Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Chapter Nine: "Chernobyl"

We left our plush resort and traveled northward from St. George.  The owner of the Green Valley Resort had single-handedly made the entire town seem like a gracious, generous community.  They should have made him mayor.  It was a workday for me, so I stayed in camp to help a girl named Ruby with her studies.  Ruby was twelve years old.  She had come halfway around the world with her father to walk on the Great Peace March.  She was talkative and easy-going and excited to be walking across the United States instead of going to school back home in Australia.  We had just started on a journal entry when the Campscape crew came to take down the town hall tent, so Ruby and I packed up and walked around for a while, scouting another place to sit and write.  Eventually, we joined another child, Lark, and two adult marchers.  The five of us drove to a museum in nearby Santa Clara.  It was the frontier home of Jacob Hamblin, a Mormon pioneer.  Our tour guide, a Mormon elder, led us through the old house still furnished with its original, rough-hewn wooden furniture.  Ruby and Lark were fascinated with this little slice of history, particularly the practice of polygamy among early Mormons.  All told, Hamblin and his two wives had eleven children.  The sons and daughters slept in two separate bedrooms.  Each wife had her own room, and on the second storey a large meeting room provided space where the whole family could gather, primarily for religious study and prayer.  Ruby and Lark learned about the challenges of a frontier lifestyle, many of which paralleled our own living conditions: the lack of running water; the communal quarters; the need for everyone to chip in when there was work to be done.  On the drive back to camp, we talked about the Mormons and their founder, Joseph Smith, whose famous cry, “This is the place!” identified the spot that would eventually grow into Salt Lake City.  We talked about the legend of the flock of seagulls that appeared thousands of miles from the sea and devoured the insects that threatened the Mormons’ first crop in their new colony.  With all the ups and downs on the peace march so far, it was easy to believe that the Mormons, too, had experienced a few miracles along their journey. 
Upon entering Utah, we discovered that the Great Peace March had a major problem.  The Utah state police informed us that our designated route across southern Utah was under heavy construction; therefore they could not authorize us to walk it.  Our only alternative, they said, was to travel by bus up to Salt Lake City and from there, pick up the eastward blue highway into Colorado.  The news set the peace march abuzz.  I didn’t know anything about the negotiations between the Utah state police and our advance team, but the simple fact was that our breakdown in Barstow had put us more than two weeks behind schedule, so we needed to make up for lost time.  We had no choice but to accept the change in plans.
It was April 24th, Passover.  After sundown, some of the Jewish marchers led a traditional Seder—the only Seder I had ever observed—in the open desert.  We were all invited, and those of us who joined stood in a large circle as the Jewish marchers explained the ritual and told the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt.  Some of the meaning was lost on me because in the large group it was difficult to hear every detail, but it was interesting to be part of a ceremony that so closely resembled the original event in the desert thousands of years earlier.

The Beautiful Utah Desert
Afterward, Evan and I hiked to the top of a ridge while a big, orange full moon rose in the east: two moons since White Oak.  We sat on the flat rocks that perched high above a reservoir.  Bats fluttered about.  As usual, we talked about many things, including whether to take a bus to Salt Lake or perhaps join a small group of marchers who were hoping to get permission to walk across southern Utah.  I thought it was great that a group of walkers wanted to gut it out overland across rough terrain, but I didn’t want to remove myself from the support systems provided by the main camp.  Evan agreed.  We were accustomed to the five-star version of the peace march.  We had even invented an imaginary butler, Charles, who was never on hand when we wanted something.  When I’d say, “I’d love a gin and tonic right now.  Where is Charles?” Evan would say, “Charles?  He’s run off with one of the native girls.”  I didn't think Charles would find much attraction with the native Mormon girls, but then again, he was a charmer, so who could tell?  All we knew was that the gin and tonic would have to wait.  "I don't see why we keep him on," I'd feign complaining.  "He's part of the family," Evan would calmly reply.  And with that, the discussion was closed.  On the walk back to camp, we ran into Joel and Betsy who invited us for tea and cake before bed…just the kind of support system we had in mind.
I loved crawling into my dome tent at night.  The floor was grey and smooth, hexagonal in shape.  The sides and top were made of nylon fabric that looked like pink graph paper.  On the back wall was a flap that rolled down to reveal a screened window, and the top of the tent had two triangular flaps to allow airflow and a sky vista.  Two handy features were the pouch pockets where I put my sunglasses, watch and I.D. necklace each night.  In my sleeping bag, on my sleeping pad, I felt completely at home.  Best of all, in the morning, after I’d removed all my gear, I’d pick up my still-erect tent, hold it by the ribs, and shake out the dust and dirt.  “Cleaning house” took all of fifteen seconds.  I also loved that my home could be flattened, folded and rolled into a nylon loaf about two feet long and seven inches in diameter.  I could slip my house into a tent bag and sling it over my shoulder for easy travel—anywhere. 

