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The Wayfarer: Stuart Chittenden

Stuart Chittenden’s magnificent obsession led to an epic road trip… a summer sojourn across the state centered around community and conversation.

Leave it to an ex-pat Brit to travel NEBRASKA in search of what makes community in this Midwestern place. He did it the old-fashioned way, too, by engaging in dozens of face-to-face conversations with residents across the width and breadth of the state over a month-long journey.

Traveling alone in a rented RV, Stuart Chittenden, 46, stopped in urban and rural settings, on main streets and side streets, in libraries, coffee shops, barber shops, bars, town squares and private homes to chew the fat with folks. He shared the fruits of his travels and conversations across social media via his project website, Instagram posts and Twitter tweets. He also did radio dispatches for KIOS 91.5 FM.

Chittenden made the August 10-September 5 trip for his project A Couple of 830 Mile Long Conversations. Nebraska is about 430 miles from east to west but his purposely meandering, circuitous route nearly doubled that distance between Omaha and Scottsbluff.

He will be making public presentations about the project across the state this fall. Beyond that, he’s considering what to do with the 100 hours of recorded interviews he collected.

The project received an $8,000 Humanities Nebraska grant matched by monies from an online Indie Go-Go Crowd Funding campaign. 

American archetypes

The experience fulfilled a lifelong fascination he’s cultivated with American archetypes. He’s long wanted to see for himself the places and characters who’ve fired his “fertile imagination” about pioneers, cowboys, ranchers, rugged individualists. indigenous cultures and immense open spaces. The project gave him an excuse to “follow the archetypal American adventure to go west.”

Not surprisingly, the experience made quite an impression. 

“My reactions to the state are that it’s remarkably diverse, very historic. There are areas of natural beauty really quite remarkable. Physically the state is an intriguing, lovely and delightful place to go and explore. In terms of the culture, I was surprised by how vibrantly pioneering the west of the state feels. 

In Scottsbluff several people demonstrated this zest for self-determination, for sustaining themselves and coming together as they need to. Billy Estes of the Midwest Theater and others there credit that spirit to the legacy of the pioneers.

“In a more remote community like Valentine it also means you don’t have any other choice but to fix things or make things. You do it for yourself or it doesn’t get done. To see that spirit is to really appreciate it. I thought most rural communities would seem somewhat tired – and there are those towns that do appear to be in a position of uncertainty – they don’t know what circumstances are going to do to them and so they feel in flux. But then there are those other towns that aren’t allowing circumstances to dictate what happens. They are looking at the available resources they have and managing those things in ways that make them sustainable.” 

Individuals made their mark, too.

“Owen Timothy Hake in St. Paul touched on the courage needed in the choice to sit and talk with a stranger.”

R. Mark Swanson in Valentine recounted how conversation was therapeutic for him in the wake of his father’s suicide and losing his 16-year-old son. 

He told Chittenden that stories are “a form of freedom.”

The project was also an extension of work Chittenden’s been doing with conversation as a mediation and relationship tool. He wanted as well to assess the facility of this human communication medium as a means for finding consensus around the idea of community.

He says the project was “founded in my belief conversation is a way we connect better and form community.” It was also his opportunity to discover how people across the state talk about community. 

“I was very aware of the supposed divides between rural and urban. Also I wanted to put to the test my beliefs about conversation to see if it really has that kind of power or potency.”

Tom Schroeder in Dannebrog told Chittenden how community requires genuine personal, emotional investment. Community often came up in the sense of the safety it offers. Others spoke about community in terms of the appreciation they have for their town.

Though Chittenden’s lived in Omaha many years – his wife Amy is a native – the journey was his first real foray across the state with the intention of finding the heart of things and closely observing and recording them. That’s why he opted to follow the road less traveled – taking highways and byways rather than Interstate 80.

Making sense of it all

Still fresh from meeting people wherever he found them, he’s been weighing what these encounters and dialogues reveal. He says it was only at the end of the trip he began “to formulate some ideas around what community means to people.” 

“Some of these incipient thoughts around community are that it’s paradoxical,” he says. “I heard a lot of people talk about things like it’s trusting, it’s supporting each other and it’s feeling safe and not locking your doors, et cetera, and that’s all true. But it didn’t really ever quite get to the heart of the matter. And the more people talked the more other elements started to come out that suggested to me community is a paradox. If you try to create it by saying, ‘I’m going to make my neighborhood a good community,’ it’s a very difficult thing to do. 

