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STORY BY LEO ADAM BIGA | PHOTOGRAPHY BY STUART CHITTENDEN
stuart chittenden’s magnificent obsession led to an epic road trip… a summer sojourn across the state centered around community and conversation.
LEAVE IT TO AN EX-PAT brit... He says the project was “founded in my belief “My reactions to the state are that it’s remarkably diverse, very historic. There are areas of natural beauty conversation is a way we connect better and form really quite remarkable. Physically the state is an community.” It was also his opportunity to discover intriguing, lovely and delightful place to go and how people across the state talk about community. explore. In terms of the culture, I was surprised by how vibrantly pioneering the west of the state feels. “I was very aware of the supposed divides between rural and urban. Also I wanted to put to the test my beliefs In Scottsbluff several people demonstrated this zest for about conversation to see if it really has that kind of Traveling alone in a rented RV, Stuart Chittenden, 46, self-determination, for sustaining themselves and power or potency.” stopped in urban and rural settings, on main streets coming together as they need to. Billy Estes of the and side streets, in libraries, coffee shops, barber shops, Midwest Theater and others there credit that spirit to Tom Schroeder in Dannebrog told Chittenden how bars, town squares and private homes to chew the fat the legacy of the pioneers. community requires genuine personal, emotional with folks. He shared the fruits of his travels and investment. Community often came up in the sense of conversations across social media via his project “In a more remote community like Valentine it also the safety it offers. Others spoke about community in website, Instagram posts and Twitter tweets. He also means you don’t have any other choice but to fix terms of the appreciation they have for their town. did radio dispatches for KIOS 91.5 FM. things or make things. You do it for yourself or it doesn’t get done. To see that spirit is to really Chittenden made the August 10-September 5 trip for appreciate it. I thought most rural communities would Though Chittenden’s lived in Omaha many years – his project A Couple of 830 Mile Long Conversations. seem somewhat tired – and there are those towns that his wife Amy is a native – the journey was his first real foray across the state with the intention of finding the Nebraska is about 430 miles from east to west but his do appear to be in a position of uncertainty – they heart of things and closely observing and recording purposely meandering, circuitous route nearly don’t know what circumstances are going to do to them. That’s why he opted to follow the road less doubled that distance between Omaha and Scottsbluff. them and so they feel in flux. But then there are those traveled – taking highways and byways rather than other towns that aren’t allowing circumstances to He will be making public presentations about the dictate what happens. They are looking at the available Interstate 80. project across the state this fall. Beyond that, he’s resources they have and managing those things in considering what to do with the 100 hours of recorded ways that make them sustainable.” Making sense of it all interviews he collected. Still fresh from meeting people wherever he found Individuals made their mark, too. them, he’s been weighing what these encounters and The project received an $8,000 Humanities Nebraska dialogues reveal. He says it was only at the end of the grant matched by monies from an online Indie Go-Go “Owen Timothy Hake in St. Paul touched on the trip he began “to formulate some ideas around what Crowd Funding campaign. courage needed in the choice to sit and talk with community means to people.” a stranger.” ...TO TRAVEL NEBRASKA IN SEARCH OF WHAT MAKES COMMUNITY IN THIS MIDWESTERN PLACE. HE DID IT THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY, TOO, BY ENGAGING IN DOZENS OF FACE-TOFACE CONVERSATIONS WITH RESIDENTS ACROSS THE WIDTH AND BREADTH OF THE STATE OVER A MONTH-LONG JOURNEY .
The experience fulfilled a lifelong fascination he’s cultivated with American archetypes. He’s long wanted to see for himself the places and characters who’ve fired his “fertile imagination” about pioneers, cowboys, ranchers, rugged individualists. indigenous cultures and immense open spaces. The project gave him an excuse to “follow the archetypal American adventure to go west.” Not surprisingly, the experience made quite an impression.
“Some of these incipient thoughts around community R. Mark Swanson in Valentine recounted how are that it’s paradoxical,” he says. “I heard a lot of conversation was therapeutic for him in the wake of people talk about things like it’s trusting, it’s his father’s suicide and losing his 16-year-old son. He told Chittenden that stories are “a form of freedom.” supporting each other and it’s feeling safe and not locking your doors, et cetera, and that’s all true. But it didn’t really ever quite get to the heart of the matter. The project was also an extension of work And the more people talked the more other elements Chittenden’s been doing with conversation as a started to come out that suggested to me community is mediation and relationship tool. He wanted as well to a paradox. If you try to create it by saying, ‘I’m going assess the facility of this human communication medium as a means for finding consensus around the to make my neighborhood a good community,’ it’s a idea of community. very difficult thing to do.
mQUARTERLY • NOV/DEC/JAN 2015/16
Published on Oct 29, 2015
metroQUARTERLY’S Winter 2015-16 Issue is online now! metroMAGAZINE/mQUARTERLY is published quarterly by ALH Publications, serving the Omaha/...