March 27, 2009 - The View from Flyover Country

It’s a balmy 5 degrees F in Minot North Dakota this morning, a bright sunny day with a gorgeous blue sky. There are rumors of another blizzard next week, meanwhile we’ll enjoy today. I traveled here on the Empire Builder, Amtrak’s service from Seattle to Chicago. We left Spokane shortly after 1 am, which brought us to beautiful Glacier National Park in time for breakfast. We crossed Marias Pass and the Continental Divide mid-afternoon and headed out onto the Great Plains.

I’ve traveled on the ground through “fly over country” many times. We passed abandoned farmhouses and stubborn little towns on the prairie, a few deer and a herd of antelope, and dusty pickup trucks waiting at train crossings. The wheat fields were barren and snow dusted. The landscape reminds me of home except with the hills of the Palouse flattened out. It is an alien culture to many folks from urban/suburban America, a place where it is 200 or more miles to the nearest freeway and the Blackberry service fades in and out.

It occurred to me that a trip like this should be required for anyone aspiring to serve in a federal position in Washington D.C. The wide open skies and long distances have to be experienced firsthand, and a quick fly in to Boise or Butte doesn’t do it justice. Anybody in a position to write or influence legislation and regulation needs to understand firsthand the broad range of micro-cultures and climates across the United States, to meet real people who live in places named Curlew and Cut Bank and Shelby and Minot.

Federal agencies are big fans of sending staff to “diversity training.” The biggest diversity gap we face in this country is between urban and rural culture. Leaders from the back country and the open range necessarily learn to navigate in the city centers of power. Leaders from the coastal megalopolises and metropolitan centers need to experience why the world looks different from places called the Great Plains or the Horse Heaven Hills. How about a few new requirements for a Cabinet level position – not only do you have to pay your income taxes on time like an ordinary citizen, but you have to spend at least 24 hours on a train crossing the country by land, then drive a couple hundred miles from a whistle-stop station to a small town with no cable internet service, and spend a week experiencing life off the fast lane.

It’ll never happen.