From the Beltway to the Backroads: Reflections on America’s Not-So-Great Divide
By Colin D. Laursen & Breanna M. Forni
Along Missouri State Highway D, there are decaying barns that have stood for well over 100 years. There are shabby trailer homes with hundreds of thousands of dollars of farm equipment sitting idle in the yard. There are a few remnants of the great pine forests that dominated the landscape until it was clear-cut for the railroads in the 1800s. Many of the scenes from Winter’s Bone were filmed here.
It’s a long drive home on D highway. Some nights you drop into one of its many valleys and find it illuminated by the floodlights of a family’s practice rodeo arena—boys racing around lassoing calves for sport. Another afternoon you wind down a hillside past the Taj Mahal, by most accounts the most gorgeous piece of property in three counties. On a spring day it is a sea of yellow goldenrod pastures rolling towards a wooded creek. Atop this Arcadian landscape sits a squalid house and a yard overrun with all manner of impedimenta. At a passing glance it seems as if the only residents of the Taj Mahal are the animals. Horses wander about, sometimes crossing the highway. Goats, dogs, and chickens pass in and out of the house’s open doors. There is one person who lives here though, an older woman with long, strangely youthful, silver hair. It is said she sometimes performs surgery, without the use of anesthesia, on the animals she takes in.
There is a hairpin turn that is a particular danger to newcomers on D highway. “I thought I was 'bout to do a 360!” exclaimed a friend who came to visit. The turn is actually much closer to a 180. Come around this curve on the fourth of July and you will see members of the Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church all stand up from their lawn chairs, sparklers in hand, and wave to any car that passes by.
That is when we moved here, the fourth of July. We did not come here searching for some lost idyllic vision of rural America. Instead, having the rare opportunity to take over a run-down and unwanted family farm, we determined that perpetuating our generation's status quo with more of the same attempts to overcome it—more jobs, more debt, more education—wasn't quite as appealing as trying our hands at building our own new project in this old and often forgotten American landscape. Against the backdrop of a politically divided America, ongoing economic stagnation, and our departure from life in the District of Columbia, it felt like a fitting day to arrive on “the other side” of America.
It’s 11 a.m. I'm sitting at the kitchen table over a lukewarm cup of Folgers and this week’s issue of The New Yorker. Moving from the urban comfort of Washington, DC to the rugged and far-removed terrain of rural Missouri has meant making some sacrifices. In this case, the gourmet beans are gone so that the weekly dose of news can remain.
The radio is on. My mother-in-law leaves it playing for the dogs.
“If it's too quiet they get lonely,” she says.
As I stare vacantly out at the cows in the pasture, country music star Blake Shelton tells me about the “boys 'round here.” He tells me that, among other things, the boys enjoy trucks, women, cold beer, and chewing tobacco. He says nothing of their brand preferences. He also does not specify where “here” is, but I think it's safe to assume he's not talking about Portland, Oregon. I also think we can rule out Portland, Maine. Ditto Miami. Ditto The Bronx.
It seems that rock’n’roll was invented expressly to aid young men in the removal of young women’s undergarments. The blues was invented when some poor soul wound up too broke even to get drunk. To be honest, I'm not sure why country music came about. But judging by what I hear on the radio, it seems it was created so that a certain group of people could express an identity, or a concept. That is: what it means to be country.
The songs that follow Mr. Shelton’s tell me this group also values courage, self-reliance, and hard work. The importance of driving a truck is reiterated several times.
Equally important, the songs tell me what these people do not value. They apparently don't listen to The Beatles. They don't run in times of danger. They don't like law enforcement, or worse yet, government telling them what to do. Merle Haggard comes on to make it clear that they don't approve of any fashion trends popular in San Francisco.
Curiously, all of this makes me think of Lil' Wayne.
People have all sorts of theories about why hip hop came about. Yet, regardless of its origins, it appears to have evolved into one big, self-obsessed parade of ostentation. At least, that’s what you hear when you turn on the radio.
Rappers talk a lot about identity. They talk about who they are, where they're from, what they own. They're fond of creating new metaphors for how well they rap. Jay-Z made an entire career out of coming up with ever-new ways to rhyme that he was “the greatest” until people just accepted it.
Rappers also tell us about their values. They remind us that they “hustle” in order to succeed. They've survived “the struggle” because of their own ingenuity, and that's what is going to lead them to out-perform every other rapper. They tell us that they don't like power structures, especially the police. They also talk a lot about the vehicles they drive.
Just to be sure, I run out to our car—an old Toyota we bought in DC—and rifle through the center console. The girl who sold it to us left several things inside, including a collection of mixed CDs featuring lots of Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson, and Lil' Wayne.
