A home is a place that exists both in time and space.  Not merely a location, a home has to have either a past or a future, or both, tended by people who care for it.  A home cannot be identified by GPS coordinates but is measured by the heart, either in the weight of accumulated memories or in the length of unrealized tomorrows.  A home is not a warehouse of store bought things, it does not have a net worth.  A home is instead the object of an individual’s attachments, the wellspring of  sentimental value.  

     I do not believe the urge to migrate is necessarily reconciled with the homing instinct only at the conclusion of a long, epic journey; like Salmon returning to the river of their birth to spawn and die.  Tribal people, such as the natives of North America, often traveled seasonally within a limited range to hunt animals and gather necessities.  Familiarity with the land they depended on was an important element to their survival, and with that familiarity I would assume came a natural affection as well.  This was probably a way of living that all of humanity practiced for many millennia and is also shared in common with other predators at the top of the food chain such as bears, mountain lions, and wolves. 

     Very few inhabitants of North America today travel by foot and live hand to mouth as hunter-gathers.   Most of us sustain ourselves instead by driving to the nearby grocery store to buy food that is wrapped in plastic, made possible by the four million miles of paved roads in the United States.  I calculated that I drove my van over at least one percent of them during my travels — while drinking my body weight in gas station coffee a couple times over.  The combination of being sedentary, stimulated, and alone was the norm while I crossed wide parts of the country behind the wheel, so I became somewhat neurotic, especially during the return trips.  I often thought about those earlier times of the Indians, and then the pioneers who fought them, as their wagon trains rolled across the open country.  Our forefathers gave all they had for something new, for a new life that didn’t outlive them long, until it turned into something else, something unintended.  I began to contemplate life itself:

     “If the earth is a finite sphere, only able to absorb a limited amount of energy from the sun in a given amount of time, then anything that lives does so, at least potentially, at the expense of something else.  This is the opportunity cost of light.  Therefore, all the efforts of mankind, from the meanest to the greatest, as the products of solar energy, owe it’s existence to the fact that some other living things in nature are either used or displaced.”  

     I am proud of my little thesis, even if it was not entirely original, (a rephrasing of something author Wendell Berry said in an interview) but the thought also makes me uncomfortable.  If our develped, first-world country has four million miles of paved roads then how many parking spaces?  A billion?  All that asphalted area is a vast ecological dead zone, collecting heat and running off rainwater.  The amount of energy it takes for all of us to drive between our parking spaces, and to have built the road system and machines that allows us to use it, is unimaginable; and probably can only truly be accounted for by the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

     In my recent experience traveling the metropolitan area of Tucson, Arizona stands out as probably the best (or worst) examples of America’s unrestrained roadbuilding.  I was a motorist for several days within it’s urban grid system of three lane highways, driving by acre after acre of free parking and commercial buildings that were either shopping centers, or looked liked shopping centers — mixed together with some typical southwestern style residential developments.  I’ll give the city planners their due, not once did I want for a convenient spot to park my vehicle.  And neither did I feel like I was arriving to or going away from any place in particular.  On top of a nearby mountain peak in Saguaro National Park I looked over a desert with blooming cactuses and lizards sunning on rocks, while in the valley Tucsonites enjoyed air-conditioning from within their windshields, rarely out of sight of a strip mall.  The delicate Sonoran ecology having been scrapped away there and replaced by an environment more suitable for the survival of car dealerships.

     If suburban sprawl represents something close to the meanest of human endeavors, there are also the great works of mankind to consider: the Pyramids, the Acropolis, the Hagia Sophia, the Chartres Cathedral, the Kremlin, and the Great Wall of China.  Their builders brought something new to the world, creations on a grand scale that had never been seen before.  And they were, and still are, beautiful.  And they also owed their existence to some combination of egotism, nationalism, and religion — by regimes that in our day and age would be labeled oppressive and fanatical.  An argument can be made that although our modern society rarely directs it’s energy towards any glorious purpose it provides comfort and care for more people.

     But I doubt our interstate highways were built out of any pure intentions or high-minded motivations for the general welfare.  Although the United States has never been completely subject to the whim of a single ruler, our history has also  never been lacking for ambitious men on the make.  Over time the product of their egos tended to less often take the concrete form of monumental architecture, at least at the city center, but towards the abstraction of intangible wealth.  And if our roadways may fail to outlast the Great Pyramid of Giza, the system at least allowed a great many to get rich very quickly.

     On my return from the wilds of Alaska I drove across the mid-western states once again with refreshed eyes.  What I saw was a sorry vision of the towns of the former prairie, like most small towns elsewhere, broken and depreciated, a shell of their former selves, while the commotion of commerce bypassed them along the highways.  The change that began during the post-war boom years wasn’t a superficial relocation, the retail economy was now completely out of local hands and firmly in the grasp of a few far-away corporations.  And I can only assume that the largest manufacturing employers were often closed and gone for good, as in the town where I live. 

     The economic answer for the unfortunates who live and grew up in these places has been to abandon their homes and move to a newer, growing sun-belt region like Tucson, or maybe get a job as truck driver.  Invariably the more capable do leave and settle elsewhere.  For those left behind there remains either low income customer service jobs or long term unemployment.

     And now, back in Maryland, I find myself also considering leaving the area where I was born and raised, not because of some other overwhelmingly attractive alternative, but because there is no longer a practical reason to stay.  I would miss my home.  It’s still the rural place I remember from my childhood.  The farms, the woods, the country roads, the dairy cows, the old mill, the towpath by the river, the decaying small town — most of the scenery of my old school bus rides remain.  I wouldn’t be the same person if I had grown up in a city instead.   But being working class during my lifetime here has been like playing a long game of musical chairs with fewer well paying positions left after each downturn in the economy.  The music may have finally stopped for me this time around.

     The highways are partly to blame.  There is a paradox to mobility: The easier it becomes to move around, the more every place becomes the same.  So once our government decided that it was permissible for our roads and shipyards to move around goods made by a world full of impoverished people, jobs were sure to be lost and wages bound to fall.   And so while the Chinese now toil under polluted skies the smokestack at the old tannery in my hometown has turned to ruin after ten years of neglect.  I can only figure that it will take some additional time for the cost of employment to fully equalize between our two countries.  In theory one day the factory jobs will return at a fraction of the their former pay, and then we’ll be able to choke on industrial soot again.

     But the US highway system, despite it’s corruption and high cost, the environment it degrades, the eyesores it engenders, and the globalized economy it enables, also made it possible for me to travel to so many of the National Parks and all the other places along the way.  At no other previous time in history could someone, especially of average means, have been able to witness so much of the earth’s raw beauty and unique geography in such a short period of time.  That could be another paradox.  But one thing I know for certain: While the sun was shining I made the most of it.

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