Brooke Reynolds: Shifting from the “East of Billings” Mindset

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WRFI Instructor, Nick Littman, posing along the Tongue River. Photo Credit: Ryan Marsh. 

Towering yellowed Cottonwoods loom above me, filtering the sunlight through their dancing leaves so that amber light ripples across my hands and face.  The world is completely silent except for the sweet song of the wind and the gentle rhythm of paddles dipping into the cool, calm waters of the Tongue River. Not a single cloud touches the cerulean sea of sky.  Here, there is a sense of serenity pumping through my veins and it seems the same for those around me (except maybe not for Clark). Something is uniquely beautiful about this small, meandering prairie river and its arid valley of a home; we all know it and feel it with every new bend and riffle.

John Hamilton, a farmer in the Tongue River Valley says, “People think of eastern Montana as a wasteland. They don’t realize what we have down here.” John is right… they don’t.

Never have I seen the moon so bright, the sky so frighteningly big, the earth so calm, and so fierce as I have here on the prairie in eastern Montana. There really is not a word to describe it correctly. And yet, this landscape has long been ignored because this area, the Tongue River Valley, and the rest of the bioregion is “East of Billings.”

People are funny things. We have this weird conception that some places in this world are better than others, that there are places on this earth that people deem worthy of every environmental preservation regulation in the book, and that there are places that are only worthy of being toxic waste dumps because of they lack our conventional view of beauty.  Flora and fauna do not have this insane bias. They live and grow where they can live and grow. Sagebrush grows on the prairie because that is where it can exist, not because it is more beautiful than other biomes or other biomes are more beautiful than it.

Humans do not do this. We exist, or want to exist, in places that we have socially constructed as being beautiful: mountains, oceans, vast deserts, lakes, and rivers. This construction has caused us to live within a specific paradigm: wasteland vs. Eden.

I’m tired of our society viewing some land as waste, as a place that can be ruined in order to preserve other “prettier” places. No land is wasteland. It has value. There is value to the people that call it home and to the people who once called it home; there is value to the fauna; there is value to the flora. And, no matter where you go, you can find beauty in a place. Maybe it is the way that the sun hits the horizon line every sunset, or how the rain gently falls into the caressing earth, or how the earth tucks itself into bed every night.  No place’s value should be determined by its beauty, or really be given a value at all. All places are beautiful and valuable in their own unique way.

The Tongue River Valley is threatened with potential coal development, something that will irrevocably alter the landscape, likely in an unfavorable way. Yet, the coal developers and the state of Montana do not seem to care, because the Tongue River Valley is “East of Billings,” a wasteland. To reiterate John Hamilton, “They don’t realize what we have down here.” If they did, they being the government of Montana, coal development would not even be considered. This place is too precious, too remarkable.  And yet politicians and bureaucrats think that the Tongue River Valley and eastern Montana is an unpopulated, flat landscape. Which it is; but it is also so much more.

And so we need to change our worldview of land. No land is meant for waste. All land is worthy of existing in its most natural, or healthiest state. Mentalities like “East of Billings” cannot exist. Otherwise, our earth will be destroyed, since we will not properly take care of all of her land.

Wherever you go, look for those moments like those I had on the Tongue: the sunlight rippling across my skin, the quiet voice of the wind, the soaring trees up overhead. Find these precious observations and hold onto them, because they will make you realize that no land is wasteland.

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Allie Leber: Contemplations on Coal

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It’s day 57. On the schedule for today, two guest speakers. First, we’ll be meeting with one of the men who was key in defeating a major proposed coal development. At this point we’re used to being presented with multiple viewpoints of an issue, we’ve even come to expect it. Sometimes we get these viewpoints over the course of a week, or even just a few days. And then there are some days when we see them both within a matter of hours. This was one of those days. We learn that just a few hours after meeting with our first speaker, we’ll be touring an open pit coal mine.

