Everything is Amazing

A journey to discover what Made in U.S.A. really means.

Written by
Isaac & Anthony

The Hidden Giants of Silicon Valley

The software and Internet companies of Silicon Valley have become symbols of American prowess in the 21st Century, just as the factories of Detroit, Pittsburgh and other industrial cities once demonstrated the nation’s manufacturing dominance in the post-WWII era of the last century. As the world watches with anticipation — and with hard-earned money to spend — Google, Facebook and Apple have unveiled a parade of the most prolific products ever to be “Made in the U.S.A.”

They build with bits and bytes rather than nuts and bolts, but America’s tech companies are indeed making things right here in California and other parts of the country. Brands that are recognized and embraced in every corner of the world — from iTunes to Instagram — are developed by small armies of programmers and designers, collectively making these relatively young companies some of the largest employers of skilled labor in America.

And how their modern marvels are made, well that’s the stuff of legend as well. Stories of life on sprawling campuses abound, with tales of employees who practically live at work in their sneakers and skinny jeans. Company retreats, long breaks for fun and games and, of course, some of the toughest interview processes in the world all add to the mystery. Companies everywhere have gawked at this behavior in hopes of unveiling secrets that will unlock similar success in their own industries.

As much as we admire our tech giants, Americans tend to approach them with a bit of skepticism as well. Our hesitation goes beyond doubts that recent grads in casual clothes can produce reliable products. Simply put, we don’t trust them.

This distrust has shown itself in many forms. Concerns about the personal information collected from us fill the news, as do frantic stories about the potential harm of the “always on” world our apps and devices make possible. It feels like these things have happened to us, rather than with us. They are changes made by very smart people behind very closed doors. As a result, we simultaneously celebrate and loathe these companies in a love-hate relationship as complicated as the software and devices they make.

There is something about a factory tour that helps clear the air between a manufacturer and its customers. Seeing a product being made by real people, and the connection between a community and the facility, usually reveals the humanity of a brand as few things can. There is a certain vulnerability in opening your doors to the public. Putting everything on display in front of a crowd, especially one equipped with recording devices, is like admitting that a great company truly belongs to the people who support it.

We have encountered many companies that have handled this openness with grace and even style. Boeing opens its doors to the public, allowing the new 787 Dreamliner to be viewed in production despite recent PR disasters over performance issues. Ford, Toyota, Hyundai and other automakers display their latest, robotic assembly lines, while Winnebago reveals itself as a manufacturer from days gone by, with dated equipment and lifelong workers that makes one dream of cruising in one of their motorhomes.

Surprisingly, visitors to Silicon Valley will not find any such fanfare for Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter or any of the household names that reside here. Anyone hoping to witness the faces and places behind their favorite products will find those hopes dashed as they poke their way around, as we did, in the winding streets of the San Jose area.

The sights are the same at each campus — guard booths, security trucks and gates preventing access to endless office buildings that could as easily sell life insurance policies as make social networking apps. There are no tours here, and anyone without proper credentials will be stopped and questioned very quickly. At Apple, there is a rare opportunity to buy company-branded clothing, but nowhere to see Apple geniuses at work. At Google, the outsider would struggle to find anything that looked like the search giant lived inside the big boxes at the Mountain View site.

It is difficult to celebrate something you can’t see, and even harder to support something from which one feels distanced. Sadly, this was the case for Silicon Valley. Perhaps it is the young age of these companies, or the fierce competition in which they find themselves, but it is our hope that one day the greatest companies in modern America will present themselves to the people who made them as our legacy manufacturers still do — with pride and open arms.

For an example, they need only look a few miles north to Redmond, Washington. Microsoft has always been the awkward geek of the tech world. They make the software we have to use at work, and rarely the products we want to use at home. For all its garish design and unsexy products, Microsoft is not shy. The Microsoft Visitor Center displays the company’s many accomplishments, as well as its latest work to be experienced first hand. On the day of our visit, groups of children roamed the center with their parents. It was “Bring your child to work day” for Microsoft employees. No one seemed to mind our intrusion as we tagged along.

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In Defense of Walmart

Have you noticed how good Walmart is getting? Since 2008, the company has been rebranding and remodeling its stores — a total of 8,500 in 15 countries — while we have hardly realized it.

