Can an academic engage readers in a book about a 60-month road trip across
the United States? Yes, when the author has a grassroots tilt on work,
inequality, and ecology. In Cheap Motels and a Hotplate: An Economist’s
Travelogue, author, editor, and retired professor Michael D. Yates departs
western Pennsylvania with his wife, Karen, to work and sightsee in cities,
parks, and towns across the nation.
The couple begins their journey with a stay in Yellowstone National Park.
They work as a minimum-wage desk clerk and waitress, respectively, at a
corporate-run hotel. Readers feel the Yates’s unease from multitasking
cancellations and reservations for rooms and tables. By the end of their
stay, the Yates are working shorter hours to spend more time exploring
the park, bereft of the original inhabitants, such as the Sheepeater Shoshone,
who were forcibly removed by whites, along with other tribes, over a century
In Portland, following a Manhattan stint as editor for Monthly Review,
two of the Yates’s four adult children join them. The young men, highly
skilled in their occupations, hope to nab livable employment. It is not
to be. Portland and the Northwest are no employment paradise for them and
other 20-somethings. Yates’s book is totally relevant to young adults,
the so-called “Generation Next” between the ages of 18 and 25 who scramble
to make ends meet.
For each community and region visited, Yates provides a demographic snapshot
(population by race, median household income, rent, and mortgage). Yates,
who once labored for the United Farm Workers, uses such stats to amplify
the social conditions of the folks they meet—including landlords, park
rangers, and shopkeepers. Readers also get a treasure trove of tips on
dining, hiking, and lodging to enjoy and avoid.
On leaving the Northwest, the Yates solve their “food problem.” Health-conscious,
they opt to cook on a two-burner hot plate and live in low-priced motels.
In contrast, scores of wage-earners in communities large and small live
this way out of necessity. Yates wants the reader to be as outraged as
he is that folks who labor long hours at low wages are in such dire straits.
In Miami Beach, the fortunate few live large. Blocks away from their wealth,
a quarter of the people under age 18 live below the federal poverty line.
Does the former class create the latter? Yates suggests so. His is not
the conventional wisdom.
In Cheap Motels and a Hotplate, Yates builds on his radical critique of
capitalism detailed in Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global
Economy (Monthly Review Press, 2003). His aim in both books is to help
people to understand the roots of social inequality, and then to change
the world their labor creates into one in which all people’s basic needs
To this end, Yates enhances his book with a spatial approach. In Sedona,
Arizona, with its “red-rock sandstone buttes, mesas, monoliths, and pinnacles,”
Yates confronts the clash “between public and private space”—a gated community
for the rich next to public land on which those of modest means hike. A
gorgeous desert also details the contours of American capitalism. As of
2005, the share of national income going to the upper class matched that
in the Great Depression.
Before Hurricane Katrina the couple visits the Gulf Coast. The people are
poor and the environmental racism is ghastly. Air pollution in Big Bend
National Park, Texas, from other states is so dire that the Yates skip
sightseeing there. For the hikers they have become, this is a strong statement.
Yates writes in warm appreciation of the country and its residents and
for action to reverse the waste of both. This requires a vision of a more
just way of living. As he puts it in the final chapter, “What we have seen
and done might serve as an inspiration for all of us to struggle to create
a world in which the freer way we have been able to live is the norm for
Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento. He is a co-editor of Because
People Matter, Sacramento’s progressive paper.