When we turned onto the I-70 frontage road, I saw a sea of broken machinery, rundown trailers and dilapidated homes, spray-paint covered trains filled with raw materials, and a single grain mill, acting as the standalone skyscraper of the town, Genoa, Colorado. At the top of the mill were the words Genoa Grain Co., faded gray into the off-white coloring of the concrete. At the bottom was a man working in a dark blue jumpsuit, with any further description made impossible by the distance between us. The man was working at the base of the building, using a shovel to lift something off the bottom step of the staircase leading into the building, and then methodically turning to drop the substance into a bucket. After performing this task for a bit, he switched his tool of choice to a broom. He stretched his leg to the third step, nimbly avoiding sullying his work on the first two, and began sweeping the third step, as deliberate with his broom as he was with his shovel. I watched this man perform these simple tasks, and I felt a confusing mixture of admiration and discouragement. Admiration for the commitment to craft that was evident in his accomplishment of a simple task like sweeping. Discouragement at the loneliness of the sight, and, what then felt to me, like the poverty of the landscape behind him.
In hindsight, I am ashamed of my sadness at the situation. I realize now it was not sadness I felt, but pity. From what vantage point did I have to feel pity for someone? Moments before we entered Genoa, I’d been listening to the Joe Rogan podcast, where he and Sebastian Junger discussed Junger’s book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. In the interview, Junger asserted that “human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others. These values are considered ‘intrinsic’ to human happiness and far outweigh ‘extrinsic’ values such as beauty, money and status.” In my moment of pitying the man, I had resorted to a condescension connected to the comforts of my life before the walk. I was assuming that the ways of life that I have always known, and that modernity has conditioned me into, were not only superior to life in Genoa, but were simply a more desirable way to live. An accumulation of possessions, an ownership of things, and an ascension to a certain stratosphere of social status were all the methods of measuring oneself, and developing a sense of ones own worth. This man seemed to be in pursuit of the inverse of these values. He seemed to be closer aligned with the prescribed practices Junger detailed in Tribe. Again, this is all an assumption, made in a moment of internal debate, based on an interpretation of events seen from a distance. I assumed this man lived in Genoa, a town of 139 of people in eastern Colorado. I assumed he had lived there his whole life, and had worked this job for most of it. And I had taken a negative outlook towards these assumptions. I did not pay attention to the admiration I felt for him, for the pride he took in his work, and the diligent effort he was putting into it. I did not assume that by living in a town of 139 people, he might have developed intense bonds with his community. I did not assume that he might love his job, and the satisfaction he might get from working at the same place for many years. The more I thought about the little personal information I had about this man, the more I realized how misguided my discouragement was, and how, although our lives are greatly different, we derive our meaning from the same things.
I am incredibly lucky, grateful and privileged to have all the comforts in life that I have. But it is not the comforts or the possessions I have that make me happy, or make me fulfilled. It’s all the things that I presume to have in common with the man at the mill. A family or community to love and be loved by. A few friends to call on or laugh with. A duty or task to find purpose in. These few things can create a sense of identity and a sense of purpose in anyone, and are all we should ever be looking for, according to Sebastian Junger. This man has his home here in Genoa, presumably along with his family and his community. He has his job here at the mill, where he performs his duties with due diligence, and takes pride in his work. That is a life well-lived.
In the moment, as I questioned my own reaction, I turned and faced away from the man. I looked away, across the bustling interstate, towards a gray-blue farmhouse, where one man was exiting the house and another was approaching it. I watched these two men, clad in black leather biker gear, grab each other in a warm embrace on the front lawn, and turn back towards the building. They crossed the driveway, with a picturesque background of golden wheat fields, passing the rundown pickup truck and trailer in the driveway, to reenter what I now recognize was their home.