The road to revival: A look at Canyon Woodward’s endurance race to reshape rural politics
The path for Democrats to win back rural voters who once aligned with the party decades ago isn’t smooth; it’s a dirt road, long and windy. But as tough as that route is to navigate, Canyon Woodward may have the roadmap.
Woodward, 29, has lived a multi-faceted existence with a seemingly nonstop itinerary. While he first exercised his passion for organizing by leading the charge to get his alma mater, Harvard, to divest from fossil fuels, he would later move into the political arena, working for several campaigns, from Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid to state House and Senate races. Most recently, he co-wrote the book “Dirt Road Revival: How to Rebuild Rural Politics and Why Our Future Depends On It,” which explains how Democrats have lost rural voters and what must be done to regain their trust.
Between those laborious undertakings, Woodward finds solace in extreme trail running. He said those intense exercises give him not only a physical release, but the time needed to untangle complex problems he may encounter while trying to move people toward a more progressive future. And the trail running has become a key focus in itself, driving Woodward to complete the Smokies Challenge, a 72-mile run with 18,000 feet of total elevation gain.
“Both politics and trail running require running through the seasons, and not just going out when the sun is shining and you’re feeling great,” Woodward said in the short documentary film “Rural Runner” that appears on his webpage . “It takes getting out there day in and day out, even when it’s really difficult.”
Woodward grew up in Macon County and graduated from homeschool before moving to Boston to attend Harvard in 2011. Prior to that, he’d also gone to Franklin High School and Southwest Community College part-time to maintain his eligibility for sports and other extracurricular activities.
After graduating from college, Woodward was an instructor at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), where he periodically led multi-week whitewater expeditions for high school and college students.
At Harvard, Woodward met someone who would change his life — Chloe Maxmin — the woman with whom he’d spend thousands of hours on the campaign trail listening to the deepest concerns harbored by rural Maine voters. In 2018 and 2020, Maxmin made a name for herself, first winning the most rural state House seat in The Pine Tree State before unseating a deeply entrenched Republican incumbent to gain a spot on the state senate.
Experiences that led to Maxmin’s success were put into words in “Dirt Road Revival,” cowritten by Maxmin and Woodward, which provides a guide for candidates to find success in rural politics. As laid out in the book’s introduction, while it eventually gets into more complex themes, the core philosophy is quite simple.
“This is our preamble to you, our handshake, our introduction,” the book reads. “This practice is rooted in how we were raised. Things move at the speed of relationship in rural America. You don’t just straight into business and take care of things as quickly as possible.”
- Canyon Woodward has long navigated the dirt roads where he grew up in Macon County, and now he’s written a book about how progressive organizers can gain a foothold in other rural areas. Forest Woodward photo
A lot of people in Western North Carolina like to use the term “mountain values” to describe a shared belief system that ideally transcends political affiliations. The phrase is often seen and heard during election season as candidates attempt to appeal to the broadest slice of the electorate. When talking to Woodward, it’s clear that “mountain values” serve not only as a talking point, but a guiding light reflective of his commitment to the place he grew up.
“I just have such a deep, deep love for the mountains, the trails, the rivers, the folks that raised me in the community,” he said.
Woodward said that growing up he felt like a political outsider in conservative Macon County given his and his parents’ more progressive ideals. But after leaving to go to college in Boston, he missed his mountains and would return home during summers to be a raft guide at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. As he progressed through his education and became more interested in organizing, he also grew more frustrated with the way elections in Western North Carolina were playing out.
“It’s been tough seeing the people that we’ve been sending, especially to Washington and also to Raleigh,” he said. “There’s a lot of fertile grounds here to get folks organized.”
One woman who’s seen Woodward’s commitment to his home is Julia Buckner, a Clay County native who first met him during Jane Hipps’ 2016 unsuccessful campaign for state Senate, which she headed up.
“When he showed up, he was like this long-haired hippie ultra-marathon running guy sprung straight from the mouth of Appalachia,” Buckner said.
While Hipps ultimately lost to a popular Republican incumbent, Jim Davis, she said Woodward was especially effective as a field director, which required him to recruit and organize volunteers from across the region.
Woodward talked about how Buckner has influenced him during the “meaningful experience” of organizing back home.
“In progressive politics it can be really challenging to find really strong mentors,” he said. “I just feel fortunate to have found Julia and been taken under her wing. And just learned so much from watching the way that she managed Jane Hipps’ campaign.”
Buckner expressed a similar admiration while focusing on the high level of energy and commitment he brought every day on the campaign trail.
“Canyon is the guy who wakes up in the morning and takes a 30-mile run then sits down and eats his vegetarian breakfast, and then he calls people,” Buckner said. “They fall in love with him, and he says, ‘if you care about what we care about, we need you to help us transform WNC.’”
