Crater Lake To Stanley, Day 14 : Discomfort

I’m riding up a long shallow hill through the wilderness north of Lowman, with my iPod playing and a juice bottle on my lap. On my right is a collection of large houses, set back into the woods. They have a large-windowed, all-lumber, sloping-corrugated-roof design that is common for the northwestern United States. Outside most of them I see evidence of children – swing sets, trampolines, bikes and tricycles – and a few times I see the actual children, walking along trails by the road or running around in the trees down by the river.

More than a few times I’ve heard people say that the near-wilderness like this is “a great place to raise kids”. I’ve read countless descriptions of an idealized life for a nuclear family, running around a big house in the woods, with the nearest town half an hour away, and the rugged hillsides being a kind of extended playground where children can grow up with endless fresh air and exercise, without concern for those nasty kidnappers and sexual deviant neighbors and drug dealers and gang members that peek out from behind every lamp post in the cities.

And now I’m out here looking at those big houses, and I’ve been bicycling through the near-wilderness for a couple of days. Perhaps these are merely vacation homes, and the kids stay here for a couple of months per year at the most. It would be great to have enough money for that option. Better yet perhaps these are retirement homes, owned by older members of an extended clan, and the grandkids visit for the summer while the seniors get to walk around and hang out all year.

But as the houses scroll slowly along, I decide that’s probably too optimistic. Along with the children’s toys, the houses are also surrounded by the tools of modern adults trying to make a living. Trucks, workshops, half-assembled machinery, mottled gardens, heaps of firewood. People aren’t just playing here. Their kids probably don’t just spend the summer here, either. Which means they bus half an hour into town for school, and for the holidays they go into the city, instead of out.

Some of my favorite childhood memories are based on the way I grew up in the woods, with the animals and the garden space and the comfortable privacy. But the thing about the place I grew up in, that’s different from out here, is that I had the appearance of wilderness without actually being lost in it. I was really just a few miles away from a mighty center of industry, and a collection of well funded universities. All around me, the threads of a much larger world converged.

As an adult, I now realize that my life as a teenager was greatly enhanced by this larger environment. This has introduced a chord of doubt into the chorus of voices around me preaching for an idealized family life out in the woods. And the kids I see wandering around in the small towns and along the roads of these outpost houses are reinforcing that doubt. I know there are things going on out here; plenty of things. But how much of them are of value to teenagers? How many of them help to mitigate the endless hunger for variety and intrigue that teenage life is all about? It seems almost like an act of greed, to move or start a family out here, for the fun of raising small children in a wilderness setting, when my personal enjoyment of their idealized early youth carries over into a teenage life for them of narrowed perspectives and stifling boredom. Besides: The city may have gangs and cocaine, but the country has megachurches and methamphetamine.

Even if they didn’t know what they were missing, I would know. The most I could hope for as a way of introducing them to that world would be to send them off to college, and then, why in the hell would they want to come back here afterwards, except for lack of better options?

Sure, I know, I’m keeping my perspective too narrow. Millions of people raise kids far from affluent cities. Their lives aren’t unhappy, they’re just different. Mostly I just want something of equal or better quality – as I judge it – for my children as I had when I was growing up. But I am not a member of the “1%” clan – the 1% of living people that owns 40% of the wold’s wealth. Instead I’m a member of the “everybody else” clan, and here in America at least, we’ve spent the last 30 years sliding slowly down the sides of the pyramid. My family had a four-bedroom house on the perfect edge of the wilderness but we lost it. Since then, its new owner has also nearly lost it, as divorce and the corrupted economy pounded on her too. Our old neighbors have all taken similar beatings. The lucky ones – the older ones – have their homes paid for but have seen their diversified savings accumulated over the last ten years slowly dissolve. I don’t know where we’re all going, but I can tell you this much. The nuclear family is not the appealing ideal it once was. It seems too easily crushed, in a world where both parents need to work full time.

So whatever I’m looking for – if I find it – it probably won’t look like this; like these little houses stuck in the woods. They look like tar pits to me now; places fit for slowly drowning in. Then again, the price tags on urban properties are ludicrous, and are tar pits in their own right.

Lots to think about, as I pedal up this road.

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