Not long after waking up, we head to meet with our first speaker of the day, Clint McRae. He and his father were major opponents of extracting the coal found in Otter Creek, one of the largest coal deposits in the world. We also learned they fought in opposition of the Tongue River Railroad, a railroad proposed as the main method of transporting said coal. After learning all of this about Clint, I was greatly taken aback to hear him open with the words “I’m not anti-coal.” But you see, Clint McRae is hardly what you’d call a communist, environmentalist, rock-licking hippie. He’s a fourth generation Montana cattle rancher.

He expanded his statement, “I’m not anti-coal, but I expect the neighbors of these facilities to be treated right. And they haven’t.” He explained coal in a way that seemed completely non-partisan. It wasn’t about whether this political party was invested in coal, or if that one was opposed to it. For him, it came down to protecting his land, and the land of his neighbors, for future generations.

It seemed to me that Clint was touching on something we’ve been studying continuously for the past two months, the 80/20 rule. This rule says that with any given mix of people, you may never be able to reach an agreement on 20 percent of the issues. These are things fundamental to people’s identities that they are not willing to compromise on.  The other 80 percent, however, is often surprisingly easy to agree upon. In general, we all want a good future for the next generation, and often, we all just want to keep things the same as they are.

This type of conflict resolution is key in reaching understandings. We are living in an era in which there is a stark division between the ends of the political spectrum. Journalist Naomi Klein says this “culture-war intensity…is the worst news of all, because when you challenge a person’s position on an issue core to his or her identity, facts and arguments are seen as little more than further attacks, easily deflected”. Clearly, facts and figures are not always key to cooperation. Understanding what people value is.

With this mentality of being open to listening to the values held by opposing sides, I tried to keep an open mind while touring Spring Creek Mine. Right from the start, it was easy to see that the people who worked there were not evil or malicious. They were good people doing what they believed to be best for them, just as Clint was. They were proud of the care Spring Creek took while extracting coal and then attempting to reclaim the landscape, and maybe rightly so. They were certainly making better efforts than any company I’ve seen back home on the east coast. Are these actions enough to qualify Spring Creek Mine as a responsible coal operation? I’m certainly in no place to decide.

I’d like to end with another quote from Clint. Echoing his opening statement, he passionately asserted, “I don’t have a problem with coal development if it’s done responsibly, but I’m beginning to wonder if it can be done responsibly.” These should be the questions we ask ourselves. The lines we draw shouldn’t be between parties, but between what is damaging to the land and to future generations, and what is not.

Beth Porter: The Coal We Burn

bethTwo things that have never failed me on our journey through Montana are the nightly series of lilac sky sunsets, encompassing fiery red and pink clouds and a lingering lightness, and an ever-changing landscape. As we rolled from Yellowstone County through Musselshell, Golden Valley, Wheatland, Meagher and currently Lewis and Clark County, I have witnessed the surrounding landscape evolve day by day. I have been mesmerized by the folded and slanted stratification of sandstone from ancient marine sediment and outcrops of archaic igneous dikes that have surpassed time and the rock that once overlaid it.

In the past weeks as we’ve pedaled toward the Rocky Mountain Front, we’ve had the pleasure of passing several other mountain ranges including the Crazy Mountains — a marvelous sight and one of my personal favorites — and the Big and Little Belt ranges. The hills are getting steeper, meaning harder uphill climbs and more fun downhill spirals. But coming from Oregon, where mountains make more sense to me (due to a subducting oceanic plate and active volcanoes), I was curious as to how these mountains all came to be in the middle of a continent with no obvious tectonic motion.

Early in our journey, as we rode from Billings to Roundup and then Ryegate, we were surrounded by broad plains of grasses and wildflowers and rolling golden hills — perfect for cattle to graze and cyclists to build massive quads. This is also where we came across the Signal Peak coal mine, an underground operation where they said they had at least 20 years of mining left in that seam (layer of coal) alone. As we toured the mine, they explained that two thirds of their roughly 300 employees work underground at up to 800-foot under burden. This work is dangerous, but in this instance that depth illustrates just how long ago that coal was formed. The miners are literally carving out a layer of earth that first settled there about 300 million years ago and has since been compacted and covered with much more.

