Welcome to Colorado
Let me start with the moment where I wondered if he was going to kill me. He was walking towards my car quickly, looking just as menacing as before, and in a moment of fight or flight instinct, for better or for worse, I decided not to drive away. Instead, I got out of my car, with my hands raised high above me, and said “Hey man, I don’t want to fight. Forget about it.”
I was about 45 miles east of Denver. The vast flat, characterized by plains, farms, and mostly empty space. More Kansas than Colorado, as far as reputations go.
I was pulled off the interstate, trying to fuel up at a gas station. It was dusk, and I had just gotten to where I could see the mountains, blanketed in an enormous storm of dark and brooding clouds. I couldn’t help but smile. After driving 24 hours over two days, I finally could see them. I was back in the mountains. This time, hopefully, to stay.
I scanned around the various islands for the diesel pump. There was only one, and a truck was at it. My car’s tank is on the right side, and this pump was on the right side of the island. Which means I needed to pull through and face the truck head on in order to be in line.
I watched this guy – a latino, who, coincidentally, had Maryland plates – cleaning his truck real elaborately even after having hung up the hose. Some tumbleweeds rolled by. I felt a little irritated, having driven all day, but not much. It was all good. The air was cool and fresh. I just sat there smiling.
He was taking a while, though, and while I waited, the fronts of our cars facing each other, another truck pulled up behind him. Guy 2 idled there, waiting for Guy 1 to leave.
When the latino guy did leave, Guy 2 pulled up to start fueling. No problem, I thought, he just didn’t see me. So I got out of my car and walked over.
“Hey man, I was waiting here before you pulled up.”
“Come on, there’s a bunch of pumps, only one diesel. Use one of the others.”
“I can’t, I need the deisel.”
“Well, whatever man. I didn’t see you. Let me pump $20 and then it’s all yours.”
And he just walked into the store.
Looking back at the dialogue, it seems pretty tame. But the guy was being kind of an asshole. He was real gruff, and very dismissive. I actually just stood there kind of stunned. The guy in the first truck had taken a while. I had been there probably 5 to 10 minutes. The guy in the second truck pulled up after I was already pointed head forwards, I can’t imagine he didn’t see me during the minutes he sat there and waited.
I said something to myself like “unfuckingbelievable”.
A bystander pumping gas in his black sportscar started talking to me. “No way he didn’t see you dude. That guy’s a dick.” We’ll call this fellow Guy 3.
I guess I felt emboldened by Guy 3’s support, because when Guy 2 came back out to pump his gas, I was still standing there. I said, “That’s pretty lame, man. You know I was there. You definitely saw me.”
He walked over to me threateningly and just said “Fuck you. Go back to Maryland.” This guy was big, looked mean, and frankly, I was scared. So I just shrugged my shoulders, walked back to my car, and pulled it backwards a ways so that he could leave the gas station without having to pass me. Honestly, I didn’t want to risk him ramming me, which probably wasn’t likely, but why take the chance?
As I waited, though, I saw Guy 3 – the guy who had stood up for me – start talking to Guy 2.
“What the fuck’s wrong with you? You know he was there first.”
Guy 2 was making vigorous jerking-off motions at Guy 3, and saying things I couldn’t hear because I had rolled up my windows to try and minimize my involvement in the whole thing. The two kept exchanging words, and as Guy three rolled out, Guy 2 started walking towards his open passenger side window, again, menacingly.
Suddenly Guy 3 threw his fountain drink – cup and all – at Guy 2. Guy 2’s fight or flight response must be a well-cultivated one of “fight”, because he immediately bumrushed Guy 3’s car, and tried to get in to the passenger seat.
Guy 3 stepped on it, and I literally thought Guy 2 was going to get run over as he held on to the accelerating car, and got semi-dragged about 15 yards before he let go running.
He cursed at the departing car, looked at me, and walked back to his truck.
The big burly angry man brushed himself off, went back to his car, finished pumping, and from time to time looked at me. I thought about just leaving then and there, but instead, I backed my car up about 15 feet further, and decided just to wait. I hadn’t said anything, after all, that was that aggressive. And I was giving him his space. I figured he would finish pumping, and leave, and that would be that.
And he did finish pumping, but he didn’t just leave. He hung up the hose, and started walking quickly towards my car. Shit, I thought.
That’s when I wondered if he was going to kill me. Over the top? Maybe. But with the rash of gun violence that’s been plaguing the nation, it’s not an insane thought. And this dude, if anyone had a gun, definitely owned guns. You could see it from a mile away.
I don’t know why I didn’t just leave, but I didn’t. Instead of driving away, I opened my door, put my hands up, stepped out of the car with my hands in the air, and slowly approached the man coming towards me.
“Hey man,” I said, “I don’t want to fight. It’s all good. I don’t want to start any trouble.”
The guy kept on walking, and just as I started to think, ‘oh shit’, he held out a hand towards me.
“I didn’t come over here to fight. I came over to apologize.” He grabbed my hand and shook it firmly. “It’s been a crazy day.”
And that was it. I told him not to worry about it, and he walked back to his car.
As he started to drive away, though, I sensed that something very important and meaningful had just happened. I wanted to share it with him. So as he pulled out, I got back out of my car and walked towards his truck. This time, I held out my hand.
“Hey man,” I said, “Look. Thanks. That was huge. And this, what we just experienced, that is what this country needs. The point is not to never have problems or disagreements or get fired up about things. The point is to take a step back when that happens, and then resolve it peacefully. That was badass.”
The guy looked at me a little funny, but he nodded at me, shook my hand hard, and said “Have a good one. Drive safely.” And then he was gone.
If you’re thinking about what an asshole Guy 2 was, you’re missing the point.
