The truth is, the stunning scenery and revitalized tourist sections of many of America's "beautiful places"--Flagstaff, Miami Beach and Yellowstone National Park, to name a few--mask underbellies of economic inequality, environmental devastation and alienated locals. But as Michael Yates relentlessly reveals in Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate, you don't have to look far to get under that mask.
In April 2001, Yates, who now lives in Tucson, retired from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown after teaching economics for 32 years. He and his wife, Karen, packed their van and began a five-year road trip, with extended stays in Yellowstone, Manhattan, Miami Beach and Portland, Ore. The book--named for where the couple stayed and how they cooked--is Yates' account of those years, and while his travels are broad, his focus is narrow: Yates is out to expose inequality wherever he can find it, and he finds it everywhere.
The couple's first stop is Yellowstone, where they have summer jobs at the Lake Hotel: Michael as a desk clerk and Karen as a restaurant host. As employees, they see Yellowstone quite differently than the average tourist: living in the 10-by-10-foot room provided as employee housing, making minimum wage and dealing with disgruntled customers during long, tedious shifts. It is an apt beginning to their adventure, as they experience firsthand the difficulties of the working people Yates has set out to chronicle. When Michael gets sick and misses work, he observes, "For two full-time weeks of labor, Karen and I combined cleared less than $600. We had our pension to fall back on, but what if we had depended on this job to live? Six hundred would have been more than an insult. And I couldn't have afforded to lose a day's pay. I was lucky, but many aren't." As the book progresses, the divide between the economically lucky and unlucky emerges as its main theme.
Any good travelogue should strike a balance between the mundane (albeit enjoyable) details of travel--like how to cook on a hot plate--and cultural commentary. Yates provides both, plus an endearing smattering of admiration for the West's natural beauty: "We never imagined that packing lunches and spending a day in the woods could be so fine a thing to do," he writes. "I had let work dominate much of my life for so many years. Taking time to see, much less contemplate and enjoy, the beauty around me had little place in my life. During our 14 months in Portland, I saw the error of my ways. Beauty, contemplation, enjoyment--these weren't something to feel guilty about, mere adjuncts of life. They were life."
In contrast to Yates' personal awakening, the economic and political lessons of the book are disheartening, although interesting and necessary for anyone who wishes to mine below the surface of a place. Yates' research into local history and his training in economics lend themselves nicely to case studies, which seem ultimately to be what each new locale becomes for him.
One has to wonder, though, if it's possible to get to know a place in a matter of a few weeks or days. Yates occasionally draws conclusions that seem a bit presumptuous, as when he writes of Flagstaff, "There is a ski area near town, sacred ground to Navajo and Zuni, but now desecrated with wastewater piped in to make artificial snow. Indians fought the water project, but they lost." In fact, artificial snow has not yet been made at the ski area he refers to (the Arizona Snowbowl), and in March, a U.S. federal appeals court ruled that the Snowbowl's plan violates religious-freedom laws.
Despite such missteps (which, given the number of places covered and the ever-changing nature of local politics, seem forgivable), Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate offers an insightful glimpse into contemporary America. If it is occasionally depressing, it is to a good end, that we might see beyond simple exteriors and notice the voiceless--the working class, minorities, the environment. After all, against the backdrop of nature, "the human world, with its relentless injustices and inequalities, is put in sharp relief and made all the more intolerable. In the face of such beauty, it is surely an unforgivable crime for any society to let its people live in misery."