I started writing what was going to be a bit of travel Texas series earlier this year and it got sidetracked with life, as life often gets sidetracked. Bonnie, Apple Jack, Corn Bread, and I traveled Texas all summer long and enjoyed it just as much as we have in summer's past - making the rounds through the state about every six weeks for much of this year while we have been calling on retail stores wholesaling the jewelry we make. It's a big state, rich in history, music, art, and a culture uniquely drawn from Mexican, American, European, and American Indian influences. On our last round through the state this year I wanted to revisit all of the places we've grown to love over a lifetime and share them with all of you. I still intend to do that one day but I think what we discovered on that last round through the state is perhaps more pertinent, and more timely so I digress....
We had traveled from the panhandle of the state where my story left off to central Texas continuing our journey when we began hearing evidence of what the financial analysts were predicting a few years ago, that the bad economy would hit Texas in the Summer of 2011. While they weren't wrong about the housing foreclosures peaking this summer in Texas, they couldn't have also predicted the insufferable drought. Temperatures peaking out at 114-F and 115-F, triple digit heat 100 days straight in many areas, we actually had the kitties on a bed of ice in the back seat of the car for several weeks this summer.
Dust storms like my grandparents and great-grandparents recall from the Great Depression and Dust Boll days have invaded the western part of the state once again. While West Texas is largely dependent on oil drilling for revenue, the Texas Panhandle and plains is dependent on agriculture - farming and ranching. We've been hearing stories all year long in Texas and New Mexico about ranchers selling their cattle for next to nothing because they could no longer afford to feed them, or there simply was no feed available as a result of the drought. Water is also in extremely short supply - some communities have run out altogether and city council's were voting on whether it would be more practical to purchase emergency supplies of bottled water to ship in or spend upwards of a million dollars to pipe water in from nearby plants and factories on a temporary basis. In parts of the panhandle, farmers and residents were at odds with water needs. Farmer's using their own wells, on their own property, were irrigating thousands upon thousands of acres to produce much needed crops, for both livestock and human consumption. Nearby residents, who were dependent on well water for their households found their wells running dry because the farmers were using an over-abundance of water for irrigating. Residents were faced with having to spends thousands of dollars to dig deeper wells, purchase bottled water for both consumption and bathing and washing, or just flat out move until the water levels were restored - unless of course, they could convince or otherwise litigate the farmers out of irrigating above the norm.
One of our customers who owns a women's apparel store, also owns and operates a substantial family farm with her husband. They raise thousands of acres of corn and cotton. As wholesalers, we have learned over the past 20 years that it's important to understand our own customer's sources of revenue as well as that of their customers. It helps us produce products that fit their lifestyle and needs and are offered at a time they can afford them at a price they can also afford. So this drought has been on our radar for many months. Harvest precedes Thanksgiving and predicts the potential success of the upcoming retail season. Since we farm jewelry, the holiday season is our crop but is solely dependent upon the success of our customers in their crops.
On that last trip leaving the panhandle, we stopped by this customer's store to visit with her and she seemed quite uncertain about her future. We had noticed her fields driving into town - gorgeous, tall green stalks of perfect looking corn but oddly dry at the top. They looked good but strange - but then again, I'm no farmer so I asked her about it. She explained that they had been irrigating at the cost of $60,000/month all season long to run the wells hoping to reign in a crop. Although the fields looked good to a novice like me, they had been unable to keep the plants cool enough in the 114-F heat for them to properly pollinate so, although the plants themselves were beautiful as a direct result of all of the irrigating, when you pulled back the ears to expose the corn there were no more than a dozen kernels on each ear of corn. The entire crops, and everyone else’s crops, were a total failure. They were attempting to dry them to sell for silage (cattle feed) which would only produce enough income to only slightly recover any expenses incurred. The financial loss was catastrophic. The fact that it rained heavily the following day probably made the silage a total loss as well.
Ranchers were faced with similarly bad predicaments - shortages of feed, shortages of water, and triple digit heat, all of which were killing cattle in droves. The land is parched and wild fires have been raging. Another of our customers who also owns a family ranch that has been in the family for over 150 years faced a 12,000 acre fire at the same time. Not only were their losses within the ranch itself, they are of course billed for the 4 week effort to put out the fire, fined for any inefficiencies on their part (*such as the requirement to clear thousands upon thousands of acres of brush), etc...
