Friday, July 24, 2009

Hard Times Hit the Good People of Kooskia, Idaho…

This past Friday my riding buddy, Arno, and I set out on our motorcycles to travel across Washington State to Idaho and western Montana where we would hit the off road trails and follow the path taken by Lewis and Clark over 200 years ago on what is now called the Lolo trail.

Nate & Arno:

On the way there we took the long and scenic route along the North Cascades Highway on a warm (hot) and beautiful day. With scenery like this, it was easy to forget about corruption in the market place and corporate money that was transforming our Government into a giant bought and paid for Ponzi enabling machinery:

The Twisted Edge – Motorcycle Heaven:

This two wheeled anecdotal economic report is a prelude to my upcoming expedition to Central and South America via Motorcycle. Along the way I will bring you interesting economic pieces as the inspiration strikes. For example, I couldn’t help but laugh as we stopped for a break at a little rest area next to the Chief Joseph Dam:

Here’s this government facility’s little playground & Outhouse:

And here are the rules and regulation posted to the side of the outhouse governing the use of the playground:

It struck a harmonic on my funny bone just knowing that the rules and regulations undoubtedly cost more to produce than the playground itself! And I’m sure little Johnny and Suzie (and their parents) stop and take the two hours to study this worthless piece of government waste that probably employed three full time lawyers.

But I digress.

I’m here to talk about my experience and what I learned in Kooskia – down on Main Street where the REAL economy resides.

On Wall Street the financial engineers, “geniuses” if you will, devise ways to increase leverage and skim money off as many transactions as possible (think cap and trade). They create obscure and complex derivatives of DEBT and sell them to unsuspecting “investors.” This would be “getting credit flowing” in their parlance. Their activities are responsible for creating more debt than can ever possibly be repaid by America and by Americans. They have brought the REAL ECONOMY to its knees. For this they reap windfall profits, millions in bonuses, and bailouts from the U.S. Government using YOUR MONEY and YOUR future earnings.

On Main Street in Kooskia (pronounced Koos-kee), Idaho, the REAL ECONOMY has ground to a halt.

Interactive Google map:

View Larger Map

After a hard day’s ride along the Lolo trail, we touched pavement for the first time that day just outside of Kooskia and rode past the post office – on Main Street…

Kooskia Post Office:

We stopped for a quick dinner, talked to several very friendly and nice townsfolk, and then set off to find a good camp area as it was about to get dark. As we were headed out of town I spotted a large area of nice looking grass that looked like it could be a campground but turned out to be a small park right on the South Fork of the Clearwater River. As we did a slow drive by, a man on an early model Harley rode by and stopped right in front of us in his driveway next to the park. We stopped and asked him if he knew where we might find a nice spot to camp… he said, “heck, you should just camp in the park! I’d pitch my tent right over in that corner, right next to the Mayor’s house, that’s where most folks do it, just watch out for the sprinklers, they go off at 11 PM, and heck, I’ll probably come over and join you for a beer!”

Wow, that was some kind of nice welcome, but us city boys are trained via repeated City Police beatings not to camp (or pee) in city parks! But he sure sounded like he knew what he was talking about – and he did ride a Harley after all - and the park on the river was beautiful and empty, so we headed on over and set up camp:

Camp pic:

Clearwater River:

Nice and peaceful night, no phone calls from the Mayor to the local police - sweet. Early the next morning we heard the Harley start up and over came Lowell for a visit:


Lowell’s Harley:

This is where we started to learn about the economy of Kooskia…

It seems that Lowell is currently unemployed after working for the past few years for the local saw mill. Now he adds to his unemployment check by driving an ambulance – on call for $7 a trip with no hospital trip, or $18 for a trip with a “carry” to the emergency room. Needless to say, Lowell is not out stimulating the economy.

