In the middle of national trauma, some signs of hope

At the end of May, everything we were doing came to a screeching halt. Again.

I remember earlier this year I spent a good amount of time writing about weight training, just in time for people’s New Year’s resolutions, and then the coronavirus made all those gym-centric posts sorta moot. You might as well be shouting at the wind when you’re talking about training programs and specific exercises that people can’t do because their gyms are shuttered.

So I figured I’d try to write about life during the pandemic. Trying to be relatable, to be real, to give an anecdote about what has to be one of the weirdest periods of my life, limited though my days have been. And I suppose that was fine for a bit, but really, my experiences aren’t that much different than anyone else’s, and no one wants to hear yet one more voice among the millions droning on about how different, how disrupted, and how depressing a lockdown could be. We’re all poorer, more bored and more homebound than we used to be. Wash, rinse, repeat.

One thing I saw is people liked looking back on past travels to beautiful places, and that seemed like a good outlet for this space. Useful information, pretty pics and maybe thoughts of seeing some of the amazing places I’ve seen looked all the more desirable when we were unsure when we’d be able to hit the road for an adventure again.

And then, another disruption. A seismic disruption that knocked us out of our newfound routines and comforts yet again.

When video surfaced of a Minneapolis police officer squashing the life out of George Floyd, the nation began to shudder, then quake, then erupt in a pent-up rage that has been years in the making. The roots of it all go much further back, but in more modern times, cellphone cameras have given us access to too many scenes like that in Minneapolis. Racial injustice wasn’t just back in the front of the news cycle. It became just as big as the pandemic.

As much as I wanted to keep publishing posts about mountain adventures, I couldn’t. In the span of weeks we’ve seen cases like Floyd’s pile up around us and pretending that this will all blow over and that things will go back to “normal” seemed wrong. Not seemed wrong. It was wrong. Too many people are hurting right now for us to carry on like it’s no big deal, or someone else’s problem. But the truth is, that’s exactly how these scenarios have played out all my life. Racial inequity and injustice comes front-and-center until society decides it’s had enough, that it’s tired, and would rather fixate on something happy instead. And nothing gets done.

But to be frank, something feels different right now. That maybe we might actually address this national blight.

Back in 2014, just a couple of years after Trayvon Martin was gunned down, Ferguson, Mo., erupted into protests and yes, some violence in response to a police officer gunning down an unarmed Michael Brown. The Black Lives Matter movement was born in these days. Reforms came to Ferguson, but in the nation as a whole, a stalemate ensued. On one side were those strongly advocating national change. On another, a small but very vocal group discounting the entire movement. And in the middle, a large and silent majority that may have had strong feelings about the problems uncovered in Ferguson, but didn’t want the hassle of arguments and hurt feelings that often accompany contentious discussions about race in America.

It’s that silent middle, unfortunately, that allows this shit to persist.

But I see something different this time. Yes, there are the vocal advocates for justice out in front. And yes, there is that small but very loud contingency trying to discount, dismiss and obfuscate the debate at every turn.

But that big, silent middle isn’t so silent anymore. Marches in my city back in 2014 numbered a couple hundred. This time? Some were in the thousands. Participants came from all walks of life. All races, too. Hell, even Mitt Romney — the whitest dude you can think of — marched in a Black Lives Matter protest, and heavily attended marches took place in small cities and even rural towns that wouldn’t have touched this debate just a few years ago. People posting on social media with the #BlackLivesMatter hastag weren’t just people of color. In my sliver of the world, I saw people who were dead quiet after Ferguson sudddenly weren’t just tacitly supportive. They were vocal. Often. And those younger generations — the Millennials and Gen Z — a bunch of them aren’t having it anymore. Most people who look like me either actively or passively shunned Black Lives Matter messaging a few years ago. But these days, a big chunk of them are embracing it. It’s as if the scales have fallen from their eyes. They get it.

In my hometown of Tulsa, one bone of contention has been the city’s participation in the TV program “LivePD.” It’s a lot like the long-running show “Cops,” which is entertaining to many viewers, but seen as exploitative by many others in minority communities. The city has resisted calls to cease participating in the program, but following these big demonstrations, city leaders agreed to dump the program. Not long after, “LivePD” was canceled altogether. And so was “Cops.”

