There are two things I swore I wouldn’t photograph on this trip: abandoned buildings and campaign signs.
Okay, so I took one photo of an old storefront in Regan, North Dakota after a woman I spoke to told me her grandfather owned the mercantile that used to occupy it. But otherwise, as much as they tempt my photographic eyeball, I am not interested in capturing the decrepid ruins of the hundreds of abandoned homesteads and small towns I’ve driven by in the past three weeks. The crumbling structures, blown out windows and rusting Chevrolets deserve respect and privacy in their final resting places. They don’t visually represent the strong and healthy communities of the Plains states very accurately, either.
I swore I wouldn’t photograph campaign signs because if I had unleashed my camera’s battery stamina and my trigger finger on the spectrum of creativity I have witnessed thus far, I would still be in South Dakota.
But yesterday, as I was about to cross the Kansas-Oklahoma line, I almost broke my own rule. A simple white sandwich board was planted in a lawn with a message hand-painted on the front.
“I am more afraid of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris than I am of COVID-19.”
It was a message of fear, written in black and white. Now, I have been thinking a lot about fear in recent weeks. I think about the fear I feel when I pull into campsites by myself at the end of the day. I think about the fear that rises in me when I park my truck with Connecticut license plates in a gas station in a Kansas town of 400 people. I feel fear when I am the only one wearing a mask in every grocery store, diner and coffee shop I walk into, which has been a harsh reality since Nebraska. It is the fear of being the outsider. It is the fear of vulnerability.
I remember the fear that ripped through the Emerson College campus in the weeks that followed the 2016 election. Students, staff, faculty and community members were afraid of what the next four years would mean for their rights, their earning potential, their personal safety as people from many intersections of minority identification. Most were feeling extremely vulnerable. Most still do, and their fear is fully justified. These four years have been long and painful.
I have driven by more overt outpourings of Trump love in the past three weeks than I did in the months that have led up to this election season. I have seen flags the size of billboards, spraypainted hay bales, broken-down cars decorated with signs, small businesses and 4H headquarters and churches and liquor stores proudly touting his messages to every seatbelt-strapped bypasser. But today was the first time in three weeks that I saw a sign that expressed fear for the homeowner’s personal well-being in the face of a presidential change.
And the fear of that presidential change was explicitly greater than the fear of a global virus that has killed over a million people.
I think everyone is afraid of something right now. But fear seems to manifest itself differently depending on what party line you bubble in the voter’s booth. Where I come from in New England, and in the Missoula bubble I now call home, most people fear COVID, climate change and getting the same Republican for the next four years. But in the towns that dot the roads that I have called home for the last three weeks, the points of concern are governments strong-arming mask mandates, the Green New Deal and getting the Democrat.
Few talk about fear around here, unless it’s a fear of God or of crop failure. But I realized that fear of present circumstances is felt just the same in Medicine Lodge, Kansas as it is on Boylston Street in Boston. The stakes are high for towns funded by agriculture, manufacturing and energy development. Eradication of these industries would take the life out of every single town I have passed through or woken up in since I left Missoula. While middle America gets the redneck reputation covertly assigned to the more polite adage of the “flyover states,” the truth is that plenty of real, honest, hardworking human beings build lives and raise families and enrich communities out here, too.
The abandoned houses and barns that melt back into the ground from which they were raised are testament to what happens when those communities go broke. Ghost towns might be a tourist attraction for some, but they are harsh reminders for those who drive past them every day on the commute to the fields of corn, soy and wheat. A town can’t afford to exist when it can’t afford to feed itself.
Now, I won’t be an advocate for Trump or his supporters. I definitely don’t think Trump gives a fraction of the damns about small town America that small town America gives about him, and I don’t think he plans on solving any of the problems that face this part of the nation. I can sleep at night knowing that I bubbled a different candidate on my ballot. I also know that I would be ostracized if I were to share my political beliefs with the diner crowd I ate amidst on Sunday in Great Bend. Granny’s Kitchen has an amazing breakfast burrito, by the way.
But if I have learned anything in the last three weeks, anything that doesn’t involve migratory birds and wetland classifications, it is that everyone is scared today, and that everyone has been scared for months. Some hide their fear, and some compensate for it with false patriotism and loud defiance. Some shout it right out and carry it on signs while marching through city streets, protesting the centuries of fear felt by all too many Americans. Some bring it up quietly at the dinner table, hoping to start a simple conversation in a safe environment. Others excommunicate family members and friends. Some laugh about fear, and some cry. Some cling to the second amendment, others cling to the Roe decision. But nobody likes being afraid for their safety or for the future of their nation.
I don’t really have a conclusion here. I just know I’m spending the most contentious Election Day of my lifetime driving my Connecticut license plates from Nescatunga, Oklahoma to Bowie, Texas. I know that I’m scared too. Let’s be kind to each other today. And when we get the results tomorrow, let’s try to be kind to each other then too.