I will admit that I have, as of lately, been somewhat… pissy about the weather. I’m not sure if any of you have noticed this. So when My Wise and Patient Man suggested that I take my bike with us on our latest foray in the Mildew Home, I reluctantly agreed. I may have voiced my opinion that given the recent lack of sunlight penetrating to this moss-coated corner of the Earth, an actual ride seemed unlikely. He was more sanguine, noting that I didn’t have to ride if I didn’t want to, but at least I’d have the bike with me.
So onto the rack of the car it went. The Mildew Home lives in the town of Elma, Washington, because the very prescient writers of my community bylaws anticipated that someday, people would want to park enormous wheeled vehicles in their tiny driveways, and that this would be aesthetically disruptive to the eerily conformist, early-suburban vibe they were hoping to achieve. Fair enough, so we had to park it elsewhere. But why Elma, you ask? Good question, Gentle Readers.
Elma, you see, is a little town southwest of our state capital. There is an RV park there that we happen to belong to, but more importantly, there is a seriously old-fashioned variety store and a bowling alley. Wow, you say, I’m sold. Okay, I know, many places have bowling alleys and variety stores, it’s true. But few have them conveniently situated within a mile of their RV parks. So when we moved into Conformityville, we decided to let the Mildew Home take up permanent residence at a storage facility in Elma, so it would be somewhere that the kids enjoyed and we could stop pouring a billion dollars into its gas tank every time we passed within a fifty-foot radius of the rear bumper. And there it has remained ever since, except for few ill-fated attempts to enjoy the coastal beaches without, you know, RAIN.
Now, I like small towns. I spent some of my more formative years in a town of under 6000 people. Small enough, in other words, that when I would tell people that my mother was “that lady who walks home every evening from the bus stop downtown toward the block between the hospital and the junior high,” they knew exactly who she was. It was the 80’s. Not very many people commuted by bus for an hour each way. Anyway, those were happy years, ignoring the prejudice, narrow-minded politics, and the overt religion. I liked being able to get on my bike on a sunny summer morning with the two dollars my mom would leave on the kitchen table before she left for work in the big city, and ride out to the farmland outside of town for the rest of the day. I would just toodle around without any fear of… well… anything. I just had to be home by the time my mom got off the bus, and I would often walk down to the center of town to meet her. When my mother broke the news to me, just before high school, that we were moving to a big city, I sat at the kitchen table and slowly ripped up every single one of her tea towels in some sort of primitive mourning ritual. I have no inherent objection to Elma, in other words. Just the opposite.
Our arrival in Elma was too late for bike rides (though of course the sky was somewhat clear), so I locked the bike to the rear bumper of the Mildew Home (where it promptly gave up a billion dollars in gas) with a pathetically inadequate cable lock, and waited hopefully until mid-day on Sunday. I wasn’t worried about leaving the bike out overnight, as it seemed unlikely to be stolen by any of the old people at the campground. The Sunday sky was not very cooperative. First it would rain. Then it would sprinkle. Then the sun would come out just long enough to tempt me. Then it would sprinkle again. Then the sun. Then the rain. And so and so forth, and Bethusela begat Rapunzel, and Rapunzel begat Mimosas and… where was I? Oh yes, waiting for sun. By 1:30, I was ready to give up. But The Man with a Plan insisted I just do it. He sent me packing out to the dampened Raleigh to attempt a short ride.
I decided I would ride out to the country roads around a pair of pretty lakes I had visited during an earlier attempt to get in a bike ride while Mildew-Homing. Unfortunately, I didn’t consult a map before designing this strategy, and ended up on the highway riding on the shoulder. This highway, number 12, is a well-known bike route, but it does not lead to said lakes. And somehow riding down the increasingly narrow shoulder as cars whizzed by me going 70 on the wet roads just because I hadn’t taken the right underpass didn’t really appeal all that much, so I turned around and rode back into town.
Then I rode around town. Because, well, there’s a bike lane.
No really. When they run out of street room, they wisely run it on that part of the sidewalk area no one uses anyway.
Elma is on several popular longer bike routes. So while the snotty denizens of certain New York neighborhoods bemoan their bike lanes, the relatively impoverished folks in small towns readily spend big bucks to put them right smack dab down the center of town. Whatever, rich people.
What I really want to know… what puzzles me, though I’m not complaining about it, is what is up with small towns and murals?
I mean, I like murals. I think the world needs more murals, not less. But how on earth can somewhere like Elma afford all these murals, and all Seattle can manage is a few scabby antique “Buy Your Gold Rush Supplies Here” signs that haven’t yet dissolved off the brick buildings in the acid rain? I just don’t get it. I like it, but I don’t get it.
I’m particularly fond of these two.
Like most small towns, Elma is struggling. The coffee shop that used to have a deceptively enticing vintage Huffy in the window is now vacant. Off the main street, every business on the block was shuttered. While some might bemoan the Walmartification of the small town, there isn’t actually a Walmart or a Target anywhere near Elma. It’s just the reality of American life, I think: we have become an urban people.
Eventually, our politicians will notice this. For now, they persist in the mythology that the “heart” of the country is in places like this. While I like Elma, I don’t for a moment believe that this is the heart of America. If it is, we’re clogging our arteries and ignoring our arrhythmia. No one is investing in towns like Elma, including those politicians. And while Rick Santorum and his ilk may speak the familiar small-town language of “values” and “big-city snobbery,” it’s clear to me that no one, Republican or Democrat, has given a damn about towns like this for years. If they had, people wouldn’t be living in crushing poverty while the county builds a new hospital on the outskirts of town. I mean, yeah, the hospital will bring a few jobs. But very few folks in Elma are going to become doctors or nurses there. Given the number of shuttered businesses in town, I suspect that most of the kids who graduate from the local high school are high-tailing it out of town as fast as they can, and those that do manage to go to college aren’t coming back.
Can you tell I found this ride somewhat depressing?
I know, I live in a suburban community with CC&R’s, for heaven’s sake. But keep in mind that my hometown is considered pretty low-rent for the greater Seattle area. We’re living in what most folks would consider to be “the hood,” we just happen to own a home in a nicer area of that ‘hood. So it’s not like I don’t know from poverty. But there’s a difference between urban poverty, with its nearby promise of successful escape, and living out in the boonies with no industry nearby.
This is where the guy from the Elma city council emails me to tell me that they have a robust economy hiding somewhere under all those thirty year-old single-wides and moldering turn-of-the-century logging industry houses. And I don’t know, perhaps I missed something. Perhaps there’s another side of the tracks, at some point. But in my admittedly brief survey of town, I saw mostly decaying neighborhoods and empty store-fronts. And that makes me sad.
Because places like this should survive. I wouldn’t want to be teenager in a town like this (I know exactly what they do to kill the crushing boredom), but being a little kid in a small town was glorious. And my kids, spoiled little urbanites that they are — and trust me, they are — love Elma so much that no other offering, including the coast, rouses them to such a clamor of delight. Card bingo with a bunch of half-welcoming, half-begrudging old folks? Check. Swimming pool that’s only open three months a year? Check (note we have one just two blocks from our house, but Elma’s RV park pool holds a certain allure that the manicured, regulation-size neighborhood pool just cannot top). Variety store filled with Cheap Chinese Crap? Check. Bowling alley that smells like stale beer attached to a grungy old sports bar with wonky pool tables? Check.
Restaurant called The Rusty Tractor surrounded by rusty tractors and advertising “home cooking”? Check.
Park with a concrete-filled howitzer and a memorial to the 25 people Elma has lost to the last dozen wars? Check.
C’mon, what’s not to love?
Next time, however, I think I should re-find those lakes.