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 30: Rest Day in Salmon
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.
A cold front is moving through the whitewater rafting mecca town of Salmon, Idaho. The smoke has cleared and the autumnal bite in the air that I felt yesterday morning has returned. But waking up in a king-sized bed at a Super 8, I don’t feel that breeze.
Instead I feel the glass-shattering impact of news that a man was shot to death during another night of political unrest in Portland. I hear it on Fox News when I turn on the television, breaking my self-imposed exile from the media cycle during this trip.
I take a long, hot shower and try to wash the fear off. But I can’t stop imagining a pickup truck, flying twin Gadsen, “Don’t Tread On Me” flags like the ones I occasionally see out here, smashing into my bicycle from behind. My crumpled body falls bleeding into a ditch surrounded by all the other detris a highway sees in a year. The skeleton of a dead deer. An empty Coors Light can. Tire ribbons.
That’s the selfish, personal fear that wells up when I read about Kenosha, Portland and the other moments of violent unrest pulling at the frayed edges of this country. That maybe, here in the heart of Idaho, someone might intentionally veer their vehicle and knock out that dumbass, fake news journalist riding a bicycle.
But then I drink some coffee and walk outside.
I mentally downshift back into reality, and wander over to a city park near the Salmon River, which is silty and brown from a recent wash out. There’s a disparity I’ve been experiencing in the last two days between the America I see on television and on social media versus the America I see while moving 10 miles per hour. This America has racism and hate, yes, as evidenced by the confederate flag outside town, but there are deeper currents too. So I’m digging into those.
An older gentleman wearing a wide-brimmed brown hat, glasses and a vest is sitting on a nearby bench. I try to strike up a conversation but I can tell that he doesn’t want to talk. He politely declines a proper interview as he’s packing up his things. Still, I pepper him with a couple of questions. I felt that maybe I was on the edge of being rude. But, walking with a crutch, he answered anyway. He says he’s lived here for three decades. Salmon, he says, was a ghost town when he first arrived. Then tourism revitalized it. But now “the town’s ruined.”
I ask how.
He pauses and gestures to his face and says, “You see the masks? Well that’s one thing.”
Then he walks across the street away from me. I think I understand what he means. Salmon is a small town with a main drag that, pre-pandemic, had a brewpub and a bar featuring a giant owl stitched with arrows on it. Both of those businesses are now closed.
Still, the hard work of revitalization continues in some pockets of town, including at the fly shop nearby.
Inside, Sierra McAdams is helping a group of friends from Colorado prepare for their trip on the river. She’s a fifth-generation Idahoan in her early 20s, with a nose ring and tattoos, who moved here from Boise right when the pandemic first got serious in March. But she stresses that COVID wasn’t the only factor.
“The city was growing so rapidly, expenses were so high, and it just wasn’t the kind of lifestyle I wanted to live,” she says. “Coming to Salmon, it’s almost like taking a step back five or 10 years. Life is slower. It’s easier.”
She says there’s a cohort of young people in Salmon who are molding this town into their own while also trying to preserve its way of life – and that doesn’t necessarily mean saving the town’s traditional, Republican politics. Instead, she says, “I want that small town feeling, that Wild West feeling, to stay the same.”
McAdams is referring to the freedom to drive wherever you want and park on the side of the road and sleep. Or walking out your back door and hiking in public lands nearby. Or buying inexpensive land and building a self-sustaining, off-the-grid farm – something she says more and more young people are doing around Salmon.
“It’s admirable,” she says. “Especially in the world that we live in where we don’t know what’s going to be around the corner.”
She’s an example of a different kind of migrant in the West – young, urban folks who are tired of how expensive cities are, are concerned about the environment, and are moving to rural communities to live closer to the earth. It has its roots in the “back-to-the-land” movement that sprouted in the 1970s, and our conversation reminds me of a quote about the modern West from one of the region’s preeminent writers, Wallace Stegner.
“The real people of the West are infrequently cowboys and never myths,” he writes in The Sound of Mountain Water, a book I’m reading along this journey. “They live in places like Denver and Salt Lake, Dillon and Boise, American Fork and American Falls, and they confront the real problems of real life in a real region.”
These latter-day Westerners aren’t always Yellowstone-inspired investment bankers or conservative Californians frustrated with coastal politics.
They’re young people, punks, retired military veterans, and folks like Steve Ayers, who I meet sitting on a bench near a cafe. He’s sipping a morning beer and wearing a loose-fitting blue t-shirt. He’s a recent transplant to Salmon, living in his recently deceased sister’s vacant home.
“The city seized my house in California. So then I was homeless,” he says. “I figured, rather than be homeless, I'll move into this house because it was vacant for a couple years.”
Ayers is a recovering methamphetamine addict – it was the reason he lost his house in Los Angeles. Before those hard times, he worked security for Paramount Pictures in Hollywood. He says he was on the set of sitcoms such as Happy Days, LaVerne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy, Taxi, Cheers and Family Ties.
But living in Salmon is a big shift from Los Angeles. Ayers loves the surrounding creeks, forests and mountains, but he’s also “bored to death.”
“There’s nothing bad about it. It’s just a small town. There’s not much to do. Unless you have a hobby or you go fishing, you’re going to go stir crazy. Because there’s only one Burger King here. There’s a couple of bars, too, which I don’t go to,” he says.
Ayers struggles with depression and making friends here. However, he recently joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and some of the other parishioners are helping him fix up his sister’s house. He’s also keeping an eye on any dirt bikes for sale to go “cow trailing,” which is a fun phrase for riding on two-track dirt roads. Ayers says he’ll probably die here and has no plans to move back to California.
He offers me a drink but I decline – it’s still morning and I’m working – and we chat some more off record before I ride off.
One thing that struck me about my conversations today was that both McAdams and Ayers don’t really follow the news – and they seem quite content. McAdams remembers when her mother visited recently and gave her a crash course in the latest happenings, such as the protests in Portland.
“And I'm like, ‘What?’ And I hop online and I'm like, Oh, my God, like, this is getting crazy,” she says.
So now, she’s focusing on the positives in her life, such as eating healthy, fly fishing and being around good people.
“I feel like me not being so invested in the news and focusing on my life, what makes me happy, and who I am – I feel as if that’s my ripple effect in this weird world that we live in,” she says. “Instead of being like, ‘oh, did you hear about whatever happened and yada yada?’”
I’m a news junkie but in this experiment of “slow journalism” I’m trying to take a break from my usual 24/7 media diet. It’s hard, and I’m looking forward to the frequent moments on this ride when I’m out of service and the choice is taken away from me.