I am a city kid. As a matter of fact, far back as I know about, my ancestors have been urban people. Perhaps because of laws prohibiting Jews from owning land in Eastern Europe where my wandering ancestors harken from, the stories passed down are not filled with pigs and chickens. As for me, though I have lived in diverse urban neighborhoods—some wealthy, some impoverished, some insulated University towns and some huge international cities—I have always been close to the inner-city action.
This summer I spent five weeks bicycling from Minneapolis to Estes Park, Colorado, with my partner, daughter and niece. For 33 days we moved from one rural community to another, seeking shelter, food, shade and water—and a place to rest during the heat of the day. By the end of the first day when we bedded down in Chaska, Minnesota, we had entered red—as in “red state” or Bush territory—and never left it.
Much of the time I was struck by the width and depth of the rural/urban divide. We traveled through five states, several geographic strata and across one time zone, but the most graphic barometer of a community was not its location but its size. I learned to differentiate between places that I’d previously considered as all rural. Heck, I’m the one who thought I was working in a rural area when I commuted from Minneapolis to St. Cloud, to teach history at the university there, many moons ago. That’s how ignorant I was. Now I know the difference between “rural” communities with populations of 25,000; 10,000; 5,000; 1,000 and those under 500, and to my surprise, I prefer the latter.
In these tiny communities (we stopped in every one we came across) there were no McDonald’s, no Dairy Queens and certainly no Wal-Marts. In fact there were usually no choices. If you sought water, food and shelter from the sun and heat, you went to the only café, gas station or bar in town. If there were two or more places, we soon learned how to find the place where the entire town was gathered. It was Sue’s Diner in Peterson, Iowa, Porky’s Bar in Winside, Nebraska, and the Sands Café in Merriman, Nebraska— where pictures of every visitor adorn the walls (we’re in the bike corner).
The wayside bar and café in Hawk Springs, Wyoming—where this shellfish-eating vegetarian made the mistake of ordering Rocky Mountain Oysters—has, at any given time, three times as many diners than town residents.
Then there’s the local gas station in a Nebraska town 20 miles outside of Sioux City, Iowa, whose name I can’t remember for the life of me, but whose people I will never forget. Some 30 people gathered at the gas station to kibbitz on Sunday morning, making us honorary members of their community, despite our ridiculous-looking neon bike clothing and our urban origins, and their conservative politics.
Conservative, yes, as was evident from the emblems on their cars and houses. They wanted the world to know they supported the war in Iraq, and knew many loved ones fighting in it. Snippets of rabid local radio told me not to start a conversation about immigration or gay marriage with these people I depended on to fill my water bottles. I will never know how much my “white” skin, deep brown from over-exposure to the sun, and my obviously heterosexual relationship (“this is my husband, my daughter, my niece …”) eased my interactions with my new rural friends.
And yet …
Did you know that Nebraska is the first and only state in the nation to have a state-owned electric company? “If that sounds like communism,” a local book on the subject opined, “it is not an indication of the political persuasion of the people of Nebraska, who are in general very conservative.”
So how did this happen? Well sometime in the ’30s the people of rural Nebraska realized they would never get electricity if they did not socialize it because there was no profit in providing this utility to such tiny and disparate communities.
I can attest that this socialist mentality continues to exist when it come to basic services in Nebraska. Over and over again, people we met encouraged us to keep our eye out for windmills on every ranch, “Each has a water spigot, the water is good to drink and it’ll cool you off.” We were advised not to be deterred by barbed wire fences—“Those are for cows, not people” or property rights, “People aren’t like that here.” Two things struck me: the generosity to strangers, and the comfort in inviting us to trespass on their neighbor’s land as if it was their own.
We never had to figure out how to get water from a windmill because enough people offered us water from their kitchens and garden hoses. We did, however, borrow shade from a rancher’s only tree or a farmer’s barn. Down we plopped right on someone’s front lawn— can you imagine that in the city? The only question we got was “Are you OK? Is there anything I can do for you?”
