Friday, August 27, 2010

An American Exile: Hitting the Road

So, I began the trek, this “exile” with a mathematical problem…how do you load yourself, your spouse, three dogs and everything we would need for our three weeks on the road into the minivan without a fight. The solution…you don’t. The negotiations were fierce and traumatic–just as any situation where you are forced to give up precious commodities–but we did manage to get down to a minimum and hit the road.

Off we went! The plan is to head up through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan as we swing our way out west towards Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. Our first stint was a short one due to a late start but we did manage to make it to Fayette where we were told of some amazing remnants of the iron industry. Driving from the Lower Peninsula into the Upper Peninsula is kind of like a time warp…almost like driving back into the 1960’s…but it is beautiful!

Everyone survived this first leg despite feeling a bit homeless and a bit restless. We parked in a rest area the first night and slept in the van. This was not the most comfortable of situations, especially with three fidgety corgis, but we made due and were able to head out rather quickly in the morning.

When we got going, we immediately made our way down the small neck of land towards Fayette and visited the historic town there that was built around the iron furnaces. The weather was beautiful and it was a great place to waste away the morning looking at the restored buildings and iron works. It’s amazing to think about all the people who lived and worked there up until the iron production shut down in 1906. I keep thinking about the phrase “eke out a living” and can’t help but wish that I was doing that right now rather than wandering the country. But, seeing this iron town, and especially the schoolhouse, reminded me of how much the “American Dream” has changed.

When I was in fourth grade, we had a social studies book entitled “The American Dream” and, for some reason, this title has stuck with me all of this time. Perhaps it was because my parents both were shining examples of how things worked in America. My dad was a self-employed roofer with no more than an eighth grade education. He had worked with the carpet company his family had come to the U.S. with before serving in World War II, he worked hard, made his living and helped to take care of his family in a kind and gentle manner. My mother, in comparison, held a master’s degree and was a female corporate executive for a pharmaceutical company. She was a tough woman who aspired to run her family in much the same way she had to survive in the corporate world…through aggressive management and intimidation. Despite their divergent backgrounds however, my folks fell in love, got married and raised a family. They both worked hard and my sister and I were provided with a solid upper middle-class upbringing. Now, as I stand and look at the re-creation of the old schoolhouse, I can’t help but feel sad at how bad things have gotten in this country and how the American dream I grew up with has been scrambled into a waking nightmare.

As we continued west past Fayette, I kept thinking about the idea of scratching out a living. Here we were, driving through some very remote communities and I wondered about who lived there, what they did for a living, how they paid their bills. I was feeling encouraged in a way, started to feel a little better. After all we were in some beautiful country and the scenery in itself was incredibly uplifting but then we stumbled across something quite poignant…and old crumbling school in the middle of nowhere. We stopped because of the site of this large decaying building and I was enjoying taking pictures until I noticed the desks through a broken out window. The symbolism of finding this remnant at this time in my travels was powerful. Was it a reminder of my decaying American dream or a metaphor for my own disenfranchisement from my career in education? Regardless, it made me feel a little unsettled again and I was anxious to keep moving west.
As time ran out on our daylight, we turned into a campsite on the shores of Lake Gogebic just as the moon was coming up over the horizon. At least for now, we could settle in and not feel so homeless. It’s surprising how the wonders of hot food, flush toilets and a shower can change your perspective. Hopefully tomorrow, we can get the hell out of Michigan and push westward.

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