Indicator Species 

Lessons learned from the road

It's full-on summer here in Sawtooth Valley. Highway 75 is crowded with supersized motorhomes, giant pickups towing flatbeds full of four-wheelers and jet skis, herds of deaf motorcyclists and the occasional bicyclist hovering between fog line and barrow pit, hoping his bike helmet will protect his skull from the extended mirror of the F-250 that's closing on him at 85 mph.

You can tell a lot about the weather and the economy in Southern Idaho and Utah from the sorts of people migrating by these days. Six or seven years ago, Highway 75 was crowded with single 20-year-old males in new pickups. They indicated that a young man could go from high school to restaurant or hotel or call center work, and in two years, qualify for a loan for a four-door Cummins-powered Dodge 2500 with a tonneau cover and Truck Nutz. He could fill the truck with fuel and drive from Boise to Sun Valley to Stanley to Boise, all in a day, exploring the wilderness and maybe having a burger and fries along the way.

Then, one September morning, the on-the-prowl 20-year-old males were gone. Disappeared. Vamoosed. I figured some catastrophe had happened. Hormonal disruption of mating behavior caused by the outgassing of sun-exposed pickup dashes was my first theory.

My second theory was that a Great Recession was under way. When the Idaho Statesman downsized and devoted most of its remaining space to foreclosure notices and trustees' sales, it indicated a lot of young men had lost their jobs and traded their pickups for used Nissan Sentras. Others had gone to college and taken on debt that could have bought two or three pickups--a practice a bit like signing a counter check at a casino after you've lost your stake. Some had decided that $4-plus diesel made it better to just stay home and get their wilderness experience with the monkeys in Zoo Boise.

In these days of relative plenty, the big pickups are back, but they're not driven by young single men anymore. They're driven by young family men. Their MegaCabs and SuperCrews are chock-full of screaming children, and their short beds are full of coolers, bicycles and bungeed-down float toys. They indicate that federal military and security spending have boosted the Utah economy, and if you don't believe me, you should check the license plates in the parking lots at Redfish Lake.

We're also seeing lots of big guys on full-dress Harley Fat Boys. They indicate that pets and pet owners aren't the only things that increasingly resemble each other as they age. The motorhomes towing Audis indicate the Great Recession hasn't impoverished equally. New U.S. Forest Service and Idaho Fish and Game trucks indicate that these agencies are happier buying new equipment than hiring field personnel. A line of top-down Mercedes and Porsches indicates that it's nearly 100 degrees in Sun Valley. Log trucks laden with silvery beetle-killed tree trunks indicate that our summers are getting a little longer and dryer, and that those 100-degree days aren't always going to stay outside the valley walls.

Hummers, of which we used to see bunches, are gone, replaced by the plus-sized motorhomes as the best indication of wretched excess and conspicuous consumption. But I know where they went.

Last December, when nighttime temperatures in Sawtooth Valley were hitting minus-25 and the lack of vehicles was indicating that the rest of Idaho had succumbed to a Zombie Apocalypse, Julie and I decided to go someplace warm with a beach. We flew to Panama City, Panama, determined to come back when the days were getting longer and the sun was above the southern horizon.

It was a shock. Panama City is a miles-square sheaf of high-rises, rising like a mirrored Oz out of an emerald jungle. What we had thought would be a low-key beach vacation was an intense urban experience, marked by budget-blowing restaurants, wine bars, giant malls, yacht marinas and, at the far edge of their southern range, Hummers.

The local tourist newspaper was full of ads from banks, which said, in effect: "Tired of your greedy government taxing your money? We will help you establish a Panamanian investment plan that will protect your wealth from seizure by tax authorities and other parasites. Owners of gold coins will be able to come into our bank every day, open their safety deposit boxes and run their fingers through their tangible wealth."

Condos in the 70-floor Trump Tower Panama were starting at $267,000, with no property taxes for 18 years. Hummers were ubiquitous, driven by rich expatriate Americans or their third or fourth wives. We talked to a few. One bragged he had been there six years and hadn't learned a word of Spanish.

Julie and I fit the profile--a beautiful young woman accompanying a grouchy silver-haired old fart in a Hawaiian shirt, who had a beltline heading for his armpits. The local Panamanians took one look at us and knew who and what we were. Short of renting a Hummer, we could do nothing to make the picture more complete.

What we indicated was that the United States was losing some of its less pleasant citizens to Panama. It didn't seem as if the non-bankers among the Panamanians were all that happy about it.

We were glad to get home to Sawtooth Valley at the end of January, and glad that our career as an indicator species had been short. We had experienced an object lesson in stereotyping, and we had been the objects.

I resolved to look at the people traveling Highway 75 as real human beings, each with his or her own story, no matter what they were driving. Take away the month of July, and I've managed to do just that.

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