I wish I had entered into some conversations with the people about the war. I did learn that in communities like Wayne (which is big enough to have a community college, but small enough to have only one movie theater) a whole national guard platoon had left this dying Nebraska Sandhills community to destroy another sand-hill community in Iraq. Every home and business declared its support for these local youth. Other economic options are few in Wayne. If you go to the community college, there is no guarantee you will get a job in your chosen field. There are simply too few people in the region to support much economic activity of any kind. The drought of several years has wilted the agricultural possibilities in a region where cows outnumber people.
We had only one intimate conversation about the war during the trip, with a young man we met in an ambulance when my daughter slit her leg open (another story). This man once lived in South Minneapolis—just off Lake Street—and loved it, but had to move because he could not afford it. He moved to a tiny town in South Dakota. We met him in a town of 5,000 in Iowa, where he was training as an Emergency Medical Technician before going to Iraq. When we were about to leave the hospital he gave us his address and told us to write when we made it to Colorado. He said he would write us when he started basic training next month. When it turned out we were staying in the same hotel, we spent the evening trying to convince him there were options for him other than the military—but with no financial resources, he could not see them.
We never found out what all the flags, “God bless America” signs and yellow ribbons meant, in terms of depth of support for the war or the Bush administration, but I wished I’d had a “Vets for Peace” button that suggested supporting the troops by bringing them home. I wondered how a gold-star-mother-for-peace would be treated in these communities. I don’t know.
All I can tell you is that people who sported such emblems believe in social cooperation—they share with their neighbors, are intelligent, creative and kind to strangers. They live in places where there are no bookstores within a 300-mile radius, and their libraries, wonderful and inviting as they are, are decorated with posters claming that God loves America. They get only one radio station, and although I imagine they have access to every TV station and Internet website, I never saw any other channel but FOX when I turned on TV.
While traveling across country this news-aholic experienced the longest dry spell in her adult lifetime. I have to tell you that out there on the prairie, snippets about Israel and Lebanon, Fidel Castro’s illness and Mexico’s post-election upheaval seemed like absurd science fiction from another planet. Concerned as I was about meeting drunk drivers on the road, the only thing I knew for sure was that I hoped Mel Gibson was nowhere in the vicinity.
Perhaps that is the way news from the “rest of the world” appears all the time to the hardworking rural people in these depopulated regions whose lives are filled with concerns about drought and calves and corn. I don’t know.
Despite the dearth of people in these intensely rural farming and ranching communities, these European-American rural folk share with Latinos, African Americans and American Indians the tradition of providing more than their share of human cannon fodder for this country’s military adventures, generation after generation. Veterans from these parts, who return to their communities, often become recluses, sheltered from other humans by the vast empty spaces of Wyoming and Nebraska.
I can only imagine the difficulty returning veterans face as they try to talk to people in these tiny communities.
In the library in Basset, Nebraska, a patriotic local community group decided to interview all the veterans in their county. They found that while World War II vets might tell a battle story or two, Vietnam veterans and those from either of the Gulf wars were decidedly silent. The only comments about these more recent veterans came from relatives. One of the more extensive reports about a Vietnam vet who died at home in an “accident” was submitted by a sibling who wrote, “Like most veterans from Vietnam, he refused to talk about his service.”
I wish I had some real words of wisdom, some way of crossing the chasm between rural and urban. All I have to report is this: The people out there in the so-called “red” regions are as tender and vulnerable as those in the inner city. And this war is leaving a gaping wound in their communities, as the howling prairie winds muffle the cries of veterans. The myriad yellow ribbons and the red, white and blue buntings may paper over the crimes of the government against the people for now, but for how long?
When they, in the rural areas, and we, in the urban areas, have had enough, who will we turn against? Each other, or the corporations and politicians who seek to divide us and conquer us?