marie claire

Marie Claire 25 June, 2009

Welcome to Wonderland:

A Tour of America in the Age of Obama

Written by Marnie Andrews
Photographs by Jeff Jacobson


  • Sweetwater, Texas
    Windmills framed by a truck. "The wind farms of eastern Texas are disturbing places, with all that noise of blades. I wonder how we can live with the noise and the constant flashing of red lights.

As baby-boomer Americans, children of children of the Great Depression, Jeff Jacobson and I have lived together from the country’s ascendance into the Age of Stuff to its spectacular fall from grace. Eighty years ago, the stock market crashed. Now it falls precipitously, jobless numbers grow, but few call it a national depression, not yet.

America is improvising, having created a global demand for our excessive lifestyle. But now, we are forced to accept that the world’s shrinking resources cannot sustain that lifestyle. As artists who are familiar with improvisation, we are not immune to those excesses, even if we do it on a smaller budget.

When our marriage and careers began, before we became parents, our work necessitated driving around the country. We want to see it again, now that our son is grown and Barack Obama is President. In these uncertain times, how necessary is it to us now to make that trip?

The preparations for the trip started when gas was almost five dollars per gallon. Jeff bought 500 rolls of Kodachrome 200, a film stock first produced in 1986 that stopped being produced in November of 2006. The last batch’s expiration label was September, 2008. His use of this film covered the time between his first book and this book he is finishing on the road while using up his film stash. The time to travel is upon us, we are already past the film’s expiration.

Four years ago, Jeff was treated for lymphoma. He has wanted this trip since he realized that chemo wasn’t going to kill him.  As he regained his strength, he talked about taking the dog and me around the country.  That thought helped him heal. Then the economy started to tank.  We wondered how we would afford it.

With Obama’s success came the energy of change, and the thrill of voting for someone we actually liked.  Jeff spent months planning the itinerary, deciding to revisit some places and discover new ones.  Gas prices dropped. Suddenly there were cheap plane tickets, and driving wasn’t going to cost a year of our income.

Within a few days of the inauguration, Jeff booked us a flight to Miami.  He finished teaching a workshop in New York City on January 20th.  I picked him up in the city, drove to Queens where we watched Obama’s swearing in at our friends’ house, then got a ride to Kennedy airport.


When we landed in Florida, even the car leasing agents are celebrating Inauguration Day.  The agent completing our papers speaks of a deeper pain.  Last fall, her brother traded his car for a motorcycle because he felt he couldn’t afford the gas and had died on a slippery pavement.  She wishes he could see this day.

With our friend, fellow journalist Maggie Steber, we watched clips of the Obamas dancing at the Community Ball, singing along with Beyonce` as she sings “At Last” and we dance ourselves to the many Obama songs playing through the night.

The next morning, Miami feels less joyous.  We visit Phil Giberson, a former theatre director, who married into a costume manufacturing family and had run the family business for the last twenty years.  Last year the business went under, sold to a Chinese manufacturer.  The new owners kept Phil’s wife, JoDee, as their key designer.  But they had to let their 250 employees go. 

We meet Phil as he works at one of their three empty warehouses.  The last tenant has abandoned the lease, four months behind on rent.  Phil empties the tenant’s remaining supplies, dumping four huge trash containers full of cement housing contractors’ forms. He is fork-lifting heavy drainage ducts into the bins with the help of his two hired men.

We get café con leche at his favorite Cuban joint as he describes the last year.  He urged his partners in the three buildings to subdivide and upgrade them, but they had balked, citing the bad economy.  “I could have rented smaller warehouses three times over,” he tells us, “but nobody wants these big old hulking buildings.”  

Phil directed me in a play at the James L. Knight Convention Center the Hyatt in downtown Miami in the late1980s.  He looks up from his coffee and said, “You should go down there now, you won’t recognize it.”  Over the last two years there had been a building frenzy of new condos and hotels.  “Yeah, you definitely should see that, because all the buildings are empty.  It’s spooky.”

