After a wonderful kickoff for When the Moon Turns to Blood at Powell’s, I hit the road for some events and to commemorate writing a book with a big looping road trip around the West: Spokane, Missoula, Butte, Bozeman. After Montana, Joe and I drove south down into Wyoming, to Eastern Idaho then west, until we glided over the Blue Mountains and finally saw Mt. Hood on the horizon again.
Our chariot was our old van: a trooper, but old enough to struggle a bit on hills and mountain passes. You have to watch the water temperature closely, and at the moment it starts to rise, switch the heat on to full blast. That seems to take care of the problem, but for most of the trip, the temperatures were in the 90s. So you can picture us: slowly rumbling uphill, cars speeding past, faces slick with sweat. Even when we’re going 45 as others are going 80, I’ve found the van can calm even me, a lifelong angry driver. You simply can’t get upset about not going fast when it is not in your ability to go fast; the tortoise does not envy the hare. Breathe in the heat, and cool downhill air will eventually come.
People asked great questions at the book events. But this newsletter is about a topic that came up again and again in between events at grocery store check stands and restaurants, in random conversations: Portland.
The first time it came up was in rural Eastern Idaho. Joe and I were watching the Buck Supermoon rise over the Grand Tetons with our Airbnb host. He was a kayak-y dude-bro who remarked that we looked like we were from Portland, suggesting politely that the place seemed like it had seen its fair share of chaos two years ago during the city’s 120 days of protests over racial injustice. It was jarring to hear such a sentiment from someone our age, someone who likely shared our politics and our lifestyle. My reply felt meek: “We are proud to live in a place that speaks out against injustice,” I said, but it didn’t feel like enough.
The next day, in Wyoming, we were eating pizza on a patio in the national park, eavesdropping on a group of middle-aged white men in golf attire at another table. “You can’t even get out of your car in Portland,” one said, referencing the unhoused people living in tents, whom he seemed to deem dangerous. The men remarked how Portlanders see themselves as so non-conformist, and that’s what led to the demise of the city. We finished eating and left, annoyed.
Later on, back on the Oregon border, we were staying in a well-appointed shed on someone’s farm, where we sat outside in the morning to pet an old sheep dog and sip our coffee. Our retired host greeted us as he watered his plants, and asked where we were from.
After we told him, the response was by then expected, and it became clear where this conversation would go, so I cut him off: “You can’t believe everything you hear on the news,” I said, undercutting my own industry. To this, he agreed.
It was like all of these people across this massive swath of the West had been watching the same terrible TV show, the one where right-wing propagandists’ version of those 2020 protests — a perspective that focused the camera lens on burning trash cans and Dumpsters and broken windows — became the reality of what people far and wide believe was widespread in Portland.
But it didn’t seem worth it to argue that those protests were populated with thousands of everyday people united in their demands for change. That for us, it is a city of people who find it in themselves to be kind and compassionate to each other despite the systemic failures of city government, the lack of affordable housing, the violence of the police. It is not a perfect place. Nowhere is. But we’re also far from giving up on it. Degrading this place and its people and problems won’t fix it. (Like how gubernatorial candidate Betsy Johnson has by calling Portland the City of Roaches — a head scratching moment of Trumpian rhetoric from a candidate purporting to be the anti-extremist choice.)
It’s a thing I’ve heard other Portlanders say about their family afar, who see this as Gomorrah shriveling from so much liberal wickedness, and simply refuse to hear what the reality is — even from the mouths of their own children, who live here, who say it’s okay. We’re okay. The myth is that Portland is a place filled with undisciplined children who need to sit down, shut up, get in line. To believe that myth, you have to believe a hard fight for change and equality should be fast and is ultimately foolish if it inconveniences anyone.
Back at the farm, frustrated and tired, I went back inside to pack up for another long day of driving. On top of the mini fridge, I noticed a stack of magazines the man had set out for guests to peruse: a pile of Cowboys & Indians. Another myth, and it wasn’t even 8 am.
The heavy glossy publication — produced in Texas — was thick with advertisements for antler chandeliers and leather furniture, pages dripping with turquoise jewelry and bolo ties and meat sizzling on open flames. Being that I have written for a number of years for High Country News, it felt comedic to flip through these pages of a magazine telling a completely different story of the West. In an ad for a company called Old Gringo, a white woman stands on a dirt road wearing Daisy Dukes, a duster-length denim shirt covered in white stars and American-flag-printed cowboy boots.
In Cowboys & Indians, the myth is that old one, where racist colonialism is forgotten. Somehow, in the year 2022, this myth can make up the pages of an entire magazine, and set out to entertain guests on the very land that Colonel George Wright waged a genocidal campaign against Indigenous people.
But the myths would just keep on coming. After the long drive home, we were greeted with a rancid refrigerator and two weeks of unopened mail. In the pile was a DVD copy of Dinesh D’Souza’s 2000 Mules, mailed to me from the Spokane Citizens for Election Integrity. Journalists in Spokane — where I had just spoken to a sold-out crowd — had been receiving the movie from the strange group for weeks.
Here was yet another myth to confront: a film full of conservative pundits making the case that the election was snatched away from Donald Trump. It is truly unwatchable (especially if you have watched the January 6 hearings), but these people wanted me to have it. To feel awe over the story they’ve built, and that now guides them and so much of this country.
It was all overwhelming, a little too much. I was standing in my kitchen opening the mail and yet I felt like I was still driving uphill in a way — hot air blowing in my face on a sweltering day. I thought being home would feel like we were heading downhill again: cool, comfortable, where the myths can’t find us.
But I should know better by now. That mythology is our past and our future — versions of the world ruled by conquerors, riddled with beasts and evildoers and ideas that must be tamped down before they spread like fire. And they will always be there: hot air you must inhale and find peace inside, or make it your life’s work to dismantle.
A few extra notes, book-related and otherwise:
If you haven’t bought When the Moon Turns to Blood and would like to sample what it is all about, Rolling Stone very generously published the first chapter of the book. Read that right here.
I wrote “A Mother Always Knows Where Her Kids Are” for The Cut: an adapted piece about how one of the book’s subjects, Lori Vallow, used her religion and her motherhood as a screen to shield her radical ideas from further scrutiny.
On the topic of January 6, I when I heard Jason Van Tatenhove testify before the House Committee that radicalization, for him, began at Bundy Ranch, I practically knocked over the coffee shop table where I was sitting. Read my piece for Slate about his testimony here.
I have some more book events planned! Please come say hello and get your book signed at the following:
August 4 - Seattle, WA - In Conversation with Heidi Groover at Elliot Bay Book Company, 7 pm
September 17 - Olympia, WA - In Conversation with Joe O’Sullivan at Browser’s Books, 4 pm