As a politically progressive iconoclast with a penchant for growing out my armpit hair and running around naked guzzling mushroom tea, I guess you could say I’m pretty much your classic blue-state liberal. Though I live in Nevada now, I was born in California, and have always identified as a West Coaster — I can’t imagine ever living east of the Rocky Mountains.
But a REAL coastal elitist I was talking to once took it even further than that: “I could never live east of I-5,” he insisted, I-5 being the main north-south Interstate running the length of the state of California…which also serves as an unofficial cultural divide between the new-Age nutters on the coast and inland rednecks. West of I-5 is Whole Foods; east of I-5 is Wal Mart. West of I-5 is Prius; east is F-350. West of I-5 is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale….east is Coors Light. Basically, east of I-5 is where what’s disparagingly referred to as “Flyover Country” (the part of the country only ever glimpsed while flying over it from New York to L.A.) begins.
While there are, of course, exceptions to this rule (mostly in big cities and college towns), for the most part I have found this cultural divide to hold true. My best explanation for it is that it’s fucking expensive to live on the coast — so you either have to have excessive amounts of money, education and/or ambition to afford living there. Those without, move inland — places like Tracy, Bakersfield, the Inland Empire. Housing is cheaper out there, as the elites prefer the kiss of coastal mist on their morning soy lattes.
Of course, as the coastal cost of living grows progressively higher, more and more people are being forced inland; not just your traditional rednecks but also artists, hippies, writers and similarly underemployed coastal types. I hypothesize that this influx is part of what’s turning states like Nevada from red to purple, politically speaking — there are more and more Trader Joe’s and Subaru dealerships popping up East of the I-5… whether you consider that a good thing or a bad thing.
Because of this influx, it’s no longer accurate to classify simply using geography; nowadays, someone living in Reno could either be a quad-racin’ God-fearin’ Toby-Keith-listenin’ Bud Light drinker…or a bicycle-riding, sandal-wearing, Leonard-Cohen-listening IPA fan. So I break my fellow Americans down into two rough classes, independent of where they actually live: Ocean People and Lake People. Ocean People (those who live or prefer recreating by the ocean) are generally better educated and make more money, and prefer sailboats, Teslas and the Tour de France. Lake People (those who live or prefer recreating on a lake or river) are into speedboats, muscle cars and NASCAR. Another hypothesis of mine is that Lake People use decibel levels as a way of compensating for a perceived lower socioeconomic standing — they’re into NOISE, whether it be motocross, ATVs or blowing shit up (with fireworks or drone strikes). Ocean People, being perceived as more refined, have less to prove…so quiet, pansy-assed pursuits like windsurfing, folk music and voting Democrat satisfy them well enough.
Considering today’s exceptionally contentious political climate, I wondered if these hypotheses would hold true as I ventured inland myself this past July, for my annual summer roadtrip. My sister and I had planned to head way east of the I-5, by way of Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana — traditional red states, one and all (Nevada only went purple once all the fucking broke-ass hippie artists started moving here, fairly recently). So it was, with open minds and open hearts…we walked off to look for Amurica.
After leaving our mom’s solidly blue-state digs in the coastal redwoods north of San Francisco, our first stop was Chico, CA — just east of I-5, but a world apart. Chico is basically a farm town with a local university with a reputation as a hardcore party school; we were there to visit our good friend Dr. Who. Now, Dr. Who actually lives in Hawaii and is a classic blue-state type, but he contracts out his services at understaffed hospitals in California’s Central Valley, and thus spends much of his time living in Residence Inns…so my sis and I stopped in to party with him for a couple days before heading farther east.
Chico was definitely in a red state of mind. We went tubing on one of the rivers, had some burgers, and then stopped in for a nightcap at a bar called the Tackle Box, where there were three TVs playing: one set to a televangelist, one set to NASCAR, and the third playing a hunting show. Guys in Mossy Oak ball caps played pool while fat-assed blondes danced on a floor covered in peanut shells to a band playing Skynyrd covers, and there was a video game in the corner where you could shoot either deer, zombie deer or cockroaches in a cartoon kitchen. ‘Murica! But then the next day, we went to a tea shop for almond smoothies and hummus; apparently, the Blue Tide has made its way to Chico (or Blue Cancer…again, depending how you look at it).
