Road Tripping Through Middle America

Wyoming is largely nothingness dotted with the occasional cow, cell tower, and small town. La Grange was advertised for miles, and Google Maps agreed with the consensus of every road sign: if you’re looking for food or a toilet, La Grange is it.

Just before entering the town, the road turned red. I mean this literally. The pavement went from black to red, and my girlfriend Kayla and I looked at each other: that was an ominous sign. When you’ve been driving steadily through nothing since Cheyenne, that nothingness begins to feel claustrophobic. You think you’d give anything for a burger and another human, one who hasn’t been sitting next to you belting out the new Fall Out Boy since Boulder. But then the road turns red, and you begin to rethink what civilization means. It means people who live hundreds of miles from anything. And being from suburban towns outside big cities, that made us a little nervous.

By the time we turned off of the burnt red road and into a small parking lot of what Google Maps said was a cafe, we were starving. But next to the car sat a cluster of long grey buildings that purported, according to a sign on the front of one of them, to be Frontier School of the Bible.

When I opened my door, the silence burst its way into the car, and we looked at each other. I closed it.

“Maybe we just pee,” she suggested.

“Or we pretend we’re just friends.” We locked eyes. Kayla and I have a lot of talents, but pretending to be just friends isn’t one of them.

We settled on using the “cafe’s” small bathroom, though it wasn’t really a cafe so much as a very small, sparse grocery store. I asked the girl at the checkout counter (she was wearing a Frontier School of the Bible t-shirt) where we could get gas, and she asked which way we were heading. I pointed – there’s only one road in La Grange and it’s the state highway – and she said, “Probably about 50 miles up.”

Kayla and I piled back into the car and hauled ass out of town, on to chase the horizon line until it offered us food and the comfort of friendlier towns.

Our road trip this August took us from Boulder, Colorado to Badlands National Park in South Dakota, then on to Bismarck, North Dakota for a wedding, and then back home to Boulder via Rapid City (where we woke up at 5am to drive to Nebraska to see the eclipse). It was a strange conglomerate of a trip – three nights of camping, two nights in the Bismarck Days Inn, and our attire ranged from hiking clothes to dresses and heels, but the strangest thing about the trip was the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere.

I had driven out to Colorado from Pennsylvania along I-80, I returned several months later along I-70, and we took another trip in June through the mountains to Moab, Utah to see Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. All of those trips involved major highways and what we city slickers think of as civilization. None of them prepared me for the isolation that was Wyoming, Nebraska, and the Dakotas.

We were driving along smaller roads for most of the drive, and had we been hopping directly between major towns, our experience would likely have been different. But what strikes me now as I think back on it is all the questions we asked ourselves from the safety of our car, and the refuge of liberalism that was our shiny red car, loaded up with fruit snacks and hot dogs and chips and a camp stove and of course, more than our fair share of Sia albums.

“Where do the kids go to school?” “Do they all go to church in that one building?” “Where do they get their groceries?” “What if they run out of gas all the way out here?”

The one saving grace, I remember noting early in the drive, was that the election was over and we didn’t have to deal with seeing all the Trump signs that surely must have dotted the landscape the summer before.

97% of the US is rural, but only 19.3% of the population (approximately 60 million people) live in rural areas, according to the US census. And those of us who don’t live in rural areas like to drive through them as quickly as we can (or, more often, fly over them while sipping a martini and reading a Dan Brown novel) and ask questions like “But do you think they even read like, the news out here?”

The life that a person growing up in an urban or suburban area  is so vastly different than the life of a person growing up in a rural area, although those gaps are hopefully shrinking thanks to the Internet (“Do they get wifi out here, how do they cope with no phone signal?”). And that isolation only grows wider with the cycle that we’ve found ourselves in. While it’s unfair to say that people in every rural community are close-minded and Conservative, it seemed like a safe bet in La Grange that they wouldn’t feel warm and cozy toward Kayla and I strolling into the grocery and kissing in front of the Spam. Maybe it would have been good for us to do so, just to increase the town’s diversity quotient. But we weren’t in a position to put ourselves at any sort of risk, so we kept on moving – to greener, already diverse pastures.

