Just upload the talk I gave on this subject– link below:
For the children and trees,
Just upload the talk I gave on this subject– link below:
For the children and trees,
a day in the life of an American hitchhiker
Like a well-worn game trail or a particularly pleasant patch of ground, there are certain corridors in this country through which the hitchiker may move gracefully from one place to another. Highway 101, running south to north through California, is one such road, in particular the stretch that connects San Francisco to the cities and counties to the north that all sit as rugged hunks of land between there and the Oregon border. And on this golden morning, I find myself with 200 miles of 101 strecthed out in front of me, and I stand here, car-less, curious to see who the world will send me for rides.
Told that it was still going to be at least another week before the harvests would begin at my friend’s little ranch up in the hills above the Ukiah valley of Mendocino county, I decided to keep thrumming myself north to visit an old mate in southern Oregon (the one who picked me up hitching five years ago and peeled back the emerald curtain for me, as well as many veils of culture I’d had in my bag at the time). I know that he’s just moved onto an 82-acre permaculture-inspired, off-the-grid-wired homestead, called the Shire, that has been delicately carved into the raw hillsides of the Siskyou mountains, surrounded by National Forest and the Kalmiopsis Wilderness…and I aim to see it, join in, see what I might offer in way of skill or story. Another objective is finally making a visit to a grad program in Eugene at the University of Oregon, to meet some teachers to feel out if any might be a Teacher for me. The old-growth forests that pulse lushness from the Cascades right outside of town also creates quite a pull. In short: Oregon has me the palm of it’s massive hand.
Or some such notion. But here I am now, climbing out of my buddy Bing’s truck beside an on-ramp of the 101 North, with a long way to go by evening. Let’s see what happens.
Nothing. After all of these years hitching, the first time in a while is always a bit of surprise. Because here’s a car, and here’s a car, and here’s another: why aren’t you picking me up? I look back in memory and often think it always happens right away. But now, nope, just me and this little corner, with a still-rising and still-warming morning sun, a mess of blackberries and old oaks lining the road, and cars seen down on the highway, cruising by. I begin to doubt my spot: where you hitch is as important as where you fish, and I’m not getting any bites here at all.
But ha here we go! The first ride of the day, as a banged-up Ford Explorer comes to quick halt in front of me. With their window down, I look in to see to a man and a woman in their fifties, smoking cigarettes and looking friendly: “Where you headin?” the fella asks.
“Oregon,” I reply, “but I’ll take any short ride.”
“Yeah hop in, we’re just going about 45 mintues north to Willits.”
And it begins. I grab my pack and cram it into the back gate, resting it on about ten bags of cans and recycling. I catch the guy’s eyes in the rear-view, “Yeah we’re gonna stop and git money for those first, hope that’s alright with you.”
I walk around and open the door to get in, and am taken aback by another unexpected sight: a four-year-old little boy in a car seat on the other end. He smiles a huge, toothless smile, and I trust him immediately. “That’s Max,” his mom tells me.
There’s a little bit of idle banter between the adults and I, but I can’t hear much with the windows down and music going. We soon stop to drop off recyclabes at a rusted and busted old tin-metal shop a few exits north. All the cans and bottles get weighed, and my driver then produces a few twists of copper piping and some copper fittings, has those weighed too. There is a sad desperation in his eyes as he awaits the dollar amount that copper will fetch… twelve bucks. Getting back in the car, I hear him say that the money from the cans and copper should pay for her medication today.
I’d speed up the story as the car speeds up, but I’m suddenly transfixed by this little kid. His dad has put on some super loud Rob Zombie, and Max is now watching his dad with an uncertain smile as his pops lights up a joint and proceeds to cough tremendously, all the while head-banging and pounding the beat into the trash-cluttered dash. My heart stirred, I get his attention and start on some serious air-guitar, to which he laughs and then looks super serious, concentrating on getting his hands into the same configuration as mine. I watch him and give nodding encouragement, noticing his dinosaur toys beside him, his candy-sticky face, his spider-man shoes placed on the wrong feet. He feels his hands are finally in the right position and he turns and just beams at me. We rock like that for a minute, then I absent-mindedly start looking out the window and switch to air-drums. I look over and he’s serious again, studying my hands and trying to lash out his arms to a beat like I’m doing. I slow the beat down for him and before long we’re sharing a drum kit in the back of the car, banging out the beats as the car beats it’s on down the line. This goes on for the whole ride, with him studying my hands and me taking the time to impart as much silent, unconditional love towards him as my time allows. I teach him a few mudras and the peace sign too, and wish upon him a life that will include great joy and health.