“You cannot win without putting in the work, and Canyon showed he can wake up and put in the work until he goes to bed,” she added.
Buckner, who is now the Interim Organizing and Training Director for the North Carolina Democratic Party, said working with Woodward changed her life.
“I want to be clear, he taught me how to do organizing,” she said.
Buckner discussed a feeling she believes she shares with Woodward — a calling to take what’s been learned elsewhere and bring it back home to make life better for folks in the mountains.
“The rights and privileges of growing up there also comes with the responsibility of looking out for mountain people,” she said. “I think he just says what can I do to make the world a better place with the gifts he’s been given.”
Maxmin also heaped praise on Woodward, whom she said has been her best friend for about a decade. Since she met him, she’s been drawn to his energy and a shared love of rural America.
“Canyon brings such a different vision and perspective, so much empathy and honesty and groundedness,” Maxmin said.
John deVille, who recently hosted Woodward and Maxmin on his Mountain Philosopher Podcast , knew Woodward back when he was a teenager. He noted that Woodward stood out, frequently displaying an “irrepressible” smile that conveyed an unrelenting optimism. All the same, he had no problem questioning the status quo.
“It’s always, ‘why can’t we do it this way … this way seems more fun.’ He was always seeking to emancipate joie de vivre from the shackles of conventional thinking,” deVille wrote in a message.
deVille, who teaches history for Macon County Schools, recalled that when Woodward was in one of his AP classes, he would come to class “famished” after spending the prior period playing spikeball .
“He brought his setup to campus almost every day,” deVille wrote. “And he would get pickup games going during the rolling lunch slots during third period … then he would come to my room famished. He’d unpack what I called the Canyon Smorgasbord and nosh all period.”
And that seems to be ethos that has carried Woodward so far, a disciplined balance between pushing himself to help others while also focusing on the nourishment he needs to go forward in pursuit of a never-ending mission.
“He’s always competitive,” deVille wrote. “But it’s an introverted competitiveness. You’re never fully aware Canyon is out to win. He wastes no time in trash talk. He’s never going to alert an opponent as to his intentions. He’s going to take all that energy to out train, out prepare and outwork his opponents.”
The Maine Campaigns
Woodward has lived a peripatetic life, going from The North Cascade Mountains of Washington State to South Carolina to New England, all while spending long stretches back home in Western North Carolina.
But it was perhaps in Maine that Woodward found what would be his greatest and most rewarding challenge, running Maxmin’s campaigns for the state House in 2018 and Senate in 2020.
First came the House race, during which Maxmin had to convince voters that a young, relatively unknown progressive woman was worth listening to. Her secret: she listened in return. Woodward said he was able to apply a lot of lessons learned from his work on the Sanders’ and Hipps’ campaigns, including correcting some mistakes.
“In Jane’s campaign, we built really awesome volunteer teams in most of the counties in the west,” he said. “But I had folks focused mostly on phone calls, because it just felt like that was the only way we could reach people on the scale that we needed to. And in retrospect, knowing what I know now, I wish we had done a lot more of the door-to-door canvasing, even though you don’t reach nearly as many people. I think you win a lot more hearts and minds and votes that way.”
The race for Maine’s 88th House District ended up in a surprising success as the campaign first took 80% of the vote in the primary. Then came the General Election upset. While some wanted to attribute Maxmin’s victory to the greater “Blue Wave” of 2018, the book notes that Maxmin won while other candidates for other office in the district struggled. After all, the district was expected to offer a 16-point Republican advantage.
Following Maxmin’s 2018 victory, Woodward went back to work as a climate organizer while also pushing himself to new heights as a trail runner. But the time soon came that Maxmin made the decision to run for a state Senate seat, and Woodward renewed his commitment and again served as campaign manager.
Even though Maxmin may have had more name recognition in rural Maine after her first win, the Senate victory was perhaps even more impressive, considering she defeated the Senate Minority leader — Dana Dow — who was at that time the third highest-ranking Republican in the state, by the narrow margin of 51-49%.
- Canyon Woodward, right, and Chloe Maxmin put in the effort and found a way to flip the most rural state house district in the most rural state blue.
Those victories didn’t come easy. “Dirt Road Revival” makes it clear that winning the race not only took empathy, an open mind, organizational skills and creativity. The book notes that Woodward also applied the following principles gleaned from his time at NOLS: Be timely; be growth oriented; be specific about your observations; acknowledge your share of any problem; be clear about what you will do next; be as open to receiving feedback as giving it.
Of course, earning those victories also took plain old hard work. Woodward worked up to 100 hours per week as Maxmin knocked on thousands of doors and spoke with thousands of voters. Woodward said that in many of the interviews he and Maxmin have done in recent weeks, folks have asked about the hard work required.
