This morning we hiked the hills above town, three bounding dogs and I.
The dirt roads, grasses, and sagebrush were shining white with hoar frost. The gravel under our feet sparkled like a million ... well, like a million sparkling bits of frost, far more beautiful than diamonds.
All this lay under a sun that blazed warmly on my face yet somehow didn't have the oomph to melt a fragile layer of ice.
We panted our way to the highest slope, four very different but perfectly companionable animals, each surrounded by a self-generated breath-cloud. And there on the hilltop I paused and looked down on my little hometown of Hardyville.
Its rooftops were white with the same ice that frosted the sagebrush and the pines. Its single stoplight twinkled festively, red and green and amber. Not a creature was stirring, except perhaps Janelle, stirring up an early-morning pot of corn-meal mush behind the steamy windows of the Hog Trough Grill and Feed.
It's from up here, high in the hills, that it always hits me just how true it is when I tell you Hardyville is located "mid-nowhere." In every direction, for hundreds of miles, nothingness runs to infinity. Beyond Hardyville to the east lie the sagebrush barrens of the Independent Republic of Wyoming. The neighboring northern republic, Montana, is all mountain from where I stand. and so is the Kingdom of Deseret to the south. In the west our newest Republic, Idaho (still celebrating its liberation from being a federal occupation zone) also goes on pretty much forever, pine and sage and sky.
And there, in a tiny red-rock valley amid the nothingness, rests Hardyville. All alone.
The thing that sets Hardyville apart from the rest of the world isn't really geography, though. As Hardyvillians have been saying for years, it's Attitude (and don't forget the capital A).
But even there our difference isn't merely the crusty, crotchety, don't-tread-on-me independence of the ultimate western town.
It's not merely that we'd rather trade than steal.
It's not merely that we believe that the only real entitlement is being entitled to live our lives in peace (and if you violently attack a peaceful life in these parts, the nearest Hardyvillian will shoot you flat dead).
The other big difference between us and the rest of the world is that while we say, "Don't tread on us," we also promise, "We won't tread on you."
Really. We won't tread on you -- unless you tread violently or fraudulently on us first. Ever. No matter what.
Your religion? We don't give a damn, as long as it's voluntary and your actions are peaceable.
Your sexual orientation? Well, although we often wish some folks would shut the heck up about it, that's because we also don't give a damn. It's your business.
What foods, medicines, or recreational substances you ingest? Your business. (But if you get fat, med-poisoned, or crazy, don't come knocking on our doors, expecting us to bear the responsibilities for your choices.)
Your education? Whatever and however you want to learn is fine by us. Just don't make us pay for your latest "public" experiment on the poor, hapless kiddies.
Your wars? Look. If you want to have a war, go off with all the other people who want to have a war, find a nice empty spot, and duke it out. Pelt each other with rocks. Bonk each other with nerf bats. Fine. We'd enjoy watching a pro-wrestling match between Dick Cheney and Saddam Hussein. You could even raise money by charging admission. As long as every single person involved is free to participate or free to leave, it's your business. It only becomes a problem when you start toasting innocents or telling "volunteers" that they can't quit. (Us, we fight only against those who attack us; then our enemies had better watch out.)
Your property? It belongs to you and we're sure not going to take it to build a golf course or a luxury hotel.
Your money? What you earn is yours, not ours. You'll never hear a Hardyvillian claiming a "fair share" of what he didn't earn. You'll never see a Hardyvillian lining up for a tax-paid subsidy or a $600-toilet-seat government contract. (And you'll sure never hear a Hardyvillian uttering that ultimate oxymoron, "a fair tax" without rolling on the floor laughing so hard that various orifices start leaking.)
Your life? It just plain isn't ours to rule. And by that, let me make it clear that we mean your life is not ours to administer, command, conduct, control, curb, decree, dictate, direct, dominate, govern, lead, manage, order, overrule, regulate, reign, restrain, run, sway, or take over. (Thank you Thesaurus.com.)
And in this day when every little interest group or crazed control clique thinks that every honest difference of opinion is intolerable and possibly even an act of terrorism -- in this age when everybody with the ear of any government agency wants to do the entire above paragraph to everybody else -- our "won't tread on you" capital-A Attitude is really, really, truly the thing that sets Hardyville apart.
So here I stand on a shining hill above one great, unique shining town.
It's almost Christmas. (I'm allowed to use that word, this not being a government-financed column.) But it's also almost Hannukah, Yule, and perhaps half a dozen other holidays (and Jerry Falwell to the contrary, we're allowed to rejoice at those holidays, too).
All these holidays share the same central imagery: the return of light to a dark, cold world.
We kindle Yule logs and illuminate Christmas trees. We string sparkling ornaments around our houses. We light menorahs. We sing of stars in the east. We dance around bonfires. We light candles on altars. All to say, "The world is dark now, but glorious radience will return."
The ice at my feet, though it's painfully cold even through my boots and woolly socks, sparkles with this same promise.
In Hardyville, we're scientifically sure the radience of the sun will return, regardless of what rituals we perform. But we're also placing our lonely and very unscientific little hopes on the rekindling of freedom's incandescent beacon. We go on hoping like this, even though the darkness grows and the light seems cold and distant (and unfortunately seems frighteningly likely to be the headlight of an oncoming train, driven by a power-drunk government engineer).
So here, alone, we light the twin candles of freedom: You don't tread on us; we won't tread on you.
And someday, we hope to become one infinitesimal part of a blazing network of freedomlight, each individual candle of independence and mutual respect joining to illuminate the world.
Freedom on earth.