[I wrote this post almost ten years ago for my old personal blog, What Is Left? I thought about abridging it because our attention spans aren’t what they used to be, but here it is reproduced in its full, unadulterated glory save a few edits for the sake of clarity.]
Over the last few months, I have felt a strong urge, and almost responsibility, to share with my friends why the Obama campaign and presidency meant and mean so much to me. However, each time I’ve attempted to spill my thoughts onto a page, I’ve been intimidated and paralyzed by the breadth of possible approaches and the profundity of each of our experiences and motivations. The scope and gravity deterred me, and this blog has remained stale.
Scattered across various hard drives, journals, and throughout my Gmail account are snippets of reaction and inspiration from each stage in which I participated. While a tech adviser to the campaign, I detailed arms-length paragraphs of intellectual assurance and optimism. Service as a campaign surrogate triggered notes of trepidation that soon evolved into a deep feeling of privilege and gratitude. Of course, the inauguration itself was a singularly impactful event to witness. I could, and did, draft pages of real-time reflections at each of these stages. Yet, I think the notes from my time on the road leading up to election day serve as the best illustration of my thoughts…
When my truck and I left San Francisco, my original aim was to spend some a couple of weeks driving around the Rockies interleaving time on my mountain and road bikes with campaigning for Obama in places it mattered, such as Nevada and Colorado. My parents had bestowed upon my brother and me a youth hallmarked by consecutive summers in the mountains of the American West. I had sorely missed them and needed a booster inoculation of the awe and humbling context they uniquely inject. In parallel, I saw a mounting number of friends Twittering about their contributions from the trenches, and their labor left me feeling like a free-rider.
Fueled by a freshly compiled road trip playlist (a lost art, I would argue), I drove straight through the night to Winnemucca, NV. The next morning, awakening at the Red Lion Casino, I did some impromptu and unofficial canvassing. The folks who spoke to the unmistakable San Franciscan likely self-selected and I enjoyed our polite banter. I will cop immediately to profiling those whom I approached as well.
After a few hours of glad-handing in greasy spoons on Winnemucca’s main/only strip, I grabbed my bike and peeled off to some wonderfully isolated and meandering single track on the infamous Bloody Shins Trail. Oh, to be out of the city and unmitigatedly alone on my bike breaking trail and wrestling sage. When I got back to the parking lot, I was spent, but bursting with endorphins and assured I had made the right choice in making this trip.
I dropped back into town to grub and consider my trip’s next stop. Food in my belly, and with an eye on making it to Elko that evening, I paused to fill up my tank, still wearing my favorite bike jersey and a peaceful grin that always follows a few hours on the pedals.
I didn’t notice their truck when I pulled in, and couldn’t describe the driver or passenger. I have no idea whether they were wearing the clothes you would stereotypically associate or playing the music our own prejudice might lead us to expect. All I can say with certainty is that as that white Ford F150 accelerated past the pump island in retreat, I was called a “n***** lover” and an empty beer can hurled at me fell limp to the concrete within a few feet of release, its depleted mass no match for the slight breeze.
As a white man from Middle America, [with a burgeoning and in retrospect somewhat naive sense of what we might now call wokeness], I grew up with a very academic perspective on race. White dudes like me see the prescribed Oscar-nominated dramas preaching color blindness. We seek out the black kid in our school and feel exonerated when he greets us with a demonstrably soulful handshake. We are convinced that the poignant lyrics from activist hip-hop resonate with us and we grow unwaveringly confident that we understand the struggle. Yet, the privilege of our skin color does not prepare us to ever be the object of hate.
Thus, I was knocked on my heels by that epithet. I felt shaken, angry, scared, paranoid, sad, and dozens of other emotions simultaneously. I fled Winnemucca and headed West. I’d like to say it immediately strengthened my resolve to work that much harder on the campaign. That would indeed be the honorable reaction. However, initially, it just freaked me out and made me want to desert the reality of this era in our nation.
On Interstate 80, I was soon clocked doing 88 in a 75, the radar likely underestimating my true speed. The cop issued me a ticket without any protest on my end. As he released me from his charge and sent me on my way, I gently interrupted him and told him what had just happened in Winnemucca. I wanted another human being to sympathize, I guess. Upon hearing my account, without hesitation, the officer uttered incredulously, “Well, what’d ya expect?”
Reflecting back, I think that was the impetus for a renewed resolve to do my part to get Obama elected. I pulled up the campaign web site on my iPhone, found the next field office, and charted a course for Elko, NV (a decidedly straight course with no turns, actually).
Elko is a strangely conflicted and anachronistic place. It is essentially a mining town combined with a handful of truck stops, cheap flophouses, and a few casinos. The citizenry is working class, yet notably evidencing poverty at every turn. Those who aren’t employed in serving the transients in need of gas, chow, and lodging, are primarily ranch hands and miners. This was the high desert and I awoke my first morning there to find tumbleweed cartoonishly wedged under my truck.
