May I open this episode with an image?
It’s me, Danny, looking as I have been: kissed, smacked and stained by the sun with some unfortunate patterns. These are: fingers split in half by color (dark where the gloves don’t shine), bright white right wrist [say that 10 times fast, or even 1 time fast] where my watch lives 24-7, flawless Farmer Dan tan lines if farmers wore bike shorts and jerseys in the fields, 4-day-old whiskers keeping part of my face white, harlequin-mask sunglasses markings, a triangular scarecrow’s nose browner than everything else. I could use a haircut. Cap covers it.
I am on the Jacksons’ ranch smack in the middle of the state of Montana, at the top of a mountain. Acres and acres of alfalfa, and even more acres of hills full of trees that the Jacksons use during the winter to heat their home. A cluster of buildings. A white farmhouse that has been the century-long domicile of generations of a ranching family, very cluttered, very clean. Several silos of varying heights. A shop housing all the equipment that ranchers need to plant alfalfa, maintain it, harvest it, and roll it into giant bales – and the tools and resources necessary to keep everything functioning on the daily, including a fuel tank. A barn/garage with multiple vehicles. A gleaming elk’s skull and antlers hover above the entrance. So plentiful are those around here that there’s barrel full of them on the property – almost like skulls/antlers are mass produced, which I guess they are – but by God or Mother Nature or Whoever, rather than by China.
A hundred cows roam here, branded the old-fashioned way, sleek, black, many with calves at their side, munching grass, groaning plaintively, dumping patties. Two affable herding dogs extraordinaire, Buddy the barking, busybody Australian and Blitz the regal and utterly massive Bernese. Ducks, who are there because Mel, the rancher, thinks ducks are cute and not because they serve a rancher’s purpose (they were a gift from Becky, also the rancher), approach me quacking friendly-like because, I am told, they view me as a possible food source (umm, not as food, but as a food provider – these aren’t man-eating ducks…).
The ranchers, Mel and Becky, are in this image, too, both double-handed dirty from double-handedly doing the dirty work of growing, harvesting and baling hay, caring for their multigenerational livestock, and keeping everything maintained and under control and on schedule.
And me, too. I’m dirty from a day’s work pedaling to get to this…Eden. I started off the image, so now I’ll bookend it with more me. I’m atop a cherry-red 4-wheel ATV, riding behind Becky’s, following her flattened-grass tire tracks, bouncing wildly and wildly laughing, delightedly, uncontrollably. The sun isn’t set – not nearly – but it’s on the way down. We are traversing these acres by a vehicle that I experience as a horse-rollercoaster-bouncy-castle mashup. I can’t help but volcanically erupt a WHOOP. Lava – born of hardcore guffaws, roars, ebullience and goodwill toward my fellow Everything – follows, flowing behind, leaving not destruction but a coulee* in its path, rife with fecundity and abundance.
This is Wild West mythic for sure. My version of it, anyway.
(*Note from The Future: I learned the word ‘coulee’ from Becky. Before she uttered it, I don’t think I’d ever heard it. She said it a few times before I asked, “What is that word you’re saying?” – “Coulee?” – “Yeah, what is that?” – It’s basically a rocky channel for rain runoff, a ravine of sorts. Becky had to spell it for me. It’s pronounced ‘coolie’ for you French people/francophonies out there, not ‘coo-lay.’
P.S. Looking at my map later, I see there are several coulees represented on there: Gorman Coulee, Whites Coulee, Briggs Coulee. Coulees right under my nose.)
My first ride ever on an ATV is a great stress-reliever after this day’s work on the road. It’s Day 40, aka Sunday, July 1, 2018. According to the Adventure Cycling map, it’s a short bike ride – somewhere around 47 miles – on State Route 200, the only, lonely road – from where I slept last night in Winnett, Montana to the Jacksons’ turnoff at mile marker 90, east of Lewistown. It is a stunning day in Big Sky Country. Not too terribly hot and muggy.
…And you were probably wondering about THE WIND FACTOR? Or, if you’ve been solidly keeping up with me, probably you were hoping I wouldn’t mention it??? Well, I don’t wanna go there either. BUT, I’d be anti-confessional if I didn’t identify Day 40 as the third day in a row with constant headwinds…and that this one is the absolute worst of that trifecta because of the long, sloooooooooooow climb that spans the whooooooooole day, the grade ever-increeeeeeeeeasing along with the wind-speeeeeeeeed. (See Figure 1.)
