Day 1: The Great Political Divide, Revealed
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 Americans ahead of the 2020 election. You can follow Nate on social media, an online blog and this “Where Is He Now?” map.
August 27: Missoula to Hamilton, 50 miles
An important note here: These are my first glance takeaways. Think of this as a reporter’s notebook. A mosaic of voices over the next few weeks, cycling 900 miles across four states and dozens of small towns.
The first thing I notice beginning my 900-mile cycling journey from Missoula, Montana to Greeley, Colorado is the smell: yellow grass drying in the late summer heat mixed with wildfire smoke from California and Idaho. Anyone from the West recognizes it. They’ll also recognize the smell of burning oil and diesel from pickup trucks roaring down Highway 93, the main corridor splitting Montana’s Bitterroot Valley in two.
I’m about 15 miles from my home in Missoula, the state’s second-largest city and a progressive college town. The Bitterroot is its more conservative, rural cousin. The valley is shaded by craggily mountains to the west and sagebrush-dotted foothills to the east, home to small hobby ranches, a handful of organic farms and a strange kind of sprawl that I’ve seen in my travels through some Latin American countries and valleys across the West. It stems from a relative lack of zoning. Gravel pits sit next to log home manufacturers, side-by-side with ranch-style homes complete with chicken coops and goats. It’s freedom. But that also attracts some fringe beliefs.
One expansive piece of property alongside the highway has rusted cars, bulldozers and an old bus surrounded by eight far-right, patriotic flags. There’s an eagle screeching down upon the word “America” and another flag best described as a hybrid between the Stars and Stripes and a confederate emblem. I ride up the gravel road towards the property and see a man working on an old, red compact sports utility vehicle in the distance. I stop at the property line but then second-guess my approach.
I imagine a bullet whizzing over my head as soon as I cross into the driveway. Ok, I know I’m catastrophizing here but I hesitate and back away anyway. America in 2020 is a boiling pot and I’m not about to take the lid off. Besides, I look like a bit of a granola-type: wearing spandex bike pants and dragging a yellow trailer. Earlier in the ride, a pickup truck “rolled coal” as it passed me, blowing black smoke in my face as it groaned past. My editor is nagging at me to buy an American flag and put it on the back of the bike.
So I tuck tail, turn around and ride back to the highway, feeling a little like a coward. Is this experiment in slow journalism, riding a bicycle through the “red wild yonder,” as a friend from Arkansas recently put it, a very bad idea?
Those worries vanish, however, as I pull into the town of Victor. It looks transplanted from the set of an old Hollywood western. Empty street, boxy buildings and a saddle shop where I meet Rich, who owns the store. He agrees to an interview so long as I don’t use his last name.
Rich looks like a cowboy who has actually worked as a cowboy – 70 years old with a large, gray mustache and a wide brimmed white hat. We sit down at a bench outside his shop and he tells me he’s a second-generation saddle shop owner. His dad worked in the same profession in Bakersfield, California.
“It gets in your blood and it’s hard to get out,” he says.
Rich says he moved to the Bitterroot after a stint ranching cattle in eastern Oregon. He loves the West but says it’s changed a lot since he was young.
“Whenever I was young we slept out in the front yard and never locked our doors. Everyone seemed like your neighbor. There were no enemies and everything was safe,” he says.
But nowadays, he sees a lot of enemies – especially in 2020.
“I fear for my kids and grandkids. And people your age,” he says, nodding at me. “You’re going to see a lot of bad stuff in the future.”
He believes the Democrats and young liberals are trying to popularize socialism in the United States. He shakes his head at “cancel culture” and believes it’s an infringement on first amendment rights to free speech. He sees a slippery slope to the removal of Americans’ second amendment right to bear arms. If that happens, he says, “we’re screwed.”
Rich embodies the kind of politics I’ve seen a lot this year in my reporting of rural communities across the region. It’s less focused on local issues and more focused on the national stage. Rich gets his information from Fox News and believes that the country is extremely politically divided – especially between rural and urban dwellers.
He gestures at the empty streets of Victor.
“We’re tight knit. You can see there’s not a whole lot of people here. We kind of take care of one another. The big cities, I believe, are dog eat dog. They’re running amok, you know?”
It reminds me of a quote I heard while reporting in eastern Montana a year ago. When I told a rancher I was living in Salt Lake City, he warned that I needed to leave before it gets “cannibalistic.”
This increased polarization is my first immediate takeaway from today’s trip – but I don’t think it’s confined to an urban vs. rural argument. It’s playing out within the Bitterroot as well. Like many places across the West, it’s seen an influx of new residents from elsewhere in the country and from nearby Missoula. Almost in defiance of the valley’s traditional conservatism, for example, medical marijuana dispensaries now dot the highway leading into the area’s largest town, Hamilton. A sign outside one says “Heirloom Remedies. Veteran Owned.” Inside I meet Tayln Lang, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps who opened his shop a few years ago. It has an Old West, apothecary vibe. It’s by design.
“Ravalli County is a very, very conservative place,” says Lange. “So I wanted the aesthetic of [my shop] to show to these people that marijuana is not something that’s scary. It’s not something that’s going to invite crime. This is a medical cannabis store and we provide it to sick people. I wanted your very conservative grandmother to walk into this store and feel comfortable.”
Lang was raised in Hollywood but has lived in Montana for nearly the past two decades. He speaks lovingly of the Bitterroot’s ample hiking trails and beautiful mountains, but 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, but he believes many folks here are essentially brainwashed by conservative news media. He also worries that the anti-government streak growing across America, as evidenced by anti-lockdown protests, could lead to civil unrest.
“All these people on the Right say they need their guns to fight the government. But they don’t realize that the instant they take up arms against my government they become insurgents. They become the enemy of the country that I love – that I devoted four years of my life in the Marine Corps to,” he says. “And I believe that they think they are on the side of what’s right and that they’re the heroes in this story. And they’re not.”
He thinks they believe that all veterans feel the same way, but he warns that “I’ll be one on the other side. But I don’t want to have to start shooting at my neighbors,” he says with a laugh.
Downstairs, Megan Henderson is tending the register. She’s 24, wearing a mask, and was born and raised in the Bitterroot. She also agrees that the temperature has risen here over the past year. The pandemic doesn’t help.
“There’s fights in the bars, like if somebody’s wearing a mask, which is appropriate in these times, it’s a big deal” she says. She says there’s a lot of name calling. “As an example, my boss DJ’s sometimes at one of the bars and like the people at the bar would go up to the bartender and be like, ‘why is he here? You know he’s a liberal, right?’”
For her, COVID-19 has brought massive changes to her life - she recently lost her second job as a waitress after the restaurant she works at shut down over pandemic concerns. But she takes the virus seriously and says she wishes other, more conservative Bitterrooters would as well.
Henderson grew up Republican but says she’ll vote for Biden this November.
As I ride away, I wonder how all the conversations I had today ended up at the same place — political polarization and the cultural divide facing America in 2020, one of the most tumultuous years in recent memory.
Tonight, I’m camping in the Ravalli County fairgrounds, under a clear sky and a half-moon, preparing for a couple days without service as I huff and puff up Chief Joseph Pass towards Idaho.
I’ll be out of service for a couple of days now. I’ll have an update when I’m back on the grid.
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The Mountain West News 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 partners across the region. It is also funded in part by the CPB.
This effort is supported by America Amplified, a 2020 community engagement journalism initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.