And before I know it, I’m climbing out on the far end of Willits, getting offers from his dad to help me help him move 100 pounds of pot. I politely refuse, thank him for the ride, and shut the door, catching one last sweet and kind flash of gummy smile from Max. He throws the peace sign at me, I laugh and give it back, and walk on.
You often don’t get dropped off at the best spot to resume the journey. In this case I find I need to walk about a half mile further up 101, which is at this point a slow stretch, only two lanes, and in a school zone, I notice. I walk well past the high school and find the area where the buildings of town are more sparsely placed and where the speed limit begins to climb from 35 to 55. I place my bag down against a sweet-tar smelling telephone pole and begin again, thumb out, asking the world for a ride. The day is warming up and I pack my Pendelton away, studying this large compost operation that sits in a series of large piles in the farm-yard on the other side of this chain-link fence. I look to the opening and read that this is the place of the famous compost called the “Marley Mix,” and I smile, realizing just how much marijuana and its presence in these counties affects everything. And while that includes the occasional flare up of police crack-downs and crime and paranoia and nonsense for many, it’s also fun to see just what another economic model can look like that doesn’t include nearly every person having to commute to jobs elsewhere that they really don’t like. This hills around me are filled with folks who are rarely leaving their land, tending their gardens and tuning into many of the old forces of air, water, soil, and sun that many of us no longer have the time or capacity to observe.
But oh, stay on task. I get my thumb out for each passing car, trying to guess well ahead of time which ones will stop. I’d like the think you can type-cast folks by car: surely this VW bus will stop! No. Oh here’s my ride, that old Winnebago! Nope. This guy will stop, his truck has a snorkel and big tires. Drives past. I can do that over and over. But then suddenly the little toyota prius is coming to stop just past me, and I hoist my bag up over my shoulder to see a very tall, very handsome young man unfold himself out of the driver’s side door, hearing the trunk pop, and in one smooth graceful motion he’s already standing at the trunk, holding it open, crisp blue jeans and tucked in shirt, styled blond hair, aviators and a boyish smile– “C’mon in. Where you heading?”
And here we go. I’m in a clean, quite, brisk moving car beside a new friend. Erik is his name, and he has this deep, authoritative, hollywood voice. And sure enough, he’s an actor, he’s telling me, on his way up to act in a short film with some friends from Humboldt county. Grew up on a small dairy farm in the Sierra foothills, first one to go to college, first one to take up an art, first one to move away. Coming fresh from there yesterday though, already been driving four hours today. We talk about the life of living on land and growing grass and milking cows, and about the challenges the modern food system places on small farmers, as his mom and others in their community have to “barter” their milk and produce with one another to avoid many of the laws and regulations that greatly privilege the large corporate farms over small family farms. Then we’re on actors and authors, then we’re on the future of environmentalism (as we drive now through a great grand-stand of redwood forests lining the road– heart-bashingly beauiful, everytime…) and the conversations flow in and out, dark and light, like old childhood mates passing the days and nights…
A stop at a little cheese creamery for fresh curds. A slow crawl through some traffic in Eureka, noting the banged-up look it shares with so many of these northern cali/southern oregon former fishing and lumber towns. The sheer amount of land out here is so vast, and I don’t know if folks consider it: there was once, just 150 years ago, a stretch of old-growth redwood forest that extended the equivalent of Boston to DC. San Francisco is built out of redwood. Gold and fishing made a few rich, but few signs of that remain. Were it not for the 60’s counterculture and psychedelia, and the subsequent back-to-the-landers and their knack for growing the country’s growing pleasure for that ancient ganja plant, so much of these counties would now be completely poor and de-populated. Instead, many are thriving, albeit in the fogs of medical marijuana laws, and so many success stories of the time can be found all around if you have the time to meet the folks and hear the tales. I need to write a book about such things, I muse to myself.
And now Arcata, and Humboldt University, and my ride is ending. Erik and I exchange genuine and hearfelt appreciation for having crossed paths in this life, and I exit the vehicle, feeling as though I may see this young man if films some day.
