Three years ago, I quit my job as a high school physics/botany teacher, and left my friends, my students, and my community in South Dakota to start pursuing my dream of hiking the International Appalachian Trail. As of last October, like tons of other distance hikers and otherwise restless folk, I’ve walked 3800 miles across the country. I carry everything I need on my back, hiking from Alabama’s 100°F summer ridgelines to Quebec’s -22°F winterbound slopes; and I stop when there’s dangerous weather, for interesting people/places, and to earn money for food.
Last October, I thought about the Canadian forests stretching in front of me, with sub-zero temperatures fast approaching. I was sad, alone, and tired. There was no money in my pack. So I dropped south to work in the US, and planned to get back on trails this April…
Welp. We all know how that’s turned out. Here we are, like wee torpid toadstools.
The Canada-US border is still closed.
Canadians are also taking COVID-19 far, far more seriously than us independent Americans.
If I were hiking through regions that don’t give a crap about safety measures and social distancing, so folks frequently encountered strangers, well…. I know a lot of distance hikers are itching to get back on trails, and I think that in certain areas of the US, especially those with high levels of contempt for mitigation, an extra hiker here or there would change very little. But hiking recreationally in remote areas of the US, Canada, and the Arctic that are distancing, with a high level of retirement-age folks, a limited (rural) medical infrastructure, and all of this while we have no vaccines or medicines or acquired immunity? *
*Also, while we are publishing bad science about it, which is quickly placed in the news and spread around, and then has to be retracted y’all.**
**we scientists must be better.
While I hike, I am unable to wash myself or my ever-moist bacteria spawning backpack, and then I walk all dirty and unwashed into small town communities, sit in their bars, and talk to people or buy groceries, because this is my agenda, while possibly carrying who-knows-what germs all where-and-what-have-you.
I’m doing this for fun. This hike is technically recreational.
Regardless of the fact that three years ago, I abandoned my friends and students and community and my entire previous life to pursue this one dream that I want very very so much and think will be so valuable…. If even one person is exposed in a town that I pass through because I was so fixated on my own recreational agenda that I decided it would potentially be worth risking their life for it… That is one person too many. And that is the choice I am making.
So here’s where we’re at.
The global community is trying to make vaccines. In our area (Connecticut, urban area near NYC) we’re over our first peak. The “isolation shelter” I was tapped to use my expired EMT certification in, for homeless clients who had contracted COVID-19 but who were mildly affected or asymptomatic, was closed down two weeks ago. It has been re-opened this week with lower staffing in a more permanent location, and we can expect a second wave (of disease, and thus probably shutdowns) this fall/winter.
*Also, my co-volunteers were much more medically qualified, but they take non-medical volunteers too. If you are bored or alone and sad, go sign up for your regional medical reserve corps. Nurses are insane, and very good for the rest of us.
Unemployment is currently at 13.3%, according to this report. We worry about the economy, about our food production, about church… and we yell at each other and hurt each other a lot, which is one way to describe an attitude towards violence that is so embedded in our society that we consider the vast extent of it… normal.
Regardless. On the trail, my first priorities are getting food, water, and shelter. All of these can be accomplished with money, but often exist even if money does not.
Typically, there is food around in the towns I walk through. I obtain it somehow, either by buying it using my moneys; being given a sandwich by kind strangers; trawling through the wasted, barely expired bananas and other unopened foods in the dumpsters behind Kroger; working in a restaurant and being fed; eating the fruits or foliage growing in the woods that I think are delicious; or calling my mother and telling her I am hungry.
Mostly the first, and I haven’t actually done that last one to great effect.
Ok. I have. But it’s typically while I’m on a mountain digging into the depths of my pack, looking for the cheese stick that I know I put on top, I DID PUT IT ON TOP, WHERE HAS IT GONE, MOTHER.
So, in the same vein… One of my primary concerns right now, being in a city, involves how we’re safeguarding our food production, and ensuring the well-being of our farmers and distributors. This applies whether we’re talking about the ranchers, the butchers and production plants processing our food products, or the truckers hauling food along the highways. If you’re looking to buy fresh food from small farms/businesses right now, a number of regional organizations have popped up in the past few months. (One such example is the Facebook group United States Meat and Produce Market, with regional suppliers from across the US mapped out on their independent website here: https://local-meat-and-produce-wycovid.hub.arcgis.com/.) Support your local suppliers, folks, and plant your garden. We should all be doing what we can to make sure that regardless of what happens financially, farmers can farm, butchers can butch, and truckers can truck.