From Chico, we continued east into Nevada. While technically a purple state, outside of Vegas and Reno Nevada is pretty much solidly hardcore red: ranchers, miners, prisons, Mormons. We headed for Elko, where the local WalMart carries an astonishing array of disaster-preparedness dehydrated meals, and the largest polar bear ever hunted stands guard in a glass case in one of the local casinos. But downtown Elko is also home to a tiki bar (!) and the headquarters for the Cowboy Poetry Festival…and there’s also a fabulous hippie paradise nearby in the form of a natural hot spring, just an hour outside town in the astonishingly gorgeous Ruby Mountains. The bottom of this hot spring is lined with thick, light-gray clay — perfect for doing an old-fashioned mudbath, which we enjoyed the following morning. Here’s a video:
From Elko, we continued on east to that bastion of red-state debauchery just across the Utah state line: the Bonneville Salt Flats, where a million land speed records were set, and a million redneck wads were shot. There’s a little playa nearby where you can camp, and you can drive right out onto the salt flats and razz around making as much noise as you want, if so inclined. But as classic coastal types, my sis and I were more inclined to just drive out a short ways and make margaritas with salt scraped up from the ground, which we enjoyed at sunset to the degenerate blue-state intonations of Nico. Here’s a video of that:
Utah was just weird. I guess Salt Lake City is less than 50% Mormon these days, but the rest of the state feels pretty white-bread conservative; every little town has at least 17 or 18 pointy-spired Mormon churches, and you can forget about buying booze after 7pm. Out of all the U.S. states with the possible exception of Mississippi, Utah is the last place in America I’d want to live…but it was definitely interesting to see. We checked out the big Temple in downtown Salt Lake City, then supported the local degenerates by having drinks at a downtown hipster cocktail bar. We even went into this amazing huge genealogy library, where all the Mormon moms go to research their family histories in search of heathen ancestors they can posthumously baptize into the Mormon faith. Far out!! We dicked around on their computer database for awhile, but didn’t know enough about our family history to go back very far. But it was still really interesting.
Also, to avenge a fellow nude model friend of mine who was fined $700 for being topless in a slot canyon down in southern Utah, I went skinny dipping in the Great Salt Lake; I’ll show you superstitious, misogynist haters!! But aside from making feminist statements, I don’t really recommend the Great Salt Lake as anything other than a weird curiosity; the water wasn’t even really that salty (at least not in the swimming area in the State Park), so I wasn’t any more buoyant than usual…plus it smelled really bad and there were billions of bothersome sand flies everywhere. But it was interesting to see.
By now we were ass-deep in Amurica, wading on even further east into Wyoming. We spent a few days cruising around the western part of the state camping and sightseeing, and from what I could tell, it’s pretty solidly red state. The first night we camped up on this beautiful but windy bluff above the economically depressed mining town of Rock Springs, and in the morning the litter we picked up around the campsite said it all: beer cans, fireworks, cigarette butts. How come it’s never kale chips and kombucha bottles? Hmm! (As classic preachy blue-staters, my sis and I made it a point to pick up litter at every place we camped, in line with the pious blue-state ethos of “Leave it better than you found it.”)
Alas, despite an abundance of underground geothermal activity in Wyoming and Montana, there aren’t many natural hot springs where dirty traveling hippies can soak and relax — especially not naked! It’s a real shame, as Wyoming is home to the biggest mineral hot spring in the world, in the town of Thermopolis. Though there’s nowhere to soak au naturel outdoors, they do have a pretty cool state park with a bathhouse where you can soak for free for 20 minutes at a time (and there are showers in the attached locker room where dirty traveling hippies can wash their hair — yay!). I guess the State of Wyoming is forced to offer this free service, as a condition of the local Shoshone Indians selling them their sacred healing waters. Nice!
But even classic cowboy country is not immune to the Blue Cancer; thanks to tourism there were pockets of Wyoming, mostly around Jackson Hole and Yellowstone, where you could enjoy arugula and a nice Shiraz. Coincidentally or not, those were also the most beautiful areas; the scenery of the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone was amazing! I really wanted to soak nude in one of the many natural hot springs around Yellowstone, but because of all the tourists, it was pretty much unfeasible…so I had to settle for a broke-ass-hippie spa day on the banks of the Yellowstone River, mixing the leftover salt we had harvested from the Bonneville Salt Flats with coconut oil to make a nourishing, moisturizing salt scrub. We sloughed off all our dry, dead dirty-hippie skin, half-assedly attempting to shield our shameful parts from the passing white-water rafters and fishing boats. Here’s a video:
Up in Montana it was more of the same: tons of geothermal activity, but few natural hot springs where a dirty hippie could soak nude; outside of a few liberal enclaves in Bozeman, Missoula and Kalispell, it was a pretty no-nonsense state. In Helena, I had chicken-fried steak at a diner which had gotten a bad review on Yelp! for having an American flag flying out front that “has been mended to many times and is way out of spec,” and then in Bozeman we spent a delightful evening at the Big Sky Country State Fair, enjoying endless 4-H exhibits by children that went into excruciating, matter-of-fact detail on everything from artificial insemination to how to deal with a prolapsed rectum on a brood sow. No wonder those red staters hate us lefties; we’re over here wringing our hands over the ethical quandaries of animal husbandry while they’re elbow-deep in dairy cow vagina, trying to flip a stuck fetus so that we can enjoy our post-CrossFit Greek yogurt.
