The sign said Atlanta was just ahead. We were thirsty and tired of riding in the truck and looking forward to a rest stop and refreshment. If we felt that way in an air conditioned truck, it had to be worse for the those we saw getting on their mountain bikes on the Rocky Bar side. About a mile outside town we rounded the corner and came upon two dicey looking men standing in front of a truck partially filled with firewood. But whereas the two men up the mountain earlier had simply stared (and kept cleaning the gun), the older of the two put his finger up in the universal sign that means, “Hold up just a minute, I have something to tell you.”
Go, Professor, go! Not. Bloody. Likely.
I was relieved to find that Atlanta was just a few bends down the road. If the men were having trouble, they could easily get help. Even so, we didn’t really know what to expect once there. We’d watched an Outdoor Idaho program on Atlanta that described it there as independent, where freedom of expression is revered, and the community is an unincorporated refuge.
As a first time visitor, I had no clue that the place is a veritable petri dish for interesting people with a lot of stories to tell. I “met” one of them, Larry Arnold, online today as I was researching for this blog. I had planned to focus on what I saw in Atlanta myself, on Peg Leg Annie and Dutch Em, but this guy was way more compelling. I’ll get back to the others tomorrow.
Through the digital miracle that is YouTube, now-deceased Larry Arnold, one of three or four Democrats in Atlanta (at the time) and self-proclaimed town crazy and whipping boy said that he did “whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted” and that social norms didn’t apply to him. He said he was born in Meridian, Idaho, but had lived in Atlanta since he was 28 years old.
Be forewarned, his language is salty, but he was fascinating. I have no idea who the guy was, why they interviewed him, or if what he said was true. He was loved. his obituary said:
Larry Dean Arnold Jr.
Hope Lives Eternal
Larry slipped away from us on November 11, 2016. We were not prepared for his leaving and we miss him very much. He was a father, a son, a brother, an uncle, a nephew, a cousin and a friend to many.
Larry lived many lives, and he lived them simultaneously. He was kind and thoughtful. He was loyal and loving. He was a handy, multi-skilled helper. He loved to cook and to work on projects, especially outdoors. He loved to play and to take risks, often at the same time. His smile and laugh were infectious. He always had a plan; and, although he was sometimes troubled, his spirit was fueled by hope.
God speed, Larry.
He was also ornery. Based on his words and the Atlantans I met, it’s evident that they like to mess with anyone not from Atlanta. He told about how he and his friends would sic flatlanders on residents they didn’t like just to irritate them. He told a story about being lit on fire (and lighting another “dude, a mean f*cker”, on fire in self defense). He laughed most of the way through torching the guy and laughed again telling about it on the video. Despite that, his demeanor was likable.
Asked what he would say if someone was considering moving to Atlanta fulltime he said emphatically, “They’re crazy. Don’t do it.” Summer is great, he said, and despite the fact that he and friends called Atlanta “God’s cathedral”, where he touched “nature or God or whatever”, he claimed “nothing about Atlanta’s easy come winter”. Getting in or out, you need a 4 wheel drive or a capable car. The road, he said, is “horrifying” and “dangerous” all the time, but especially in winter. And for flatlanders, especially so.
For about 30 years the town held Atlanta Days, a festival that used to be called the Drunkathon. Said Arnold, “But so many people died going back home ’cause they’re blacked-out drunk and they drive off, you know, you saw the drive up here, yeah, they’d drive off the ravine into the water and so many people died that we kinda got a bad reputation…” The name was changed as a result.
Despite that he claimed that there are “No cops, we don’t want them here and they have no reason to be here because we’re respectable and maintain the law. There’s no reason for an outpost here. However, we do get mail.” The roads are open year round and the mail delivery guy will even pick up a few things at the store for them, said Arnold, “bless his heart”.
A lot of his interview had to do with dealing with the winter, unrelenting cold and the demands of living in that environment. It’s been said that in Atlanta you get six months living in winter and six months preparing to live in winter. Life is hard, he said, especially in the winter when the population drops by half.
On a daily basis, he said, “You’re going to be working your f*ng ass off… If you’re physically capable, you have obligations to those who may be older or not physically capable.” Residents spend a lot of time splitting wood and tending a fire all day and night where the temps fall below zero, and it gets “real cold”.
“Dealing with nature and shoveling daily, making paths to garbage, woodpile, and water” are necessities. Trying to survive, for nonnative residents, he said this life can be “hell”. Only a handful of those who stay year round, said Arnold at the time, were women. He had no tolerance for capable residents – men or women – who didn’t carry their weight.
There was at the time a sort of Atlanta caste system to belonging and being accepted and no one (but the rich, said Arnold) just waltzes in without a “sponsor”, a longtime resident who will take them under a wing. At the time he had lived there for 16 years. His sponsor was his ex-wife Tina, a woman with deep hereditary roots in Atlanta. He called himself her bitch.
“I do whatever I have to – wash windows or whatever.” Her familial status was his legitimacy in the community. “Tina doesn’t have to give a shit. She comes up a few times a year and brings up the grandkids, throws a big party. I’m here… I clean windows. We’ve got really clean windows.”
“Can I, can I grab a beer?” He was never without one in the hour-long video.
He remembers a time when he was out driving his Jeep drunk and it was 16 degrees below zero. The Jeep stalled and he had his two dogs with him. They overnighted in his car and a dog on top of him, he shook all night anyway. He minimized it, but said he considered he might die because his dog didn’t want to stay on top of him. When the road grader came along the next afternoon he towed him home and that apparently was that.
Road graders are important, he said. Click here to understand visually why. The road in the video is, concidentally, the same one that took us four hours to drive on the way home.
For Arnold and anyone who still lives in Atlanta, road graders are a lifeline that must be maintained, albeit at arms-length.
“They plow the road and make a path for you so you can walk to the bar where it’s warm, you can get a drink and there’s food. Russ at the Beaver Lodge makes a hell of a hamburger,” he said.
I now have a whole new level of understanding about those two men we saw out gathering wood. We probably should have stopped. They more than likely knew at least one thing I did not. I’ll bet they had a story.