I walk down to the next on-ramp, a busier one right by the Uni, and expect a quick ride, but instead find one of the trickier circumstances one may face out hitching: another hitchhiker. And this will be particularly challenging, I realize as I draw closer to this woman and her dog. (tip: very few people like picking folks up who have dogs). I see that she is in her late forties or fifties, ripped red crew sweatshirt with stains, ragged jeans and barefeet, dust-kicked keds nearby, one small dinged duffel and plastic bag of cans. She sees me and gives me a desperate and crazed, yet kind and sad, toothless smile. “Hey honey, c’mon over…ain’t no body picking us up, and we haven’t anything to eat since yesterday. But c’mon, we’ll get one.” I keep walking toward her, hesitate, put my bag down here on the opposite side of the onramp from her, and walk over to her to hear her better….
Immediately, she lazy-shimmers before me: another broke-down banged-up human, kicked-out of society at some point in the past and groping her way along ever since. Her eyes hold ten-thousand sad nights, her hands dirty with too many fights with men and police and social workers and folks just trying to help. The feeling is similar to walking up to a street-crazed stray dog, backed into a corner and snarling in fear at the world, but hoping someone can come help anyway. And oddly enough, it is the dog next to her that is looking up at me kind, calm, wiser eyes. A mutt, his world-worn brown coat is mottled with tawny streaks upon sleeks of black, and a faded red bandana collars his neck and highlight his smile. He is too skinny and completely in love with this woman, and now me. A car passes behind me and she raises a thumb half-heartedly, and now looks up into my eyes.
“Hey sugar. I been here for two days, nobody ‘round here gives a shit about people like us. This is my dog Brandon, he’s my best friend. We haven’t eaten since yesterday though, do you have any food?”
“Yes. Yeah, I guess I do. How long have you been waiting today?” Cars are just passing us now, one after another– potential rides passing by, the whirring of tires and the Pacific breeze of the sky. We fall into each others eyes, wondering who’s who, and why.
“I don’t know man, geeze, I don’t know. Man.” She breaks our eye contact, looks down to her dog and small bag and tattered shoes, look down inside. “Do you have any food or not? Man I gotta get outta here,” putting up her thumb again, almost brushing me aside.
“Ok, yeah, I’ll be right back.” I look both ways, let a car pass between us, notice the driver eyeing me and this lady and this dog with curious inquiry. I shrug without meaning to.
Back at my backpack, wondering how to play this one. I still have hours to go if I’m to make it to Oregon by nightfall, and there’s just no way any one is going to pick this woman up in this state of being that she’s in. And while I don’t know if there is truly an ettiqueete or not, it seems to me that this is her spot since she got here first, and I have no right to stand separate from her and try to get my own ride. But I see no other option, as a deep gaze to the north reveals no other on-ramps within sight. I grab my nylon food bag out of my rucksack and wonder what to give her, what to tell her. Look both ways, see Maxwell the dog stand up and wag his tail at me, cross.
“Ok, well, here, have some granola and trail mix.”
“Oh geeze man, thanks but I can’t eat that. I got no teeth,” this second part muttered. “My ex-husband took ‘em. You got anything else?”
Glad I went to the cheese creamery earlier. “Ok, here’s a block of cheddar.” And Brandon is delighted, and so is this woman, and they both unwrap the cheese with the speed teneacity of the truly hungry. I don’t think I even know that feeling.
“So listen, I’m going to just wait a little and see if you get a ride. I do know that a lot of drivers don’t like picking up folks with dogs, but hopefully you do get a ride. But if you don’t soon, I think you should let me do the thumbing, and when someone stops, I’ll ask if you can come to. I just really need to keep moving north…”
“Ok, well, you know my dog needs some shade. Yeah, my dog needs shade. We’re gonna go over there across the street in the shade and wait. You promise you’ll ask? I gotta get outta here, you promise you’ll ask?”
“I promise yeah. I’ll be here.”
“Ok don’t go fucking me over here,” weird aggression, suddenly not even looking at me any more. With a hunger and desperation sated, a darker color plushes out around her that she didn’t have just a minute ago. This is a woman living on dark shadow of ground, and I’m thankful that she’s going to side-step my path for now. I have to surrender to the fact that I’m not about to have a profound impact on this woman, and I have to just believe that she deserves just as much respect and kindness as any other brother or sister one meets out in this world.
“Ok, yeah, I’ll call you back over if I find you a ride.”
