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January 11, 2007

Retired prof “on the road again”

Plenty of people dream of traveling when they retire. Pitt-Johnstown economics professor emeritus Michael Yates has taken that dream to the extreme, disposing of most of his possessions and taking to the road after 32 years of teaching at Pitt-Johnstown. Yates has been wandering around the United States since his retirement in 2001.

“My mother thinks I’m out of my mind,” he admits. “I don’t own a TV, I don’t own furniture. We have a car and a couple of laptops.”

Yates, already the author of several books on labor and economic issues, has written a book about his experiences. “Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate,” due to be released later this month by Monthly Review Press, is the story of Yates’s continuing journey and may well be the first travelogue written by an economist.

Interspersed with anecdotes from the road are observations on larger issues Yates has drawn as he and his wife, Karen Korenoski, have logged some 80,000 miles crisscrossing the nation in their Dodge van.

“Economists don’t really go out into the world,” said Yates. “They feel they don’t need to get their hands dirty in the real world because they have their neat little models. That always rubbed me the wrong way.”

Yates isn’t content to pontificate from a distance, preferring to see for himself.

His retirement travels began with a summer in Yellowstone National Park in 2001, followed by a year in New York City, a short stop in Miami Beach, then 14 months in Portland, Ore. From Portland, the couple took an extended road trip through the west and Pacific Northwest before spending seven months in Miami Beach, then departing again in May 2005 for more wandering across the Gulf Coast, Texas and the west.

Yates wrote the book last year during an extended stay in Estes Park, Colo.

While his many miles on the road have taken Yates to some of the nation’s most beautiful places, the travel also has given him a close-up look at the growing gap between rich and poor, inequalities in housing and work as well as urban sprawl and the destruction of nature.

“Growing inequality, trivial and alienating labor, and environmental despoliation — these are the things we witnessed. We saw many beautiful, exhilarating and wondrous places, but the excitement we felt was always somehow cheapened by our growing understanding that they cannot be enjoyed by all. And none of them are so safe that future generations can be certain of their continued existence, much less their capacity to give pleasure,” Yates writes.

And while he wears no rose-colored glasses, admitting to having “liberal, radical ideas to begin with,” Yates said he became convinced his observations weren’t mere fabrications when an Indian hotel owner in Flagstaff, Ariz. learned he was an economist and started talking shop. He advised Yates to move to Canada. “That made me think that I’m noticing something that’s true, I’m not just making this up,” Yates said.

“There really are gated communities, sprawl and environmental disasters amidst the beauty,” he said. To those who think all’s well with the economy because stocks are booming, he says, “You haven’t been out in the world, town to town. If you want to know about something, you’ve got to go see it.”

While he’s seen the uniquely vibrant color of sky he calls “Utah blue,” hiked along isolated sand dunes in the Pacific Northwest and explored the wonders of Yellowstone, he’s seen some sobering realities as well.

Yates said he “wasn’t too surprised about the work people do. But I didn’t know a lot of people lived in motels,” he said, adding, In areas where affordable housing is sparse, entire families may live in motel rooms. Hotel housekeepers, lacking childcare, often bring their small children to work with them.

The professor, accustomed to the respect and freedom of his academic position, became a desk clerk at Yellowstone where he had to punch a time clock. A kidney stone attack there gave him painful first-hand insight into the plight of low-wage earners and health conditions in rural areas. The local clinic accepted only cash, and while Yates had health insurance and was able to get care at a larger hospital, many others have no such option.

He saw tourists interested more in their cell phones or in the lack of in-room televisions than in actually getting out of their cars to explore the nation’s natural wonders. “People would come just to say they’d been there and take a few pictures,” he said. “Most people don’t see anything.”

And he witnessed the economic changes in popular recreation areas such as Jackson, Wyo. “where the billionaires are driving out the millionaires,” he said. The booming tourist trade creates a need for service workers, and at the same time causes land prices to rise so high that the workers can’t afford decent housing. While multi-million dollar vacation homes sit empty much of the year, workers find themselves living in trailers, or, as Yates said he witnessed in Colorado, encouraged by their employers simply to set up housekeeping in the woods.

Despite the disturbing realities, not all is negative, he maintains. “It’s a beautiful country. But you have to get out and walk, hike, move around, not stay in the car or fly from place to place.”


The seeds for his odyssey were planted long before Yates actually took to the road.

A PhD student at Pitt in 1969, Yates got a teaching job at UPJ and moved to Johnstown. In 1988, he moved to Pittsburgh and commuted to UPJ. He also began to calculate when his pension income would equal his pay. The stock market boom of the 1990s nearly doubled his retirement funds so in 2001 at age 55 he made the leap. After 32 years at UPJ, the time had come. “I was tired of full-time teaching,” he said. “I thought, if I want to see things, I need to do it now before I’m too old.”

