The Cavalry isn’t coming. This is the lesson 21st century America is trying to teach us. We are going to have to re-learn how to depend on ourselves and on each other. There is no one else. That’s okay. We don’t need anyone else.
Self-reliance backed up by tight community bonds used to be the norm. You depended on yourself, your family, your community, because who else was there? So far as I can tell from reading history this was most people’s outlook until roughly the middle of the 20th century. That’s when a number of things happened that changed how people saw themselves and their communities.
Around then things began to centralize and as they did the solutions people had always relied on were suddenly found wanting. Self-appointed experts stepped in to tell us how things should be done. How we should eat. How we should live. How we should love. Sometimes the experts had good ideas. But often they did not. And even when their ideas were good, there was an unintended consequence to listening to the experts: communal bonds were weakened, people were deprived of skills, people questioned their instincts. Soon people believed they needed experts for everything.
The world according to experts is a world that depends on those experts, the cavalry. The people we mean when we say “they’ll think of something.”
Except that as we’ve all witnessed in the last twenty years, they won’t think of something. They’re out of ideas. Worse, the old ideas don’t work anymore. The world of the expert is collapsing all around us. The cavalry isn’t coming because the cavalry doesn’t know how to ride anymore.
For four years we’ve been driving around the United States, passing through all its unique regions (except New England and the Pacific Northwest) and I’ve noticed not only the experts are failing us, but that there are some places where that has had little to no effect on life.
It took me a long time to figure this out because this shift, from the local community as the hub of life, to there being no hub, happened long before I was born. That is to say, the disconnected lives we all lead, depending on experts to tell us everything from what to eat to how to fix our cars, was normal to me. It was the water I lived in and I never noticed it. What I did notice pretty early on was that some places were decidedly different. Northern Wisconsin. Okracoke. Parts of the Florida Panhandle.
We were drawn to these places and continue to return to them in part I think because they resisted the shift to expert authority that happened everywhere else. Self-reliance, independent businesses, and close-knit communities still thrive in these places. These places somehow escaped the chain-storification of the world. It was refreshing. It was different. These places felt like what I want the future to be like.
I have read enough books of the American road to know that everywhere used to be like this, but I never gave much thought to how or why that changed. I assumed that chain stores took over. And they did. But I think there’s considerably more underlying that simple observation, and I think understanding how it happened, how we got into this mess, is going to help us get out of it.
I think it happened because not enough people resisted it. We were swept along and did not stand up to it. It’s hard to avoid shopping at Walmart. So we did. And so on, until the old ways were swept aside. We prized newer bigger better because we lost sight of what life is really about.
Singular cause and effect cannot explain how an entire culture shifts, that’s a subtle and multifaceted process, but it begins and ends with the choices of individuals. Millions of individuals, all of whom have different beliefs, different desires, different wills. It’s important to keep this in mind because the kind of thinking that says “here’s the problem, here’s how to fix it” is the kind of thinking that made the problem.
And now here we are, waiting for the other shoe to drop. We’re a bit like Wile E. Coyote when he’s run off the edge of the cliff but doesn’t realize it yet. Ignorance of his true situation keeps him from plunging down right away, but there’s always that moment when it starts to sink in. The cartoonists let his ears droop just before he confronts his situation and falls. That’s about where I see modern America just now. Our ears are drooping and we know what’s coming, but no one knows how high we are or how hard we’ll fall.
That is a pretty dismal place to be. But I believe we can still exercise some control over that descent. We have to fall, but there are branches we can grab onto, things that can slow us down. Not as a culture, but as individuals. We can descent gradually and with some degree of grace perhaps.
Everywhere will be different, and the solutions will be different for everyone. That’s what five years living on the road has taught me. There is no collective anything. There is just you and me and the rain. When I say we have to figure this out without the cavalry, don’t mistake me for some alternate cavalry. I don’t know what you need to do. I know some of what I need to do, but you are different. You have your own path. We need to work together, help each other, but work together and help each other down our own paths. The balance between individualism and community that has been lost, we have to restore it one person at a time. The good news is that I think we still have a chance to land at the bottom of that descent without too much damage. To understand what I mean, let me tell you a little story about an engine.