And she grabs her things, mouths off another hunk of cheese and gives one to Brandon, and barefooted, shoes in hand, walks away, passing within a few feet of my backpack on her way by. I sense her mind’s approach; with nothing to lose, she’d have grabbed something off my bag if it looked of use to her. I watch her go, and then start hitching again immediately, and a minute later I see her and the dog in the shade far from me, too far to hear me shout.
Not five minutes later now, and this shiny red Honda civic is pulling to a stop. I walk up to see two young folks, dressed in some sort of restaurant uniform, telling me that they’re only heading up another few exits, and I’m welcome to hop in. I note the small backseat, the clutter of cds and sweatshirts and poker chips, look back toward the woman and her dog far off, not even looking my way. There’s only so much I can do: so I take the ride, and leave her and Brandon behind. Never see her again. And yet, her path, and the tens of thousands of others like her who are on it right now, are always amongst us, and I don’t want to pretend otherwise, and no fullfilled life of mine could ever include a philosophy that does not extend love and compassion towards these downtrodden, these luck-broke, these rut-stuck, these beat-up folk. I have moved through and amongst them many times in my wanderings, under bridges and along road-sides like this one, and despite all of their obvious short-comings, their eccentric and often pathetic excuses, I still walk away from such encounters with a heart that feels it’s been flooded with I know not what, only that it’s Good. In the eyes of the dispossessed, swimming there in the eyes of nameless broken, is a perspective few of us have or may even want. But that perspective, that knife-edge walk between meeting the day’s basic needs always weighed against the steep drops of loneliness and desire; such humans stare out at an austere, entirely undependable universe, of which you, standing before them, are woven of the stuff of angels, or comprised of the threads of demons. Of which you, standing before them, are a harbinger of hope, or an inflicter of pain. Or, sometimes, just a target for a cigarrette or a quarter. But either way and in any way, we share this world and this life with a great many paths and stories, and, I’m beginning to think, we err in taking lightly any encounter we have with another on this short walk of ours. Goodbye, sad lady. May your days ahead grow brighter.
And by its very nature, the experience of hitching is fluid; for here I am now, in the car for a quick ride with these two young cigarette-smoking, cologne-wearing, overweight, fast-talking casino dealers. The fellow deals black-jack, the young lady craps. They seem entirely under-enthused about the job, and subsequently, in this moment anyway, about life here in this town. But the money’s good, and you get to drink for free a lot, and what else would they do? No good jobs anyway. What malaise! But the dude’s voice does raise in interest and curiousity upon hearing about my travels. Suddenly there are questions flying through and past; “you’re just out here from Vermont with no car?” “where’s your all of your stuff?” “you don’t know anybody out here who could drive around?” “how much money do you save before you go travel? would ten grand be enough if I wanted to go travel, like, to Europe or something?” “do you get scared hitching?” “if you come back this way, maybe you can call me and we can hitch somewhere together?”
Getting out of the car now, thanking them, I try my best to encourage the young man and assuage the look of concern growing on the young woman’s face. “Listen, it’s not that hard. If you really want to go travel somewhere else, you gotta just save up some money and go for it. This town and your life will still be here when you get back. Seriously, don’t worry about missing out. I can in listening to you that you’d love the chance to live simply somewhere else for a while.” Out of the car, looking in through the window: “Go for it man, in the big scheme of things, you’ve got nothing to lose.”
Or some such thing; I’d think I’d be getting better at those little encouragements by now. But it’s awkward, because everyone’s circumstance is so different, and I know that there is no prescription of how get a young person out of a home-town rut, and I know that many people peacefully and truly do stay right where they are for all of their days. Anywho, what’s next?
D’oh! Again, another hitchhiker, already waiting on the ramp. See him: a tall, leather-colored man of middle-age, dressed in army green cargo pants and a rough tweed coat, standing strong in good leather hiking boots, with a large, canvas external-frame pack leaning against the 101 North highway sign. As I approach, before he sees me, a huge and ridiculously cute face suddenly emerges from behind his pack, and out jumps this few-month old black lab puppy, pulling on his little flat-web leash. Ha!
I walk up the fella and immediately it is recognized that all is well and understood between us. His puppy, named Katie, adores us and covers my hands with wet, whimpering licks and kisses. This man, named Jed, has a southern drawl, a well-weathered face, and he projects an air of supreme confidence in these traveling arts. I offer to go wait in the shade of that old Monterey pine over there, and he offers to ask whoever stops for him if they can give me a lift too. So I do, and wait here in the shade an eat an apple, watching occasional whirling wisps of coastal fog floating up through the eucalyptus trees that line the highway. Few cars getting on the ramp here though, I notice.
