My wife and I recently drove just shy of three thousand miles to see friends and family in the American Midwest. We started just outside Philadelphia, located in the southeast corner of Pennsylvania on America’s east coast. Our furthest point west was Iowa City, Iowa, about a hundred miles west of the Mississippi River. Our furthest point north was Madison, Wisconsin, about sixty miles north of the Illinois/Wisconsin border. Our furthest point south was Owensville, Missouri, about a hundred miles southwest of St Louis.
The following notes are merely our observations along the way. But what better way to gauge the state of the nation than seeing it for oneself?
Electric Vehicles and Charging Stations
In our entire trip I did not see one EV charging station. My wife “thinks” she might have seen one somewhere. We drove mostly on interstate highways and stayed mostly at typical chain motels; i.e., Marriotts, Hiltons, and Wyndhams. We did not see any EV charging stations at any of them, although in fairness we were not seeking them out. They may have been in some remote corner or around back. Motel chains off interstate highways are the logical places for EV charging stations. The motel guests would be able to recharge their EV vehicles overnight. I asked the hotel manager at a Wyndham motel in New Stanton, PA, just off the PA Turnpike in western PA, if the motel had an EV charging station. She told me that it did not have one, but that a gas station a few blocks from the motel had one. Not very convenient for motel guests or anyone else for that matter! We did not see any EV charging stations at the rest areas on the interstates. Many of these rest areas were beautiful. Clean restrooms. Lots of eating options, etc.. Very nice. But no EV charging stations.
We saw very few EV cars on the road. Of course, one does not have to be traveling overnight to use the interstate highway system, so one can assume that the few EV cars we saw probably were driving within the charging radius of their owners’ home base. Our friends here in PA who own EV cars also have a second gasoline or hybrid vehicle for overnight trips.
Whether America is de-industrializing or not is a controversial subject among economists. For example, Café Hayek author Don Boudreau of George Mason University claims that it isn’t true; i.e. that America is near the peak of its historical industrialization. Be that as it may, here is what we saw, or more accurately, what we did not see. We saw no smokestack industries anywhere. Our route took us past Gary, Indiana, which used to be a huge steel producing town. One did not have to see the steel mills to know that they were there. One could smell them. A quick Google search shows that several still operate there. OK. But what about employment? My wife used Waze to reroute us around a big backup on I-80 near Gary, Indiana. It worked, but it also took us through deteriorating neighborhoods. One could tell that these had been thriving at one time. The homes were well-built; many were of all brick construction. They’d probably sell for a million dollars in California. But about every fifth home was uninhabitable. We saw two closed and deteriorating schools. We saw virtually no one on the streets. No kids playing outside or homeowners mowing the grass. Deserted. We made sure our car doors were locked, and we were happy to be back on the interstate in about twenty minutes.
We visited our home towns of Peoria and Decatur, Illinois. When we left in 1985, both were bustling factory towns. Peoria had been the international headquarters of Caterpillar Tractor Company for decades with six plants and a research facility. The research facility and one plant still operate there, but the headquarters was moved out of Peoria many years ago. No wonder. I imagine it would be hard to attract top management talent to live in Peoria these days. Peoria had other factories, plus a Pabst brewery and a Hiram Walker distillery, supposedly the largest distillery in America. The Pabst brewery is long gone and the Hiram Walker distillery now processes ethanol. The downtown area, once bustling with white collar workers, was deserted at one o’clock in the afternoon when we passed through. The streets told the story. Not only did we see almost no one outside, the quality of the streets was atrocious. One can only assume that road repair is the lowest priority for city government. Like Gary, Indiana, the quality of the homes was very poor. I grew up in a solid working class neighborhood. Nothing fancy, but the modest homes were well-kept. Not so today. My old grade school, a short six block walk from my boyhood home, had been closed for some time. Reportedly one of the high schools was closed. At one time there were six high schools within the city limits.
If anything, my wife’s home town of Decatur, about an hour and a half drive from Peoria, was worse. Its industrial base of Caterpillar, Firestone, and other factories was gone. Soybean processing giant ADM has its North American headquarters there, and there is a big Norfolk Southern Railroad operation, too. Nevertheless, like Peoria, the city is a shadow of its former self. No one was on the streets of downtown Decatur in the middle of the day.
The good news is that rural America looks very prosperous. We saw lots of beautifully maintained farmsteads. But a Google search reveals that less than two percent of the US population lives on farms and only nineteen percent in rural areas. The more prosperous small towns have been able to keep their Walmart Stores. Dollar Stores are ubiquitous. Mexican restaurants are popping up everywhere and often are the only restaurant in town other than fast food. Decently sized grocery stores are scarce. We drove a few hundred miles off interstates and found the quality of small towns to be spotty. Some looked prosperous, but others looked downtrodden and hollowed-out. Generally county seats looked better than others, especially those with an old-fashioned town square. Towns with a courthouse and/or a hospital seemed to be most prosperous.
Our journey was unique, of course. Our judgment was greatly influenced by knowledge of what had been there before. Perhaps Peoria’s and Decatur’s blue collar factory workers are now employed in different industries elsewhere. My biggest “take away” is that America is not ready for EV vehicles traveling long distances, especially overnight away from home and that swathes of the Heartland have become a wasteland.