I was about halfway up the hill when I realized I was about halfway up the hill. That wasn’t good. It was very hot, and I’d not planned on more than a quick flat ride. But the county had just closed 213, the Atwood Road, and sent the detour up the Vly-Atwood, always a killer. You turn off Atwood to Vly-Atwood and immediately there’s what looks like a quick steep climb. At the top, you realize there’s a slight curve disguising another quick steep climb. This happens five times before you can sit back down in the saddle and upshift from the granny gear.
This time, the orange detour sign took you to the right, and a second set of deceptive climbs followed one upon the next. Once you got to the Vly-Atwood Volunteer Fire Department you had another bout. Then you turned right onto Scarawan Road. Immediately there was a warning sign: No Shoulder. Road Narrows to One Lane. That wasn’t exactly accurate. What had happened was this: the road had simply crumbled at both edges until there was just over a lane left standing. And there was a reason for that. Vly-Atwood is tough: Scarawan is tougher, steep enough that springtime water and summer storms sluice down the road.
When it comes to really looking at America, a bike is about the best tool you can find, better than a camera, better than a laptop, better, even, than the complete works of J.B. Jackson, John McPhee, and Yi-Fu Tuan. Yes, there are places where a car is better. Out on the Res, the Navajo Nation, the heat is unrelenting, there is little or no shade, and the distances are daunting. Going through the Rockies, particularly along the older national roads like the Million Dollar Highway, US550 in Colorado, between Silverton and Ouray, a car is definitely the safer means. There, vacationers in recreational vehicles rented from RV-by-the-week places like CruiseAmerica, unused to the width and instability of the machine they’re steering, will veer from lane to lane, tipping alarmingly on curves, scraping the guard rails. You don’t want to be on a bike on the Million Dollar Highway between June and September.
There are also places where it’s better to walk: big, dense cities like New York and Chicago. There, unless you're walking, the chances of noticing anything beyond the cabs and the limos and the messenger bikers and the jaywalking pedestrians texting away is slim to none. The same applies to most of the national parks, where the whole point is to slow down, focus in, develop an eye for almost hallucinatory attention to detail.
But between the extremes of density—between too crowded and way too big, there’s a balance to be achieved, and the 12-to-40-mph speed of a good road bike strikes a balance between getting there and seeing clearly.
That particular set of detours was a test of the hypothesis: it would be sheer vanity to claim that I was making 12 mph up those hills. A 10 year old boy in a pair of worn-out keds would have probably beat me to the top while bouncing a basketball on the rims of the potholes. Plus, I was concentrating on animal survival: leaving myself just one more downshift just in case and then, that case having come, trying to convince myself that I was really going to make it to the next level-off.
But there I was, halfway up the hill, thinking about the other half, already in the granniest of granny gears, when I saw what I hadn’t known I was looking for: a housing typology I’d been looking at for years but never recognized—the modified mobile home.
Mobile homes have a tough time of it. Back in the ‘30s, when architects didn’t have any work to do or any clients to pay them, they became, for a brief while, moralistic communists, worker-housing advocates, proponents of new forms of building that might make use of new manufacturing technologies and economies of scale to provide cheap, humane housing for the millions of Americans forced by the Depression into substandard or overcrowded housing. The '30s was a heyday for architect-designed utopian housing, and just about none of it got built. The housing crisis of World War II further pushed the rhetoric of what were now being labeled manufactured houses, though with widespread shortages and rationing, few were built outside the military.
But the military did push the process, and the results ranged from the hot, horrid Quonset huts on island sites in the Pacific Theater, to TDU’s (temporary dwelling units) built on sites as diverse as Fort Hood, Texas, and Los Alamos, New Mexico, serving functions that ranged from 8-man work crew bunkhouses to married officer’s quarters meant to house with dignity, a Lt. Col., his wife, and their four children. In the Manhattan Project’s three principal townsites—Los Alamos, New Mexico, Richland, Washington, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee—the wide range of houses, including mock-log cabins and modernist machines for living, all of them meant to last just four to ten years, have survived more than half a century and are still fetching good prices.
After the war, though, manufactured housing languished, to the surprise of all. In part it was a failure of will, in part a matter of conservative town and county planning and zoning commissions, and in part a concerted campaign by traditional home builders to eliminate what was seen as a major threat to the industry. The famous Lustron houses—all-steel manufactured dwellings of considerable scale and ambition—came to symbolize both the hope and the collapse of the manufactured housing market. When Lustron went belly-up in 1950, that was seen as the death-knell of the manufactured housing industry.
The lineage split around that time. On one side were mass-production houses built on an unmoving assembly line, with workers migrating from house to house in an orderly assembly of uniform parts. This was the story of Bill Levitt and his Levittowns, and it meant that a good, permanent, 950-square-foot house could be bought not far from New York City for about $6,995, roughly twice an owner’s annual income-- about $62,000 in today’s dollars.
