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    by William Least Heat-Moon

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Entries in Roosevelt (2)


Blue Highways: Roosevelt, Whitcomb and Paterson, Washington

Unfolding the Map

We are riding and clenching our buttocks with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) as we hope to find a gas station somewhere along the Columbia River in Washington before we have to get out and walk.  Have you ever run out of gas, or almost run out of gas?  Feel free to leave a comment if you have.  If you want to see where all this butt-clenching is taking place, go to the map.

Book Quote

"On the highway again: at a cluster of closed buildings called Roosevelt, I noticed my gas was low.  The next town, according to the atlas, was Moonax five miles away.  Ten miles on, McCredie; fifteen, Alderdale; twenty, Whitcomb.  I drove unconcerned.  But Moonax was another Liberty Bond.  Same with McCredie.  Down went the needle.  I could see stations along the interstate a mile south across the bridgeless river.  No Alderdale.  I locked the speedometer needle on forty-five and my arms to the steering wheel.  A traveling salesman once told me that if you tense butt muscles tight enough, you can run on an empty tank for miles.  And that's what it was going to take.  Whitcomb was there, more or less, but the station was closed on Sundays.  Paterson, the last hope.  If it proved a ghost town, I was going to learn more about this deleted landscape on foot.  I drove, tensed top to bottom, waiting for the sickening silent glide.  Of the one hundred seventy-one thousand gas stations in the country, I needed one."

Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 10

Biofuel crops in Paterson, Washington. Photo at Washington State University's Biofuels Cropping Systems Research and Extension Project's site. Click on photo to go to site.

Roosevelt, Whitcomb and Paterson, Washington

We've all been in LHM's position, haven't we?  We're driving down a stretch of freeway, no exit in sight, and the needle on the gas gauge (or the digital graphic readout) is actually below the empty line.  We are tense, hoping that over the next small rise, or around the next corner, we will see our salvation in the form of a road sign that tells us that in one mile we'll find gas, food and lodging.  Or perhaps, peeking over the trees, a Conoco or Shell or Valero or some other gas station sign.

I used to drive on a lot of out-of-state trips on a job I had.  I would go from Wisconsin to New York, or perhaps down to the DC area, or to Philadelphia.  And I must admit that I was not one who was very risky when it came to gas.  If I noticed the needle down to, oh, lets say an eighth of a tank I would find the next gas station and fill up.  However, when you're driving roads you don't know, the problem is one of making the right choice mixed with a little bit of luck.  At the time I was traveling, in the early 90s, the internet was in its infancy.  Cell phones were huge contraptions with big antennae that only wealthy people or government workers in security agencies used.  Atlases and road maps were all we had to inform us of what was ahead on the road.  If it was on the map, then it should be there.

But if you're LHM, or me at that time, you liked to take drives along the blue highways instead of the interstate.  And that meant taking some risks.  Because, like LHM, you might find that the map was wrong and a listed town was actually not much or worse yet, it folded up some years before leaving behind a collection of morose, empty and rotting buildings.  Because I wasn't much of a risk taker, I would actually fill the tank more often during these times, so I wouldn't find myself out of gas on a lonely stretch of road where I might have to wait.  In winter, this was even more imperative.  The last thing I wanted to do was freeze to death in my car.

But despite my planning, I too had a few sphincter-tightening moments where I wondered if I'd make it.  It usually involved being on a blue highway, and it usually occurred in a very rural, if not forested, area where there were few settlements, and often on a Sunday.  I can remember, butt clenching rhythmically as I drove past small town after small town where either there was no gas station or the station was closed.  I would longingly look at the pump and wonder if I could shake out a few drops from the bend in the hose that would get me perhaps a few feet farther down the road.  I'd then hope for the best and drive for the next town.  If I saw a sign for an interstate, I would head down that way because chances were better that a gas station might be at the junction and, because people traveled interstates on all days, might actually be open, Sundays be damned.  I can remember at least two below-the-empty-line moments where I was sure I would experience, as LHM puts it, "the sickening silent glide."  But it never happened.

In the pantheon of risk and reward, riding on empty is probably not as high up the chart as, let's say, summitting Everest or surfing a monster Hawaiian wave or hang-gliding or jumping out of an airplane or even heading out to hike in the woods on a day that looks like it might become vaguely threatening.  And today the level of connectivity we have has made it even less risky.  Looking for gas?  You probably have an application on your sleek new Android phone or your handy new IPhone that will tell you where all the open gas stations in a fifty mile radius lie and direct you by synthetic voice along the shortest path to the place.  It'll even tell you the price and may, because you used it, get you a discount in the convenience store on your favorite bag of chips.  Out of gas?  Just call your auto club of choice on your cell, or I just found out, if you are out of cell range you can buy a device that allows you to turn your cell phone into a satellite phone and it will use your GPS to guide your would-be rescuer to you.