You may have caught the quiet disappearance of the “squiggly” between the two syllables in the company’s name — although any Walmart associate can tell you the squiggly is still the centerpiece of the famous company cheer. Gone is the price-cutting smiley face, replaced with a new logo for a new era.

These surface changes, however, have not been the most significant changes at Walmart in recent years. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that the company has been making excellent progress toward the same goal since its founding in the 1960s. As Sam Walton himself put it, the mission of Walmart is to help people save so they can live better.

For all the controversy and criticism surrounding Walmart, it is hard to dispute the company’s success in doing just that. We first got to know the chain as an evolution of the original Walton “five and dime” store, which still exists as an attraction in Bentonville, Arkansas. As the retailer began expanding its reach nationwide, a growing number of Americans came to rely on Walmart for everyday essentials at the lowest possible prices. 

Bargain shopping is always popular, but Walmart’s luster wore off a bit as popular opinion of the company shifted in many communities. As times changed, and with it our economy, it became common to hear that “Walmart kills small businesses”, or that “they sell cheap Chinese products to keep prices down.” You might have even heard someone say, “I can’t shop at Walmart because I don’t like the people who go there.”

In reality, these things have little to do with Walmart itself and more to do with much larger shifts in the global economy, U.S. economic policies and our own priorities as a nation of consumers. The growth of Chinese manufacturing and the steady march of factory offshoring brought inexpensive products to every store in America, but it was our own preferences and shopping behaviors that brought us to Walmart’s door and closed the doors at “mom and pop’s” store.

Such concerns have hardly kept us from the local Walmart Supercenter. Our patronage has made the company the nation’s most profitable retailer and grocery store. Our purchases, under protest or not, fueled Walmart’s growth into the world’s largest employer with more than two million associates.

Walmart’s success seems odd considering the moral objection to its stores expressed by just about everyone you know. In truth, there is a lot to comment on about Walmart, but the most common criticisms are really much less about the company’s products, or even its policies, and more to do with our own national discomfort with the fact that the “people of Walmart" are us. What’s worse is that we very much want — even need — what Walmart provides, and we know they do a pretty good job of it.

Take a look at your local Walmart. Really look at it. Has it been remodeled recently? Does it include a grocery store and fresh produce section? How about a hair salon or nail salon? What about a wireless phone store? Is there an automotive department and a garden center? Can you pick up your prescription at the pharmacy and cash your paycheck at the in-store bank? Did you need insurance or a new pair of glasses? They sell those things, too.

Never before in the history of human civilization has a store like Walmart existed, and we have one in every corner of America. These monstrous marketplaces are mirrors for the American people. They are our one-stop-shop, our way to stretch a dollar, and even a safe place to spend the night in your motorhome — as we have done at several Walmart stores from Ohio to their native Arkansas.

Walmart may not be perfect, but every one of its stores represents a significant achievement that deserves honest consideration. Walmart itself, and the story of Sam Walton, are unmistakable examples of the American dream at work. As it evolves, the company continues to focus on its role in preserving that dream for the rest of us by lowering the cost of living. That’s how they see it, anyway.

What Walmart also sees, which we may not, is the larger picture of its efforts in recent years. Making commitments to things like fresh, local produce, Walmart has extended the reach of American farms. By pursuing organic foods and renewable energy, the company has lowered the price and access to these things for every American.

All this may not be enough to make us feel better about the state of American-made products, or even what it takes to make ends meet in today’s economy, but none of these things are the fault of Walmart directly. Walmart has achieved the kind of success that is only possible here, and it deserves a place among the American companies we support and celebrate. Like Ford, Apple, Boeing and GE, Walmart has its good and bad parts — but it is undeniably American.

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Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona 

Las Vegas, Nevada 

Cactus Country, Arizona

Death Valley National Park

Broke Down Bago

Legend has it that Death Valley is cursed. This may be true but, cursed or not, it is a lonely drive through this otherworldly terrain that is ominously still and brutally hot. It is hard to believe this is America, and harder still to imagine anything surviving here.

How must the pioneers have felt upon reaching this expanse. More than a century later, there are few signs of modern development. The one lonely road winds past cacti and tumbleweed, with no water in sight and and no sign of life stirring in the desert. This is a place that, even in our 20th-century covered wagon, makes you want to move along to more inviting places. 