As with Wyoming, we only had time to really explore the western half of Montana; mostly the mountainous areas around Yellowstone and then way up north by Glacier National Park (which incidentally was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been!). There were pockets of leftiness in all these areas; we passed a hippie hot spring resort and an organic marijuana grow op, and had breakfast with a Bikram yoga instructor at a local co-op market. But the farther out onto the plains we went, the redder it felt.
Driving across the plains was a trip; as far as the eye could see, nothing but miles and miles and miles of golden wheat fields, waving in the incessantly blasting wind under the trademark Big Sky. We wanted to camp out on the prairie one night, but the wind was so intense that we gave up; despite the fact that we mostly tried to camp for free using FreeCampsites.net as a resource, on this occasion we had to admit defeat — there was nowhere on the plains suitable to camp in a $20 Wal-Mart tent. Driving off into the evening, we passed all these massive ranches and thought back to all those old traveling salesmen jokes — remember how back in the day before Priceline, the traveling salesman would stop at the farmer’s house and ask to stay for the night? Well, we briefly considered trying that…but then remembered how those jokes always involved the salesman having sex with the farmer’s daughter: “Sure you girls can stay here…but you have to fuck my son!” Uhhh, what?! So we pressed on, and coughed up the cheese for a night in a cheap motel instead.
Aside from the wind, the other major downside to camping in a tent up there is BEARS. Luckily, my friend Tatiana had given me a can of bear spray as a gift last year, and I had brought it along just in case — but it was still pretty nerve-wracking, especially as I felt compelled to Google all these stories of grizzly bear attacks and read up on the various ways they will fuck you up. But, we did what we could; we kept a clean camp, stored all our food inside my sister’s SUV, and made lots of noise while hiking. My sister slept in her car every night, leaving me to fend for myself…but she always left her door unlocked in case I needed to get in, and graciously allowed me to squeeze in there with her on one or two occasions. In any event, we did see one grizzly from afar (up in Many Glacier park)…along with moose, elk, mule deer, mountain goats and bison. But none of them bothered us. Realistically, we probably had more to fear from rapists and murderers — you know how those amped-up red state rednecks are!
Just kidding!!! In reality, everyone we met, pretty much without exception, was friendly, polite and welcoming to us — despite my hairy armpits and my sister’s California plates. Would our experience have differed if we’d been black women? Possibly. But as it was, we had a fine time exploring Amurica, and found people east of the I-5 (and indeed, east of I-15) to be pretty much the same as people everywhere: just doing what they can to get by. Despite our political and cultural differences, we all pretty much want the same things — food, shelter, freedom and a cold drink on a hot Saturday night. Whether it’s a glass of Chardonnay at a Diana Krall concert or a swig of Jack Daniel’s in the bleachers at a rodeo, it’s all basically the same…and you can find both ways of life pretty much wherever you go. I mean, one of the biggest rodeos I’ve ever been to was in San Francisco…and here I am drinking artisanal jalapeño moonshine and eating spinach and feta pizza in Montana. Go figure!
So, did my hypotheses about red staters vs. blue staters hold up? Not exactly. I still maintain that there are two basic cultural identifications (left/right, red/blue, ocean/lake)…but I found that not everyone fits perfectly into one slot or the other, and often can’t be categorized based on appearance. This was well demonstrated at a hot spring we soaked at in Idaho one night, just across the border from Missoula, Montana.
This was in the Clearwater National Forest — an astoundingly beautiful, mountainous semi-wilderness once scouted by Lewis and Clark, criss-crossed with gorgeous creeks and rivers and dotted with some of the most fabulously picturesque natural hot springs I’ve ever seen. We spent one day lounging at stupendously gorgeous Weir Creek hot spring in the company of a van-dwelling, pot-smoking bad-ass 60-something ex-crane operator named Stella who had once ridden her motorcycle from Kansas all the way up to Alaska with her 10-year-old son in the sidecar, camping all along the way for 11 weeks! (And here I thought I was ballsy — this woman laid me to waste!) And then after that, we headed down the road a few miles to soak at legendary Jerry Johnson hot spring.
People have been telling me to check out Jerry Johnson for years — it’s said to be one of the most beautiful natural hot springs ever, and it really was gorgeous. Located along the banks of a creek in the middle of a beautiful, remote forest, a series of natural, rock-lined, gravel-bottom pools have been built up by volunteers for your daytime soaking pleasure (the springs are officially day-use only, to discourage partiers). These springs are super popular in the wintertime, when the ground is covered in snow but the water is piping hot — and while I’m sure that would be amazing (and I definitely want to check that out sometime), they are pretty damn awesome in the summertime, too!! My sister and I actually spent two evenings in a row soaking here, and both were wonderful. But the second night was particularly interesting.
