The McDonald’s parking lots in rural Kentucky fill up not long after school bells ring at the end of the day. They’re not there for the fries. Parents and students take advantage of the free Wi-Fi before returning to unconnected homes. Blacksburg, Virginia, in the southwest corner of the state, was the “most wired community” in the world in the ’90s. But drive just 15 minutes outside of it today and large swaths of the population have no, or weak, access to the internet. Parents often have to drive their kids back to school to download homework.
I spent 2017 on the road across America as part of a 50-state reporting project for OZY. In more than a dozen flights and 20,000 miles of driving — thankfully, my bosses nixed my plan to live out of a van — I visited 137 cities in 43 states, while my colleagues picked up the rest. I interviewed governors and senators; CEOs and scientists; white hog farmers on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Iranian hookah shop owners in the Ozarks of Arkansas. The goal? To write about the innovative ideas and people emerging in each state while reintroducing people to their neighbors after a bitter and divisive election.
I’ve witnessed how infrastructure — one of Washington’s favorite buzzwords, and a policy area that’s expected to get a major push this Tuesday in President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address — is about so much more than simply roads, highways and airports. It’s about the human desire to build the type of world in which we want to live.
If high-speed broadband internet — of the type being championed in places like Chattanooga, Tennessee — were widely available, one could live in struggling New Mexico while cyber-commuting to a tech firm in San Francisco.
My first state was West Virginia, which can be a lesson in isolation for newcomers. Much of the state is a cell phone dead zone, with static dominating the radio dial. It’s no wonder that West Virginians cling to each other for support, when the nearest ambulance can be 45 minutes away. I remember Morgantown, where new friends that felt like old ones drank $3 trash cans — Red Bull mixed with nine different liquors — and Long Island iced teas, following local tradition in butchering a beautiful song, “Sweet Caroline,” by adding an emphatic “eat shit, Pitt,” a college football rivalry jab, to the chorus.
My experience there reminded me that West Virginia is not just culturally isolated, but also technologically separated from the rest of the country when it comes to internet access, an issue that popped up again and again in the rural portions of my journey. Critics in major cities talk about how rural America needs to “join the 21st century,” but rarely do we give them the tools to access the wider world. Folks in rural areas like these feel like they have to leave their homes to make a living or else remain in poverty. Even if they do choose to leave, they are as likely to be ridiculed as accepted.
Take Katelyn Campbell, a West Virginia native and Truman Scholar, who told a fellow student at Wellesley College — Hillary Clinton’s alma mater — that she had prepared an organic bean dip from her favorite “hippie organic restaurant” in Charleston. The response, Campbell recalls: ”What do you mean ’organic restaurant’? Everybody in West Virginia is white trash; nobody would eat that.”
Much of the infrastructure debate, including Trump’s $1 trillion campaign promise, focuses on the pathways of the past. But if high-speed broadband internet — of the type being championed in places like Chattanooga, Tennessee — were widely available, one could live in struggling New Mexico while cyber-commuting to a tech firm in San Francisco.
Internet can be as much of a bridge as river-spanning steel. So too can bullet trains, which the mayor of Carmel, Indiana, excitedly told me would enable a person to commute from Indianapolis to Chicago in just an hour, opening up a new universe of job opportunities. And if we are truly going to reshape our roadways, we should add sensors to pave the way for self-driving cars, like the ones being tested in remote upstate Wisconsin.
The problems are just as present in the Old South. Walking the cobblestone paths of Charleston, as horse-drawn carriages rolled by, I listened to a South Carolina port official raving to a client: Few people realize, he said, the vast number of exports that wade through these waters — a perfect estuary of new and old wealth.
But the Palmetto State needs Washington to supplement the $300 million in state funds it has ponied up for dredging costs. Neighboring Georgia is sinking $266 million into its port in Savannah, on the promise of more to come from D.C. And to keep Florida’s Everglades thriving, state legislators approved a $1.5 billion reservoir project — some of which will rely on Washington money as well. These states helped elevate Trump to his stunning win … and now they are relying on him to fulfill his infrastructural promises.
Those pledges could lift local economies for all, not just the Trump faithful. Though the funding and details can be contentious, improving America’s infrastructure is an issue that unites liberals and conservatives alike. Let’s begin the hard work of bridging our political divides by first bridging the physical ones.
Explore the world
This year, OZY is going Around the World, bringing you untold stories from every single country on the map, one day at a time, to introduce you to new people, new trends and new places.