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Traveling Through 'Small Town USA'
[Small Town America] US 95 Part 1 -- May 19, 2009, North from Mexican border
David McLane (davemclane)     Print Article 
Published 2009-06-02 06:59 (KST)   
This series of reports by David McLane, documents life in small towns along four major highways in the United States during these hard times. It is NOT a survey but an attempt to come a fuller understanding of the land and the people which comprise significant parts of America but are typically un-represented by main-stream media. This is the first section and reports on traveling north through towns along US 95 from Mexico to Canada.  <Editor's Note>
We left the small town of Wickenburg, Ariz. on May 19, 2009, late in the afternoon and began to travel west on US Highway 60 to reach the start of our journey through small-town America. As I drove through Aquila, Wenden, Harcuvar, Hope and Brenda to merge onto Interstate 10, I realized this was the last leg of the fourth and final section of the journey, the 2,670-mile (4,300 kilometer) US 60 which ran from Virginia Beach, Virginia to Los Angeles from 1932 to 1966 before it merged with I-10 at Brenda.

There were no towns of any size on I-10 until we got to Quartzsite, Arizona, where we turned south on US 95 to go to the start of the first 1,574 mi (2,553 km) section of the journey which runs north from San Luis, Arizona on the Mexican border to the Canadian border crossing of Eastport in Boundary County, Idaho. From there we plan to go west through Canada to the start of the second section of the journey which runs south on US 395 from the Canadian border near Laurier, Washington, and ends after 1,305 mi (2,100 km) by merging with I-15 near Hesperia, California (at one time it went all the way to Mexican border near San Diego and was called the 쏷hree Flags Highway).

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The third section of the journey will be the 3,339 mi (5,454 km) Lincoln Highway which runs east from Lincoln Park in San Francisco to Times Square in New York. To get to the start we plan on going north through the central valley of California which passes close to Weedpatch, made famous by John Steinbeck셲 Grapes of Wrath. To connect to the last section, US 60, we plan to take in Philadelphia and Washington D.C. on the way to its start at Virginia Beach.

North-South: 2,879 mi (4,653 km). East-West: 6,009 mi (9,754). Total: 8,888 mi (14,407 km). But these are only highway miles and do not include running around finding food, water, gas, internet, a place to park our 1999 Chevrolet Astro Van and 1958 14 Aljo Travel Trailer and, most of all, finding people willing to talk about how they were managing under these hard times.

My wife-partner, Sueko, and I had gone over and over these numbers, the kind of equipment we would need, and whether the third member of our party, May-chan, an 18-year-old alley cat from Osaka, Japan, would manage to feel at home in the 4-foot wide cattery we had installed in the van. It turned out that she fared the best while we humans got pretty well stressed out what with the problems that naturally arise when best-made plans hit the ground. Perhaps the most pressing problem we hadn셳 counted on was triple-digit temperatures which usually don셳 arrive until June but here it was, 103 F (39 C) which meant we had a hard time sleeping until late at night and pretty much had to stay in the van with the air conditioner running if we wanted to think straight.

WE MANAGED TO FIND A PLACE TO SLEEP THAT NIGHT by the side of the road about 40 miles south of Quartzsite, got up early the next morning and continued on to the border at San Luis which is about 20 miles past the city of Yuma.

United States - Mexico border at San Luis, Ariz.
©2009 D. McLane

Just about everything in San Luis is for Spanish speaking people;everybody in MacDonald셲 was speaking Spanish but the menu was also in English. Most curious was a store featuring wear-it-on-your-head umbrellas and T-shirts emblazoned 쏣d Hardy @ Christian Audigier (Ed Hardy is a brand created by Christian Audigier a French fashion designer and entrepreneur).

Wear-it-on-your-head umbrellas and Ed Hardy T-shirts
©2009 D. McLane

On the way down to the border we셝 seen people working in the fields so we stopped at the Somerton, a small town north of the border, and chatted with the staff at City Hall about agriculture, the local economy, and the recession. They said that beside winter tourists (쏶nowbirds) and income from military based at the Marine Corps Air Station which shares shares facilities with Yuma International Airport airport, agriculture is major part of the local economy which thrives due to the warm climate, water from the Colorado River, and the availability of migrant labor from Mexico. The main crop this time of year is cantaloupe and the people we saw were probably pickers who usually worked from 5 a.m. till noon. Overall there are probably about 5,000 migrant workers but most have been moved to California this time of year. In the opinion of City Hall, while there were probably some people with reduced income, it was barely noticeable.

