Wanderlust economist

Can an academic engage readers in a book about a 60-month road trip across the United States? Yes, when the author has a grassroots tilt on work, inequality and ecology. In Cheap Motels and a Hotplate: An Economist’s Travelogue, author, editor and retired professor Michael D. Yates departs western Pennsylvania with his wife, Karen, to labor and sightsee in cities, parks and towns across the nation.

Their tale unfolds chronologically. The “we” in his book, the Yates, come across as a loving couple who share a spirit of solidarity with and sympathy for the people they meet. Something in the way we live today can make such a stance rare.

The couple begins their journey with a stay in Yellowstone National Park. They work as a minimum-wage desk clerk and waitress, respectively, at a corporate run hotel. Readers feel the Yates’s back, foot and psychic unease from multitasking cancellations and reservations for rooms and tables. By the end of their stay there, the Yates are working shorter hours to spend more time exploring the park, bereft of the original inhabitants, such as the Sheepeater Shoshone, who were forcibly removed by whites, along with other tribes, over a century ago.

In Portland, following a Manhattan stint as editor for Monthly Review, a radical magazine launched after WW II, two of the Yates’ four adult children join them. The young men hope to nab livable employment. It is not to be. Portland and the Northwest are physically attractive but no employment paradise for them and other 20-somethings.

For each community and region visited, the author provides a demographic snapshot (population by race, median household income, rent and mortgage). Yates, who once labored for the United Farm Workers, uses such stats to amplify the social conditions of the folks they meet—including landlords, park rangers and shopkeepers. In this way, he puts flesh on dry numbers. Readers also get a treasure trove of tips on dining, hiking and lodging to enjoy and avoid.

Upon departing the Northwest, the Yates solve their “food problem.” Health-conscious, they opt to cook on a two-burner hot plate and live in low-priced motels. In contrast, scores of wage-earners in communities large and small live this way out of necessity. Yates wants the reader to be as outraged as he is that folks who labor for long hours at low wages, often by serving the well-heeled, are in such dire straits.

In Miami Beach, the fortunate few live large. Blocks away from their wealth, a quarter of the people under age 18 live below the federal poverty line. Does the former class create the latter? Yates suggests so. His is not the conventional wisdom.

Yates enhances his book with a spatial approach. In Sedona, Ariz., with its “red-rock sandstone buttes, mesas, monoliths, and pinnacles,” the Yates confront the clash “between public and private space”: a gated community for the rich next to public land on which those of modest means hike. A gorgeous desert also details the contours of American capitalism. As of 2005, the share of national income going to the upper class matched that in the Great Depression.

Before Hurricane Katrina the couple visits the Gulf Coast. The people are poor and the environmental racism is ghastly. Air pollution in Big Bend National Park, Texas, from other states is so dire that the Yates skip sightseeing there. For the hikers they have become, this is a strong statement.

Yates writes in warm appreciation of the country and its residents and for action to reverse the waste of both. This requires a vision of a more just way of living. As he puts it in the final chapter, “what we have seen and done might serve as an inspiration for all of us to struggle to create a world in which the freer way we have been able to live is the norm for everyone.”