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Updated thoughts: The first two months

Added: 26-8-2006

I've been meaning to sit down and write something a bit longer for such a time now it's a joke. Although our schedule sometimes sounds like it's just frenetic barhopping, we are in fact dedicated walkers who seem to spend a lot of our time, well, walking, eating, and sleeping. Many days we just get our heads down and walk and by the end of a nine hour day the last thing one thinks of doing is sitting down in front of the laptop to unburden one's mind of thoughts on America.


Which is why stays in small places like Milford, at the home of a good person with Internet access and a good Simpsons DVD collection (Mike Nicolai, please stand up!), are extremely valuable for getting some longer pieces for the website together. Since I last wrote for the Project in DC weeks have passed, we've moved out of Maryland, through West Virginia and now we're practically out of Ohio. Total distance covered on foot would have to be about 600 miles since we left DC for real on July 6th, and during that time we have begun to meet a real mix of characters in the places we've passed through.


How to begin to write about all this time…well, the last time I wrote we had walked from Delaware to DC in the space of about 10 days, during which time Dave developed tendonitis and we both discovered our packs were a little bit too heavy. The last piece was written in Hyattsville at the house of David Malouin and by that point I had been in the country about a month altogether. I was only just beginning to get into America then…


After DC we passed along the C&O Canal Trail to the West Virginia border, a distance of some 130 odd miles which varied between the monotonous and the really interesting (although really interesting only appeared when we got off the trail). We crossed over to West Virginia at GReen Spring and started learning the lessons of Maryland – sometimes we were going to have to abandon the set route if we wanted to meet more interesting people and actually interact with American civilization. So in West Virginia we began to branch out a little, cutting a corner here and adding a town there. By the time we reached Ohio, on the 5th August, we had moved into fully fledged create-our-own-route mode, using the American Discovery Trail as a guide but basically picking out places that we wanted to go to with people in them, as opposed to concentrating on the back roads and switchbacks that the trail offers.


This is how we like it; more interaction with people with a side order of Interesting Places pointed out by the trail notes. This approach has enabled us to run into loads more people to chat politics, sport and religion with, and I actually suspect it has revealed more to us about America than we might have got before. In short, we are hiking our own hike at this point.


Poverty and Inequality


And what have we seen? To start with, as we have progressed further west we have begun to see the types of inequality that exist between the rich and the poor within the US. Now, this written piece here does not claim to really know anything at all about the state of the US and the poverty inside it, but it does claim to have walked very slowly across three states and to have seen enough to give rise to a few thoughts. As with the previous piece, the academic level of what I am about to write is seriously open to question – nevertheless, there is something quite valid about walking through places talking to people and observing.


We have been through parts of West Virginia and Ohio that are the poorest areas of their respective states. It's been a bit of an eye-opener to me despite a previous awareness that America's rich have been getting richer while the poor have been getting poorer for years. It's the same in the UK – I've stumbled on nothing new. However, some areas have been really jarring, from the numbers of closed stores to the terrible state of a lot of the housing. In West Virginia particularly, the Clarksburg-Parkersburg rail trail took us through some country areas that were particularly beaten up, with yards full of broken down cars and porches full of trash. The trailer is way more ubiquitous than I'd imagined, and it takes its place alongside the pre-fabricated house as the dominant form of housing in the areas we walked through. At the same time, we have noticed some well upmarket properties too, giant places that really juxtapose with the more downmarket housing.


Why is this interesting? Such a distinction would happen in parts of my home town and all over the UK (perhaps not in Denmark). I found the state of some of the villages and hamlets interesting because I suspect that Europeans don't' often get to consider this kind of America – a country where old industries (such as coal in West Virginia) have declined to the extent that economic deprivation and high joblessness sets in. West Virginia, for example, is one of the three poorest states in the US. We made our way through many places that 50 years ago had hotels and railway stations; now there are no stores of any kind.


From conversations with people we know that this situation takes its toll on communities. Rural drink and drug 'problems' were evident in places we passed through and a couple of locations really seemed on the slide. In other places, innovative ways of tackling the problems of absent industry were being employed to boost jobs through tourism, and we also met people moving to the area to take advantage of low house prices and relocate their knowledge industry careers to the countryside. West Virginia in particular is keen to use tourism to turn the economy around – we were happy to be moving through and taking advantage of the excellent trails they are putting in to attract visitors.

But nonetheless, a town where part of main street is still a huge pile of rubble four months after a disastrous fire because it's too expensive to clear it up might come as a little bit of a shock to some Europeans. It certainly was a shock to the inhabitants of that town – the squabbles over local money (and the lack of it) were seen as a sad comment on how the community was progressing. For me, the American image projected abroad is one that shows little of the difficulties that are evident in the country's domestic infrastructure, and I remain a little surprised at the clear signs of poverty that periodically occurred throughout West Virginia and southern Ohio.


