Where the living is easy
Finding America in our summer places
By Rick Holmes
Aug. 11, 2017
Marlboro, Vt. – South Pond is off a dirt road officially known as Cowpath 40. The signs read just C.P. 40, because the “Cowpath 40” signs kept disappearing. It’s a small lake, with no lifeguard, a rough beach and a raft built by volunteers. But on a summer day, you won’t find cleaner water or fresher air anywhere, and the sunsets take your breath away.
The people at South Pond tend to be cheery and nice: Who wouldn’t be on such a lovely mid-summer’s day? Nobody locks up their boats here. They drag their kayaks and canoes into the woods near the beach and leave them there all season – sometimes over the winter – without so much as a $10 padlock and six feet of chain. Maybe people figure they aren’t worth stealing, or maybe they just like and trust their neighbors.
There a lot of places like South Pond, places where the living is easy, if only for an afternoon. They are the summer places, where we get away from it all. We find them at bigger lakes that can handle bigger boats, at sandy beaches from coast to coast. It can be a campground in the mountains, a luxury resort, a state park, a “tar beach” rooftop retreat in the heart of the city.
At most summer places, we rub elbows with the kinds of people we don’t see much back on the job, and we do our best to get along. Strangers share jokes and leftover firewood. If a toddler starts to wander in too deep, whoever’s closest lends a hand. Nobody’s looking for a fight and, if we’re lucky, no one talks politics.
A sign at South Pond asks people to take their cell phone calls in the field behind the beach, a small nod to tradition. But you can still find plenty of people squinting at their phones in the summer glare – checking their email, texting their friends, following their social media favorites. It’s gotten harder to get away from it all now that it all fits neatly in your pocket.
Our phones also bring our media bubbles with us to our summer places, which means that our vacation spots are no longer an escape from the unending national argument or the mess in Washington.
In Washington, all the talk is about things that are broken. The economy is broken. The political system is broken. The Congress is broken. But is America broken?
On Meet the Press the other day, the talk was of divisions, illustrated neatly in charts and maps. Americans are more ideological than any time in memory. Liberals and conservatives are separating by where they live and whom they marry. Republicans are divided between populists and conservatives. Democrats are divided between the Sanders grassroots and the Clinton establishment. People of both parties have developed a visceral dislike for people of the opposite persuasion.
“It's like we're heading for a national divorce,” warns David French of the National Review. “not anytime soon, but the trends are that we're separating from each other and we don't like each other. And we don't watch what each other watches on television. We're beginning to self-segregate.”
Maybe. But in our summer places, where people put aside their grudges and just have fun, America still feels pretty solid. I’ve had the good fortune of spending time in several summer places this year – Saratoga Springs, NY, the Poconos and Allegheny Mountains in Pennsylvania, the coast of Maine – and have yet to hear a cross word spoken.
Arlie Russell Hochschild talks about the “empathy wall” dividing Americans. Separated by world view, geography and media preferences, we’ve lost the ability to walk in the shoes of our political opponents. So the few things we disagree about become more important than the many things we share, and we lose the ability to talk with each other with respect.
A sociologist at the University of California in Berkeley with typically progressive views, Hochschild moved to St. Charles, La., to live among the tea partiers for several years, hoping to unlock the “paradoxes” in their thinking.
Her earnest effort to breech the empathy wall, described in her new book, “Strangers in Their Own Land,” still comes across as condescending, and I doubt her tea party friends will enjoy it. Conservatives are extra-sensitive about condescension. They seem more bothered by the left’s condescension than liberals are by the right’s contempt. But there I go, fanning the flames of division.
A better plan is to follow a cowpath to a summer place, while there’s still some summer left. So I’m off to Montana. Find a summer place of your own, and look up from your phones. America is still here.