I interrupt my country broadcast to pop in a blank red disc. A few tracks in I find what I am looking for:
“Fresher than the harvest, step up to the target,
If I had one guess, I guess I'm just New Orleans
And I will never stop, like I'm running from the Cops
Hop up in my car and told the chauffeur 'to the top'”
I flip back to the radio.
“I live in the woods ya see,
A woman and the kids and the dog and me,
I got a shotgun rifle and a 4-wheel drive,
And a country boy can survive.”
I turn the radio off.
Maybe this is merely a post-modern dilemma: the need for self-expression, the differentiation from other groups, the need to commodify and project culture. After all, I don't recall Louis Armstrong or Billie Holliday singing about dominating “The Jazz Game.” I don't think Johnny Cash or Woody Guthrie ever sang about what kind of truck they drove. Still, when I listen to the current crop of rock, indie, or pop music, I don't notice this same obsession with identity, with what it means to be street or to be country.
But then again, the demographics of those genres are different. Hip hop and country music represent, or at least purport to represent, the urban and rural poor respectively. People pushed to the margins of society. People made irrelevant by the US economic model. People who feel the need to tell the world “Hey, we're here too.” People who have grown to love their lifestyle, if for no other reason than because it's all they've ever known. People who have developed insular micro-cultures, because the rest of the world has turned its back.
I press the power button again.
“Where I come from,
If a couple boys fight in the parking lot
No, nobody's going to call the cops.”
When the well drillers call, we're on day three of our honeymoon.
“We’ll be there at seven in the mornin’.”
Problem is, we’re in Santa Fe.
“Tomorrow?” we ask.
“Yup, state deadline is two weeks. You want us to come or not?”
We applied for the USDA grant in the middle of the drought. The well drillers didn’t get to our project slip till late October. If you didn’t get it completed by the deadline, you didn’t get the money. The drillers are responsible for drilling a hole; but getting the water from that hole, to a two and a half ton concrete tank for the cattle, well, that was our job. That meant we had to call Bud.
Bud is an intimidating man. He towers over most people, always forcing you to look up to meet his opaque blue-eyed gaze. He has the hands and frame of a man who's worked hard his entire life.
Bud lives even further into the hills than we do. His house is set back from the road, deep in the woods; he says he doesn’t like to socialize with neighbors. Bud is also a Mormon. None of this is really relevant to our cause. What is important is that Bud owns a backhoe.
As we walk down the drive toward the house, four or five of his German shepherds approach us. Perhaps we should have driven. After a short discussion, Bud agrees to come survey our project.
“Get in the dually, you shouldn’t be walking around here. There’s a bear in the area you know.”
The ride back to our farm is just about a mile, yet somehow it feels longer than the walk over. Bud breaks the silence.
“So you moved here from DC?”
“Yeah, got in on the fourth of July. We really love it here, wanted to be closer to our…”
“I just want you to know that I don’t wanna talk about politics.”
“No problem Bud, we totally understand. Gosh, that’s half the reason we left D…”
“Pardon my French, but I don’t vote for n*ggers.”
Despite my genuine desire to not discuss my political views with this man, it takes all my self-control not to respond, “that’s okay Bud, ‘cause I don’t vote for Mormons.” But I resist the temptation to stoop to that level, and besides, none of this has to do with our ditch.
Over the course of the next two weeks, Bud proves himself to be quite adept with a backhoe.
“She leaks oil like a sieve. You gotta cover that in addition to my pay. But I work for cheap, I'm not tryin' to make money off my neighbors.”
It turns out that Bud is a pretty helpful guy. In addition to the times he says he’ll come to dig, he starts showing up randomly, offering advice on more efficient and cost-effective ways to do things. He explains to us the importance of rotating our pastures and conserving our land. He hears about the affinity for duck eggs we developed while working in a French restaurant. He brings us a dozen and leaves them on the porch.
Bud grinds his own wheat, makes his own bread, and eats almost entirely from his garden. He talks a lot about the importance of conservation. One day he tells us that he has converted his truck to run on French fry grease.
“Wow, it runs on bio-diesel?”
“Call it what ya want. This is one truck that doesn't support the oil industry.”
And though he never wants to talk about politics, he frequently volunteers comments concerning the unfairness of the economy, “There's no place in it for country people like me. We're not needed anymore.”
Also helping us on the project is our closest neighbor who lives about a quarter mile down the road, Donald Green. Donny is more personable than Bud and being a contractor, he's equally handy. Donny also doesn't want to talk about politics but just for good measure advises, “I'll tell ya, Breanna, you should support Sarah Palin. She could do a lot for a young business woman like yourself.”
Before Breanna can respond, Donny concludes, “I don't wanna talk about politics though,” and returns to wiring the pump.
