A Train Trip through Methland


2 February 2011                                                                                                                                               

Nick Reding’s book, Methland, is a fascinating, new study of addiction. It focuses on the town of Olewein, Iowa, which has been stricken by methamphetamine addiction in the past few decades. Methamphetamine is an infamous stimulant drug with many aliases. It is also known as “meth” “crank” “crystal,” and, most ominously, “ice.”

Beyond Olewein, the book tells the story of a huge area of the rural United States, which Reding christens “Methland”. As Nick Reding defines it, “Methland,” is the rural center of the US -- the 28 landlocked American states. Obviously, Methland has more familiar names too, such as “Middle America,” but Reding renames it Methland because at the end of the 20th century it became notorious for its rampant meth use, meth addiction, and amateur meth manufacturing or “cooking”. Reding was determined to figure out why.

Many journalists and some drug experts have thought they could explain the rapid spread of methamphetamine in the late 20th century by asserting simply that the drug is irresistibly pleasurable, neurochemically addictive, and easy to make at home. They claim that meth addiction has spun out of control because some people will always forget to just say no to an easily available drug…and become permanently hooked. Many media experts have taken this simple explanation as a good argument for a new surge in the War on Drugs, this time redirected at methamphetamine.[1]

If the cause of the spread of meth addiction is that simple, my own way of understanding addiction is wrong. My way of understanding addiction is described in my book, The Globalization of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit.[2] I believe that the qualities of a drug, no matter how appealing they may be and no matter what part of the brain they may affect, are never the primary cause of addiction. In my way of thinking, the primary cause always involves the separation of an individual from the sources of meaning and identity that are normally found in human society. I call this separation, "dislocation".

Fortunately, Nick Reding took a detailed look at the causes of methamphetamine addiction in Middle America. Early in the book, he describes the horrors that befall some extreme addicts and innocent bystanders with a journalist’s eye for sensational detail, but ultimately he takes on the difficult question of “why”, with the diligence of a classical scholar, from several complex perspectives.

Reding shows that a major cause of meth addiction was the hollowing out of the rural American society by the rapid expansion of agribusiness.[3] In the last few decades, farms that have run as family operations for generations have been bought up by larger farmers and by agribusiness corporations, which operate them as high tech food factories, rather than family farms. The large farmers sell corn and other crops for less than the cost of production. Their losses are converted to a razor thin profit by government farm subsidies. At the same time, local packing houses, grain elevators, and other agricultural industries have been bought up by the same agribusiness corporations and run in a much more exploitive manner than before, in order to provide food commodities to the global food export market. Although the local packing plant in Olewein had historically required backbreaking labour of its employees, it had nonetheless rewarded them with good wages, medical insurance, workman’s compensation insurance, and a degree of job security through union membership. The new owners, a multination al corporation, lowered the wages from $18 an hour to $6.20 an hour as soon as they took over, and eliminated insurance and the union.[4] Other packing plants have deliberatel y encouraged large-scale illegal immigration from Mexico, and paid even lower wages to undocumented immigrant workers despite public knowledge of their illegal practices and attempted court actions against them.[5]

The onslaught of agribusiness has brought about the destruction of families and rural communities and has degraded once-respected working people in the factories of Middle America. Dislocated from the integrated society in which they grew up, people have turned to methamphetamine addiction, alcoholism, and other addictive habits to fill the voids in their lives. Methamphetamine was standing at the ready to become a major addictive compensation because some people were already using it as a stimulant to help endure long hours of work in a country where hard work is a cardinal virtue, and because it can be cheaply manufactured when it cannot be purchased legally.