But why can we dig up this specific layer and burn it for energy? Hundreds of millions of years ago, when the fossil fuels we know of now were first being created, the landscape of the earth was very different than it is today. Instead of deserts and rolling ranchlands, the earth was covered in swampy forests and shallow seas that were densely populated with carbon rich plant life and peat — or layers of accumulated biomass and decayed vegetation. This was known as the Carboniferous period because a high density of carbon was being stored, along with energy from the sun via photosynthesis, in plants that sank to the bottoms of the swamps as they died. All of this stored carbon and energy was just sitting in the swamps, slowly condensing, and eventually being covered with layers of other sediment. As millions of years passed, the pressure and heat from compaction and increasing depth transformed the biomass from peat to lignite and eventually to the coal we see today. While the production of coal is a natural process, this time span makes it non-renewable and modern day earth rarely has the right conditions to again stimulate this type of production.

All in all, between the Rocky Mountains and the Bakken Formation, Montana is a geologic jackpot and it is for this reason that it is rapidly being excavated. As we toured the mine, there was a plethora of machinery, conveyer belts and crushing machines, rapidly pulling the coal from the earth and processing it for consumption. We witnessed it flying from underground and then stood atop the massive black piles, ready to be loaded into a train and shipped over seas. It was an incredible experience, but the difference in time spans still blows my mind. Something that takes millions of years to form was being processed within hours. From the mind of a student of geology, it is efficient, but slightly unsettling.

Zoe: Water is Life

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Listening. To the wind, whipping the Colorado River into a frothy turquoise skin. To the sound of rain pattering across my sleeping bag.  To the slow hollow slap of Lake Powell against the washed out rim of Glen Canyon. To the voices and experiences of multiple speakers and hosts: Steve, Dorothy, Buckey, Richard, Clorinda, Deryl and his sons. To our brand new instructors Uncle Ben and Aunty Eva. To the crackle of a fire burning apple wood and juniper.

This third section of WRFI has been one of wide open spaces, and open ears.  As we’ve traveled from Utah to Arizona, we’ve driven over mesas, past the Vermilion Cliffs, and over the Rainbow Bridge and Glen Canyon Dam, to visit Hopi and Navajo reservations. The sky has opened up and the wind has rushed south easterly across the land.

We have had MANY speakers share with us their lifestyles, thoughts, history, truths, and culture. We visited Glen Canyon Dam, looked down into the carp filled waters of Lake Powell and swam in the deep clear blue waters of the Colorado. We worked at the Star School, saw the application of solar energy and hydroponic food growing systems, and stayed at a home “off the grid.” We drank from a spring on the Hopi reservation, and used its water to plant cloves of thick stemmed garlic.

A reoccurring topic that comes up is water.  In the Southwest water is scarce, yet companies like Peabody Western Coal Company use it to slurry coal across the country and the Bureau of Reclamation has created an evaporating bathtub called Lake Powell. One of our hosts this section, Dorothy, let us work in her garden and described to us how Hopi people farm without irrigation using a method called “dry farming,” yet rely on springs to sustain themselves. She talked about how the water on the Hopi reservation has levels of arsenic so high she always hauls her water from these springs or buys bottled water jugs, to avoid drinking the contaminated tap water.

An elder from the Hopi Reservation, Bucky, shared with us information from an organization called Black Mesa Trust, also related to water. He also wouldn’t drink the reservation tap water and discussed how Peabody Coal, the company that runs the Navajo Generating Station, is depleting the springs, washes and aquifers that the Hopi people depend on for drinking water. He organizes the “Water is Life Run” a truth that is becoming an increasingly used expression.