Community instead is a deliberate individual choice to behave and do things in ways that invest in something not directly related to you.

“It’s a very individual action and it’s a very deliberate choice. The people that are active and altruistic and do something that isn’t selfish – the effect of that is community.”

Not his first rodeo

All of this is an extension of a path he’s been on to use conversation as a community building instrument. 

It started when he first came to Omaha to work as a business development director for David Day Associates, a branding agency he still works at today. 

“Being new in town required me to network. I found there to be an arid landscape for engagement of a depth beyond one inch and that was not satisfying to me. I didn’t want to be in a new community and establish networking connections that had no merit other than just superficial Nebraska nice. So that was one provocation that led me to desire more meaningful conversations with people.

“The second track is that the more I look around me in Omaha and in communities across the nation I see increasing division and inequality – wrapped up in very casual stereotypes and bigotry to people on the other side of the fence – and I am morally outraged by that situation. 

I’ve begun to see that my contribution to the better health of our society is just to increase understanding of ‘The Other’ and the way to do that is to engage people in conversation. You don’t have to like them, you don’t have to agree with them, but if you can do anything to increase rapport and understanding, you’ve already taken very bold steps to a more cohesive society.” 

He felt strongly enough about these things that he and Amy hosted a series of by-invitation-only conversation salon evenings in their mid-town home beginning in 2010.

“People would come together and talk about issues without an agenda and move beyond the superficial,” he says.

That morphed into salons led by similarly-minded creatives. But after two-plus years it got to be more than the couple could handle at home. At Amy’s insistence, he looked long and hard at how much he wanted to continue doing it and the need to take the model out into the world.

“It was something incredibly meaningful and fulfilling for me and therefore I wanted to see if it had merit beyond the personal in our home,” Chittenden says.

He then formed Squishtalks, a for-profit platform for conversation-based interventions and experiences he develops and facilitates for organizations, corporations and communities.

The 830 Nebraska project amplified everything Squishtalks represents and reinforced what he feels his purpose in life is shaping up to be.

“Conversation is not only something of benefit to communities and to individuals but what I’m learning is that it’s my calling.”

To be or not to be

Calling or not, Chittenden felt the project pulling him in different directions.

“I wrestled [with whether I should] heavily promote the project in the places I was going to or not promote things at all but literally just turn up somewhere totally unannounced. The difficulty with over-promotion is that what happens is you run the risk of getting a queue of people who want to talk at you and you miss other people. People self-select for reasons that perhaps aren’t the reasons you want them to sit down and talk to you. At the other end, if you just roll in and don’t tell anybody – I could be sitting around places and having no conversations with anybody.”

He resolved this dilemma by playing it down the middle “so things weren’t contrived but I’d also have people to talk to,” adding, “That was an interesting dance and I don’t know whether it was right or wrong, one could never really know. But I feel as if I struck a balance between reaching out to a few interesting people in advance, reaching out to library directors to work with them, and then just showing up.

“Actually getting on the road, the experience was very much working out – where do people convene, where does anybody convene in any environment for any purpose, where do people go to protest, to celebrate, to feel a safe environment for provocative conversation?

All of these things were occurring to me.”

Early into the experience, he says, “I realized I had to adjust my initial formal plan of just setting up in a public space to put myself into places where people did convene and often that meant a bar, more likely a coffee shop or the donut place and maybe stopping at the gas station to ask where the old-timers were. It was that balance between allowing serendipity to reign and if no one came and sat with me for two hours, that’s what happened, that’s how that was meant to be.”

At each stop, he says, “...maybe 95 percent of people would acknowledge me warmly or would respond to my greeting warmly. Maybe 2 in 10 would ask what’s going on and then 1 in 10 would sit down. And the reasons why the other people didn’t will remain unknown and I think that’s totally fine.”

Wherever he set up with his sign reading “Hello! Please sit and chat with me” he surrendered himself to take whomever fate offered in this intersection of outsider-meets-local. He was not disappointed.

Not soon forgotten

“The list of people that will stay with me from this project and whom I intend to maintain connection is quite long.”