On the other were those odd hybrids known first as travel trailers, and then as mobile homes. Early travel trailers were relatively tiny, meant to be hooked to an everyday car and moved from trailer court to trailer court. The fabled Airstream is an example of the genre. These trailers were anywhere from 12 to 25 feet long, but they were always no more than six feet wide, because they had to fit within the lanes of everyday American roads. The introduction of 8-foot and then 10-foot models changed the dynamic dramatically. Now it was necessary to hire a trucker to move the home from site to site, and mobile homes became increasingly immobile. But once the single-lane, car-towed barrier broke, mobile homes could grow significantly wider—what American has not sighed in exasperation behind a flatbed with its Oversize Load sign-bearing pickups behind and ahead of it? And with that, the line between the old “manufactured housing” and the mobile home largely disappeared, with double-wides and triple-wides assembled onsite, and lobbying by the manufacturing industry resulting in a 1980 law changing the name in all government documents from mobile home to manufactured home.
Back here in the areas where weekenders and tourists don’t go, places where the Catskills begin to resemble the hills and mountains of West Virginia, where, as my friend Ralph Perri puts it, your status in the neighborhood depends on the presence of a motor vehicle composting area, the woods are full of mobile homes dating back to the ‘50s in some cases, but mainly to the ‘70s. These aren’t really temporary structures and it’s doubtful they’ve ever moved or ever will move. Up here, you have to dig a well, and that’s not cheap. You have to put in a propane tank, and you’ve got to have a driveway that the propane company will agree to drive up in the winter to refill that tank. You’ve got to run electrical in from the road, and telephone, and you’ve got to put a satellite dish on the roof—two, these days, if you want HD.
Some people like their mobile homes—like them enough to rebuild them into real houses. This is what I was noticing: the houses on the other side of the line between disguising your mobile home and full-on rebuilding. There was one up there that had a second story added on; the outer metal and vinyl cladding had been covered by cedar-shake shingling. Another was clad in stucco; a third had been made into a log cabin.
At the pace I was going, I could see just how complicated a process this conversion was. For one thing, windows and doors couldn’t really be moved—though in a couple of cases someone had simply removed the original windows and doors from their frames, and put new, traditional doors on the outer cladding. The front door was open, and you could clearly see the hollow between the two sets of outside walls. In the ones less ingeniously adapted, the window and door punchouts were recessed into the darkness, hollowed-out eyes and a black mouth, dream-faces in the darkness of the woods.
Almost every type of manufactured home can be found, hidden in these woods. Up here, it’s hardscrabble all the time, not just when the robber barons have sucked the country dry and the politicians are passing laws to change the meaning of whole classes of words—billionaires must now be called job creators, factory farms are family farms, and megacorporations are family businesses. And even though an earlier corrupted political class required the change of name from manufactured housing (too socialistic!) and mobile home (too trailer-trashy!) to manufactured home, up here everybody calls them by their real names. The small ones, perched up on the ridges, mostly used these days for hunting, trapping, fishing, maple-syrup harvests or firewood forarys: they’re trailers. And so are a lot of the larger ones—if the wheels are visible, the flattened tires long collapsed and disintegrated from rubber rot, they’re trailers. If they’re bigger, harder-edged, with a picture-window punchout on one side and the fake-stonework panels hiding the wheel wells, and the once-vibrant greens and blues and reds have faded to pastels and rust stains creep down at the corners, they’re mobile homes. If they’re newer, they’re double wides, even if they’re actually two-roof single-wides or right-angle triple-wides.
The mobile homes: mostly these days, they’re occupied by the old, people surviving on Social Security and, if they’re really lucky, a small pension from the Post Office or the county. Coming up the hill on the bike, you can see the old man mowing the lawn with an old Toro, or working on the faded red riding mower, tipped on its side, the oil leaking out of the air filter and staining the weed-strewn gravel of the driveway. There’s usually a birdbath, and a clothesline. Out in front, there’s an ornamental shingle with the family name burned into it, the apostrophe placed wrong: The William’s or The Johnson’s. The mailbox is attached to a wooden 4x4 buried in concrete in an old milk pail.
The double-wides are different. Often there’s a prefab shed behind them, and when the doors are open you can see a Harley in there, or a ’47 Merc or a ‘55 Chevy in some state of restoration. These are people who aren’t house-proud. They’re mobility-proud. Their status is found in their cars and bikes, and it’s found among others who share their love of cars and bikes. Summer vacation may take them out to Sturges, South Dakota, on the Harley, or it may take them to Tucumcari for the annual Tucumcari to Gallup Motor Tour on Route 66. It’s not just nostalgia for an earlier time of motoring on two wheels or four. It’s a willed holding-on to an older myth of upward mobility, when you could be pretty sure that you’d be better off soon, things were looking up, it was blue skies from here on out.
