In the final chapter of Ghost Town(ing), host Melodie Edwards revisits her parents’ decision about whether to move away from Walden. Her mom has been trying to lure her dad away with all sorts of stratagems. But there’s a lot about the craziness of 2020 that entrenched him even deeper.
Interested in this story from The Modern West? Be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts so you never miss an episode.
In the depths of winter, I make the one-hour trip over the mountains to Walden to visit my parents. We’re celebrating because they’ve both received their COVID vaccine. But over the long year of quarantining, my mom Carol hoped that the isolation might compel my dad to move to their new house in Laramie, the one right next door to my house. He could see his granddaughters more often, we all told him. But he was skeptical. So my mom tried luring him to the so-called “big city” by using all sorts of stratagems.
“I got a chair, just like his chair here at home so that he would feel like he was at home,” she said. “And I got a piano. And I had some people deliver it and I got it for free, but it cost to have it delivered. And then I paid some guy to come and tune it. So that it would be really a good piano for him and he would be really happy about his piano. Yeah, and I arranged that whole side of the sunroom so that it would be his little cozy nook, sort of like his office here. So there’s a piano there. There’s a desk for his computer. There’s the record player there and all of his records”
My dad disputed this last assertion. “Well, the record player was for her,” he said. “She bought all this big band stuff, you know.”
“All the blues records are there,” she quibbled.
She tried just about everything. For my mom, the decline of Walden has been too hard to bear. She spent years trying to save it to no avail. Now, she believed staying in a dying town is contributing to some of her health problems. For several years, she kept collapsing with dizziness and chest pain, throwing up, wild swings of blood pressure. The local ambulance rushed her to hospitals in distant cities a bunch of times. Once she was even flight-for-lifed. But now she thinks those events were severe panic attacks resulting from depression. My mom wants to move away, even if it means shrinking the town by another two people. But my dad Jay? Well….
“He didn’t like sleeping [at our Laramie house]. He said he couldn’t sleep very well there. And so the bed was too small, right? He didn’t like the bed. And I mean, it was a brand new queen-sized bed!”
“But it didn’t fit your two new dogs,” I pointed out.
“No, it didn’t fit our puppies,” she said. “So I got him a king-size bed.”
“And when you go from one bed and from one situation to another, you know, you have trouble,” my dad said. “I have trouble getting to sleep.”
“The dogs were part of this whole equation too,” I said. “Why did you get puppies for him?”
“Oh, so he wouldn’t be lonely here when I’m up there,” my mom said.
“So is that a sign that you’ve just given up?” I asked. “And you assume that he’s never going to make it to moving up there full time?”
“No, that’s not a sign that I’m giving up,” she said and we all laughed. “Because I assume that he will eventually move up there when he can’t even walk, when he’s so decrepit that he can’t do anything and he’s not going to go hiking and stuff.”
“You know, our handyman guy Chad?” my dad said. “We were working on the front porch and he asked me when I was going to move up there. And I said, I’m going to move up here when they wheel me in. He said, I’ll build you a ramp.”
Sure, we get a good laugh at that but it just tells you. Even a year of pandemic couldn’t drive my dad away from the town he loves. In fact, there’s a lot about the craziness of 2020 that entrenched him even deeper.
Rule #1: Don’t Be A Snob
Walden isn’t terribly strict about the social distancing and the masks. The virus was late arriving here and quick to depart. I asked my parents if it felt safe though.
“Not so much,” my dad said. “I went to band practice yesterday, and there are four of us. I forgot mine. I would have worn it but it was in the car. I could have gone out and got the bandana, but I didn’t. Normally I would not do that, you know, that was kind of different for me. If I go into business, wherever I go. When I go to Gabby’s, no, I don’t wear one there.”
But he said he doesn’t really go to his Vietnam Vet friend Gabby’s house much, mostly he stays home. And all that staying home has been rough on my mom. She’s always been an active person. Before the pandemic, she had just started going to tai chi and line dancing classes and joined a writing group. But all those things started to feel not-so-safe. So she reluctantly spent more time in Walden with my dad.
To her, there are lots of negatives about living in a struggling town. But there was one big benefit: getting the vaccine.
“I mean, I saw it in the paper and called him up and got in right away,” my mom said. “We don’t have lines of cars here. There wasn’t even a line of people walking in to where they were giving the shot. And there were some people there, a couple, they were sitting in a chair outside of the room where they’re getting the shot, and waiting their 15 minutes. They weren’t waiting to get the shot, they were waiting their 15 minutes, because they had just gotten their shot. And Becky gave us a cup of coffee and it was pretty good coffee too. I’m happy about that. She said, ‘Do you want some coffee? And I said, ‘Well, is it any good?’”
