(Promoted by Colorado Pols)
The past 36 hours has been a canvas of the hope and challenges we have as a nation – a journey that began and ended in the shadows of the United States Capitol.
I planned the trip. I didn't plan the experience.
It started with a meeting on Monday evening with a dear friend and agricultural expert Sara Wyant. I've had the honor to know Sara and her husband Alan for years, both leaders in the agricultural policy: Sara as Editor of Agri-Pulse, fellow founding board member of the "25x'25" alliance and former [and first woman] chair of the Farm Foundation. Her publication is appropriately named – she has her finger on the "Washington pulse" in all things ag-related. Alan was an appointee at USDA-Rural Development during the Bush years. He and his boss were avid champions of Wray and the community accomplishments we achieved as one of only twelve rural towns chosen nationally to participate in the Pioneer Hi-Bred, International-funded "Search Communities" program in the late 80's. In 1993, Wray was competed and won the "All-America City" designation. Thanks to Tom and Alan we had the opportunity to showcase the "Wray experience" at two national conference of state directors of rural development in 2006.
The agricultural community is lucky to have the leadership of this dynamic duo.
Amongst our many tangent conversations Sara and I had regarding the fate of the Farm Bill, we discussed the future of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP]. How will we deal with this public assistance? Will be go with the Senate version that proposes $4 billion in cuts, or the House version that seeks a $40 billion cut? The stakes are high. Particularly with those who struggle in extreme conditions daily. I had no idea this discussion was preparing me for the next 24 hours.
I had meetings scheduled in South Carolina the next morning. Refusing to miss my opportunity to meet with Sara, the timing left me with no flights that could get me to Columbia early the next morning. The last Amtrak train left hours before our scheduled time. I was left with one option: Greyhound. A decision easily made - it let me "have it all": time with Sara and an on-time arrival in Columbia early Tuesday morning for meetings with farmers to discuss rural development, renewable energy and job creation in their state.
A quick good-bye to Sara and a dash to Union Station sealed the transportation component of the trip: a 12-hour bus ride through the night, with bus transfers in Richmond and Fayetteville, NC.
My first text to a friend was an hour out of DC and half-way to Richmond. It was a response to a number of conversations I was listening to rolling down the dark interstate: the text read, "I'm trapped in a bus load of white trash headed south". It quickly evolved into one of those uneasy moments – a sharing of a text meant in jest when you knew you prided yourself on being 'non-judge mental'.
My "jest" was affirmed in the Richmond bus terminal, a scene rife with the characters of Honey Booboo & Duck Dynasty and a splattering of "Sweet Home Alabama bar scenes". A grieving father, Alan, who watched his son board a bus northbound to NYC to live with his mom – the father sharing with me all he had was his bus ticket to Atlanta and $11 in his pocket. He had been hunting for a job in Richmond for 18 months. He had given up in Virginia and was headed to Atlanta. Soon the speaker overhead announced our bus to Fayetteville. Off in to the darkness, a bus load of souls that I wished I knew. What was their story? The collective despair in the terminal seemed overwhelming.
We arrived at Fayetteville at 4am and had a short layover before our bus to Columbia. As I stepped off the bus the driver asked me if I would wait just a minute and help an elderly woman off the bus.
Her name was Grace. She was appropriately named. Small in stature and frail, she walked with a single cane and had thick, coke-bottle glasses. She could have been anyone's grandma. Once safely off the bus I discovered she would be on the same bus with me headed to Columbia – so I stayed close and told her I'd stay with her. We'd sit together in the front seat.
Grace was headed for Akin. She had been a waitress; you could imagine her at a diner being every patrons best friend. She recently lost her husband to cancer. They didn't have much; their son died in the Vietnam War; she could no longer live alone and had exhausted her resources. She depended upon government aid. And she was worried She had a grand-niece in Akin that wanted to help. Her journey was in its final chapters.
We arrived in Columbia, I gave Grace a hug and departed the bus. As the bus rolled away, I hoped she find peace and a comfortable place to call home. She is certainly worthy of an end-of-life with dignity.
I had departed DC with a great deal of enthusiasm for the meetings we had arranged. The focus was rural development, jobs, bringing some hope back to regions devastated by a collision of market forces, inept government policies and what I think is a general apathy to these rural causes. But I arrived in Columbia with a chink in my armor and a slightly heavy heart: I wish I had had the opportunity to hear the story of everyone "on the bus". How many Grace's were there in my midst?
I was haunted by my earlier text. I wish I could have taken it back from the universe. Suddenly it became glaringly inappropriate in my mind – and I wondered how many times I might have made this same error, making a joke out of something that wasn't funny at all? What if the occupants on the bus lived in an economy that hadn't lost six million manufacturing jobs to off-shoring over the last decade? What if they didn't live in constant fear of not being able to feed or provide for their family? What if we actually governed this economy as if every single soul mattered? What would the bus occupants look like if they all had a shot at a job with a living wage?
