steph - Mia tomkins phot cred blog 1
Photo Credit: Mia Tompkins

I am a person most people typically consider busy and although it may be a true description of my involvements, for some reason the identifier has never sat right for me. Now, as I follow the road’s edge on a bike trip, disconnected from the hustle and bustle of life in Missoula, I feel good. This adventure has allowed me to step back and reflect upon things I love the most – even bringing them into a whole new light.

I also realized that I haven’t really been extending myself beyond the bubble of my communication zone, especially when it comes to talking about climate change and politics. There’s comfort in knowing I am constantly surrounded by people who share similar convictions, philosophies, and feelings. This trip has reminded me about how support and togetherness is always subject to conversational change.

Cycle the Rockies has created an opportunity for us, as students, to practice reaching beyond comfort levels while encouraging recognition of common ground and seeking understanding of those who feel differently. This has been emphasized as a resounding point by speakers and hosts we’ve visited with.

Our first three days were spent in Billings, Montana, at the Bonogofsky Ranch. As we pulled into Tired Man Road we were greeted by an energetic group of dogs and a warm, welcoming smile from Alexis Bonogofsky. Our time with Alexis is one that I will never forget. Alexis and Mike Scott shared their stories about fighting against coal and their heartbreaking experience dealing with an Exxon oil spill on their property. Alexis spoke to how important it is that we listen thoughtfully to varying and sometimes opposing views in hopes of seeking out common ground. Conversations like these serve to remind us that we’re in this resource consumption matter together. It is becoming clear that climate change and resource management seem to have become such polarized and politicized topics, to the point of creating controversy and flat out disagreement. Alexis also mentioned the importance of keeping an open mind and willingness to learn. As I pedaled out of Billings I thought, “I really like it here.” The kindness I felt from the people I met in Billings was refreshing and one of the many reasons I love Montana.

During our second day in Billings, we toured the Northern Plains Resource Council. The non-profit’s goal aims to organize and advocate for family-based sustainable agriculture and ranchers, support and protect natural resources, and lobby to the government in support of a better Montana economy. Larry Winslow, News and Communication Coordinator, spoke with our group about their battle to stop coal mining in Colstrip, just over an hour southeast of Billings. Their strong emphasis on ways to “disconnect” is causing isolationism amongst people. This disconnect seems to be rooted in value differences. During our conversation with them I kept asking myself: “how do we rebuild the essential bridges that once connected the people in our country to one another?”

Each of us settled into our own version of nervous as we began our first fully loaded day of riding. Our first destination was Steve Charter’s ranch just west of Shepherd, Montana. The morning started with an adventure through a city park with a supposed bike trail. We eventually got to a part of the trial that was slightly flooded, and it led us to a completely flooded area filled with knee-high water! Mosquitoes swarmed us almost immediately as we battled and pushed our newly weighted bikes through the water. Once we made it out of this swampy mosquito infested trail, we discovered the trail was a loop…oops! We carried on, faced with some headwinds, for the next 25 miles and were elated to have finally reached Steve’s ranch.

The next day we had a day of class and conversed with Steve Charter and John Brown, who does vermiculture and lives on the ranch, about holistic grazing approaches. Steve has been exploring different approaches since the 1970s. These approaches seemed successful by the obvious abundance of native grasses, prickly pear cactus, and yucca seen throughout his fields. Steve and John taught us about soil science, the connecting systems in our ecosystem, land management, and mineral rights on the ranch. Once again, the word “polarization” came up during our conversation. Steve expressed the need for resolution in order to solve issues like climate change.

Our next destination fully loaded was to the town of Roundup. On our way, we toured Signal Peak Coal Mine, which brought to light a new perspective on coal mining. The experience was a first for me, but the people I met felt familiar. While chatting with Sam and Byron I had a feeling of comfort which reminded me of my hometown community in Lawndale, North Carolina. Back home, providing for your family by having a good paying job was held in high regard. Sam spoke about how the mine offers income and benefits helping him to provide for his family. This realization is one that I will carry back to my bubble in Missoula where coal miners are condemned for their occupation. Coal miners are not the reason for our energy problems, but aim to have a good life just like the rest of us.

Reflecting on conversations with each person brings me to some essential reminders for moving forward. We must begin by listening with a mindset open to persuasion. Approach all views with an open heart and mind. Aim to converse about ways to improve life, not positional rightness. Aim to discuss common interests rather than just positions. Slow down in life and connect with those you would least expect to.

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