My mom is a serious coffee snob, it’s a fact. But she tries not to be a snob when it comes to handling the less-than-perfect virus response of her town.
“I always have a mask in my pocket, my coat pocket. And so I always wear one but I was in Supers the other day and there were people in there, I didn’t know who they were, I didn’t recognize them. And there were people in there that weren’t wearing a mask. And I thought I should attack them!” She laughed hard at this and so do I. She just turned 80. “What kind of mentality is that, you know, that would make you do that kind of thing? I mean, I didn’t think I should attack them. But I thought that’s what people do. They see somebody in the grocery store and they’re not wearing a mask, and they just start getting their face and just yelling at them, pushing them around and stuff. And I thought I can’t imagine doing that.”
For my parents, coexisting with people who disagree with you has become a way of life. My parents are two of only about 200 Democrats in the county. The other 800 are Republicans. Part of that is about how America is undergoing the great sorting of America, surrounding ourselves with people we agree with. But my parents have done the exact opposite. Maybe you’re thinking, well, they must have to keep a zipped lip all the time. But au contraire, they aren’t quiet about their opinions at all.
Rule #2: Be Yourself
Take my dad. In the last few weeks, he’s been having a very, let’s say, passionate reaction to the January 6th attack on the U.S. capitol. And there’s no bottling him up. Trust me. I’ve tried.
“I got online, and I went to Wikipedia, and I got a copy of the 25th amendment,” he told me. That’s the part of the U.S. Constitution that says if the president is unable to do his job, the vice president can step in as acting president. My dad felt that’s what Mike Pence should have done because Donald Trump incited a riot. So my dad started delivering these copies around Walden and pinning them up everywhere. He took some to the hardware store, the police station…
“But then the next stop was at the post office,” he said. “So I went in the post office and the postmistress there, I asked her if I could put it up. And she was a little hesitant. She kind of looked at it and then she kind of realized that it was actually only the text, only just a copy of the 25th amendment. And when she hesitated, I said, it does say United States Postal Service on your jersey there. So she said, ‘yeah, this is fine.’ And I said, ‘I’ll go hang it.’ She said, ‘No, here, I’ll make a copy and I’ll go put it up.’
Then my dad went over to the city hall to hang one up.
“While I was at City Hall, the mayor was there. The mayor used to own the newspaper. And through this whole fall and summer, he’s had a Trump poster in the window of the old newspaper shop, and it’s bothered me the whole time. So previous to all of this, I had gone with some big red duct tape and made a big X on the glass over the poster, which was actually inside. And I signed my name to it. I just said, ‘Jay Edwards did this.’”
At this point, I was laughing pretty hard. But then he told me, “So when I went in there, the mayor, Jim Dustin, was there. And so he commented on what I had done, and he said that I was the only vandal he ever knew of that signed his work!”
“He wasn’t angry about this?” I asked.
“No, he didn’t seem to be angry at all. But he had taken the Trump sign down almost immediately. Yeah, actually, the day that we got our shots. I put it up earlier in the day. And on the way back from getting our shots, we drove past it, and I saw that it was all down.”
Rule #3: Write Letters To The Editor
So my dad succeeded in removing one Trump sign of many in Walden. But still, my dad felt the need to keep trying to persuade his community to rethink what the capitol riot meant. So the next thing my dad did was write a letter to the editor of the Jackson County Star, Matt Shuler who we met back in episode ten, an old classmate of mine.
“Well, so can you read just a little bit of your letter?” I asked him.
“Yeah. I’ll just start at the beginning. ‘I’m Antifa. Notice the small letters. I’m 76. I never graduated. I worked in sawmills as a logger, as a roughneck on a drilling rig, and as a shop floor machinist making milspec parts. (Milspec is military spec.) We owned some businesses. I should be a Trump fan, but I’m a blue-collar Democrat….”
I gotta be honest. This letter freaked me out. Especially that first sentence. To call himself Antifa in a town like Walden?! Yikes. I mean, when a family friend came to visit during the election last fall, he told my dad that, “He said his friend had to comment on all the Trump signs in Walden. We were just plastered. You know, I had to go way out of my way to get a few Biden signs.”
But my dad does have Biden signs in his yard and bumper stickers on his cars. And never once have they been vandalized. (Not even in retaliation by Mayor Jim Dustin!)
“So you published this letter, and I was very frightened about it,” I told my dad. “Because of the first sentence, in which you call yourself Antifa. And I just want to know what the reaction of the town has been?”
