Eighty-six percent of the American people believe the price of gasoline will climb to five bucks a gallon this year, a big shift in public opinion from a year ago when most people felt that oil prices were spiking high and would soon return to normal -- which is 35 cents a gallon, same as a pack of smokes -- and we'd be able to head west in our Winnebagos for a nice summer vacation.
This does not appear to be in the cards and Winnebago stock has fallen about 50 percent in the past year. If you are selling a big box on a truck chassis for as much as a quarter-million dollars when gas is at $4 and rising, you are aiming at a rather select clientele indeed, folks who might rather buy a beach house in Costa Rica than go cruising the Interstate.
Nonetheless it's sad to see the motor home fade into the sunset. I used to despise them when I was a canoeist, of course. You paddle up to a campground at the end of a hard day and see a few R.V.s parked there, the air conditioners rumbling, the flickering blue light of the TVs in the windows, and as you set up your tent as far from them as possible, you feel a moral grandeur purer than you will ever feel again. A holy Christian pilgrim among the piggish heathen.
The fantasy of comfortable vagabondage lies deep within each one of us, though, and once, 30 years ago, driving a GMC motor home around western Minnesota, I fell under the spell. To have the freedom of the road and the comforts of home -- your own books on the shelf, your clothes in a drawer, your brand of beer in the fridge -- is an aristocratic privilege and I was happy to give up moral grandeur for a couple weeks and enjoy it.
Five-dollar gasoline is pushing that fantasy to the wall, and it's also showing most of us that we live in communities whose design is based on the assumption of cheap gasoline -- big lots with backyard privacy make for a long drive to the grocery store. In the big old-fashioned city neighborhood, if you're bored in the evening you just stroll out the door and there, within five or 10 minutes, are a newsstand, a diner, a movie theater, a palm reader, a tavern with a bartender named Joe, whatever you're looking for.
But in the sort of neighborhood most Americans prefer, there are only a lot of houses like yours and residents who give evening pedestrians the hairy eyeball. The mall is a long hike away and it's an amalgam of chain outlets, with a vast parking lot around it. To a person approaching on foot, it feels like an enemy fortress.
So we will need to amuse ourselves in new ways. I predict that banjo sales will pick up. The screened porch will come back in style. And the art of storytelling will burgeon along with it. Stories are common currency in life but only to people on foot. Nobody ever told a story to a clerk at a drive-up window, but you can walk up to the lady at the check-out counter and make small talk and she might tell you, as a woman told me the other day as she rang up my groceries, that she had gotten a puppy that day to replace the old dog who had to be put down a month ago, and right there was a little exchange of humanity. Her willingness to tell me that made her real to me. People who aren't real to each other are dangerous to each other. Stories give us the simple empathy that is the basis of the Golden Rule, which is the basis of civilized society.
So when gas passes $5 and heads for $8 and $10, we will learn to sit in dim light with our loved ones and talk about hunting and fishing adventures, about war and romance and times of consummate foolishness when we threw caution to the wind and flung ourselves over the Cliffs of Desire and did not land on the Sharp Rocks of Regret.
I'll tell you about the motor home trip and how lovely it was, cruising the prairie at night and drinking beer, stopping by a little creek and grilling fish on a Coleman stove, listening to coyotes. The vanishing of the R.V. only makes your story more interesting. One thing lost, something else gained. Life is like that.
(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)
© 2008 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.