Into the Wild West

Heading west on Route 66 in Oklahoma © 2012 Jennifer E. Cooper

In my travels I’ve walked through the Rust Belt, the Corn Belt and the Bible Belt. Now, as I make my way to Amarillo along Route 66, I find myself in the Wild West.

The land I walk through now has known pain and struggle. Temperatures soar to 100 degrees; the earth is hot and dry. Many are out of work or struggling to get by on minimum wage. I cannot help but think of the Dust Bowl that sent so many “Oakies” on a long march west in search of something better.

I met a woman in El Reno, Okla., yesterday who told me that she has watched friends give up the fight to stay out of poverty and turn to drugs and alcohol. She works at a fast-food restaurant to support her three children. Her children’s dad, who she thinks she might marry some day, was laid off from his job. But she is not giving up. Wealth, she told me, comes not from money but from family.

One man I talked to told me that Oklahoma is lucky, “there’s not much poverty here.” I suspect he didn’t notice the waitress bringing his meal who earns just $2.13 an hour plus tips. And I suspect he doesn’t know the woman I stayed with while in Oklahoma City who, after half a year of sending out resumes, is moving on. She was working three jobs just to pay the bills, but had to stop when she got pneumonia. Now she is heading to Florida in search of something better. “You know it’s bad when you have to beg for an interview at Cheesecake Factory.”

That is not to say I haven’t encountered those who are well paid, but often it comes at a high price. There is money to be made working for energy companies–the shiny new skyscraper along the Oklahoma City skyline is evidence of the power of energy giants. While in Geary, Okla., I camped next to a man who works in the gas fields near El Reno. Though he was making good money, like most of his colleagues he was far from home and living in a camper at a KOA campground. The job would likely last a year and then he would move on, perhaps to Colorado he told me.

In the two weeks since I returned to Wichita I’ve come to realize that the woman from El Reno is right. Though people are seeking a better way of life, what they truly desire is not money, but happiness. We have become disconnected from the earth and from each other. As I sat in a coffee shop in Oklahoma City and chatted with a man who worked with juvenile offenders, he told me that he learned more in one yoga teacher training class than in all his years of training. It is about finding one’s center, being happy in one’s own skin, he said.

On and on and on people have shared their stories with me. Sometimes they are sad and filled with struggle; sometimes they are happy and hopeful. Above all, people just want their stories to be heard; so I am listening. And on I walk…

–by Jennifer E. Cooper