But where's the fun in that?  Where's the sense of adventure and thrill, when you drive into a gas station on the last remaining fumes of your previous 87 octane purchase, that you beat the odds once more and lived through something slightly dangerous?  Something that might have made you get out of the car and depend on the kindness of strangers to get you to a gas station where you could purchase a gallon in a plastic jug and then find a ride back to your car so that you could get a few more miles back to the gas station.

I was always a lukewarm watcher of Seinfeld, because I had a love-hate for the characters who seemed to me to be spoiled and whiny even as I thought the plots were clever.  If you'll remember, each show usually had 3-4 story arcs going through them that all tied back together at the end.  In one story line in an episode, the character of Kramer is test driving a car with a dealer representative, and the car is on empty.  (to see the clips from this episode relating to this story arc, click here.)  They choose to see just how far they can go, if they can push the needle farther below empty than anyone ever has.  At one point, the salesman says that the experience has expanded his horizon more than anything and has given him a heightened sense of what's possible.  After all, we are at our best in our work, thinking and problem solving when there's a little risk involved.

Musical Interlude

I can't think about this topic without Jackson Browne coming to mind.  Browne's music was a staple during my junior high, high school and college years.  This is a nice live acoustic version of his song Running on Empty, though in the video the sound appears to be slightly off from his performance.  Still, it's a great song and would have been relatively new when LHM was driving around the U.S.  I bet he probably heard it on the radio in Ghost Dancing while he traveled.

If you want to know more about Roosevelt, Whitcomb and Paterson

Columbia Crest Winery (in Paterson)
The Columbia River: Paterson Ferry
The Columbia River: Roosevelt
The Columbia River: Whitcomb Island and Whitcomb
Wikipedia: Paterson
Wikipedia: Roosevelt

Next up: Umatilla, Oregon


Blue Highways: Skamania, Washington

Unfolding the Map

Driving through tunnels inscribed with the date of 1936 high above the Columbia River on the Washington side, William Least Heat-Moon makes a passing reference to road building in a different time.  I take the opportunity to compare the time when the highway was built with our situation today, and make a not-so-subtle reference to today's politics.  I hope you don't mind.  Please feel free to take a look at the map if you are tracking LHM's journey through these posts.

Book Quote

"At Skamania the road climbed so far above the river valley that barns looked like Monopoly hotels and speedboats were less than whirligigs.  East stood Beacon Rock, a monumental nine-hundred-foot fluted monolith of solidified lava....

"....Volcanic bluffs along the highway were flittering with cliff swallows, their sharp wings somehow keeping them airborne.  High ridges came down transverse to the Columbia in long-fingered projections perforated by narrow tunnels, some with arched windows opening to the river.  Above each tunnel the same date: 1936.  To drive state 14 in the snow would be a terror, but on a clear day it was good to find road not so safe as to be dull; it was good to ride highway Americans wouldn't build today."

Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 7


Washington State Highway 14 Tunnel in Skamania County. Photo by Amy McAllister on the ActiveRain site. Click on photo to go to host page.

Skamania, Washington

At Skamania, which is a rural, unincorporated community in Southwestern Washington, LHM chronicles the following as he traverses state highway 14 which cuts into the bluffs above the Columbia River:

"Above each tunnel the same date: 1936."

When LHM wrote that, he didn't explain why the date is important.  It may be that in the early 1980s, people reading Blue Highways understood why dates from the 1930s were stamped all over construction.  However, some 30 years after LHM's trip, I think that it might be helpful to return to the importance of those 1930s dates that we see on buildings, road dedication signs, bridges, sidewalks and other public works.  I think that it might be important because as a nation in 2011 we occupy a similar place in history, and forgetting why a seemingly inocuous date on public works does not do our nation any good.

