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Across The Great Divide: A Reporter, A Bicycle & 900 Miles Listening To Small Town America

2020-08-29 09:07:20

Nate Hegyi, rural reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, is embarking on a 900-mile cycling trip crisscrossing the continental divide in August and September, interviewing and listening to Individuals forward of the 2020 election. You possibly can observe Nate in his updates beneath, or on social media, an online blog and this “Where Is He Now?” map. 

August 27: Missoula to Hamilton, 50 miles

An necessary notice right here: These are my first look takeaways. Consider this as a reporter’s pocket book. A mosaic of voices over the subsequent few weeks, biking 900 miles throughout 4 states and dozens of small cities.

The very first thing I discover starting my 900-mile biking journey from Missoula, Montana to Greeley, Colorado is the odor: yellow grass drying within the late summer time warmth blended with wildfire smoke from California and Idaho. Anybody from the West acknowledges it. They’ll additionally acknowledge the odor of burning oil and diesel from pickup vans roaring down Freeway 93, the primary hall splitting Montana’s Bitterroot Valley in two.

I’m about 15 miles from my house in Missoula, the state’s second-largest metropolis and a progressive faculty city. The Bitterroot is its extra conservative, rural cousin. The valley is shaded by craggily mountains to the west and sagebrush-dotted foothills to the east, house to small pastime ranches, a handful of natural farms and an odd sort of sprawl that I’ve seen in my travels via some Latin American international locations and valleys throughout the West. It stems from a relative lack of zoning. Gravel pits sit subsequent to log house producers, side-by-side with ranch-style properties full with hen coops and goats. It’s freedom. However that additionally attracts some fringe beliefs.

One expansive piece of property alongside the freeway has rusted automobiles, bulldozers and an previous bus surrounded by eight far-right, patriotic flags. There’s an eagle screeching down upon the phrase “America” and one other flag greatest described as a hybrid between the Stars and Stripes and a accomplice emblem. I journey up the gravel highway in direction of the property and see a person engaged on an previous, crimson compact sports activities utility automobile within the distance. I cease on the property line however then second-guess my strategy.

I think about a bullet whizzing over my head as quickly as I cross into the driveway. Okay, I do know I’m catastrophizing right here however I hesitate and again away anyway. America in 2020 is a boiling pot and I’m not about to take the lid off. Moreover, I seem like a little bit of a granola-type: carrying spandex bike pants and dragging a yellow trailer. Earlier within the journey, a pickup truck “rolled coal” because it handed me, blowing black smoke in my face because it groaned previous. My editor is nagging at me to purchase an American flag and put it on the again of the bike.

So I tuck tail, flip round and journey again to the freeway, feeling a bit of like a coward. Is that this experiment in sluggish journalism, using a bicycle via the “crimson wild yonder,” as a pal from Arkansas just lately put it, a really dangerous concept?

These worries vanish, nevertheless, as I pull into the city of Victor. It seems transplanted from the set of an previous Hollywood western. Empty road, boxy buildings and a saddle store the place I meet Wealthy, who owns the shop. He agrees to an interview as long as I don’t use his final title.

Wealthy seems like a cowboy who has really labored as a cowboy – 70 years previous with a big, grey mustache and a large brimmed white hat. We sit down at a bench exterior his store and he tells me he’s a second-generation saddle store proprietor. His dad labored in the identical occupation in Bakersfield, California.

“It will get in your blood and it’s laborious to get out,” he says.

Wealthy says he moved to the Bitterroot after a stint ranching cattle in jap Oregon. He loves the West however says it’s modified loads since he was younger.

“Each time I used to be younger we slept out within the entrance yard and by no means locked our doorways. Everybody appeared like your neighbor. There have been no enemies and all the things was secure,” he says.

However these days, he sees quite a lot of enemies – particularly in 2020.

“I worry for my youngsters and grandkids. And other people your age,” he says, nodding at me. “You’re going to see quite a lot of dangerous stuff sooner or later.”

He believes the Democrats and younger liberals are attempting to popularize socialism in the US. He shakes his head at “cancel tradition” and believes it’s an infringement on first modification rights to free speech. He sees a slippery slope to the elimination of Individuals’ second modification proper to bear arms. If that occurs, he says, “we’re screwed.”