And he’s not alone in Kooskia. According to year 2000 Census data, there were a whopping 675 residents in Kooskia and, according to Lowell, there are now about 600 – that’s because a wood mill closed down in 2006 laying off a little more than 90 people. Now the last mill in the area is closing down as the owner simply doesn’t have the money to pay his ongoing debts. According to Lowell, the owner had installed a $2 million state of the art saw a few years back and today is in default on over $2.5 million in debt. The mill is for sale, but there have been no takers and all 110 employees are now drawing extended unemployment.

OUCH! 110 employees in a town of 600 people? That has to be a huge percentage of the workforce. And think about what that means for the all the other small businesses and employees who work there. Just another tragic sawmill closure and the death of another small town, or is there more meaning behind this?

Lowell pointed across the river. “Look over there…”

“…They closed the local train tracks down and PARKED IDLED TRAIN CARS ALONG SEVEN MILES OF TRACK.”

Those were not just timber cars, they are freight and other types of cars too – a train boneyard if you will.

What does that say about our economy? The closed mill says to me that housing and other construction demand is down and that what wood products are being sold, are mostly coming from Canada and from overseas. The parked rail cars say to me that demand for other goods is also depressed.

Very interesting talking to the locals, you’d be amazed what you can learn. Turns out Lowell is NOT oblivious to what’s going on in the economy, we had a pleasant talk and he knows how bad the real economy is hurting and believes fully that more economic and other upheaval is on the way. On that I would definitely agree.

We packed up our camp, said goodbye to Lowell and cruised back to the local café for breakfast. There we met even more interesting and nice people, all with their own stories of course… I sat next to a very spry and sharp as a tack 87 year old gal who could recall every date and every little town within a hundred miles.

That’s her husband, Tony, in the back of the booth, also 87 years old, but age is catching up to Tony’s synapses, unlike his wife. Tony, it turns out, was a turret gunner on a B-17 during WWII and was shot down over Germany, lived, and was held as a prisoner of war for 17 months there. They too are concerned about the economy and what will happen to their small town, but they remain upbeat in a way that only people who have lived through real adversity can.

I really enjoyed talking to the people in Kooskia, they were all somehow “real” and genuinely happy to see and meet a stranger. A very different experience than you will find in any large city, that’s for sure.

And to seal the deal on why I liked the town of Kooskia, on the ride south out of town I spotted a very prominent windmill along side the road with a bulletin board attached to the base:

Hmmm, looks like they get it... Oh yeah, there’s “change” coming all right. What’s not coming is help for the people of Kooskia. All the help it seems has found it’s way into the hands of the people on Wall Street.

We rode to the Hell’s Canyon area and explored off road there too.

Hell’s Canyon:

As Tony’s sharp wife pointed out, “When you look at that canyon, you can imagine how they must have felt crossing over the pass only to stare at that massive wall! That’s when you’ll realize why it’s called Hell’s Canyon.”

And on the ride north and west from Hell’s Canyon, along route 95, Arno and I found the idled timber industry cars – well over 10 miles worth of them, parked and rusting. Here’s some video shot from the forward mounted video camera on Arno’s bike, that’s me in the lead, we pull over for a break then resume riding by miles and miles of parked lumber cars that you can see on the right side of the road. This 7 minute video, at roughly 70 mph, is only a portion of the length of the cars we passed:

Of course everyone realizes that the timber industry in the United States has been in decline for years. Maybe I’m just being pessimistic, or maybe I’m just telling it like it is. Nowhere on my trip did I see signs of a strong and vibrant economy. In Spokane I drove past many empty commercial buildings. I saw 10 minutes of the news and the lead story was how the Spokane police department is going to have to cut their staff due to budget shortfalls.

The little city of Kooskia undoubtedly has budget problems of their own. According to Lowell, most of his friends are living on unemployment checks. What happens when their benefits run out? Where do they find new meaningful jobs? Perhaps we can all just blog to one another and live on Google ads! Please click generously!

Dickey Lee - The Day The Sawmill Closed Down – 1963: