What Growing up in a Small Mountain Town Has Taught me About the Larger Division and Polarization in America
Even as Joe Biden clinched the presidential nomination this past Saturday, the fact that this race was “close” at all (or perhaps “delayed” is a better term?) is a major harbinger of continuing division in our country and for what’s to come in the next four years. The United States is two very different United States. As the 2020 elections draws to a close one thing is for sure, people have not abandoned their support for Donald Trump. If anything, they have doubled down. It was mostly white people, including white women and white evangelicals, yet more Hispanics also voted for Trump in 2020 than in 2016. Many of them were rural (something that was talked about to death after 2016, i.e., the white rural voter and what it meant) but many Trump supporters were also from places like Orange County, Miami, Los Angeles, and even New York City. What does it all mean? Other than the fact that Black women quite literally saved our democracy?
It appears we occupy two very different identities inside this country called America. “It shouldn’t be this close,” was the common refrain I heard from this in my social stratosphere. Yet more people voted for the President this year than last year. The fact alone is confounding to many of us. The problem is not polarization, it’s schizophrenia (maybe we should split up now, amicably, before civil war and political violence are sure to ensure). But how would we become two different countries even if we wanted to? We are a country made up of dense populations dots of blue amidst a sea of vast, outstretched redlands.
One thing has also become clear in this election, the rural (mostly white) voting bloc still came out for Trump, though many courageous gains were made in states like Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada, (bolstered by black and native organizers). If we want to understand this division between liberal and conservative, if progressives truly want to sway voters in coming elections, the rural vs. urban divide is once again a place we need to continue to look.
This was made fresh in my brain after reading a Tweet by the writer Dean Bakopoulos, who started a thread as such:
AOC echoed this sentiment earlier this week by saying that if progressive voters do nothing in these types of places, Facebook alone will radicalize them.
Ouch, I thought, when I read Bakopoulos’s Twitter thread. I don’t want to do that.
I grew up in the small mountain town of Bailey, Colorado you see. It was a strange mixture of rednecks, libertarians, conservative Christians, hippies, new age folk, and people who commuted to the suburbs of Denver for jobs in nondescript business centers. People who liked to keep to themselves. People who didn’t like the government. People who liked to disappear. People who wanted to be left alone. There was a meth house two houses away from mine. There were a lot of meth houses, if you got back into the hills far enough, the neighborhoods surrounded by aspens and ponderosa pines and dirt roads and herds of deer and elk munching their way through the hillsides and fields.
Bailey was spread out among hills and rocks and rivers. The actual town itself was no bigger than football field, located at the bottom of Crow Hill alongside highway 285 by the South Platte River. You could blink and never see it. You could yawn and miss it. It was a lower-middle-class, blue-collar bedroom community of Denver in Park County with sites of recreational activities like hunting, fishing, boating, mountain biking, and climbing. It was also a moderately alcoholic, economically challenged rural county. The least churched county in Colorado as my dad would say, even though my family went to church three times a week and both my parents were raised in Christian households. It wasn’t Colorado Springs I guess my dad was trying to say, where the conservative group Focus on the Family had headquarters. Park County and the nearby towns of Fairplay, Evergreen, Littleton, and Golden are basically where the satirical adult animation show South Park is set. Like the character Token, in South Park, there was only one black kid in my graduating class.
There was one stoplight in our town, at the top of Crow Hill. One year there were two, when they were doing construction and making on and off ramps. The one stoplight was by the Loaf N’ Jug, which was built when I was in the ninth grade and contained a Subway. Everyone went crazy when Subway came to town. Shit just got real.
We lived in a log house in Bailey, one my dad added on to and built out incessantly — adding a spare bedroom and wrap-around deck, a deck made from logs he felled and peeled himself. A new pellet stove and an older cast iron wood stove provided our only source of heat, which was plenty. Each morning in the winter my dad would rise early and light the kindling and faded newspapers until the smoke and heat began to rise, slowly warming up our wooden house. The aspen trees outside skeletal, the snow crystallized. I am reminded now of that poem by Robert Hayden:
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
Unlike the father in Hayden’s poem however, we never feared my dad’s anger; he was kind and affectionate.