If you’ve been riding along with me the past several days, you’ll not be surprised to learn that I see barely any people as I pedal, except the ones zooming past in cars and trucks – and it being Sunday, those are few and far between. Once in a great while, I’ll pass a cluster of mailboxes on at the end of a dirt road intersecting with Route 200. Could be 25 miles of that dirt road before you hit one of those houses. Space in Montana is intense.
I pass through the ‘town’ of Teigen represented by a dot on the map (no pop. of note) and later Grass Range (pop. 110). As I write about Day 40 now, more than three months after, I leverage one of my typical memory-jogging resources: pictures I took along the route. On travel days such as this one where the luxury of auto-time-stamping our lives indicates there are almost no photos during the riding hours, we are definitely beyond a git ‘em done day. A constant ride. On this day, a battle. Rest breaks are only for consumption of calories and for a sanity-grasping cessation period from head-rattling winds. But I do stop to take a photo of the mountains in the distance, which I later post on Instagram from the Jacksons’ ranch when I have cell service again.
By the time I arrive at the top of the road/driveway, I have imaginarily etched an image with laser eyes into the side of this mountain I just rode up: It’s of some wild white-haired, bushy-browed mischievous anthropomorph-of-a-god, with his lips puckered up into a blowww, his long-clawed finger poised at the base of Whitey Jackson’s** front wheel. And I’m a mere-mortal speck of fury on this expanse of landscape. Marius and Hannie, the Dutch couple I’d met the night before who had stayed with Becky and Mel on Friday evening, warned me of the severely-graded gravelly downhill, 14% according to Marius’s altimeter. They also suggested I leave my politics at the top of that hill, as the Jacksons are ardent Trumpers and gun rights supporters. Before I make the treacherous cruise down, I take some photos of the idyll I see below. I don’t see anybody down there, which is good, because if I crash, I’ll have a moment to see if I can get away with pretending it never happened.
(**Note from The Future: It occurs to me for the first time, as I write today, that my trusty bicycle/steed, Whitey Jackson, shares a surname with the people I’m just about to meet.)
I don’t crash. Mel comes out of his shop to meet me. He’s all Montanan: tall, amply mustachioed, easy-going, good-humored, dressed in monochromatic khaki work clothes with plenty of fresh dirt and oil. He removes his glove to heartily shake my hand. In the short time before Becky pulls up on her 4-wheeler, rifle mounted in front for easy access, Mel (upon my request) has shared with me the entire alfalfa farming process, ending with the humongous baler he’s tending to right at the moment. I’m trying to absorb everything.
Short and stout, Becky is Mel’s perfect foil physically. And while Mel is neither quiet nor retiring by any stretch of the imagination, Becky is a whirlwind. Powerful. Immediately, I’m taken by her energy, her knowhow, her badassness, all of which are contagious.
I’m still astride Whitey, Mel is standing mid-activity hammer in hand, Becky on her ATV – and for about a half hour we stay like this, as Becky tells me their origin story. How the Jacksons met is mythic, as if God (theirs, if He does this sort of thing) dug His hands into the loamy earth, used the space between His fingers them as a sieve and gently shook the dirt until He Adam-and-Eve cleaved the two of them from a single seed. In this man-and-wife creation scenario, I’d be surprised if Mel wasn’t the one made from Becky’s rib.
Mel grew up right here and was the only of his siblings who had the passion to sustain his family’s ranch, which at the time when he and Becky took it over, was primarily a hog raising operation. Becky is from a farm family in rural Maryland, not too far from where I started my bike trip, and, growing up, she knew that she wanted to marry a farmer. She majored in animal science at the University of Maryland, and somehow —I can’t remember the story exactly— she came across a newspaper article from the Billings Gazette about a local hog farmer and she hit him up. They wrote letters. It was the early 1980s. Later, the same newspaper published an article about their union entitled, Match Made in Hog Heaven. Pithy. True.