At the end of 2017, after we’d been traveling in the bus for about nine months we were climbing up Tehachapi Pass to get out of California’s central valley. About halfway up the incline there was a loud bang from the engine and the smell of burning oil. The leaking head gasket we didn’t know about had leaked enough that one piston shattered and we were dead in the water. I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that something was very, very wrong.
I called a tow truck and we were towed over the pass down to Mojave, CA, where we spent three weeks and over $6,000 replacing that piston and head gasket. We had no choice. While I knew how to fix some things, I was a long way from knowing how to take apart an entire engine. But, when I was signing that credit card receipt for six grand, I decided, never again. Whatever happens from here on out, I am going to fix it or we’re going to sell it and find some other way to travel.
The bus has never been to a mechanic since. This is not meant as a slight of those mechanics who have worked on it over the years. Some did good work. Some did not. But none of them love this engine the way I do. Why should they? It’s not their engine. If you love something you learn how to take care of it yourself.
So I set about trying to educate myself on how to repair a Chrysler 318 LA engine. This was not easy. The aspirated 318 with LA heads hasn’t been in a production vehicle since the late 1970s. Even mechanics in their mid 50s might never have actually worked on one. Slowly though I began to stumble across people working on them. The Mopar A-body forums have been helpful, and several YouTube channels have taught me a ton, especially Uncle Tony’s Garage.
But while strangers could provide some framework and theory, which it comes to figuring out what’s wrong I’ve mainly turned to my uncle Ron who has an uncanny knack for being able to diagnose problems over the phone with very little to go on. Without him I would not know half of what I know today (which is still disappointingly little, but enough to get by).
Somewhere along the way I started to wonder what was driving me. It was partly curiosity, partly necessity, but also partly something more. Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft articulates this something more far more eloquently than I’ve been able to. Crawford sees the need to be capable of repair as more than just a desire to fix things. He sees it as a desire to escape the feeling of dependence on stuff. The more I began to work on the bus the more I understood what Crawford meant. There is empowerment in knowing how things work. Your stuff will never again fail you because if it does break, you can repair it. Empowerment in this case means removing the expert between you and your stuff. Your stuff is more yours, you are more in control of your stuff.
Crawford calls the person who wants to fix their own stuff, the Spirited Man. In his book this figure becomes the antidote to passive consumption. Passive consumption displaces agency, argues Crawford. One is no longer master of one’s stuff because one does not truly understand how stuff works. “Spiritedness, then,” writes Crawford, “may be allied with a spirit of inquiry, through a desire to be master of one’s own stuff. It is the prideful basis of self-reliance.”
Crawford writes that the spirited man “hates the feeling of dependence, especially when it is a direct result of his not understanding something. So he goes home and starts taking the valve covers off his engine to investigate for himself. Maybe he has no idea what he is doing, but he trusts that whatever the problem is, he ought to be able to figure it out by his own efforts. Then again, maybe not—he may never get his valve train back together again. But he intends to go down swinging.”
In the time since I read that I have literally done exactly that. I have decided I’d rather go down swinging, taking apart my valve train, rather than seeking the help of a professional. It’s not just me. YouTube and other sharing sites are littered with people teaching each other how to fix stuff. Then there are the thousands people without social media who are quietly working in their yards, in their garages, at the side of the road. Shade tree mechanics. Tinkerers. Spirited men and women who want first and foremost to understand, to expand their understanding of the world around them, to know how to use the tools we toolmakers have created for ourselves.
I think this goes to the heart of our existence… why are we here? Are we here, as the technomedia landscape would have it, to be passively entertained and coddled from birth to death? Or are we here for something more? I don’t know about you, but I don’t think we’re just along for the ride. We’re here to stand at the helm, trim the sails and steer the ship.
I think rejecting the world of passivity, of getting off our butts and taking matters into our own hands, of asking our neighbors and like-minded strangers how to fix things, how to build things, what’s working and what isn’t. All of this is on the path to rebuilding a life of value and meaning.
We eliminate our dependence on the cavalry by becoming the cavalry for ourselves, for our families, and for our neighbors. Être fort pour être utile. Be strong to be useful.
Eliminate the central conceit of modernism — that there is a group of people you need to save you from… the world, yourself, your shortcomings, your neighbors, your neighbors’ shortcomings and on down the line — by taking responsibility for yourself and the expanding that responsibility outward to your family, to your community.