The People


Without exception, however, the people in all the communities that we passed through made us feel at home. I am just amazed at the consistent kindness of everyone we are meeting – from people with nothing to people with money to burn. What is interesting to me is the close connection people have with the land/their land. For a start, even in the poorest places we've been the most crumbling residences have large plots of land, especially when compared to England. On this land can be found many things, and often they are connected to outdoor pursuits such as hunting and farming (large and small scale).


Hunting, and the associated gun ownership, are two new things to me, born and raised in England where only the rich people hunt and getting hold of a gun for personal use is extremely difficult. On our trip people have been only too happy to talk about hunting and killing animals, and only too happy to share with us their knowledge of guns and weapons. Hunting here is a sport, and also a way of life. The people who live this life have been open, friendly and keen to discuss the differences in attitude to e.g. shooting deer or turkey that you would find in the parts of England that I am from (it should be pointed out that in the South-East of England we do not have deer everywhere, wandering onto roads and into traffic and generally over-reproducing to the extent that a cull seems a very natural thing indeed).


Now, to address something that was raised a few weeks ago on the Guestbook, about how some of our pictures made the West Virginians out to be a little bit, er, country, I should mention that the term 'Redneck' has been bandied around a lot on our journey, sometimes (in West Virginia) connected to the term 'hillbilly' sometimes (in southern Ohio) connected more to welfare recipients. Such redneckery has been evident everywhere we've gone, and, as I say, we've had as great welcomes from people who might be considered 'rednecks' as we have had from rich people. The redneck seems to be a rural equivalent to the British 'chav', except over here rednecks have weapons and about three cars (chavs might have knives and a car with a fluorescent light underneath it, but I doubt they would know the first thing about hunting and killing their own food). A distinction of people into rednecks/hillbillies and everybody else is extremely facile of course, and I wouldn't dream of bringing it up if it hadn't been implied by more than a few people on our travels. Many things (casual racism, drink and drug use, cars up on blocks, those untidy porches) have often been explained away by references to rednecks and their ways. All I can really comment here is that many people that we have met on our walk simply have no desire to move away from their lives in the country, lives that involve hunting and fishing in a way that people like myself will never really understand. The countryside is simply so big here that it is going to support ways of life that are capable of carrying on without bothering anyone else for an indefinite length of time – these ways of life are uninterested in imposing their values on anyone else and certainly not interested in having any more 'refined' values imposed on them.


Of course, the further west we have come and the nearer we have come to Cincinnati, and the more we have stuck to smaller towns, the less we have encountered hunters and 'rednecks' in the Appalachian mountain sense. What we have instead encountered, in small doses but doses large enough to raise our eyebrows, are opinions on certain socio-economic sections of society that on one level are complaints against the lazy in society (In a future project entry – How Americans Love to Work: Short Holidays and Long Hours in the Land of the Free!) and on another level tap into that most American of preoccupations: race. I should note at this point that the areas through which we have been traveling in the weeks since DC have been overwhelmingly white, with little or no sight of the African-American and Hispanic populations of the east coast.


I'm still feeling my way on this race issue. At this point I would say the southern Ohioan attitude towards African-Americans in Cincinnati is a difficult one to unravel – it could be frustration at perceived laziness/welfare fraud or it could be plain old fashioned racism. Cincinnati experienced severe race riots only recently following the police shooting of a black teenager, and it seems that since then certain parts of the city have practically become no-go zones for anyone – including the police. Such a story certainly ties into some of my preconceptions of America's cities, places where inequality drives a wedge between different segments of the population and where ethnic minorities most likely come off worse. Race is a difficult thing to talk about in an essay like this when we have come across and talked to so few non-white people…it's just that over the last ten days or so crossing Ohio I have noticed that racial issues seem to have been on the agenda in a way that they haven't been on the walk before. More to come on this one no doubt…


The Surroundings

So against what backdrop is all my surmising taking place? We've mostly been trekking through rural areas, by the side of an old canal and the Potomac river in Maryland, through scenic parks and the Dolly Sods wilderness area in West Virginia, and across the rolling hills of Southern Ohio. What has caught my attention most in all of these states is how the shape of the community appears to be changing, especially in the more populated areas.


What I mean is that we keep coming through towns which look like they are on their last legs. Some places, such as Clarksburg and Parkersburg in West Virginia, almost appear to have had their hearts ripped out, with businesses recently closed and For Sale signs everywhere. Smaller towns have no stores, only a gas station on the edge of town that serves everyone's needs (such places will have a mini-market, a sandwich shop, restrooms, petrol pumps and beer carry-out). The centre of communities appears no more, it's only a place for homes to idly cluster around in memory of something no longer there.