After about twenty minutes, Jed’s hoisting his gear onto his back and his calling me over. “Well,” he starts, “I been here about an hour, and I reckon that’s the way of things: one bum takes an hour, and if nothing happens, you let another bum take an hour.” The wisdom of this has me smiling uncontrolably, especially as I can sense just the decades and the hours this man has spent living this simple ruck-sack life, and unlike some who get real tired of it all and grow bitter when they have a hard time slowing down or finding work, this guy is just thriving.
“Alright man, that sounds great. So it’s about 3 now, so I’ll wait here ‘till 4, and same thing, if someone stops, I’ll see if they can fit you and Katie too.”
“Sounds good buddy. Reckon I’m gonna head a little toward town, maybe play some music for some coin, maybe earn myself a beer for tonight.” He winks. “Say, do you need any weed? I’ve got some great stuff.”
Smiling again, this guy is cracking me up: “Nah, I’m alright Jed thanks man. I’m kinda gonna be swimming in the stuff in the coming weeks.”
He laughs, we laugh, “Yeah me too! Ah well man. Well if I don’t see you, good luck, and be safe. You have enough food and water?”
“I do man thanks. Do you?”
“No, I need a beer!” he shouts over his shoulder, starting to walk away, with Katie excitedly at his heel. “Good to meetchya!”
“You too mate!”
And I wait. And then I wait some more. A fog comes in thicker, and I put on another layer. Few cars, no one seems interested. I have a view of this small corner gas station that’s been shoved into the side of the hill beside me, and I watch a lot folks who seem to know each other interacting. I’m definitely in more of a small community here rather than bustling hub, and a quick look at my watch reveals that it almost 4 already, and Jed may be back soon. Blast! Shouldn’t have taken such a short ride out of Arcata, I wonder, but shoot I had to get away from that woman if I stood a chance of making it to Oregon by nightfall. I’m starting to wonder if I’ll be camping tonight.
But nope: here we go. A huge, jet-black Chevy Tahoe sees my thumb and comes to an abrupt stop just past me. I walk up to the window (as I always do first, as every once in a while, I decide I just don’t get a good feeling from the driver and I decide to pass on the ride), and I see this smaller man in a suit and tie, younger and kind of punked out in his hair-style and earrings, arm tatoos and little soul patch. He’s heading north only about twenty minutes, but I decide to go for it, as this spot slowwww.
And I’m in the car now, it’s huge, and immediately I can tell I just landed in a party. The guy’s energy is wild and infectious, there’s some loud ska music blaring and “Here man, want a shot of rum?” Well, when in Rome. He hands me a Pepsi. “Here, a chaser.” I hand it both back to him and watch him take one, then grab a pipe off the dash. Lights that up, passes it. Again, when in Rome.
So we’re barreling down the highway now and the whirlwind of it all just has me pleased as punch. We start talking a little about his job (construction contractor), his wife (most gorgeous woman you ever saw), his kids (great kids, great kids), and that he and his wife live in separate houses on the same property. I’ve seen this idea a few times out here with older couples, it seems to have really caught on. And I tell him a little about Vermont and why I love coming out to the West and how I aim to have a family some day, and such and such.
But just like that the ride is over. We pull of the highway and go down a steep and short off-ramp. Right across the street, beside the tall bridge of 101, is also the onramp to get back on 101. Looks like a decent spot. But sure enough, wouldn’t ya know, there’s already two kids hitchhiking there. And as I’m getting out, feeling a little loose and being sure to grab all of my things, saying thanks to this good dude, I can already hear the voice of the young woman over there. “Oh heyyyyyy! Greetings brother!”
I walk over to find this pretty and ragged young couple, standing there with signs saying “Oregon or Bust” and “We love you!”, and they’re just laughing and dancing and yucking it up to every car going by. The young woman, blond, 19 maybe 20, adorned in long flowing scarves and bangles, is just all swaying hip and kissy lips. The dude, also blond, maybe 22, is equally expressive, being all flamboyantly fabulous.
