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.