North Country

The drive to my parents’ home is far from a thrilling one. Three and a half hours one sits in one direction. About 230 miles. Northward we go. The car sits in cruise control at 80 mph and we listen to audio books or favorite road trip songs and we go. We travel along swaths of interstate where you can see no one for miles. We pass ancient stone features and the occasional exits that resemble towns. It’s desolate.

Compared to Colorado it’s vast nothingness. It’s open rolling hills dotted by specks if cows, sometimes domesticated American Bison, sometimes horses. This time of year it’s all the color of straw. Last years’ grass turning into remnants before bursting with new life. It’s not much.

It’s not much if you look at the brown. If you focus on the endless road in front of you. It’s “nothing” the microcosm is nothing. Yet when you zoom out you see something else.

In the macro you see the last remnants of the American West. You see endlessly wild places that have a shelf life. As cities like Cheyenne absorb the Colorado overflow everything grows, except the wilds.

Taking this drive as a child meant emptiness and vast wilds as far as the eye could see. Pronghorn dotted the landscape, less cows, cities were shrunken and smaller. In fact when I was a child Fort Collins was a blip between the 100 mile spread of Denver to Cheyenne. Today it’s all built up, suburbs, and outlets, and homes for the desperate trying to get their slice of the west.

Wyoming has a line somewhere past Cheyenne. This line weakens annually as populations move north as people retire this way. The taxes and cost of living are more affordable, the schools have more money, the wife open spaces feel freeing. So they say.

It’s hard to know what’s better or worst for everyone. Here is the land that we stole from generations of native peoples. Here is the land people claim for their own American dream. Here are natural areas being destroyed. Here are oil rigs and processing. Here are opportunities for some. Here is extreme poverty for others. Who benefits?

My parents live in one of three apartments in an old house that really isn’t big enough for three apartments. The paint peels on the outside of the house. The backyard is uneven cement slabs that are crumbling. Odd porches jut from each apartment, all wobble and weaken with each step.

Their neighbors cram three or more kids inside these little apartments. Seeing dad on days off. They make minimum wage. They eat one meal a day at their job. The neighbors across the street have 6 kids at home. They’re disabled and rely on assistance. The dad lacks teeth. The mom can barely walk due to hip injuries. They do what they can. Some of these families ran north from the expense of Colorado living. They’re still struggling here.

Wide open land stretches around them. Casper isn’t crowded like Fort Collins. The mountain to the South only is so big. There are options east and west. No one likes to pay taxes. No one wants to give too many hand outs.

Most people here voted for Trump. Someone that reflected their whiteness, their needs to grab for straws of power, to feel stronger over a culture that’s changing. To feel anger at a system that hasn’t worked. For many it seems a vote against their own interests.

The ones that didn’t vote for Trump have education behind them. They are brown and from Latino and Native cultures. They have lived racism their whole lives, they’ve suffered from white supremacy. My dad exclaims that we just “hunker down” until we can get a new president. I remind him our friends next to us may not have that same choice. The room is quiet as my dad’s best friend nods.

Regardless of white supremacy and politics, we go to the backyard of the crumbling house and we make a fire in a portable pit. 10 kids poor out of doorways and we pass around marshmallows and chocolate, graham crackers and dollar store hot dog sticks. The kids plays hide and seek in the dark. A two year old walks around smiling and waving. She’s so cute no one can take their eyes off of her. My stepdaughter takes on wrangling the girls, the boys run wild. No one cares about eyes of skin or ethnic backgrounds, we just are.

The neighborhood all pitched in on this little gathering. I brought gluten free stuff for mom and I. The disabled parents got chocolate. Mom bought the marshmallows, someone else the wood. It’s simple, this gathering. Hot chocolate is made and tea and cider. No one argues, we all admire the quiet of the night, the stars that twinkle above. We’re neighbors, sitting in a backyard of a crumbling neighborhood behind an old house just caring and loving and giving.

America needs more of this. Less walls and gates. More time to talk. Less media and news. More time to act with love. More gifts and laughter, less criticism and judgement. The reality is if we all pitch in, we can all be better.

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