His initial retirement plan was to move to New York City, but the plans got derailed so he and his wife ended up spending the summer working in Yellowstone instead. It was there they developed an appreciation for hiking — they now hike 40-50 miles each week. Sharing a 10-by-10-foot room in which Yates said he could brush his teeth while sitting on his bed prepared them for a future of traveling light and living in close quarters.

“Working at the national park was really the catalyst for just moving around,” he recalls, but the underlying decision to wander apparently already had been made. “I guess we’d planned to do something like this because we gave away all our things,” he said.

But it took several more stops before Yates hit full nomadic stride. In November 2001 he and his wife made their way to Manhattan, where they stayed for a year while Yates worked at Monthly Review magazine and taught at Cornell University’s Manhattan campus.

The change gave them confidence: “If you could live in Yellowstone or New York, where couldn’t you live?” Yates said.

Yates continues his work with Monthly Review from the road and, thanks to wireless Internet connections — increasingly available even at cheap motels — he’s able to teach classes online for a graduate program at the University of Massachusetts and for undergraduates at Cornell and Indiana universities.

“I can do those from anywhere,” he said.

Yates continues to alternate between extended road trips and longer pauses to settle and plan future travels. He stopped in Pittsburgh over the holidays to visit a son in town, en route to a brief stop in Massachusetts for two weeks of intensive teaching before meandering to Tucson, then “maybe Portland,” he said. “We need to settle down to plot out the next move,” he said.

Planning is important in living on the road, Yates noted. “It takes a lot of planning and preparation,” he said. “You can’t just do it.”

He keeps a post office box in his hometown of Ford City where his sister checks the mail. “I do as much as possible online,” including paying bills, he said.

Life on the road continues to get easier as he gains experience, Yates said. “It takes practice to do it right. You have to learn how to hit a town and really quickly get the lay of the land,” he said, adding he’s learned to size up a small town in a matter of hours, bigger ones in a day or two. Learning where stores and motels are, what to do and how to get around are key.

He picks up discount books in roadside visitor centers for coupons to cut lodging costs and his wife has amassed a collection of several dozen grocery chains’ discount cards. “Any store that has a card, we apply for one,” he said. “I know every grocery chain in the nation.”

Yates contends his cost of living on the road is as cheap or cheaper than living in a city. He estimates he pays an average of $40 per night in hotels, or about $1,200 a month plus a few hundred dollars for gasoline and food.

And, yes, they really do cook most of their meals on a hot plate. “We almost never eat out,” he said, noting that he and his wife have adopted a healthier diet over time by eliminating corn sweeteners, trans fats and beef. They’ve begun embracing organic foods and seek out farmers markets wherever they go. Yates said he’s dropped 40 pounds since he took to the road and, aside from the kidney stone incident, hasn’t been sick in more than five years.

Keeping lodging costs down is a combination of using coupons or online services such as and negotiation.

He’s also learned that checking out a room in advance is imperative and said he demands a change if a room turns out to be unsuitable. In addition to making sure the room is large enough, safe and decent, he checks out the thickness of towels and facial tissue — details he’s found through experience to be a good indicator of the overall quality of a place.

Yates said he’s succeeded in staying organized by arranging a system of laundry baskets and Ikea shopping totes in the van to hold possessions.

Living in the small spaces of a motel room isn’t much different from the room he and his wife shared in Yellowstone, he said.

It helps that they share common interests, but “It’s not like we don’t have arguments,” he admitted.

In addition to being his travel companion, his wife was the main editor of the book, making more than 1,000 changes in 120 hours of work over 10 days, a together time he labeled “challenging.” His solution to living and working together in close quarters is never to hold grudges, he said.

Life on the road isn’t hard, Yates said. There are hassles — getting a balky laptop returned to the retailer for warranty repairs long distance is one example — but there are hassles in any lifestyle.

“It’s worked out pretty well,” he’s concluded.

His first-hand knowledge of the country has proved helpful when meeting new people. No matter where someone is from, “We’ve either been there, or know where it is and know someone there,” he said.

And while Yates said his vote for the most beautiful spots in the country are in Utah, he said if he had to choose a place to live it would be either San Francisco or New York, both “big, interesting cities.” But, “saying it and being able to do it are two different things,” he said with a laugh.

While there’s no end in sight for his travels, Yates said his next big adventure down the road might be to live in another country for a while. New Zealand is a possibility, he said.

To keep tabs on Yates, a web site ( that will go live with the release of the book will include a blog and regular updates on his continuing travels.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 39 Issue 9

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