I’ve spent the last two weeks on a 3,000 mile road trip through nine very rural western and southwestern states – flyover country for Hillary, Jeb and the cast of thousands seeking a nomination, any nomination, for president.
All the candidates who seek our attention now and our votes next year, will say they lust for the White House in order to “give voice to” and “represent” the “real folks” in rural America. They all talk about flyover country like they’ve been there. Truth be told none of them have really spent any time in the American outback and if they were to visit – don’t hold your breath – they would be as out of place as sport coat at a rodeo.
The rural American west is where you see motels named Shady Rest and where every town seems to have an Outlaw Saloon and an El Rancho Steakhouse. The main streets are wide and mostly quiet, particularly since Walmart came to town. The chain stores that helped doom the mom and pop stores in rural America tend to cluster at the far edges of the old pioneer towns along the highways where you slow down to 30 miles per hour so that you have time to count the pick-ups at the Taco Bell.
Occasionally you can still find a reminder of what good tastes like at places like Sehnert’s Bakery and Bieroc Café in McCook, Nebraska. We had to ask what a bieroc was, but the locals know. You can’t get a bieroc at the Taco Bell, by the way. More often the storefronts are covered with plywood, the drug stores are empty and convenience stores double as a place to buy groceries.
Lots of things have disappeared in flyover country, including most of the movie theaters. I love Netflix and Hulu, but there is no substitute for the group dynamic of going to a movie in a real theater. A favorite uncle long ago owned The Harney Theater in Custer, South Dakota. It was a magical place for a kid where cutouts of snowy white clouds – made of plywood, I suppose – were suspended from a robin’s egg blue ceiling. It was a place for dreaming. For the admission price of a quarter I fell in love with Doris Day at the Harney and marveled at the exploits of Henry Fonda and Richard Burton in The Longest Day. I held hands with a girl for the first time in that dark, slightly musty movie palace. Talk about magic. Today the Harney is a pizza parlor and seeing that made me feel like I had just said goodbye to one more piece of my youth.
On Interstate 80 west of Green River, Wyoming and literally in the middle of nowhere sits Little America. Once upon a time calling Little America a “truck stop” was a little like calling John Wayne a “thespian.” Little America was our regular lunch stop on the road to Salt Lake City years ago and when we stopped recently – I remembered the booths, the soft serve ice cream and the waitresses who called everyone “honey” – the nice woman behind the counter said the “sit down and be waited on” restaurant had closed last fall. Lunch options in Little America now included the kind of fare you find at a convenience store connected to gas pumps. A slice of rural America really did turn out to be just a truck stop. Change can be tough on memories.
My road trip was an attempt to connect again with some places I knew forty (or more years ago) and to jog old memories of events, people and places that, whether we fully know it or not, shaped our understanding of the world. After the trip my memories of life in rural America seem better than today’s reality.
I once lived in Rock Springs, Wyoming, for example (quit laughing) and realized that my (almost) life-long fascination with trains can be traced back to that old railroad and coal mining town that is literally divided in half by the Union Pacific mainline. At the zenith of American train travel in the 1940’s one hundred trains a day passed through Rock Springs and fully a quarter of that number were passenger trains.
By the time I came to live in southwestern Wyoming the passenger train era was rapidly coming to a close, but as a romantic eighth grader already enamored by travel I still remember walking down to the old Rock Springs depot to wait for the arrival of the Portland Rose, one of the Union Pacific’s most impressive trains. The Rose operated right up until the Amtrak era. I was never disappointed with the arrival of the sleek yellow coaches trimmed in red and gray. I wanted, of course, to get on board, settle in my Pullman and think about dinner in the diner complete with “many Pacific Northwest products.” Sadly that is only a memory.
Once upon a time you could get a train to almost anywhere in rural America. Now you can drive. If you live in Cambridge, Nebraska or Sundance, Wyoming you drive a hundred miles to get on an airplane. Nostalgia aside, and while admitting I love trains, we have made systematic public policy decisions over many decades to lavish massive public subsidies on planes, trucks and automobiles and permitted a once great national passenger rail system wither and die. Deregulating airlines in the 1970’s doomed air service to many small markets and as a result transportation alternatives really don’t exist now in the outback. There are a lot of gas stations, however.
The more conservatives candidates for high public office now and next year will appeal to rural Americans by talking about guns and stoking fear of the federal government. Those are time-tested tactics that have worked for a long time and will work again. Most of rural America is painted dark red after all and no candidate is likely to offer a public policy answer to keeping a local restaurant in business in rural Nebraska. You can take to the bank the fact that no one will talk seriously about the poverty, the flight of young people to “urban opportunities” or the persistent economic decline of small town America. No one will recall that once upon a time government programs brought electric lights to farms and precious water to crops and that politicians fought for the honor to speak for small town America. The overheated rhetoric of the coming campaign will merely reinforce the sentiments of the guy in South Dakota I saw, who displayed a big sign saying, “Don’t blame me, I voted for the American.” There is a good deal of anger – maybe even fear – just below the surface in the outback.
I’m old enough to remember when Robert Kennedy came to Pine Ridge, South Dakota in 1968, the poorest county and the poorest Indian reservation in the country, in an attempt to place rural and Native American poverty on the presidential agenda. Historian Thurston Clarke has written about Kennedy’s visit and noted that no presidential candidate since has made the trip to Pine Ridge, even though poverty is just as endemic today as it was in 1968 and the suicide rates are tragic to the point of scandal.
Rural America’s challenges have been reduced to a political talking point. Conservatives blame the problems on the heavy hand of government and too much regulation and they take rural votes for granted, while liberals have lost elections in rural American for so long they hardly even attempt to relate, which makes what Bobby Kennedy did nearly 50 years ago all the more remarkable.
The Census Bureau reported in 2012 that the urban population of the United States increased by more than twelve percent in the first decade of the 21st Century. As rural America continues to shrink there is more and more reason for politicians to ignore the fewer and fewer Americans who scratch out a living in the outback. Politicians and most of the rest of us, like the mythology of rural America – the rugged, up-from-humble beginnings storyline, the idea of wide-open spaces, family farms and Sunday dinners. But that old, rural, western American mythology only masks the nasty reality that is mostly ignored in our politics. About a third of the poorest counties in the nation are in the rural, mostly very conservative west. Colorado’s poorest county, for example, has a population of about 1,200 souls and more than 1,000 live below the poverty line. (Mitt Romney, the 47 percent guy, won Crowley County, Colorado in 2012 with more than 61 percent of the vote.)
It will be impossible for any serious presidential candidate during the next campaign to avoid talk of the dramatic growth of economic inequality and the shrinking middle class in the United States, but most will do so while headed to a fundraiser in New York City or Silicon Valley. Fly over country, the place that promised opportunity to immigrant Americans a hundred or more years ago, is more familiar than most places with the decline of the middle class. Today the rural west seems a shrinking, weathered place where jobs are as scarce as a first run movie – or any movie – and real solutions for generations of problems are as non-existent as a passenger train or a serious visit from a national candidate.