After the pandemic kept my wife and I from traveling much at all for two long years, we were able finally take the long-delayed trip west that we both needed to recharge and relax. I used to live in Montana, and in many respects, it’s home for me. I’ve traveled back there almost every year since the 1980s, by plane, by train and by car. This time, we decided to drive.
The reasons for driving were simply that it would give us a chance to see much of the country. Seeing the land change from New York, through the Midwest, into the high plains and then the Rocky Mountains is a tremendous experience. I recommend it to all of you.
Unfortunately, for us, it was not the same experience it once was, in so many ways. The journey, in many aspects, reflected the challenges and divisions our nation faces.
First and foremost, there is the sky. When I drive across the country, I always notice how the sky changes. Once you get into states like Ohio and then even more so, Minnesota, you notice the vast horizons, the big sky of myth and memory. There were times I’ve been in the Dakotas where I could see three or four thunderstorms in the distance, and yet be in sunlight. That’s the big sky.
This time, it was so different. There was no big sky. From Indiana west, the sky was hazy, and it grew worse as we went west. It wasn’t the haze of summer humidity or clouds of rain. It was the smoke from massive western fires.
And once we got to Montana, the air was noticeably smoky, irritating our throats and sinuses. And the views of mountains were limited. Meanwhile, there were gas and oil wells, processing facilities and oil trains ever-present. And coal trains. The juxtaposition of the causes of the climate emergency and its manifestations was obvious to us. I wonder if our fellow humans in the west saw it, too?
Second, there’s the face masks—or should I say, the lack of them. As we got further from New York, it became rarer and rarer to see people masked, even inside small rest areas, restaurants, or convenience stores.
Worst of all, by the time we got to Montana, except for places we visited on Native Nations, masks were almost non-existent. Neither staff nor guests at the resorts we visited wore them. It was as if the pandemic didn’t exist. That might be why today the highest case numbers in the US are in Montana and Wyoming.
Worse still, was the unspoken – and sometimes spoken – criticism we felt and heard about our mask wearing. We were treated as outsiders – except in Indian Country, of course, where casualties were so tragically high last year, and where the people have embraced vaccines, mask-wearing and testing more enthusiastically than almost anywhere else. I remember asking at one stop we made and were considering spending time at, what the COVID guidelines were. The staff member was confused, so I asked directly: Are masks required? The answer was direct: Oh, no. If you want to, you can, but we don’t.
And that brings me to the third disturbing impression from this summer’s journey: The political atmosphere in the nation. We know from what we see and read in the news that our nation is badly divided. I’ve never experienced that before in the west. Folks out there are by nature friendly and welcoming.
But the combination of reactions to our mask-wearing, and the obvious and in-your-face Trump flags and signs, and ferociously anti-Biden messages, made us feel like strangers.
Worst of all was when a Trump caravan came roaring up and down the Main Street of Bozeman, Montana on a Friday evening. It was frightening and it was disturbing. There was anger, almost rage in the participants in the caravan, and in the people along the street who cheered them on.
And in the shouts that contained the always present expletive preceding the name of President Joe Biden. Strangest of all, and most concerning, were the flags and signs that announced that Trump would be back in August. It was already early August. I wondered where in the Q universe that myth had arisen.
The Climate Emergency. COVID. The political extremism. I intend to delve deeper into each of these issues that I saw in plain sight during my journey over the next few weeks. As with all journeys, there were many moments to experience the present realities in our nation. It was enlightening. It was disturbing.
As an educator, as a unionist representing teachers and healers, what I saw and heard can and will influence what I do as a teacher and as a union leader. All of us have the responsibility to build a better tomorrow for our young.
It’s clear from my journey there is much to do. So much to do. Stay tuned.
Dr. Fred Kowal is President of the 35,000 member United University Professions, which represents faculty on 29 New York State Campuses. UUP is an affiliate of NYSUT, The American Federation of Teachers, The National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.
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