Rough and Tumble

Commentary: Alphabet Soup

The tumbleweed, it turned out, was a harbinger. I was a passenger in a car traveling down a small highway in Idaho and the tumbleweed rolled out in front of us. I blinked hard, certain I was hallucinating, but it was still there, rambling along, when I opened my eyes.

I was 21, fresh out of college, and interviewing for my first job. I’d landed in Twin Falls, Idaho, for a couple of days because the local newspaper had a posting that appealed to me and I was starting to panic a bit. It was November; I’d graduated the previous May and was still hanging around Des Moines, interning at the daily there. That wasn’t a bad gig, but at $6.50 an hour, it wasn’t going to cut it for long, even back in 1991. There were issues like health insurance to consider.

So I was on the hunt. I don’t remember where I applied besides Twin Falls and a newspaper in a New England city where I really wanted to live, more than I wanted anything else at the time. I interviewed in Idaho first, at a smaller paper where my odds were better.

The landscape was bizarre but compelling, and the people were nice. I’d taken my very first commercial flight to get there — and in order to avoid a complicated itinerary, I’d volunteered to drive three hours to the Kansas City airport instead of flying out of Des Moines. So I was a little bit out of sorts when I landed in the tiny Twin Falls airport, greeted by snow flurries in the forecast and an editor eager to impress me.

I barely remember the newsroom. I spent the days there in a vaguely anxious state, trying to take it all in and figure out if I wanted to spend the next year or two in the desert amid the canyons and the tumbleweeds.

New England was formidable competition; I interviewed there, in Burlington, Vt., a couple of weeks later. I was immediately smitten; I’d had my eye on the town for most of a year and had visited the previous summer, when everything was sparkling and beautiful. In November, it was a little less golden — there were snow flurries there, too — but it was where I wanted to be. In Idaho I’d worried about what I’d do if I got a job offer; in Burlington, I worried about what I’d do if I didn’t.

I identified where my vague anxiety about Idaho was coming from — I was in Des Moines, only recently out as a lesbian, and I knew I had to get out of Iowa to grow into who I would become. I had a distinct feeling that small-town southern Idaho was not the solution.

So I had a heart-to-heart with the eager-to-please editor, who really wanted me on his staff. I gave him the scoop: I’m a lesbian, I said, and I’m worried about the social climate there. He was great — he didn’t flinch, and in fact seemed pleased by the prospect of enhancing his newsroom diversity stats. He offered to put me in touch with a good friend of his who was a lesbian, and he said she’d tell me that living there was just dandy.

I was encouraged, and I waited to hear back from him, starting to imagine my life in the tumbleweed zone. I imagined plucking one from the roadside and using it to enhance my home decor, a sort of homage to my sense of adventure. I would hike in the canyons and enjoy the view of mountains in the distance. I’d take trips to Boise when I got bored.

I was living in Des Moines; it didn’t occur to me yet how sad the concept of going to Boise to relieve boredom was.

When I spoke with the editor again, he was a little less enthusiastic. He’d talked to his lesbian friend, he explained, and she didn’t feel comfortable talking to me. She was concerned about her privacy and maybe even her safety — she didn’t feel like it was a good idea to talk with a young lesbian from Iowa.

I remembered that tumbleweed, making its way across the road in the Idaho wind. I imagined my life there again, but not with tumbleweed decor. This time I was the tumbleweed, rolling through the lonely landscape with no clear direction and no place to take root.

As these things go, Idaho offered me a job. A decision from Burlington was still pending, and I declined the bird in the hand and went for the bird in the bush. As these things also go, Burlington converted the position I was applying for to a photographer slot to accommodate the husband of some hot new reporter they’d just hired.

I stayed in Des Moines for several more months. In that time I met and started dating my first serious girlfriend, and with her I moved east at last, landing in the Washington area and getting a really decent job offer within a week. I never did get a chance to live in Burlington, and I think that ship may have sailed for me. But it remains a favorite vacation destination.

As for Idaho, I don’t think about it much, except when I tell this story. My fondest association with Idaho has to do with the summer I spent in Ohio, where more than once when I told someone there that I was from Iowa, they asked if that’s where the potatoes are from. No, I’d tell them, corn and hogs — and the irony of Ohio’s comparable blandness and lack of discernable renown hung in the air.

But I kept my mouth shut, just as that lesbian in Twin Falls would do a couple of years later. Silence, after all, often speaks volumes.

Kristina Campbell would gladly talk to any young lesbians about life in the D.C. metro area. Send queries (or other communications) to kcampbell@metroweekly.com.

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