Mel excuses himself to get back to fixing something or other, and, like the wind still blowing from the west, Becky continues without taking a breath. Do I want to tag along with her (riding on my own ATV, something I’ve never done) to take care of some chores? Or just get showered and settled until it’s time for dinner? “Your choice,” she says. “Whatever you wanna do.” Regarding the ATV, she asks if I’ve ever ridden one. I say no, feeling a bit lame, not just because I haven’t done that but also because I haven’t wanted to. It’s never even occurred to me. She asks if I’ve ever ridden a motorcycle, because the controls are similar. Also, a no. (Later I’ll tell her that avoiding motorcycles has been quite easy for me to do. During my childhood, my father, an oral surgeon, would get called to the emergency room in the middle of the night to “sew someone’s face back together,” as he’d say. Motorcycle accidents were prevalent. These were pre-helmet law years. He’d come home hours later, weary from surgery, and tell Natalie and me never to get on a motorcycle. Ever. Funny the things your parents beg you not to do out of fear for your safety – and which ones you comply with. Becky’s reply to this will be something to the effect of: You’re riding a bicycle across the country. What does your father think of that? Good point. Joss, my dad, has a lot of thoughts about this. I know he’s proud of his son whom he knows will follow his own path no matter what anyone says, but he’s also scared for his son who is a Crazy McCrazington.)
This is a significant moment of the trip, this decision of whether to awkwardly hop on an ATV for the first time and awkwardly help Becky out with a couple of her chores and be in a state of awkward not-knowing-what-I’m-doing OR make the more comfortable choice of showering/changing out of my gear/resting/maybe doing a little writing until dinner. Until later, in hindsight, I won’t know that this is a significant decision. Here’s the deal: I am out of my element. I’m feeling exposed as an urban impotent. As much as I want to be super-curious every second of every day, be 100% fearless, be 1000% grabbing life by the neck and kissing it to death, be 10000% ok with being ignorant or inexperienced in any way, shape or form, I’m …not! In my journey of recovery from addiction, I’ve had the opportunity to really examine and own characteristics of my personality that keep me mired in self-centered fear and shame, that keep me in a state of worry about how I am perceived by others, that keep me from being okay with not knowing stuff that I should know or experiences that I should have had, that keep me small, that keep me from being humble and openminded and honest. (In rehab, they tell you, Don’t should all over yourself!) And then you add FOMO, aka, fear of missing-out (for you non-millennials), and lordy-lord, you wonder why my brain hasn’t cannibalized itself after decades of this shit.
It’s getting late. I wonder if the sunlight will run out, and Becky will have to postpone her duties until the following day when I am long gone. If that’s the case, I won’t have to make the choice. I won’t have to be seen as inexperienced, feel out of control. Becky is already speaking on another subject, telling me another story. So I may get my wish.
She wants to make sure I eat meat, because the plan for dinner is elk sausages – from an elk she shot herself. And dressed and loaded and lugged back to the ranch in her pickup – all by herself. (Her one-woman show wasn’t intentional. Becky, but not Mel, got in on the hunting license lottery this season. Mel didn’t accompany her on this particular jaunt, and she didn’t think she was going to encounter anything. The rest is that particular elk’s history…)
“I’m not a vegetarian,” I say.
“Good,” Becky says. “A lot of the cyclists coming through here won’t eat meat.”
“I’ve never had elk,” I tell her, being sure not to signal my wariness of sampling new meat-related items. I really do want the experience of eating Becky’s hunting swag, and of course I don’t want to be a picky guest. I don’t mention that I’m an oft-guilty carnivore, having been a vegetarian in my teens through late-twenties, who tries to eat meat ‘responsibly’ (in terms of the well-documented environmental impact of the various livestock industries) and that I consistently vote against politicians and ballot initiatives supported by Big Meat, Big Ag, and Big Egg. I don’t talk her that I sometimes think I don’t deserve to eat meat, because I’m not all-or-nothing in terms of my consumption. You know what I mean, right? Willing to kill my own dinner and use every part of the animal. I’m not a ‘brave’ carnivore – someone who hungrily investigates beyond the usual. I’m the typical fish-chicken-turkey-pig-cow-occasional-lamb-etarian. I shun innards, and marrow, and eyes, and balls, and brains. Don’t consume big game (until today!), or duck (too cute and, bleh, I don’t like it), or snails or insects or anything that ‘tastes like chicken’ but isn’t, or processed meat, like hot dogs and bologna. That being said, ‘when in Rome…’
Speaking of meat, Becky then describes the whole process of their cow-calf operation, from insemination to calving to weaning to sale at market, comparing the Jacksons’ chosen method to that of others. Their operation is robust yet small enough to seem quaint. Humane? Not by PETA’s standards to be sure, but this isn’t some large-scale nightmare factory feedlot poking a Montana-sized methane hole in the ozone. And the cows with their calves, they all seem, I dunno, … happy? … enough?