“I haven’t had a reaction. I don’t get out of the house. The only reaction I have was from the guy who wrote a reply to my letter. And he just went, I mean, it’s sitting here. He just went MAGA points down.”
My dad read a bit from that guy’s response letter.
“‘I had considered subscribing to your paper after I moved to Jackson County in 2019. But now I will not waste my money on your rag.’ Well, that’s kind of insulting to Matt. I mean, I can see he has a right to be insulting to me. That’s what the newspapers are supposed to do, right. I still don’t know exactly where Matt stands on all this.”
“Did I tell you that I texted Matt and said, ‘What do you think about my dad putting this letter in the paper?’ And he texted me back. And he said, ‘I think that your dad makes some good points that the community needs to hear.’”
Rule #4: Engage In Civil Debate…
I was nervous that my dad would get more blowback than just that one response letter. But then, in the next week’s paper, two more letters of response appeared.
“I had a couple people come to my defense, one was Helen Williams, who was actually Governor Roy Romer’s Chief of Staff, so she’s a Democrat. And then another person I know, who I think is Republican, but I’m not real sure. But he came strongly to my defense as well.”
“And so there’s a variety of people’s opinions in your community,” I said. “It’s not just across the board Trump supporters.”
“There’s a diversity of opinion,” my dad said. “He’s not a Trump supporter but nor was he a Bill and Hillary supporter. In fact, not at all.”
“People are thinking, who don’t live in small towns, that everybody who’s in a small town is a Trump supporter, and that’s just not true,” I said.
“No, it’s not but in our town, it’s true, sort of!” my dad said. “It’s very, very lopsided. What would it be? I don’t know. It’s a four to one or something.”
“Well, do you think that there’s a way for Trump supporters and non-Trump supporters to communicate and to get past this?”
“Write a letter to the editor,” my dad said. “That was kind of my point. Write a letter to the editor and have someone else besides you criticize your letter.”
My dad’s letter sparked a community conversation. Let me just say it one more time–that’s why every town needs a healthy newspaper. He wrote a second letter, a rebuttal. And since the flurry of letters were published no one has confronted my dad on the street. Not even his own friends who are almost entirely conservative.
Rule #5: …But Don’t Pick Fights Either
“I haven’t really talked to anybody about the politics here,” my dad said. “Gabby and I, you know, we have talked politics and his politics is way different than mine. I think it was back during the impeachment thing, he was sitting down holding his head and complaining about how our beloved president was being treated, and I just had to, I didn’t gasp exactly, but I did take a deep breath and step back a pace. You just go, beloved president? But that’s the fact. Half the people think that and half the people still think that, I think.”
“In our country or…?” I asked.
“In our country. Well, it’s enormous here. I mean, this is totally Republican and Trump-supporting here. Yeah, totally.”
“So I’ve got to ask then, why not move to nice liberal Laramie, where you could be surrounded by people who agree with you?” I asked, although I should clarify, Laramie isn’t that liberal. It’s about half and half, but compared to Walden…
“Because you can’t get anything done. I guess I think you can’t sit on your ass. You know, it’s not a good time to sit on your ass,” my dad said.
“And so if you are in Laramie, you wouldn’t have opportunities like that, to have those kinds of conversations?”
“I wouldn’t know people, right?” he said. “There wouldn’t be anybody that I would know. I wouldn’t run into John, and I wouldn’t run into Jim Dustin. I mean, my friends here, particularly the male friends, they’re all Republicans.”
I asked him if, for the most part, they just kind of steered clear of these conversations.
“I can’t say we steer clear, exactly,” my dad said. “We kind of know where each other stand. And it’s kind of, we have other things to talk about, and other things to discuss.”
“In terms of the whole question of whether you want to continue to live in a town where you’re surrounded by people that you disagree with, how did this letter-writing exchange maybe affect your feelings about that?” I asked.
“Not at all,” he told me. “We’ve always lived in a town where we fundamentally don’t agree with the people that are around us. But I don’t care.”
Rule #6: Don’t Move Away
Talking to my dad, I realize something that he wouldn’t put in so many words. After four decades in this tiny town, he’s found himself in a very unique position. He has the trust of the community. He can put big X’s on people’s political signs and sign his name and have a good laugh afterward. He’s in a place to do something rare in our country right now: speak his mind and be heard. He wasn’t elected to this position. He wasn’t appointed. But if he left, there’d be a hole in the spot where he used to hold his ground. As small towns shrink, lots of these holes are forming in communities. People who once voiced differing opinions on hard subjects, now they’re gone. Small towns need those voices now more than ever. And so my dad, I can’t blame him for resisting a move to a bigger, more liberal town. There, his voice isn’t as needed.
