The forgotten people

Growing up and spending most of my life living on the East Coast, the Southwest is very much a foreign country to me. I am not accustomed to the dry harsh desert and the long open treeless spaces. And I am not accustomed to the extreme poverty of many Native American tribes.

As I walked through Oklahoma I certainly could feel the influence of Native Americans, some 67 tribes were forced by the US government to relocate to the state. But tribes in the southwest are different somehow. Perhaps the poverty is more visible; it cannot be ignored or forgotten. One need only take a train from Albuquerque to Santa Fe to witness the destitute Indian pueblos clustered in the mountains.

Usually when I tell people I am writing a book about poverty they have one of two responses. I am either told that I need to look no further as I’ve found poverty, or I’m told that it doesn’t exist there, often despite obvious evidence to the contrary. I expected those in Santa Fe to fall into the latter category. So, as I walked through it’s monied streets past art galleries where a single work of art could easily fetch more than some people’s annual income, I was surprised to hear over and over again about the serious poverty in Santa Fe. The city is a place of extremes I was told.

Of course the poverty there is not restricted to Native Americans. As I wandered around Santa Fe I chatted with a couple street musicians. It was unclear where they were currently living, but one told me that he had spent a year living in his car in a parking garage in Washington, D.C., before moving to Santa Fe. One woman who worked in a gallery told me that she doubted that teachers in a local charter school were earning more than $20,000. Considering the high cost of living in Santa Fe, “I don’t know where they can afford to live,” she said.

So many times those living in poverty are accused of expecting hand-outs and the implication is that the poor are reliant upon the government and the wealthy. I suspect the opposite is more likely; the wealthy of this nation rely on a vast army of low-wage workers to clean their houses, mow their lawns, provide their food and a whole host of other services.

Ironically, the street musicians working for pocket change that I chatted with seemed to be far happier than some of those with greater means. One guy I spoke with told me that he hated his job. “How do I find a job that makes me happy?” he asked me. Perhaps it is because so many don’t know how to stop and see the beauty all around. Santa Fe is filled with beauty, and not only in the obvious places. The violin music of the street musician was so beautiful I found myself biting my lip to prevent myself from crying. One woman who worked at a nearby shop brought over some pastries for the musicians. “You make my day better,” she told them. But as I stood and listened to him perform so many walked on by. Though my path moves west, I am listening still…

Poverty of the earth, poverty of the soul

In 25 days of walking through Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas it has rained exactly half of one day. Though I am writing about human poverty, I’m realizing that so much of human poverty is related to the environment.

Just as the haves in this country take from the have-nots, we are taking too much from the earth. For the first time as I’ve been walking I find myself in places where the economy is booming. A restaurant manager in Sayre, Tx., complained that he had to pay a premium for graveyard shift wait staff because no one wanted to work for such low wages. Jobs with oil and gas companies are plentiful in parts of Oklahoma and Texas. There are so many jobs that many hotels have no vacancies as workers have flooded the area.

I never expected walking across the United States to make me more of an environmentalist. And yet, in the same way that we neglect the poorest in this country, we also neglect the world around us. We take resources and give pollution. We use water as if it is endless. Of what value is a job that puts food on your table if it robs you of clean air and water?

More than a few people I spoke with proclaimed: “global warming is real.” Yet I saw little inclination to take better care of the earth. I watched one woman take a bag of trash from her car and place it on the ground as easily as she took a breath. She put the trash back in her car after I protested, but I could not wrap my mind around how someone could care so little about the mark left on the world.

One man told me that he believed BP had paid too high a fine for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and was confident that the environment there was now clean and thriving. “Nature cleans itself,” he said. I didn’t know if he truly believed that oil and gas companies could do no wrong, or if he feared accepting the truth.

In some ways it seems as if people have simply given up. When Route 66 was replaced by the interstate so many towns were left to wither and die. Now many of those towns are booming, though one would ever guess from appearances. I asked someone why they didn’t rebuild and he told me it is because people don’t expect the boom to last so they don’t want to build anything new. It seems people can only see their own livelihood in front of them and are blind to the larger picture, the larger cost both to people to the planet.

By the time I arrived in Groom, Tx., I was depressed to see yet another sad crumbling little town; another remnant of better years. Just as the Rust Belt has failed to accept that times have changed, so too have the little towns that sit along old Route 66. But somehow Groom is different. One need only walk into The Grill along Route 66 to feel the energy of the town. The restaurant, once called the Golden Spring Grill, was reopened a few years ago and is now a place where the community comes together. When I entered the restaurant I was gloomy. Before long, as random people, and eventually the owner, came to chat, I couldn’t help but smile.

All it takes is for one person to start to care. One person has the power to make a difference. So on I walk…

–by Jennifer E. Cooper

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

I’m funded! Thank you, thank you, thank you!!

On the road in Kansas. © 2012 Jennifer E. Cooper

A huge thank you to everyone who supported my Kickstarter project and made it a success. And a thank you to everyone who has supported me every step of the way. When I started walking cross-country (exactly three years ago today) I had no idea what I was doing, and I never allowed myself to think that I would really make it all the way across the United States. Now I’m more than halfway through my journey.

Of course if I have learned anything in these three years, I know that nothing is certain. My route can, and will, change. I’ve encountered setbacks and logistical challenges from a lost credit card to inaccurate GPS maps to brutal 100-degree temperatures. And as I was taking a Greyhound bus from Washington, D.C. to Wichita I considered quitting before I’d even set a foot back on the road. This journey is a constant reminder that things, good and bad, often happen for a reason. So, despite wanting to quit so many times, I’m still here; I’m still moving forward. I do not know what propels me forward, perhaps it is the need to tell the stories of America hidden in plain sight.

The more I travel across this country by foot, the more I realize I know nothing of its people, nothing of its culture, nothing of its land. I never could have imagined the amazing people I would meet in my travels. I’ve been back on the road for a week now, and already I’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity of those I’ve met along the road. Each time I struggle to find the strength to continue this journey a friend or stranger always appears to encourage and inspire me.

So on I walk…

–by Jennifer E. Cooper