Meth “cooking” in kitchens and basements was able to provide a source of income for people who no longer could find a respectable job in the shrinking society of independent farmers or fairly paid industrial labourers, and could no longer find meaning in the law-abiding optimism of their ancestors. At the same time, efforts to reduce the availability of the ingredients used to cook meth illegally by regulating imports of certain precursor chemicals were stymied by the lobbyists of pharmaceutical companies and chain stores that make profits selling the ingredients that are used in the meth labs.[6] The final element in the story is the admission of millions of illegal immigrants to the US to work in the underpaid mid-American agricultural factories. Some of these exploited workers were willing to carry meth and other products from Mexican drug cartels across the border to sell wherever they wound up.[7]

The story of Methland is an extension of the destruction of rural society by agribusiness that began centuries ago in England and has proceeded globally since then, in various forms.[8] The Methland story is also full of irony. The dislocation now being created among the white population of Middle America is hardly different from the dislocation that the ancestors of the current white population created among the native Indians of this region when they took it over and started breaking up the prairie sod, little more than a century earlier. The role of ruthless economic interests, complicit government, and free-market ideology is eerily parallel in the two histories of dislocation. Like the earlier dislocated Indians, many of today’s dislocated whites have turned to addiction as compensation for the full lives that they have lost. For the Indians, “firewater” was the most notorious addiction, for the whites, it is “ice.”

Reding’s book provides a detailed illustration of Dislocation Theory in action in modern times. However, using his book to illustrate Dislocation Theory at first seemed a little too easy. Reding’s conclusions about the role of dislocation in the addiction problem in what he calls Methland are based not only on his extended interviews of people who live there, but also on his personal memories of growing up in the St. Louis area and his sympathies for his own father and mother who were economic migrants from Iowa and Arkansas. He portrays the addicted people of Methland with the sympathy of a neighbour down the road. He sees them mostly as victims of ruthless external forces, particularly agribusiness, pharmaceutical companies, Mexican drug cartels, and a complicit American federal government. He downplays, but does not totally ignore, the more conventional view of them as the foolish prey of an irresistibly pleasurable and physiologically addictive drug,[9] or as simple moral failures.

So I turned to other sources to see if they supported the same conclusions. They do. As well, I undertook a small investigative journalism project of my own. My wife and I go from Vancouver to Boston each year for a pre-Christmas Solstice celebration with our grandchildren and our other eastern American relatives. Normally, we fly from Vancouver over Middle America or the provinces that lie just north of it in Canada, but in the year 2010, we took the Amtrak passenger train instead, crossing the United States from Seattle to Boston. After leaving the state of Washington, our Amtrak trip passed through the northern tier of Methland states, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, before turning out of Methland, through Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts, to Boston.

Amtrak provides a splendid setting for a person who wants to learn something about the American prairies. Nothing is rushed on the scheduled two-day journey from Seattle to Chicago. Unlike super fast trains in Europe and Asia, Amtrak trains cruise at 79 miles an hour, which means that their average speed across the continent, counting many scheduled stops and unscheduled delays, is less than 40 miles an hour. (This information was provided to us by “train buffs,” knowledgeable people who ride the trains out of interest and sometimes carry two-way radios with them so that they can listen in to the chatter of the crew as the train rolls along. Train buffs love to share their railway lore. Talking with a railway buff on a long train ride is, by itself, almost worth the price of a ticket.)

The magnificent scenery of the American prairies is visible out the window as the train dawdles across the continent in December. Very few people are visible between the occasional towns. Just endless stretches of plowed land, covered with snow. Little stands of trees, houses, farm machines, and storage buildings are widely separated. Many times I could not spot a single building or person even by craning my neck to take the most panoramic view that I could manage from the observation car. I overheard another passenger comment that it looked like a snowy desert.

An Amtrak trip provides almost unlimited opportunities for talking. In fact, talking can hardly b e avo id ed. Meals are served in the dining car at tables for four. Since one dining car serves an entire train, space is precious. All four seats must be fil led before the server takes the order. The dining car attendant seats people four to a table, whether they know each other or not, in the order that they arrive at the dining car door. Therefore, at each meal, my wife and I met two randomly selected American train passengers, usually another couple. Since there is no hurry about anything, no place to rush off to, and since the meals tend to be large, it takes a while to get through each meal. Besides, there is little else to do on the train but talk to strangers. And friendly, talkative strangers were boarding and leaving the train all across … Methland.

I enjoyed the spontaneous traveler chat of these relaxed meals, but I also found a time during each one to bring up the topic of Reding’s book, Methland. I wanted to see whether or not people would confirm Reding’s view of the extent of methamphetamine addiction and its causes. Who would know more about Middle America than people who were getting on and off that train as we passed through it? Who would be more candid about it than people talking with a Canadian couple of retirement age who were genuinely interested in learning about the United States?