She explains more about their crops, including how they preserve their land’s productivity by rotating various acreages of their land with alfalfa, other legumes (Did you know alfalfa is a legume? I sure didn’t) or grains like winter wheat, or nothing (to give the soil a rest). I don’t ask about whether they’re organic, or what they think about climate change, or regulations. (Though I am curious about their perspective, I am heeding Marius and Hannie’s zero-politics suggestion.) They mention spraying. When I arrived, Becky was out checking the alfalfa to see how it was faring post-spray (to combat a particular pest they’ve been encountering). I get the feeling that they do what they need to do in order to sustain their land’s productivity and that they do it responsibly.
She tells me about their three kids. Their daughter, Katie, is an avid cyclist and travel writer. It seems like everyone I meet on this trip (Anne and Larry in Iowa City, the Mayers in Lake City, Mary Helt and Joan Engler in Des Moines, Bonnie the farmer who sorta saved my life in Jordan, Montana, and now Becky and Mel) has three kids and only one stays local and is the primary bearer of grandchildren. One of the Jacksons’ two sons fits that bill. Becky describes the other son’s fiancée politically as ‘if you think I’m conservative…!’; this future daughter-in-law comes from a lot of money, Becky says, and built a cabin entirely on her own in the Montana mountains in the middle of nowhere without electricity or running water and makes high-end furniture from trees she fells herself. Becky also recently stepped down from a longtime stint on the Lewistown Public Schools’ Board of Trustees. At some point during the time I spend at the ranch, Becky will refer to herself as a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none, her daughter-in-law being the ‘real thing.’ To that I say, “Are you kidding me?!”
Becky looks at her phone to see the time. “Shoot! We’ve gotta get going!”
I say, “I wonder if taking a shower is what I need right now…”
“Aww, really?” says Becky. “Well, you can do whatever you want, of course.”
Hmm, she seems to know that I’ll be missing out, but what I can’t yet comprehend is that she’ll be missing out.
Aaargh! I don’t want to be that person that thinks ‘next time’ – I am not that person. Besides, I am on a ranch in rural Montana. Hello! There is no next time! Sometime left to my own devices, I think I’m making a decision out of self-care (a shower and a rest, really?!) when it’s really out of unnecessary self-preservation, the preserving of a self that doesn’t always know what he needs – and after a moment more of self-shaming indecisiveness, I knew I really needed to ride that 4-wheeler ATV. I wholeheartedly believe that Becky knew this too.
It’s about to get real!
From the second I hop off Whitey and onto the red 4-wheeler, I am a different version of myself. The purest version. A fearless little boy, brimming with curiosity, pointing at everything, what’s this, what’s that, what’s it for, why is it like that and not like this, where did those come from, how many are there, how do you hold this, is this right, can I help you with that, when did you learn to do it, how long does it take, when will it happen again? The bumpy chaos of the ride and the need to focus on learning how to drive the ATV, instead of worrying about not knowing how, loosens my grip on the fallacy of self-protectiveness, of self-centered fear. Any and all sticks up my butt are dislodged; they are dutifully mowed over by my 4-wheeler and swallowed up by the grasses on the Jacksons’ ranch. It’s mythic. Like I’m letting go of my proverbial ‘shit,’ allowing the real shit to happen.
Once the chores – all cow-related – are complete
(i.e., strengthening a fence that the cows have battered, closing off a section of grass they’ve already eaten their way through, and clearing the drain of an open metal tank of rainwater that they drink out of and better securing the structure so the cows can’t jump in there to get cool – they have other water sources they can use for that), Becky and I take the long way back to the ranch house, so I can witness the awesomeness of the land. This is the moment when I come to understand that Becky would be missing out if I’d demurred from participating. I ask her about becoming a warmshowers.org host. (They’re not cyclists themselves.) Living on an Adventure Cycling route, the Jacksons would encounter people on loaded bikes occasionally, and someone in town alerted them about warmshowers. They readily acknowledge how fortunate they are to own and live on this majestic and abundant land. Becky knows that people like me could go through their whole life without having an experience like this one – and she and Mel have chosen to share this gift with cyclist strangers pedaling through Central Montana. The gobsmacked look on my face as I take it all in is definitely part of Becky’s grand plan. If not, I am exceedingly grateful for Becky’s unwitting encouragement, and I will never forget this experience.
