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.
August 31: Salmon to Leadore, 46 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 earth slows. Cars disappear and the highway disappears into a thin, black ribbon over the high sagebrush desert of central Idaho’s Lemhi valley. There is snow on the mountains and Black angus cattle everywhere, a chorus of wails as ranch hands on all-terrain vehicles push the animals into different grazing spots. But mostly the land is quiet and I enjoy the solitude, cycling steadily uphill.
By mid-afternoon I’ve made good progress and I slow, spotting two fawns feeding on tall grass in a ditch near the highway. Hawks cry overhead. The sun dips away above low-hanging clouds which shroud the nearby Lemhi mountains in gray mystery.
As I ride past the fawns, however, they spook, slamming their bodies into a pasture fence. One gets its neck stuck and panics. I feel terrible. Moving across the West, we change everything. We influence the world just by our presence. The animal eventually releases itself and they both run away, trying to find a break in the fence.
An hour later I reach the tiny ranching community of Leadore, a kind of Western town whose main street is the highway. There are a jumble of manufactured homes sitting on adjacent dirt side roads, some flying prominent Trump 2020 flags. One has a confederate flag.
After making camp at the city park, I enter the town’s only bar, a small, dim place where the taxidermied deer, elk and bear outnumber the patrons.
I sit down at a corner table but I don’t announce that I’m a reporter or that I’m interviewing rural and small town Westerners ahead of the 2020 election.
I don’t want to change the atmosphere of this place. I just want to write in my notebook, drink a beer, eat a burger and absorb the energy of a bar in a town with a population of around 100 people.
One patron talks about how Californians are starting to move into the valley. She says that they don’t have the same sense of community that Idahoans do, because Idahoans were homesteaders. They were forced to help each other out during hard winters. Californians, on the other hand, she says, are descended from gold miners. They are out to get whatever they can, no matter what the cost, and they don’t need others to help them dig. They can leave a place once it's struck out. It’s a broad generalization, assuming that all Californians are descended from the miners who raided that state more than 150 years ago. It’s also funny because most of the folks I’ve spoken with on this journey originated from California.
As she’s talking, a man with a magnificent mullet, clad in pajama pants and hiking boots, saunters through the bar’s door. He leaves the door wide open, letting a cold wind blow in.
“Hey, can you close the door?” the woman asks. “You’re letting all the cold air in.”
“I’m going right back out to grab more gear,” the mullet man says.
Then he points to the bar where the woman is sitting and says, “I’m going to need that entire bar for the next two hours.”
After he returns from his car he pulls out an old, bulky laptop and sits down at the bar. It’s internet time. The patrons start chatting about the recent cold weather and the mullet man interjects.
“It snows here every year of the month. Ask me. I’m up here all the time,” he says. “I lived here for 41 years and I know this place better than anyone.”
Then he tells the bartender that he’ll have a beer. He proceeds to walk behind the bar and take a look at the inventory.
“We have a little bit of everything,” the bartender says.
“I know,” the mullet man replies.
He orders a budweiser and a chicken fried steak. Eventually the other patrons leave, appearing uncomfortable with his presence, and the mullet man chats with me and another tourist about travelling in the West. He mentions that he currently lives in Mexico these days and that he’s visiting his old hometown, Leadore, for a few weeks. But then a little while later, he says that he lived in Salt Lake City for 41 years.
I get the feeling that this guy has made himself into a myth – he lives everywhere, knows everything, and is smarter than everyone else. That makes conversation dull. The other tourist eventually pays for his meal and walks out the door.
Now it’s just me and the mullet man. He’s gearing up to chat with his second wife over the internet. I’m finishing my beer and writing in my notebook when he says, “you better get going now.” His back is turned to me.
I say, “what?”
He replies, “thanks.”
So I leave. I’m not about to push back at this guy. He seems off. As I’m riding towards my campsite, I think about the kind of people empty country like this attracts. Leadore is emblematic of many small outposts in the West. Little communities full of unconventional people from all over America who want to live their lives by their own rules.
Earlier, I spoke with one of those folks. Cheryl Ostern helps run a little convenience store in Tendoy, which is really more of a crossroads than a town.
“It’s God’s country,” she says. “All the solitude, it’s not populated, and I just love it here.”
Like some in the Lemhi valley, she relies on timber from the nearby mountain forests to heat her home and cook her food, and she doesn’t like technology.
“I could throw my cell phone away. Sometimes I’ve threatened to throw it away. I don’t like computers, either. I just like to be very laid back and not worry about that,” Ostern says.
She’s found the perfect nest, living in a cabin in a slow backwater of the West. She doesn’t bother with national politics and her only concern about the outside world is whether it will come to Tendoy, “that it will be subdivided and more population will move in.”
But she says the ranches here are large, financially strong and aren’t tempted to sell. Her husband is hanging out near us and when I strike up a conversation he doesn’t say much. He’s comfortable with silence.