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 Nate on social media, an online blog and this “Where Is He Now?” map.
August 29: Sula, MT to Salmon, ID, 56 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.
The morning starts off well enough. I’m cycling through a tall canyon surrounded by pine trees and the air is crisp with a hint of autumn. On the side of the road, I meet Warren Scott Anderson, his buddy, Tony, and their two dogs.
They’re street musicians looking to hitchhike “somewhere south of here.” They both wear cowboy hats and Anderson is sipping a PBR. He’s 34 years old and has been on the road ever since struggling with a gambling problem in Reno, Nevada four years ago.
“I like the legacy of the highway,” he says, referring to America’s long-time fascination with the open road. Think Woody Guthrie, Jack Kerouac or John Steinbeck. Anderson says he enjoys the uncertainty of hitchhiking – sometimes, he’s had to wait a week for a ride. Other days it happens after a couple of minutes.
“I guess I’m still a gambler,” he says laughing.
Anderson is shot through with a nomad’s mentality and his freewheeling lifestyle gives him unique insight into this country. Sure, he sees a politically divided America. But he also says people are kind here.
“America is a beautiful country even though there’s all this polarization and confusion from technology,” he says, referring to what he calls our fetish with social media. “They would love you to think it’s a big scary world. But the truth is, people are good.”
Anderson says he is rarely taken advantage of when hitchhiking and that truckers are some of the best folks he’s met, though one once asked him why he was wasting his life always being on the road.
“He was doing the same thing!” Anderson says shaking his head.
Later, he pulls out his ukulele and plays a rendition of country singer Townes Van Zandt’s song, “White Freightliner Blues.”
I’m going out on a highway
Listen to them big trucks whine
White Freightliner won’t you steal away my mind
Anderson provides me a much-needed reminder that the American identity is immeasurably complicated. We rarely fit into the boxes cable news, social media or politicians might hope we do.
As I say goodbye and continue on, climbing Lost Trail Pass, a lyric from a different song gets lodged in my head. It’s from “America,” by Sufjan Stevens. It was released earlier this year and it’s been a puzzle I’ve been trying to solve since I first heard it.
I am broken, I am beat
But I will find my way like a Judas in heat
I am fortune, I am free
Like a fever of light in the Land of Opportunity
Don’t do to me what you did to America
Don’t do to me what you did to yourself
It’s the “fever of light” line that strikes me as I’m sweating up the pass. The sun is beating down and semi trucks rumble by. I think about the fever of light that is this country, a swirling mess of opinions, hope, love and rage that’s spilling everywhere in 2020. It’s both frightening and exhilarating – the same feeling I have as I’m dizzy and heat-exhausted reaching the top of Lost Trail Pass and entering Idaho. It’s 44 miles of downhill from there and I hope our country reaches a downhill soon, when things are easier and life returns to normal – or maybe a new normal. I don’t think that will happen soon and I fear there will be more pain before we reach the top of this mountain.
There’s also pain – for me, personally – on the way down this physical mountain. Turns out riding 60 miles with a pass in between is a terrible idea. The cool pine forest gives way to Idaho’s high desert sage country. The sun is cooking the pavement in the afternoon and by the time I ride into Salmon, Idaho I feel like I’m surrounded by enemies. The sun is my enemy. My lack of water is an enemy. The confederate flag standing like a middle finger in someone’s front yard is an enemy. I collapse at a hotel in town and chug water from the sink. I can’t muster the energy to speak with anyone so I decide to take a rest day in Salmon tomorrow.