Day 15: Fiercely Middle-Of-The-Road

Sep 16, 2020
Originally published on September 22, 2020 12:40 pm

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 along on social media, an online blog and this "Where Is He Now?" map.

September 10: Lander to Beaver Creek Road, 60 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.

Lander, Wyoming feels like a college town.

There are young people everywhere, hanging out at hip coffee shops, bars and breweries. My colleague, Wyoming Public Media correspondent Savannah Maher, tells me in a text that the twenty-somethings here are attracted to the area’s climbing and other outdoor recreation opportunities. After all, the town is next door to the stunning, high-altitude Wind River mountain range, one of the premier hiking and fishing destinations in the West, and it’s home to the nonprofit National Outdoor Leadership School.

So it seems like a good place to check in with the folks that make money off of all this outdoor activity.

After having interesting, off-the-record conversations with a couple of bicycle mechanics in town, I swing over to a store that sells snow machines and all-terrain vehicles.

Greg Scott is the general manager there. He’s wearing glasses with gray-blonde hair parted down the middle, sporting a long-sleeved Polaris-branded shirt and jeans.

“You can drive an ATV from town to any trail around here – in the mountains, in the desert, anywhere,” he says. “That makes it a pretty good place to live. A lot of people are starting to move here from out of state and they bring a lot of money with them. That increases the economy in Lander.”

Scott was born and raised here. He’s one of only a handful of people I’ve met on this trip who are excited about their towns growing exponentially. He remembers when Lander’s chief economic driver, a nearby steel mine, shut down in the mid 1980s. He says back then, the town’s leadership didn’t want to allow new kinds of business in – they wanted to preserve its small size.

“They wanted to keep it local. They didn’t want outside influences in here,” Scott says.

Still, out-of-towners trickled in and they brought money and new ideas, according to Scott. Breweries, restaurants and outdoor gear shops popped up.

“I tell people, ‘That’s change.’ That’s what happened here in Lander. And still we’ve incorporated the good ol’ boy ways with the New Age ways,” he says. “That’s how it has to be to survive anyway.”

As mentioned earlier, this growth has brought waves of younger people. That’s challenged the town’s traditional conservative values. Earlier this summer, for example, folks held protests in town after George Floyd was killed by police officers in Minneapolis. Scott takes a moderate’s stance towards police violence, reform and the protests that have swept across this nation. He calls defunding law enforcement “ridiculous” but supports the right for people to protest lawfully.

“If it’s peaceful, that’s perfect,” he says. “Now, if you start breaking the law, i.e. walking down the middle of the street, then no. We have pedestrian laws for that. Now if you go out and then you decide you’re going to light something on fire, you need to be held accountable for that, too.”

Over the course of our hour-long conversation, Scott strikes me as someone who is fiercely middle-of-the-road. He gets righteous as we talk politics, occasionally slamming his fist onto his desk. He supported Trump during the first election because he shook up the establishment, but hasn’t been a fan of many of his actions and policies since.

“I think that a person who stands in that position should have respect for everybody in this country – everybody,” he says. “I don’t think he’s been respectful enough.”

I bring up my conversation with Trump supporter Ben Barto yesterday and his belief that all this division and partisanship in the United States is leading towards a revolution, but Scott isn’t so sure.

“We are walking towards the brink of something but I don’t necessarily think it’s destruction,” he says. “There’s a lot of quiet people out there that are watching things that are happening and they’re going to stand up... and they’re going to step between the two fighting parties and go, ‘Listen, guys, we’ve got to find another way here, because you two ain’t making it.’”

I ask him if that intervention is peaceful or violent.

“I think they want to do it in a peaceful way,” he says. “But I’m packing. I’m not going to sit here and lay down and let you take over my life. I’m not going to let you do it.”

Part of that sentiment is owed to Wyoming’s relationship with firearms – almost everyone I speak with here has one, whether it’s for hunting or self defense. Traditional conservative values, such as second amendment rights, are big here. So is support for the state’s fossil fuel industry, which is a lynchpin of its economy and tax base. For Scott, that’s his number one issue and another reason why he supported President Trump in 2016.

“If he had not been put in there, I would probably be out of business,” he says, referring to then-candidate Hillary Clinton’s proposal to halt fossil fuel extraction on public lands.

Scott looks at his stock of all-terrain vehicles. “These toys are based on fossil fuels, right? You’re not going to take your four-wheeler out, plug it into a wind generator, and go play.”

No matter which party takes over, he doesn’t want to see proposals to completely eliminate extraction of oil, gas or coal. He’d rather see money invested into expensive technology making those non-renewable energies burn cleaner, lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

“Don’t try to do away with it,” he says. “That’s ridiculous. We need the money to make it clean. We know that the more they push for it and invest in it, we know the price is going to drop a lot.”

The uncomfortable truth is that Wyoming’s wealth of oil and coal has contributed to man-made climate change and more severe wildfires, like the ones blackening the sky throughout the West this September. In Lander, however, the cold front has temporarily blown away all the haze and smoke and the sky is a dark, clear blue.

I ask Scott whether he’s worried about more severe wildfires due to decades of poor forest management and climate change.

“Is it global warming? I’m not ever going to say that it’s global warming. Yeah, it looks like there’s something going on. But we’ve only been tracking this for how long, you know?” he says.

It’s a tricky spot for those living in the state – those oil and gas resources provided them homes, good-paying jobs, education for their children and a step up in this country. Tax revenues have propped up schools and mental health services. But market winds, environmental concerns and the pandemic are all swirling together these days, putting the industry into a crisis.

And when you rely on a single well of money, that can turn a boom into a bust very quickly. Tomorrow I’ll see the wreckage of that in-person when I bicycle through Jeffrey City, a 20th century ghost town that thrived and died on a now defunct uranium mine. But first I need to leave Lander.

After packing my belongings and grabbing a quick cup of complimentary coffee from Gannett Sports, I ride out of town in the late afternoon. Soon I’m stalled by a brief rainstorm, chatting with three continental divide thru-hikers on the side of the road. They are trying to hitchhike to Rawlins and I joke that they can hop on my bicycle trailer.

The weather clears and I wish them luck, climbing up into the doldrums of Wyoming – rolling sagebrush hills where the gray sky meets the gray, muddy ground. As the sun sets I pull onto a ranch road and my bicycle immediately sinks into wet, clay gumbo. I yank it out onto a patch of higher, dry ground and pitch a tent.

The night is restless, though. The rain pitter-patters and a chorus of coyotes yip in the distance.

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