My mom decorated our house in a rustic cabin aesthetic with bears and moose and antiques and various items of lodge and mountain cabin kitsch. Each morning she’d come downstairs thickly layered in sweatpants, a bathrobe, and a thick blanket, and pour herself a cup of coffee, coffee she’d then mix with Splenda and a dash of creamer. Coffee was first for both my parents. Coffee they’d reheat over and over in the microwave as the cold Colorado air cooled it almost instantaneously.
In Bailey I grew up playing ice hockey on ponds and making out with girls in yellow buses, where the bus driver, my friend Randy’s mom, knew both of our parents and threatened to tell them if we didn’t stop. I grew up small and Colorado. I climbed rocks. I hiked mountains.
We had two acres in Bailey and one horse named Shasta and I think my dad secretly wanted me to be cowboy — like he was for a period of time, riding broncos and breaking his nose — but I was more interested in skateboarding and going to hardcore shows. So, my sister took up riding horses while I spent my time hitting up what little pavement existed in our small town.
While I still love the outdoors, I think it’s funny that with all that country I was around, I only wanted concrete to shred. But my father never pushed me to do anything I didn’t want to do. Even if I didn’t like horses we both liked being outside and so we did that together. He even told me I didn’t have to go college, “I spent four years after high school training horses,” he said, “And then I went to school and met your mom and got a masters. It’s different for everyone.”
For many years my association with growing up in my hometown of Bailey was a positive one. That would all change in the years and culture wars to come.
* * *
I grew up rural but I now live urban and have since I left home at 18. I’m 32 now which means in four years I will have lived half my life in the country and half my life in the city. I can codeswitch between my rural, mountain upbringing and my now progressive city-dwelling life. It’s not an entirely unique point of view, but it does give one an interesting perspective. I can understand the disconnect on the many areas of disagreement between rural v. urban communities — on everything from the economy, to the second amendment, religion and each’s view of social institutions like the police.
For instance, most residents in Bailey knew the police, unlike cities, where the majority of the police force live in communities outside of where they work, On average, among the 75 U.S. cities with the largest police forces, 60 percent of police officers reside outside the city limits[i]” (in Portland, where I live now, only 17% of the police live here in Portland, which is perhaps why we see such brutality unleashed by the PPB against protestors. The police do not view protestors as members of their own community, because they are not[ii]). Yet the police were members of our small community. You saw them in the grocery store, at the post office, walking their dogs. You knew where they lived.
The school “resource officer” at my high school — Platte Canyon High — was a man named John Tighe. He was a quite tall, well-built man with nicely combed white hair and a thick grey mustache. Like most “school resource officers” he was also police officer. He was not just any cop though, John Tighe was also our high school’s driver’s ed teacher. I passed my driving test to get my license with the man. But he was not just a school resource office, policeman, and driver’s ed teacher. He was also a congregant at Platte Canyon Community church where my family went. The Tighe family was hard to miss. I would see him and all three of his extremely tall kids and tall wife each Sunday standing in the front middle rows of our sanctuary, towering over nearly everyone else as we worshipped together. I worked with his oldest daughter Lindsey, at Camp ID-RA-HA-JE as an outdoor adventure counselor the summer after I graduated high school.
In 2006, the same year I had left for college, a drifter walked into our high school and took six girl’s hostage. I was a freshman at Western University in Gunnison, Colorado walking to the student union across the freshly watered green campus lawn when I got the call from my mom.
“Have you heard the news?” she asked, clearly panicked.
“News?” I asked. “No.”
“There’s been a shooting,” she said.
I immediately thought of Columbine. We all know about Columbine of course now, but growing up in Colorado we had friend of friends or church parishioners who knew people who had actually gone to Columbine. The school was only a forty-five minutes away from Bailey in the suburbs of Denver. The Columbine shooting hit all of us Coloradans particularly hard. Back in time when mass shootings were rare and not an everyday occurence.
“It’s okay though,” she said, “Toby (my brother) is locked down in the middle school and Alyssa was on a field trip. Thank God.”
