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Wolf Tracks


By Eric Oppen

In the last year or so, I have had to spend a lot of time on the road -- driving twice from my home in Iowa to the East Coast, and twice from Iowa to Greater Los Angeles. I do this partly because I like having my own car available when I get to where I'm going, and partly because prices on tickets out of my nearest handy airport, Des Moines International, are high enough that Des Moines-area business people find it worthwhile to drive to Omaha, or even Kansas City, for lower prices. However, time is not much of an object to me, since I'm self-employed, and I deeply enjoy seeing new countryside. Not having to pay the gougers' prices that are customary at airports for everything from food to lodgings doesn't hurt, either. I ran the numbers more than once, and, believe me, for the money I'm saving, I don't much mind the extra time I spend on the road!

I also enjoy seeing how very different much of the United States is from my own home state. To my Midwestern eyes, much of the West is wild and beautiful, and incredible scenery is so commonplace that on my last trip, when I saw signs up ahead telling of a scenic overview, my response was "And what is this, then -- (indicating the spectacular mountains all around) chopped liver?" Driving the Salt River Canyon road from Show Low to Phoenix in Arizona, I was astounded not only at the wildness and beauty of the scenery, but at the way I had had no idea it was even there. I would have thought that there would have been a huge tourist trade there, with whitewater rafting, lodges, and huge fights between the Sierra Club elitists and ordinary folk who wanted to just live in the area.

On my last trip, to California, I had a moment's satori, or enlightenment. I have these moments very rarely, but when I do, they are incredible enough that I wouldn't swap them for anything. Driving through the Southern Calfornia desert, I was amazed at how incredibly empty it was; I could have set up anything from a .22-caliber target range up to a full-scale artillery range out there, and as long as I was slightly careful, the chances of even disturbing anybody, much less hurting anybody, would be effectively nil. So why, I asked myself, does California have such incredibly anal gun laws? Then it struck me: The reason is that most of the people who get to make the decisions that affect all of California honestly don't really know this is out here -- they've spent all their lives in metropolitan areas, and when they travel between cities, they fly!

Things started tumbling into place, far more rapidly than I can describe, forming a pattern that makes perfect sense. The news media are not so much malicious on the subject of guns, as parochial; they think in terms of the cities of the Northeast, or of Greater L.A., and honestly don't understand any other viewpoint because most of them spend very little time out in "the sticks"! National bureaucrats that stuffed the 55 MPH speed limit down the country's throat weren't evil, so much as untravelled -- the 55 is not a bad limit in the urban Northeast (believe me, when you've tried driving in the Greater DC area, even 55 MPH is doing darn well!) but makes less than no sense in places like Texas, but they'd never driven in Texas! When you've lived your whole life in a metropolitan area, how can you imagine how it is to have to drive fifty miles to get something your little local store doesn't carry, as a matter of routine?

In California, I tested my theory further. Many of my brother's friends out there had lived in Southern California for years, but had never driven between L.A. and San Francisco, much less over huge, empty areas of their own state. If it wasn't a major resort area, with flights in and out, most of them had never been there. I described the incredibly huge, vast deserts outside of the Death Valley National Monument, and some of them said they envied me the chance to see so much countryside. They would like to see it, but had to fly to get anywhere in a reasonable time.

I also started remembering things I had read in various places. Although I admire H.L. Mencken beyond reason, I do think there were times he had a case of cranial-rectal inversion, such as in his essay "The Libido for the Ugly." He had spent a lot of time traveling around the US, but was forced to go by train, with the roads outside the cities being the way they were in the 1920s. While riding through small towns, he had noticed incredibly ugly (to his eyes) houses and buildings, everywhere he went. Thinking back on this, I thought about my own hometown, which is famous for its scenery. Until the 1950s, we had seventeen passenger trains a day coming through my town, and they were a major source of revenue; the ruined hotel that had once been a major stopping-place was torn down a few years ago. Even when a great deal of the town's money came from the trains, though, very few people wanted to actually live near the tracks. Clue time, Mencken: Trains are noisy and set off vibrations in the china closet, so people who can afford better property don't tend to live near the tracks! I would bet that if Mencken had gotten out of the train in these towns and taken a tour, he would have been very pleased, much as he was with Dayton, Tennessee, before the mobs of lunatics took it over for the Scopes Monkey Trial.

I now call my new theory the "One Size Fits All" theory -- the notion that a problem in one area (smog in LA, for example) is a problem for the whole country, and that solutions need to be promulgated from Washington DC, New York, or Los Angeles.

The problems people have recently been having when installing new toilets are a perfect example of "One Size Fits All." Admittedly, Los Angeles has a problem with keeping an adequate supply of fresh water, being built on a desert and far from any major watercourses. Unfortunately, too many Angelenos feel that they must have green lawns, since the rest of the country has them -- never mind that they are living in a desert! To them, reality is just another obstacle to overcome, so instead of having local ordinances forbidding or severely restricting watering lawns, they have managed to get a nation-wide policy put into effect mandating toilets that are too small to flush properly. Without the "One Size Fits All" mentality, the Angelenos would either give up lawns in favor of native plantlife, or at most, have their imbecilic restrictions on toilet size a local thing at best. Instead, people in well-watered areas find themselves either forced to use smaller-than-optimal toilets, or to go to used-plumbing stores -- or, I am told, smuggle toilets in from that other bastion of freedom and liberty, Canada! That Canada should be freer than the United States -- the disgrace overwhelms me!

The "One Size Fits All" notion has been a major thorn in my side all my life long. Being well ahead of my classmates in some skills, and average-at-best in others, I could have used a more personalized education than I actually received -- but I was in an educational system that was geared to lockstep exclusively, so I lockstepped through with the rest of my age-mates. Being left-handed in a right-handed-majority world, I have had to deal with this sort of thing in a thousand and one different ways, ranging from can openers, to scissors, to shooting -- ever try using a bolt-action rifle when you're left-handed? Through endless practice, I've gotten fairly good at these things, but that doesn't mean for a second that I like them. Even in my so-called love life, "One Size Fits All" -- I feel that I would be much better off and happier with a well-run branch of Madame Xaviera's House of Instant Happiness than trying to deal with a lot of the hassles in the relationships I've had, but Those Above have decided, in their well-nigh infinite wisdom, that this is not to be, because they don't need it or don't like it.

The elite, and self-proclaimed elite, on both coasts tend to dismiss anything not in the Northeastern urban zones, the Beltway, or the urban West Coast, as "flyover country." Edna Paretsky has stated that when she started writing her very popular "V.I. Warshawski" mysteries about a female PI in Chicago, some of her New York-based editors wanted her to relocate Warshawski to New York, believing that people wouldn't want to read about Chicago. The sheer provincial arrogance of this absolutely blows me away! Here we have a city that is a major world metropolis by anybody's standards, and an author who has lived there and knows it intimately, writing about the city she knows well and the people she's known all her life, and a clique of editors wanted her to set her stories in a city she doesn't know, because they think that people only want to read about that city! Well, Paretsky has had the last laugh on them, with a vengeance, but this sort of mentality nearly makes me blow my cork.

If we must have bureaucrats and self-appointed elites, I have a simple suggestion. Before I will listen to anybody prescribing cures for the nation's ills as a whole, I want to see that person getting into his or her own car, and driving (no chauffeurs allowed!) through the whole country, staying at ordinary motels, eating in everyday cafes, and talking to everyday people. This way, they would get away from the metropolitan areas where they have lived their whole lives, and we might get a lot less of "One Size Fits All."

© 1999 Eric Oppen

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September 22, 1999