Aberdeen in Washington state – where Kurt Cobain was once homeless – is a town full of despair, poverty, opioids and Trump voters, finds Susan Dalgety.
The barefoot boy squinted through his unruly mop of thick blonde hair.
“Frog,” he grinned, poking the tiny brown creature, barely bigger than my thumbnail.
His pet was carefully corralled in a battered, grey plastic tool-box. He had filled it with bed of twigs and leaves to make his new friend feel at home.
“He did have a big frog,” drawled the long-haired man lounging against a beat-up vehicle. “But it got lost in the car, didn’t it?”
The boy nodded enthusiastically. “Frog lost in car,” he giggled, pointing to the dark blue, rusty estate wagon.
This was no ordinary second-hand car, parked in the far corner of a supermarket car park. This was the little boy’s home.
Last night he had slept in it, with the long-haired man, and his mother. Dirty, threadbare blankets and grubby beach towels draped over the roof had kept out the worst of the late August chill.
We had slept in the car park too. Walmart welcomes RVs, and this branch, in Aberdeen on the Pacific coast, does not care if your camper is a comfortable mobile home like ours, or a battered old car.
High Prince – for that was the boy’s name, inspired by a series of fantasy novels as I found out later – said “thank you” shyly when I gave him some sweets.
I wanted to pick him up and run back to the warmth of our van. Instead I gave him a quick hug, and said, rather pointlessly, “take care”.
“Where you off to?” asked the long-haired man, rolling a cigarette.
“Well you watch out there, if you know what I mean. It can be quite rough in Portland. Vancouver across the river is better.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him we were booked into a $50-a-night campsite, with a heated pool, hot showers and free wifi.
In 2014, a major study revealed that two and a half million children experience homelessness every year in the USA.
And last November, the federal government published a study showing that homelessness is on the rise for the first time in a decade.
On any single night, there are over half a million Americans sleeping rough, or like High Prince and his parents, living in a car or other temporary accommodation.
There has been a big surge on the West Coast, particularly in the rich, fashionable cities of Seattle, Portland and San Francisco, where even the most basic housing is increasingly out of reach of people earning the minimum wage.
And for many of those out of work, or struggling with an addiction, a home is an unaffordable luxury.
Aberdeen is neither fashionable nor rich. It is tough little town, a couple of hours drive from Seattle, in Grays Harbour County.
It sits on the mouth of two rivers, just like its Scottish namesake. And like the granite city, its skies are often grey and full of rain.
There used to be plenty of work in logging, but by the 1980s, most of its sawmills had closed, and the port, which has access to the Pacific Ocean, doesn’t provide enough employment to meet the demand for jobs.
But the town’s drug dealers are busy. In 2016, the local health department collected 750,000 used syringes in its needle exchange scheme. The population of Aberdeen, and its wider metro area, is 70,000.
Little wonder Kurt Cobain, the town’s most famous son, sang so poignantly of life-sapping despair. The singer, and his band Nirvana, were at the forefront of America’s indie rock scene in the early 90s.
As a youngster in Aberdeen, he too was homeless, sleeping on friends’ couches for months at a time, but fame did not rescue him from his demons, or save him from heroin addiction.
He was a global superstar living in Seattle, when, at the age of 27, he shot himself in the head.
“I have it good, very good, and I’m grateful,” he wrote in his suicide note, “but since the age of seven, I’ve become hateful towards all humans in general ...”
Today, fans come from across the world to pay homage to their hero. They stand in front of the gaudy mural of Nirvana, stroll through the riverside park named after Cobain, buy a beer or two, then go, safely, home.
Meanwhile, a barefoot boy plays with his frog in a Walmart supermarket.
America’s small towns are in crisis. Communities built by pioneers have lost their purpose. Railway stations closed. Sawmills and mines shut. Factories moved to China. Young people ran away to the city.
The opioid epidemic, which killed nearly 46,000 Americans in 2016, is growing faster in rural areas where local healthcare systems struggle to cope.
Public housing is crumbling. And no-one it seems, not the federal government, nor the state, has the money, or the inclination, to rebuild.
Many small town economies depend, precariously, on tourism and “retirement” for their future.
Sociologists, economists and politicians argue over what can be done to save these heartlands.
“Move,” argue the right-wing pundits. “Rise up,” chant the progressives.
“Vote for me,” said Donald Trump.
The people of Aberdeen and Grays Harbour County did just that. In the 2016 Presidential election, they abandoned the Democrats after 90 years and swung behind the real estate developer from Manhattan.
They put their fate in the small hands of a man with a penchant for gold toilets and junk food.
As did large swathes of small-town America, desperate for someone – anyone – to rescue them from their despair caused, in large part, by the free-market economy admired by most Americans.
Trump won’t fix small-town America. Obama, trapped by a hostile Congress, couldn’t. George W Bush was too busy with the Middle East to bother, and Bill Clinton was distracted by a sex scandal of his own making.
Jimmy Carter still does his humble, practical best. This is the annual Carter Work Project week, when the former President and his wife join forces with housing charity Habitat for Humanity to build much needed affordable homes across America.
But while the 30 houses the Carter team is building in Indiana this year will change a few lives, there are hundreds of thousands of people too poor to pay rent on even the most basic of homes, and millions more on poverty wages, struggling to keep a roof over their head.
Back in Aberdeen, a barefoot boy and his frog woke up in a car this morning. Where will he sleep tonight?