Traveling through these portions of the state from late August through October, we began to spot foreclosure notices on homes and farms in noticeable abundance, like we had seen in Tennessee and Virginia in 2007 after leaving California. Cotton gins and grain elevators were for sale in abundance and posted with signs stating that all of the copper had already been stolen, the massive metal buildings were not for sale for scrap, etc… Farms that we have come to know well over a lifetime of living and traveling in these areas, and that we had seen flourishing in 2006 on our move from California to Tennessee, that at that time and in years past were lush with green leaves, bushy cotton plants waist high with fat white cotton bolls, these farms have turned to dust. Farmers faced with the gamble of pouring money into seed, water, fertilizer, equipment, and labor in a game of poker against Mother Nature. Of course, any farmer in West Texas will tell you that their labor is always a game a of poker with Mother Nature – and so it is, but this year was a losing hand. The true losing hand though was that of the farmers who took the gamble of refinancing their homes and farmland to build bigger homes and buy more farm land when those questionable, now regrettable, loans that were so readily abundant. It is now that those balloon payments are coming due, that the interest rates are increasing – it is now that they need a winning crop more than ever.
And for all the Texans who thought “George Bush was their friend”, “George Bush would never let anything happen to Texas”, “Texas is too good to fail” – ahem……..they might be eating their words about now. My distaste for politicians is bi-partisan by the way, but the arrogant remarks I have heard from my fellow Texans (I was born in San Antonio) over the past few years have left me cursing them under my breath on more than a few occasions. Texas has fared better than most states in recent years, thanks in large part to the fact that they had a Texas president in office for all of it. A Texas president responsible for most of it (*in my opinion). States that have a president in office tend to fare better than most during his term. By good fortune, and no doubt a lot of back door, good ole boy politicking, Texas has had the good fortune of having presidents in office for most of the past 40 years and they’ve had the fortune of an excellent economy to prove it. Having lived out of the state for most of these years, and all of the Bush years, I tend to think that Texas has profited at the expense of the other 49 states so I’ve been on pins and needles ready to watch them fall off their throne for some time now. Not that I want to see any more of us fall than already have but we’re all in need of a serious reality check and Texans are certainly no exception.
Since Bonnie and I have been living this economic crisis from it's inception in California in 2006 when it first hit there, to the east coast in 2007 when it crashed there and gas prices topped out at over $6.00/gallon for several weeks, to New Mexico when they were first feeling the effects of it, back to Texas where they were so convinced that they were immune and knocked off their arrogant thrones once they realized they weren't this summer, we decided we would just go back to the east coast, four years after this all began, to see if we see any changes there now. Absurd? Perhaps. But we don't have a permanent address and what the hell. So with a slight change of plans we didn't make one last round through Texas this summer. Instead, we stopped and made a ton more jewelry, and just kept driving east through the forests of east Texas, along the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and into Georgia with the intention of continuing this journey as far as it takes us. It's not that we couldn't stop somewhere and live, it's that for four years now, every time we think we're about to get settled we get knocked off our butts again so rather than settling we just thought we would explore our options first.
Our last journey east, like this, was in 1994-1995. It took eighteen months and encompassed 38 states. This one is yet to be determined. We were in a state of constant panic and fear on that trip – not outwardly but, certainly privately. We had left Oklahoma where we had been somewhat enslaved for 4-1/2 years. Finally with a chance to get out we loaded up our car with two changes of clothes, our sewing machine, and $5,000 worth of wholesale, handmade crafts that we had made to sell to make enough money to get us somewhere. We left out in a rain storm headed for Texas because Texas was familiar turf, and we spent the next couple of months selling crafts to stores throughout the state. We didn’t know where to go, where we wanted to live, what we wanted to do, and our sales had been quite excellent but we needed a change. A friend’s mother, several years prior, had told us about the Smokey Mountains, Dollywood, Pigeon Forge, and suggested that we take our stuff that way to sell some day. We decided that would be the time. Although we had traveled quite extensively throughout my childhood, on long meandering summer trips and holidays, Bonnie and I had never set out so far on our own, with no hotel reservations, no credit cards, no itinerary, no money. We didn’t know the area, had no clue what was ahead of us, didn’t know a soul on that side of the world, but had an instinct it was what we needed to do.
Discussing this for weeks ahead, we made it across Arkansas which was still familiar turf to us. Memorably, we made a huge sale there one day which was a rarity in Arkansas. We had gone into the grocery store on our way out of town and noticed a woman in line ahead of us that was putting groceries back because she had gone over her budget. The woman was black. I remember her as being elderly and quite petite, Bonnie remembers her as being young. Whether she was young with an old spirit, or elderly with a young heart is irrelevant. I think her prayers for us carried us through that journey east. The young, high school age, white cashier, and the equally young sack boy, were making quite a production of publically embarrassing the woman for not being able to afford the food she obviously needed. It was the peaches – big, beautiful, juicy peaches that caught our eyes. That’s when Bonnie and I both realized what the scene playing before us was all about. We both said, “NO! WAIT!”….and I blurted out, “You stop that right now!” and turned to the woman, “Ma’am. I don’t live here. I’m just passing through but I’ve had an exceptionally good day and it would make my day even better if I could share it with you.” Then I turned to the cashier and said, “I’ll pay for her groceries. You bag them up for her and I’m paying for all of them”. The sack boy returned with the bag of beautiful peaches and Bonnie sent him to retrieve every other item he had made a production of taking away as well. The woman was more than grateful and kind but then she pulled a tiny black memo book from her pocket and handed me a pen, asking us each to write our names in her prayer book. She said she knew we were on a long journey, she knew angels were following us, and she wanted to pray for us a safe journey because we had good spirits. I believe her prayers carried us through and I hope ours for her have done the same.
