The trek from Rawlins, Wyoming, to Lander took through an eerie, rolling landscape of sand hills and sagebrush. Coming down into Lander and Popo Agie River Valley, the scene turned green with irrigated hay and alfalfa fields and cottonwoods and willow on the snaking river bank.
Somewhere in Lander we were going to meet my old friend Pat O’Kelley and drive up to Yellowstone, our ultimate destination. Little did I realize that Lander was going to be the site of my second bad relationship with the women of the town.
I had walked much of this stretch when I walked to Montana from Kansas City now 22 years ago. I liked the way the land massaged my memory, particularly when we got close to the junction of US 287 and 191. I kept my eyes out for the places I stopped to rest and the ditches from which I drew water in that dry country. I remembered the people I had met along the way.
Without cellphone service through the Red Desert, I rang O’Kelley just as we were coming into town. He was waiting for us at the Lander Visitors Center. It was a stroke of luck that we both wound up in town at the same time. He had come from Salt Lake City and we drove in from Laramie.
He said he was at the visitors’ center and had only been there about 10 minutes. I told him I needed gas, and he directed me to a place just up from the center on Lander’s main drag.
I pulled under the canopy at the Maverik gas station/convenience store. Good enough, I thought. I told him we’d get gas and meet him immediately after. The visitor center was just a block away.
It was good to get out of the car after three and a half hours. My feet hit the pavement and I felt the world buzzing beneath me. I put my card in the gas pump and it didn’t work. I tried again, thinking that the reader did not detect the card. But again, nothing. The display on the pump kept asking me to insert my card. So, I did again. And again.
Finally, I gave up and walked inside. I told the woman behind the counter that I was doing something wrong and needed some help.
The woman was about 50 with glasses and poofy red hair. She wore the Maverik uniform red shirt and jeans. “No problem,” she said and came out from behind the counter and walked with me across the parking lot to the pump.
“Did you have a nice drive?” she said. She had a nice smile.
“Why, sure. It’s pretty country between here and Rawlins. The hills and the open space. It’s different from Laramie, where we spent the night last night.”
She put the card in the machine and did her magic.
“There you go.”
I thanked her but she stopped to chat while I pumped the gas.
“I see you’re from Missouri,” she said. “Aren’t you going to choose your new governor next week?”
“We just chose our governor in November and I don’t like him much.”
“It must be Michigan then,” she said. “They’re going to have an election and there’s a Muslim on the ticket.”
“Yep, a Muslim,” she squinted up at me. “Would you ever vote for a Muslim?”
“Yes,” I said. “I know many Muslims.” I was thinking in particular of my friend Amaan, who owns a gas station near my house. I often stop in to shoot the breeze with him. I take him little something every Eid al Fitr, the holy day that celebrates the end of the Ramadan fast. “A candidate’s religion makes no difference to me.”
This wasn’t quite true. I’m suspicious of Bible thumpers and fundamentalists.
“Well, this Muslim wants to impose Sharia law. That’s what he says. He says that as soon as he gets in office, he’s going to institute Sharia law. You’d vote for a candidate like that?”
I didn’t have time to answer.
“You all have a good trip,” she said. “Thanks for stopping by.”
I climbed in the car and my thoughts came so fast, they tripped over themselves. I first felt assaulted. This woman assumed that a white guy from Missouri would agree with her about a sketchy conspiracy she seemed to know little about. I said to myself, well, we’re in Trump country. That’s the way things run around here.
Then, I felt sorry for the woman, a sentiment that quickly grew to low-level anger. This woman, if she really feared a Muslim candidate and believed he could impose Sharia Law from the governor’s mansion, didn’t understand the workings of American government. A legislature would have to write laws and the governor would have to endorse them. People were sure to challenge laws and courts at the state and federal levels would strike down law that went against the state and national constitutions. Sharia law? Not possible in our lifetimes.
Her education failed her, I thought. It failed all of us.
Likely, this woman didn’t even know what Sharia law is except that she believed all Muslims like it.
Then, I realized that someone, somewhere was saying that a gubernatorial candidate in some ill-defined state wanted to change the whole basis for legal wisdom in that state. I thought of the row of reactionary loudmouths who populate the AM—and, increasingly, FM—dial. I also thought that that great highway of falsehood, rumor, and exaggeration, the Internet, was at play here.
It turns out that Abdulrahman Mohamed El-Sayed, more well known as Abdul El-Sayed, announced his candidacy for the 2018 governor’s race in Michigan in February this year. He was born in Detroit in 1984, son of Egyptian immigrants. He is a trained epidemiologist who served as Executive Director of the Detroit Public Health Office until the announcement of his gubernatorial candidacy. He went to school at the University of Michigan and, still a student, led a medical mission in Peru. While there, he started an organization that raised money for a local free health clinic. He returned to the United States only to move on to Oxford on Rhodes Scholarship, where he earned a Ph.D. in Public Health. He again returned the states and finished his M.D. at Columbia on a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans and a National Institutes of Health fellowship in the Medical Scientist Training Program. He also taught at Columbia.
A google search for El-Sayed reveals pages and pages of reactionary media sites, each parroting the other and claiming that his connections with one of Soros family is grounds not just for suspicion but outright horror. Paul Soros died in 2013 and was the older brother of George, a connection which many of these scare-and-conspiracy sites tout as a reason that El-Sayed endangers the American way of life. For reasons I have never understood, George Soros is the reactionaries’ bogeyman. If anything, he is the left-wing’s answer to the Koch Brothers. Many of these sites claim that George Soros is grooming El-Sayed to be the next Barack Obama, which scares the bejesus out of gullible people. One brown person was enough, they didn’t want another.
Many of these sites, too, claim that El-Sayed is a devout Muslim who wants to institute Sharia Law in America. The Sharia law bugaboo has floated around the Internet for years, with people claiming that American Muslims want to overthrow the government in favor of a Sharia state like that they believe runs Iran and the Islamic State. (Iran, by the way, has a greatly modified version of Sharia law that gives the state ultimate authority over aspects of legal and daily life. So, even Iran doesn’t have the kind legal system so feared by the extremists on the right.)
Through a woman who seemed perfectly nice and helpful, the racist, Islamophobic orientation of these conspiracy-minded reactionaries bled into my life. I resented it. I like Wyoming. I don’t want these people to taint it.
As we met up with O’Kelley at the visitors’ center and planned our route toward Yellowstone, I couldn’t help but think of a couple of things. Many years ago, I met a good many helpful and sweet people in Lander. Then, a perfectly nice and hospitable woman invited me to spend the night on her family’s couch. Later that night, she turned into a ghoul who essentially sexually assaulted me with her husband in the next room.
Then, this woman at the gas station. O’Kelley said my luck with women in Lander hadn’t been good. I conceded that.
Maybe not all Landerites believed the conspiracy. Most, in fact, didn’t know or care. But I have seen enough of rural life in general and experienced political life in Wyoming in my years of living there that lead me to believe that this woman is not alone. Shaky conspiracies. Sharia law. Another brown or black guy in office. They all come together with El-Sayed.
I hope he wins. The woman and a lot of people like her would be aghast, I imagine. But he sounds like the kind of candidate that Michigan needs, a guy with public service and public health experience, a guy who cares about people of all races and religions.
By the way, he’s also a Democrat.