Instead what is happening is that the larger towns have new malls springing up on their fringes, moving the economic centre of activity to the edge and placing facilities solely in reach of people with a car (OK, I know that in the US this means practically everyone and that we, as pedestrians, are kinda freaky). The malls that we have seen are, to my completely biased eyes, vast, unattractive, horrible places that contain variants of the same stores over and over again. I'm also not talking malls exclusively in the covered shopping centre sense – I'm talking about strip malls that resemble the industrial estates on the edge of towns in England. Car parks are massive, and people drive from one giant store to the next.


Why is this? Many people we've met say it's the influence of the giants such as Wal-Mart who set up on the edge of town and pull other businesses with them like fish following a whale. Others have said that it is the peculiar desire of Americans to keep starting over, to move someplace else once a town centre is 'done'. I know for myself that I have read so much about Wal-Mart I am more inclined to fall into the first camp, and I worry that what I see over here is being replicated in England and the rest of Europe on a similar scale. What I should say, however, in a kind of defence of these places that some people we've met have advocated, is that people want these stores – they provide goods and services at an affordable level that the mom and pop stores (and the main/high streets that I am so beloved of) cannot compete at, and they are essential for the survival of the economically deprived in many areas. It's pure capitalism some people say – but it's a survival of the fittest that, regardless of its use, is changing the way American communities look and feel at the beginning of the 21st century. Personally, I find it depressing.


Politics and the War


So how do people feel about the economic situation and the changes to the landscape wrought by the disappearance of the major industries? Politics has been constantly on our agenda here and, like during the first ten days, people have been only too happy to talk about Democrats and Republicans, Bush and even Blair.


Thinking back to our experiences getting to DC, I believe that we met more Democrat supporters than Republicans during our first period in the states. As we have progressed west this situation has been evened up most considerably, and we have begun to meet many more true Republicans and some very firm Bush supporters. This is a bit of a relief because, frankly, nothing was adding up and I was wondering where they all were.


We have passed through loads of places where there will be a blue star on the outdoor wall of a home to indicate a Democrat supporter, or a red star to indicate a Republican. As I mused in the last piece, there appears to be a need on the part of many Americans to identify themselves very clearly with issues/organizations ("I'm a Democrat", "I'm a Christian"). However, in the last few weeks I have found, to no surprise whatsoever, that despite some very clear identifications at a root level, political opinion differs just as widely as anywhere else. We have met some Republicans who believe Bush is a strong, brave, clever leader, others who hate him, his cronies and what they are doing to the country. Likewise we have met Democrats whose disappointment with Bush verges on hatred, but they agreed with the Iraq invasion, and also Democrats who are incensed at the inability of their own party to put together a coherent argument against the Republicans that doesn't smack of self-interest.


It's the war issue that interests me the most at this point, and I've been able to discuss it at length with many people over the past few weeks. As I mentioned previously, there still appears to be a strong feeling that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks and this has let the Republicans continue to sell the Iraq invasion as part of the war on terrorism. Some people we have met believe this more than others, and we spent a great evening with a guy who saw the Iraq invasion as part of a plan to draw all the terrorists into one place so that they could be fought face to face rather than in dribs and drabs. Makes you think about the Iraqi civilian casualties that were necessary to make this situation a reality though, and the fundamental lack of care for human life that is evident in the way that we have seen the continuing fallout of the invasion described on e.g. Fox News.


Perhaps the most interesting person we met concerned with the war was a young guy of 22 who had been in the army for four years and served in Iraq, if my memory serves me correct, for three of those years. He was a pretty amazing guy, really interesting, and his take was pretty damning of the current administration. None of the guys he knew over there believed the reasons for the invasion, and all of them wanted out.


In between the Just War and the Getting Out people exist another group who are extremely frustrated at the situation but maintain that we can't just cut and run. I myself fall into this category I guess. Most Democrats signed up for the war but now there is great disillusionment at what has happened in the aftermath, like the non-appearance of those pesky weapons of mass destruction for example, or a lack of a plan for winning the 'peace'. Despite this, there is a feeling among many people that the US (and Britain) started this mess and we just can't leave the people there to their fate. It's unsure yet how this will play out on a political level, as it appears that the Democrats are going to peg all their hopes on an exit strategy and anti-war platform at the mid-terms. Will it work? The President's approval ratings regarding the handling of terror have just gone up again following the foiled terror plot in the UK…


Religion


Of course, you might be of the opinion that this is a just war because George W. Bush was put in the White House by God to defend Israel, tackle the Antichrist of the UN and hasten the end of times which, if the recent Israel-Hezbollah conflict was anything to go by, is pretty much around the corner. This opinion, which to my European ears sounds completely crazy, has been put to us on a couple of occasions, and a literal interpretation of the Bible (from whence these opinions spring) is extremely popular in some of the areas we have passed through.


