You might recognize her as a type: a neatly dressed, polite, older woman but tentative and out of place in her role as a restaurant server. It may not be fair, but I often slot these women–mostly widows and/or single women–into a category that supplements its limited Social Security by working entry level service jobs. Last night, one served us at the restaurant next door to our Best Western hotel in rural Idaho.
Bonnie, not her real name, might fit this description generally, but our encounter revealed a more disturbing story. This awkward but friendly woman in white jeans and starched pinstripe shirt with glasses hanging from a lanyard started the conversation while busing our outside table overlooking the Snake River. With only a few post-Labor Day stragglers in the restaurant she felt comfortable pausing to talk.
Orofino, Idaho, is 51 miles east of Lewiston on the Snake River–a destination for fishermen and hunters. The biggest property in town is an RV campground that borders the river. It’s packed with campers all summer, thins after Labor Day before filling again during hunting season. Orofino is on the Lewis and Clark Scenic Byway, a beautiful stretch of the Snake leading downriver to the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.
But Bonnie and Orofino are part of another American story—darker and more sinister. She tells us that she moved here from Victorville, on the edge of the Mojave Desert in California. She, her husband, and adult daughter were looking for a “safer place” to live. We didn’t have to probe; she explained they were Catholics, followers of a charismatic Filipino priest, who preaches that America is a dangerous country in the throes of a crisis. Was he preaching about the coming Rapture? The end of days?
It’s not clear, but after receiving God’s message in Victorville Bonnie and her family set about finding a “safer place.” To aid in the search they consulted Strategic Relocation, Joel Skousen’s book length survivalist Bible, and started looking at locations in Alabama, Georgia and Texas. They settled on rural Idaho—Orofino specifically. It had all the elements. It was rural and remote with a demographic of like-minded people.
A like-minded community was important to them, because survival is political as much as it is physical. Bonnie’s family, conservative Catholics, believe in a vast conspiracy in which Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, both professed Catholics, are pawns in an evil plan to destroy America. According to Bonnie, Biden and Pelosi are not really Catholics. They are plants. She says she prays about it every day. She asked us to pray about it.
At this point, I’m staring at my half-eaten burger and fries. I can’t respond, but Marilynn does. “Where do you get your news? Do you watch Fox?” “No,” she answers, “we don’t trust mainstream news. We listen to podcasts. God leads us.”
I signal M that I can’t do anymore. It’s too much. We have to leave. We settle up, say goodbye to Bonnie and hurry out the door. Marilynn looks at me as we cross the parking lot. “What just happened?” I ask. She shakes her head. Silence.
The next morning, we’re off to visit family in Hailey . But first I need a latte and we want to see what Orofino looks like in the daylight. The downtown core is surrounded by neighborhoods with populated with small, early 20th century homes–the kind you see in older towns all across America. Almost nothing is new. They look like doll houses compared to what’s “normal” in urban settings. On a side street we pass a trash-packed yard with a Confederate flag hanging over the front door. A block away another homeowner has tacked a large banner to the side of his house proclaiming, “Don’t blame me, I voted for Trump.”
It’s hard to focus after the encounter with Bonnie and the drive through town. On the way to Hailey we listen to MSNBC on Sirius XM Radio. Two different worlds. We tune in Fox to get a different side, but nothing comes close to Bonnie’s strategic relocation story… the mannerly, matronly older woman, the Filipino Catholic priest, God’s will, the power of prayer, the search for a “safe place” to live, the Biden-Pelosi conspiracy to destroy America.
I would have been able to frame Bonnie’s Catholicism had it been Opus Dei, the ultra-conservative sect but still within the church, but this is nut-case, wacko, beyond the fringe stuff. In the wrong hands it could lead to another Waco or Ruby Ridge. Do Bonnie and her family have a houseful of guns to repel the invaders? It’s hard to imagine. Are they part of an organized group or are they hunkered down to get out of the way? What does “safe” mean to them? Is it defensive or are they preparing for battle?
I lived in Idaho for 25 years. When I arrived, Frank Church was Senator and Cecil Andrus was the governor–both liberal Democrats. Church, an environmental activist and opponent of the Vietnam War was defeated for a fourth-term in 1984 and Andrus retired after four terms in 1995. Idaho hasn’t elected a Democrat to a statewide office since. Blaine County (Sun Valley area) is now the only Blue county in the state. The panhandle always had a smattering of survivalists and homegrown militia, but they were fringe elements and seemed to me like grown men dressing up to play soldier. Not anymore.
According to The Guardian:
Idaho has long been one of the most conservative states in America with its fair share of extremism. Now, critics warn, the extremists are being normalized. Once dismissed as backwoods fanatics, the far right have entered the political arena and identified a path to power.
That path leads through a state Republican party that has long exploited tensions between independent-spirited Idahoans and the federal government, which manages two-thirds of the state’s land, and more recently embraced former president Donald Trump’s culture of grievance.
I want to think our experience with Bonnie was anomalous, but after Jan. 6, 2021 I see that even the most exceptional and radical things are possible. Our institutions from the Supreme Court to Congress are vulnerable and a polarized electorate is walking on eggs waiting to see what happens in the two upcoming election cycles. Bonnie wants us to pray. I will…but it won’t be for the same thing she’s praying for.