I’m a changed man by the time we arrive at the house. Total Moses after he chews the fat with the Burning Bush from that 1950s biblical pulp movie The Ten Commandments (sort of fitting to compare myself to a character played by Charlton Heston, here in Gunlandia). However, the wrathful crabapple known as Old Testament God hasn’t struck my hair/beard gray in this poor, overwrought metaphor, more like the color of dried-out alfalfa, aka hay. Heyyyyyyyyy! I don’t want to get off the 4-wheeler. Like, ever. I want to move in with the Jacksons and be their farmhand. I want to chop and lug wood. I want to drive a giant pickup through ponds of mud and sheets of black ice. I want to shoot an elk. … (Well, maybe I won’t go that far, but I am, after all, a changed man.)
Speaking of guns… I step into the house, into an anteroom that clearly is the seasonal purgatory between the hell of terrible weather and the heaven of a dry and toasty home, the sort of room where, having already kicked off your muddy boots, you are likely to be required to remove anything else that could track dirt inside. I encounter what, at first glance, looks like an armoire-sized old-timey safe. It’s blue, steel, has a large dial and a three-pronged turn handle. “Wow, is that a safe?” I say. “What do you keep in there? Gold bars? Magic alfalfa seeds? Family secrets?” I’m thinking it can’t be a practical safe; it’s more likely décor, an inherited antique, a whimsical purchase like the raft of cute ducks, like maybe they store boots and rain gear in there, maybe umbrellas too.
But, no. It’s a gun safe. Becky swings open the door for a moment. “We believe in the second amendment here,” she states, somewhat defensively. I’m guessing her quickness to comment signals that Hannie and Marius aren’t the first guests to debate gun control with the Jacksons – a topic I have zero intention of bringing up. Briefly, she talks about the arsenal. One’s for shooting varmints that get into the chicken coop, that one’s for larger predators who go after livestock, this one she used to kill the elk we’ll be eating some of in a short while, that one’s a gift from her son, etc. None of this has anything to do with the second amendment which is about bearing arms for self-defense against a tyrannical government – unless she’s interpreting it as defense against the threat of an army of despotic foxes hungry to seize the hens’ nests as their own colony. I do have a typical progressive’s view on gun control/gun rights. This view wholeheartedly embraces the right to own and use firearms for all the purposes Becky mentions. As for the rest of the gun-related debate, I’m sure Becky and I would be in each other’s, um, crosshairs. But I’m way more interested in where we might intersect, like elk sausages and keeping bears at bay!
Becky doesn’t want to debate it either; she’s plainly stating the household’s stance, take it or leave it. I have no problem with the way of life on the ranch. I don’t care that our politics are different. I’m captivated.
Becky shows me my room, which is in the basement. It’s nice and cool down here. The room reminds me of the one I stayed in at the Abbey in North Dakota, floral patterns, pink and green, wood, light from a high window. Their guest bathroom is really, really nice, newly remodeled. I shower, then go upstairs to see if I can help get dinner on the table. Becky makes me in charge of ensuring that the sausages don’t catch on fire on the grill. She’s handling salad, corn on the cob and baked sweet potato fries, one of very few vegetables Mel is fond of. She’s also throwing together a crumble made from their own raspberries. Becky is a machine. No, not one of the gargantuan pieces of steel that Mel expertly keeps operational – but a human one, with boundless energy and prowess and ingenuity. …though I’m sure Mel plays a role in keeping Becky happy and functional.
I’m loving their company, and their humor, and I’m certain they feel the same. …Then, a magnet that has pride of place right on the door of the refrigerator catches my eye:
SAY A PRAYER TO PRESERVE MARRIAGE.
It’s the only overtly political message in view, right there where the Jacksons get their chilled nourishment from, so it must mean something to them. Right? That’s their view. It’s not like you think oh fuck I am outta magnets and then you happen to be shopping at a magnet store and you grab the nearest one and throw it in your basket and it just happens to be against marriage equality. My first instinct in seeing it is to go on the offensive, go head-to-head with the Jacksons, à la Becky’s pro-gun defense against the potential tyranny of anti-gun enthusiasts overrunning the Jackson ranch, using my values, my world, my data, my Supreme Court cases, my identity as ammo. I feel a little hurt and am disappointed in the Jacksons. And I’m fascinated, too, being so far on the other side of my homo-loving trans-affirming black-lives-mattering forcefield against all things that run counter to my ideology. The strongest instinct I have at this moment is to point at the magnet and say, humorously, provocatively, even lovingly, Oh, come on, you guys! Seriously?!
