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 2: Birch Creek Campground to Rexburg, 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 wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of a skunk stealing my garbage. I’m camping alongside Birch Creek at the southern edge of central Idaho’s Lemhi valley and I foolishly thought I wouldn’t need to hang a bear bag.
I was wrong.
By the time I stumble out of my tent the skunk has dragged my garbage bag – a ziploc containing a crushed Budweiser can, an empty freeze-dried meal bag and a deli salami wrapper – across the campsite and towards my bicycle. I have more food in there, so I throw some small stones at the skunk to make him go away.
He doesn’t move. He stares back, his dead little eyes reflecting the glow of my headlamp. I throw another stone and it almost hits him.
He scurries off, leaving myself and my bicycle blessedly un-skunked. I can’t imagine riding while smelling like that.
After a restless night awaiting the skunk’s return, I awake to the morning desert sunlight filtering through the mesh of my tent. It’s cold and I pack up my camp, drinking hot instant coffee made with water from the creek. Getting onto my bicycle feels good today – I have 64 miles ahead of me and no plans to interview anyone until I arrive in Rexburg tonight.
Over the past few days in the Lemhi valley, I’ve felt myself slipping into a slower current. So when my editor calls, mid-morning, and asks if I’ve heard the latest news from the Trump administration, it feels like she’s calling from a different America.
I ride in the America of headwinds, sagebrush, desert sun and semi-trucks. Flattened rattlesnakes, coyote yelps and jagged mountains. And if you don’t speak with anyone, or you whisper to those who live quietly in towns like Leadore or Tendoy, you can lose yourself in the waves of this wild, rugged America.
“I can leave my house on my four wheeler or my dirt bike and hit all kinds of lakes, streams, camping spots and mountain ridges,” Stacy Findley, postmaster in Leadore, told me yesterday. “We haul our own firewood and we’re pretty much self-sufficient. We have a garden and a greenhouse. It’s a great place to live.”
Findley moved to Leadore more than two decades ago from Redding, California.
“It was getting violent,” she said. “I drove a bus for Dial-A-Ride and one night somebody shot out the back window. So when we got pregnant, we decided, maybe it's a good time to change where we're living.”
Nowadays, she worries about an increase in drugs coming into the valley and transforming its way of life. After all, she lives in what some politicians call the “real” America – that is, rural America.
Riding through the Lemhi valley, this feels like the real America. But as I float back to earth, I remember that the urban, coastal America is also real. And so is the America where protesters and police clash with each other on the streets of Portland. Same with the America that exists online, shouting politically-charged epithets over high-speed, fiber optic cables.
The United States has a million faces – no wonder we are at odds with each other.
But right now, I’m lucky enough to see just one face. A road, the sun and a lot of open country. I put a headphone into my right ear – the other is open so I can listen to oncoming traffic – and hum along to the waltz of country singer Colter Wall’s new song, “Cowpoke.”
From Cheyenne to Douglass
The ranges I know
As I drift with the wind
No one cares where I go
I play the song over and over again, coasting out of the valley and into the green potato and alfalfa fields of the expansive Snake River plain. In the far distance, for the first time, I can see the Tetons. Arguably America’s most famous mountain range, they rise out of the warm, afternoon haze. I can’t believe I’ve ridden my bicycle this far. I thought my knee would give out by now – it was injured during a marathon seven years ago – but it’s feeling good. I’m feeling good. We’re grooving.
By late afternoon, I’m only a few miles out from Rexburg. There’s a cross on the side of the highway. It’s propped up with black lava stones and surrounded by colorful, plastic flowers. It says “RIP sis / daughter ‘19” and there are small shards of headlight on the ground. A broken piece of black bumper. I stop and think about the thousands of people who die on American highways every year – the only reminder, a wooden cross like this one, often unseen by the cars hurdling past at 65 miles per hour.
I push on and get a motel room in Rexburg. It’s a mormon hub in eastern Idaho and I’ll spend tomorrow here, seeing if I can interview some students at the local BYU campus.