These are small wins, with much bigger prizes (police reform, ending of redlining, sentencing reform, and so many other huge, lingering issues) still to be won, and still badly needed. But one thing that’s important is tough, honest and fruitful conversations are being had. People are now trying to understand what our friends and neighbors in the black and brown communities have been telling us for decades. Among many, the defensiveness is being lowered and honest attempts to learn and change are being undertaken. And a bunch of folks are beginning to understand how hard this process is.

So part of me is devastated by what happened to George Floyd. And Ahmaud Arbery. And Breonna Taylor. And Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Emmett Till, and so many others.

But part of me is strangely optimistic. It feels different this time. And I hope I’m right, that people’s attitudes are changing, that people are willing to learn, to empathize, and to find out how they can help resolve the longest-running sin that burdens our nation.

There will be time to write about outdoor adventure, running, training or whatever. There always is. But even the things that are hardwired in us need to be paused to take in and act on what’s important. Human beings have worth, something that’s enshrined in this country’s founding documents. But those revered words of old aren’t worth the paper they’re written on unless they apply to everyone, and for far too long, that hasn’t been true.

Maybe now we’re taking steps toward that goal once again. It’s a big mountain to climb, and there’s no shortcuts to the top. But in the end, that summit view, should we get there, will be worth the exertion.

Bob Doucette

This is no time for retreat, and no place for silence

Wilderness is cold, indifferent and ultimately egalitarian. In days like these, it might feel good to find refuge in that sort of purity. But we can’t do that.

I’m in a weird place right now. Call it a bit of a funk. I’ve been back from a sweet New Mexico/Colorado trip that took me to some fantastic places. Every time I return from a trip out west, I wish I was back. But eventually that fades a little as I get into the swing of work, training and living my “ordinary” life far from wilderness peaks and alpine forests.

But it feels different now. The urge is much stronger, not necessarily to revisit old haunts, but to get the hell away from what’s going on around us now.

I got to thinking about this more during a recent run and worked it out like this:

When I’m in the wilderness, I don’t hear or see much of anything except what exists in the natural world. This is much more acute if I’m solo. I’m surrounded by things much bigger than me, and all the trappings, labels, prejudices and accolades with which we adorn ourselves and others are notably absent.

There’s no male or female. No white, brown, black or red. No American or foreigner. No gay or straight. No rich or poor. No Christian, Muslim, Jew or Hindu, or Buddhist, Sikh or atheist. On the mountaintop, in the forest or on high plains, I’m an organism left to the mercies of the elements, the terrain, the forces of gravity and the whims of weather. Aside from the technical gear I bring with me, I’m reduced to nothing more than visitor that must play by the same rules as everything else, be they the trees, the rocks, the grasses and the other creatures who call these environs home. Solo wilderness adventures are a wonderful self-imposed equalizer.

So now a confession. I find myself wanting to be in that space. It’s tough to be there, and lonely. Maybe even brutal. But it’s so simple. The rules are not your own, or anyone else’s. Politics don’t matter. Race doesn’t matter. Pick your identity, and out there, none of it matters. There’s something appealing about an exile like that, free from the strife of competing ideas, biases and expectations. Just you and the mountain, you and the trail. No favors or exclusions, just minute-to-minute decisions and basic survival. The wilderness doesn’t care if you’re happy, sad, fulfilled or disappointed. It doesn’t care if you live or die. It just is, a truly egalitarian world that is random and cruel, but in its own way, absolutely just.

On this day, late in the summer of 2017, that sounds far better than what we have in the world of “civilization.” Could you blame me if I decided to pack it in and do the hermit thing?

But the reality is this: Such thoughts are a fantasy. Through the centuries, humans have become decidedly un-wild. We’re creatures of our constructions. It’s practically in our DNA now. So running away from our problems and pretending to be one with the wild solves nothing. It’s merely an abdication of responsibility. Like it or not, we’re in this thing together.

The Nuremberg rally of 1935. This looks eerily familiar.

My mom grew up in Germany, born a year after World War II really got cooking. Our discussions about her early years are a combination of childhood memories and retellings of tales from her parents. She remembers hiding in bomb cellars, fleeing east from Berlin, then fleeing back to the city as the Russians advanced. She remembers the cruelties of war visited upon her, her family and her neighbors. Of doctors who disappeared one day and never came back. Of a city and a country ripped to pieces by an ideology that held up a nation and its people – check that, a certain kind of people – above all other humans. She recalls feeling no pride in being a German because of the evils inflicted on her Jewish countrymen, and millions upon millions more throughout Europe because someone decided it was time to put all the “inferior” people in their place, which ultimately meant being put to death.