Walking on the Open Road in Utah
Walking on the open road in Utah made me happy to be alive.  This was a nomad’s sense of place.  The sun shone in a clear sky, and the temperatures stayed within a comfortable range.  I usually started the day in layers, but by mid-morning, I had removed my jacket and sweater and tied them around my waist.  I was now accustomed to distances of sixteen or eighteen miles in a day.  It was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other over several hours until the miles were behind instead of in front of me.  There was so much to see.  Utah looked like an uninhabited planet on an episode of Star Trek.  The landscape was vast and barren and dry and utterly alien.  Randomly scattered boulders interrupted the powdery hills, and low, gnarly shrubs posed as flora.  High rock walls, yellow and tan in color, swept up to broad mesas that cut a flat line across the sky. The scenery reminded me of a monthly magazine that my father used to bring home for me when I was a little girl.  “Arizona Highways,” was filled with pictures of roadrunners and lizards and armadillos and desert flowers.  Utah had the same dry riverbeds and cacti—and authentic western ranches.  Horses would notice the long, slow-moving line of peace marchers and start galloping around in a herd.  The thought occurred to me that maybe they thought we were a herd of horses, too.

Journal Entry—April 25, 1986
            Tim is here this morning and takes Sheila, Evan and me to beautiful Zion National Park for a hike.  First we stop at Grandma’s Café in Hurricane, Utah for breakfast.  We drive through pale grey and orange mountains, and the town of Rockville, to get to Zion.  We drive through a long tunnel with picture “windows” that give a moment’s spectacular view of the gorge we’re passing through.  We park and climb across sandstone mountains with their smooth, graceful formations.  Tim says the sandstone is locally called “slick rock.”  I find wildflowers in bloom and put a few in my cap.  It’s great to be in these mountains.  I’ll never forget this life.  On the drive back to camp, we play the Knitters on the tape deck.  We drop Sheila off at camp and head for Cedar City to do laundry with Evan at the wheel and Tim relaxing on the new bed he’s built in the back of the van as I write this. 

We heard the tragic news that one of the peace marchers, a young woman from California, had been killed in a car accident.  People said that she had left the march to hitchhike and sightsee in the area, and the truck in which she was traveling overturned.  I didn't know her personally, but the news hit everyone hard.  We knew there were aspects of the march, like walking along the road, climbing in and out of trucks, and living in direct contact with the environment, that were potentially dangerous, but we all quietly hoped to outsmart the odds by taking precautions.  To lose a marcher to a car accident was sobering and made me think that, really, she could have been any of us.  We were coming and going all the time, taking rides from people we really didn’t know, borrowing each other’s vehicles, and driving on unfamiliar roads.  Some marchers were careful to point out that the accident did not take place on the march itself, a distinction that didn’t make her loss any less painful to the community, especially to those who were closest to her, but seemed necessary to reassure ourselves that the march was still a relatively safe place.   
Born Again Hippie took it upon himself to petition the Utah state police for permission for a small group of marchers to walk across the state.  In doing so, he gained collective approval from the march to be the person who would walk every step of the way across America.  This mandate became Born Again’s job.  He and the others knew they would have to rough it all the way across southern Utah and up into Colorado, but they prepared and departed as the “Spirit Walk,” so called because we would stay with them, and they with us, in spirit until we met up again in Colorado.  Reluctantly, the rest of the marchers boarded buses and rode into Salt Lake City to make the best of an unexpected and unwanted stopover.  On the bright side, Salt Lake was Evan’s hometown. 
Despite its reputation as a conservative Mormon town, a few hundred supporters from the Salt Lake alternative underground community came out to walk with us to a rally in front of the State Capitol.  We walked up the hill from downtown through a well-appointed neighborhood of craftsman style bungalows.  The air was cool but the sun shone warm enough for short sleeves.  From the capitol steps we had a sweeping view of the city and the far-off range of snowcapped mountains against a perfectly blue sky.  Small as it was, ours was the largest peace rally Salt Lake had ever seen.  I wondered whether a small number of people at our public gatherings might not actually be an advantage in that it gave everyone—locals and marchers—a chance to meet and talk about the nuclear arms race and other issues.