I say nothing about it. It’s not my world, nor my place. It’s their home. The rest of the evening and in the morning, I can’t help but look at the magnet every time I’m in the kitchen, which is often. It’s like when you are drawn to stare at a person’s prominent birthmark all the while thinking to yourself look in their eyes, for fuck’s sake, don’t be that person! Or, better yet, it’s a tuft of their ear hair that’s in your view every second and that you can’t stop yourself from wishing for a scenario where plucking out every strand could possibly be appropriate. You don’t want to focus on it; you definitely don’t want to be caught out staring at it. If they saw you looking, you might reflexively blurt out an uninvited suggestion like “Oh for fuck’s sake, give me a tweezers! I’ll do it if you won’t!” On some level, I am sure that I want Becky or Mel to catch me looking at the birthmark/tuft of ear hair on their fridge, so we can address it. Together. As a microscopic/-cosmic, one-night-stand family of Americans who sometimes agree to disagree on what’s an appropriate amount of ear hair to be sporting but only do so when having all the information at their disposal.
The problem with this extended metaphor is that the magnet is personal to me. But is it about me, if it’s in someone’s home in which I’m a guest? Is this fridge magnet any of my beeswax, and, if so, am I responsible for reassuring my new friends that while marrying a man is something I might do, I won’t be counting on marrying his dog and his underaged daughter as well?
Where do I draw the line? Clearly, politics is not off-limits in the Jackson household, but I don’t want to make them uncomfortable with me. Or vice-versa. Does that make me an apologist? – I heard that word recently – ‘apologist for Trump’ – as in, sacrificing your values for the sake of getting along with people who don’t care about your rights. But I have to keep reminding myself that I have other values – acceptance, respect, tolerance, dialogue, empathy, curiosity, humility. If I call WTF about the fridge magnet, am I playing ‘identity politics’ and risking ruining a perfectly fine connection and perfectly lovely evening? And it’s way, way more than ‘perfectly fine’ – I am not being hyperbolic when I wrote earlier that this is an experience to remember, that these are wonderful people to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for opening up their home to me and letting me tear it up on a 4-wheeler AT-fuckin’-V!
But this ‘identity politics’ issue – this tension between being myself while being my selves with all attributes splayed out on the table, especially the ones that I’m turning the volume down on these days – gay (of course), progressive (duh, I’m a guy traveling on a bicycle, we pretty much all are!), atheist, addict in recovery – which is to plainly say, ‘addict’ because if you are in recovery you bring that stigmatize-able baggage as it’s assumed that if you’ve had that much of a problem that you had to seek ongoing support for it, you must have done some pretty unsavory things to get to that point and you’re still (to many) the ‘sort of person who would (fill in the blank with what your cousin Joe did).’ These are aspects of myself that I experience daily – yet they are not the whole of me. Can I really be present without divulging some of my core aspects, parts of myself that don’t dissipate just because I don’t name them? Those are culturally endemic parts of my personality and my sense of humor, I suppose. Yeah, and add Jewish to the list, if we’re talking culture and humor!
I find it revealing, this clamor from the right wing who rail against ‘p.c.’-ness and ‘identity politics’, and words like ‘diversity’ are apt to drive them to distraction – as if they are distractions from real life. But, hmm, if you look at their experience – diversity is a distraction from their real life, because these rural areas of Montana and many of the other places I’ve cycled through, especially recently, are more or less a homogeneous Fox News audience. (When the U.S. Government was encouraging Americans to come grab a piece of land stolen from Native people and settle out west, they weren’t talking to nonwhite people.)