“I don’t think there’s any way around that,” he said. “It is a lot of work, and it takes people really deeply committing to engaging in it. That work is made a lot lighter by the style of campaign that is very much rooted in the community and people power and building volunteer teams, as opposed to just leaning on consultants and shelling out big bucks for TV ads and radio ads.”
Along with talking about how hard Canyon worked, Buckner also highlighted the fact that Maxmin was willing to put in the time.
“I teach people how to do this. That’s my job,” she said. “When I teach classes I often say the mark of a great elected official is someone that can sit in a chair and do the not fancy work of recruiting volunteers and knocking on doors.”
A roadmap to revival
When “Dirt Road Revival” hit shelves last month, Woodward and Maxmin were subject to sudden acclaim and attention. The duo had an essay based on the book run in the New York Times, they were featured on the New Yorker: Politics and More podcast , and Maxmin did an interview on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher.
“We weren’t expecting the kind of national attention that [the book] has gotten, but it’s been super exciting to see it, see it resonate on that kind of scale,” Woodward said.
That said, Woodward was more enthusiastic about what he’s heard from rural organizers and candidates inspired by the book.
“It’s been really cool to hear from folks who are running campaigns in every corner of the country … it’s just inspiring that there are a lot of people doing this and, and I think we’re hopeful that we can move the needle in terms of reallocating a lot of the resources and the focus of the party.”
Early on, the book poses the simple question: what’s going on with the non-college-educated voting bloc prevalent in rural America? It offers an answer that echoes throughout the text.
“The short answer is that, like rural America in general, they have been left behind by today’s economy,” the book reads. “Whereas throughout much of the twentieth century a noncollege-educated-rural worker could reasonably expect to find a good job that paid well enough for an entire family to get by, that is no longer the case.”
Maxmin and Woodward write that the book is a “tough love letter to the Democratic Party.”
“By overlooking state politics, the Democratic Party has also missed the huge opportunity to cultivate the authentic relationships with rural voters,” they wrote. “In many states, state House and Senate districts are small enough to build a campaign that is rooted in a community. Campaigns can take the time to reach beyond the choir to develop real relationships with voters.”
Chris Cooper, Western Carolina University’s Madison Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs, said he believed the first section of the book laid out the problem Democrats have in rural America well.
“It was really a nice blend of scholarly insights with a bit of storytelling,” he said.
Cooper said one of the main issues the book points out has been seen and felt in Western North Carolina as Democrats haven’t even fielded candidates for some races, such as House District 120 where Republican incumbent Rep. Karl Gillespie is running unopposed.
“Show up, pay attention, listen. I think that’s key,” Cooper said. “Those are a lot of reasons why Democrats have lost. But with all that said this is not a plug-and-play playbook. It’s hard to do these things for a reason.”
While the book was written by two progressive Democrats, Cooper also believed the lesson imparted by the book can be applied regardless of party. Buckner agreed with Cooper’s assessment.
“This is a book that Democrats and Republicans should read as they try to understand what works in rural America,” she said.
Woodward spoke about the race for NC-11 and noted that he’s spoken with Democratic candidate Jasmine Beach-Ferrara about her race against Republican Chuck Edwards, currently a state senator. Woodward said he has grown to admire and respect Beach-Ferrara, particularly for her commitment to building a long-term organizing infrastructure that could benefit progressive campaigns and movements in Western North Carolina for years to come. Even though he seemed to admire her commitment to grassroots organizing, he still contrasted NC-11 and the area in rural Maine where he campaigned.
“There’s not as robust of an organizing infrastructure as there could be [in NC-11],” he said. “We had the Lincoln County Democrats in Maine, which was a super well-organized group that could go out and get a lot of the more Democratic leaning voters. The Jackson County Democrats are great, but then we have other counties like Graham, where there’s just like nothing.”
Recently, Woodward and Maxmin started a nonprofit called Dirt Road Organizing that Maxmin called more “movement-oriented” that will support campaigns and organizations doing work on the ground in rural communities.
And it’s the work on the ground that’s a labor of love for Woodward. In an email sent after his interview with The Smoky Mountain News, he wanted to reiterate that point.
“All of this work is rooted in love for the people and places that raised us, as we write in the book dedication: ‘For our communities. For our homes,’” he wrote. “It’s really sad seeing our communities torn apart by toxic politics and dishonest narratives. But there is so much room to lean into our shared values and common ground, to lead with listening, respect, and empathy, to reach for a better way of relating to politics and one another that leaves our communities better off than when we started.”
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So I’m scratching my head here. Mr. Woodward grew up in Macon County where he has “a deep love for the mountains, the trails, the rivers, the folks that raised me in the community.”
He attends Harvard, moves to Maine and becomes involved in progressive politics. Now he has moved back to the area he loves….and wants to “…transform WNC.”
The late President John F. Kennedy is rolling in his grave at what a disaster his Democratic Party has become.