Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Near Vernon, New Jersey

Afternoon on a hot July day. The sun bakes the swamps of northern New Jersey. Humid air blankets the countryside. I’m in the cool basement of St. Thomas Episcopal Church. The basement is clean and comfortable, a haven for this hiker after last night’s storm. I want to stay. I do not want to hike another five and a half miles to the next shelter in this heat. I had a shower and am clean after five days on the trail. So are my clothes. I’m stuffed from a big meal of real food at a local restaurant. I want to savor these feelings and bask in the comfort of this sanctuary. The few times I ventured from the basement, it was way too hot. Now it’s 4:00 pm and still hot, hot, hot.

I’ve been hiking the Appalachian Trail for 15 weeks now. After more than 1,300 miles, I am in reasonably good shape but the summer heat and humidity is wearing me out. Even the morning was oppressive and offered no respite. Last night’s storm just added moisture to the air. It feels like a gazillion percent humidity. We–Red ,Gary and I left the Pochuck Mountain Shelter around 7:00 am and started to climb Pochuck Mountain immediately. We were sweating profusely in the early morning heat. The air was thick with humidity, simply walking required an extra effort. The morning did have some great moments, though. We crossed a large marsh on a well built, wide boardwalk. We even broke into a spontaneous rendition of the few lyrics of “Under the Boardwalk” that we could recall. Heading into town, we were in a good mood despite the heat.

We had to dodge the wasps as we crossed the Pochuck Creek suspension bridge. Below us, dark water flowed over a carpet of long, thick grasses undulating in the current. Back into the woods and across a few fields and we were on the road with our thumbs outstretched. A couple in a very nice Chrysler pick all three of us up. Their air conditioning was refreshingly cool but we opened the rear windows a bit to spare them our sweaty aroma. They dropped us off in the center of Vernon, NJ and pointed us to our destination just down a side street. The white walls of St. Thomas Episcopal Church were blinding the late morning sun but it’s cool basement hostel was a welcome relief.

So was the sight of many friends from the trail. Zeus, Kinky and Two Timer spent the night there–they passed us yesterday while we lounged in the Unionville, NY town park. Cheetah and Bugbite were also here last night. Our companions from last night’s shelter, Montreal and Kutsa arrive right after us. Radar, Bill and Ursula, Heidi and Flash, Pickle and Pinata show up later. The church offers hikers sleeping space on its basement floor. A sofa and easy chairs provide comfort during the day. The basement has a full kitchen and a dining area. There’s even a computer with internet access. I shower and do laundry. Red, Gary and I walk to the strip mall to eat and shop. We’re wasted by the mid-day sun and hunker down in the cool basement upon our return. We debate staying but know we need to make more miles today. It’s tempting, though. The prospect of staying clean and comfortable for another night is hard to resist.

Four-thirty. If we’re going to make those extra miles, we need to be out walking. We shoulder our packs and head for the main road. The sun blasts us from the west as we stick out our thumbs. Heidi, Flash and Radar cross the street on their way to eat. We envy them, they’re staying. A truck stops and we pile into the back for the short ride to the trail. Red and Gary make a pack adjustment a the trailhead while I head out on my own. It’s after five now, way late to be hiking. I motor on. The trail goes steeply up Wawayanda Mountain; it’s rocky and slow going. I’m soaked in sweat within minutes, the memory of clean is rapidly fading. Up top, the walking is easier and I move briskly. Still hot and humid but the sun is low and it’s starting to get dark. The trail follows an old road and I can really step out. I cross an iron truss bridge, a remnant from the days when this route was a thoroughfare. Up a small rise, the trail turns off the old road. I’ve rarely hiked this late. I’m moving fast. I don’t want to be looking for a shelter in the dark.

I round the corner, intent on making the shelter. And I come face to face with–a BEAR! Less than 10 meters ahead. I freeze. I carefully begin stepping back, uncertain whether I’m supposed to make eye contact or not but definitely trying not to panic and run. I slowly back around the bend and move down the hill a bit, wondering if Red Gary are nearby. Three of us should be sufficiently intimidating for one bear. I wait. No one comes. But now the bear has walked out to look at me. I stand my ground. The bear meanders around at the top of the hill but doesn’t come closer. It munches on some berries. I can hear it taunting me, “I’m here and you’re not. Nyahh, nyahh.” It finally heads back up the trail. I wait a long two minutes and gingerly walk back up the trail and peer around the bend. No bear. I walk a bit farther and see it lumbering ahead. It senses me, speeds up a bit and turns off the trail. I keep walking, much slower than I care to. The bear stands about 30 meters away as I pass.

Somehow, I manage to keep my eye on the bear and the trail simultaneously. Once it’s out of sight, I pick up my pace, considerably. I’m sure it’s following me. Lurid images of death by fang and claw overtaking me from behind race through my brain as I hurry through the increasingly dark forest. I look back. Nothing. I speed up anyway. The images continue to haunt me, my overactive imagination running on a huge dose of adrenaline. Where is that shelter? Will I ever see it in this gloom?

A small, almost imperceptible, sign points to the shelter. I pull in and meet a volunteer from the local trail club. He’s seen no bears today but says they are active in the area. Now, the only threat I face are the swarming mosquitoes. I eat quickly while mosquitoes feast on me. I kill a few but my efforts are meaningless against the relentless horde. Red and Gary arrive. They didn’t see the bear. I hastily set up my tent in the dark, unlimber my gear, stow my food in the shelter’s bear proof metal box and dive into the tent ahead my airborne assailants. Once inside, I can finally stop. Mosquitoes buzz outside. I enjoy their frustration as they hit my bug screen but I know that I will face them again tomorrow morning. This night will never cool off enough to stop them.

But that’s nine hours away. I can relax now. Late as it is, I manage to write a couple pages in my journal as I wind down from the evening’s excitement. Montreal and Kutsa arrive. They missed the tiny sign on the trail and had to backtrack. Everybody is in now. It’s been a good day despite the heat, bugs and bear. No telling what tomorrow will bring but, right now, I’m happy.

Patriot Thoughts

The Iraq war taxes my patriotism more than anything America has done since Vietnam. By taxing my patriotism I mean the conflict between what I believe and the my duty as a citizen of the United States. As an American, I want to see my nation prosper and do well. At a minimum, this is pure self interest. But it goes beyond my personal circumstances. The United States is, and has been throughout its history, a positive force in the world. Whatever lapses this nation has committed, our democratic ideals and beliefs have been a model and a beacon for human aspirations for over two centuries. Those ideals are America’s unique contribution to humanity. I want to see those traditions continue to inspire the world.

But how can I think well of my country when I watch our leaders rush into a destructive and unnecessary war. How do I support my country when it pursues harmful policies of reckless, unthinking intervention, when it casually dismisses the tradition of international cooperation that won the Cold War, when it is held hostage by an a single-minded ideology that reigns death and destruction on other nations in the name of national security?

Patriotic is not an adjective that I would use to describe myself. My patriotism was seriously wounded in Vietnam. I served in that war even though I believed I was serving a questionable cause. When I joined the Army I was a 22 year old political science graduate. I had studied the war, foreign policy and history. I knew the US was making a terrible mistake, that we had stumbled into a civil war on the wrong side. But I joined the Army anyway, hoping to better my chances rather than waiting to be drafted, knowing that I could not refuse induction or exile myself to Canada when the call came. My decision backfired on me when I landed in the infantry where I knew that I could be killed (bad enough) but even worse, I would also kill. I was too scared to say no.

My moral cowardice has haunted me ever since. Along with the shame and anger, I have resented my country for putting me in that position. What particularly bothers me is that patriotism is a concept that trumps all but the strongest beliefs. At least it did in my case. I couldn’t say no. Not in 1970. I’m not even sure I could do so now. And I don’t think that I am that different from most Americans. When our country calls, how can any of us say no. It’s not that easy.

Now the United States is engaged in a difficult, messy occupation in Iraq, an occupation that is based on a questionable concept: preventive war without a credible threat. But does it matter how we got into this mess? Shouldn’t I as a patriotic citizen support my nation in time of war? It’s the same dilemma that vexed me 34 years ago. The only difference is that my personal butt is not at risk. But plenty of Americans are risking their lives in Iraq. And I know exactly how they feel. So how can I not support them?

The best answer I can come up with is to support the troops but not the policy they serve. Americans serving in Iraq are acting in the finest traditions of this nation and they deserve all the credit and support we can give them for their service. But I cannot support the president and leaders who chose to invade and occupy Iraq. They lied to the American people and are grossly abusing this country’s patriotism. Their policies and actions in Iraq are, at best, reckless and cynical and, at worst, will leave this nation even more vulnerable to terrorist attack. The immediate victims of our leaders’ misguided policies are the dead and wounded in Iraq–American and Iraq–but all American suffer from this nation’s loss of credibility and goodwill in the world. Fighting terrorism will be much more difficult without cooperation and assistance from the very nations whose advice America rejected in its rush to war.

These are difficult times for a thinking patriot, especially one like me whose patriotism was long ago supplanted by anger and cynicism. This war has reminded me that patriotism is about the love of one’s country and does not automatically mean support for aberrant policies. For me patriotism means working to ensure that my nation lives up to its democratic ideals, recognizing the contributions of our service men and women even as I question my government’s actions.

So maybe my patriotism isn’t taxed all that much, after all. Until recently, I never thought much about it except to be angry about Vietnam. Now I can see that my patriotism wasn’t lost in Vietnam, only waiting for the right moment to re-emerge. That time is now.