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Lesbian Van Life: One Regret in Hamilton, Montana

21 Feb Posted by in • Guest Writers | Comments Off on Lesbian Van Life: One Regret in Hamilton, Montana
Lesbian Van Life: One Regret in Hamilton, Montana

©2019 Kathy Belge I’d been out on the road about a week on my solo RV trip across the Western US. I’d just left the progressive town of Missoula and started to head deep into Trump territory.  Actually most of my trip was in Trump country. I knew that when set out. In fact, one thing I’d hoped was that I could, if even in a tiny way, perhaps with just one person, bridge the liberal/conservative gap that seems so wide in America right now.

Out on the road, politics didn’t really come up. I chatted with nice people about their RVs or their dogs or hot springs or a hike I’d just taken. I didn’t see many political bumper stickers and consciously decided not to put any on my van. In the campgrounds and state parks I visited, it didn’t seem like politics really even mattered.

I’d just spent a few days falling in love with Missoula, which reminded me of a smaller Portland with it’s cool coffee shops, alternative bookstores, gluten-free bakeries and bikes everywhere. Then I pulled into Hamilton, MT.

Hamilton felt to me what I imagined an Old Western town would be. Brick store fronts, hardware stores and hitching posts. I parked the van, happy for the angle-in parking and took Olive for a walk around town.  I instantly knew I was in a different political climate than the one I just left.

The American flags and Trump/Pence bumper stickers on the backs of Ford and Chevy trucks, just below the gun racks were the giveaway.  But I didn’t set off on a solo adventure to just be around the liberals, hippies and queers. I wanted to be in different landscapes, different climates, altitudes and attitudes.

Although I was trying to get out of my comfort zone, there was one thing that made me feel a tiny bit safe in this town. Sitting right on Main Street, with an electric keyboard, rainbow scarf and Elton John glasses was a street performer who looked more Oregon Country Fair than gun slingin’ cowboy.  As I walked up, he admired my dog and we chatted for a moment.

I decided to have lunch in town.  There were a few options, but the $2 tacos at the Filling Station sounded the best to me at the time. Plus, I could leave my dog Olive tied next to the Billy the busker, who seemed to have a sweet spot for her.

I was seated a few tables away from two old men. One had a “Make American Great Again” ball cap. I could hear snippets of their conversation. “How’s your therapy going?” the one asked. The other replied that he had someone coming to the house a few days a week. I instinctively knew they were talking about physical therapy and not mental health. There were long moments of silence, as only old friends can have. I imagined they played high school football or worked side by side fighting fires in the mountains, perhaps one of them was a widow or this was their weekly guys lunch date.

I heard one in the hat say, “I’ve been watching a bit of those Kavanaugh hearings.” “Yeah?” the other replied. “The Republicans really need to pull it together.” “Yup,” was all the other one said and the conversation turned to the health of someone they both knew.

I was clearly the outsider here, but something about that moment made me feel at home. Despite the political beliefs, these two reminded me of my Dad and his old liberal friends. How many times had I sat and listened to him ask his friends about their health and then wax about liberal politics? Had he been raised in Western Montana on a ranch, he would still be the kind-hearted giving man he was, but perhaps with some different political views.

As I sat and thought about it all, I noticed a couple a few tables away from them. This guy had on a Vietnam Vet hat. I watched him and his wife order hamburgers and fries and then nachos. And finally coffee and desert. I continued to think about my Dad and all that he did for others. Volunteering with the homeless, cooking for a food pantry, visiting people in jail.

I looked at that couple. The grey-bearded burly man with a gruff look and his quiet partner and thought, “I could buy their meal.” I didn’t know their political stance. I had no idea how they felt about Brett Kavanaugh, or gay marriage or #metoo. But I did know he served our country and I could show appreciation for that. A gesture could show we’re all just people doing the best we can.

Just then, the waiter came asked if I wanted anything more and brought me my check. The idea of paying for their meal hadn’t fully formed in my head. I didn’t know how to ask to pay that couple’s bill without them hearing me. They were just five feet away from me. Somehow it was important to be anonymous. And so, I didn’t do it. I choked. I paid my bill and left a nice tip for my waiter and left the restaurant.  I threw a few bucks into Billy’s can, collected by dog and felt the slow burn of regret settle in. Could I turn now and go do it? Was it too late?

In the end, I didn’t pay for their meal.

I regret it to this day. I had a few opportunities to give back on my journey—a few bucks in a jar at an Idaho grocery for a woman having medical issues, offering my firewood to a fellow camper as I left a cold site in Wyoming, giving a watermelon to a group of rafters on the Green River in Utah, buying dinner for a friend.

Maybe I couldn’t change anyone’s mind about women’s access to healthcare, or children being ripped from their parents at the border or that Black lives matter, but I could have bought a meal, a small act of kindness, one human to another. And I didn’t. I wish I had.

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