Day 18: Oil, Guns And Money
Nate Hegyi, rural reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, is embarking on a 900-mile cycling trip crisscrossing the continental divide in August and September, interviewing and listening to Americans ahead of the 2020 election. You can follow along on social media, an online blog and this "Where Is He Now?" map.
September 13: Rest day in Rawlins, Wyoming, 0 miles
An important note here: These are my first-glance takeaways. Think of this as a reporter's notebook. A mosaic of voices over the next few weeks, cycling 900 miles across four states and dozens of small towns.
Rawlins, Wyoming on a Sunday is pretty quiet.
Most of the businesses on the main drag are closed. Pickup trucks cruise slowly towards Interstate 80, which connects this town to cities like Laramie and Salt Lake.
Many of the houses here – especially the ones up on the hill – are very nice, suburban homes. The Bureau of Land Management field office looks like it was built only a few years ago.
Oil, drawn from Wyoming’s public lands, feeds this town.
A massive Sinclair oil refinery nearby, along with the state penitentiary, make up the twin pillars of Rawlins’ economy. But right now, worldwide demand for oil is in freefall due, in part, to the pandemic. Prices have dropped and the U.S. oil and gas industry has laid off or furloughed thousands of employees, including Lucas Medina.
Medina’s got a goatee, cut-off sleeves and the University of Wyoming cowboy mascot tattooed on his arm. He’s sitting on the stoop of his cousin’s plumbing and auto shop in downtown Rawlins. He got laid off from the refinery earlier this year, he says.
“A lot of people are out of jobs right now,” he says. “It’s a good thing I know how to fall back on a lot of things. I do plumbing. Help my cousin out now and again.”
Right now, Medina is taking a rest after helping his cousin, Jesus “Eddie” Archuleta, unload an old, 1930s-era Chevrolet he just purchased from a town nearby. It’s got a rusted body and the words “Twice Touched” painted on the driver’s side door. Medina’s cousin, Archuleta, plans to fix the vehicle up and sell it.
“Money talks,” Archuleta says grinning.
As I speak with him, he’s wearing sunglasses and a graying handlebar mustache.
He figures he can get $12,000 as is, but a lot more once he makes it pretty again. In addition to flipping cars, Archuleta works as a plumbing contractor – a job that hasn’t been terribly affected by the pandemic, he says.
“We’re swamped. We plumbers never slowed down – you need a plumber all the time,” he says.
That has allowed Archuleta to throw some work towards Medina. But it’s not the same kind of money Medina was making while working for the refinery. Medina, who has children, says his family is living day by day. Still, he’s thankful.
“I’m living. I’m alive. Kids are fed. I’m fed and I’ve got shelter,” he says.
Medina isn’t very political – he says he doesn’t pay much attention to the news and focuses more on keeping his kids fed and his bills paid. But he also says he’ll probably support Trump in November because of his stance on fossil fuels. Archuleta agrees. He worries that if Biden wins, he will move the country away from traditional energy sectors like oil and gas.
“If they take that away we’re going to be in trouble,” he says. “That’s why I hope Trump makes it.”
Archuleta is a big Trump supporter and believes the president helped boost the U.S. economy. He likes his “America First” policies. Archuleta’s views are similar to the other Trump supporters I’ve met along this trip – he doesn’t like the “Twittering” but believes that the president is a “self-made millionaire” who is transforming America into “a great country.”
When I bring up the protests that have swept across the country since George Floyd was killed by police, Archuleta doesn’t mince words.
“I think that when Trump takes over, I think he has to go up there and clean house. I’m not saying annihilate them, but stop them. Treat them like a terrorist group and get them out of there. Make them pay for what they’re doing,” he says. “They’re destroying people’s homes and buildings and burning everything down – I think they should pay.”
Archuleta buys into a false conspiracy theory that the progressive billionaire George Soros is financing the protesters. He also believes that members of antifa are coming by the busload to cities to destroy them. He says he saw that on the media. He tells me his news source is mostly Fox News, Facebook and TV.