It’s interesting, this phrase, “I don’t want to talk about politics.” This actually isn’t the first time I’ve heard it. I heard it a lot in DC whenever Breanna would tell someone she was pursuing a PhD in political science. Again, it was always followed by some quick rant or political jab. When Breanna would begin to respond, her response was often cut off, “Hey, I told you I don’t want to talk about politics.”
One night, towards the end of the project, we invite Donny to stay for dinner. Tonight Donny doesn't want to talk about politics, but he does want to tell us that Obama has “done wrong” and that we need someone who can change things.
I can't really blame him; it is in fact this exact sort of vague rhetoric that many of my friends and family back in California use to support our current president. They don't want to talk about politics either, but they do want me to know and agree that he's doing a good job.
But we're not satisfied with not wanting to talk about politics tonight.
“Oh c'mon Donny, you can't do this to me! I just moved here from DC,” Breanna playfully exclaims. “I don't want to talk politics either; I want to know what you care about. I don’t care who you voted for, tell me what you value. What would our society look like if it were up to you? What would you change?”
“Well...it's this economy...and the way things are going...it just ain't right. Everyday working people cannot survive under these conditions. The government has got to get out of the economy.”
“We need to get things under control, level the playing field. You try to run a business today. With today’s economy and the cost of utilities, you’d think building custom, green, sustainable homes, all my own design, would allow me to make a decent living. They help save the environment, and they help my customers save money. Yet after I do the bills, I still barely break even. It’s not right. It's not fair.”
“But does it really come down to government versus business, Donny? Businesses employ lobbyists to influence Congress, they pay to get the government involved. Isn't the more important question whether or not your interests as a small business owner are the same as the businesses that can afford to hire lobbyists? Do you believe they're the same?”
“I’m not sure. I'd have to think about that.”
It is at this moment that I recall that one of the original uses of the term redneck was to describe coal miners from Appalachia who wore red bandannas as a symbol of solidarity while they tried to unionize. It’s rather astonishing how quickly a word’s meaning can change. The effort to organize was a bloody struggle played out in the hills. Demanding better pay and safer working conditions, many rednecks were killed battling strikebreakers and government officials, and the significance of the name was lost on history.
But what about modern rednecks and liberal organizers? The Tea Party doesn't trust “Big Government.” The Occupy Movement doesn't trust “Big Business.” Yet everyone seems to agree that there is a revolving door between America's corporate elite and government regulators, so how far apart can these two movements actually be? If young professionals and college students on the coasts share with rural peoples the feeling of having been rendered invisible, or worse yet, disposable by our political-economic system, how have they become convinced that each is the other's adversary? It seems terribly convenient for those in power that the citizenry has lost the steam to talk about politics.
The similarities I see between these two movements has become a bit of an obsession for me, so much so that whenever a friend calls from back home, without fail, I find myself bringing it up. Whether I'm on the line to San Francisco, Seattle, or DC, the scoffing sound comes right on cue.
“No, they don't have the same values that we do. They’re out of touch with the rest of the country. Man, I don't know how you're living out there with those people.”
A brief pause, and then inevitably, “Anyway, let’s talk about something else.”
One of the benefits of moving to rural America is that delicious, wholesome food no longer costs a day's wages. Of course, a day's wages aren't what they used to be back on the coasts, but the fact remains, we no longer have to seek out a Whole Foods to find farm fresh eggs.
Eager to take advantage of our land's potential to produce, one of the first projects we attack is resuscitating the old compost pile. Occasionally, we have the help of one of our favorite gardening assistants, Lyle. Though at age 12, the shovel is still taller than he is.
Lyle wants to be a doctor when he grows up. Doctors are respected, they get to help people, and most importantly, they make a lot of money. Though this is a common view for kids his age, Lyle's reverence of doctors seems to be the ultimate in wanting what one can't have. By any established socioeconomic standard, Lyle’s family lives in poverty and is unable to afford health insurance or the luxury of a family doctor. Unlike the new heart surgeon neighbor whom Lyle and most of the holler idolizes, Lyle's family goes about their daily lives largely invisible.
As we dig down to loosen the packed soil, I notice Lyle punching at his lower back. I ask him when he last went to the bathroom.
“Yesterday. It’s just that my back usually hurts after I take my medicine.”
The “medicine” he is referring to is his daily dose of Miralax, an over-the-counter laxative. Two years ago, fearing for his life, his family mustered the funds to take him to a doctor. Despite having been born severely premature, despite often going more than two weeks without having a bowel movement, and despite the fact that he cannot control himself when he does need to go, no tests were performed, no dietary recommendations were made, and no prescriptions were written.