The level of religious devotion over here, as evidenced in the number of churchgoers and the huge numbers of churches we are passing each day, is quite staggering for my European sensitivity to take in. We've been lucky enough to meet with a lot more Christians over recent weeks and everyone has been happy to talk about their faith with us should the topic come up. It's an interesting situation to me, especially when I listen to the people who take the word of the Bible as coming down exactly from God himself, as if it wasn't written from different viewpoints by different people at different times, and has gone through who knows how many translations to get to where it is today. It's difficult to know how to respond – I have no desire to start arguments for the sake of being a smartass.


In fact, I'm trying rather hard not to be a smartass and to try and listen as much as possible when talking to people who obviously take their beliefs very seriously. We were lucky enough to spend the night with a preacher at the Church of Christ in Pennsboro in West Virginia, and there, for an hour at least we were able to ask a number of questions on our mind and get some clear answers in return. What was most interesting to me in this exchange was not the information that the Church of Christ is not a top-down church of the old order, with parishes autonomous from an overall controlling body and able to provide spiritual solace to their own community in a way that the community most sees fit, but it was instead that the preacher, who had had interesting travels outside of the US, had never met a Muslim and professed to know little about Islam. Why is this surprising? Not because a man who lived in West Virginia had never met a Muslim (lord knows there was no reason why – the area we walked through was entirely white Christian), but more because of the way that it might therefore be easier for the entire population of Muslims to be singled out by e.g. the media post 9/11. When we know little of someone and their community it is easier to (sometimes willfully) misunderstand them and hold them responsible for acts in the name of their religion that the majority would find abhorrent. It's more complex territory here…what I am trying to say is that I am of the opinion that Americans know practically nothing about Islam and its practitioners, less even than the British or the Danes, and as a result the human face of conflicts such as those in Iraq,  southern Lebanon or Palestine is more easily obscured and ignored. I suspect, based on a reading of the Christian communities we have traveled through so far, that America's Christian community would deal very badly with a more widespread influx of non-Christians, especially the further one gets away from the coasts. The ethnic and religious mix is pretty uniform in the areas we have walked through, and I think that events involving Islam, events which can seem very close to Europeans, seem so far away as to be off the radar entirely. I suspect that the end result of this situation is ignorance of the other, leading to suspicion at everything seen on the news involving people in the Middle-East, likely with the exception of Israelis.


The attitude towards recent events in Israel and Lebanon is another thing which has been a source of confusion to me. It seems that oftentimes the beliefs of some of the people we have met conflict with my prior knowledge of interfaith relations, such as the enmity between Jews and Christians. This seems to have been turned on its head somewhat recently, as fundamentalist Christians seem to moving towards an alliance with the Jews. This situation, which is based on a couple of conversations with people about the conflict in Israel and the End of Times, is not something I know enough about yet to comment on and will need further research. An extremely tricky area, no doubt.


But overall, being over here in the US for the ongoing conflict…events just seem so far away. In Europe, it seems like it is happening at the end of the garden, just a little bit further south on the TV weather map. Perhaps this is why the effects of American foreign policy seems to be unquestioned on any major scale over here – with the theatres of conflict so far away events can play themselves out with little repercussion on the US mainland (9/11 aside, an event which effected the east coast of this massive country, there has been little to trouble the majority of American's 260 million people). As with my previous piece in the project section, it seems that at the end of the day my understanding of this country will come down to trying to understand the effects of distance on all things – on foreign policy and the ability to get away with action abroad, on general levels of world awareness, on general levels of understanding amongst different people and on a general ability to mobilize political machines that confront the status quo. The country is so big – we have walked across 800 miles of it and we are barely away from the east coast – that this distance seems to magnify everything, from the effort needed to stay in touch with events in other countries or to understand (or even hear about) the actions of the government abroad, to the level of general knowledge about the rest of the people in the world, people who are affected by every move that America makes on the international stage. By living in such a big isolated country, it occurs to me that Americans face a harder hurdle getting to know and understand how the rest of the people in the world get by. When there is such space around you, why do people far away even matter?


So for now these are my thoughts. In a few days we continue further west. How will things be there?

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E-mail: stu@walkingthestates.com and dave@walkingthestates.com | Phone: (00 1) 301 538 0308