To my surprise, the outcome of my informal, mealtime interviewing was unanimous in some regards. Everyone agreed that meth was a big problem in Middle America and nobody was offended by my use of Reding’s term “Methland.” Even more surprisingly to me, almost nobody disagreed with Reding’s idea that agribusiness was a major part of the cause once I explained his reasoning, although several people seemed not to have thought about it before. Although one couple from Minot, North Dakota said that they had not seen much buying up of family farms by larger farmers and agribusiness, all the other people who were actually from the area said that they had seen it or heard about it and agreed that it was part or all of the cause of the methamphetamine problem.

The clincher for me was the Baptist minister who ran a small church in Prince Edward Island, Canada. I met him before breakfast in the observation car one morning. I was writing and he was reading his Bible. When he mentioned that he was a minister, I told him that I was reading a book by a liberal theologian, Karen Armstrong. He let me know that he did not really approve of her ideas.  He added, with some serious emphasis, that he believed that the King James English Bible, published in 1611, contained the literal word of God and that God’s words were true, as written. We abandoned our attempt at theological conversation on that note, since it was definitely fated for rough sledding.

Then I told him about Reding’s book. I asked him if he thought agribusiness could be part of the cause of the meth problem in Middle America, and mentioned that the book was primarily about the town of Olewein, Iowa. He didn’t respond directly, but asked for the name of the book, saying that he would be interested in reading it when he got home. I told him that I had the book with me and he would be welcome to take a look at my copy. Over the following 8 hours, he read the entire book! Each time I passed his seat during that day he was frowning at it with visible concentration, while his lovely wife looked out the window or read her own book.

He brought Methland back when he finished reading it. I asked what he thought, anticipating that I was about to hear a more religious interpretation of methamphetamine use. Instead, he told me his personal story. He was originally from a small town in Iowa that was about the same size as Olewein, although it was in a different corner of the state. He had seen the breakdown of community life that was brought about by the rapid expansion of agribusiness, and that he agreed that it was a major contributor to the methamphetamine problem although he was never part of the drug scene himself.

Prior to becoming a minister, he had felt he had to leave Iowa himself in part because of the cultural fragmentation and the lack of economic opportunities. Another reason that he left is that he felt the Iowa churches had been reduced to unimportance. The reason for the collapse of the churches, he said, was that during a time of prosperity the state government had taken over the welfare functions formerly served by the churches, leaving them without a social function. Then, after the churches had lost their social function and their importance, the state lost its prosperity. However, by then, the churches were too far-gone to resume either their historic welfare function or their spiritual roles in the community.

He had settled in Prince Edward Island with his wife, started a new independent Baptist Church and was raising six children. He showed me pictures of his children and introduced me to his wife. He was starting life over and was happy to be far from Iowa, which he felt was a cultural and religious disaster. He had just become a Canadian citizen and was very happy to be a new Canadian. I could understand that.

Nick Reding’s conclusions about meth addiction in Middle America were being confirmed and clarified on this long train ride, as I had hoped they would be. The process continued on the return trip, on which another passenger read the book all the way through. She too said that she agreed with it and that it was important. Other people filled in more details about life in the world outside the train windows as we rolled along.

To my complete surprise, a second story had come to light during this long train trip as well. The second story is about infrastructure. It illustrates Dislocation Theory in a different way than the Methland story.

At the start of the trip, our train, the “Empire Builder”, left Seattle almost 2 hours late. The voice on the train loudspeaker apologized as we rolled out of the station, assuring us that Amtrak wanted us to arrive punctually and that it might be able to make up the lost time. Our sleeping car attendant gave each passenger in our car a personal sized bottle of champagne, which bolstered our little glow of reassurance. We stopped worrying about arriving in time for our connecting train in Chicago, but not for long.

Our first delay en route was that same evening at a very long tunnel. We were informed that the air had to be cleared from a previous freight train before our passenger train could enter the tunnel. Unfortunately, the electric blowers that cleared the tunnel were not working and we would have to wait for an electrician to get them working again. It was two or three hours before we finally entered the tunnel and resumed our journey.