“I don’t have a big interest in moving [to Laramie]. I don’t personally have things to do to get up in the morning and go, okay, I’m going to… fill in the blank. Well, it is a blank.”
“You see what he’s like,” my mom said. “I mean, your dad doesn’t adjust to change that well, I mean, he just doesn’t. But to me, I need that change, you know, because I didn’t adjust apparently to that change where I wasn’t working and I was just at home.”
“You didn’t retire well,” my dad said.
“No, I didn’t retire well,” she admitted. “And Walden doesn’t have that much to offer anymore, too. I mean, I ran the fly shop and I ran the Cowdrey Store and I was really busy and there were to things do, and it was happening.”
So there’s this big tug of war going on. My dad can’t leave because he feels this deep commitment to his community and he wants to keep fighting for it. But my mom wants to give up that fight because she feels it put her health at risk. The reason my parents decided to buy the house in Laramie was so she’d be closer to a hospital. I mean, her health problems are a big mystery. None of her specialists can figure out why she keeps having these scary events. But recently her doctor in Walden, Lynette Telck, prescribed some anti-anxiety medicine. My mom tried all kinds of meds to address her symptoms but this one finally worked. Maybe because it finally got at the root problem. But she wonders if she moved to the city, maybe she could get off them.
“I’d just as soon not be in that state of mind where I have to take something so that I don’t get anxiety about and depressed about my situation,” my mom said. “It was my self-image which was the problem. My self-image just hit rock bottom because I wasn’t doing anything here. There was nothing to do here in Walden. There are things to do in Laramie. It makes me feel better about myself, and makes me feel positive about the possibilities.”
“And so you’re thinking that at some point if you were living there more regularly than maybe you would be able to go off it?” I asked.
“I think so, yeah. Because I was taking classes, I belong to groups, I was writing.”
Rule #6: Accept Your Community The Way It Is
So yeah, my mom wanted to walk away from this town and its despair. But even for her, something held her back.
“I don’t want to sell it. That would just be, the very thought of selling our home here is really, now talk about depressing. No, I’m not gonna do it.”
My mom’s ideal dream is to live full-time in Laramie but keep her house in Walden and spend part of the year here. She has hopes that someday this town will come back to life. This Christmas, she was happy to see Jim Moore, the wealthy Oklahoman that bought up most of Main Street, decorate all his buildings for the holiday. He opened the old auto shop as an indoor Christmas market and filled the downtown with lights and music. I asked my mom if she had more hope that Moore would make up for disappearing for a decade and a half.
“Yeah, I do, I think so. Yeah, it may be too little too late. But maybe not, things can turnaround, I mean, towns that are nothing but boarded-up buildings, then somebody comes in and a bunch of people start moving in and buying up these old derelict buildings and fixing them up. I mean, that happens.”
I ask my parents what their plan is for the future. They say they don’t have a plan. It’s like this town is a member of our family– unemployed, struggling with substance abuse, unloveable to the rest of the world–but still part of our family. My mom can’t sever ties here any more than my dad in a lot of ways. For instance, my mom hasn’t found a new doctor in Laramie. She still goes to Lynette.
“She’s always going to be my doctor. Lynette is my doctor,” she said.
“You’re on a first-name basis.”
“Well, I’ve known her since she was a little kid.”
“So because my dad refuses to leave, you’ve got one foot in the city and one foot in Walden still,” I pointed out.
“Yeah, well, the problem with that is that Walden is our home and our house is in Walden. I mean, when we bought it you said this is your ideal place. And that’s true, that was our ideal place,” she told me.
“What’s so great about it?”
“Well, really the building itself is just a doublewide trailer,” she admitted. “But you can sit there in the living room and look out the living room window and there’s nothing in front of our house. We’re on a hill and we look out across a meadow, we look out across a river, and we look out across a lake, and toward all the western mountains. I mean, that’s our view. “
“It’s all about the view,” I said.
“It is about the view.”
Rule #7: There’s No Place Like Home
So here we are, back again to the intrinsic value of a beautiful view. “You can’t eat the view, but you can’t live without it,” my dad once said. And maybe it’s the same for the intrinsic value of a hometown. Towns like Walden, okay, maybe they don’t mean much in the great big scheme of things. Maybe Walden does deserve to die, I can’t say. All I know is how I feel when I stand in my parents’ front yard, a circle of mountain ranges all around, a neighbor driving by with a wave, redwing blackbirds making a racket about the arrival of spring.
It’s home. That’s all. It’s home.
Ghost Town(ing) episode art by John McNamis
Blue Dot Sessions