The only green spaces visible are filled with rubble from buildings torn down. The economy has prevented rebuilding.  The exceptions are two intended green places.

.  One had been an archaeological dig, a former Indian village on the edge of a canal, near the drawbridge.  Rescued as an historical site, it was dwarfed by a hotel, still unfinished.  The other green area is a city block of tennis courts, framed by palm trees.  Another friend was recently laid off from the company that owned that green square.  She tells us that the tennis courts were just put there to draw tenants until the economy came back, then they could build on that site too.

Home and Back, Twice. We come back home, then each of us travels separately. I go to North Carolina for a President’s Day weekend with my four best women friends. Jeff flies from Los Angeles to Las Vegas through the desert with our son, Henry.

We have about a week before we set out again in the car. We decide to take our puppy, Sundance, on her first long road trip. We quickly buy a SAAB station wagon for $5500. with 100,000 miles on it, because our old Subaru, after being fully prepped for the long trip, had the CHECK ENGINE light pop on, a sign the catalytic converter was about to go. Adding a car to the expense of the trip seemed absurd in this economy. But we need a dependable, cheap car. Though SAAB is in bankruptcy, it will probably get us through any weather. And even though we chart our direction south, we’re in for some rough weather.


West Virginia


Strip mines leveled mountains into valleys around the spit of land where we stand. One of the twenty cabins on this jut of land has a large hand painted sign, in red paint, “Stop Mountaintop Removal.” It belongs to Larry Gibson. He has said his speech so often, he rattles off the statistics. Keeping his dog from humping mine took more effort.

We hear a rumble. Larry turns with a wry grin,

“That’s thunder.” It’s an overcast windy day.

“Doesn’t feel like thunder,” I reply, feeling the earth shake. A large cloud of blast smoke blows toward us.

“That was a very, very mild one. Before, you could hear the rocks rolling for at least five minutes after the blast. And you could feel the ground shaking, with dishes shaking in the cabinets; you feel the shaking before you hear it, like in California.”

“I’m gonna take you out here and show you where they dumped the mountain down about 800 feet from where they were.” We start walking toward the high wall.

Jeff asks, “What happens now, where the wind blows it?”

Larry replies, “Oh, you’ll smell it in a minute, smell it and taste it. Ammonium, you’ll taste that. See that dust right here, it’s coming your way.” As we all bathe in an oily smoke, he talks of how the air we are breathing is “the worst air there is.” I hold my breath but the air sticks to me.

“For every ton of coal they take out of coal field, they’re using ninety-five gallons of water. Once the water is used, they can only use it one time, they put it back in the ground. And the people who drink ground or well water, we’re losing them by their drinking poison water.”

“The only difference between these people who live in the mountains and the people who live in the mansions is we choose to live here; we don’t need any help getting off the mountains. We need help staying on them.”

“You’d be surprised at the film people who’ve come from around the world. I had people come who couldn’t speak English from Japan. I took ‘em out here, just recently. And they sat down and cried like a baby. I couldn’t understand the language but I could sure understand their pain.”

He has taken us to the high wall. Nothing between us and the wide maw of cut earth, hundreds of feet below, except for a shelf of dark earthy substance. Jeff asks if he can step there. Larry stops him,

“That’s what was blown up, coal dust and ash. I wouldn’t want you to fall through it. We’re trying to put a wind farm here on Coal Mountain. Instead they do this, in four years. They’ve only been here four years, nineteen men.”

            All around, almost 360 degrees, on this highest point of mountains that were but are no more, the earth flows around us, hammered bare, no soil to grow vegetation. But to the far right stands Coal Mountain. It is the only remaining mountain still higher than where we stand. The last Great Hope of Larry Gibson for a wind farm blocks the sun’s dying rays.

The day after we stand at the high wall in West VA, the Obama administration announces plans to place new regulations on coal ash ponds by the end of 2009. The New York Times article reports that the EPA has identified 63 sites of groundwater contaminated by coal ash heavy metals.