Down below, where the road’s not as steep, and there’s probably a view of farmland or the mountains, and space for a good quarter-acre of lawn grass: that’s where the double-wides are. The people who own them have pretty good jobs: they’re electricians, plumbers, building inspectors for the county, road-crew foremen. Their wives are the ones not working, laid off, or about to be: ex-secretaries, ex-clerks, ex-assistants to the tax assessor, ex-teachers, ex-assistant-principals of the middle school. I see them in the Shop-Rite on Senior Day, with their zipperpurses full of coupons.
I see them there because I’m there, too. They aren’t distant from me. They’re like me. They know their place, and they know it well: they sledded down that hill as kids and their kids did, too, and now they take their grandkids down it when they have them for the day or the week while their kids are driving to Tennessee to see if there’s work at the Nissan plant or are stuck staying with friends in between the foreclosure and the rental. The trees are theirs, the mountains are theirs. They know who’s the cheapest, the fastest, and the best deer dresser when it’s hunting season, and they are using layaway again to get a lead on the Christmas presents for the grandchildren. A couple of times a week, they drive up into the dark green light up Scarawan Road to see their own parents, to help them with the shopping and to bring the newly sharpened blade back from the hardware store and reassemble the riding mower, old as it is, cleaning the spilled oil off the air filter so it won’t smoke and leave its acrid taste in the mouth.
Trailers, mobile homes and double-wides have another virtue that keeps them occupied these days. They’re financed differently than regular houses. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD, severely limits the amount that can be loaned, and the maximum loan length is 25 years; if you’re talking about a mobile and not a double-wide, it’s 20 years. It wasn’t worth it for the job creators to develop sub-prime, specialty loan arrangements for the people who bought, or buy, a mobile home or a double-wide. Refinances are simpler and more straightforward. You can’t really get a home equity loan on a mobile home.
As it turns out, mobile home Americans are turning out to be less mobile than the rest of us, at least the ones up here, on the ridges in the woods. When you lose your mobile home, they don’t evict you. They come and take your house away. In the flatlands, where the subdivisions of mobile homes and trailer parks set them in neat rectilinear rows serviced by a nice wide road, the specialty semi- can show up, change the rotted tires and rusted wheels out for new ones in about an hour, and have you left by the side of the road by ten in the morning.
Those are the mobile homes that the job creators look down on. They’re marginal housing for marginal people in the marginal economy. They’re not worth wasting your time over. They probably won’t vote. You can fire them anytime. They’ll work for you for just about nothing, and be grateful. With the right push-pollsters and enough shrill repetitions of virulent lies by virulent commentators, you can keep them down when you don’t need them, round them up when you do. If the flood washes away their mobile home park, it’s a good thing real taxpayers (of course, you’re not one of them—you’re a job creator, so you don’t pay taxes) and government social programs aren’t subsidizing their lifestyles by providing them with flood insurance or disaster relief. Save that money for the horse farms; save it for the Houston megamansion hurricane relief. If the flood washed away their mobile home park it just improved the view.
Up here, though, it’s not so simple. For the mobile homes are older, and the growing season here is pretty long, and trees spring up to twenty feet and more in just a few years. Getting in there, and getting back out with a mobile home hitched to the back of the big rig, isn’t something most trucking companies are ready to do. Besides, there’s the problem of those modifications: the log cabin, the gabled roof, the garage added on, the ell made from Home Depot plans, accessed by an opening cut into the short wall of the mobile home using a blowtorch. It’s hard to get back down to what you plan to steal.
These are homes that have hunkered down on their sites. Their owners won’t be evicted, and they won’t leave—except in the ambulance that will take them to the nursing home or the hospital for a few weeks before the funeral. Once they’re gone, maybe the younger generation, down the hill, will abandon the double-wide and the shed to their own kids, and move up into the dark, green, loamy overgrowth with the small grass lawn carved out of it, where it doesn’t cost anything to stay in your home, where you aren’t connected by ties of financing and fear to the job creators and their instruments of greed and duplicity and their bought-election mouthpieces with the deep tans and the hand-made suits.
If that doesn’t happen, it’s unlikely anyone will move back into that mobile home. It will sit up there, the propane tank rusting, the lawn turned to weeds and then to scrub and then to saplings and finally to full-on new woodland. The deer will see it as they pass from grassland to grassland, ghosts in the woods. Maybe after a time, a hunter will bring a crowbar along and pop the door, and it will have a new life in the fall and winter, past the legal seasons' end, when it’s better to poach out where nobody reports hearing a gunshot in the woods, and you’d best dress your venison yourself, as the commercial cutters will report you to the DEC. Come summer, the bend-open door will slap and slam in the wind and, coming up the worst of the climbs on that Atwood detour, I will wonder who it is that’s going in and out, in and out of that ghostly face: black-eyed windows, black-mouth door.