In a divided town, what to do after a polarizing election

If you were shocked by the election results, you should step outside of your silo.

 

In my small town in southwestern Colorado, those who did not vote for Donald Trump seemed numbed and stunned by the result. Mostly college-educated and originally from away, they grouped in their usual places to commiserate.

Maybe it was a shocking result. But if these folks had visited outside their circles, if they’d tried to get a fix on what makes the longtime locals tick, they might have had a better sense of what was to come.

Mancos, Colorado, population about 1,300, is mostly white, but its residents are diverse in purpose. Folks here are dedicated to ranching, farming, artistry, outdoor recreational and nonprofit work. Not surprisingly, its eclecticism has been commended; Mancos was named one of the “Top 20 Small Towns” by Smithsonian Magazine.

Rural Colorado traffic jam.
Wikicommons.
 But in my experience, pockets of people here act more like species in the wilderness. They bunch together and interact with other groups only when they must. That’s too bad, since reaching beyond comfortable circles has mostly positive consequences. Researchers at Stanford and Harvard Universities say so. Yet I see plenty of non-communication and even disdain between community groups here.

Here’s an example: Mancos’ motto is “Where the West Still Lives” and sure enough, cattle drives are regular deals. Recently, I helped friends move 50 pairs along a few miles of back road. Most cars stopped to let us pass, but one local driver in a new Subaru tried to pass a stopped car and push through the herd. Now, side-by-side vehicles blocked the cattle. 

The driver, in his ignorance and impatience, had made matters worse. I imagine this scene that plays out across other small Western towns. 

Another example: Colorado is a fence-out state, so gates and fences are nothing new. But more and more transplants to our area lock their gates. Inevitably, cattle get through their fencing. So how do cowboys get them out?

“You either have to cut the fence or cut the lock. Things could go smoothly but don’t because of that,” said Wyatt Cox, a local rancher.

Perry Lewis served on the town board from 2004-2012. Born and raised here, Lewis lived in California, Illinois, Massachusetts and elsewhere before returning home. “I wanted my three sons to be able to grab their horse and their dog and go up into the mountains,” he said.

I asked Lewis about diversity, newcomers and old-timers. “I love the diversity. But the thing that drives me batty? They want paved roads or don’t want their neighbor to have chickens. … But that’s why they moved to Mancos.”

You might think differences could be worked out over a cup of coffee. But even coffee reveals divisiveness. Most ranchers grab their morning cup at the Conoco station or at the P & D, which for decades has served as the town’s grocery store. A quarter-mile away, Fahrenheit Coffee Roasters charges the same price but hosts a different clientele, who tote laptops and smartphones. Some sit for hours at the metal tables, working online. 

Matt Lauer, who owns Fahrenheit with his wife, Linda James, smiles at some locals’ perceptions of his customers and his business. “It’s ‘yuppie,’ ‘new age,’ ‘expensive,’” he said. “There are folks who grew up on Folgers and who think this coffee sucks.” One rancher told me that cowboy hats don’t fit through Fahrenheit’s doorway and that Lauer’s customers “need to get a job.” 

You might assume that transplants are better at embracing a town’s diversity. But sandal wearers with messenger bags are just as rutted in their routines as the cowhands dipping Copenhagen. Lewis and others said they do not see the new, young farmers reaching beyond their circle to get know farmers who have lived in Mancos for generations.

It makes me think that diversity takes work. Books help. My favorite is The Good Neighbor Guidebook for Colorado, edited by Nancy S. Greif and Erin J. Johnson. The driver stuck in cows would do well to read it: “New neighbors must be prepared to assume responsibility for the impact that their presence can have on working farms and ranches. … Living next door to a farm or ranch involves … a commitment to open communication, hard work, and constant learning.”

Great Work, a business practices book by David Sturt, points to the need to reach outside usual circles. When people do that, “it makes communities interesting, welcoming, vibrant,” Sturt writes. “It’s actually a disadvantage to only talk with people “who like us, care about us, and believe in us.”

I mentioned the cattle drive snafu to Sturt. He laughed and offered the driver some advice: “Get out of your little bubble. Roll down your window. Smell the cattle. Listen to them. Get off autopilot. It takes more effort. And it’s a delight.”

Maddy Butcher is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She writes in Mancos, Colorado.  

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.