I didn’t know what to do. There was no Twitter. No live updates. I had to wait until later that night to hear the news.
Shortly after I hung with my mom that afternoon, SWAT showed up to the high school and began to negotiate with the white domestic terrorist. The man let some of the girls go. Then one girl, Emily Keyes, tried to escape and he shot her, fatally, before shooting himself.
In many ways, it turned out to be the singularly defining tragedy of our small town. To this day, when you look up “Bailey, Colorado,” online, it is one of the first items of news you see.
Some years later, a man shot three deputies while they tried to evict him, killing one of them. The officer who was shot, Cpl. Nate Carrigan, was also a beloved baseball and football coach at our high school.
It was because of events like these that we viewed the police as our protectors. We respected them. We admired their bravery and mourned their deaths. Also, it probably didn’t hurt that they were white and most of us were white, which was what the origins of the police in America were built for — to protect white and wealthy people from immigrants and labor-union organizers (the original police force in the South were slave catchers after all).[iii]
Most of the people in Bailey Colorado were also gun owners and libertarians. Many of them have served in the military. Every Sunday at church we would pray for those in the military and Israel:
“Lord, we pray for the nation of Israel and we pray for our troops,” an older gentleman named Doug would always pray each Sunday. “We pray for the President and our country,” others would say. “We pray for those persecuted Christians around the world. And one guy, a big bellied bearded jolly biker would say this prayer:
“Lord, we know it’s not that important, but we do want to lift up The Denver Broncos today as well.”
Every Fourth of July we’d sing patriotic hymns like America the Beautiful and The Battle Hymn of the Republic. There were also a lot of stoner-hippie-New-Agey folks in our community, but I didn’t know many of them as I grew up in a bubble of American Conservative Evangelicalism. Thus, our communities support for the police was also tied up in theology and nationalism.
Yet, as polarization has come to dominate the American landscape, I find it harder and harder to empathize and care for the same people I grew up with, even as this might be the most important work to do in the next four years. For it seems they also find it harder and harder to empathize with many of the same people I now consider friends and family. People I met beyond my small mountain town. Muslim, black, Jewish, and queer people. On Facebook, many of the people I grew up with are now unashamed supporters of 45 who post slogans like “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter.” I’ve debated many of them in the comment sections of the internet on Facebook and Instagram (including my old youth pastor and his wife, whose daughter is now married to a police officer). Yet many of them think the organization Black Lives Matter is a radical leftist terrorist/Marxist organization. I find myself questioning how we are to bridge such wide gaps of cultural and ideological divides. My old Sunday school teacher, for instance, who recently praised the death of an Austin, Texas Antifa shooting on Instagram saying that Antifa members need to be shot down in the street because they are destroying our country. We cannot agree on what it even means to be “American” or what or who America is for. Perhaps it always been this way and we are just now coming to terms with the myth falling apart. Yet I don’t have to return to Bailey to see this dynamic at play. I only need to drive thirty minutes outside of Portland to find the same sort of people. And while I think it’s entirely possible for someone to vote for Trump and not be a racist, if you are part of the cult of Trumpism in any way, you have to know that you belong to a fascist, white nationalist ideology. Of course, the Trumpists do not see it this way, but that is because they are under a demonic spell.
My own naïve hope is that if people just got to know each other and took some time to understand the “other,” the world would be a better place. If an East Coast Liberal from New York City could meet someone from Bailey, Colorado, if our communities could merge somehow, if people in conservative bubbles from small white mountain towns could get to know a black or a gay or trans person in the big city, perhaps we could all get along, see that we are more alike than different. But maybe we have already created our own bubbles and divisions. Maybe it is already too late.
I now live in Portland, Oregon and have spent the last fifteen years of my life in Western cities like Portland, Denver, and Salt Lake. As white as these cities in the West are, they are still more diverse than the rural areas outside of them. Is race a factor? Undoubtedly.
