Take a Hike

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Jun 222016

This weekend my sister texted me a picture of her wrist. It was broken, and pretty gross. Not “bones sticking out of the skin” gross, but still not something I’m going to post here on this family-friendly blog. She was doing a really long trail race in the wilderness, longer than a marathon, and fell. It was four miles to the next exit point, which probably sounds like a long way if you haven’t spent much  time in the wilderness. I do spend some time in the wilderness, and it didn’t sound crazy to me at all. When I took a stick to the eye during a wilderness hunt in Colorado, it took almost a whole day to get to the nearest urgent care. When my wife did a hike on the Appalachian Trail and had to end it early because temperatures had dropped to thirty six with winds of thirty miles per hour in May, it took her half a day to get off the mountain. If these numbers seem crazy to you, and dangerous, there’s a good reason why.

Me on top of Grandfather Mountain, NC. No, I didn't drive. We hiked up.

Me on top of Grandfather Mountain, NC. No, I didn’t drive, we hiked up.

I grew up in the era of nature as spectacle. We watched it on TV and marveled at the majesty of tall mountains and graceful animals. It was all so pretty, so wonderful, and it was all over TV. We glorified nature and made it into something magical, and people came to think of it like they think of Disney World: happy and pretty and fun. We were shocked when mountain climbers died, or people were killed by animals, because it didn’t fit with what we saw on TV or in zoos. It just didn’t make sense.  How could that happen?  But as I think about these wilderness incidents, and the death of that poor toddler in Florida, I’ve come to realize that we’ve forgotten something important. Here it is:

Nature may be pretty, but it’s also trying to kill you.

Perhaps this makes you never want to go out in nature again. Or perhaps you see me, and others like me who enjoy the wilderness, as daredevils who eschew caution and take needless chances. That is not me. I’m a chicken. I don’t take chances in the wilderness. I play it very, very safe. But I still go, and I will keep going until I can’t anymore, because there is a profound truth waiting in the power and ferocity of nature.

Out there, the world does not rest on my shoulders. Out there, it’s not all up to me. Out there, I’m small, a bug that is easily squished. So why go?

Because being small makes me free.

This is the complete opposite message of our culture, which tell us that if we can just get what we want, we’ll be happy. That contentment comes from exerting our will on others. Like the Disneying of nature, that is a lie. I do not feel free when I have control. All I feel when I’m in control is pressure. Instead, I find freedom in letting go of control,  and there’s no better way to do that than to get out there in the wilderness. That’s why I go: to be part of something bigger than myself, to remind myself how small I am, so that I can be free.

So the next time you feel pressure, like life is a bigger burden than you can carry, try the mountains. Literally take a hike. Get out there. Just be smart about it, because there’s no point in going if you don’t come back.


The Flint Water Crisis Shows That America Still Works

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Jan 312016
John and Jackie Pemberton and other protesters gather in the Michigan Capitol to call for Gov. Rick Snyder’s resignation on Jan. 14, 2016, in Lansing. Photo by Anna Maria Barry-Jester.

John and Jackie Pemberton and other protesters gather in the Michigan Capitol to call for Gov. Rick Snyder’s resignation on Jan. 14, 2016, in Lansing. Photo by Anna Maria Barry-Jester.

If you haven’t been following what’s been happening in Flint, Michigan, here’s a brief summary (the not-so-brief summary is here). On April 24, 2014, the city of Flint changed the source of its water to the polluted Flint River. It’s no surprise to this New Yorker that the pollution has caused numerous health problems, particularly in children. Many writers and news outlets are justly and appropriately evaluating what created this public health emergency. Solutions and consequences will  be discussed for decades. What I want to share is a bit different. I want to share is my observation about the response of those affected by this crisis, and what that response, and its result, says to me about America. Which is this:

America still works.

Let me explain.

There are two narratives about the poor in this country that are relevant to what happened in Flint. One is that those who collect welfare (usually blacks) are lazy, and another is that they are disenfranchised because money and race are what drives politics. Flint is a city that would seem primed for both of these characterizations. It is 57% black and has a median income of $24,000 per year. Forty percent of the population live below the poverty line, and are on welfare of some type.  If either of these narratives was true, the people of Flint would be stuck without hope of ever getting clean water.

Fortunately, they had LeeAnne Walters, a 37-year-old mother of four who became a self taught expert on water pollution science and led the charge to get accurate data. They had Jackie and John Pemberton, who went to City Council meetings and the state capitol at the head of a group of citizens determined to get this fixed. They came to their government armed with an important fundamental right: the right to petition their government for a redress of grievances.  That right is part of the First Amendment to the Constitution, but is often forgotten. Freedom of religion, speech, and the press are talked about far more. But all those, and the right to assemble, are crippled without the right to bring concerns to the government. This fundamental right was exercised by the people of Flint, people who nobody would expect to be able to win because they are either lazy or disenfranchised.

But the City of Flint has returned to using it’s previous water source. The concerns of these supposedly lazy, disenfranchised citizens were heard and heeded. In short, these people, who no one would have expected to win, won. In doing so, they showed us that America still works. The wealthy might control some aspects of politics, and race is definitely a factor, but if America still works for the people of Flint, then it works for all of us.