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Twin Town High (vol. 8)
Crossing the great divide
Monday 25 September @ 14:19:42
A BIKE TREK INTO BUSH COUNTRY
by ANNE WINKLER-MOREY
photos by ANNE AND DAVID WINKLER-MOREY
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.
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
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).
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 ...
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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? ||
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