The Recession Roadtrip: A Retrospective


I've been back in Washington, DC for two months now, though feel like I'm still processing the extraordinary experiences of the Recession Roadtrip. Six months on the road winding my way through the Great American Recession granted such privileged insight into the national sentiment; I barely know where to begin the retrospective account.

First some basic facts and stats:

Total miles driven: 20,257
Total words written: 80,0036
Total number of Priuses: 6 (But I only totaled one!)
Speeding tickets: 2 (Not sure I'll be allowed back in Arizona.)
Parking tickets: 10+ (St. Paul, MN seemed the ticketing capital of the country.)
People interviewed: 500+
Nights spent sleeping in the car (usually in a Wal-Mart parking lot): 22
Nights crashing with strangers: 10
Camping: 8
Sleeping outside with homeless people: 4

I'll answer some of the most common questions I've received since completing the journey, and welcome readers to ask additional ones in the comments below.

Who was your favorite story subject, or who impressed you the most?: That's a hard one to answer. For their dedication to family and their will to keep fighting to re-build a life upended by hardship, I have enormous respect for Rosa Jurado in Arkansas, the Daneris of Idaho, Rebecca Polston in South Carolina, "Emma" in Seattle, and "Princess" in Philadelphia.

For their dedication to helping others and their community, I would name Rita Wilson in Mississippi, Jerry Voiles in Tennessee, Alan Eldridge in Virginia, and Sean Cummings in New Orleans.

For the way of accepting their own layoff or foreclosure as a positive opportunity to re-invent their lives or careers, I often think of Michael Babins in Texas, David Walters and Laurel Sprague in New Mexico, the Brothers Tartamella in Brooklyn, Antony Ellington in Texas, Shaz Schwartz in Colorado, Alex Gargarita in San Jose, Edwin Duterte in Pasadena, the Moore family in Indiana, and Andy Moore in North Carolina.

Did you notice any common themes, trends, or perspectives emerging from your conversations with people across the country?: A phrase I heard repeated many times was: "It could always be worse." What was interesting is that I most often heard that from the people who had it the worst.

In general, it seemed that those who had not personally suffered a direct hit from the recession were most vocally expressive about how bad life had become. I eventually learned that if someone I met responded to my initial query about the recession with a groan and complaint of how miserable everything had become, their recession story would be about the price of fuel and their efforts to cut back on regular expenses.

But those who had lost their jobs or their homes would hold more tightly to what they still had, and take from that whatever optimism they could muster. Michael Babins in Texas, who had to walk away from his over-mortgaged home in Las Vegas, was grateful (and happy) he and his wife had a travel trailer. Pat Poole, who was laid off and homeless when I met him hitchhiking across Utah in search of work, said: "It could always be worse. At least I have my health." Doug Coates, who was laid off and living in a homeless shelter in Rhode Island, knew it could be worse: "I could be sleeping on the street," he told me.

Also, those enduring the greatest hardship because of the recession expressed--almost without exception--a gratitude for the experience. The common explanation I heard for that was that through the recession "we've learned what's important." What they've learned is that experiences are more important than possessions, and that family takes precedence over all else. The bit about family would seem like nothing new to the average person, but those who have had to call on their family for assistance or shelter because of the recession--like Porsche Christiansen in Utah or Rebecca Polston in South Carolina--have a new and deeper appreciation of the importance of blood ties.

Was it hard to get people to talk to you?:  Very rarely. A few didn't want their pictures taken, which was understandable since most subjects I encountered quite randomly in the middle of their otherwise typical afternoon. The only ones who hesitated talking were those supplementing their unemployment by engaging in illegal activities, such as "Pie-Dog" in Eureka, California, "Jimmy" in Las Vegas, and "Princess" in Philadelphia.

Wasn't it lonely traveling by yourself for six months?: In reality, I wasn't alone all that often. I required seclusion when writing or researching, but the rest of my time was spent wandering around and talking to people. The long hours spent driving was the only "free time" I had to talk on the phone with friends and family back home, so it almost felt like I had company in the car.

Being a woman traveling alone, were you ever scared?:  I wasn't kidding when I wrote that I had a weird phobia for wind turbines. Only other time I experienced fear was when a big, hairy tarantula crawled onto the book I was reading while camping in the Badlands.

Did you learn anything that surprised you or challenged any pre-conceived notions?: I deliberately tried to avoid developing any expectations regarding what I would learn about the recession's effect, though I did come to appreciate inaccuracies in the national media's portrayal of "tent cities" as being a direct by-product of the recession. Spending time with the homeless also granted me a deeper understanding of their lifestyle and made me doubt the common assumption that many are homeless by choice.

The number of 9/11 "truthers" I encountered somewhat shocked and dismayed me. Perfectly normal people of all political stripes and socioeconomic backgrounds would, in my mind, transform into conspiracy nutjobs when they expressed their belief that the U.S. government was complicit in the 9/11 attack.

I was also surprised by the number of conservative independents and Republicans I met in the South who considered the invasion of Iraq the primary cause of our national debt and economic downturn. Official GOP platform and annoyingly vocal position of Tea Parties give a very different impression.

Do you think the recession is over?:  I would say that I'm cautiously optimistic. Two consecutive quarters of growth means the recession is technically over already, but the economy will remain vulnerable and full recovery is certain to take years.

What is abundantly clear is that for the long-term health of the U.S. economy, the current investment in green technologies will create a new industrial sector that could create the fuel for an era of robust American prosperity. A global demand for alternative fuels and environmentally-sound technology already exists. American scientific innovators are capable of meeting this challenge if they receive adequate investment in research and development.