When we stayed with Steve who lives off the grid outside of Flagstaff, it was clear that interacting with the resources you consume, by growing your food, or hauling your water, creates awareness for the source and scarcity of the things we depend on. I find in my own life complacency sets in when I live in a city where any food item I want is available year round, and water is always potable if it comes from a tap. So many systems are in place to support this instant gratification consumerism, so many corporations profit off it, and it is dangerously distancing people from the reality of the land.

Hearing the phrase “Water is Life” and learning about all the issues relating to water in the southwest made me think about how these issues parallel the Dakota Access Pipeline. Peabody mine is wasting water, depleting springs and aquifers, and the whole generating station that provides jobs to many people who live on the reservation is closing in 2019. The tap water is contaminated with high levels of arsenic. The reservation economies are dependent on coal and natural gas.

This is not so different from the high profile situation with Dakota Access in North Dakota. This pipeline has desecrated sacred burial grounds and threatens the land and water of the Sioux.  It puts the Missouri River, and drinking water of 7 million people in the Midwest at risk. A similar thing is happening in Utah and Arizona with coal and uranium mining on Hopi and Navajo land.

How many more front-lines or instances of fossil fuel companies exploiting the life giving water and land of Native people, and all people, are there?

How many corporations get to do their own environmental assessments and investigations when things go wrong?

Is there no accountability or responsibility to the people and land?

How many people are so distant from the resources that they consume, so used to a culture of fresh vegetables in cold winter climates, that there is no understanding of resource scarcity, availability and the reality of what the land can provide?

In the midst of these questions that swirl around my head daily and nightly, one of the things I have realized is the power of listening. It is a skill to be able to observe, absorb, and hear what people tell you, rather than make assumptions and automatically begin to analyze things before you start to even understand them. It is overwhelming to sit round a fire past bedtime, and hear so many stories, histories and current realities of exploitation, and not feel your brain jumping to guilt ridden solutions.  Randy Ramsley told us, “The land will show you what it wants to give you.” I believe this is something that can only be discovered through observation, and listening to people and the land they live on.

There is power in stillness; in slowing down from a culture of constant questioning and accepting the words of others. There is respect in silence and peace in the moments where all you hear is the raging of the wind as the sun sets over the sagebrush. However, I can’t help but wonder, what will happen to the world’s water, here and everywhere, if we continue on this trajectory of taking not giving, and masking the reality of the land?

Mia Tompkins: Bridging the Gap

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Photo Credit: Oliveah Sears

As the first 20 miles of the winding, steadily inclined road came to an end, I got off my loaded bike feeling stiff, sunburnt, and tired. We had reached the Signal Peak Coal Mine, and I had assumed that I’d have a hard time relating to or empathizing with people who live such different lives and have such different values from me. However, what I have found is that I’ve felt continuously amazed not only by the love that people feel for this state, but also by the tenacity, passion, and persistence with which rural Eastern Montanans fight for what they believe is right.

It was clear from the way she spoke about her land that Alexis Bonogofsky’s identity was deeply intertwined with her landscape. She has a big, kind smile and strong blue eyes, and lives on a ranch just outside of Billings, Montana. When one morning she woke up to the usually clear waters of the Yellowstone river that meander through her property oozing with thick black oil from the Exxon oil pipe that burst, the memory was enough to bring tears to her eyes even after many years had passed. Alexis explained that the days after the oil spill were the most stressful time of her life. The anxiety that came from Exxon’s harmful cleanup efforts, and the health problems that came from inhaling the toxic fumes that enveloped her land, made for a difficult few years as she and her land worked to recover. Since then she has been more motivated than ever in her efforts towards environmentalism and community organization around climate action.