Two unforgettable characters were Lukas Rix and Mark Kanitz in Wayne.

“They’re in an open gay partnership in town. They are live wires. Very sophisticated, smart, lovely, generous, warm people running a business on main street called Rustic Treasures. They’re very interesting just because of who they are and the choice they made to be openly gay out in rural America. They talked about how if you do make that choice you can never turn it off – you become the barometer of gay issues for everything. 

We talked about that tension.”

Chittenden also heard their disenchantment.

“The business success they’ve created there is remarkable yet Lukas spoke of the ambivalence they experience from the Omaha young professional and entrepreneurial scene. That was my first taste of a community or group of people doing things that are genuinely interesting but facing the arrogant antipathy of the big urban center because we think it’s all irrelevant beyond the city limits.”

He found in college towns like Wayne and Chadron a tension between the campus and town cultures.

“I was told it’s like the seasons in how the vibrancy of a town ebbs and flows depending upon the student population. A professor in Wayne made a remark about ‘town and gown’ and that division between faculty-campus life and in-town residents. 

He talked about some of those differences and how these groups could do better to maybe be more integrated. In Chadron they call it the 10th Street Divide.”

There were characters and then there were characters.

Characters

“A guy called Butch Blecher in Neligh had a lot to say for himself between chain-smoking and chewing tobacco and telling me about how he’s in poor health. 

I was just across main street photographing    something and he was on the other side in his wheelchair when he called out to me and I went across and sat down on the pavement for an hour-and-a-half while he talked about everything and anything.

“It was all storytelling. He interjected a tone of casual prejudice around Latinos being illegal immigrants and criminals and in the same conversation went on to talk about how much he liked a lady called Maria he bonded with. He let her get things from his garden and she cooked exquisite homemade Mexican meals for him. He was sad when  she had to abruptly leave because she was illegal. 

“It was fascinating to hear someone move from casual stereotypes into personal stories that defied those stereotypes.”

Chittenden says the exchange reminded him “we’re always informed in some way by our circumstances and it takes a lot of thought to step outside ourselves and recognize that must be true of everybody,” adding, “It’s difficult to judge people unless you get a sense of the landscape in which their lives and viewpoints were formed.”

In Alliance, Chittenden found a story of transformation and redemption in Native American Edison Red Nest III. 

“He spoke powerfully and with brutal candor about the hope of his upbringing, the potential for success and how it all fell off the rails. He started doing drugs, dealing drugs, robbing places. He found himself in a Tecumseh state correctional facility. 

He came out of jail, cleaned up and found himself again because Native American elders reintroduced a pride in his culture. He is now working in the community to help Native American children perceive the richness of their history and culture.” 

More Characters

Near Bayard, Chittenden got a guided tour of Chimney Rock from his ride, Gordon Howard.

“He’s by his own description a curmudgeonly S.O.B. and that’s exactly what he is. He put me in his truck, smoked his cigars and told me his stories as he drove up remnants of the Oregon Trail. Then we sat outside the rock for awhile.”

In Valentine, Chittenden was taken with Episcopal preacher R. Mark Swanson.

“He impressed me with his philosophical take on community and life and how people adjust to hardships.

Swanson’s had his share of hardships and Chittenden says “he’s ministered to people who have experienced difficulties.” 

“Mark and his wife Margaret were living up on the Rosebud Reservation. She was a teacher at one of the schools. He just struck me by how sensitive he is to relationships people form between themselves. 

There was an intelligence borne of ministering to hundreds if not thousands of people over his lifetime that just made me feel very warmly about him.

“He spoke very intelligently about the nature of the church and community and ministering and how people relate.”

In Loomis Tama Sundquist runs a convenience store-diner called Mrs. T’s that Chittenden found charming. 

“I roll in and I’m chatting with the two girls at the counter and then Tama comes over and like any good proprietor she is all chit-chat and wanting to know what’s going on. She and her family race these small go-carts all around the region. She’s incredibly bubbly and has a lot of smarts about her. She’s the kind of person that fills a room up. She had plenty to say about the nature of the town. I asked her what community is and she joked, ‘It’s a group of people too poor to leave.’ But I did have that impression of Loomis.”

The snob in him initially discounted having lunch there but the aroma, sight and sound of that day’s sizzling steak special won him over. 

