LIVINGSTON — In July, “County Highway,” an ambitious and print-only bimonthly magazine that comes in the form of an old-school broadsheet newspaper, made its debut.
The publication’s essays, reviews and interviews — jam-packed and splayed across 20 large, inky pages — traverse the geography, political ideologies and history of America. The inaugural issue features an exposé on the gentrification of the desert lands of southern California, a heady visit to the Miracle of America Museum in Polson, a doomsday critique of Big Tech, a wheat crop report from Oklahoma, a spicy reflection on the early 20th-century con man Titanic Thompson, an unflattering assessment of a new Barbara Kingsolver novel (“NPR listeners are suckers for this crap,” reads the sub-sub-sub headline) and a brief interview with firebrand presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. on his love of falconry. And then there’s the other 17 pages.
True to its anachronistic form, you can’t find “County Highway” online. Readers can purchase a copy at a selection of bookstores and record stores across the country (including six in Montana) or, alternately, buy a subscription through the publication’s bare-bones website. (Also true to form, the newspaper’s back page is devoted to classified ads, only some of which are real.)
We caught up with Walter Kirn, the magazine’s Livingston-based editor-at-large and hype man, who spearheaded the project with “Tablet” magazine editor David Samuels. Kirn is also a contributor to “County Highway”: He wrote both the aforementioned museum tour feature and a quirky report about a bobcat with a taste for shih tzu plaguing an Iowa town.
In addition to his new analog project, Kirn is the author of several acclaimed books, including “Up in the Air” (which was adapted into a 2009 film starring George Clooney) and “Blood Will Out.” He also hosts the “America This Week” podcast with journalist Matt Taibbi.
On a peculiarly autumnal August afternoon, MTFP paid Kirn a visit in his downtown Livingston office to discuss County Highway and the nuanced portrait of America it seeks to present. Now 61, Kirn retains a boyish excitement that suffused our wide-ranging conversation. Like the “County Highway” project, his outlook on America embodies both radiant optimism and profound alarm.
Read on, in our first installment of “The Sit-Down,” as Walter Kirn discusses the value of covering “overlooked” Americans, the eroding force of social media, what he believes we’ve lost as the country, and why he thinks media like “County Highway” can help revive it.
MTFP: Before we get into “County Highway,” I was hoping to talk about your various travels around the country. What do you like to listen to in the car?
Walter Kirn: I tend not to listen to music while driving, if I’m alone. I look at driving as meditation. I like talk radio, especially if it comes from that place. I like agricultural radio. I like hearing midday farm reports.
I have this peculiar attachment to the rhythms of places that are completely agricultural, places that other people find scenically boring. I love the rhythms of nowhere America. I find that incredibly exotic, relaxing, and evocative.
When I was young, I definitely liked hitting the road with freakin’ music and all my party favors. Now I’m a little bit more like a ghostly Buddha, just sort of floating through.
MTFP: What’s the alternative to the “exotic” parts of America?
Kirn: Suburbia, which is largely the urban experience in America. There aren’t a lot of cities in America that are actually what I would consider cities, or maybe what a European would consider cities: walkable, dense, lively.
What I find exotic is anything that’s not the endless mall-scape, the franchised, car-based, neither-here-nor-there exurbia of America. I like places where people are a little isolated and making it up as they go along, and maybe aren’t particularly beholden to the big waves of opinion and mania that issue from the media.
Rural America, a lot of it is not doing so well. There’s a melancholy to that that I also find exotic. It sounds a little heartless or maybe perverse to say that, but I have a lot of empathy and sympathy for people who are battling the tides of modern life and not always completely thriving, but are somehow often making up for it with their humanity.
I like when I go to places where people talk a little differently, maybe say some things that would raise hackles in polite company, often because those things reveal the history of the place.
It’s hard, when confronted by the big wash of American, automotive-based exurbia, to know the story of anything. It’s all been obliterated or obscured or put in a blender. [Spending time somewhere] immediately satisfies the storyteller in me. I feel like I learned something and didn’t just pass through a dreamscape.
MTFP: How does it feel to return home to Livingston, especially from a big city?
Kirn: Urban life in the United States has become more and more taxing over the years. And Livingston has not grown any more taxing. I can relax, I can breathe, I can hear myself think. I probably would not have survived in as good shape as I like to think I have, had I lived in the city my whole life.
I like not just the privacy, but the spontaneity of small-town life. There is a sense that you have more hours in the day, and you have more space in the margins for people and conversations and unplanned experience.
I’m more grateful every time I come back that there is a place like this to come back to, you know?