At this point the pattern for the trip was set. There were to be many delays. The crew was unfailingly polite and competent but the infrastructure simply wasn’t in good enough shape to make the long trip without big troubles. By the time we got to Chicago we were 18 hours late and had missed our connecting train from Chicago to Boston. All the other passengers on our train missed their connections too.

On the way to Chicago, our engine had to be stopped for repairs 3 times, the third repair being because we hit a herd of deer in Montana, damaging the already-repaired engine. We lost our engine crew shortly after that, because work rules only allow engineers and conductors to work 8-hour shifts. Most of their shift having been used up waiting for the engine to be repaired, the law required that they leave the train. It took several hours for another crew to arrive by car from North Dakota.

Unlike the engineering crew, the service crew normally stays aboard the train for the whole trip so we were well fed and cared for throughout. We were also kept informed of the basic facts about the various delays, along with profuse apologies, except when the train loudspeaker failed to work for a few hours. When the loudspeaker failed us, the passenger grapevine, aided by the train buffs’ two way radio monitoring, filled the gap quite well. Our final delay was in Minneapolis, where there was a big backup of freight trains because of a local blizzard. We had to work our way through the stalled traffic, at the cost of a few more hours of delay.

I did a lot of writing on the trip, sitting in the observation/lounge car. I noted that I could plug my laptop in at some of the plugs in the observation car, but that others were dead. I wondered what kind of accident had disabled only some of the plugs. When we passed through a cloudburst of frigid rain late in the trip, I saw the most likely answer. Rain poured through the glass observation dome ceiling in many spots, making little puddles on the carpeted floor and filling some of the little wells in the wall of the car (probably built to hold drinks or snacks) that were adjacent to the electric plugs. No plugs visibly shorted out while I was watching, but I suppose that the ones that get wet when it rains have long since been disconnected.

The final night of the trip was not on the Amtrak schedule, since we were supposed to have arrived the previous afternoon. The dining car and café car were pretty much out of food, so the dining car announced that it had found some hamburger and was cooking an improvised stew that would be served to each of the coach passengers without charge. I didn’t have any, but it smelled good and people gobbled it down. I was so impressed by this extra service that I found one of the dining car crew the next morning before we finally arrived in Chicago and congratulated him on getting everybody fed under those conditions. He was pleased at my little gesture of recognition. He took a coffee break with me and told me about some of Amtrak’s problems.

To make a long conversation short, he explained that the government simply does not provide the funds that are necessary to maintain the worn out equipment that Amtrak uses. The crews start every trip knowing that something is likely to go very wrong. Evidently, Amtrak executives who are willing to fight for the appropriations that they need are not likely to keep their jobs. Rumour has it that one of the Amtrak lines was about to be cut out completely to reduce costs, and the crews were all afraid that it could be theirs. He was worried himself.

We arrived in Chicago. The pattern established on the “Empire Builder” from Seattle continued. The Chicago service agents were polite and competent, as was the crew on our connecting train. Amtrak provided us a day’s rest in a comfortable hotel while we awaited our departure, at their expense. But the infrastructure continued to fail. There were significant equipment failures and delays from Chicago to Boston and our second train arrived 6 hours behind schedule.

The most colourful illustration of the decline of the American passenger rail infrastructure on our trip from Chicago to Boston occurred at Elyria, Ohio, at about 6 in the morning. I was asleep, but my wife, a light sleeper, felt the train slow down, saw it pull into a siding, and heard the engine stop. She then heard the engine being re-started. At that point the engine burst into flame and burned brightly for about an hour. Ambulances, police cars, a news helicopter, and a Homeland Security truck all attended the scene. Passengers gaping out the windows were assured that everything was under control and that we should not panic. Three or four fire trucks pumped water on the burning engine. This time, we made the news. You can read all about it if you Google the words “Elyria,” “Amtrak,” and “fire” and “2010”.[10] As of 12 January 2011, you will get 5690 results on your Google search.

