on rootlessness and the desire to settle. To root yourself in where we are, plant yourself at the map.
"Away from the bay and lake, Thumbland was agricultural land: sugar beets, navy beans, silage; but on the bay from Caseville to Port Austin, the Thumb was an uninterrupted cluttering of vacation homes, tourist cabins, motels, and little businesses selling plastic lawn-ornament flamingoes and used tires cut into planters. The houses and cabins and businesses pressed in tightly, and in the few places where beach delivered itself to the road were 'no trespassing' signs.
"Whoever called Americans a 'rootless' people never saw the west shore of the Thumb, where houses used eight weeks a year block off the lake every day of the year. If Americans are truly rootless, why weren't a few lodges and hotels built to leave the shore undeveloped as the 'rooted' Europeans might do it? As it is, the rootless family drives up from Ypsilanti to spend its allotted time cutting grass, painting the boathouse, and unplugging the septic tank."
Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 15
Caseville and Port Austin, Michigan
If you've been following me a little, you know that the "rootlessness" concept that LHM references in his quote has been on my mind lately.
For most of my adult life, I think that I've been that stereotype of the rootless American. I haven't necessarily been a constant nomad, never able to pitch my tent in one place for long before I have to move on. Rather, I've settled down in one place for a period of years and then moved on. After growing up in Fort Bragg, California, I lived in Milwaukee for nine years, San Antonio for five years, New Orleans for four years, and Albuquerque for seven years with about ten months in that Albuquerque stay in Lubbock. Recently, my wife and I have been debating whether to stay in Albuquerque or whether our fortunes should lead us elsewhere.
And at this time, my instinct is telling me to stay, or at least find someplace where I can root myself.
I agree with LHM. Americans, despite our stereotype driven by our early doctrine of Manifest Destiny and stoked by the images of rootless cowboys and wanderers in the Old West, are a pretty rooted people. A USA Today report on American's geographic mobility in 2008, citing data from the Pew Research Center, showed that a majority of Americans stay close to home because of family ties. 56% of Americans have never lived outside their home state, and 37% of Americans stay in their home town. And if I read the recent US Census data correctly, less than 12% of Americans moved away from their traditional home between 2000 and 2010. Of those who moved, two-thirds stayed within the same county and 83% stayed in the same state. Only three percent of those who moved chanced living abroad.
In other words, we are a pretty rooted people.
I believe part of the reason is the size of the United States. In Europe, for example, one can travel in a matter of hours through very distinct countries with different cultures and customs. Even the European Union experiment has not led to differences in national feelings - in many ways it has enhanced nationalism among ordinary people who take pride in their Germanness or Frenchness or Englishness. Yet on a higher level, more Europeans, at least to me, appear to be willing to look at relocating to other countries - after all, you're only a train ride or a quick flight from home. In the U.S., the distances are larger and more daunting, especially in the western half of the country.
Another reason might be economic. The lure of jobs is powerful, though in the U.S. it doesn't necessarily trump family ties. It seems to me that in times of economic hardship, Americans tend to rely on family and pull closer together, rather than moving apart. I'm not sure about this completely, but that is my instinct. I saw this when I lived in New Orleans. People who lived there were very close to family and tended to stay there, or if they moved they didn't move for long. Other factors also played into this, including the uniqueness of the city and its culture. But family was a huge reason most New Orleanians didn't leave. The devastation and disruption caused by Hurricane Katrina was incalculable, because so many people were forced to leave their families, friends and the city that they identified as home.
I think a third reason is Americans' attachment to private property. Again, I'll use Europe as a comparison. Europeans also have private property, but it seems that they aren't as attached to it as a concept as we are in the U.S. With so many countries in Europe classified as social democracies, there is a much more expansive concept of community and shared public space. In other words, there are less Europeans who own property, more who rent and are part of cooperative movements, and therefore less attachment to something that is rooted in one place.
Americans, on the other hand, are rooted precisely because we buy property and own it. The American dream is to own a house and a little patch of land upon which it sits. Thus, the ownership roots people into one place. From there, if we are wealthy enough, we branch out and buy vacation homes or cottages, such as the types that LHM references along the western part of the Thumb of Michigan. Unfortunately, that rootedness leads exactly to what he describes - houses sitting vacant most of the year except for those few weeks that people come to use it. Also regrettable is the closing off of potential public space - access to beaches and the like.
Our attachment to private property has its benefits, but it also has a lot of costs. The only reason that we have not had to reckon with those costs very much as a society is that there is a lot of property available. We can go and be our own little islands in the midst of the American cultural sea. We can become rooted in a very familial way. In Europe, where private property is at a premium, people have developed a different sense of community and there is a greater openness to mobility. In poorer countries, where private property is a luxury available only to the very wealthy, we get back to rootedness - people stay with family because there is no other place to go.
For me, after years of wandering, the call to become more rooted has been stronger. It's not that I want to cut myself off from exploration and understanding. My years of wandering, however, have meant that my traditional home in California, while always "home," is not really my home anymore. I haven't had a place that I could really feel is my home and place where I will stay for a while. I feel like I need that as I move into the second half of life. I just want a place of my own for a while.
I found this song by a group called Thrice. It's called In Exile and the lyrics capture exactly the sense of rootlessness and wanting a place to find peace that I've been feeling.
If you want to know more about Caseville and Port Austin
Caseville Chamber of Commerce
City of Caseville
Huron Daily Tribune (Bad Axe newspaper covering Caseville and Port Austin)
Port Austin Chamber of Commerce
Village of Port Austin
Wikipedia: Port Austin
Next up: Harbor Beach, Michigan