Secondary concern is shelter. My sister and brother-in-law have really, really graciously and generously adapted to my unexpectedly long stay in their new house.
But we should all be concerned for the folks who have mortgages or rent to fall behind on, which easily is us. Does your city/town/region have guidelines in place so folks living in your area won’t lose the roofs over their heads?
Bear in mind that as we speak about losing homes, homeless services are dealing with their own set of challenges. Similarly to schools, prisons, public transit, and production plants, they involve a lot of people in close, enclosed proximity to one another. The city I’m in dealt with this first pandemic peak by housing our homeless population in their own hotel rooms, but this is another long-term challenge we’re struggling to address, which makes preventative planning, so that folks can keep a roof over their heads, even more important. Important for you, your friends, your family, your cow, and me, who may or may not be working in your area. I usually have very limited financial resources, so it’s in my best interests for our communities to take care of our poor… and homeless…
or I will be potentially sad because I have no place to shower, and no place to sit and peacefully read to my ragged self, because the YMCA, most gyms, the libraries, and other public areas are all closed due to diseases.
Thirdly, (well, ok… firstly….) my concern is water.
Speaking as a Texan, born and bred, good water is already a problem in more arid parts of the country. Many wise people are working on that, and also some financially motivated folks who are maybe less wise about the best interests of us all, and more intent on lining their pockets. This is a very real concern, and to those who are caretaking our waters, I would really welcome your commentary (or comments, below). In other water-related concerns, hurricane season has begun, and a good way to keep these times from spiraling even further into sadness is to ensure that a response is in place for things that we KNOW will be a concern. This hurricane season is supposed to be “busy.” We might get lucky- but we have the foreknowledge, the adaptability, and the resources not to depend on luck.
As a hiker, I have plans in place for if it floods. I also have plans for if I fall onto a frozen river and break my legs in -40°F weather, and am made stupid by hypothermia, while I’m alone in the backcountry three days from the nearest town in a gorge inaccessible by helicopter or snowmobile, and then all the snow starts melting because it was an Arctic front, and now here we are.
If the consequences are high enough, even if the possibility is small…. It helps me a lot on a personal level to plan for it. Putting real, concrete steps in place for what I do when the worst happens will often significantly decrease any anxiety I am struggling with, even if the discomfort remains.
So in the interests of anxiety, it helps if I ask myself, Hoi, self! Is anything bothering you right now?
…Should you address it?
Usually the answer is yes.
In my brain, I am planning for hurricanes, tornadoes, and the same ragged weather patterns we’ve been seeing for the past few seasons. If you’re in flood-prone or otherwise susceptible areas, make sure you or your regional legislature have COVID-adapted plans in place for whatever is needed. Be that involved citizen who bothers the city council if you can’t find a policy, and if your council is quality, then folks who know how to logistics can inform you of the key preparedness plans I am sure they already have in place for communications and relief work for hurricanes or other natural disasters.
Contact information to
harass call or write your state legislators, even if it’s simple questions about any of your concerns, can be obtained in about 7 seconds here: https://openstates.org/. With COVID, riots, and economic instability happening, we all know that a good bit of preparation can make things much, much less deadly (even though they’re often still very, very inconvenient).
I’ll take inconvenience over destruction of life, thank you.
I’ve been advocating a good bit for legislation, in this post.
The thing is, out there in the woods, the structures I depend on come largely from me. The preparations I have in place to obtain appropriate amounts of food, good shelter, and ensure my personal security- I am the one who makes sure my structures are adequate, and I am the one who is immediately affected if they fail. Didn’t keep all your smelly things in your bear bag? Uh oh. Now there’s a bear in your face. Personal security problems, amirite?
But now I am in a city, surrounded by loud and varied humans who all need different things, typing to you from my family’s brown cushioned rolling chair, while listening to morning birds chirp out the window. We have local and federal governments, legislation, pharmacies, hospitals, prisons and other public and private organizations, a financial system, and all of the trappings of civilization, which are structures we have built so that our community works together as a community.
Although our community changes naturally over time, as people grow and learn, the structures we have built will not change unless we have designed them to.
Sometimes, the more rigid ones become things that no longer work.