Noon had come and gone so we found a place across the California border to stay the night and were back at the field early the next morning. Next to the highway was a farm labor vehicle used to not only bring workers across the border from Mexico but tow a trailer with portable toilets and washing facilities. The workers themselves were way across the field which must have been at least 25 acres but as we watched we could see that they were working with a harvesting machine that was constantly moving so we just waited until it got close enough to understand how it worked.

Migrant workers picking cantaloup along with harvesting machine
©2009 D. McLane

Looking at the photo from left to right you can see the foreman in the orange day-glow vest, then nine or maybe ten pickers, and finally the safety coordinator with the straw hat, blue shirt, and dark pants.

Tossing melons
©2009 D. McLane
What you can셳 see well are the workers under the awning taking picked cantaloupe tossed by the pickers onto the two chutes -- one hanging out on the left side, the other on the right -- packing them in boxes stacked on the trailer pulling the harvester which in turn is being pulled by a tractor, continuously. When the end of the field is reached, the whole rig turns around and goes back the other way. When the trailer is full, a truck carries the boxes to one of the huge cooling houses in Yuma where they stay for at least eight hours before being shipped to various supermarkets or wherever. The moment of truth comes when the melons leave the hands of the picker and land on the chute: from then everything is done by machine until they are taken out of the box and put on the shelf.

Anthony Ratto
©2009 D. McLane
Most of this we could understand just by looking but the details came from talking with Anthony Ratto, the safety coordinator, who said safety issues are complex and vary from state to state. These issues partly involve the safety of the product and partly, the safety of the workers. Until recently, it was thought that melons were relatively safe from contamination as the consumer do not eat the rind; but now there are concerns that if the rind is contaminated, this can spread to the pulp. At the moment there셲 no answer to this.

Since the early days of migrant labor from Mexico, there have been huge changes in providing for the safety and well being of the workers. They work a seven-hour day with two 10-minute breaks and 30 minutes for lunch. While the pickers can셳 work under the awning, they are free to take a short break under them if the sun gets too strong. They셱e paid a base amount of $8 per hour (the minimum wage in Arizona is $7.25) plus bonuses depending on the market value of the melons.

When I asked Anthony about the economics of the business he said, 쏷hat gets complicated! Sometimes the land is owned by the grower; sometimes growers rent the land from the owner. Sometimes the owner rents various parcels of land to multiple growers. Harvesting is done by companies who hire migrant labor from other companies. Then there are the cooling houses and the trucks that take the product to the final stores where they are sold. The costs involved in all of this are fairly stable but the final price to the consumer depends on supply and demand. Right now there are more melons ripening -- and they must be picked when they셱e ripe or they rot -- than people wanting to buy them, so the price is low and stores are offering them as lost-leader items. In other years the supply-demand ratio is different: sometimes due to increased or decreased demand, but more likely due to different growing conditions affecting the supply.

When I asked if the recession has had any effect, Anthony said, 쏯o, not so much that you could tell.

WHAT셎 PARTICULARLY INTERESTING FOR SOMEBODY LIKE ME who grew up in New England is that, desert farming takes place on land that looks like the only thing that would grow is stones. Yet when there셲 water, everything is lush. For example as you drive north on US 95 you come to the Gila River where the foreground is lush and the background is hardscrabble land.

Gila River, north side of Yuma, Ariz.
©2009 D. McLane

Very soon you come to a small church set in the middle of a field of what looks like grinding compound. In the background you can see a bit of the lushness.

Church, north side of Yuma, Ariz.
©2009 D. McLane

Then the road turns away from the two rivers and it셲 Mojave desert all the way to Quartzsite where you rethink the meaning of 쐆ardy, because even here there are plants that manage to eke out a living on the seemingly barren hillsides.

U.S. Border Patrol, halfway between Yuma and Quartzsite, Ariz.]
©2009 D. McLane

I will also be posting this story to Open.Salon a few days after it appears on OMNI and will then send a newsalert containing links to body websites.
©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter David McLane

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