It had been awhile since I had been that troubled internally. It was the equivalent of holding a child dying of AIDS in a Zimbabwe orphanage – or having lunch with Morris, one of Kony's "rescued kids" in a northern Ugandan village. I was sitting in it. It was no longer abstract. But this time I wasn't in a third-world country, I was in the richest country on the planet.
The Columbia meetings were productive. State leaders committed to bringing opportunities to rural South Carolina. Making the rural areas a key component to their economy once again. We ended the morning meetings with a fabulous lunch on the top floor a building overlooking the state capitol. And all I could think about was Grace and Alan. Did she make it to Akin? How far was Alan's $11 going to take him? Where did we go wrong?
Our day ended with a drive to Newberry to be with Willie Nelson backstage at the Newberry Opera House. This would be a first for my friends I'd spent the day with. Willie never disappoints me with his absolute kindness and ability to distil his feelings in to a small number of powerful words. I introduced the gang to Willie and they shared their vision for rural South Carolina. His parting words before he headed on-stage: "You must do this. We're counting on you." He is so absolutely authentic when he speaks.
The evening at the Opera House ended and we said our good-byes; one of my friends drove me to Spartanburg to catch the midnight train back to DC. Half-way there we passed Willie's bus headed to Tuscaloosa. A sentinel in the night, rolling down the highway, bringing measuresof joy and hope wherever he goes.
I thought the day was over – I'd get on the train, grab a pillow and sleep.
I was wrong.
We arrived at the Spartanburg train station 45 minutes before its arrival. It was an old-time train station – something straight out of Petticoat Junction. On the platform was an older gentleman standing on the platform who yelled at me, "Mister, are you here for the train?" I confirmed, and he walked down to greet me. His name is Russell. Someone who seemed to be about the age of Willie. A local who manned the station late at night – one of his three, part-time jobs. He asked me what I was there for – and I told him I had just left the concert in Newberry. He exclaimed loudly: "you know Willie Nelson?" I showed him some of the evening's pictures – he in turn, opened up and shared his life with me. He had lost one of his four children; he said that when he was down and out he would play some Willie songs.
"It made life better", he said.
Russell has a grandson who is autistic. He told me he's concerned about the plethera of chemicals we are putting in our food and wondered whether that had anything to do with his son's autism. He talked about how hard it was for his son to deal with the economic challenges of raising an autistic child. He told me he had stopped eating processed foods and mostly 'just ate vegetables' now, even though it's cheaper to eat something else. He relies on SNAP – he's one of our working poor. He's worried about what the changes in the program will mean to him. He spoke of his admiration for Willie's commitment to farming and organic agriculture.
When an 80-year old African-American man is starting to question our food supply and agronomic practices – maybe it's time for all of us to start questioning everything. Perhaps he's an anomaly – or perhaps this is no longer a concern for people with enough disposable income to shop at Whole Foods.
The train was ten minutes away when a second car pulled up. It wasn't a passenger – it was a young woman named Kendall who was a friend to Russell. She knew she would find him at the station. She had good news she wanted to share. After months of job hunting she just landed a job at the QuikTrip on Main Street. Russell couldn't have been happier – and he told me she would be the "best damn convenient store clerk in town". It was a fitting way to end the day. The wisdom of an old man; the exuberance of a young woman who finally landed a job.
The train arrived, I hugged Russell and Kendall and thanked them for the gift of getting to know them. I boarded, grabbed my pillow and started my 10 hour ride back to DC.
I woke up to a sunrise out my window somewhere in North Carolina. The hillsides splashed with color; a kaleidoscope of nature that reminded me winter is upon us. A final hurrah – a beautiful display of God's handiwork, soon to be followed by winter. Like so many lives I had intersected with that day. I again wondered what Grace and Alan were doing at that very moment. I hoped they were OK.
We rolled in to Union Station thirty-seven hours after I departed on the Greyhound. I walked across the plaza to my office in the Hall of States. A building home to national media outlets that revel in producing TV talk shows where pundits scream over each other in ad nauseam. Pretending to care while the Grace's, Alan's, Russell's and Kendall's of the world cope day-to-day. Or hour-to-hour.
As I'm typing this I only have to turn my head ever-so-slightly to look out my window and see the Capitol building – and wonder whether there will be enough men and women in those two chambers to "right this ship" in the coming months – and get us back on course to a nation full of hope and opportunity. A place where everyone matters. A place that will make sure all of those cups of coffee Grace poured were not in vain. A place where being the "best damn convenient store clerk in town" is something everyone would be honored to be. A country where our Congress would fight half-as-hard for Grace, Alan, Russell and Kendall as they would for already-billionaires who have their goal set on the next $100 billion. Yes, I'm talking to you, Congressman Gardner. Your vote to gut SNAP is an affront to the working poor everywhere. Let's hope the House conferees to the Farm Bill dismiss their false reliance on scripture - and then get on to the business of things that will make a difference in the lives of the Grace, Alan, Russell and Kendall in all 435 congressional districts.
I wish I could recall my text from the Universe. There is no such thing as white trash – there is such a thing as unfulfilled human potential. And failed humanity. And an eternal hope for a better world.
You were given this opportunity to lead by your constituents. Don't blow it.