The Largest Peace Rally Salt Lake City Had Ever Seen
Peace marchers from Japan, the United States, Australia, Germany, Canada, England, Mexico, New Zealand, France and the Netherlands—stood in a row behind the speaker’s podium, proudly presenting their national flags.  There were ten in all, fluttering in the breeze, but to me it seemed as though every nation in the world was flying its colors as we asserted our global allegiance.
I came down with an upper respiratory infection during our stay in Salt Lake.  With me, getting sick was always the same story: sore throat, cough and a head cold, but this was an especially virulent viral strain.  The peace march had been beset with what we called “camp cough” back in Barstow, and it had spread slowly in the weeks since.  From the constant coughing in camp, it was a sure bet that everyone would get it sooner or later.  Camp cough made us aware that a widespread infectious disease could easily bring the peace march to a halt.  As a precaution, we became devout hand washers.  Two marchers built a wash-up trailer that gave us ready access to soap and water at the rest stops along the march each day and in camp in the evening—so we could wash our hands after using the porta-potties and before meals.  Still, we were living in nature with the bacteria and viruses, and they found ways to hitch a ride with us. 
Tim invited several of us to stay at his home in Salt Lake, so I hunkered down and suffered through three days of heavily congested lungs, a watery cough, and a sore throat.  I worried about keeping everyone else in the house awake at night, so I slept downstairs in the living room and outside on the front porch.  When the cough got bad, usually in the morning, I walked around the neighborhood until it calmed down.  The cool air seemed to help.  I felt stuffy and disgusting and miserable, and I hated imposing on Tim and the others while I was sick and probably contagious.  I trundled down to the local health food store to get some honey cough drops and vitamin C, but they did little to quiet the camp cough. There was nothing to do but wait for the virus to run its course.
While we were at Tim’s house we heard of a serious accident at a nuclear reactor in a place called “Chernobyl” in the Soviet Union.  We stood around the TV in his kitchen and tried to make sense of the bad news.  The details were sketchy, primarily because the Soviet Union refused to divulge information.  We gathered that there had been a fire and a meltdown and that high levels of radiation had been released into the surrounding region and then carried on the prevailing winds.  How much radiation the reactor had released, how far it spread, and how much harm it could do to people, animals and crops, was uncertain.  We recalled the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, though from what we could tell, the event in the Soviet Union sounded much worse.  With Chernobyl, concerns about nuclear power joined nuclear war and nuclear testing in my nuclear awareness. 
During our stay in Salt Lake, I managed to type out a newsletter to update my sponsors.  A mere six weeks after Barstow, I was still inclined to put a positive spin on life in camp, particularly on the challenges of teaching school on the march.  As it turned out, the letter went beyond Cassie’s mailing list with an unexpected benefit. 

