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Updated: 02/19/2014 @ 4:42pm

It was 6:32 a.m. and -11 degrees.  I was heading south on Hwy 75, between Clinton and Ortonville in western Minnesota.  As I came over a rise I saw a string of seven sets of evenly spaced red taillights ahead of me, fiery beads on an intercontinental necklace.

There’s a lot of talk about the economy and taxes and whether our country is headed up or down, but I think what’s sometimes lost is the acknowledgement of how hard many people are working.  

Most mornings I’m out the door early and I regularly see people on the road at 5:00 a.m., headed to jobs 30 or 40 miles away where the shifts change at 6:00 a.m.  Huge trucks lumber through the night, delivering distant needs. A young woman comes into my café at 6:00, hangs up her coat, puts on an apron, and most mornings, smiles as she does it. With our shrinking population, schools are more widely spaced, making bus routes longer, so all over our area children stumble out of bed at 5:45 in order to make it to the bus on time, and their parents are often up earlier, stuffing backpacks and checking for lost homework.

Of course, this time of year the roads need to be cleared if the bus is going to get to the scheduled stops on time, and after a snow, all sorts of folks are up at 4:00 to make sure that happens.

There’s so much work involved in just keeping the wheels of civilization turning, most of which goes unnoticed except when the roads aren’t cleared or the bus is late. In the past 10 years, I’ve filed stories from six continents, and in too many countries, countries with potholed roads and crumbling schools, I’ve witnessed idle people sitting in the shade, watching their lives go by as they kill time in aimless endeavors. Yes, I know the U.S. has its own aimless loungers, but not so many where I live. What we do have are far more people working a little too hard for not quite enough money, and no one seems to notice.

I don’t pay a lot of attention to the stock market, although I know I probably should. Some day when retirement looms, I’ll no doubt wish I’d paid more attention to it. I do know that the past few years it’s been going up, recapturing all the losses from the Great Recession, and I’m sure that’s good.

I pay more attention to how regular folks are doing - the peasants, the hands that do the work of this world. I know people who haven’t gotten a raise in a decade, who haven’t been to a dentist in almost that long, who worry about whether their bodies will hold up long enough to slide past the finish line at 65.

There’s a lot I don’t know - anyone who knows me will have no problem agreeing with that statement. But of all the places I’ve been, the common thread that separates the places I’d like to live from the places I wouldn’t is how regular folks are doing. If you can earn a decent living and a decent life working at skilled labor, almost everything else falls into place.

Just a thought at 6:32 on a cold Tuesday morning, on the road headed south out of Clinton.

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