Bruce says he’s the “last timber man in Harney County,” then spits onto the pavement of the hotel parking lot. He’s spent the day, a blistering eastern Oregon late-July Saturday, salvaging timber from a swath of land recently scorched by a wildfire, and his white T-shirt is streaked with dirt and ash as he leans back against his stripped-down, rusted-out Jeep.
“Used to have the largest covered saw mill in the nation just down the road, next to the smokestack that you passed when you drove in. And this town didn’t used to be the dead thing you see now,” Bruce goes on. We’re in Burns, Oregon, a hamlet of 2,700 not far from the wildlife refuge the Bundy brothers made famous by occupying earlier this year. A once thriving community, it has gradually lost its economic base since the regional timber industry was largely shuttered partly thanks to a series of government rulings in the 1990s that prevented loggers from cutting down trees in areas where endangered spotted owls lived.
“We never got to vote on it,” Bruce says. “The government just told us this is how it will be and stopped it. But it’s supposed to be a government by and for the people. And we’re the people.”
Bruce, who is fiftyish and white, informs me he “doesn’t like Trump and can’t stand Hillary,” but if he were to pick, it’d be Donald Trump—as he is a successful businessman, and what they need in Burns are jobs. However, he won’t be picking, because he doesn’t vote. Doesn’t see the point. He’s voted once, only once, though he can’t remember who the candidate was or what exactly he cared about so much it drove him to the polls, just that his guy lost and none of the things he wanted ever happened.
Bruce in Burns
This moment in this hot motel parking lot is halfway through a two-and-a-half-month, 14,000-mile road trip through 32 states that I embarked upon in my MINI Cooper, accompanied by my ten-pound dog Vinni. Like so many Americans who have hit the road, I wanted to understand my country better. I wanted to chat with people from all walks of life—from movie moguls and Senate candidates to out-of-work coal miners and stay-at-home moms—about their lives and politics in election-year America.
My mission was to find our commonalities, the vast swaths of “purple” I knew were out there. I grew up in deep-red Kentucky but currently live in the bluer-than-blue enclave of Brooklyn, so I knew that underneath all the rhetoric, the fake Facebook news stories and divisive campaigns, there had to still be a thing called America that we all belonged to, something that we were all in, together, even now.
But what you find doing this continental criss-crossing is dozens of enclaves that can feel thousands of miles apart even when they neighbor one another. Before Burns I was in Portland, where casual eavesdropping yields chatter about locally grown kale, start-ups, DIY artistic endeavors, and rising housing costs. Then I drove east through the lush, temperate national forest that houses Oregon’s snow-capped Mount Hood and discovered it suddenly ceases, like you’re penetrating an invisible barrier. In the blink of an eye, you are cruising past rolling dry tumbleweed-strewn hills and plateaus, dotted with hints of the pastel and loping cattle. This is the line dividing America’s West Coast from the American West. And in the West, people talk of decline, abandonment, lost ways of life, and fleeing youth.
You can find these divisions from coast to coast. It boggles the mind that it took Donald Trump to make those of us in capital-rich metropolises sit up and pay attention to the nation’s interior, the places in between. It’s just so damn blatant when you’re out there. Or as Rachel, a DC native recently transplanted to the small town of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, put it, “It’s like the Hunger Games. In certain wealthy cities, we’re just obliviously jetting off to brunch and yoga, and everyone else is…”