In that same issue, Thomas Friedman quotes Glenn Prickett of Conservation International. “Just as a few lonely economists warned us we were living beyond our financial means and overdrawing our financial assets, scientists are warning us that we’re living beyond our ecological means and overdrawing our natural assets.” To that he adds, “Mother Nature doesn’t do bailouts.”

March 8th. When Work Calls…After West Virginia, I fly back to New York City to record a commercial to help finance our trip. Jeff got me to the plane in Nashville, Tennessee. I would fly back to him in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Watching the number of coffee cups accumulate in the car, I vow to carry car cups in to coffee shops more. I count every disposable cup I use on the trip. On the last stop with Jeff, as far as we could get from coal dust, we use our car cups, making coffee in our rooms using a paper filter in the Motel 6’s coffee maker.

            Why Motel 6? Because the rooms are clean, the beds, comfortable, the price, low and they take pets. Sundance adapts to the long haul and strange rooms, signs of a great road dog.

March 10th. New Orleans. Returning to Jeff and Sundance now, I pick up pastries (paper bag with two waxed papers,) and, a sandwich (big plastic sandwich container with an additional separate plastic container for the balsamic dressing.)

I can’t begin to calculate the energy it takes to heat my chicken/mozzarella/red pepper wrap, but it does cross my mind, because of Larry Gibson’s statement about a pound of coal being necessary to produce a kilowatt hour. I decide not to stop at Au Bon Pain for coffee because I didn’t want to add to the exorbitant amount of trash accumulated since the driving trip started last Friday.

At home, there is less trash. I compost, burn clean cardboard in a woodstove or recycle it, and buy fewer newspapers, opting to read news online instead or listen to NPR, (National Public Radio.) Even so, I know many of the plastics I use and recycle at home are not recycled into the system. With the drop in the economy, the demand for recyclables has dropped too, and the storage for those items overflows.

After reading Alan Weisman’s book, “The World Without Us,” I’m more aware of the plastic I throw away; my writing pen, the bottle a mother uses to nurse her baby across the aisle in the plane, the molding in the Saab’s console. How can we cure our addiction to plastics?

            Arriving at the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans three and a half years after Katrina, the landscape of that once-thriving neighborhood is mostly empty. The median of a major thoroughfare illustrates the progress. In one section, the grass in the median is recently cropped by a mower, but right next to that is untouched overgrowth, then another section which had been tended then abandoned.

The day we visit is Moving Home Day for Velma Collins. After escaping Katrina, she went first to Baton Rouge, then to a niece’s house in Lancaster, California. She then landed with her sister in Knoxville, Tennessee, where her grandson was attending school. A furniture truck is unloading her new bed, but the electrical boxes haven’t been reinstalled in the Lower Ninth. She and her daughter have been living there with only a propane generator for two weeks.

            Back in the French Quarter where we stay with our son’s friend, a walk through the market brings back memories of how things were before the flood. In a few minutes of walking, we hear musical performances ranging from a blues man singing “House of the Rising Sun” to a jazz trio in a restaurant to a pianist in a concert salon.

            Not surprisingly, the mood of the Quarter has changed since my last, pre-Katrina, visit. The robbery and assault events our hostess recounts to us made me cautious, standing alone in the dog park with Sunny. I remember when I was last here; a charming huckster sold my friend and me New Orleans hats in exchange for a donation to the homeless. I long to feel that carefree now. I am grateful for the dog, even though no one would mistake her for being tough.

            Houston, Texas. We arrive in Houston, glad to be off road for a few days, relaxing with friends and spending time in the Rothko Chapel and at the Menil Collection with Jeff’s fraternity brother, Harold, a maritime lawyer here. They go to photograph the refinery landscape of the shipping channel while I walk the bayou with writer Ed Porter.   Bray’s Bayou was deepened and widened with a concrete channel down the middle before Hurricane Ike hit Houston, which helped Ed’s neighborhood, though Ed and Jaqui were without power for several weeks in the middle of a brutal heat wave.