Wealthy embodies the sort of politics I’ve seen loads this yr in my reporting of rural communities throughout the area. It’s much less targeted on native points and extra targeted on the nationwide stage. Wealthy will get his info from Fox Information and believes that the nation is extraordinarily politically divided – particularly between rural and concrete dwellers.

He gestures on the empty streets of Victor.

“We’re tight knit. You possibly can see there’s not a complete lot of individuals right here. We sort of care for each other. The large cities, I consider, are canine eat canine. They’re working amok, you already know?”

It jogs my memory of a quote I heard whereas reporting in jap Montana a yr in the past. After I advised a rancher I used to be dwelling in Salt Lake Metropolis, he warned that I wanted to go away earlier than it will get “cannibalistic.”

This elevated polarization is my first rapid takeaway from at this time’s journey – however I don’t assume it’s confined to an city vs. rural argument. It’s taking part in out inside the Bitterroot as nicely. Like many locations throughout the West, it’s seen an inflow of recent residents from elsewhere within the nation and from close by Missoula. Virtually in defiance of the valley’s conventional conservatism, for instance, medical marijuana dispensaries now dot the freeway main into the realm’s largest city, Hamilton. An indication exterior one says “Heirloom Treatments. Veteran Owned.” Inside I meet Tayln Lang, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps who opened his store just a few years in the past. It has an Outdated West, apothecary vibe. It’s by design.

“Ravalli County is a really, very conservative place,” says Lange. “So I needed the aesthetic of [my shop] to indicate to those folks that marijuana will not be one thing that’s scary. It’s not one thing that’s going to ask crime. It is a medical hashish retailer and we offer it to sick folks. I needed your very conservative grandmother to stroll into this retailer and really feel comfy.”

Lang was raised in Hollywood however has lived in Montana for practically the previous 20 years. He speaks lovingly of the Bitterroot’s ample mountain climbing trails and exquisite mountains, however struggles with the valley’s conservative streak. He’s tried to normalize his dispensary by sitting on the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce and donating to charities, however he believes many of us listed here are basically brainwashed by conservative information media. He additionally worries that the anti-government streak rising throughout America, as evidenced by anti-lockdown protests, might result in civil unrest.

“All these folks on the Proper say they want their weapons to combat the federal government. However they don’t notice that the moment they take up arms towards my authorities they turn into insurgents. They turn into the enemy of the nation that I really like – that I devoted 4 years of my life within the Marine Corps to,” he says. “And I consider that they assume they’re on the aspect of what’s proper and that they’re the heroes on this story. They usually’re not.”

He thinks they consider that each one veterans really feel the identical approach, however he warns that “I’ll be one on the opposite aspect. However I don’t wish to have to begin capturing at my neighbors,” he says with fun.

Downstairs, Megan Henderson is tending the register. She’s 24, carrying a masks, and was born and raised within the Bitterroot. She additionally agrees that the temperature has risen right here over the previous yr. The pandemic doesn’t assist.

“There’s fights within the bars, like if any person’s carrying a masks, which is suitable in these occasions, it’s an enormous deal” she says. She says there’s quite a lot of title calling. “For instance, my boss DJ’s typically at one of many bars and just like the folks on the bar would go as much as the bartender and be like, ‘why is he right here? You recognize he’s a liberal, proper?’”

For her, COVID-19 has introduced huge modifications to her life – she just lately misplaced her second job as a waitress after the restaurant she works at shut down over pandemic considerations. However she takes the virus critically and says she needs different, extra conservative Bitterrooters would as nicely.

Henderson grew up Republican however says she’ll vote for Biden this November.

As I journey away, I’m wondering how all of the conversations I had at this time ended up on the identical place — political polarization and the cultural divide going through America in 2020, some of the tumultuous years in latest reminiscence.

Tonight, I’m tenting within the Ravalli County fairgrounds, beneath a transparent sky and a half-moon, getting ready for a pair days with out service as I huff and puff up Chief Joseph Go in direction of Idaho.

I’ll be out of service for a few days now. I’ll have an replace after I’m again on the grid.


More on this project:

Do you might have a narrative to inform Nate or wish to observe his journey? Right here’s how one can attain him:

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The Mountain West Information Bureau is a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado and KUNM in New Mexico and affiliate companions throughout the area. It is usually funded partly by the CPB.

This effort is supported by America Amplified, a 2020 group engagement journalism initiative funded by the Company for Public Broadcasting.



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