If a communal structure is inadequate (one we have agreed upon as a group of people who all live together as neighbors, unwilling and crabby, or not)… I am no longer the only one who is affected if it fails. Inadequate structures quite possibly even benefit me.
But if a huge proportion of my community is saying that a structure is inadequate, what I’m probably going to do is get off my comfy-ass chair, and figure out why. Why are these people so angry? Is it because they are idiots? Possibly. Is it because we prioritize different things, because we have different experiences based on our lifestyles, and as good neighbors maybe we all should be figuring out how to make our existing economic/social/governmental structures adapt without burning the other person to the ground, or letting structures exist that they say impact their right to life, their liberty, or their ability to pursue happiness?
THIS GOES FOR ALL OF US. All of us, you broccoli heads. Apply this to your dumb neighbors.
Piffle. I’ve walked across 3800 miles of country, and talked to a whole heckin’ bunch of people. And they all grumble about each other. And the conservatives question the character of anyone they think is a liberal, and the liberals talk about how they can’t stand the thoughtless conservatives, and then whomever it is notices I’m hungry and invites me in to dinner. “What, oo, no place to stay, dear gracious me, well, shower in the shower and you are sleeping inside on this fresh set of linens tonight.” People gift me with hospitality regardless of whatever political leanings they have.
…and as a brown bisexual tiny angry woman with the sides of my head all shaved who hails from Texas, claims to be a Christian, and has an appreciation for explodey things (which includes guns and cars and rocket ships), quite often I can easily represent a subset of whatever population people say they have the most problems with. Political leanings don’t determine whether or not you can think. I’ve met plenty of people on both sides who think deeply about the issues facing our community, and plenty who are just parroting what they’ve heard their friends or public figures say.
The difference, for the deeper thinkers, tends to be based in their life experiences. Which we all know, but I think sometimes I need reminding.
People in our country lead really, really different lives. Like… If you’ve ever gone somewhere and thought to yourself, “It’s like a completely different world, I can’t believe this exists in the same reality as where I came from.” Think of that time.
It’s that level of difference, and it can exist in the walk from one city block to the next. Except we’re all living in the same world, in the same society, abiding by the same written rules, though usually we’re abiding by different unwritten ones. It’s crazy. It’s sometimes quite interesting. It’s sometimes really destructive. And of course we then have really strong, often fundamental disagreements. One of the cool things about my hike is listening to all of the people’s stories, which are told from the worlds they grew up in, from an older guy telling me about his life’s love, to a hiker my age enthusing about how BJJ has changed her life.
Um. I guess what I’m saying, is I’m talking to you about legislation, and our community and our crabby neighbors, because I’m an American. Even though I frequently walk through the woods and mountains alone (largely) with nature, I will eventually come home, and teach and exist and grow old in this country and its laws.
And since a good number of the hippies, government employees, liberals, conservatives, respectable townspeople, and crazy men in the woods all do things like give me food, I will fight for all of my neighbors to have their rights, and listen to them when they say they are oppressed. Even if I don’t agree with their methods, or occasionally think other people are being stupid, there is always a truth inside (that I am still quite horrible at hearing when I am angry, and need to get better at listening to).
As a side note, most of the folks I’ve met also say that the government is not to be trusted, and I think that now is an excellent time during which we are having dialogue about why that is. Our presidential elections are also a symptom of our structural problems. Hopefully with enough discussion, care, adaptability, massive change, and understanding, we can work towards fixing them.
I want us to change for posterity, and our children, and our grandchildren’s children, all of whom may end up in the “wrong” places or do things we strongly disagree with. We change the structures we have built, so that regardless of the cards you draw when you are born in our society, we all keep the same structured rights to strive for happiness. That is the ideal we are all going for.
In other news, most of us… um… also like pie? Above (in the river) are some foliages I found last April. They are not dead, although they look dead. Soon all was green again.
Happy Birthday, if it is your birthday! Call your mother and/or a good friend. Give cookies to your angry neighbor. Ruminate on how we are all crabby, and all of our plans have exploded. Don’t get sick. Care for each other.
Keep standing up for what is right.
Thanks for this update! I enjoy hearing what you are up to, and am grateful that you put your many skills to work or help others during this pandemic. I’m not surprised! You’ll be back on the trail soon enough, sharing your vision of a better world with new friends and acquaintances. Keep in keepin’ on, as the old hippy says.
Well thought and well versed. Thanks for your insights!
Most interesting. Like scattering seeds, hoping some will stick, and take root.