I walk up and we all just beam at each other. “You’re going north too? No wayyyyyy! Ah you’re our new best friend ever ever ever! You want some candy? We’ve got skittles and twizzlers and starburst, and wait what else – Oh hey pick us up we’ll love you up!!– and yeah brother help yourself you know?! If you need something in this world just go grab it, you know?!!”
I’m just laughing and just so amused, but I manage to get out my little talk that I’ll wait over there and if they can ask for me to be able to hop in too if someone stops, that would be great. So I go over and sit on the opposite side of the on-ramp, cool in the shade of the loud bridge overhead, and just watch and witness this trip.
“I’m 90% pot and 10% twizzlers!” she yells, twirling in a little dance. “You us a ride, we give you something tasty!” she shouts like a festival hippie hawking her wares. And this just goes on like for a about ten minutes, when suddenly this huge and rusted old Winnebago with Washington plates is coming to a stop in between us, obscuring us from view. A few moments after that, the young lady pokes her head around the corner to holler: “Ok best friend! C’mon in!”
And suddenly I’m in the back of this brown carpeted, dark mahagony upholstered, completely cluttered Winnebago. The young couple is up in the cock-pit with the driver, an amish-bearded man in his forties who looks up at me with friendly eyes in the rear-view, and I’m back here with another young man who sits comfortably in slippers and a robe. Turns out they’ve been living in this rig for months, just going back and forth between different rest-areas along this stretch of the 101. I’m bummed to learn they’re only going up a few miles to the next rest area, but they assure us that it’s a fine place to spend the night camping if we don’t get any more rides for the day.
So we come a stop deep into a long, narrow rest area that slides along amongst redwoods and doug firs. We all clamber out and us hitchers gather our things, stand around the back of the camper and shoot the shit. The fellow, the driver, has these little, darting, cunning eyes, full of mystery and mirth. He’s in a burned and ripped red wool flannel shirt, and he’s rolling himself a cigarette without looking down at it. Instead, he’s pointing out to me this motorcycle he’s carrying on a little trailer on the back, and the gas-powered generator sitting next to that. And then pointing out the sign “For Sale” and in smaller print, “good generator.” “I’m thinking,” he begins in slow, crisp speech, “that someone walk up and says ‘oh? a motorcycle for sale?’ but then they’ll see that the sign is really for this generator for sale , and they’ll say ‘oh, well actually, that is a nice generator.’ And shoot, if it sells, that’s just more time on the road for us.” He’s pleased with this approach, very pleased. He turns to me, “It’s what we call Trip Perpetuation.” And that seals it: there are masters of living the traveling dharmma bum life, and this guy is one of them.
But I can’t stay: I extend my thanks to them and to the young couple (who are still just flying, talking miles a moment, just in love with their new friend and this whole world: I would later see them two other times in the coming weeks, once hitching in Oregon and another time along this same stretch) and then I’m out. I walk down the long exit to rejoing the highway, stand in the later afternoon sun and hope for another ride or two. I’m at least fairly close now, and I just heard from my buddy that he can pick me up wherever I end up.
Before long at all, an old Chevy Blazer comes to a stop and I’m in the car with two young blokes back East, and they too are in great spirits. I learn that they live seasonly as well, with much of their money being earned around Christmas in Maine, because these dudes make wreaths. Beautiful, intricate, famous wreaths. We have about an hour together in the car, have a stop and walk along a gorgeous marshy bay that leads to the ocean, the Ocean!, and we swap visions of what we’re trying to do in the world. They too are students of Permaculture and seek out projects that cultivate the renewal of soil and fertility of our land. They too are ever attentive to their food, where it comes from, how to avoid the nasty chemicals and how to support and encourage local food production. They too envision a future that includes a society that values land-based skills and passions over white-collar math-war-games, and they too are eyeing these growing Occupy Wall Street gatherings with considerable interest. We take turns speaking and feel ourselves confirming pure and true things within one another, and it’s a damn joy to share these moments driving along one of them most beautiful stretches of road in the world.
