Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Western Nebraska

I did a bike ride across Nebraska this spring. It was enjoyable, but it also provided a lot of thinking fodder.

First, one of the really cool things about Sociology is the respect it gives you for how different people live their lives. We live in a country of almost 300 million people. Even though most of us know several thousand people, there are huge swaths of our fellow citizens about whom we know nothing. Further, people tend to overlook the differences. So any time you can talk to someone and learn a little bit about a life not like your own, it's a good thing.

In that sense, western Nebraska really rocked. Out in the ranch country, and in the sandhills, there would simply be no one around. A few cows maybe. And the driveways would have signage saying "Joe's ranch 3 miles" right down a dirt road. The folks you did run into were terribly friendly, and respectful. Wanted to see the bikes, respected good equipment. Didn't make jokes about lycra. The standard ranch truck seemed to be a half ton American pickup with a flatbed. Some of the towns welcomed us with carriage taxis, kids on horses. Folks wore cowboy hats, boots, buckles. The whole costume - but it was real. That simply is what they wore. I met a drifter, walking from town to town. Doesn't hitchhike after 911. Ppl are too wierded out. Met folks who ride way more bike than I do. Met small town kids who were certain their little town is both the center of the universe and completely off the map at the same time. Try and tell them to dig it while they can, not too many ppl are living like that nowadays. One town had the oldest, largest straw bale building in the country. It was a church, and many folks interested in alternative building wander through town looking to check it out. Even more interesting though was that these completely pragmatic townsfolk had several other strawbale buildings. Some of them brand new. They're not hippies, they just see an interesting effective way to build a building. And they did. And as I sat in some of the bars out there, doors kicked wide open (no bugs), evesdropping on conversation, absorbing little aspects of all these strangers' lives, I thought to myself, "California wouldn't believe it. New York doesn't even know this is here. Nebraska is flyover country of the worst kind." Of course many of the ppl in Cali and Manhatten are transplants from the midwest. There is only so much work here, after all. But that's beside the point. The point is that here in the United States, we have ranchers, small town kids, drifters, retired ppl who ride bikes for fun, artists, horsemen.

Looking at the last post, the review of Kunstler, it is entertaining to think about how energy plays into things. First, I actually did fuel my travels with cheeseburgers. So you know that much is possible. That knoweldge alone can be a freeing in contemporary times. The trip was supported, so plenty of fuel was burned getting there, getting bags back and forth, setting up food stops, and so on. But at least it is a start - a way to look at the world differently.

On the topics of energy and geography, it was interesting to revisit these old western towns. They are built on a grid, surrounding a town square, retail, offices, bars, all lining the square. There will be single family homes spread around that. The whole thing is entirely walkable. It could be run without modern fuels. And there are still people living in these places. They may look like antique towns, and many of them have not fared well, but some of them are up and running, with real citizens. At least it's interesting to see. Who knows what might happen economically in an expensive energy environment though? Who even knows the energy future? Not me, but it is a fun tool for analysis. It is nice to see people and communities that could probably do allright in such a scenario.

After the ride, we drove into Omaha. My interest in transportation and urban geography stems directly from the experience of growing up in a midtown Omaha neighborhood, where everything a kid could need was accessible by bike. Bikes are about freedom for me, and they always have been. You could get by on a minimum of gasoline in my old neighborhood in the 70s. Well, there has been a tremendous amount of suburban development around Omaha. So much that now I sound like my parents. "When I was young I used to ride out here, and it was just a stop sign at 108th. Nothing but corn by 114th." Now the town goes out well past the 200s. Anyway, coming into Omaha was a tad depressing. For anyone that worries about debt, oil, and a possible real estate bubble, the scenes were nightmarish. The city fathers are, I'm sure, ecstatic. The scene was one large rolling hill after another of brand spanking new homes. Thousands of them on what used to be terraced farmland. It occurred to me that each one of those subdivisions held more people than any of the towns we had passed through. There were unfinished strip malls. Brand new Home Depots and Walmarts that only needed their signage. Another mile out of town and they are pouring the curbs and walkways for a parking lot that's not laid yet. This went on for miles. "Where are they going to grow the food?" I asked my dad. It gets even more depressing, oil aside. My folks still live in a decent midtwon neighborhood, and over the past 5 years, the grocery stores have been closing. Only the new bigger ones farther out are viable. Now it is happening with the retail too. Target is closing and moving out, for instance. The midtown mall that I used to frequent, which was rejuvenated and did quite well in the 80s, is thinning. Like I said, even independent of oil, this creates a 10 mile odyssey simply to do some shopping, essentially killing the convenience of living midtown. Further, that puts my folks on the road more and longer to run the same errands. Increasing congestion. I don't know how to do it better, but I sure can see how we are amplifying our problems by doing exactly what we have been doing for the last 40 years.

There is no real moral to the story except, read everything you can get your hands on, and use it to analyze the world around in different ways. For instance, Peak Oil might be wrong, but it gets you to think about energy flows which adds another dimension to your understanding the world. And most importantly, talk to people. Good sociology comes from a respectful understanding of real people's lives.

1 comment:

Genevieve said...

I grew up out in the Sandhills, on one of those ranches whose sign you see as you drive along a remote highway. You are talking about Arthur, NE, with the strawbale structures. I met some nice people there when my car broke down on the road near there. I had my two children with me, and a nice buffalo rancher and his wife adopted us until a tow truck finally came to haul us back to Hyannis. On the way to Hyannis, the tow truck driver acted like a tour bus guide and told us all about the ranches we were passing.