I dutifully eat my elk sausage. It’s real tasty. Everything is. Becky is apologetic about the hastiness of the crumble, but it’s great. The conversation continues to flow with zero effort. Politics comes up obliquely here and there, especially when Becky asks about my reasons for making the trip. I relay the very relevant P.R. part of my story: how the current state of politico-tribal divisiveness was a major driver of my decision and that I was seeking connection with my fellow Americans despite the negative climate (not that climate, we didn’t go there!), how I feel it’s important for me to exit, albeit temporarily, the comfort of the political near-homogeneity of Los Angeles. Becky and Mel of course get where I’m coming from. Every single person I’ve spoken to about the polarization Americans are experiencing – whether they’re my party brethren or sworn adversaries – agree that it’s deep. And it’s only deepened since then.
In discussing my quest to connect with Red-State Americans – and answering the Jacksons’ questions about what I do for a living (i.e., trying to convince entities with money to give some of that money to help people who have no money, no home, no stable source of health care, etc.) – I am in essence coming out about my identity as a progressive. And the fact that I’m in recovery and of non-religious Jewish origin organically arise during the evening as well.
But not the gay thing.
One of the cultural differences that I’m experiencing between This America and The America I’m Used To is that people don’t ask personal questions. Not a single person has asked me about my relationship status, or if I have kids. I wonder, is that really different from home? I don’t wear a wedding ring. And I don’t mention kids. Everyone I meet talks about theirs. If I had them, I’d talk about them, people figure. Back home, there’s a lot of wondering what someone’s deal is; other ‘deals’ are way more frequent than traditional marriage and children. It’s not that I’m not having any conversations about my personal life; I am. The people I’m meeting are fine talking about personal shit, just not bringing it up themselves.
I can pretty much guarantee that had I not seen that fridge magnet, I would have mentioned Donny, or Carlos, or being single after an 18-year period of coupledom. You can say in most situations: well, you don’t know that people would actively vote or campaign against your civil rights. But when marriage equality the only theo-political issue represented on one’s refrigerator, you can’t say you don’t know if… Because it’s right there staring at you.
But, what of it?
Since meeting the Jacksons four months ago, I’ve told the story of this particular evening many times. A reaction I’ve gotten consistently is something to the effect of Aww, you should have told them, as a way to demonstrate that Hey, you have a gay man in your house and you like him, so… Like I wasted an opportunity to educate people on the normality of gayness and guide them further along the acceptance-of-same-sex-marriage continuum and LGBTQ people in general. Like it was my responsibility to represent, and out of fear of rejection or tipping the scales of social propriety, I squandered it.
I don’t entirely reject this position, but I do think it’s arrogant and presumptuous. People seem to forget that, even though the country as a whole is evolving in their position (in the right direction) on marriage equality and other civil rights and ‘morality’ issues affecting LGBTQ communities, kids who come out are still soundly rejected or disowned by their own biological families. The idea of if you only knew a queer person or if someone you love turned out to be… as a panacea to correct conservative viewpoints about homosexuality is a fallacy. Also, how in fuck do I know that the Jacksons don’t have laser-sharp gaydar and had my number from the moment I nervously and nervily climbed onto the ATV, or maybe they have lesbian family members or a BFF who at long last transitioned after struggling with her gender identity for decades? Probably 7 or 8 years ago, my cousin Kim, who is very religious and politically conservative, and I had a come-to/don’t-come-to-Jesus moment as a result of a Facebook post of hers that I uninvitedly and angrily responded to. The subsequent back-and-forth was incredibly painful for me and for her, too, I believe. What ultimately transpired is as positive an ending as possible: love and forgiveness and acceptance of each other’s differences that aren’t trumped (for lack of a better word – is there one?) by virtue of love for one’s family member. Kim and I don’t pay attention to each other on social media. I know she loves me as I am, and vice-versa. But I know that nearly all of our political positions are opposing, we are not on the same team, and she votes against my civil rights. All of this can be – and is – true simultaneously.
Maybe I did miss an opportunity for dialogue at the Jacksons’ ranch. Maybe I want to believe I chose love and forgiveness and acceptance, when in reality I chose fear and self-loathing and avoidance.
I don’t care. HAVE I MENTIONED THAT I GOT TO RIDE AN ATV?!
At about 11pm, the Jacksons say goodnight. In addition to ranching, they work part-time for Becky’s brother’s business and have to be in town tomorrow. It’s late for me, too, but worth every second.
“I hope the cows don’t keep you awake,” Becky warns.
After the day’s climb-of-a-ride, off-road adrenaline-junkie rush and consummate cytoplasmic saturation with the mythos of life on the ranch, a bit of mooing is no match for my capacity and intention to rest.