A unique and progressive U.S. travelogue

BOOK REVIEW Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate: An Economist’s Travelogue By Michael D. Yates Monthly Review Press, 2007 Softcover, 207 pp., $15.95

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac’s now classic novel “On the Road.” I vividly remember my uncle passing a copy along to me as the latest, most hip expression of the Beat movement.

Yet such literature has a long tradition in America, from Cooper’s frontier novels, on through the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” in which after many adventures on and around the Mississippi River, Huck decides at the end to “light out for the Territory.” Our country is large, and our people have always been restless.

In 2001, Michael Yates decided to retire early from teaching economics at the University of Pittsburgh in Johnstown, Pa. With his wife Karen, he carefully planned a travel route through the United States, living as cheaply as possible. They packed a Dodge van with necessities, and prepared to survive as itinerant laborers.

They headed to Yellowstone National Park first, where they got menial jobs and learned that there, as elsewhere in “tourist” America, those who do the service work to accommodate well-off visitors, are lodged in cramped, isolated barracks-type housing. Most of the tourists are preoccupied with trivial comforts, and scarcely notice or appreciate “the help.”

So two of the themes of this book appear early on: inequality and labor.

The book is filled with detailed information about the towns and natural sites they visited, and in this regard, it’s a kind of “progressive” travelogue. There are all sorts of tips about where to get good deals on food and housing, and correspondingly, warnings about how not to get ripped off or cheated. Everything is carefully documented, including descriptive bibliographies for each chapter.

A third theme is the devastation of the environment. For example, here’s the Florida Panhandle: “As we sat hot and frustrated in endless traffic jams, we observed countless strip malls, condominiums blocking the view of the water. … Everything seemed built pell-mell and on the cheap, lining the pockets of the developers and realtors while fleecing the buyers.” Even in remote Big Bend Park in west Texas, there is a gray haze of pollution, which, we’re told, can drift in from as far away as Ohio.

Everywhere the American workforce “at the bottom” is largely multiracial and international. Immigrants from Eastern Europe are particularly vulnerable, because they lack any kind of support system. Sometimes there’s a sense of solidarity, of helping each other, but just as often, there is isolation and alienation.

Even a seemingly “liberal” city like Portland, Ore., has legions of homeless people, often afflicted with alcoholism or drug addiction. Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, a legendary place that occupies an entire city block, is run by a selfish business owner who for several years resisted his employees when they sought to organize. (It’s now a union shop.)

Yates is concerned about good nutrition, and he tends to avoid restaurants, favoring use of a two-burner electric hot plate that proves effective and useful in preparing nightly dinners. He and his spouse shop at organic markets, if possible, for good deals on fresh fruits and vegetables. In this regard, Yates has produced a kind of “survival manual” for displaced workers.

In spite of the frequently grim nature of life in this “Land of the Free,” a claim contradicted by the incessant exploitation and humiliation of the poor, I think the enduring effect of the book is: “Don’t give up — you can make it.” Fifty years from now, people will be reading Yates’ travelogue as an authentic and realistic picture of America at the outset of the 21st century.