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Strangers in a very strange land

Montana has always seemed like home to me. Though I was born and raised in Massachusetts, I spent some of my crucial years out there and discovered aspects of my life journey I could not have realized elsewhere. I met people who became as close as family – even closer, in a couple of cases.

With each trip, I felt like I was truly home, even when I was totally alone, in the wild mountains of Glacier National Park, or deep in the wilderness on the land of the Salish and Kootenai Indigenous People.

Sadly, things were different during a trip my wife and I took to the Big Sky Country of Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas last summer. It left us feeling alienated, almost like strangers in this very special place.

I should point out that my wife and I are a multi-racial couple. As such, we often experience hostility to various degrees, depending on where we are and the people we’re dealing with. For the most part, we ignore it. But during our trip, two factors combined with this reality to make us extremely uncomfortable at times.

The first was that nearly everyone we interacted with or saw in Montana didn’t—or refused to—wear a mask. This included at restaurants, which were packed; in hotel lobbies and stores; and just about anywhere people were. Meanwhile, COVID cases in Montana and adjoining states were rising, soon to be the highest in the country.

But to us, it was as if COVID never happened. Our requests for outdoor seating were often refused. When we asked about mask-wearing protocols for staff at our resort, we were told that guests could wear masks if they wanted, but that staff were not masked.

And, no matter the circumstances, it was rare that we didn’t get a strange look, a smirk, or a muttered comment when we spoke with anyone while masked.

It didn’t matter that there was a pandemic. It didn’t matter that the easiest steps to avoiding infection–wearing masks and getting vaccinated–were roundly rejected by so many of the people we encountered. All that mattered was that life went on as normal. We often commented that it seemed like we were the only ones who knew about COVID!

I understand the exhaustion people feel. I understand the desire to move on from this scourge. What I don’t understand is the politics of COVID, which we came face to face with one evening in Bozeman.

I know that many in New York have witnessed Trump caravans, but that evening in Bozeman was our first. It was a stunning display of virulent hatred and the type of political expression that I associate with mobs in fascist or communist nations.

My wife, who is African American, was near tears as she witnessed the 25 or so cars and trucks rumbling up and down the main street, waving Trump flags and yelling curses about President Biden as some along the street applauded.

She said it reminded her of what her mother experienced growing up in segregated South Carolina, where white students in buses yelled and threw things at young Anne Royal as she walked to school.

The venomous racism, the rejection of the reality of the last election, the commitment to a figure who literally endangered all our lives by his corruption and incompetence, was stunning. And these same individuals make up the core of those who spread destructive lives about COVID, vaccinations, testing and even mask-wearing.
It came as no surprise that a surge in COVID cases occurred there in the months after our visit—when hospitals literally had to ship patients out of state because there wasn’t room for them.

And now, we face the omicron variant, because too many among us refuse to be vaccinated. Those who choose this path condemn our society to wave after wave of COVID.

And the leaders of the Trump Movement – which is, tragically much of the party of Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt —refuse to join those of us pleading with the unvaccinated to get vaccinated. Their conduct clearly has undermined democracy. We know this. Their conduct also undermines our nation’s security by allowing COVID to run rampant, harming our health, our social institutions and our economy.

My journey ended where it began, with a sense of discouragement and a bit of despair. The future is not good.

But, all of us, especially those of us in education, can make a difference. The members of United University Professions, the union that I lead, will continue to heal, to research, and to teach. I hope and pray that it makes a difference.

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.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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  • 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.
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