I walked in to the local Obama office, a clearly improvised outpost just off of Main Street. Greeted by a pair of impressively optimistic volunteers, I was soon introduced to Brendan Ballou, a bone thin 21 year-old college student on leave from school to run the Elko HQ. This kid was brilliant. He moved deliberately and thoughtfully, and operated with an almost obsessive inclusiveness.
Elko’s population is fervently Republican and has a unique ability to be harsh and hateful. Their beliefs are often untenable, but trying to convince them otherwise is frequently futile and has apparently threatening consequences. Nevertheless, at each turn, Brendan stayed remarkably cool. It made more sense when I learned that his first posting of this contest was in a little northwestern town known as Wasilla, AK. Talk about battle-hardened.
Brendan and his trusted organizer Kenny Wyland (coincidentally, a Google engineer) would send us out on canvassing missions issuing each of us lists of names and addresses from voter registration rolls as well as Obama platform enunciating leave-behinds. My routes often took me into the most sparse ‘suburbs’ of Elko with a mile separating dwellings.
I must admit, walking up on the porches on many of the poorest permanent dwellings that exist in this country scared the hell out of me. As a child, I had gone door to door selling candy bars to raise money for sports teams and even then I knew to skip the curmudgeonly old man in my neighborhood’s corner house who used to yell at us if we merely approached his property. Being told I was a terrorist, a n*****, and a traitor just burned that fear deeper into my marrow. Though I struggled to never show the authors of such disdain any returned disgust or reproach, they wore me down. On my second day out going trailer to trailer, I returned to find dogshit had been hurriedly rubbed onto the passenger side of my truck.
In just a short time, Elko was taking its toll on me. At night, in my hotel, I would find myself so angry. The uncomfortably loud Fox News they played in the breakfast room never helped. Only intermittently would I visibly hint at the outrage provoked by the theater of security and patriotism that was destroying my country, a place in which my pride has only ever been strengthened by my time abroad.
I decided to leave. I needed a break. I was eating like crap and acutely depressed. I punched my wall on one night. I didn’t recognize myself. I had worked incredibly nasty jobs growing up, and am quite comfortable in what we white collar folks consider to be the stresses of our coddled employment. However, nothing had prepared me for the daily personal assault from the mouths of these vitriolic people.
I had never been to Moab, UT before, though it had been a goal of mine since I fashioned my own mountain bike out of my dad’s ten speed by attaching a BMX wheel on the front. Google Maps told me I could get there in a long drive and arrive the next morning. Thus, I took some time off of the campaign. Though ‘escaped’ is probably a better and more honest word.
Along the way, I stopped in Bryce Canyon, a favorite place to which my parents first took me at 6 or 7. Within hours, I started to feel “normal” again–a privilege that belonged to me as a white person. The beauty and persistence of nature was washing the negativity from my mind. I ran along the canyon floor and then up around the rim, clearing my head and restoring some focus. But, I was still afraid.
I didn’t know if i had the strength to go back to Elko. I had invited a pile of friends to rendezvous in Vegas and thought that might be a delightful place to celebrate an Obama victory. But, I hated the weight of self-doubt knowing that Elko had tested me and I failed.
Once again I stalled, rationalizing the realization of a vintage fantasy by heading to the renowned undulating mountain bike trails of Moab. I arrived as a stormy curtain fell dramatically on the park. With the sky unapologetically pouring, all riders on the course frantically made for the parking lot. I tried to head out, but the ‘Moab slickrock’ was living up to its name and my wheels could find no purchase. Lightning came and I fortunately found a small cave in the rock hoping to wait out the veritable hose. My patience paid off and as the dry rock soaked up that water, I, in turn, flowed up and down over those surreal surfaces for hours, entirely alone for the duration of my adventure.
I choke up now reflecting on that beauty. The unreproducible light of magic hour dancing in a ballroom where millions of years of weather had perfected its own steps. Just to ensure I was permanently tattooed with the memory of this unique and solitary event, a rainbow emerged, and all of ROYGBIV winked at me, acknowledging the vast catharsis we had to ourselves.
I don’t believe in god, but I do believe in church, and I couldn’t help but bow at this altar. Humbled. Vulnerable. Grateful. The ride back in was in a dark of rare purity, my wheels undulating in surprise waves of rock that escaped my headlamps. Tossed and bucked, I clung to my steed and laughed at my merciful fortune.
Back in the parking lot that night, I had no doubt: I needed to go back and do my work. I thought about the brave people who came into that office every day undaunted. I remembered the determined faces of volunteers who lived in that community and who didn’t have my comparative luxury of leaving. People who never had the education and countless chances and repeated forgiveness I’ve been offered. Citizens whose misfortune was unrecoverable. Yet, they showed up each day ready to knock on more doors, in the cold, in the dark, and past foreboding dog fences. I drove back to Elko through the night.