Steve Charter, a kind, scruffy rancher who wears a sweat stained cowboy hat owns his summer range north of Shepard, MT, near the Signal Peak Coal mine. The land has been in his family through several generations, and the tall golden grasses and the rich fertile soil has become more important than just for the livelihood of his cattle. He explains that he has a personal relationship with the land. This relationship is maintained as the care and effort he puts into the earth is reciprocated when the land provides him with healthy growth and abundance. When the Signal Peak Coal Mine threatened the stability of the landscape and his aquifers, his family began a resistance that has persisted for 40 years. Both Alexis and Steve embody what it means to be connected to a landscape. The distinction between their land and their identity is blurred as the hours of work and reward accumulate. Both Alexis and Steve have dedicated too much of their lives toward their environmental effort for their relationship with their land to be anything short of an infatuation.

As I’ve been listening to stories throughout the last couple of weeks, I realized that looking past the immediacy of the things that impact people directly can be very difficult. The topics of concern differed at Signal Peak Coal Mine and in its neighboring town, Roundup, MT. City Councilwoman, Nicole Bonner, remembers the poor quality of the drinking water in Roundup as far back as when she first moved in as a young girl. Since then, abandoned coal mines that lacked the finances for any clean-up efforts have added rust and a burnt red tint to the drinking water. When the Signal Peak Coal Mine began mining, Nicole recalls the economic boost that it provided for the town of Roundup and its population which teeters around 1,000 people. It helped pay for property taxes, it helped build a new school, and it provided good paying local jobs when they were scarce. Seven years ago, the flood of the Musselshell River that runs through town left it behind in a state of devastation. The flood roared through the small town’s already ancient, fragile, and in some places rotting and collapsing infrastructure, and left it beaten and battered. The people of Roundup remember the financial generosity of the Coal Mine during the difficult days of reconstruction and repair. Roundup views the economic help from the mine as providing immediate and valuable services to a town that had little chance of gaining momentum on its own. When the problems at hand are as fundamental as healthy drinking water, or money to help rebuild the homes swept away by a flood, Nicole explained that climate change tended to take the back burner, while the coal miners’ contributions provided relief that the town members remember and greatly value.

Within the culture of the coal mine, the close-knit community felt a lot of pride for their work. Signal Peak is the only underground coal mine left in Montana, and no other export or generating scale mines have ever existed in Montana. The labor intensive work and the 12 hour shifts are stressful and risky. Yet the time spent together and the comradery throughout the long days have created a family like atmosphere in the workplace. Our tour guides, Byron from Colstrip, MT, and Sam from Roundup, MT, both emphasized the importance of trust and the community between coworkers on the job. Byron said that his favorite part about his job is the people he works with. He also said that when Donald Trump (who promised to end the war on coal that had been threatening the coal miner’s good paying jobs) was elected, that “morale around here really went up.” Even though he admitted that Trump can’t change the market, and that he hasn’t done anything that will help them, the relief and the appeal to the group that had been feeling overlooked went a long way. It was clear that the narrative throughout the workplace was one of “global citizenship.” The guilt that I had imagined some of them might be feeling about the emissions that result from their work was instead replaced with pride for their contributions in helping power and provide energy for people around the globe.

Feeling connected is an important aspect of human fulfillment, and it comes in all shapes and sizes. At times it is a connection to a landscape that fuels the fight for environmentalism like with Alexis and Steve. Other times it is a community that one grows up in that is dependable and always feels like home despite its hardships and setbacks. And sometimes is the job that provides one with the satisfaction of knowing their contribution to helping provide electricity, and with it the feeling of comfort and security that connects one with the rest of the world. Even though I share different values and opinions with many of these people, I like knowing that they are there. I found comfort in knowing that there are many different ways to live this life. Instead of making me feel detached, engaging with so many different lifestyles and opinions has made me feel more connected to my state.