Was it really unsafe? Would anyone have cared? Would the Frontier student at the register have handed us a pamphlet on sin? We don’t know, and we’ll never know, because we decided to take the path of least resistance based on our prior notions of what small rural communities are like. And I’m willing to bet a lot of people would have done the exact same thing: kept on driving. But does that do any of us any favors? When diversity and open-minded ideas and all of the glories (and horrors) of the Internet are just a click away for anyone, anywhere, some people still need the doors pushed open for them. While that may not have seemed like a first priority before the election, it sure as hell seems like one now.

In the past few years, the percentage of rural voters who vote Republican has increased dramatically when compared to changes in urban and suburban areas. Just look at a map of what counties voted Trump: almost all of them are rural. In Pennsylvania, we count on Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and their surrounding suburbs voting Democrat, and everyone in the middle voting Republican. (Unfortunately, this year that was enough to swing the whole state red.) According to the USDA, 55.4% of the vote in urban areas (with a population over 1 million) voted Clinton. Meanwhile, in rural areas with fewer than 2,500 people that are not located near a metro area, Clinton only received 25.1% of the vote. Katherine Cramer, polisci professor at University of Wisconsin, explained that rural voters liked Trump because they viewed him as being able to stop their communities from dying. Cramer calls the feeling those who live in rural areas have for city slickers “rural resentment.” They feel resentment towards the government which seems to give preference to people who live in cities, and those same cities for swallowing up their population. To them, making America great again means turning back the clock to when these communities were more vibrant.

Racism may also have played into things. In a fascinating study published by PLOS ONE in 2015, researchers used Google search data to measure racism in geographic areas. Because obviously you can’t call someone up and ask “Are you racist?” and expect them to give an honest answer, by using Google data, you can see what they’re looking up when they’re at home alone and think no one’s watching. (Hint: Big Brother is always watching.) Researchers used searches containing the N-word, which has about as many searches as more benign terms such as “economist,” “migraines,” and “sweater.” Obviously the use of the N-word in Google searches is not the sole indication that someone is racist, but amassing data over several years, the study’s results are pretty interesting: the places that returned “much more than average” results were actually in the Appalachians, from about Georgia all the way to southern Vermont. The Southeast was also a culprit, though not as much. But then researchers looked at data on mortality rates for African-Americans, and they found that the amount of searches was directly correlated to a higher mortality rate (and don’t worry, Stat nerds, they controlled for variables such as racial and socio-economic differences). “Results from our study indicate that living in an area characterized by a one standard deviation greater proportion of racist Google searches is associated with an 8.2% increase in the all-cause mortality rate among Blacks.” This correlation is…interesting, to say the least, and it’s backed up by other studies, as well.

But then, what of the Midwest, or the Southwest, where lots of rural communities voted for Trump? One answer off the top of my head might be that they are racist, they’re just racist toward different groups. As one writer said in an opinion post for Roll Call, “In many areas, the only Muslims you see are in movies like ‘American Sniper.’ You never see gay couples or even interracial ones. Much of rural and exurban America is a time capsule to America’s past.” This checks out. You hear stories all the time of people who grew up in rural areas and moved to more populated areas for college and suddenly, they had a gay friend! Or a Muslim friend! Or a black person sat in front of them in class and was totally normal! And it’s a game changer for them, because they hadn’t encountered many minorities in their lives.

Let’s bring it back to La Grange, and our decision not to wave any rainbow flags but instead, to move on. By avoiding them, is our continued isolation of these communities doing anyone any favors? How do we bridge the gap between our world and theirs? Do we hold a Black Lives Matter protest in La Grange? Do we push open the doors of Frontier with the red dust of the road on our feet, holding hands and loudly singing, For the times they are a-changing? Or do we leave them alone and work instead on changing the hearts of our neighbors, family, and friends?

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