After a long stretch of road, void of any services for almost 90 miles, across a barren, sage-bristled basin we pulled into the Border Inn at midnight. Or was it 11 pm? It was hard to say since this eclectic, home-grown inn bordered two time zones—Nevada’s and Utah’s.
You could sleep in Utah, use the public restrooms in Nevada, and take a booth seat at the Inn’s diner that bridged both. Initially, single-handedly run by a no-nonsense, single mother now grandmother for more than 38 years, the inn is the sum of its parts—RV park meets 50s-style motel rooms meets casino, meets diner, meets bar, meets convenience shop. It’s almost a mandatory stop for anyone who comes off of Highway 50—the “loneliest road in America”—fearing this may be their last drink, gas stop, or sign of human life before heading into a vast, flat landscape, known as the Great Basin.
In late August, it is a parched stretch of land defined more by the vast sky above then the seascape of sagebrush. “We call it The Big Empty,” says Nomi Sheppard, a transplant from Chicago who earned all her degrees, including her PhD, from Stanford. “It’s great because I can see someone approaching from miles away, and say ‘I can see you, I can see you, you’re getting closer.’ ”
Sheppard, a bi-racial mom, inter-racially married, presides as principal over the combined middle and high school in the town of Esk dale, drawing students from the surrounding towns of Snake Valley, sprinkled with some 200-300 folks.
She was the reason why the “what I thought I saw” Project, in collaboration with Rhythms of Life (www.Drumbus.com), were here in “The Big Empty.” Several bullying issues and a boy that recently came out as gay had prompted her to reach out to us.
Before I even arrived, my stereotypes of small-town folks and rural life were settled; they eased into certainty even more as we drove the long stretches of roads to the first school (a gig at the elementary school and a community night at the Border Inn would follow).
Who could live out here? What do people even do here? You’d have to be a recluse to thrive here. Being “different” would be scary, as in being gay, black, brown, liberal, intellectual, to name a few.
They combusted; my stereotypes, in this particular town, got blown to pieces.
Hints of Wolfgang Puck—Here?!
In Baker, Nevada, a no-stop light town, there’s an old general store turned café, the ElectroLux, that serves up Pizza every Friday night when some 60 to 90 people come out of the “Big Empty” and fill up the place including the main (only) street out front.
“It’s either feast or famine here” says Cheri, who is serving us breakfast the next morning; the place is empty except for she and her sister, Tabitha. Both of whom trained at the San Francisco Culinary School of the Arts before heading off to hone their skills in high-end foodie establishments on both coasts, including a stint with Wolfgang Puck in Las Vegas.
The lifestyle and stress was too demanding and distorted, so both moved back to run the LetroLux café. The food and coffee match big-city quality; and with a culinary-trained chef on the premises (one of the sisters), pastry-satisfaction is guaranteed.
Val, an older woman who showed up at the community night event, and then who popped into the café to purchase a bottle of Cabernet while we were there, has plenty of time to talk. She lives on “The Farm”(Home Farm, headquarters for the School of the Natural Order) established in the 1950s and sits at the edge of Grand Basin National Park.
Before moving to this spiritual-oasis-meets-commune, she spent a year traveling the world in the 1960s traversing India and the Middle East, often the only white, American, woman present. “It was the best thing I ever did” says Val, who now focuses on bringing the world to youth in the area through a foundation she started, The Snake Valley Scholarship Fund—which helped bring us to the area.
Its first infusions of cash came from an annual family-friendly drag queen fundraiser for the local schools, kicked off by a gay couple who came upon the town and were amazed that they were welcomed and not run out of town. That’s the short story.
It Piqued David Letterman’s Interest—Here?!
One day Worldwide Pants, David Letterman’s production company, gave Denys—the owner of the Border Inn—a call. Biff Henderson from the David Letterman show wanted to come visit and do a spotlight on the town. While this fact seems to be not all that celebrated—I only found out listening to Deny talk while pouring drinks for patrons—what is more apparent is an impressive photo gallery depicting the who’s who of sheepherding dating back generations. Faces etched and characterized by the range.
High Quality Education, Including the Arts—Here?!
Finding a principal like Nomi in a place like this was surprising, to say the least. She nurtures a school where every middle and high-school student plays an instrument and/or sings; a group that competed nationally for the 1A championship. (Needless to say, the drum circle rocked!)
She created an environment where perhaps the areas first openly gay child felt safe enough to come out. And be accepted. It’s either myth, lore, or the census bureau, but I heard the area around these small towns has the highest educated population per capita in the country. Nomi doesn’t seem surprised, who has been able to hire exceptional teachers.
I’m always telling “what I thought I saw” participants to be open to all those what-I-saw-moments around them. Out in the “Big Empty,” we came across an entire what-I-thought-I-saw” town.
“These kids have serious problems at home and in their personal lives. It is really hard for them to see beyond themselves but that night they did,” shared Polly Gregson, a Senior Counselor Advocate who works with kids in the juvenile justice system at Salt Lake City’s Observation and Assessment Program. “They were able to open up and see a bit deeper, something beyond themselves.”
On a recent Friday night, I spent the better part of two hours sharing the “what I thought I saw” Experience with a varied group of 12 to 17 year-old boys and girls. Though their body language and facial expressions tried to exude “toughness, impenetrableness, suspicion,” it didn’t last.
Through stories—some funny, some moving, some sad—they learned about the “okay-ness” in being and honoring vulnerabilities and differences in others as well as in themselves. When you are in survival mode—certainly, emotionally if not physically for these kids—seeing beyond yourself is risky. Yet, when we move into another’s story—lean in—it helps us to see and clarify our own story. As a writer, this is what I have found again and again.