Oliveah Sears: East to West

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Photo Credit: Emma Thompson

As I experience the variety of things that Montana has to offer, I am taken by how many aspects of this area differ from what I have known: from landscapes to accessibility of resources to even the nature of interactions with each individual. I’m used to the steady rolling hills that surround my New Hampshire home town, usually a vibrant green. Sometimes another small town will pop up, but other times I will be among beautiful mountains – or “hills” according to some people out West. That is what I’m used to and where my comfort level lies. I’ll go through most of my days with family or friends, most of them valuing the same things as me and enjoying similar activities. This contributes to a solid connection, almost as if my whole life so far has allowed me to be mindful of where I go and who I’m with, keeping that comfort within reach. It wasn’t until I was removed from these comforts that I was able to see that they have been a barrier to thinking in a more open minded way.

So here I am in virtually the opposite place from my average life. In the matter of a few hours that we spent riding in a van from Missoula to Billings, MT, we passed numerous different landscapes. From tree filled mountains to some with trees more sparse, to roadside views of what was a forest but had been affected by a fire. Then among the hills came cliffs with intricate and unique rock formations, followed by land owned by ranchers with grazing cattle, then back to a totally different rock formation. The land was unlike anything I would see back at home. I’m not usually exposed to so much geographical variety. This is comparable to my exposure and similarities with those I interact with in my day to day life back home. Here, I have encountered individuals with many backgrounds and perspectives unlike my own. Specific to this course, I am referring to views on climate change. Although New Hampshire is filled with individuals who hold different views, I surround myself with people who I can connect with easily: my friends, family, and classmates never seem to fall far from what I believe. Now here, with the wide variety of individuals that I have interacted with, I have been introduced to a whole other population of people with insight of their own. This has been a wakeup call for me, a young adult who thinks she knows what goes on everywhere.

It only took a half hour from the time I stepped off the plane to the start of this realization. After gathering my bags and catching a cab, it wasn’t long until I was talking about climate change with the cab driver. He expressed his disbelief in climate change with reasoning that was valid to himself and his values. He voiced his skepticism of the term “climate change” and didn’t directly see a change in the climate. From his own research he claimed that temperature fluctuations have occurred before and education fails to give students the researched evidence to show it. I sat and listened and was rattled by how fast my confidence vanished. But as we continued to talk, I tuned in to the fact that we were actually having a discussion, trying to understand and listen to where the other was coming from. With all of the controversy that has burdened our society, people have become obsessed with a need to be right and know what is best. With that, thoughtful discussion is something that has become so valuable yet so rare. Although we didn’t see eye to eye, we were both able to express our thoughts and, as some people say, agree to disagree. Like I said, this was within the first hour upon my arrival. Now, a week later, I have done as much listening as possible.

Walking into a coal mine was such an interesting experience. Not only was I able to get a candid look at what has been a historical power source in the US and globally, but I was also able to gain a new awareness of the people who worked and supported this industry. The miners that we talked to are proud of what they provide for people who want to turn on a light switch. They are also doing everything they can to maintain a lifestyle that is comfortable for their families. It wasn’t until I was engaging with them that I was able to develop sympathy for their hard work, whether or not I approved of the mine or agreed on political values.

These experiences have given me insight into approaching disagreements. Rather than argue to prove a point, I try to get a feel for the position that another person has, consider the context of where they are coming from and use this approach to personally investigate, validate or even question my own positions. It’s easy to make statements and target others, whether it is intentional or not, but that also comes from a place of sameness, security and absence of challenge from opposing viewpoints. It takes practice and humility, but one should also allow sensitivity when facing the real people who we are trying to work with. In order to make progress in society today, that must be recognized.

Slowing down: making time to seek common ground. By Stephanie Fisher

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Photo Credit: Mia Tompkins

I am a person most people typically consider busy and although it may be a true description of my involvements, for some reason the identifier has never sat right for me. Now, as I follow the road’s edge on a bike trip, disconnected from the hustle and bustle of life in Missoula, I feel good. This adventure has allowed me to step back and reflect upon things I love the most – even bringing them into a whole new light.

