Friday Takeaway: Strangers in a strange land


Thursday, July 06, 2017

REPUBLIC, WASHINGTON: A perfect name for a one-horse Western town far from blue America and anything folks back home would recognize from recent reports. 

Here in Republic (pop. 1,073) fireworks sales and pancake breakfasts are gearing up for the Fourth. And here at the One Stop Diner, in the red corner of a blue state, the state of the American republic, far distant from that “other Washington,” is fat and friendly.

This summer, I am driving a sag wagon for seven cyclists, my wife included, riding coast-to-coast. We set out last week from the banks of Puget Sound. We are Boston-bound. Ours is a northern route, across the Idaho panhandle, through Glacier National Park, and out across Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota... 10 states. Nine weeks. 3,750 miles. On bikes.

Let me be clear. I drive. I have not come to pedal but, as my blog theattic.space says, to search for a kinder, cooler America. Yet the One Stop Diner seems neither kind nor cool.

Diners have become the media’s go-to place to meet the “real America.” As if “real Americans” never eat in urban restaurants, journalists are sent again and again to diners in Iowa or New Hampshire to find out what “actual Americans” think.

So as the first Fourth of July under You Know Who looms, I am in a diner in Republic, Washington, 50 miles from upper Idaho, 20 from the Canadian border. The landscape is rural West — ranches, bareback horses, soaring pines and quaking aspen. The local scene is a red-state stereotype.

Burly, belching pickups fill the parking lot, and many, flat black with camo trimming and stars and stripes waving, have “anger issues.” Quasi-military vehicles, they radiate contempt. And us? We could not look more foreign. Eight of us, in fluorescent-green bike gear, Massachusetts plates on our Subaru wagons, are clearly “strangers to these parts.”

But look closer and you learn that You Know Who’s America abides solely on screens. Because as we stand in the lot, some bear of a man steps from some mean pickup. He approaches and asks “long ways from home?” Another comes up. “Great day to bike up Sherman’s pass!” Exchanges follow, about the weather, the countryside, the blue sky. And suddenly our continental divide closes. Politics is put in its place. We step inside for coffee.

On TVs overhead, You Know Who blathers on, but no one is watching. From cashier counter to deep corner, brawny, bearded men sit talking shop. One or two check smart phones. Others check a menu. And we check our preconceptions at the door.

The coffee is brown water. The omelets are overpriced. Happy Valley vegans and vegetarians need not apply. But with all due respect to zeitgeist-seeking journalists, I don’t care about the politics at this diner, and neither, it seems, do the diners.

Talk is of ranches and logging, of pancake breakfasts and fireworks and the Fourth. A brown mutt named Kate draws comments from all comers. We sit and pull out more electronics than anyone has seen this side of an Apple store. Laptops, iPhones, iPads, chargers. No one pays us the slightest attention. When we leave, we draw more friendly gestures, wishes for a “nice day.” No one seems to mind us, or to mind anything much. 

Full disclosure. We have seen some rage — a middle finger flashed from a pickup, a couple Confederate flags. But mostly we have met Americans, no more “real” than we are, no less.

So that’s the view from Republic, Washington, where the wind is at our backs and the talk is not of You Know Who, but of today and tomorrow and the Fourth. I just thought you should know.