Eventually our train was disconnected from the burned out engine, a new engine arrived, and off we went. We arrived a total of 30 hours late in Boston, counting the day we lost on the first train. We missed the opportunity to visit with our grandchildren before the other family guests arrived, but otherwise the family party was wonderful.

The connection between infrastructure problems in the United States and addiction are harder to document than the connection between the collapse of the rural culture and addiction. However, they may be equally important. A couple of our relatives in Boston sincerely apologized when we told them our travel story. I could understand why Amtrak employees felt compelled to apologize so much, but why would our own relatives apologize? Also, why did one of the train buffs anxiously try to convince us that Amtrak was healthy, even as we witnessed it breaking down?

When I thought about it, I realized that in Europe, ultrafast, reliable train service is a matter of some national pride. You get where you are going safely, comfortably, and, quite often, on time to the minute. There are many trains each day even to the small towns. What does it do to the identity of Americans to realize that, although they live in the country that pioneered long-distance rail lines in the 19th century, they cannot maintain a modern, reliable passenger rail service in the 21st century? Americans live in what was, within living memory, the richest and most powerful nation on earth. How could they feel about living in a country where not only passenger trains, but also roads, bridges, dams, and many other essential parts of the infrastructure are on the verge of collapse? Beyond the physical infrastructure, what does it do to their self-esteem to realize that their political system, which once set the standard of democracy for the planet, has caved in to massive financial corruption, militarism, and torture of prisoners?[11] Does this sustained and accelerating loss of national pride increase people’s dislocation in a way that contributes to the spread of addiction? I think it must, although it will require some more evidence to be able to say for sure.

A small piece of evidence of the depth of the disillusionment that Americans are feeling about their country comes from the other pre-planned aspect of my dining car conversations on the train. Along with many other Canadians, I am coming to see the United States as an empire in its final stage of collapse. I mentioned this idea at the table in the dining car, although always in a tentative way, as a curious foreigner. Once or twice I didn’t mention it because I thought it might seem too inappropriate to those particular dinner companions. Perhaps I am cowardly, but I have acquired a vague fantasy about Americans as gun-totin’ nationalists who could open up on me right in the dining car. My wife was also a bit nervous when I told her that I planned to broach the idea of a declining empire along with my questions on the Methland book in these informal, mealtime interviews.

However, none of the Americans to whom I mentioned the idea on the train seemed surprised or vengeful. In fact, most reacted as if they were accustomed to thinking about that possibility. Most surprisingly of all, most of the people seemed to agree, with profound sadness, that the United States was an empire in a state of collapse.[12] My stereotype of everyday Americans as dangerous nationalists was shattered, and I am very grateful for that bit of re-education. How many times must I learn not to believe what I am being taught on the mass media?

My new understanding is that Americans, like the rest of the people of the world, are deeply worried about the loss of their county’s traditional values and political integrity and the damage that might be caused in the process of its collapse. I now think that the defining national emotion of everyday Americans at this moment is not militant patriotism, but a sense of loss. They cannot realistically connect their personal identities with the image of America the Beautiful (or Just, or Equal, or Powerful, or Rich), because it no longer corresponds with reality. A number of our fellow passengers saw a sad irony in travelling across Methland in a deteriorating train called the “Empire Builder”. Whereas Reding’s book describes dislocation in Middle America on a regional level, I believe that I saw it on a national level on the train as well.

If the media are to be believed, Americans continually argue over whether their problems are ultimately the fault of business or of government. At the fringes of rational argument, so-called Conservatives attribute all of the country’s problems to big government and so-called Liberals attribute the country's problems to big business. Most people on the train were far less polarized. They participate in this same argument, but not in such black-and-white terms. But some of them believe, as I do, that the argument is pointless.

As the empire sinks, all its institutions are malfunctioning. The unbridled greed of big business and the complicity of big government, including its unwillingness to fund its essential infrastructure, and the decline of the churches and other institutions, all contribute to the fragmentation of society, to dislocation, and to addiction as well as a host of other terrifying problems. This omnipresent dislocation might well contribute to the fact that the United States appears to lead the world in addiction, despite still having the largest economy, the largest army, and the willingness to keep the largest number of drug users in prison. Here are some comparative figures on problem drug use published by the UK Drug Policy Commission in 2007.