The message of modernism is that you’re helpless and you need saving. If you want to dig deep into the psychology of this I’d say it’s about what you’d expect to get when a culture takes the gods out of its religion and replaces those gods with administrative systems. We’re not the first. The Romans went down this path, so did the Chinese. Read Oswald Spengler or Arthur Toynbee if the history interests you. All you really need to know though is that there’s a long history showing it doesn’t work. Look around you, is stuff working? No, no, it is not.
Everything requires highly specialized skills and knowledge. This is a choice. Things don’t have to be built this way. Culture doesn’t have to be arranged this way. It didn’t use to be this way. Even 100 years ago there were very few “experts” telling you how to live. Now even lightbulbs have to include instructions on how to change them.
Once you needed to be able to do a bit of everything yourself — help your neighbors build their homes, raise and butcher animals, preserve your food, fight fires, fix stuff, pull a tooth, deliver a child. All the things Robert A. Heinlein famously suggested a human being out to be able to do: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
Prior to the coming of the machine age, we were able to do this stuff. It was no factor.
But I know, I know, industrialization relies on specialization. Specialization means highly trained workers. Professionals are better than self-taught amateurs. Their skills can develop everything to increasing levels of complexity. And look, there are aspects of this that are good. It would take me years to learn how to machine a camshaft. I’m happy to let an expert do that because their expertise has allowed them to develop better tools and using those tools requires skills that only those experts have. Not everyone had a mill at their house. Not everyone could forge a great blade. There has always been specialization. It’s the degree of specialization that’s the problem. Our problems are the problems of overspecialization.
The problem with the specialization model isn’t so much the specialization as the exclusion. As Christopher McDougall so eloquently puts it in Natural Born Heros, over time, “a subtle cancer spread: where you have more experts, you create more bystanders. Professionals did all the fighting and fixing we used to handle ourselves; they even took over our fun, playing our sports while we sat back and watched.”
When was the last time you played baseball? When was the last time you watched it? I know I listened to a game last week. The last time I played was in the previous century. That’s sad really. I like playing. Life is playing. Not watching. What are we here for? To play or to watch? I think that will become central question of our age, at least for those that haven’t found their gods.
I believe the disconnection that comes from watching life instead of participating in it is responsible for just about all our problems. Our mental health problems, our physical health problems, our cultural problems. All these things stem from being disconnected from life, from each other, from ourselves.
How did we get here? We got here because we allowed other people to tell us what was good for us. And they were wrong. From diet and health to design and visions of the future, they were wrong.
It’s time we stopped listening to them and went back to fixing stuff ourselves, taking care of each other, taking care of ourselves.
The question becomes, how do we get back to where our grandfathers were?
There isn’t one answer to this. I am not here on high telling you how to find your path because that top-down model is what caused the problem. I’m not even going to tell you what I am doing because even in that I think there’s a tendency to see it as a recipe.
I would suggest that the first and most important thing is the realize that no one else is going to figure it out for you. The top-down, expert provides a solution system is the problem.
I would suggest that reclaiming control of your life, your community, your world is actually easier than you think. You are already more skilled than you think. And you are surrounded by skilled people. Find something that interests you and get better at it. Connect with other people who share your interests.
Early drafts of this had a few suggestions on specific things you could do, but again, I don’t want to give you a recipe. That said, there is one thing that I think isn’t intuitive, but will really open doors for you: stop using money to meet all your needs.
Find one problem, one thing, that you pay for now that you can either make/do yourself, or, even better can be borrowed or done with help from friends and family. The goal is to find something that puts you in a debt of gratitude to someone else. This is the basis of community—gratitude. When you are grateful to the world, you become more helpful to the world. Gratitude is a powerful motivator. It subverts one of the most powerful outside, centralized structures that we’re eventually going to have to do without: currency.
Your great grandparents fixed things for people, made things for people, and were grateful to receive the same from others. This formed much of the basis of community that held life together before the coming of centralization. It isn’t the only thing, but it’s a place to start and that’s what we need to do. Start. Remember, we don’t want to change the world, that’s the top down thinking that got us in the mess. The goal here is to change the only part of the world you can: you.