We decided to spend the night in Death Valley, confident that we had found a small patch of survival at one of the only camping areas offering an electrical hookup for our Winnebago. After finding the camp site, which has no physical address, we couldn’t help feeling like accomplished explorers. However, our newfound sense of rugged independence was put to the test as suddenly the breaks on the Bago gave out just a few hundred feet from our eerie home for the night.

The curse of Death Valley seemed quite real in the silent darkness that night.

Although comfortably air conditioned in our electrified Bago, we found ourselves in the shoes of those tougher Americans who braved this land before us on their way out west. We were alone to fend for ourselves — no cellular signal for 60 miles, no land line telephones, no lights and not a soul to ask for help.

Near the campsite, hidden in the darkness, sat a gas station apparently catering to desperate travelers willing to pay an incredible $5.98/gal to fill up. Inside was the one telephone available in the area, a satellite phone that was out of order.

Defeated, but not uninspired, we spent a sleepless night working until the early sunrise began shining over the mountains on the horizon. In the light of the new day, we set out to rescue ourselves however we could. After some investigation, we discovered that while the satellite phone was down, there was a faint wifi signal — also from a satellite connection — which would be detected from a few spots near the station.

Our iPhones protested the nearly crippled connection, with each app and email gasping for the limited bits and bytes needed to make contact with the outside world. Finally, and a bit ironically if you’re an Apple user, iMessage began to work. A message to family back in Central NY slipped through with enough information on our whereabouts to alert AAA.

As it turns out, tow trucks are reluctant to respond to calls from Death Valley. The day passed as we waited, confined to our motorhome as the temperature outside reached nearly 130° F. Our rescue finally arrived in the form of a big rig equipped to tow the Bago to safety. The driver then dropped the good news and some bad news.

The good news: We were getting out of Death Valley. The bad news: We were about the spend the next four hours slowly climbing and descending the mountains of Nevada in the cab of his truck, sans air conditioning most of the way.

Pahrump, Nevada was most likely named for the sound its first settlers made when they crawled out of Death Valley. Since then, they have built a a Walmart, a  few stores and, of course, casinos. We stayed in one of those casinos as the Bago was placed in the care of an RV repair shop located nearby.

Pilgrims and pioneers still come to America. Today they arrive at our border, rather than our shores, looking for the same promise that has always attracted weary travelers here — the chance for a better life. the family that owns Martin’s embodies this common characteristic of all American immigrants.

Among them, they speak very little English, employing the services of one sister to speak with customers and translate into spanish for the mechanic. Cars in various states of repair lined the yard, and children ran about playing among them as we once did in our neighborhoods and backyards back home.

It would be a lie to say that all of the worst stereotypes perpetuated by the media and our politicians didn’t enter our minds when we arrived. Were these people honest workers? Would they steal belongings from the vehicle? Were they in the country illegally? These same biases were once applied to our own immigrant ancestors, and just as unfairly.

As the family went to work on our busted Bago, ordering parts overnight from Las Vegas to complete the work as quickly as possible, we were reminded that hard work was not the exclusive domain of the Americans who came here before us. In two days, a significant amount of work was completed and we would soon be on our way once again.

Unable to process a credit card payment due to a malfunctioning system, we struggled to obtain enough available cash to pay for the work (a future post on the state of banking in America is likely to follow this experience). Seeing the difficulty faced by this family of entrepreneurs, we wanted to help if we could. Realizing they had a smart phone handy, Isaac began to explain Square — the mobile payment app that lets anyone accept credit card payments. Realizing how the service could help the family’s business, Isaac offered his own Square card reader as a gift with hope they will find the freedom from credit card companies as rewarding as we have.

Admittedly, we were much happier to leave Pahrump than we were to arrive, but very grateful to have found the kind family who did such a great job returning us to roadworthy condition. Anyone who finds himself questioning the persistence of the American Dream need only break down here, in the most unforgiving of places, to witness it alive and well.

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Hoover Dam - Opened in 1936 in Clark County, Nevada & Mohave County, Arizona

Avenue of Giants - Redwood Forrest, California

Drive-through Redwood