Figure 1. Comparison of problem drug use in various countries.[13]

History suggests that the US has long been afflicted by greater drug addiction problems than other nations. The US was only one of a small number of nations in the world that was driven to enact national alcohol prohibition early in the 20th century in response to the outbreak of alcohol problems and addiction in the 19th century. The US has always been the leader in militant measures against heroin and other illicit drugs, apparently because it had more visible drug problems, including the early spread of heroin addiction in its cities. This past history of extreme drug and addiction problems accords well with Dislocation Theory, because the US has also been the champion of rugged individualism and unregulated capitalism, leading to a greater fragmentation of society and dislocation of people than other countries, even in the best of times.

But now, in the 21st century, American individualism and unregulated capitalism are augmented as a cause of dislocation by the visible disintegration of American institutions and the fragmentation of the American dream itself. What is left? Dislocation is on the march. Addiction follows in its footsteps. The Dislocation Theory of Addiction predicts that addiction to all sorts of habits and pursuits – not just to drugs – will remain highly prevalent and that the flood of addiction will continue to rise unless major social change occurs.

Is major social change on the way? I think so, but, to my enduring sadness, I could not find a single American on my train ride to agree with me.

[1] D.J. Jefferson, “AMERICA’S MOST DANGEROUS DRUG,” Newsweek, 8 August 2005, pp. 40-48; R.R. Weidner “Methamphetamine in three small Midwestern cities: evidence of a moral panic,” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 2009, 41, 227-239.

[2] B. Alexander, The Globalization of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). It is also explained in many new papers on my website, such as B.K. Alexander (2010), “A Change of Venue for Addiction: From Medicine to Social Science” http://www.globalizationofaddiction.ca/articles-speeches/176-change-of-venue.html.

[3] N. Reding, Methland: The death and life of an American small town. (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009.); M. Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Search for a Perfect Meal in a Fast Food World. (London: Bloomsbury, 2006, chap. 2-6)

[4] N. Reding, Methland: The death and life of an American small town. (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009, pp. 50-51, 53, 59, 69).

[5] N. Reding, Methland: The death and life of an American small town. (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009, chap. 9).

[6] N. Reding, Methland: The death and life of an American small town. (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009, pp. 67-69, 107-115)

[7] N. Reding, Methland: The death and life of an American small town. (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009, pp. 158-159), see also K. C. Brouwer, P. Case, R. Ramos, C. Magis-Rodríguez, J. Bucardo, T. L. Patterson, and S.A.Strathdee. (2006). Trends in Production, Trafficking and Consumption of Methamphetamine and Cocaine in Mexico. Substance Use & Misuse, 41, 707-727.

[8] B.K. Alexander, The Globalization of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. chap. 5).

[9] Reding does include some of the standard lore about the irresistible effects of methamphetamine on the brain in his book and unquestioningly repeats the fantasy that methamphetamine is “twenty times better than sex”. However, he also reports that methamphetamine has used for many decades, by millions of people all over the world, as a prescribed drug and an over-the-counter stimulant without more than a small minority of them becoming addicted. (N. Reding, Methland: The death and life of an American small town. New York: Bloomsbury, 2009, chap. 2, see also p. 38). Obviously something other than the neurological effects of the drug are necessary to explain why only these few users become addicted, and he fills in the missing part of the explanation brilliantly.

[10] For example, “Amtrak train catches fire after stopping in Elyria.” The Chronicle-Telegram (Elyria, Loraine Ohio). Retrieved 8 January 2010 from chronicle.northcoastnow.com/2010/12/15/photo-gallery-amtrak-passenger-train-engine-catches-fire-in-elyria/

[11] For extensive references on this point see the last section of my website article A Change of Venue for Addiction: From Medicine to Social Science” http://www.globalizationofaddiction.ca/articles-speeches/176-change-of-venue.html

[12] I later learned that about two-thirds of Americans report see their country “in a state of decline” in public opinion polls. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38996574/ns/politics/

[13] Reuter, P., & Stevens, A. (2007). An analysis of UK drug policy: A monograph prepared for the UK Drug Policy Commission. London, UK: UK Drug Policy Commission.

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