Awesome dudes, they’re willing to take the turn inland up the 199 that leads into Oregon on a north-east tack. They drop me off right in the middle of an old-growth grove of redwoods, (upon my request), and after heart-felt goodbyes, I’m here alone amongst these massive, towering, humming trees. Five years ago, on my first trip through the northwest, a dude picked me up on the Oregon coast and brought me to this very grove, and these were the first redwoods I ever walked amongst. And now all these years later, I’m waiting here, neck-up-turned in awe, waiting for that same friend to meet me here to pick me up. Five years, 20 seasons, the bulk of my 20’s living a wild and free and hard-working existence, all my choices and jobs and paths seen as an extension of that first time I made the leap and left: left with just a backpack and money saved and an open heart, and I had a look around, I went on a vision quest. I know it’s not for everybody, and I know that I’m a young white male and the cards are more in my favor that many, and I know that life ahead will get more complex as I coast into my thirties in the coming year, but damn…and ahhhh…and I wish such wanderings upon all who wish for it, but haven’t made it happen yet…and I know that many can’t, and that I try to enjoy this even more for those who can’t do these things…and I love my friends and family back home in Vermont and New Hampshire, and I think of them and the friends at the gear shop and the friends at the tree nursery and the friends in the hills and the friends in the town…I give thanks to all of my parents and teachers, to all of these folks who have taken me in over the years, all of these people who have taken the time to impart some wisdom and inspiration unto this young man…I breathe deeply of redwood mist, look down at this miraculous and mysterious body that is the ultimate ride upon which my soul is hitched…and I await my friend, coming around the redwood bend. What a day.
The following appeared in the Burlington Free Press in November:
“My Turn: Awaken to Our Basin”
Dear Fellow Denizens of the Lake Champlain Basin,
Lake Champlain is still severely impaired.
The seasons can have a comforting effect on us. When the world news portrays turmoil and turbidity in the streams of humanity, we take comfort in the peace we enjoy in this land of changing leaves and harvest moons. It seems we’re immune to the worries of the world. We don’t have oil rigs, and hence no oil spills. We don’t have mining, so we don’t have toxic tailing ponds. We don’t have a dominating timber industry, so we don’t have clear-cuts. We don’t have political instability, so we don’t have riots and food-shortages. And autumn is just gorgeous. We seem to be sitting pretty.
And yet, Lake Champlain is still severely degraded.
One reason we’re able to live this well on this land is because we’ve outsourced all the nasty processes. Our cars, phones, computers, clothes, and most of our food is produced elsewhere. After three centuries of heavy use, much of this basin is being allowed to rest, and to recover. Other places aren’t so lucky– they’re ramping up production to meet the desires of modernity’s decadence. We’re fortunate to not be dealing with any of these big-time problems affecting us locally.
And yet, Lake Champlain is still severely polluted.
Here’s the harsh news: we’re still participating in a cultural life-style that is destroying our water. Let’s not get used to this. It’s a tragedy that the lake is often closed to swimming. It’s a tragedy that we shouldn’t eat more than two fish a month. It’s a tragedy that our drinking water needs to be shocked with chlorine to make it safe to drink. Consider this from the arc of human history, and how unfortunate it is– we can’t eat and drink from the natural bounty we live upon. Let’s not be lulled into thinking this is normal, or okay.
Because Lake Champlain is still severely impaired.
But here’s the positive news: we’re capable of restoring this entire basin, one watershed at a time, and we can restore our relationship to this place in the process. The future will likely require us to meet more of our needs on this land base again, and we’re going to need clean water to do it. To get there, it’s going to take a lot of work, but I reckon we’ve never been afraid of that. It’s going to take a lot of time, but it will be time spent together. We’ll have to realize that this modern life will never be satisfying if we aren’t all feeling healthy, vibrant, and inter-connected with one another and the water and land.
Here’s a few questions we must ask ourselves. 1) What watershed do we live in? When water flows off our yard, toward what stream does it flow? Where does that stream go? 2) What’s the water do when it runs off of our farm, land, or street? Is it gathering chemicals and fertilizers? Could we slow it, spread it, sink it? 3) What long-term affects will gas pipelines have on our water? 4) What projects are going on in our watershed? Lake Champlain is fed by rivers, and many rivers are damaged. Seek out watershed groups or businesses dedicated to helping organize projects– Friends of the Winooski River and Intervale Conservation Nursery, for example.
Try volunteering a Saturday to restore a riparian corridor, or attend a city-council meeting. Advocate for better storm-water management. Encourage youth to become ecological restorationists!
We know future generations will swim in this lake, drink this water, eat these fish, watch these sunsets, and marvel at these seasons. Will they look back on us and our efforts with thankfulness or despair? The answer’s up to us, flowing by us and through us everyday, in the water and air.
The Blog of Sean Patrick Hughes
The official blog of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation's Watershed Management Division
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