1936, if you'll recall from your history, was in the midst of the Great Depression.  The United States, indeed the whole world, was reeling in the worst economic disaster of that century, perhaps many centuries.  The Great Depression was brought on by overspeculation on Wall StreetDemand was not keeping up with supply but investors were pouring their money into overvalued stocks.  When the bubble burst, as it always does, factories closed, and people suddenly found themselves out of work.  The richest Americans, who squirreled away their money, were in a position to weather the economic storm but millions of middle class people were thrown into instant poverty.  Banks, faced with a run on money, closed up and many Americans lost all their savings.  A lack of money in society, especially in the hands of the middle class, kept demand low and discouraged investment and the opening of new business.  It was a continuing self-defeating spiral.

The situation was desperate.  There was a significant rise in the number of people who were unhappy and who were ripe to consider alternatives to capitalism, such as socialism and communismFranklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democratic president born into wealth and concerned that the Depression could threaten America's democratic values (and, some would say cynically, the position of the wealthy in society) put into place programs based on the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes (also from wealth).  In a depression, Keynes argued, government is the vehicle to jump start the economy because government can print more money and spend it.  Therefore, the government is able to, by developing programs, put more money into the hands of people who will spend it, thereby increasing demand and leading to the startup of new business to meet that demand.  Roosevelt heeded these arguments, and put into place massive government sponsored work programs for the unemployed such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).  Over the next few years, the US upgraded its infrastructure.  Roads were built or upgraded, bridges were constructed, dams erected, creating thousands of jobs that allowed many families to weather the worst of the Depression.  The activity wasn't simply restricted to giant construction projects.  Foresters planted millions of trees, and upgraded national parks facilities.  Artists and actors were employed, creating new public works of art, massive photo collections, and commissioning important new works for stage and dance. Some give credit to Roosevelt's programs for perhaps staving off revolutionary activity, but economists today felt that Roosevelt was too timid in his deficit spending.  Such government sponsored programs weren't the only way out of the Depression but they helped - when Roosevelt backed off on government spending in the late 1930s, the economy fell back into a morass.  Ultimately, it was another stimulus of even more massive government spending, this time to build guns, tanks, ships, planes, and ammunition that reopened factories, put people back to work, and started an economic boom that continued for decades.

When you see these dates from the 1930s on public works, it was because of government-sponsored programs and the people they hired to build these works.  When I was growing up, I noticed that most of the bridges along the Coast Highway were all built during this time.  It took me a few years to connect the dots - when they were built and why.  The fact is that most of those bridges are still being used.  They have been patched up over the years, but are still in service.  There have been media reports about the sad state of US infrastructure in the wake of government cutbacks, and lack of spending on these vital areas.

I also remember my grandmother, a social conservative but who voted Democratic, who thought Franklin Roosevelt was the greatest man ever.  After all, his programs put my grandfather to work in logging during the darkest times of the Depression, allowing her family of four children to survive.  You could say anything about any other president, but you didn't malign Roosevelt.

Today, we are faced with a similar situation.  After economic speculation and a series of burst bubbles, we are in recession with really no clear answers on when we'll get out of it.  Spending is down as the economy contracts, and businesses are in the process of downsizing.  Arguments range from continuing to cut the deficit (in other words, doing just the opposite of what Keynes argued) to spending more money.  However, unlike the 30s, society and politics is more polarized than ever, leading to government paralysis.  Would putting into place massive government infrastructure projects, like in the 30s, help?  I'm not sure.  The US has become a much more diverse society socially and economically.  Most adults aren't willing to do the labor jobs that people in the 30s would have jumped at.

Perhaps, in the age of information technology, constructing and upgrading the infrastructure for our information superhighway might serve as an alternative.  Perhaps government injections of money into hi-technology projects, putting people to work as programmers and engineers might be the answer.  It would also help maintain our security edge, which would appeal to people of all political stripes.  Then, we may be able to get data connectivity on our cell phones and notebook computers in remote places even as we plunge off the crumbling 1930s-era bridges that are collapsing under us.  What will it take, in 2011, to put people back to work and get money into the hands of the middle class so that our economy will revive?  It will take action rather than finger-pointing, bi-partisanship rather than division, constructiveness rather than obstructiveness.  Is it possible?

Musical Interlude

Loudon Wainright III has put out an album called Songs for the New Depression.  The songs are in the style of those that were popular during the Great Depression, and some of them are actually from that era - though I must say I like the song on his album called Paul Krugman Blues after the liberal New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize winner in economics.  Enjoy, if you can, Times is Hard.


If you want to know more about Skamania

Skamania County
Skamania County Chamber of Commerce
Skamania County Pioneer (newspaper) (Facebook page)
Wikipedia: Skamania
Wikipedia: Skamania County

Next up: North Bonneville, Washington