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 19: Steamboat Springs, Colorado
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 farmer’s market in Steamboat Springs, Colorado is hopping – at least, for a pandemic.
Everyone is wearing a mask and workers are regulating how many people get in at a time. It’s a cool morning and autumn is in the air. My colleague, Beau Baker, and I are combing through the stands looking for farmers and ranchers.
It’s a perspective I haven’t gotten much on this trip. Initially, I thought I’d be speaking to a lot of folks in the agricultural industry but they often live far away from the highways I ride, on private property off gravel roads.
But a farmer’s market on a Saturday is a good spot to find them. Sure enough, rancher Noah Brooks is helping his wife sell meat at their stand. He’s wearing a floppy cowboy hat, a vest, a camouflage neck warmer and jeans. He and his family are a different kind of rancher – they don’t raise cattle ... they raise yaks.
“Yaks are from the Tibetan plateau,” he says. “Above 6,000 feet or higher, they love it. They thrive in snow.”
They are also hardier than cattle, according to Brooks. They can survive on less forage. That’s good for ranching in a state that’s grappling with climate change.
“Colorado is changing considerably. It’s drying out and it’s getting hotter. We have to find animals that are okay with that,” he says.
For Brooks, the wildfires burning nearby, severe drought and the changing climate are among his biggest concerns when thinking about the future of his family and his community. He doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the reasons behind global warming, but nonetheless, he knows it’s happening.
“Maybe it’s a cycle. Maybe we don’t have enough information. Maybe we have all the information and it’s all of our cars and trucks,” he says. “But I don’t see an easy solution. I do see it as a big problem right now.”
The global scientific consensus on climate change is that it’s caused by an increase in carbon dioxide, other greenhouse gases and is mostly human caused. Regardless, this is the first time that climate change has been brought up as a real concern among the folks that I’ve spoken with on this trip, and that makes sense – ranchers and farmers are stitched to the land. Their livelihoods, at least in part, rely on it. At another stand, Sydney Ellbogen is selling organic produce she and her partner grew on the small farm they started earlier this year. She worries about the drought.
“Water dictates everything we do. If we don’t have water, we can’t grow our crops,” she says.
I ask her if she would ever consider moving to a place with more water in the future, such as the upper Midwest. She says no.
“Lifestyle is really important to us, so we’re going to stay here and just hope that it works out,” Ellbogen says. “We picked the Yampa valley just because we love skiing and biking and everything that comes up here.”
They moved to nearby Hayden from Boulder, one of the state’s most progressive cities. That town is more conservative. Steamboat, on the other hand, is a mixed bag, politically. My colleague, Beau, asks whether she ever experiences political divisions in her interactions with customers or other farmers.
“Everybody needs to eat and food transcends politics. So yeah, we don’t really have to deal with it all that much,” she answers.
In fact, Ellbogen says she was surprised at how warm and open locals were, considering she moved from one of Colorado’s most-progressive cities.
“I think it’s small-town living. People are friendly to their neighbors and you kind of have to collaborate with the people that you live near,” she says.
This collaboration, it appears, is key to the survival of small towns and rural communities out West. I hear about it often. People, for the most part, are able to push aside politics to save someone’s life or simply to help their neighbors when they are in a tough spot. Maybe it’s kindness. Maybe it’s not. But it’s definitely survival.
While this collaboration may work in smaller towns, it’s not really happening in national politics right now.
That’s another thing that worries Noah Brooks, the yak rancher.
“We don’t have conversations anymore amongst ourselves. I remember political conversations at the table. My mom had a different view than my dad. And at the end of the night they’d still kiss, you know. I just don’t see that happening anymore. It’s like it ends up in bloodshed. If I’m not with you then I’m the devil,” he says.
Meanwhile, as I write this, the United States is dying – from a novel coronavirus that has killed nearly 200,000 people and from more severe wildfires and drought that are impacting Brooks’ livelihood. He sees this as a political problem.
“Some people say it’s a cycle. Some people say it’s carbon [dioxide]. I’m not a scientist. I don’t know. But I do know it’s happening. I do know we’re drying up and I do know these forest fires are going to become a bigger and bigger deal unless we can figure out how to slow this climate change problem down,” he says.
Elected leaders aren’t coming together to solve those problems, he says. They haven’t been for awhile. And that’s why Brooks has found himself attracted to parts of Trump’s personality.
“I come from a Christian family so I think that you need to be honest with your community. I think what he’s done is exposed that most of our world is a bit corrupt and that sometimes you’ve got to lead with an iron fist,” he says.
But that doesn’t mean he’ll support the president this November. Last election, he voted for the libertarian candidate.
“I do believe the libertarian viewpoint is kind of what I want. I want freedom. I don’t want to be told what I can’t do. I want people to respect each other socially. I believe in gay marriage. I believe in equality. So I think it fits me more. But I don’t know where America stands anymore,” he says.
He comes back to the theme that has haunted my entire journey – we are living in a divided country. One that can come together on a small scale, in towns and neighborhoods and rural communities, but cannot seem to bridge that widening river that separates us nationally.
That river is getting wilder and more dangerous. Some people are talking openly about civil war or a revolution. Others are carrying guns just in case the worst happens. And still others are retreating into the slower currents of life. They are putting down their phones, turning off their televisions and escaping into the paradise of wide open country, highways and miles of beautiful nothing. But that quiet is temporary because the United States is boiling around us. The virus continues to kill a thousand people a day. Skies are blanketed with smoke. And a national election that promises some kind of upheaval is creeping towards us.
I think back to that American flag in Leadore, Idaho, two weeks prior. It was faded from the sun and frayed at the edges from a ceaseless wind. Someone, long ago, hoisted the flag up. It was brand new and it lorded over that pocket of the West for years. But then the world beat it down.