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 1: Leadore to Birch Creek Campground, 50 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.
I’m staring at an American flag near the library in Leadore. It’s faded from the summer sun and its tattered, frayed edges are whipping in the wind. A few years ago, I imagine, someone bought that flag at a nearby feed store and hoisted it up the pole, brand new. She lorded over this little pocket of the West until the weather and the wind started tearing her apart.
Now she is half decayed. The red washes out into the color of the setting sun. The white transforms into desert dirt. The blue evaporates into the arid, bright sky. Flags don’t last very long in the Lemhi valley. It’s a rough country with brutal winters. But that hardness also creates a sense of community.
“Even if we hate each other politically, we’re going to help each other out when the chips are down because we all know we’re in this together,” Dave, a Leadore resident who won’t give his last name (I’ll get to that later), says. “It’s like a really disjointed family.”
Dave is leaning on his red Pontiac Firebird outside of Leadore’s only post office. He’s lived here for more than 25 years and he loves the mountains, the weather, the affordability and the sparse population of Leadore. But he’s also an oddball because he’s one of the few people in town wearing a mask to reduce the risk of transmitting COVID–19.
“No one here, or in this country, seems to be taking this seriously,” he says. “We’re at six million cases of this and nobody seems to care. It alarms me because I’m old, and if I catch this it could be the end of me.”
Dave is a rebuke to the blue Trump flags flying around town. He has a voracious news appetite and watches PBS, BBC and Telemundo. He’s aware that other countries have done a much better job handling the pandemic than the United States. And while he’s a lifelong Republican, he’s essentially given up on the party as “being poisoned.”
He plans to vote libertarian this November and he’s baffled that most folks in the valley don’t feel the same way.
“[Trump] does not represent the values of the people who are out here,” he says. “Anyone that thinks a billionaire is a friend of the common man is pretty much short-sighted.”
But for some, Trump’s wealth is a positive. I’m reminded of a conversation I had a few days earlier with Richard Roznowski, a truck driver living in Hamilton, Montana.
“I don’t have to worry about him being bought off, paid off or intimidated because he has a bunch of money and writes his own paychecks,” he’d told me.
He also acknowledged that Trump sometimes lies to the public but that didn’t seem to bother him.
“There is no completely honest politician. Pretty much politicians are all liars – they’ve always been that way. Trump is about the only one you can actually figure will get stuff done because he’s a businessman. He wouldn’t be a billionaire if he was honest, though.”
He figures somewhere along the line all extremely wealthy people, including Trump, have to lie, cheat, steal or take advantage of someone to get their money.
“Look at me – I’m honest and I’m poor as hell,” he laughed. “Look where that got me.”
Roznowski’s views are emblematic of other Trump supporters I spoke with. The president, they figure, gets things done. But being on the wrong side of the president in small towns like Leadore puts Dave in a tight spot.
“I've actually had people say, ‘Wearing a mask? You're showing disrespect for the President. What is wrong with you?’” he says, shaking his head.
As we’re chatting, a mustachioed man pulls up to the post office in an old pickup truck. Dave says hello twice and the man ignores him. They don't talk because of Dave’s politics. And while he stresses that, at the end of the day, everyone will come together to help someone in need here, he’s uncomfortable giving me his last name because he doesn’t want other Leadore residents to listen to this. He worries that there may be a time when they don’t come to help.
“There is some spite,” he acknowledges.
That afternoon, I ride past another American flag. It’s a little plastic one – the kind you would buy at a Wal-Mart ahead of Independence Day. Someone pinned it onto a fence post at the top of a small, high desert pass called Gilmore Summit. The wind whips and the flag has been torn to shreds. It reminds me of the gutted, twisted, dead deer I see on the side of the highway – grotesque cartoons of themselves.
I push off, away from this harbinger of death and continue on down the highway towards my evening campsite along Birch Creek near the southern mouth of the valley.