In my career, I get heaped with empty praise I don’t deserve. Papers get carried away in a flurry of colorful and prophetic adjectives bathing me in baseless optimism. Venerable universities and corporations ask me to come spout scraps of blather raked from the confined yard of my experience so far. But, here I was, back in Elko, a worker among workers. Each astonishing American walking through that door another reminder of how much I undoubtedly had to learn and of how unjustly lopsided my life has been.
Inspired, the remaining few days until the election went by more quickly and purpose overrode the pettiness of the local citizenry’s attacks. In a way, I began to appreciate their fear, their yearning for control, their desperation for some sense of self-determination — even when it expressed itself in vile racism. To the degree possible subject to the hypocrisy and myopia of my comfort, I sympathized.
On election eve, the carnival came to Elko. At 10:30 pm, Sarah Palin strode into the Elko High School gymnasium, there to deliver her proprietary blend of xenophobia, division, and exclusion. Though she feigned confidence and assured the room of her impending triumph, we could nevertheless feel the failure of her message. She underestimated America and her naïveté made me smile.
The Obama team arose exceedingly early on election day, our hands warmed by a box of donut holes and the exhaust heat from the printer spooling names and addresses of those whom we needed to ensure found their ways to the polls. Voting hours ticked by without major incident, the unfriendly lot having now learned to not answer their doors when the obvious interloper came knocking.
With 30 minutes left to vote, I approached the porch of what my tattered list told me was a 91 year old female Democrat. Was she able to get herself to the ballot box that day? I rapped on the door and she answered leaving the flimsy aluminum and wire screen between us. “Hi, I’m Chris from the Obama campaign and I just wanted to make sure you had a chance to vote.”
She didn’t utter a word. Instead, she inched toward the handle, pushing it loose and motioning for me to perform the rest of the opening. As I stepped onto her weathered rug preparing to make my pitch, she reached her frail arms around me and hugged. Silently.
I lost it. I didn’t just let a tear or two slip. I audibly let out 8 years of embarrassment and helplessness. She quickly hoped to comfort me by leading me inside where her family was gathered watching the returns and smiling with the anticipation of an Obama victory. She offered me soup.
Wiping my cheeks, I got back in the car with the local retiree who was driving me from one far flung address to another in our last minute harvest of votes for the good guys and we returned back to the warmth of our field office nook, tucked a block from the formerly main drag that Nevadan sprawl had left behind.
Our orders were to remain at the post until an outcome was deemed certain. Nervously, we hesitated to celebrate any forthcoming success, many of us bearing scars from 2000 and 2004. When the call from campaign headquarters finally came, we erupted, but not in the self-congratulatory jubilation that comes with vanquishing a competitor. Rather, the room was consumed by embrace and tears. Disbelief. Shock. Relief. Wonder.
We spent the next hour hearing tales of the two years many of these selfless and saintly individuals had spent grinding out each vote for our candidate. For the first time in years, it wasn’t my turn to give the speech, to thank everyone for their contributions. Instead, I shut up, listened, and admired.
The official Elko Democrats celebration was held in a room off the casino floor at yet another Red Lion. A large projection screen was tuned to the networks reviewing state by state results and the cavernous room emphatically contextualized the mere 15 attendees of that party. I think you’ll understand my insistence on reclaiming the term McCain resigned to expedient cliché, and express that these other folks in the room were indeed the true mavericks.
The next morning, driving home across stretches of snow-dusted desert with exactly no bars of phone or data service, I struggled to digest what had just taken place. I couldn’t play music and I wasn’t singing. My sense of self was overwhelmed as I reflected upon our privilege. We are the luckiest people in history.
My hero and posthumous mentor, Buckminster Fuller wrote:
“We are blessed with technology that would be indescribable to our forefathers. We have the wherewithal, the know-it-all, to feed everybody, clothe everybody, and give every human on Earth a chance. We know now what we could never have known before-that we now have the option for all humanity to make it successfully on this planet in this lifetime. Whether it is to be Utopia or Oblivion will be a touch-and-go relay race right up to the final moment.”
Revolution still flows through our blood and is baked into our firing nerves. Yet, we had become a nation of rationalizing, complacent, discouraged victims. Along comes a black man with a most politically inopportune name and he stirs within us the pride, courage, and defiance that we had conceded to the reaches of our past esteem.
It will undoubtedly be a relay race until that final moment, and Barack Obama stirred each of us to seize back the baton. With this opportunity, each of us inherits a responsibility. To act. To listen. To empathize and care.
President Obama is not a panacea. However, he is the catalyst for our seemingly final attempt at redemption. Our collective prosperity will not be awarded by some roll of dice or drawn numbers. It must be earned. Sweat, humility, and diligence will produce our grace and will convince the fates to return to us our shared destiny.
In that spirit, I hope that this year, and each that follows, I can simply be helpful. Each of us owes nothing less to each other. Thank you to our President, and each of the indescribably estimable souls who toiled to get him elected, for reminding me of that.
[Damn, I miss that guy.]