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Talking politics on the hiking trail
As odd as it might seem, I recently embarked on an adventure trip in Montana's Glacier National Park to find out where fellow hikers stand on the upcoming election
 
Bill Frist
Bill Frist

"We're just backcountry people," said the 20-something couple climbing up the steep, narrow trail carrying heavily loaded backpacks and fishing rods. "We haven't been paying much attention, but we will decide when we see the debates," said the young man when I asked whether they were for Obama or Romney. The campers added that they had caught 16 graylings the day before, two of which were dinner the previous night.

This month I joined three lifelong friends on a four-day hiking journey to a "Big Idea" place with dramatic glacier-shaped landscapes, a long way from our home in Music City, USA, where we had all grown up together. We have black bears in the Smoky Mountains, where we hiked a few months earlier. But not grizzlies. We were now in Montana's Glacier National Park, where billion-year-old rocks allow glimpses into the past, and thankfully no internet or cell coverage can be found. We did find quite a few friendly hikers — including the 20-something couple I met on that steep hike on our way to the Ptarmigan Tunnel — who, liberated from the daily grind, were willing to respond to my probably too intrusive and slightly inappropriate-for-the-surroundings political inquiries to passersby.

No one, not one person, said "I love that guy, and I love his ideas" about either of the candidates.

I mention the park as a "Big Idea" place because this election naturally will not be about big ideas, but rather about surviving in this troubled economy. Yet what so many hikers we met along the way seemed to yearn for in the next leader of our country was passion about something much bigger. They want to be inspired. They want to be led. As my buddies and I lost ourselves in the freedom and glory of nature, we more than once thanked the visionary Big Idea of an earlier president, Theodore Roosevelt, who in essence created our now treasured modern national parks system.

Yes, we also heard a few people say, "We don't talk politics while on vacation," but what we were more struck with was the willingness of our fellow hikers to engage. Here, our findings:

"We're from New York. Of course we're for Obama." Yes, people tended to reflect the stereotype of their states. When a Texas ball cap went by, we were 99 percent certain that person was a Romney supporter. We were right. What was interesting to me is that even before people would answer they would first mention the state from which they hailed, as if it would automatically explain their choice of candidate. The red versus blue state concept is strong.

"We'll wait until we see the two side by side," said the two youngish first-time voters, obviously having discussed the issue before. "I followed the Republican debates," said the athletic climber breathing a lot easier going uphill than I was able to going down, "but I'm not deciding until the [general election] debates." We heard this again and again. This election and the debates really will matter. 

Younger voters will still lean toward Obama. The Democrats may have lost the some of the enthusiasm from the younger generation that burst forth in 2008, but the young couple who climbed up the misty 5.8-mile Grinnell Glacier trail (a snow slide had closed the trail just short of the glacier) explained that they were with Obama, but they weren't discussing it much with the young man's mom, a hard-core Republican, trailing about 300 yards behind. And yes, when we ran into Mom a few minutes later, she said she wished she could talk some sense into her son (adding that she also wished he would go ahead and marry his attractive companion).

"We're not for the man in office," said the 50-ish woman, who couldn't quite bring herself to say she was for Romney. We heard this more than a few times. Romney has some work to do to explain why people should vote for him, but disappointment in the president's performance leads many to give Romney their vote even when they're still on the fence. Perhaps Romney's selection of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will give more clarity to the Republican call for change.

We heard less than expected support for Obama. After a 7.4-mile scenic hike from Logan's Pass to the Granite Park Chalet, a journey on which we spotted mule deer and bighorn sheep, we shared a picnic table overlooking the glacier-cut arêtes below, with wispy clouds silhouetted against a bright blue sky. A recently married woman, spouse to a young lawyer from Akin, S.C., said most of her trekking party of eight were supporting Obama. When asked why, she said, "We still have hope," hesitating a moment and then adding, "that he has learned over the past four years and he will do better."

After three days of hiking amid rugged peaks and clear waters and lots of conversations with hikers from around the country, no one, not one person, said "I love that guy, and I love his ideas" about either of the candidates. 

In the National Park Service pamphlet given to every entrant to the park is the boldly worded warning, which applies to the thriving populations of both black and grizzly bears in the park:  

"Each bear is also an individual with a unique life history. This individuality can lead to less predictable behavior and unique responses to various situations. Remember that each bear has its own way of interacting with the world around it."

It applies to bears, but also to what the 7 percent of the population who have not decided on a candidate will be looking for in the coming debates. Let's all pay attention, and make the right choice. 

 

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