We had sold crafts in Branson and Hot Springs over the years and had become familiar with the area on numerous trips. With trepidation, we sat on the edge of Western Tennessee in Dyersburg, until we totally and completely ran out of money. We had enough gas to make it to the Eastern edge of Tennessee and not a penny more. Again, we left in a rain storm. The tags on our Toyota Tercel were expired and somehow the rain made me feel safer, I had prayed for it. We drove all day and all night, taking back roads because of our expired tags, in a torrential storm that left trees falling behind us in the road all across the state. It was dark, wet, and not another car on the road for hours and hours then suddenly, we drove over a hill and in the near distance we could see lights like Las Vegas. Pigeon Forge, home of Dollywood, we had arrived. The first store we stopped at that morning bought every single thing we had made in our car and ordered more! We found a hotel room, unpacked the sewing machine and fabric and started filling the order with the intention of staying 3 or 4 days. For the next five months we sat in that hotel room sewing day and night, filling orders, and taking a day or two off a week to enjoy Dollywood and all the local sites. We hadn’t thought about leaving but we had thought we didn’t want to live there. At the end of summer, the shop owner who had been buying all of our stuff asked where we were going next. We hadn’t really given going anywhere else any thought. He went on to explain that they were closing for the season and winter snow storms were on their way. We needed to get over the mountains before we were stuck there with no income and nowhere to land. By what logic I am not sure but we left going north and east over the Blue Ridge Mountains and continued our journey as it had begun.
We have both known real fear in our lives, but I had never known the fear of every single day being a high wire without a net. The tags on our car were a year expired when we left and nearly five years expired when we finally got settled and got that sorted out, we had no insurance, no address, no destination, no family contacts, no telephone (cell phones were yet to come in those days – as was the internet), no bank account, no credit cards, and before it was over our only I.D.’s were expired. We were in places we had never been before, didn’t know if the people would talk to us, if what we had to sell would appeal to them, if they would give us the time of day. And every day, every person we encountered, greeted us with an demanding string of personal questions that were difficult if not impossible to answer. Never the pity party, we didn’t tell anyone we were homeless, scared, that that our next meal or next tank of gas, next night in a craptastic hotel hinged on a sale. We learned to keep moving to prevent suspicion. Perkily - we’re visiting friends in the area!! In those days the tourist areas were booming and a major part of our customer base so it was easy to make an excuse but keeping the answers to their questions in sync, and predicting what those questions might be, became an art. People are creatures of habit – thank god for that. Not that I suppose it mattered but it mattered to us – to not be thought of as failures, as homeless. We saved all of our receipts, both for taxes and for “proof” if we were ever questioned of our journey. I kept meticulous journals – more out of fear that if we had an accident and died on the road maybe someone would read them and know something of us. In some ways, maybe that’s why I write this blog. The future, for all of us, is always uncertain.
But this journey Eastward is not the same. The tags on the car are not expired. We have insurance. The car is often questionable but so is life. We don’t know exactly what is ahead of us with regard to the economy, with regard to retail and buying habits of retailers, but we’ve been here before. So in that sense, we don’t carry the moment to moment fear we lived with before. We are curious! We’re on both a fact finding mission, and a journey. So what is to come, and what we will find, is yet to be.
Coming across Texas this past month, it was obvious that Texas is finally facing reality. It is evident that the economy bubble is finally bursting in Texas and we will be interested to see what we find there in spring and summer. I think it won’t be good and given that we had considered making it our permanent home, this isn’t necessarily welcome news, but I also think it’s relevant and timely that Texans start to witness firsthand what the rest of the country has been living with for so long. Most Texans will agree that Rick Perry gaining the nomination is vital to the economic stability of the state. I think that’s highly unlikely and in recent weeks the Texans we talk to seem to agree. One woman said, “He’ll never get it if he doesn’t keep his mouth shut”. Not likely. Frankly I was surprised we made gas money to get across the state one last time, and given that retailers haven’t had any problem spending all summer long this turn of events has come on suddenly. I expect to find many retail stores out of business after the holiday season.
Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama have always been states we’ve traveled through quickly because the economy in those states is bad on a good year. We have traveled through all of them though many times in the past 20 years. This time we traveled down the coast from Bastrop, Texas into New Orleans, Gulfport, Mississippi, Mobile, Alabama, and Pensacola, Florida. I’ve never been able to spend the time in Louisiana that I would like and this time was no exception. It’s very difficult to make money in Louisiana and we had the added burden of very bad timing on this trip with two holidays, fall festivals, and football homecomings all converging to impede our progress.
I love the tiny, coastal towns of Western Louisiana – the quaint cottages and Main Street districts of Kaplan, Jennings, and Abbeville. Meandering down country roads lined with sugar cane fields and cotton. These are privately owned farms and the people are charm spread on thick, like rum butter on hot apple pie – delightful and sweet. I think I should come here at least a month every year and immerse myself in good manners and a softer tongue than I typically have. I have to remind myself to pace myself in the deep South………..life is slower and sweeter here, that’s for sure!
On towards Central and Eastern Louisiana we travel through more sugar cane fields being harvested, trailers full of cane being delivered by tractors to the processing plant where the bounty will be sold and turned into sugar. Beyond the sugar fields we wind our way into the swamp and fishing areas. Commercial fishermen lined up at the convenience store after a days fishing sharing the stories of their day over a meal and beer before heading home. They are upbeat and joyful, in spite of the well known fishing maladies in recent months since the BP oil spill that we will find on our way into Mississippi has still left the waters gray and barren. We wander into state highway 18, going East, between Gramercy and Avondale through what appears to be commercial sugar plantations. Oddly, we pass through several towns that don’t appear on any map (i.e. Lucy, LA). They have matching, newly painted, water towers but they are shanty towns – clusters of worn out shacks, with no post offices, no main street, no business to speak of at all other than a single convenience store at each one. These towns line highway 18, running south of the Mississippi River on the Southeast side of New Orleans and border the massive sugar cane fields. The only people to speak of are adult black males, in shabby shabby clothes, few vehicles, but a single, new looking school bus at each town parked along the highway. Call me crazy, but it’s a site that beckons to slavery in some modern form. The brand new looking school busses look mightily out of place in an area with no evidence of schools or children. The fact that town after town after town has no business, no post office, no obvious sign of revenue. I can’t help but take in the site before me and wonder if the men in these shanty towns aren’t somehow enslaved by the corporate farms. If the new school busses aren’t actually carrying them into the cane fields every day. The men I see look beaten down, hopeless, helpless, without resources. It’s a site that shakes my very core and I am left to wonder.
In New Orleans, almost six years after Hurricane Katrina, is still peppered with abandoned buildings, glass hanging from abandoned commercial structures, bridges black with mold, apartment complexes, houses, and commercial structures in need of demolition. For all of the progress since the catastrophic hurricane, there is still so much left to do. One can’t help but drive through the city and choke back tears at the memories of what we witnessed from the comfort of our living rooms via CNN.
Throughout the Mississippi Gulf Coast we find entire towns wiped off the map still today. Work is in progress. In Pass Christian, MS we find beautiful signs on the highway, put up by the city, directing tourists to a Main Street district offering art galleries, restaurants, shops, etc…. that aren’t there yet. A few building are in place and we found a couple of stores newly opened this month, but more buildings are under construction as well as city sidewalks, and other infrastructure. The beaches are beautiful beyond belief but the water is still very dark gray and I notice that on a day when the weather is in the 70’s not a soul is on the beach or in the sand. Whether it’s safe for humans now, after the catastrophic BP oil spill, I’m not certain but I rather doubt it.
We are almost to Alabama before we start to find cities in tact, and some thriving. The Florida panhandle is poor in a way that makes Appalachia look rich. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Florida panhandle thriving but it’s obvious the economy has taken a toll on Florida the way it did in California. I’m afraid to try to explore the state further so we head towards Georgia where we found a hotel in the Southeastern city of Bainbridge. I can’t really report much about Georgia yet, in my brief day or so here I will say it sure feels like the sun is rising once again. Four years ago we spent a great deal of time in this state and at that time, the economy was really hurting. Today I have hope but I don’t have enough perspective to have certainty.
I met a young couple though, working in the hotel in Bainbridge, that really tell the story of so many Americans. Originally from Alabama, they found themselves without work and without money. They walked – WALKED – from Alabama to Florida in search of work. When that proved futile, they walked again to Georgia. They hadn’t found paying work but they did find a foreign hotel owner who lets them both work 80 hours per week in exchange for a room to sleep in – no money, no food. While not legal, they can’t complain because they are desperate. Desperate and determined. Say a prayer for them, and for all the people like them. There are so many of us in this struggle together and if we don’t start to look out for one another, we’re not going to get through this in tact. President Obama recently said, “the American people will pull this country out of this” (that’s a sub-quote from the best of my memory). Bonnie (*my mom) turned to me and said somewhat sarcastically, “Oh he can bet if anyone get’s this country out of this mess it will be US!” I think it will have to be.