Purring along at 65 miles-an-hour, my old pick-up seems to sigh with increasing relief as we climb out of the Valley's cauldron toward cooler air at 5,000 feet. God bless the person who invented the little triangular window, now turned inward to allow a full flow of air across my chest. It isn't cool, but it seems to evaporate the worst of the remaining desert heat.
On the uphill grades, we are able to pass slower traffic -- cars and trucks towing a wide array of boats and "campers." I think many of these must cost as much as the houses where they are parked. Many will cost more to operate this weekend than my monthly food budget.
Something dramatic and monumental has happened in the relatively short span of my lifetime -- a quantum leap, a paradigm shift in economics. It seems that new homes are being built along the lines of private resorts. Their garages contain a car for every occasion. On holiday weekends, roads are choked with whatever Big and Expensive diversions will fit on wheels and not take up both lanes completely. The Middle Class no longer exists, or, if it does, it isn't gaining on anybody.
I grew up in the post WWII era when the largest group of Americans made up The Middle Class, and we lived a pretty good life. Our parents had sacrificed in the extreme, but had survived the Great Depression. Then came the devastation and further sacrifices of a brutal war. When the world finally seemed safe and the opportunity for improving a lifestyle seemed possible, "getting ahead" was not only encouraged, it was subsidized.
Between the GI Bill and a vast new offering of "credit," a huge movement surged ahead to achieve "The Good Life." For the most part, this consisted of new-fangled appliances and maybe an automobile. A small house on a small piece of land was as treasured as a palace. It seemed to me that everyone was invited to come along, and most did. Even so, the kind of wealth commonly displayed today was not even a contemplation.
(Later, of course, as my naiveté peeled away, I learned that the term "everyone" did not include everyone, but that is a story for another day.)
Still pondering the enormity and ultimate meaning of this economic revolution, I'm brought back to the present when my truck gives a gentle cough due to higher altitude and a need for additional fuel. We are passing through a small town where a banner reads, "Welcome Rodeo Fans!" -- much closer in atmosphere to my distant youth. Still, even here, there are beginning signs of steroidal affluence.
The air is cooler and cleaner, though, and I enjoy stretching old legs and a sore back when I pull into a service area to purchase a few last-minute items and pump 10 gallons of gasoline into a 12-gallon tank. The $50 debit will appear on my next credit card statement. How much has the vast availability of easy credit contributed to the demise of the Middle Class? I'll think about that later if I don't find better things to do.
Back on the road, we turn east and gain altitude. A golden, early-evening sunset is a bright reflection in the mirror. Like the traffic, the air has thinned. How is it that it seems richer? The atmosphere is pure, spontaneous, like making love in the morning. For a while, we have to slow for road work where the narrow two-lane is being widened for future tourists. Some day soon, I will seek other roads. For now, though -- no worries. Allison Krause is on the radio backed by a moaning Dobro guitar. How sweet the sound. (Lord, take me home right now!) At 7,000 feet, the air is cool under giant ponderosas. We will make camp on the shore of a pristine lake. I will not build a fire tonight -- just unpack my sleeping bag. For a while, old Jim Beam and I will pay homage to lights in the sky.
"You first, Mr. Beam."
"No, I insist, you go ahead."
"Trout for breakfast?"
"Let me sleep on that."
And we drift off into the deepest sleep a man can know in this world.
The next few days will remind me that finding pure joy, exhilaration or perhaps merely unadorned peaceful relaxation are a result of embracing the natural world -- not separating ourselves from it with expensive "stuff." Maybe I am only trying to justify my position as one of the few dinosaurs left in what was once known as the Middle Class. I'm certainly not complaining, though.
Could you hold off on that request for a while, Lord? I don't think I'm ready to go just yet.