“This was the best steak I have had for a long time. It was fantastic.”

In Dannebrog, where all things are Danish, his visit to the bakery reminded him of an Irish pub. The old cronies enjoying coffee and dunkers there – 

John Nelson, Mike Hochstetter and Russell Powers – welcomed the stranger with good-natured ribbing,

“These guys were so funny with their bantering and joking. Russell told how he had been confused by a tourist for Roger Welsch (Dannebrog’s most famous citizen for his best-selling books), so he just played it up and persisted in being Roger Welsch.

“John had had some surgery and never spoke, he just smiled, kicked his legs and gestured. Incredibly endearing the way he responded  – the physicality of his presence so affirming.

“Mike is like 6-foot-7. He’s gigantic. He just seemed to be the epitome of everything I think about as the pioneering immigrant Scandinavian farmer – just from his look, his size, his poise. He wasn’t verbose but what he said was not wasted words. He was smart and intelligent with what he had to say. Like many other people I asked what community means and he just opened his big arms and warmly gestured, saying, 

‘It’s what you see here.’ It was this idea that here’s this community place where people can come and talk about anything they want to. 

“The money’s on the counter, non-molested. No one’s going to steal. People pay what they should pay. 

You’re welcome anytime.”

Chittenden, who shaves his head, needed a shape-up at one point and got it from Chadron barber Don Dotson, whom he says is in “the great mold of barbers” as philosophers, psychologists and pundits. 

“Don talked about community in somewhat predictable terms in the sense of this being a right-sized community, people know each other, that sort of thing. But he also warmly reflected on the fact that as one of only two barbers where Chadron once had more than 20 his place is now an even more important venue for community.

“He made it clear I was welcome to stay as long as I wanted to chat with him and the guys in there.”

One of those guys, Phil Cary, is a Chadron State College math professor.

“He came down to Chadron because he wanted a place he felt was the right environment to raise his boys. Since they’ve grown and left he’s come to love the community and doesn’t want to leave.”

Not everyone Chittenden met and spoke with wanted to be recorded. One of those who declined was 83-year-old Dee from Broken Bow .

“She asked if I wanted to see a photo of the barn her father had built. I replied yes. She returned with a box. She was showing me some old photos and at one point her eyes lit up and, pointing at one photo, she said, 

‘I remember!’ Dee then looked at me and said, ‘Perhaps it is a good thing you are here.’ We talked for three-and-a-half hours.”

Two of the three African-Americans he spoke to for the project – the paucity of blacks in greater Nebraska dismayed him – declined to be recorded. He surmised they didn’t want to go on the record about the spontaneous dialogue tocuhing on what it’s like being black in a state where they are such a decided minority. 

Reflections

Between the 830-mile jaunt and various detours and side trips along the way, Chittenden logged 1,902 miles. The only formal route he followed was from Omaha to Scottsbluff. Everything else, including the return trip, was “random and digressive.”

“I had roughly mapped out the trip beforehand. On the road I used Google Maps and asked people for suggestions.”

He managed getting lost just once and then for only a brief while. He avoided any traffic tickets. But he did contend with some mechanical problems in the form of a bum water heater and various closet snafus that stops at a repair shop and a Menards, respectively, afforded the necessary – if temporary – fixes.

Mother Nature spared him any weather extremes.

An enduring sight after a rainstorm was “a delightful double rainbow on my last night out at the westernmost point of the trip in Scottsbluff.”

He slept every night away aboard the RV.

In terms of lessons learned or affirmed, he says, in order to engage in conversation “you have to be willing to be vulnerable. If you don’t present yourself, you can’t expect other people to do this. If you approach any environment with a sincere openness and willingness to appreciate someone else’s voice, then the door opens.”

In the end, he may have found out more about himself than anything. 

“I don’t ascribe things to a divine hand. But if I’m going to make meaning from my life and think the net result of my being here was positive, then maybe conversation is the gift or the tool or the challenge I have before me to make this a meaningful existence.” 

For more about his project, visit http://830nebraska.com/.

 

I’ve begun to see that my contribution…is just to increase understanding of ‘the other’ and…to engage people in conversation. You don’t have to like them…[or] agree with them, but if you…increase rapport and understanding, you’ve already taken very bold steps to a more cohesive society.”

 

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