The Locals

I was camping in New Mexico one summer and I had driven into a small town for some supplies. In the checkout line ahead of me two guys were having a conversation. One of them told me they were planning to do some hiking around the area cliff dwellings. Their Burrberry shorts and Birkenstock sandals suggested that these guys had limited experience hiking in the desert, and the Gucci Aviator sunglasses screamed “tourist.”

My suspicions were confirmed when one of the guys said something disparaging about “the locals.” The young Hispanic girl at the register looked uncomfortable but she didn’t say anything. When the two guys left the store I said to her, “I hope they take a nap under a Cholla tree.” We both laughed. A Cholla is a cactus which occasionally drops grape-like clusters of spine covered pods on unwitting visitors.

There was no one else in the market at the time so I talked with the girl for a few minutes. She told me her ancestors had lived in that part of the southwest since the 1600’s, but the cliff dwellings had been abandoned for hundreds of years before that. I learned a bit of history and the location of a few outstanding landmarks that only the “locals” knew about. The investment of ten minutes of my time in another human being changed the course of my entire trip that summer.

Sadly, I’ve heard the term “the locals” used in just about every part of the country where I’ve stayed long enough to hear it. The phrase is an unfortunate byproduct of our mobile American culture. It suggests things about us that we don’t like to admit, about class and the attitudes of the affluent and the economically mobile. It even shines light on the electoral map during elections.

Yes, and it cuts both ways. When I’m waiting behind a line of out-of-state license plates on my way to the post office and grumbling about the “tourons” (that’s a cross between a tourist and a moron, if you didn’t know), I’m allowing the legacy reptile software in my brain to guide my thoughts, and disregarding the human stories of all the passengers in those vehicles who come here to spend money and keep my property taxes low. Some escaped here from our own urban cliff dwellings. Some have made no less of a journey than the pioneers. Every one of them has been a “local” somewhere.

Our brains operating on automatic pilot can take us on some very unpleasant journeys. The brain is designed to process a tremendous amount of data provided by our senses, filter that through our memories and quickly identify friend or foe, safety or threat. If we don’t consciously manage that process, we are subject to being led by our fears and making wrong conclusions.

Today I’m reminded of that great line, I think Maggie Smith said it: “I know she’s judgmental. I can tell by looking at her.” It would be nice if that only applied to the two rude guys in that checkout line, but I have to include myself in the joke. We’re all included.

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