By Katherine Johnson
Clothes For Sale – 354 West Walnut – Newport, WA 99156
Over the last few weeks I have traced the edges of Washington State and visited its corners. In terms of places with names these corners are Neah Bay, Metaline Falls, Rogersburg, and Illwaco; in each case I went as far into those corners that my wheels and legs would take me. As I mentioned in an earlier post the purpose was to get lost, transparent in the land and attempt to see old places with fresh eyes and new ones with old eyes.
The result of this trip and earlier ones are always complicated since I am disconnected from day to day life and at best can only form lasting impressions through casual conversations, how rain smells inside a tent, and the ideas that run through my head while in motion or when I am standing still with my camera and tripod. When I am paying attention and blessed with good fortune I stumble upon the odd details that speaks to how the land and human circumstances shape the people that live in these places. America is a powerful place no matter your perspective; give it time and you will be altered forever.
One thing I noticed, no genius required here, is how divided we have become economically, politically, and culturally. Make no mistake, overall, I think we still aspire to a common idea of the diamond that is America but instead of standing together before her idealism, today we stand before our own facet awestruck with righteous conviction and with minimal regard to the reality that a diamond has many, many facets. Empathy and trust seem to have been replaced with smirks and eye rolling.
Our smaller towns and cities, when blessed by fortunate geography, have the infrastructure that allows these places to collect, convert, or transport the raw resources yielded by farming, ranching, fishing, logging, or mining, and transform them into dollars that fill bank accounts, minds, ambitions, and bellies. The tradeoff is a major league baseball game or a Bruce Springsteen concert requires extra commitment, not unlike going to a foreign land, while in exchange you know all your neighbors and that they will boot your wayward youths in the butt when needed.
These are the places where a person can still make a real living with his or her back, hands, and yes, mind, and if truly wealthy, that same back will own the land that produces these things. This is the America that existed, more or less, around the Northwest since the Civil War, but in the later 20th century has had its importance displaced by skills that are dependent upon corporations and technology clustered in the major urban centers, which, for good measure, are frequently located near the ports where those raw goods are shipped to the vast international marketplaces. The scope and complexity of these commercial enterprises in rural America are breath taking to observe.
The stronger of these towns are, not surprisingly, located at transportation nexus points and attract a retail economy that depends upon a concentration of eyeballs and wallets. In these places, such as Colville, Washington, population 4,668, one still finds the essential small business and services, however today, the big box retailers have shown up, driven by a corporate addiction to cheap land, cheap wages, and limited competition.
There too, you will find people, with limited options, struggling to make ends meet in this big box/gas station gig world that perpetually leaves them a few hours short of life’s basic needs; a world where these corporations rig the system so they end up having to apply for State medical benefits and food stamps. Here one finds an America that is all about cynical manipulation and utter disregard about a better future for the greater good while in the urban centers, the technology companies play the same game but with far better wages and benefits.
At times this economic hamster wheel, this incessant demand for expansion, smacks of a Ponzi scheme or a perpetual energy machine that gleefully promises permanent prosperity as long as everyone keeps spending until flat broke and the credit cards are maxed out. For the most part this system works reasonably well except when our collective greed causes the perpetual machine to explode into a billion pieces such as during the 1930s Great Depression or the more recent multiyear Great Recession that came within a whisker’s width of complete global economic collapse.
While traveling around during that last dust up I witnessed how storefronts emptied out in these small towns and in conversations overheard found out how Joe lost his home to foreclosure, Juan lost his job at Wal-Mart and was about to get evicted, or how Mary’s clothing store went belly up and how she felt lucky to have a job at the Chevron station. Everybody sucked in hope and exhaled pessimism and passed the next few years by simply getting older just like their cars. Today, the air is much clearer and there are new pickup trucks around but one can still quickly find abandoned shopping centers, echoes of the past six years, that will probably sit idle for many years to come.
The building in this photo was empty in 2013 and now is home to a second hand store that seems trapped between equal parts desperation and hope, a reasonable summary of the last few years. One thing that never got whacked was our fine love for America as exhibited in the Moose mural. In that mural the artist nailed the key geographic features of the far northern eastern corner of Washington, the Selkirk Mountains and the Columbia River, and tells the world that this is the one place in the State that has a moose population.
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And in case you are still reading, here is an extra credit moment that is intended to give you a bit deeper understanding of what a typical scene looks like when I find it. This Google Maps screen capture is reasonably close to what I see when I come upon a scene. The point is out of the chaos of the world my eye hits upon a detail that revels an idea and image about how America has transformed me. Thanks for playing along over the years, months, and days.
Copyright 2016 – Katherine Johnson – All Rights Reserved