On this evening, we hiked past the first group of hot springs by the creek; father along the trail through a grove of trees there is a second pond overlooking a peaceful Garden-of-Eden-type meadow where deer come out to graze as you’re sitting there soaking. We went back there because we wanted to soak in the nude, and there were people wearing swimsuits in the previous pools. But we had this pool to ourselves, so we got naked, busted out some cocktails and settled in for a nice, relaxing soak.
Over the course of our soak we were joined by three different guys: first up was a totally hairless U.S. Army reserve officer with some kind of military tattoo; his look was all Amurican and he talked disparagingly about the overly restrictive Rules of Engagement imposed upon the armed forces. But he was also an ardent lover of the hot springs, and dropped trou with the ease of a habitual nudist…then told us all about some nudist 5k he runs in Idaho every year. Although he did make a remark to the effect that he would never bring his kids to something like that, so he wasn’t that progressive.
Next up was the most beautiful little blue-eyed hippie child-god you ever saw, with luxurious long blonde ringlets worthy of a Greek statue, and the chiseled body and finely-structured facial features of an Abercrombie model. He made his living, such as it was, by selling beautifully polished rocks and precious stones from a Crown Royal sack he carried around with him; when we told him we were broke, he gave me a few small ones for free. Awwww, hippies! But then, before you know it he was talking about growing up huntin’ and quaddin’ in Lewiston, Idaho, and the unfair advantages afforded the Indians by the U.S. Gov’ment which allow them to hunt more elk than the white man. Then it emerged that he was a Donald Trump supporter as well — far out! You just never know.
The last guy to join us was a Special Ed teacher from Portland, who was on his way to Missoula to see the String Cheese Incident. He was more or less true to form, drinking dark rum and ginger beer from a travel mug covered in festival stickers — finally, someone I could judge accurately based on his appearance. Whew! All these unexpected revelations were making my head spin; it was nice to see that some people still fit nicely into pigeonholes :-p
Kidding! Actually, I think it’s super cool when people aren’t easily categorized; I mean, look at me and my sis! My sister drives a 4-Runner with California plates and a cargo box covered in national park stickers, and runs around naked drinking wine and smoking weed…but is also an ardent Libertarian and a hard-assed conservative in many ways. Meanwhile here’s me with my pickup truck, cowboy hat, Stars & Stripes bikini and Mike’s Hard Lemonade…with hairy armpits, a bellyful of shrooms and the leftiest agenda since Karl Marx. And both of us ate pretty much nothing but Frito Pie the entire trip — which is basically the Official Dish of Red State America!
For those not in the know, Frito Pie is my sister’s and my preferred camping meal — it’s quick, easy and delicious, and you can buy the ingredients almost anywhere: Fritos, chili and cheese (although we like to blue-state it up a little by adding some kind of veggies, like okra or fiesta corn or something like that). No matter how many nights in a row we made Frito Pie on our campfire, I never got tired of it. We ate so much Frito Pie on our trip that I personally think the Frito-Lay corporation should hire us to travel the country on a promotional tour, making Frito Pie in all 50 states with quirky, regional variations: buffalo chili Frito Pie in Wyoming, Frito Pie topped with frysauce in Utah, lobster Frito Pie in Maine, Rocky Mountain Oyster Frito Pie in Colorado…Frito Pie spiced with a dash of bear spray in Montana. Are you listening, Frito-Lay??? I’ll even paint my trailer with the Fritos Logo if you hire us!!! #50StatesOfFritos
Anyway, the point is that even hardcore dyed-in-the-wool loosey-goosey liberal blue staters like me have red state tendencies. Pretty much no one is 100% red or 100% blue — we’re all a delightfully inconsistent mix, and this unpredictable variety is part of what makes this country so interesting — even (or maybe especially) east of the I-5! So to celebrate the astonishing diversity of Amurica, when we were safely returned to the liberal bastion of my mom’s house in the coastal redwood forest, we prepared a special Frito Pie to celebrate blue state-red state harmony.
It was the red state classic, beloved at county fairs and high school football games across Amurica…but with a blue state twist: along with the inescapably white-trash Fritos we used Amy’s organic tofu chili, locally grown fresh corn and peppers, and local raw cheddar cheese from the Cowgirl Creamery in nearby Petaluma…all topped off with a dollop of sriracha-lime mascarpone and bits of local green onions, and paired with a nice bottle of local Russian River Pinot Noir. Fabulous! If only Abraham Lincoln had access to this dish back in the day, countless lives might have been saved; food is a great way of bringing enemies together.
Peace, love….and Fritos! <3