World War II ended in 1945 with the total subjugation of Germany and its allies. It ended with the utter repudiation of Nazi ideology. Its falsehoods and evils were readily apparent to most of the world before the war, but made clear to everyone else – including the Germans themselves – once the shooting, shelling and bombing stopped. Tens of millions had to die to make it so, including over 400,000 Americans.

America’s original sin. It still haunts us.

Here in the United States, we have our own national sin. It started the day slavers began importing Africans to the New World to be used as forced labor on sprawling farms all over North America, South America and the Caribbean. Most of the world abandoned slavery before too long, but the U.S. stubbornly held on to it because owning people and forcing them to work was cheaper and easier than actually paying a wage or doing the work yourself. An entire regional economy was built on this model, one which enabled the splitting up of families, beatings, murders and rapes.

We fought a war over this, too. Apologists will say it was about “states’ rights” and “northern aggression,” but those are just covers for the fact that a group of people wanted to end slavery in America and another group did not. More people died in the American Civil War than in all our nation’s other wars combined. The northern states won, as did the cause of emancipation. But soon after, the formerly enslaved and newly freed African-Americans were subjugated yet again through decades of legislative action, rigged court rulings and socially enforced inequality. When these tools of racism weren’t enough, more violent implements were used: intimidation, beatings, murder and terrorism. Children died in church bombings, and in my hometown, an entire section of the city was burned over several days, with the victims being targeted only because they were black.

Oh yeah. The day Charlotteville, Va., looked a little like Nuremberg in 1935.

It’s 2017, folks. Seventy-two years after the end of World War II, and 152 years after the end of the Civil War. We’re nearly a century removed from the Tulsa Race Riot and more than five decades past the height of what we know as the Civil Rights Movement. And yet in 2017, we’re seeing Nazi salutes and Klan-like rallies in an American city that had the temerity to decide to take down the statue of a Confederate general. The torchlit march on the University of Virginia campus last week had all the feel of the great Nuremberg rallies of Nazi Germany. Grown men, kitted in military gear and long guns may as well have been the Brownshirts of yore. The ideology of these people is what led to the assassination Alan Berg in Denver and the bombing a federal building in Oklahoma City. These people, who have embraced the murderous – even genocidal – legacies of white supremacy, felt emboldened enough to crawl out of their basements and camps and spoil for a fight for all of us to see.

Inspired by “The Turner Diaries,” a novel about a white supremicist uprising against the federal government, Timothy McVeigh set off a bomb that killed 168 people, including 19 children in the Murrah Federal Building bombing in 1995. Here is an example of white supremacy’s more recent legacy in the U.S.

We can’t run from this. As tempting as it may be to wait it out, ignore it or minimize it, we just can’t. I know that the fringe that seems to be rising is a very small slice of our population, but it is a fringe that has found fertile ground in our land.

And that’s something we must challenge. Starting with ourselves.

Let’s not pretend we can be color-blind. That’s also a fantasy. And let’s be humble enough to accept that we don’t understand people who are different from us. We don’t know what it’s like to live someone else’s life. But you can seek some understanding. You can try to walk in another person’s shoes. You can seek honest discussions with folks who aren’t like you, and when you do, listen more and talk less. Hear their stories without caveat. Don’t accept some pundit’s agenda-driven characterization of folks that don’t fit into their “acceptable” realm. See for yourself, and follow that up with a healthy serving of “do unto others.”

From there, it’s important to be heard when you see wrong. People who remain quiet in the face of evil, even when they know it’s evil, are complicit. Folks on the receiving end of hate need to know we have their backs. Yeah, it’s going to be uncomfortable, testy and maybe heartbreaking. But standing on the sidelines gives us Jim Crow laws. Or worse.

I’m fighting the urge to turn inward, to insulate myself in some quiet pocket of solitude, surrounded only by the things that give me peace. A hard life in the wilderness might seem preferable – even more pure – than facing the mess that people make. But as tempting as it is to retreat into whatever isolated wilderness we’d choose, it’s not an option. There’s far too much to lose.

Bob Doucette