“This was one of my tougher groups, lots of sarcasm and exhibiting little empathy for others. But that night, they were unusually quiet. Through our discussion, it became evident that this experience really caused them to pause, to think, and to share. It was one of the best group discussions I’d had with these girls.” Polly Gregson, Sr. Counselor Advocate
These kids will spend 45 days here, receiving all kinds of support, before it is determined whether they are ready to return home, perhaps with on-going counseling, or to another program. Typical situations these youth come from may mean a parent is in prison, illegal drug use at home, or kids are about to be removed from parental custody.
“A lot of these kids have no boundaries and are crying out for some—they need and want a fence in their yard, protecting them from the street. They want a fence—a boundary,” explains Gregson, who, along with her colleagues, has to balance the sternness of holding these boundaries while guiding and modeling empathy.
Scared. Enthusiastic. Angry. Caring. Passionate. Nervous. Sad. Yearning. These were all emotions circling in the room with us. Some teens seemed so eager and desperate to understand their place in this world. One heavy-set boy said he knew too many kids that had committed suicide—He searched for words, fumbling but poetic: “They were quiet kinds. Shy like. If only someone had said hello to them…” Through his words, he reminded us of the importance of getting to know people’s backstories—finding out who they are beyond the labels.
So many of these kids are not the labels seemingly assigned to them. In an exercise, they wrote down the labels they feel perceived as, including: Savage, Useless, Disappointment, Thug, Troublemaker, Criminal, Ugly, Fat, Not Good Enough, Slut….They then wrote down at least three characteristics that truly define who they are. It included words so disconnected from the label, for example: intelligent, sweet, strong, outgoing, beautiful, funny, nice, amazing, loving, caring, romantic…There were also some such as “a little bit angry” or “an addict.”
These teens could see the beauty in themselves; but could anyone else? Was the world affirming the label or the true nature of these kids? I wanted to hand them all little white flags, to madly wave them, refuse surrendering to the negative labels, and demand that they chant: “I believe in me. I believe in me. I believe…”
NOTE: I want to thank “Excuse Me While I Change the World” for bringing the “what I thought I saw” Experience as well as other programs to youth in the juvenile justice system.
Last fall, something unusual was popping up in my 5th-grade son’s steady stream of conversation about his favorite subject: soccer. Among the sports facts and highlights, were mentions of his newly assigned reading buddy, a shy kindergarten named Millie.
On picking him up, my son, Riley—with cheeks flushed by fresh air beneath blue eyes—would say to me: “Mom, you know that epic move [soccer star] Cristiano Ronaldo did in the soccer match against Manchester United? I did that three times today at recess. Nobody could stop me. Then Millie found me and wanted a hug. Mom, tell me you know who Ronaldo is? Guess what? I showed Millie how to kick the ball today.”
At his school, the Open Classroom, mentoring between grades is a tradition, so each student in Riley’s 5th grade class is assigned a specific kindergartner to read to weekly. This is how Riley and Millie met.
It went on like this for weeks, with Millie mentions climbing ever higher in the ratings: “Mom, Millie has this really cool hair. Millie was sad today so I talked with her about it. I met Millie’s mom today.”
A few weeks after they had started eating lunch together in the cafeteria, I finally got to meet Millie.
She and Riley are an unlikely twosome—presenting the sort of double take you might do if you glanced a wisteria vine blooming from the limb of an oak tree. Millie is a sweet wisp of a girl in afro puffs and often pink, with almond eyes that match her skin. She moved to Salt Lake City from Mississippi.
“She and Riley are an unlikely twosome—presenting the sort of double take you might do if you glanced a wisteria vine blooming from the limb of an oak tree.”
At lunch, she gingerly picks at her roll, as my son devours his turkey sandwich, Mustard on his smile. Riley is built to run, slide, dodge, and tackle. He lives for recess between 9 am and 3 pm. Telling Riley to hold still is about as futile as telling the same thing to a humming bird. Yet he sits still, to eat with, talk to, and read to Millie. Their special relationship made me recall a book titled Unlikely Friendship, filled with stories about unlikely bonds formed between different animals, like a mare and a fawn or a gorilla and a kitten. With seemingly nothing in common, bonds are formed, trust and warmth found.
What made Riley slow down and carve out time for Millie, even during precious recess time? What did Millie see in a boy like Riley?
This mismatched pair got me thinking more about friendships and how as we get older and time condenses, we scrutinize more closely who we will befriend. Friendships become perceived as an investment of time and energy rather than something more spontaneous—a natural, enjoyable give and take that clicks. On some level we ask ourselves, is this person worth our time?
If the person doesn’t look like you or differs in age, religion, politics, lifestyles, the chances of friendship sparks decreases dramatically. Studies show that when a person looks similar to ourselves, we automatically assume they are more trustworthy. And, that when we choose our friends, we choose those who look like us. One study revealed that people sit next to those who look like themselves, assuming that they will be like them in attitude and more accepting of us. [Apparently, seeking proximity to those physically like us is an “evolutionary hang-over”– an instinct for staying close to genetically similar kin.]
What would happen to this “hang-over” if we were all blind? Perhaps the blessing of such darkness would be the chance to brush up against more unlikely friendships? I wonder…would the mechanic with grease under his nails play cards with the Junior League Director with the shiny red polished nails? Would the symphony musician jam with the street musician? Would the surgeon talk current events with the Salvation Army bell ringer?
Do you have an unlikely friendship in your life? Or perhaps, you’ve witnessed one from a distance?