Westerners share a different reality

by Ray Ring

Time magazine recently gave Westerners a good laugh. Time's "Your Technology" columnist, Anita Hamilton, wrote about her road test of a new satellite radio network. You've probably heard of satellite radio - it's the latest breakthrough, promising to beam signals from orbit to your car radio whether you're in Stinking Desert, Ariz., or Sodden Pass, Ore.

If you subscribe to satellite radio, you can hear exactly your choice of music, anything from jazz to Elvis to stoned rap, no matter what music the local stations might be broadcasting over regular air waves, no matter if you're out of range of local stations entirely.

In her road test, Hamilton drove a new Cadillac DeVille tuned to a satellite network that beams 100 channels to anyone willing to pay $10 a month. She began by reporting breathlessly, "I'm cruising along the New Jersey Turnpike with the music cranked up loud. We're in the middle of nowhere ..."

The New Jersey Turnpike, in the middle of nowhere? Thank you, Ms. Hamilton, for the unintended joke, and for pointing out how some people in the national news organizations that are headquartered in the super-urban East do not have a clue about the other 99.9 percent of the world.

Time magazine occupies its own skyscraper in the heart of New York City, and when one of its columnists ventures out as far as the six-lane New Jersey Turnpike, we can understand how that might seem like nowhere. But Westerners know what nowhere really is.

Where I live, in one of Montana's most developed counties, we have all of 60,000 residents scattered on several thousand square miles. Our county boasts of having a university, a node of tech companies, and several ski resorts. But consider an average news story in our local paper, the same week Time's columnist reported her daring exploration of the turnpike.

A local man named Brian Kenney went driving around our county scouting for places to do his hobby, falconry. He had his dog with him and was driving his SUV, and around here, these cars make sense. He got on Dry Creek Road, which degraded to dirt. Night fell and he got to where snow drifted across the road. As he tried to turn around, he got stuck.

From horizon to horizon, no one else was around. Kenney worked hours trying to dig free, and only got soaking wet from sweat and the snow melting on him. It was after midnight by then, and we're talking Montana winter. So he climbed into the back of the vehicle, into a sleeping bag he carried in case of emergency. He didn't freeze to death, but the rest of the night he curled up shivering on Dry Creek Road, with his dog lying next to him to share body heat.

Realizing he'd probably have to rescue himself, Kenney started walking the next morning. He and the dog slogged through the snow, battling a windstorm. They made it eight miles to an unoccupied cabin, spent a night there, and slogged another 10 miles the next day, finally reaching a ranch house.

Not much of a story, by Western standards. It didn't even make the front page. But it's a taste of real nowhere. For a full serving of nowhere, check out western Utah, eastern Oregon, south-central Washington, northwest Colorado, northeast California, half of either Arizona or New Mexico or Idaho, or almost anywhere in Nevada or Wyoming.

Even Westerners who live in cities have to be acutely conscious of our region's vast empty spaces, the harshness, danger, beauty and wonders of nowhere country that must be crossed.

Satellite radio for Westerners? To national columnists who serve as marketers for multinational corporations, it might seem like an easy sell. But not many of us living on our local nowhere Western economies can afford to shell out an extra $10 a month to ensure that just the right music is at our fingertips at all times.

Many of us will not choose to cut ourselves off from our local broadcasters, who do community announcements, report lost dogs, hold fund-raisers for local cancer victims, and provide local avalanche warnings in between the music.

Time's unintended message to Westerners: Often we can't rely on national media to explain much of anything to us.

 

Ray Ring is Northern Rockies editor for High Country News. He writes from Bozeman, Montana, and can be reached at rayring@hcn.org.

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