“The doctor said he needs to flush his system with the Miralax and to keep doing it until he gets better,” his mother told me. So consequently, he’s been taking it ever since.
Miralax has not been approved for use in children and the back label specifically instructs that it should not be used for more than seven days. Sadly, Annabelle, the young woman who runs the health food store 25 miles down the road, informs me that Miralax has become daily reality for many young children and even babies. When not working at the health food store, Annabelle is a social worker and thus a daily witness to the impacts of poverty and malnutrition in the Ozarks.
“It’s ironic, I know, being surrounded by all these farms. I mean, folks here could literally grow their own food right outside their door, but so much of that knowledge has been lost. People here, it’s just…I don’t know, there’s the Walmart and the McDonald’s right by the highway, and I guess they’ve been convinced that that is what they want. In the short term, it’s cheaper and more convenient, but in the long run, it’s killing them and gutting these farming communities.”
After nearly a year, our digging has paid off. As Lyle and I spread the compost to plant our tomato seedlings, Lyle confesses to me that he used to think gardening was boring, but helping in Bud’s garden changed his opinion.
“They do a lot of farming over there, they even make their own salad!”
His comment strikes me as odd, “Their own salad?”
“Yeah, with carrots and radishes and cucumbers all chopped up!”
Watching Lyle's amazement over a garden salad I’m reminded of my experiences with urban agriculture, specifically my volunteer work at the Washington Youth Garden and our trip to Detroit to visit D-Town Farm. Urban agriculture is such a fascinating phenomenon in the context of globalization. Your faith in the neatness of the developed/developing world dichotomy crumbles when confronted by the devastation of Detroit. There is a sort of cognitive dissonance one experiences when coming to the realization that citizens of once great American cities are forced to farm abandoned lots for food.
Or consider the relationship between obesity and poverty in the United States. What are the conditions that give rise to a society in which its poorest are its heaviest, and that same segment of the population is so alienated from food that its children are not even aware of how a vegetable makes its way from the ground to the dinner plate? In the developing world, it’s easier for us to see the shared plight of displaced rural peoples and factory workers forced to subsist in urban slums. Yet this relationship is obscured when the issue of food insecurity hits closer to home. We imbue all sorts of meaning into urban farms, but rarely do we think of them as evidence of uneven development. However, once you leave the city for the ghost towns and the ruins of the defunct family farms of rural America, the irony of this situation becomes overwhelming.
This is where we find ourselves now, out of the inner city, yet still confronted by the reality of marginalization and malnutrition among America’s poor and working poor. The setting has changed, but the structures of inequality remain firmly intact. Washington, DC may be thousands of miles from the Ozarks, but the kids whose eyes sparkle with amazement and wonder at the revelation that carrots are roots grown in the dirt before they arrive in a TV dinner package are not so different from Lyle.
Springfield, Missouri may have the most lopsided skyline in America. An old rail town, most of the office buildings and warehouses don't go above a third-story attic. Beyond that, there are a half-dozen hotels and apartment complexes that achieve ten stories or greater.
And then, there is Hammon's Tower.
A pillar of black stone and tinted glass standing 300 feet tall, this structure doesn't just dominate the skyline, it obliterates it. It is the first and only thing the eye notices because its size and style leave it looking so out of place. It is the Tour Montparnasse of the Ozarks.
At the top is the Hammon's Club. We are here tonight because we needed to get out of the house, and because we have a Groupon. Stepping out of the elevator onto the 22nd floor, it is immediately apparent that we are under-dressed. This is not a place for farmers or out-of-work college graduates.
Nevertheless, the staff makes us feel quite welcome. Our waiter strikes up a polite conversation.
“Are you two from Springfield?”
“Nah, we live out past Clydesville.”
“Clydesville?” His eyebrows push toward his hairline.
We know the look. This is the same response you get when you tell people in Georgetown that you live in Anacostia.
“How do you like it?” He probes.
“We love it.”
“Oh,” a pause, “well that’s nice.” He goes on to tell us about tonight's specials.
As we eat, I find myself distracted by the conversations around me. I know these people, I've seen them before. People to whom it would never occur to discuss issues of identity. People who order the most expensive bottle of wine on the menu but still pronounce Meritage with a French accent. People who do want to talk about politics and don't see anything wrong with the term jobless economic recovery.
Later, heading back down in the elevator, I can't help but feel that the cultural divide between the top of Hammon's Tower and its base is far greater than the distance between our old block in DC and the holler we now call home.
The drive home from Springfield is a long one. Probably less than half an hour as the crow flies. But country roads do not move like crows. We turn onto D Highway and I check the rear-view mirror for a glimpse of Hammon's Tower. Thankfully, it’s a long way out of sight.
This piece originally appeared in issue 2 of The Intentional.