As many of you know (word travels fast here, I’ve learned), this is my last submission as a columnist for the Sun. I’ve accepted another reporting job with the Cody Enterprise, and my girlfriend Michelle and I will soon be heading onwards and outwards together, to explore the opposite corner of this exquisitely empty state.
I’ve walked away from a lot of people and places over the course of my life, and it’s never been an easy thing. There’s always loss and pain; a last-second appreciation of the banal routines which ground one’s life in a place; a nostalgia for the constellation of little things getting swept away.
For me, those little things have a tendency of remaining stubbornly invisible until my departure is imminent. Then, and only then, do their value and importance get revealed.
As it turns out, I like chatting with the ladies at the post office, bumping into Joe Parsons shopping at Valley Foods or buying a round for my pool league team at the Rustic.
In ordinary life, these small treasures are overlooked as a matter of course. Our brains are not designed to cherish every bit of idle chitchat or trip to the store. Rocketing towards a new place and future provides a rare opportunity for perspective, however: the beauty of everyday life revealed by the temporary elevation of transition, when all that has been is about to disappear or get radically reshuffled.
That’s a big reason I’ve kept my legs churning all these years.
I’ll miss floating the North Platte River, hugging the curves of the Snowy Range Pass and the brilliance of stars at 7,000 feet with virtually no light pollution.
I’ll miss the fox that haunts the western edge of town, the bald eagles which snare trout from the river and even the bull that eyeballs me so menacingly on my jogging path.
Most of all, though, I will miss the friendly, helpful people who have been my neighbors here in the Valley.
I can’t imagine having done this job without the cheerful aid of teachers, coaches and support staff at Saratoga High School.
Nor can I imagine how this town would operate without the dedication of volunteers of all stripes. Volunteers serve on boards that keep library doors open, save lives with SCWEMS and keep cultural touchstones like the Mountain Man Rendezvous and the Woodchoppers’ Jamboree coming back to the Valley year after year. All those folks enrich our lives and deserve our gratitude.
And then, there are the people with power. Most elected officials are good souls, respected community pillars pursuing a vision they think will enhance the town, county or state. Many are both charismatic and capable, adept at striking bargains and arriving at solutions others couldn’t see.
That being said, the reporter and the public servant can find themselves at odds. Whatever else journalists are, they are ultimately policing agents for the public interest, and even the conscientious motorist experiences a twitch of anxiety when driving past a squad car.
For the powerful, it can prove inconvenient to be reminded of past promises, and cutting deals in the public eye is usually more difficult than doing so behind the scenes. The reporter, and the public he or she represents, can be seen as a trouble-making nuisance and an impediment to progress and change.
Hashing out contentious issues is a bruising, painful affair, and there is an instinct to hide that process from the public so decision makers can sidestep any blowback from their choices. This is why, rather than weighing options openly in public meetings, officials often prefer to operate within the cozy confines of executive session or talk things out amongst themselves in private.
That is a dangerous instinct. We do things in the open because that is how our communities make their best decisions. Democratic government is only viable if people have access to timely, accurate information, and reporters are the conduit through which that information flows to the public.
I remind you of this because, for weeks now, my profession has been under attack by the most powerful man on earth.
I was stationed with the Peace Corps in the West African country of Burkina Faso for more than two years. At the time, Burkina was ruled by Blaise Campaore, a revolutionary turned dictator who spent 27 years enriching himself from the public coffers while his country fell into a disastrous state of disrepair.
Living in Campaore’s Burkina, I witnessed old men being shaken down by police on the side of the road. I saw soldiers extracting bribes from the desperately poor at “security checkpoints” that had little to do with protecting people. I watched as those with powerful friends and “advantageous” ethnic backgrounds were given cushy government sinecures over more qualified candidates.
Like Vladimir Putin, or Robert Mugabe, Campaore villainized the media and anyone else with the temerity to question his authority. Journalists died under mysterious circumstances in Burkina, a country where less than half the population can read.
Every time a reporter is used as a scapegoat, when those with authority lie to our faces, or when the powerful blame the press for recording what they say and do, we take a step towards living in a country like dictatorship-era Burkina.
Be well, but be on your guard.
It’s our country to lose.