As I pumped my gas, another guy – a black man with a postal truck – came up to me and started to chat me up.
“Some of these guys out here are just crazy man. They’re not used to it – you know? They don’t like it too much when other people come moving in and visiting here.”
He went on to explain that as Denver expands, big money in the front range keeps putting a curb on development. Those towns nestled in amongst the mountains, the ones with universities and money, Boulder and Ft. Collins (my destination) to be specific – they say no to the cookie-cutter development suburbs and apartment complexes that developers want to build. So as the city expands, it expands east – into these vast flat farm areas, where there are very few people already, where space is abundant, and money is not.
I’m into mountains, myself, but you can see the appeal of these areas right on the outskirts. They’re beautiful grasslands, in a way. They get beautiful sunrises from out there, and besides, they remain apart from the buzz and hum of the city centers.
Or at least they used to. Now, things are changing.
As Guy 4 – the postman – tried to apologize for Guy 2’s behavior, I found myself sticking up for Guy 2. The truth is, I get it. I can imagine how he feels. He’s just one more part of an increasingly disenfranchised group of people called the American white middle class. And no, I’m not telling some sob tale about how the white middle class is underprivileged. I’m not comparing them to blacks in the inner city, or Mexican immigrants on farms – legal or otherwise.
But you know what – maybe I am. Maybe it’s time that somebody should. Being male middle class and white used to mean something, it used to carry some heft. It doesn’t mean shit any more. It means you are culturally irrelevant. It means your farmlands can be turned into strip malls. It means your belief systems and cultural heritage is constantly berated, criticized, and laughed about by the mainstream media.
You want to understand why Trump is so popular with this demographic? Take a drive from Maryland to Colorado via I-70. Take a look at some of the towns in Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas. Here’s an idea, go somewhere that you will actually see lots of Trump posters, and see how long you can stay there. If you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly a climber, which means you’re almost certainly wealthier or at least better off than most of the people in those towns.
You get in those towns and it’s like walking into a TS Eliot poem. It’s easy for us to scoff at Make America Great again. Our people are winning the country. Liberalism is on the rise. Racism is on the ropes. But when you look at where the Trump supporters come from – it’s crystal clear why they’re mad. They’re dying. A slow and painful death. The building are falling apart. Homeless people walk around shabbily. Trash wafts on the breeze. The only restaurants are fast food joints. The only grocery stores are WalMarts. Old decrepit buildings are shuttered up with Do Not Enter signs. You go there, and see how much people care about Mexican immigrants. See how much they care about the environment. What environment? These aren’t fucking rock climbers. They are blue collar workers who never had an opportunity to go rock climbing, and never will.
I made one quick stop in a small town in Ohio to get some food. I yelped pizza, and called the top-rated joint I found to place an order. “Hi,” I said, “can you guys make a Margherita Pizza?”
“Sir? A Margarita pizza? I’ve never heard of that. We got a taco pizza.”
I told them just to give my a cheese pizza with some fresh tomatoes on it, please.
When I showed up, they queried me on exactly what a Margarita pizza was. I explained it was nothing like the drink – that it was spelled m-a-r-g-h-e-r-i-t-a, and that it was basically just a cheese pizza but with fresh whole pieces of buffalo mozzarella in chunks instead of shredded, and fresh basil, and fresh tomatoes slices. The waitress looked at me quizzically – she must have been in her 50’s.
“Well, if you’re saying it’s a pizza with tomatoes and mozzarella and basil then I guess we got it.”
I paid for my pizza, and left. And then I drove, far, far away.
And I didn’t crack a smile until I saw those mountains, until middle America was a safe distance behind me, until I was within a stone’s throw of my new home sweet home.
But when that altercation at the gas station happened, I still had some “suck” (a word I commonly use to describe the major bulk of country I just drove through) to traverse.
Looking back now, after all is said and done, I’m not so sure if I really did get to that gas station first.
If you’re still reading, and I hope you are, there’s just one final point I want to make. And this, my friends, is the silver lining.
That guy and I could have been at a Trump rally together, easily. On different sides of the aisle. Me screaming shit at him about his fascist racist bigot moron of a candidate. He screaming shit at me about my high-falluting liberal privileged ways. Maybe we could have gotten into a fist fight as has been the MO of late.
But in that open space, with time, and just a little bit of distance, we didn’t come to blows. The point, I repeat, is not to never get into it. It’s not to always agree, to never fight, to never get upset. The point is to be able to do all that, and then cool off, and see humanness in one’s fellow man. And that’s what happened.
In our country, in our politics, and the very rhetoric of our media, we are misrepresented by an overly-antagonistic approach to discussion. The goal is not to elevate someone’s argument, position, or feelings – but to eliminate it. Not to empathize, but to embarrass. Not to see the light, but to shine darkness upon it. Fuck off with your critique of the poor word choice or the mixed metaphor. Do you really not understand what I mean when I say “shine darkness?”
It’s so deeply engrained in us that it’s automatic. We are habitualized to dissecting and destroying people’s very feelings about the nation we all live in. By looking for loopholes in logic, inconsistencies, and inaccuracies – by thriving on the ad hominem ad nauseum – we intentionally misunderstand what people are saying. We are more focused on upending than comprehending.
If this nation is going to move forwards on any of the very real and divisive issues that plague us, that has to stop. If congressional gridlock is to abate, it has to stop. If we are ever to defeat racism (and guess what, Redneck is a racial slur, and it’s used about as liberally as any other racial slur today, if not more so, among those reading this), it has to stop. If we are ever going to grow up from the schoolyard bullies that we’ve all so often shown ourselves to be, it has to stop.
If it doesn’t stop, America will never be great again – not for the blues, and not for the reds, and not for anybody in between. And you can quote me on that.