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Rebein: You won’t find much nostalgia for the “good old days” of farming and ranching in places like Dodge City. That’s more of a Midwest phenomenon. Take my father. He inherited half of 160 acres, including the house he grew up in. By the time he was [in his mid-40s], he had run that up to more than 4,000 acres. The man had seven sons, but he didn’t think any of us should be farmers. Why? Because it was hard, for one. But also I think he understood that we needed to find our own way in life, just as he had had to find his way. He didn’t like the idea of giving us that life or laying it all out before us. As a result, he’s the last of a breed—at least in our family.
Still, I think there’s a loss of sorts here. I’m not very interested in politics. What interests me is experience. And what I do find a little disturbing about America today is the way that so many people are so ignorant about really basic experiences like growing crops or slaughtering animals for food or fixing a car.
However, this lack of experience does not equate to a lack of opinions. In one of the essays in my book, “Feedlot Cowboy,” I spend a day in a big commercial feedyard where cattle are being fattened for slaughter. A feedlot is a really interesting place full of all kinds of interesting detail. To understand what’s going on there, you really do have to go there and experience it for yourself. Now that’s not something most people would want to do, and I understand that. What I don’t understand is how someone who has not done that can have so many opinions about things like animal welfare or environmental issues or illegal immigration from Mexico. All of those things are in play in a feedlot in ways that are not predictable or immediately apparent, but because of the way we live now, most people will never get that. They'll still have their opinions about it all, of course, but those opinions will be based, at best, on arguments, not experience.
Reason: You end your book with an account of a trip to the Boot Hill Casino and Resort, a low-stakes gambling operation that seeks to trade on your hometown's storied past. It's a ridiculous place in most ways, though you treat the trip with a mixture of warm feelings and get-a-load-of-this disbelief. Is the casino a metaphor for a town, a state—a country?—whose primary sense of identity comes from the past and that seems incapable of moving fully into the future?
Rebein: The term is “Old West tourism,” and it’s been a part of Dodge City’s economic playbook almost from the beginning. It’s hilarious to witness, but it's also a smart move in many ways.
If you look at a map, you’ll see that Dodge City is nowhere near a big city or an Interstate highway. To visit the place at all requires a decision of greater magnitude than a decision to visit, say, Chicago. If you’re a business person, you ask yourself, “Why would anyone drive more than a hundred miles come here?” and the answer that comes to you is almost always some version of “To relive the legend of the West.” Given that reality, your next question will always be, “How can we get these people to (a) stay awhile, and (b) spend the maximum amount of money before they leave?” Gambling is a great answer to both of those questions, so it’s not surprising the town has decided to go in that direction.
What is surprising is the other moves the town has made. For example, inviting a semi-pro hockey team to play its home games in the town's newly built Special Event Center. Hockey? In Dodge City? It’s a little crazy, when you think about it, but I guess there are limits to how far you can go with all the Old West stuff. At the end of the day, if you build a sports arena you’ve got to have a team, and if the only team going is a hockey team, I guess that’s what you’re going to have.
But you know, it’s things like that that keep the place fresh for me. Dodge City is very aware of its Old West past, but it’s got a present to worry about as well, and I kind of like that in seeking that present Dodge City is still capable of a surprise or two.