            On the road again, Jeff promises the beautiful aspects of this tour, starting with the wind farms of west Texas. The farms are eerie, with their “whoosh” of blades. Numerous abandoned houses dot the landscape. I wonder how those who remain adjust to that sound and the constant blinking red lights on their landscape.

We stumble across a huge pit fire; the last of a hog farm the farmer is burning to the ground to clear it. He had been forced out of business by the bigger corporate farms that fixed prices on both grain purchasing and selling of the hogs, forcing the small farmers out.

March 20th. Santa Fe, New Mexico. We stay with Olin, a therapist who manages mental health and drug programs here. Jeff is felled by allergic reactions that started in West Texas, (or was it that air in West Virginia?) He felt worse in Roswell, New Mexico, a tourist town revolving around a reported alien landing in 1947. This trip takes its toll on my hide too. We love the time together with Sundance. But these days in Santa Fe we spend recovering from our travels so far. Jeff sleeps as I eat a big breakfast at the New York Deli. All the pictures of New York make me homesick.

            Pueblo, Colorada. Travel demands patience when you are with someone, even if he’s been your husband for thirty years. Even in fierce hot wind, he is drawn to images of a failed mill town, and I, to hearing This American Life audio essays on NPR.

We take time apart. Jeff shoots the dusk light. I walk the dog. I try to find any shade, without success. Finally, I land in front of a sweet Victorian house, with a beautifully made garden, a picket fence and entry gate, meticulously painted. The FOR SALE sign has been up for awhile, though; the weeds are high, mail overflows the box, and the house is deserted.

When Jeff rejoins me, we look at a sports bar for a place to eat, but when I see a drunk pissing on the side of it, we decide it’s best to move on. We pick up our pace as capricious spring weather becomes an issue.

March 23rd, Sidney, Nebraska. We push to stay in front of it, but the blizzard finally catches us on a country road in Nebraska. Water is a precious commodity here, especially at spring planting. So farmers have plowed their fields in advance of the coming snow. But where we are, in 66 mile-per-hour winds, topsoil is stripped from the newly plowed ground. Thousands of tumbleweeds thump across the road, into, in front of, and under the car. Visibility from the car beyond the front bumper is nil, as the combination of dust and snow creates a cloud around us. We barely make it into Sidney before all the roads closed.

At the motel we cook from food we’ve stocked in the car, but we are so tired Jeff pours some clams instead of salmon for the dog. Doggie distress ensues. We take middle of the night dashes outside with her into a breath-stealing wind. Sundance is so amazed she can’t calm down. Wind hurls itself against the motel window.

We visit a CAFO, (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation), the Chappell Feedlot, outside of Chappell, Nebraska, owned and operated by Tom and Cindy Williams and their son. Cindy has been president of the Chappell Chamber of Commerce for three years. She speaks with confidence, even as she describes the difficulties of incorporating rapidly changing demands for sustainable beef into their business. Most of their feed is a combination of “corn silage, though that’s not every year, alfalfa, and 63-65% corn. And we get liquid protein from Purina.”

“Business has changed a lot, more and more regulations we have to adhere to, to make it. Our niche is in customer service.” I look in her eyes, as my machine records her. She met her husband Tom at age fifteen. She speaks eloquently about her husband’s training, skills, and how he meets people well. They are a strong team in work and in marriage. They chose this business because they love the quality of the lifestyle, but she worries that her children’s generation won’t be able to afford to stay in business.

As I drive Jeff around for some final pictures after shooting from the feed truck, we realize we have made the turn for home. I see a correlation between Cindy’s marriage and my own. We committed to a life and work together traveling. But the nature of our business changes rapidly too, and we are not sure how we, or our son after us, will sustain it. Plus, we’re older now and long for our own bed.

