Out Here in the Middle

PHOTO CREDIT: Flickr – Adrian

New Orleans  Eventually no matter how much work you do on vacation, the clock on vacation itself winds down, and real life, real work comes crashing through the different days and unique ordering of experiences and tasks we assign to our so-called “free time.” The big task of my own vacation this year was a 4000 mile road trip with my son, Chaco, where the main objective was taking our 20 year old Suburban, long retired from long hauls, and moving our old Airstream Katrina trailer from 22 miles up Rock Creek in Montana about 50 odd miles in a direction no crow flies from Missoula south to the back acres of a friend’s property between her garage and the Nowood Creek in the small town of Manderson in central Wyoming on the back side of the Big Horn Mountains. It all worked out, and that’s the good news, and we both loved our time in Wyoming exploring, fishing, and acclimating, so that we look forward to the next trip.

My last few annual western vacations have been mixed between fishing, working to finish a decades-old book project, and reading. This year, the book had been edited finally before I left, so I could rationalize finishing the last pieces when I returned, and the reading list was thinner. I read Shattered, the volume on Hillary Clinton’s miscalculations and defeat in the middle of deep red Wyoming, where there were still one or two Trump-Pence bumper stickers on cars, but no other evidence of the election. I knocked a dent in Lincoln Steffens classic biography of the Progressive era and muckraking. I though a lot about the country and our people while reading One Another’s Equal: The Basis of Human Equality by the philosopher Jeremy Waldron exploring the issues of equality of course and Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett about the efforts to create less equality through cultural signals of conspicuous consumption that may become impossible to bridge in the creation of ever widening class distinctions in America.

All the while, we watched the rest of world through the internet, while we observed people in Wyoming ignoring it all, feeling every bit the same as when I’m immersed with our organizers in a foreign country, except more comfortable with the language, and more invisible, more from here, than from there. There were no daily papers. News was filtering through CNN and the Weather Channel where we would stop. People worked and went about their lives with their families and communities. They had ambitions to go to Colorado or the West Coast. They kept to themselves, and didn’t pry into our business. There was no, “hey, what are you doing up here from Louisiana?” They stopped and offered to help, if we seemed stuck, but if we said we were good, they went on. The ultra-rich enclave of Jackson, Wyoming and its annual meetings for tech moguls and others would be as foreign to most folks as New York City, Paris, or London.

But, these are good people. How do we bind the country together to what speaks to the best of our people and the wide diversity of their lives with this galloping chasm of inequality?

Yesterday, back home again, I had to reset Alexa on the other side of the bridge between my birth in Wyoming oil fields and my life now. I asked Alexa to play alternative-country, and a soon listened to a song that spoke to the cultural signals of another class, rather than the “aspirational class.” It was “Out Here in the Middle” written and sung by Texas singer and songwriter, James McMurty. Here’s part of it:

we got justification for wealth and greed~
Amber waves of grain and bathtub speed
We even got Starbucks
what else you need?


Out here in the middle
Where the center's on the right
And the ghost of William Jennings Bryan preaches every night
To save the lonely souls
in the dashboard lights
Wish you were here my love
Wish you were here my love


Out here in the middle
Where the buffalo roam
We're putting up towers for your cell phones
And we screen all applicants
With a fine tooth comb
Wish you were here my love
Wish you were here my love
	As Waldron argues, we need to do more equality “work.”

Wyoming, Strange but True in America Today

Manderson, WY   If there is a flyover part of Wyoming, it’s probably somewhere around Manderson in the central part of the state. This is not the mecca of Yellowstone Park and the Grand Teton Mountains or the ultra-rich western hideaway of Jackson Hole. This is not Cheyenne Frontier Days or Sheridan’s rodeo or the University at Laramie. This is the backside of the fabulous Big Horn Mountains, not the front side that more people know well. This part of the working class stiff backbone of Wyoming, and perhaps a good part of the country as well.

Work trucks pulling trailers with water tanks or logging carriers or oil field and mining equipment roar along the state roads all hours of the day and night. The steady sound of the pumping jack in an oil field and small refinery not far away becomes a dim hum in the background. The train whistle coming through roars like it’s heading for the trailer.

It takes a while, but finally you notice something surprising in America today. There are no fast food restaurants in any of these towns, whether the town was 5000 or 3000. There were bar-and-grills. In Worland, someone tried to get fancy for a minute and spent quite a penny creating a well-appointed restaurant they called an Italian Steakhouse. Too pricey. Too showy. They were losing money, so now they have the same setup for a bar-and-grill with prices on the high side but that side is $12 to $17, not in the 20s. Most of the bar-and-grills roll around $8. These are still special places. Gas stations take the place of cheaper fare and weaker coffee.

Take coffee as another example. No Starbucks within 50, maybe 100 miles. That’s kind of refreshing. There are little coffee “cabins” or “barns” serving the range of coffee drinks. One barista was less than convincing about the espresso, because she didn’t like coffee, but was clear that they were open 12 months a year, “because people need their coffee.” We stuck with the drip coffee with her, realizing anything else would be an error.

Some of this is a challenge for central Wyoming. The coming total eclipse is passing through a broad swath of the state. There are warnings similar to what you would find with a hurricane coming. Locals are being advised to stock up on provisions in advance of August 21st, even in Manderson which is in the high 90% of the eclipse and not in the 100% range. Why? Wyoming is expecting a half-million visitors which adds up to about one stranger for each local. Where are they going to stay? What are they going to eat? You get the picture. At the least we can be assured there will be lines at the bar and grills.

But, this is a working class area that pays high prices for gas and food. They have their ways though. Whether it’s the steakhouse or the veterinarian, if the prices get out of line, there’s a fence post kind of silent boycott. People can’t afford it, so they just don’t go, and that forces prices to come down to tolerable.

Wyoming is not American in the 1950s. It’s all about the future and fueling the economy at large and the stomachs of their fellow citizens. It’s just different, and OK with that.