(Editor’s Note: Antifa, for the record, is a movement of far-left activists that sometimes violently confront Neo-Nazis and white supremacists and the rumor Archuleta refers to has been widely and repeatedly debunked by local law enforcement agencies across the country.)
But bottomline, Archuleta worries about his grandkids’ future because of the rise of more progressive members of the Democratic party.
“If socialists take over and communism comes in, it’s going to be a mess for them,” he says.
I’m reminded of the eerie post-apocalyptic painting I saw at Byron Seeley’s pottery studio in Jeffrey City – the one where hundreds of naked, pale, wide-eyed men and women were marching in a line under a dark, threatening sky. It was called “Utopia Road” and it was painted by a Wyoming artist who said it was a comment on socialism and communism taking over the United States.
It looked like a nightmare dreamt by a hardline Trump supporter like Archuleta. I’ve heard about this fear a few times on the trip – it’s also pushed by conservative news media and in advertisements by the Trump campaign.
I wonder if that fear of socialism is fueled by the mythos of rugged individualism in the West. I say mythos because it’s really hard to make it by yourself out here. Historically, settlers relied on each other to survive tough winters. And that’s true today. Folks in small towns will say that if they get their truck stuck or there is a bad storm, they still rely on their neighbors for help. And, in this part of the West, both ranchers and oil and gas producers often rely on government subsidies and below-market grazing and lease prices on public lands to survive.
Still, there's a pride in being self-sufficient, even in a larger town like Rawlins. That extends to a strong support for second amendment rights and owning guns for self-defense.
“They’re not coming to take my guns,” Archuleta says. “You know, around Wyoming, Montana and all these areas, they’re not going to take our guns. I think the rest of the country is seeing that now. Gun sales have soared. They can’t even keep guns in the gun stores now because everybody’s buying them because of fear of protection. Just like the Old West – it’s turning that way.”
He adds that if civil unrest did come to south central Wyoming, there would be trouble. His cousin, Lucas Medina, agrees.
“We’re the Rawlins Outlaws for a reason – that’s our mascot in high school,” he says. “That’s our name for a reason.”
Protecting second amendment rights is also a top priority for Shane Glassburn, another Rawlins native who I meet at the local Episcopalian church. When Glassburn’s not working at the Sinclair refinery, he preaches here.
“Especially here in Wyoming, there are a lot of gun owners and it’s a strong feeling with a lot of people that are around here to protect your property and yourself,” he says.
Glassburn’s family has been in the Rawlins area since the late 19th century, when his great, great grandfather worked on the Transcontinental railroad. He owns both rifles and handguns. I ask him what people misunderstand about those who feel strongly about owning firearms.
“There’s a reason people want to protect themselves,” he says. “Everybody has a right to whether they feel that firearms are necessary or not.”
I ask him if he ever feels unsafe in Rawlins.
“Not necessarily in Rawlins. However we do have a penitentiary, and that makes people more protective of their homes,” he says.
I’ve had a lot of conversations about guns recently – mostly with friends. I purchased my first two firearms – a shotgun and a .22 rifle – over the past year, but they are for hunting grouse and rabbits. I plan to purchase a .270 rifle when I get back home before mid-October, when the deer and elk hunting season begins in Montana. I’ve never thought to use them on a human.
I have bear spray which, I imagine, would repel a person as much as a grizzly. But you spend nearly a month speaking with a handful of people who feel the political divide is so deep that it will lead to widespread violent unrest, and the imagination goes wild. Could it really get to that? Shooting people?
I lean on the fact that most people I’ve met are kind. I hope that the few folks I have spoken with about a potential civil war are a minority in America, or that their boasts are bigger than their bite. But then I think about my border collie mix back home, Pavel. He was born on a ranch in Montana and bred for herding cattle. He’s one of the friendliest, kindest pups when he meets people that are in my circle.
And, I have no doubt, if we ran into a bear or something dangerous, he would die for me and my family. But outsiders scare him. He reacts with aggression, barking, nipping and growling at people and dogs who enter his territory. It’s a wild, nonsensical rage aimed at “the other.” Something foreign.