We had hoped to contrast this ranch-to-feedlot system with the grass-fed cattle ranch of our friend Linda Hasselstrom in Hermosa, South Dakota, but the blizzard’s thirty to forty inches of snow forces us to head east across Nebraska, in a narrow corridor between three concurrent blizzards. Another blizzard keeps us from visiting Greensburg, Kansas, the town destroyed by a tornado two years ago that has rebuilt with green technology. It is also being hit with un-drivable snow.

Our Saab rides the wind. Sundance sits up and watches, or rests her head on the armrest between us.

In the Motel 6 near Kearney, Nebraska, I turn on television. We don’t get reception at home anymore, and cable is an expense we prefer to do without, but playing it in the close room of the motel can be a bone of contention between us. I like to watch from time to time, and I still make my living through television. In hotels with Jeff, I often stick to the news channels.

Obama is speaking at a press conference. After eight years of turning off motel TVs when the President’s voice came on, I leave it on now with the volume up. Tonight Obama is promoting the correlation between the budget and the economic recovery.

March 25th. Kearney, Nebraska. We see the Sandhill Cranes come in for a landing on the Platte River near Kearney. Jeff is doing something he rarely does, returning to a place he has already photographed so I can experience it. As the birds come in, it doesn’t matter that we are standing in rain, or corralling the dog, their calls and the sight of the thousands of birds with their wide wingspans soaring into river landings lifts the heart. What could be wrong if the birds are here?

Sundance is intrigued by birds, but she growls between breaths at the cows we’ve stopped to see. We drive by road signs marking the Oregon Trail (“4000 covered wagons a month passed by this spot in 1850.”) It was also where the Pony Express came through. Where this interstate highway runs was all tall grass then. The wagon trains formed primarily in Saint Joseph, Missouri and Council Bluffs, Iowa; one hundred and thirty-five wagons a day.

After spending time with the birds, we look for anything to slow our desire to race back across the country for home. I tour the Minden Opera House and feel the desire to perform onstage again for the first time in months.                

March 28th, Kansas City, Missouri. We stop for the afternoon to visit Randy and Rick Goodman, Jeff’s cousins, landing first at a favorite restaurant in a snowstorm. Then we go to Randy’s home, where Jeff and Rick go out to photograph and I play on two congas while Randy drums on Tablas.

Randy is an Esoteric Arts and Sciences Consultant, a professional wizard. (His email is Whimsical Wizard.) He reads runes, Tarot cards, astrology and Kabala charts, and gives consultations based on his readings. He, like Jeff, is living with cancer. His brother, Rick, has come from his organic farm in Columbia, Missouri to spend time with us all. Randy is voluble and charismatic. Rick is quiet, more introspective.

Later, Rick talks about how Columbia has expanded almost out to the country where he lives. “We got saved,” he says. “A developer bought up some thousand acres around us, and I thought, ‘this is it, I’m moving to the suburbs without taking a step.’ But he overextended himself and went broke. And I thought, ‘Yes!’” There are some good aspects to this economy.

The next day, we meet another Rick, father of one of my New York agents, Rick Robson, and his wife, Kelly. We lunch at their new house, built after four years of research then construction for green efficiency. Much of it was built with recycled materials. Both hosts are employed by Hallmark and have worked to move it toward a green workplace. Kelly also participates in Product Red, a series of products from Hallmark that contribute directly to the Global Fund for people living with AIDS in Africa.

March 30th, Columbia, MO. That night we arrive at the Motel 6 in Columbia, Missouri. We head out to Rick’s organic farm for dinner. He has lived in a spare cabin near Columbia since 1971. Initially he paid thirty dollars a month in rent, plus a part of his produce.

“I’m on a hundred and forty acres, with about a mile of river frontage that’s all bluff. Looking down from the bluff is a trail where the railroad used to be, then a creek, then the river, and that bottom land is now conservation area, Eagle’s Bluff. And there are eagles nesting there.” The bluff is a magnificent, breathtaking drop off, with a wide view of the Missouri River, the antithesis of the view in West Virginia.