Here is my very simple point: If you live in a rural area, you do not meet the same type of people that you would by living in a city. That’s it. There is very little diversity in rural or western America. Likely because those places were considered (or are still) unsafe by minorities (just look up Sundown Towns if you don’t believe me. Towns where if you were black and caught after dark you could be killed).
While many rural residents would deny any labels of racism, their failure to acknowledge any sort of past mistakes or systemic injustice makes them blind to the plight of black Americans today. Most of the people I grew up with, most people in rural areas, don’t know anyone who is Black or even Jewish, Muslim, Gay, Native, or Asian. Now, people in rural areas may rant all day about how “Washington” and the “Federal Government” don’t understand their small towns, but they also don’t understand the plights of their fellow citizens because they don’t know any people like them or choose to empathize with others outside of their community. The end result of this is that we belong to two different communities. White and rural. Diverse and urban (and yet still, the fact that many people even in urban areas voted for Trump is an indicator of his cult-like reach into conservative ideology).
Yet at this point, if you don’t understand the point of something like Black Lives Matter you are willfully ignorant of history and reality. Maybe the problem isn’t with rural communities with Trumpism and these types of voters: “Trump won support in Florida from voters who do not believe climate change or racism are a problem.”
Don’t be like them.
I also think many liberals and democrats may discount how important something such as abortion is to a majority of conservative religious voters who make up rural and suburban communities. These people are willing to overlook the fascist antics of the president and the party’s animosity towards refugees, immigrants, women, the LGBTQ community, and people of color in favor of a strong “economy” and single-issue politics like abortion. I can understand it, even though it also drives me crazy. Yet, the depths of schizophrenia, duality, and disassociation in the mind of the “Christian” conservative who voted for Trump and is “Pro-Life,” and yet disregards Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in favor of war, capital punishment, and doesn’t mind if Trump has to teargas some protestors for a photo op in front a church, is unreal. As a someone who follows the way of Jesus myself, it boggles the mind. I try not to paint everyone with so broad of a brush, but at the end of the day, if you stood by the man, I don’t know what to tell you.
It’s clear that there was no blue wave this year. Democrats shunned the more progressive party platforms of people like AOC and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and tried to appeal to centrist Republicans and it did virtually nothing for them. They even lost many seats. I tell you now, I don’t care about the democrats. Even though I’ve been forced to vote democrat so our democracy doesn’t crumble the last four years, I pledge no allegiance to either party. The fact that so many “Christians” have fallen for Trump’s antics as someone who supports their “Christianity,” to think he cares about them, just shows they have built an idol out of a man rather than God.
If any type of healing is to come, it is to come by not just trying to understand why rural, white communities are voting for Trump, but to do outreach in these communities. As Bakpoulos noted in his thread:
“You’re not going to change red state culture campaigning for presidents. You need to do it by working with young people. Changing a culture. The few after school programs in rural white communities are often evangelical church-related, or focus on gun culture in some way.” (Read the whole thread for context).
So I think now of what outreach I can do in more rural communities, many of which are facing chronic economic and drug issues. To me it really all comes down to this. Where are people going to find belonging? They’re going to find it somewhere. And if it’s not somewhere healthy they’re going to join a white nationalist group or radical political organization. We humans in 2020 are hungry for community and yet also isolated and in our own echo chambers because of social media algorithms (which is why Qanon is a thing), pushed to the brink even further by a global pandemic and roiling protests. How do we begin to understand one another? Is there any hope?
Now that my parents and sister and even Grandpa have moved out to Oregon, I have no reason to ever return to my small mountain town. Strange for me, considering that even when I wasn’t living there I visited Bailey at least once a year for almost thirty-years. One day I would like to go back though, take my daughter, show her where I grew up, just for fun. But though I miss the Colorado mountains, to be honest, I don’t really miss Bailey. Though I am always interested to hear news and gossip and see what new developments alongside 285 and in the town itself are now taking place, (there’s a good micro-brewery now for instance) I think it’ll be some time before I return.
Even if you live in Bailey or Miami, one thing is clear: we are moving in a new direction as a country and that gives a lot of hope to people I know. For now, a breath. Tomorrow, we keep pushing to create a world where everyone belongs.