Travel–the good and not-so-good

March 7, 2011

My wife and I are on vacation this month of March. We have travelled by car (a Dodge mini-van with 95,000 miles on it when we left Wisconsin) over 1500 miles by now. At present we are in a rented house in The Villages, a senior resort community north of Orlando, Florida. If you are a sports fan you have probably seen their national ads featuring golfers Nancy Lopez and Arnold Palmer.

On this long automobile trip we have had a lot of time to look, think, and talk (occasionally using our new cell phone, which is another story). We stopped for a family visit in Dayton, Ohio for a few days, and spent another few days with old friends in northern Alabama. Sometimes we drove on the Interstate Highway system and sometimes on smaller back roads. Given the possibility, Jane always chooses to “go the scenic route.”

Here are a few observations and thoughts.

Our infrastructure system in the U.S. is not bad. Over the entire 1500 miles we have had no problems with roads, bridges, traffic jams, or quality services. All were surprisingly good. I consider this a compliment to our U.S. system of public-private investment and cooperation.

I can still remember travelling as a boy with my family during the Great Depression in the 1930s. It was our first and only long-trip vacation. My father drove on a 1000-plus miles auto trip from Ohio to Washington D.C. and back. One of our overnight stops was in Pittsburgh. In my Dayton experience bridges were built to go over rivers. In Pittsburgh I learned that often bridges were built over other roads and even over neighborhoods, factories and sports stadiums! Amazing!

I also remember the air over Pittsburgh, as well as over other cities and villages we passed through in Ohio and Pennsylvania. It was thick enough to coat your tongue, had a nasty taste and made you cough—often. The rivers spanned by the often rickety bridges also looked pretty dark and foul.

I remember, too, the small towns in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland that we passed though on crowded two-lane highways in our old Chevy sedan. The towns were usually graced with broken-down porches, rusty cars in the driveways and boarded up stores. Almost universally the only decent looking buildings in many towns and small cities were the churches and the public schools.

As for the private businesses along the highways, I remember gas stations and a few diners, but no Holiday Inns, McDonald’s or rest stops.  When you needed to stop overnight your choices were city hotels or tourist homes (the ancestors of today’s bed and breakfasts). Our trip to Washington was in August, a very hot August. The tourist homes we stayed in (and the hotel in Washington) had okay beds and pillows but no air conditioning.

Today there is much concern about the decay of our infrastructure and the supposed environmental crises (overpopulation was the big worry thirty years ago, today it is climate change). Based on our auto trip, both seem to me to be vastly overblown. I admit that when we went around big cities like Chicago, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Nashville and Birmingham we thought the alarmists who complain about overpopulation might have a point. On the other hand when we cruised through the seemingly endless (and boring from the car window) miles of lush farmland in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio we changed our minds. We saw an awful lot of productive land with very few people—and not that many cars.

So too in the mid-south of Kentucky and Tennessee, and in the deep south of Alabama, Georgia and northern Florida, we saw much land, many forests, a few farms, and not that many people. In past years we have driven through the western half of this country, as well as flown over it in jetliners. Again, one of the main impressions was land, forests, and still more land and forests, and very few people. In sum, this country is a long way from being “overpopulated.” Also a very long way from being “polluted.” We have today millions of acres of healthy forests, rich farmland and unspoiled wilderness. (The one state I have never visited—yet— is Alaska. I understand that state has even more wilderness and even fewer people.)

Jane and I have also travelled extensively in Africa, Asia and Europe, by car, train and air, and the same things apply—much land and few people. In China for instance, one of the more densely populated countries, there are indeed over a thousand cities that have more than a million people. And yet where we travelled by bus and train in Yunnan and Setzuan Provinces you would be amazed how much wilderness and empty land there was. This was true even on the island and peninsula that some say is the most densely populated area in the world, Hong Kong and nearby Shenzhen (which in 1970 was a remote fishing village, now home to over eight million people!)

What’s the point?

Two things come to mind. On the one side our U.S. democratic government has on the whole done a remarkably good job in our lifetimes—both for our own citizens and for the world, in combatting tyranny and enhancing prosperity. At home, the federal government led the way in the 1930s by financing the TVA that brought electricity, flood control and prosperity to that Tennessee Valley we passed through in Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama; in the 1940s by leading the fight to defeat the Nazi and Fascist tyrannies; in the 1950s by building the Interstate Highway System and financing the GI Bill of Rights that gave college educations to so many veterans, men and women (Jane was a Marine in WW2); in the 1960s by passing the Civil Rights Laws that liberated so many millions of African-Americans, Native-Americans, Latino-Americans and indeed Americans of all races and creeds; and in the 1980s and 90s by winning the Cold War against worldwide Communist tyrannies. Our states and local governments have done their share, especially in generously supported the schools and colleges that educated the children and adults who went on to build the prosperity we, and much of the rest of our world, enjoys today. All of these government investments, federal, state and local, have paid off royally.

On the private side, the freedom that our U.S. free-market liberal democracy has nurtured has also paid off handsomely. The list is long and impressive: an incredible variety of automobiles today that are all reliable, safe, fast and comfortable; aircraft from charter turboprops to giant jetliners; ships, from motorboats and canoes to ferries, cargo containers and mega size cruise ships; comfortable lodging in Holiday Inns, Best Westerns, Day’s Inns, and a hundred other inexpensive and luxury hotels; plentiful, safe, and nutritious food at supermarkets nationwide; fast food at McDonald’s Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Arby’s; slow food at innumerable restaurants, organic and not, in even the smallest of American cities and towns. Add to that list cell phones, computers, the Internet (what would I do without it here in our Florida vacation home), air conditioning, television, remarkably good medical care, anesthetics, comfortable inexpensive clothes, a rich variety of books, magazines and newspapers (uncensored), an enormous richness of sports for players and for fans; not to mention our impressive shelters—homes, offices, factories and homes-away-from-home that house us in comfort and safety with a plethora of furniture, appliances, gadgets and gizmos to make life easier, safer, more productive and more fun.

And finally, and most important of all—friendly compassionate neighbors and fellow workers (black, white, yellow and all shades in between) in the north, south, east and west (and all locations in between).

This last benefit comes thanks to the rich combination and cooperation of our public and private sectors, with special credit going to the schools and churches that minister to our moral health. May they continue and prosper.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. I am working hard now on my book, THE ROAD TO A TEA PARTY: A Fresh Look at the Cold War, 9/11, and the Future of Free-Market Liberal Democracy. Look for it this summer on our web site: www.hawkhill.com or on www.amazon.com .

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