MTFP: Switching gears a bit: when I read “County Highway,” it feels like there’s a recurring tension between optimism and faith in America, and a mourning of what’s been lost in the country. Does that ring true to you?
Kirn: The idea of “County Highway,” to be a little glib, is to invert the famous “New Yorker” map of America cartoon, which shows Manhattan in the foreground, and then this long and undifferentiated expanse of the rest of the country.
My partner, David Samuels, and I want to reorient that around the interior of the country. The heartland, for “County Highway,” starts at the Hudson River and really goes all the way to the Pacific, excepting maybe Santa Monica and so on. And truthfully, we’d write about those places too — we’d just write about them as towns rather than capitals. We wouldn’t award them that special primacy that they’re used to. We’ve decided to make it a newspaper of America that treats everything the way small town or small city newspapers treat their places without special status or metropolitan privilege.
Now, as you said, if you’re gonna be honest about America right now, there are a basic set of thematic contours that are inescapable.
There’s a great sense of loss in America: loss of tradition, loss of cohesion, loss of neighborly knowledge, loss of local knowledge, loss of vocational knowledge. There’s an inescapable theme of technology overrunning people’s lives, hollowing out a lot of the country that used to be a little bit more intact.
I did this long trip around the country and I noticed something almost immediately: Even in small towns people often couldn’t give directions to a town that was 50 miles away. They’re like, “Don’t you have a phone?” It would turn out that all I had to do was go down one road, take a right and take another left to get on the way. But people didn’t know where they were. It’s amazing how geographically illiterate we’ve become.
But the other thing about rural and small town and small city America is that no matter how depressing certain circumstances have become, it’s a place that has succeeded culturally over the years through its good humor. It gave us Mark Twain. It gave us the blues. People need to entertain themselves and console themselves and stay healthy.
One of the big motives underlying this newspaper is to honor the cultural variety and achievement of Americans who are somewhat overlooked. It’s not Lake Wobegon. We’re not writing cute stories about extremely familiar America. We believe that a cosmopolitan, witty and worldly attitude toward local stories is both an amusing and useful approach.
MTFP: How do you avoid fetishizing small-town America in “County Highway”?
Kirn: There’s a fine line between cute and character-filled, you know?
I’ll use Montana as an example. If you’ve lived here a little bit, you know that the place is kind of stereotyped from the outside. If I’m in a city and I tell people I’m from Montana, they’ll say, “I’m sorry about all the white supremacy.” I’ll say, “Well, it may exist. It probably exists there, too. But let me tell you a few things about Montana.”
Some people have this twofold way: They either feel that these smaller places should be ignored, or they treat them in a precious fashion, rather than grappling with their complexity. Anybody who lives in eastern Montana knows that if you get close to the landscape, it’s full of little canyons, hills, arroyos, creeks, caves and so on. But somebody going by it fast goes, “Oh man, it’s just a bunch of flat, rocky nothing.”
That’s the goal in our coverage of the country: to get down to the point where things reveal themselves in their true complexity, not to just understand why some districts voted for Donald Trump. One of the reasons we’re doing this paper is that we’re tired of those simplifications.
If there’s any metaphor that has annoyed me more over the last 15 years, it’s this “red state, blue state” thing. It goes with our whole binary digital mania: everything’s this or that, one or zero, Trump or Biden.
I’m gonna say something odd: We’re not afraid of the cliches. If there’s something that people stereotypically think about a place and it’s true, we’ll report on that, too. We’re not out to upend things for its own sake.
MTFP: I saw that your son just graduated from college. What advice would you give folks that age?
Kirn: I’ve got two kids in their early twenties, so I’m a professional advice giver … a low-paid professional. Kids are caught in a bit of a bind right now. They know what everybody else thinks, but they don’t know what they think. Figuring out who you are as a human being, let alone as a 21st-century American, is difficult. But it’s especially difficult when you’re constantly comparing yourself to the group, being criticized by the group and being applauded by the group. You’re all slowly pushing yourself toward something that is none of you in particular.
Part of the hidden message in “County Highway” is that we want you to sit with this newspaper and a cup of coffee. There’s no algorithm in “County Highway.” It takes a bit of concentration to read. It rewards a solitary experience. Maybe you can sit by yourself for 20 minutes in the morning and not be bombarded by headlines and what’s being pushed at you.
The reason that I hope people in their early twenties find a way to sit by themselves and be themselves and consult their own internal reactions is that the decisions they make on that basis are the ones they’re gonna have to live with for the rest of their lives. If you do something because other people like it, or don’t do something because other people don’t like it, you might find yourself with a fate that isn’t yours. And you’re stuck with it. If you fall for a counterfeit version of yourself, you may find yourself in a life that you’re very estranged from.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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