By Coy Knobel, guest columnist
Not too long ago I found myself sitting at a stoplight waiting for the light to turn green again. I had been too far back in line to make it through the intersection during the first cycle. But finally I made my way to the front of a long line of cars. The light turned green and… an ambulance traveling through the intersection prevented me from making it through yet another cycle at the same light.
I was a little bit angry. That double delay cost me time with my wife and I would likely miss my toddler daughter’s bed time. But my reaction was the reaction of a Washington, D.C. driver rather than that of the Wyoming native. It told me it was time to leave the swamp.
Twenty-five years ago, living in Wyoming, if I were stuck at that intersection, I may have wondered, who is in the ambulance or who is it going to pick up? I would have felt compassion for someone who was possibly fighting for their life rather than the self-centered irritation of being inconvenienced. If this had happened in Wyoming I would wonder if I knew the person in the ambulance or their family.
Living away from Wyoming for nearly half my life, yet working for it every day in D.C. really brought home how special Wyoming and the people who live and work in our state year-round really are.
In Washington I led a team of professionals whose job was basically to listen to Wyomingites complain. We listened then really worked hard to help them with their problems. Rather than sour me on the Wyoming spirit, it reinforced my belief that Wyomingites have grit.
As a group, I believe Cowboy State residents work harder, care more about others and whine less than people in many other parts of the country. They are tougher, more self-reliant and are fiercely patriotic about their state.
Another thing I love about Wyoming folks is their directness. They generally say what they mean upfront, but they aren’t in your face about it. It’s live and let live.
In Wyoming we tend to think the bad stuff happens someplace else, places like our nation’s capital, not here. But it happens nonetheless, maybe in different forms or different degrees, but Wyoming is not immune to the division in our country.
There’s always been division in our country. Don’t let anyone tell you the past was all peace and love. There have been riots, protests, politicians physically beating other politicians, even a civil war. But during my tenure in Washington I saw a steady degradation of relations between Republicans and Democrats. Then in 2016 there seemed to be a very sharp decline in civility.
That has happened in Wyoming too. There’s always been disagreement and even some animosity, but it used to at least seem more controlled. There may have been dislike, but there was still respect. Under it all there was still the conviction that even if I disagreed with you, even if I flat out didn’t like you, if you were stuck in a snowdrift on South Pass, I would get frostbite helping to get you out. I hope that hasn’t changed, but it seems like it might be changing.
Wyoming’s fewer residents living in a sometimes harsh environment has bred a special familiarity and given us an empathy for each other that is not always in abundance elsewhere. My Wyoming roots were a sunny, dry place to ground myself while laboring in the swamp.
Wyomingites have always been opinionated and unafraid to speak our minds. We can get passionate in our disagreements, but what I see changing is that disagreements are becoming more personal, harsher.
Yet at the same time they are less personal because they often take the written form via social media. People can attack someone’s personal character in an impersonal way via social media and the written word.
The subject of that attack can read those words over and over and brew their own counter attack. Written words are hard if not impossible to take back and they take on a life of their own so that even if a person wanted to give the subject of the attack a way to save face, it’s too late.
Whether it be social media, an influx of out-of-staters, a real and effective assault on our values from high-population areas and or other reasons, there’s a resentment in Wyoming that didn’t used to be here.
Ben Franklin is reported to have said when asked about our new country’s government, “we have a republic, if you can keep it.” If you can keep it.
Wyoming is still that greatest state in the union. I hope we can keep it that way.
Coy Knobel is a Wyoming native from Fremont County. He’s a former editor of the Dubois Frontier Newspaper as well as communications director and chief of staff for the late U.S. Senator Mike Enzi. He worked in Washington, D.C. for Enzi and Wyoming from 1996-2021.