BY MADONNA HAMEL
Awhile back I quoted from a Wallace Stegner book I hunted down that consists of a collection of essays collected by his son. The quote I love I will dare to repeat: “There is an awful lot of the West where both illimitable freedom and perfect sanctuary may be found …But they must be discovered, not advertised.”
But in order to discover, to come upon a place of wonder and magic requires giving ourselves the time to do so. It requires being open, and when life’s harassments and hurts take precedence we tend to just hunker down, look at the ground and scurry from A to B.
I watch as visitors come to the Grasslands and slow down and unwind. It begins in Cadillac and by the time they pull into Val Marie they look suitably awe-struck and even a little shocked. I didn’t know there was a place so far out in the middle of nowhere, so close to the border, they might say. And then they buy a coffee or a soda and gawk at the sky and maybe buy a book about the area and squint closely at the stuffed animals.
Then there are those, having recovered from their voyage into the hinterland, come up with a comment about the taxidermy. Or ranching. Or the convent inn’s past as a school. And it is often an earnest attempt at being aware, appropriate or correct in terms of the present discourses around ecology, meat and ‘settler culture’. There is no harm meant; it is done in an effort to display a liberal attitude regarding their surroundings. But it often is shocking how they come off sounding like they are the colonists who are visiting the outlying serfs, just to see how they are coping in such a strange and deprived setting. They belong to the same group who romanticize farmers as being so ‘humble”, so “salt of the earth” such simple honest folk.
“Really? What books have you been reading? Because most of these farmers don’t seem any different than the people I meet in town. They scramble for money. They watch Netflix at night and they f-bomb like a rapper on the street … And as for the ranchers, the vilified ones – they are the ones who are doing the best job at maintaining the Grasslands, in fact, we have to let their cattle into the park and graze the grass that’s not eaten by the bison. When a calf goes missing they are out in the -40 degrees cold and blowing snow and shifting drifts searching into the night for the little critter.”
I have a few friends who like to mess with the tourists when they come bringing news of the civilized world- as if folks here never get out. The truth is a couple go to New York City once a year and everyone travels to either Mexico or Hawaii in the winter.
“I’m what you might call a ‘redneck’ “, says one. Then points to his friend: ‘While this guy over here is a bona fide hillbilly.”
The more I hear the hillbilly and the redneck talk about their lives and their insights and their encounters with the rest of the world – which is not ‘the rest of the world’ but really just another part of it – the more I realize how frustrating it can be not to have a voice in the larger discourse of the powers that be. And the more I understand how Trump got in. Make no mistake – my friends are as far from Trump as Trump is from, say, Everett Baker. And an author who helped me understand the disconnect and the differences is an actual hillbilly named J. D. Vance.
Here’s some of his thoughts on being typecast, overlooked and discounted by the rest of the world because he grew up in a poor part of Appalachia (which is most of it) and moved to another poor part of the country- manufacturing Ohio, then went into the Marines to get whipped into shape and expected to give his all: “When people ask me what I’d most like to change about white working class, I say, the feeling that our choices don’t matter. The marine Corp excised that feeling like a surgeon does a tumour.”
And how living in isolation can create a self-defeating behaviour: “ The consequences of isolation is seeing standard metrics of success as not just unattainable but as the property of people not like us….it’s not just our own communities that reinforce the outsider attitude, it’s the people and places that upward mobility connects us with. Working-class Americans are less likely to climb the economic ladder and more likely to fall if they have reached the top because I imagine their discomfort they feel at leaving behind so much of their identity.”
He goes on to say that the professional world needs to embrace difference in the shape of ‘hillbillies’ as much as isolated communities need embrace difference in the shape of different races and approaches to living: “Rather than just ‘promoting wise public policies’, how about welcoming newcomers who ‘don’t quite belong’. Social mobility isn’t just about money and economics, it’s about lifestyle change … the wealthy and powerful follow different set of norms and mores. I took a friend to Cracker Barrel. It used to be the height of fine dining. To my Yale friend it was a greasy public health crisis.”
Here’s the funny thing. Cracker Barrel was designed and created by a touring country musician who sings about being a good ol’ country boy but makes millions on both his music and his restaurant. He just missed some good ol’ down home cooking when he was away from home. It got so I craved the cornbread when I was on the road. And on cold winter days that giant fireplace warmed my heart as well as my tootsies.
“Why are people like me so misrepresented in elite institutions? Why did successful people feel so different to us?” asks Vance. And I will add to that: Why are poor people considered stupid or “trailer trash” or artists considered incapable of functioning in the real world when survival is the name of the game and we manage heroically to stay alive on nothing? The answers are ours to discover.