I also realized that I haven’t really been extending myself beyond the bubble of my communication zone, especially when it comes to talking about climate change and politics. There’s comfort in knowing I am constantly surrounded by people who share similar convictions, philosophies, and feelings. This trip has reminded me about how support and togetherness is always subject to conversational change.

Cycle the Rockies has created an opportunity for us, as students, to practice reaching beyond comfort levels while encouraging recognition of common ground and seeking understanding of those who feel differently. This has been emphasized as a resounding point by speakers and hosts we’ve visited with.

Our first three days were spent in Billings, Montana, at the Bonogofsky Ranch. As we pulled into Tired Man Road we were greeted by an energetic group of dogs and a warm, welcoming smile from Alexis Bonogofsky. Our time with Alexis is one that I will never forget. Alexis and Mike Scott shared their stories about fighting against coal and their heartbreaking experience dealing with an Exxon oil spill on their property. Alexis spoke to how important it is that we listen thoughtfully to varying and sometimes opposing views in hopes of seeking out common ground. Conversations like these serve to remind us that we’re in this resource consumption matter together. It is becoming clear that climate change and resource management seem to have become such polarized and politicized topics, to the point of creating controversy and flat out disagreement. Alexis also mentioned the importance of keeping an open mind and willingness to learn. As I pedaled out of Billings I thought, “I really like it here.” The kindness I felt from the people I met in Billings was refreshing and one of the many reasons I love Montana.

During our second day in Billings, we toured the Northern Plains Resource Council. The non-profit’s goal aims to organize and advocate for family-based sustainable agriculture and ranchers, support and protect natural resources, and lobby to the government in support of a better Montana economy. Larry Winslow, News and Communication Coordinator, spoke with our group about their battle to stop coal mining in Colstrip, just over an hour southeast of Billings. Their strong emphasis on ways to “disconnect” is causing isolationism amongst people. This disconnect seems to be rooted in value differences. During our conversation with them I kept asking myself: “how do we rebuild the essential bridges that once connected the people in our country to one another?”

Each of us settled into our own version of nervous as we began our first fully loaded day of riding. Our first destination was Steve Charter’s ranch just west of Shepherd, Montana. The morning started with an adventure through a city park with a supposed bike trail. We eventually got to a part of the trial that was slightly flooded, and it led us to a completely flooded area filled with knee-high water! Mosquitoes swarmed us almost immediately as we battled and pushed our newly weighted bikes through the water. Once we made it out of this swampy mosquito infested trail, we discovered the trail was a loop…oops! We carried on, faced with some headwinds, for the next 25 miles and were elated to have finally reached Steve’s ranch.

The next day we had a day of class and conversed with Steve Charter and John Brown, who does vermiculture and lives on the ranch, about holistic grazing approaches. Steve has been exploring different approaches since the 1970s. These approaches seemed successful by the obvious abundance of native grasses, prickly pear cactus, and yucca seen throughout his fields. Steve and John taught us about soil science, the connecting systems in our ecosystem, land management, and mineral rights on the ranch. Once again, the word “polarization” came up during our conversation. Steve expressed the need for resolution in order to solve issues like climate change.

Our next destination fully loaded was to the town of Roundup. On our way, we toured Signal Peak Coal Mine, which brought to light a new perspective on coal mining. The experience was a first for me, but the people I met felt familiar. While chatting with Sam and Byron I had a feeling of comfort which reminded me of my hometown community in Lawndale, North Carolina. Back home, providing for your family by having a good paying job was held in high regard. Sam spoke about how the mine offers income and benefits helping him to provide for his family. This realization is one that I will carry back to my bubble in Missoula where coal miners are condemned for their occupation. Coal miners are not the reason for our energy problems, but aim to have a good life just like the rest of us.

Reflecting on conversations with each person brings me to some essential reminders for moving forward. We must begin by listening with a mindset open to persuasion. Approach all views with an open heart and mind. Aim to converse about ways to improve life, not positional rightness. Aim to discuss common interests rather than just positions. Slow down in life and connect with those you would least expect to.