“I got up to about five acres of land planted at the height of my farming, it was a lot. You take this organic stuff to market and people just go crazy for it. In the last five years, I would say, it became more important to people. From ’85 on, I had some steady customers because I was organic. But now, everybody wants organic.” After about fifteen years, his rent went to fifty dollars a month.

Rick, now in his sixties, inherited money after his mother died last year. He can finally stop having to rely on farming to survive. The spring snow has melted and his seedlings are up in the greenhouse. “Now I probably do about a half an acre,” he says as we walk to see the fields he still works. He doesn’t need to supply the restaurants; he can just go to the local farmers’ market. Now that he doesn’t have the produce, the property rental has gone up. His hundred forty acres now rents for three hundred dollars a month. The owners have no interest in selling the property.

We stop at an old neighborhood general store to buy a Carrhart winter coat Jeff has eyed; his old coat has fallen apart. The clothing store draws outsiders, the pot-bellied stove and homemade food draws the locals.

As Jeff is trying on his purchase, he overhears the men lunching around the stove criticizing Al Gore, saying his view is all politics, and that the scientists on climate change are just telling him what he wants to hear. And then, one of them threw in, evolution is just as much bunk as global warming.

Here I am puzzling about how to reduce my carbon footprint, how to stop creating so much trash, wondering how to recycle the Subaru, and these guys aren’t even seeing that there’s a problem! Yes. There have always been blizzards, hurricanes, and the Red River has flooded before. What is hardest about altering how we view the severity and length of the weather changes is that weather is changeable, and the scope of how much it has changed is not always evident in each storm we encounter.

If we see how much we waste and how that connects to climate, it requires changes in what we know as comfort; our use of plastics, blowing up mountains. Letting go of the desire for power to fuel our comfort requires first recognizing the need to change. Having my organic garden in the Catskill Mountains isn’t enough.

March 31st, Indianapolis, IN. We find the Motel 6 on the east side of Indianapolis is about half of the price of the west side one, so we keep trucking into the late night for the cheaper room. We land next to the Wonder Bread central bakery. A light sleeper, Jeff asks for a quiet room. As soon as we unload everything, we hear the trucks from the bakery starting up.  Jeff calls the front desk, but a different clerk answers. “Yes, the trucks go all night,” she replies when asked. She puts us at the edge of the truck sounds, around the corner. We move again. Finally, the third room was quiet.

Wonder Bread was the white bread of my fifties and sixties grocery store childhood. I haven’t eaten it since I learned how many chemicals and how little nutrition existed in that fluffy, soft, white dough. The company, now owned by Interstate Bakeries Corporation, lost a racial discrimination suit in 2000, awarding twenty plaintiffs $121 million, the second-largest award in U.S. legal history against a private company in such a suit. In 2004, Interstate Bakeries declared bankruptcy. In August, 2007, the company announced it would end production in Southern California, costing 1,300 jobs there. Our stay at the “Welcome to Wonderland” sign produced a night of insomnia.

April 1st, Youngstown, Ohio. The last stop in the midst of the big push home is the old industrial center of Youngstown, Ohio. The first steel mill closed there during the Carter Administration in 1977, and closings accelerated during Reagan’s presidency. Thirty-two years later, Youngstown remains a vast expanse of empty mills.

April 2nd, Home. We have glimpsed the beauty and the beast of America at the beginning of President Obama’s term. We drive through the remnants of our defunct industrial age as we return to the Northeast. Even when we land at our beautiful home in the Catskill Mountains of New York, (in a place between mountains and rivers preserved as the watershed for New York City,) these rusting, empty images present a sobering coda to a journey that began by celebrating the inauguration of a charismatic President willing to confront hard issues. Now, we begin to address the challenge he gives to us all, to do something to make life better for everyone.