The Great Pall

Three thousand six hundred and five is the number of miles I have traveled to arrive in Dillion, Montana.

It has happened quite a number times all along the way on this trip but it is occurring more often now that I am riding over high mountain passes with views of snow-laced peaks made of rock a couple of billion years old. It is the tears of joy one sheds when they realize what a gift it is just to be alive. I have had quite a few “What does it mean?” moments, completely without the aid of alcohol or drugs.

A view of a meadow with the Grand Tetons in the background.
Approaching the Grand Tetons from the east.

A few nights ago a fellow cyclist and I were camping illegally on private property next to Hebgen Lake just a little north of West Yellowstone (aka Gougeville). All of the public and private campgrounds were full and the motels were priced way beyond our budgets. It was a quiet and scenic spot. The property manager who arrived just after we set up our tents was kind enough not to throw us out after he heard the stories of our respective cross-country adventures and the plea that we didn’t really have any other options.

A view out a one-person backpacking tent. A wire fence and sage brush can be seen pass a gravel drive. The moon is in the sky.
A view out my tent around sunset at an illegal campsite.

In order to beat the wind, which can really make for a long hard day, I woke to my alarm the next day at 4:15 AM. I became immediately a little bit miffed because I could not find my headlamp or my glasses. When sleeping in a tiny one-person backpacking tent, most of the time what you are looking for is somewhere under your carcass. That is where I found my glasses. Lucky for me, they weren’t broken. Putting them on, I stepped out of the tent to see the almost full gibbous moon setting with its pinkish light reflecting off the lake. My aggravation evaporated. I had to be thankful to have been given another day in this world.

Having no picnic table on which to make breakfast, I sat at the entrance of my tent and heated water on my little stove for coffee and some instant oatmeal. Looking to my left, sitting on a wire fence, was a small bird. I am not sure what species. In that light, most songbirds are little brown jobs anyway and this one wasn’t singing. But, something about it being there so close in that dim morning light brought on a tear. It has been such a privilege to be able to take this trip.

So, I don’t want to sound ungracious or unthankful when I say that I have also felt a great sense of anxiety as I have crossed the United States. I am not sure how anyone can do anything anymore without such feelings if they are following what is happening.

A beaver pond with a mountain, trees and sky reflecting on it.
A beaver pond a few miles west of Hebgen Lake

I have been following the news. Trump and his immigration policies—not just the separation of little kids from their parents—but the treatment and attitude toward immigrants generally, is cruel and despicable. Many thanks to everyone who is standing up to ICE, often committing various acts of civil disobedience in the process. Many, like the 600 or so women who staged a protest at the Senate Office Building, are getting arrested.

By the way, the primary mission of the organizations for which I have tried to raise funds on this trip, the Poor People’s Campaign and Civil Liberties Defense Center, is to provide legal support for people who are arrested in just these kinds of actions. Please consider clicking one of the donate buttons on this page.

It is encouraging to see people standing up to Trumpism. For me, the uplift is canceled when I see so much support for it in the rural towns through which I have traveled. As I mentioned in my last post, there is a lot of gratuitous flag waving out here. It seems to be almost obligatory for the people that live here.

Many towns have large veterans memorials. Now I don’t mean to be disrespectful of anyone who is a veteran, most of whom join the military in the spirit of giving to something larger than themselves. That is a spirit seemingly lacking in the population at-large, who want the freedom to shop and drive wherever they want in over-sized vehicles, consuming resources as they wish, but unwilling to accept any kind of responsibility for the consequences or the costs. One of the costs is a large military budget to keep the oil flowing need by the industrial economies. The percentage of the population that bears that cost potentially with their own bodies is 0.4 percent of the population.

Of course, I don’t mean that having a large military force to secure resources is a good thing. What I am saying is that it seems hypocritical for so many people to enjoy the benefits of it without anteing up themselves.

To me what is disquieting about the recently more conspicuous honoring of veterans is that, like the Support Our Troops trope, it has become a vehicle for garnering unquestioning support for militarism. If you question the never-ending wars, the ever-growing defense budget, or Trump, then you are dishonoring Our Veterans.

If the United States is the land of freedom and justice for all, the things for which veterans have supposedly fought and sacrificed, does one not dishonor them when they fail to stand up when many of our own citizens did not enjoy liberty and justice? And when people come to this country seeking that same liberty and justice—many times because they cannot find it in their own countries as a result of US policies—and we put them and their families in detention indefinitely, does that honor veterans?

A crowd of people sitting along the deck that circle Old Faithful.
A crowd of people waiting for Old Faithful to blow. Yellowstone was too crowded to be enjoyable. Riding my bike on the narrow shoulders with monster RVs blowing past was harrowing. I couldn’t wait to get out.

During the last week, I passed through the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks. I had a chance to travel through this region almost thirty years ago. Comparing what it was like then with now is depressing.

One of the things that you will notice if pass through many parts of the Rockies these days is lots of dead trees. Large stands of lodgepole pines have been devastated by the pine beetle in Colorado and Wyoming. It is hard not to notice. This phenomenon can be linked to climate change. Since winters do not get as cold as they once did, the bugs survive through the winter leading to infestation and death for the trees affected.

That humans–mostly humans living in developed countries–have caused such great damage to these places that are beautiful to the point of being sacred is not only depressing but enraging. That would be bad enough, but the apparent lack of significant action on the part of most our society makes it truly maddening.

Dead lodgepole pines on a mountain near Togwotee Pass in Wyoming.
Dead lodgepole pines on a mountain near Togwotee Pass in Wyoming.

What I have observed over the years and on this trip is that our culture is, for the most part, going in the exact opposite direction of where it should be headed. Over the last few decades, we have known that individual consumption of resources should be reduced. But, in the US, though there are some areas of improvement, like a shift from eating beef and pork (more resource intensive) to poultry, we have increased our consumption.

A really big RV with a Jeep.
I must be nice. These folks are my neighbors. But, in the context of our current situation, this is just stupid.

A good example of this trend can be observed in the private campgrounds where I have stayed. When I was growing up, such campgrounds would be filled with tent campers. There would be a few RVs and trailers. When I stay at these now, sometimes I am the only tent camper. There are my little tent and my bike, and tens, sometimes hundreds, of RV and trailers.

Another example is increased nationalism. For global civilization to have any possibility of restoring atmospheric chemistry to something close to its pre-industrial state will require unprecedented levels of international cooperation. We should be thinking more globally and opening up to the world community. But what do we see in the US? Increased nationalism, militarism, and an administration aching to start a war in order to consolidate power and establish an authoritarian regime.

I ride on this adventure with the joy of being alive, knowing the privilege and gift that it is. But this great pall hangs over it all.

A view of a valley with trees in the foreground.
A view of the Madison River Valley west of Ennis, MT