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 3: Rexburg to Tetonia, 47 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.
It’s estimated that 95% of Rexburg’s population are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This doesn’t surprise me, however, because this bustling little college town along the banks of Henry’s Fork of the Snake River looks like it was airlifted from Utah – clean streets, bright new buildings and the tall, white spire of a mormon temple overlooking town.
There are young couples everywhere, holding hands and sitting on blankets in a city park. It’s like someone took the movie Pleasantville and brought it to life. The mormon energy here is driven by the college, a satellite campus for the church-operated Brigham Young University.
“It’s a church school,” says Chelsea, a BYU-Idaho student who is hanging on some monkey bars in the park. “I like the spirit of it. They have standards that you have to live up to in order to stay here, which makes it a healthier environment and that just makes you feel safe.”
Those standards include no alcohol, coffee, tea, sexual activity or vulgar language. Men are to be clean-shaven and women can’t wear dresses that go above the knees. It’s the opposite of the high school Chelsea went to in Nampa, Idaho.
“I was offered weed a lot,” she says. “I like that I don’t have to deal with that here.”
Every autumn, Rexburg swells with tens of thousands of young Latter-day Saints like Chelsea. They come from all over the United States and all over the world, making Rexburg the most diverse town I’ve visited since beginning this journey.
Cruising on my bicycle down a main street, I run into Mashike Lumbama and Wandile Sibisi. They’re wearing gym clothes and chatting. Both are members of the Church. They moved to Rexburg a couple of years ago from Zambia and South Africa respectively to attend classes.
I ask them how they like it here and they exchange glances.
“I have so many opinions about it,” Lumbama says laughing. “I feel like people aren’t genuinely polite. They act polite but they’re not.”
Lumbama says she gets a lot of stupid questions because she is a foreigner, such as whether she’s eaten lasagna before or how she learned to speak English.
“I’m like, ‘Man, I’ve spoken it my entire life!’” she says.
Both of them tell me there’s also an undercurrent of racism here. Some white students will say Lumbama and Sibisi, who are Black, look intimidating. Others will try and touch their hair. Then, of course, there are the shootings of George Floyd, Elijah McClain and countless other Black men and women whose deaths have prompted protests and counter protests across the country.
“I feel like everything in America is political,” says Lumbama. “I think that clouds someone’s common sense. Back at home, I feel like humanity comes first. Common sense comes first.”
Both Lumbama and Sibisi have an outsider’s perspective of America – a country that has long been held as a beacon of hope and prosperity for the rest of the world. But the reality, they say, is disappointing.
“It’s a country that people in Africa look up to and rely on if something happens in the world. ‘We have America, they have the best of everything, so we’ll be good,’” Sibisi says. “And then we see America having the highest [COVID–19] rates in the whole world and it’s like, ‘Okay, who do we look up to? Who do we rely on now?’”
For the record – we don’t have the highest rates in the world, but for a developed country we are definitely up there.
Leo Vidal, a college student from the Dominican Republic, echoes that concern about America’s diminished standing during the pandemic.
“We always looked up to the United States – this big country, they’ve got plenty of stuff figured out. But with these protests you realize there’s still stuff to work on. But that’s okay because we’re all human and no one is perfect,” he says.
Vidal is kicking around a soccer ball in the city park. He worries that the political divisiveness in America is an open wound that tyrants can take advantage of – just like Rafael Trujillo did in 1930 when he nabbed control of the Dominican Republic for three decades.
“He took advantage of divisions that were happening around the country,” he says. “There was a civil war and he took advantage of that and killed thousands of people there. That’s scary. That’s what happens when people get divided and that’s what is happening here. That’s really scary and dangerous, you know?”
After my conversation with Vidal, I did a deep-dive on Rafael Trujillo and modern-day comparisons with President Trump. A couple of years ago, a professor from Lewis University, a small private college in the Midwest, penned an essay about it.
“It is quite a stretch to suggest that Trump is Trujillo brought back to life,” Michael Cunningham wrote. “While history does indeed take strange paths, it’s evident early in the Trump presidency that he faces powerful pockets of opposition, even within his own party. This resistance suggests that his autocratic tendencies will not do the kind of harm that they might if unleashed in other weaker societies, like that in the Dominican Republic in 1930.”
Still, Cunningham noted the similarities between the two leaders, including an appeal to nationalism and racism.
After reading the essay, I take pause and ask myself a fundamental question that I’ve so far failed to answer during this odyssey across the Mountain West – why do so many rural Westerners support a president who uses racist language and who critics call the divider in chief?
The flags are everywhere – flying from the backs of pickup trucks or hoisted up in front lawns from Lolo, Montana to Rexburg, Idaho.
Yet most of the people I’ve talked to along the way are disgusted by the president’s actions. They include life-long Republicans like Tanner Boyack, a Latter-day Saint attending computer programming classes at BYU-Idaho.
“I’m just not a fan of the attitude of Trump, as well as the cultist following that a lot of people have with him,” he says.
I’ve heard that sentiment a handful of times on this trip. I’ve also interviewed a few supporters of the president, but no one who is as fervently excited by his personality as the flags around me suggest.
I’ll be honest – I demure when I see one of those trucks flying the Trump flag. I assume they don’t want to talk to the media, especially someone from public radio. As one Leadore resident warned me, they see public media as a leftist institution just as others see Fox News as conservative. But I’m making it my goal from here on out to speak with an enthusiastic, flag-flying supporter of our president. Stay tuned.