                                                                                             el cinco de mayo 1986
Dear Folks: California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah.  The great Peace March lives and will enter its fifth state at the end of this week.  We unintentionally won independence from Pro Peace in Barstow, Ca. when D. Mixner announced the bankruptcy of the organization, and we have now reorganized and regrouped under the name The Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament.  Our morale is high, our goals and efforts to achieve them are increasingly well-defined, and we maintain faith in the importance of our cross-country trek.
The last leg of the trip brought us through southern Utah, and area where residents received high levels of radiation during the above-ground testing at the Nevada Test Site during the 1950’s.  Over the past thirty years, many families have experienced an unusually high number of cancer-related deaths, (especially leukemia), which are thought to have been caused by exposure to radiation from the testing.  One woman in Las Vegas told me that as a girl, she and the other children were taken out to the schoolyard to watch the mushroom clouds rise from the test site.  The Downwinders, named for their location downwind from the test site, have formed support groups to gain some legal clout and to insist that the government make reparations for the illness caused by the testing.  Since testing moved underground, the contamination of air, soil and water has stopped, we are told, but one finds it hard to believe that a nuclear explosion inside the earth creates no radiation seepage into the surrounding area. 
As a group, the Great Peace March feels that a ban on testing is the critical first step toward disarmament, so many of us went to the test site to demonstrate against further testing.  We set a new record for the largest number of demonstrators on the site in its history.  Several marchers, in an act of civil disobedience not sanctioned by the march but supported by many marchers, crossed “the white line” onto the test site property and allowed themselves to be arrested.  They rejoined us at the end of their 6-day sentences.
Our daily routine has stabilized, and our obligations fall into two general categories: “walk” and “work.”  Walking, of course, means taking on the 15-20 mile daily march.  In Utah, the scenery is gorgeous—mountains green with sage, towns surrounded by horse farms, big blue skies overhead, winding country roads—so the march is quite pleasant.
For most, working means at least one day per week on kitchen duty, preparation and restoration of campsites, transportation of support vehicles, or loading and unloading equipment.  For me, work means meeting with the half-dozen children, ages 11 and 12, to help them with their studies.  They have established a study circle of their own accord, inspired perhaps by the realization that to fall behind on their schoolwork on the march might mean repeating a grade upon returning to school.  They work with materials brought from their home schools; I help with new lessons and concepts, correct completed work, give an occasional review or quiz (again, at student request!), and arrange for an occasional field trip.  It’s quite a challenge for all of us to acclimate to this very unstructured environment, and I find it interesting that the school structure, which the children have chosen for themselves, is so similar to that of our traditional schools.  Perhaps it will evolve into something more daring as the weeks continue, but for now I’m proud of them for the ingenuity and motivation.
Our community has begun to come together in a pattern that reminds me of the circles made by raindrops on a pond.  The smaller circles of friends form and then intersect with other circles.  We are drawn together by conversation on the march, shared work responsibilities, the locality of our tent neighborhoods, interest in music or politics or children.  In short, all of those things that attract and bind friends.  It is the night-and-day nature of our co-existence on the march that allows lifetime friendships to form in a matter of a few weeks.  We have problems and disagreements, of course, but the underlying goals of nuclear disarmament and proceeding to Washington keep all else in perspective.
Musical ideas and lyrics arrive in my head very freely in this environment, usually in the early morning, so I frequently spend the first hour or so on the walk organizing some new melody or lyrical structures.  Fellow marchers tell wonderful stories that lend themselves to song, and our life in the outdoors provides moods for music such as the wake-up song, in Calypso rhythm, which came to me one morning as a single brush stroke, and which a group of us performed at 5:00 am to awaken the camp.  Both performance and piece received favorable reviews.
The reaction of local residents in the towns we’ve passed through has been varied.  We’ve been warmly embraced, showered, fed and thanked; we’ve been quizzed and questioned, but I think that once we’ve spent some time with the residents and shared concerns and conversations about the nuclear issue, they have found us less threatening than expected.  We have been largely successful in getting people to think about the nuclear issue, and whether they be for or against nuclear disarmament, most people express respect for our determination and commitment. 
So, the Great Peace March continues a few weeks behind schedule and far less grandiose than originally planned, but I wish each of you could spend a few days with us to see the group of dedicated people you helped bring together.  I am infinitely grateful to all of you for your support and your contributions that brought me here.
Please spread the word that we are still on the road and on the way to D.C.!
Love, Laura

Through the grapevine, a copy of my newsletter reached a family friend on Capitol Hill who worked in the office of Congressman Edmund Markey from Massachusetts.  Markey was working hard to pass nuclear test ban legislation, and a few weeks later, on June 18th, he submitted my newsletter to the Congressional Record as evidence of popular support for the ban.  Congressman Markey’s introduction went as follows:

“Mr. Speaker, I would like to call to the attention of my colleagues the drive and dedication of a small group of people who are walking across America in the name of peace. 
This group has received little press coverage over the past few months.  It has had to surmount formidable financial setbacks in the early stages of its journey.  Its members have given up their homes, their jobs—their normal lives—to march through America’s cities and towns as a voice for nuclear disarmament. 
Despite these hardships, the Great Peace March is alive and well.  It stands as a symbol that the quest for world peace must begin at home in America.  And it must begin now, with a comprehensive test ban as the first important step.  Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “I like to believe that people in the long run are going to do more to promote peace than are governments.  Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of their way and let them have it.”  Today is that day.
The destination of the Great Peace March is Washington, D.C.  Let us help them and many others realize their goal by enacting binding comprehensive test ban legislation before they arrive in the Nation’s Capital. 
I would like to bring to the attention of my colleagues a letter that I received from Laura Monagan, one of the several hundred Great Peace Marchers who have forged ahead despite the collapse of any formal support.  They are proceeding hand-to-mouth, buoyed by their conviction that only by sowing personal witness in opposition to the nuclear arms race will that race ever end.”

I was thrilled.  Markey had referenced my letter in support of nuclear test ban legislation.  Knowing the way Congress works, there probably weren’t more than a half dozen members in the chamber when he spoke, but he had submitted my letter for publication in the Congressional Record, and that made it part of the debate.  To me as a citizen and as a peace marcher, this was an empowering moment.  I believed in our representative democracy and the authority of the people to direct our leaders.  I felt proud that our message was in the hands of the legislators, but I realized at the same time that maybe this wasn’t a pipe dream after all.  Maybe we would get what we wanted.  I asked myself if I really wanted to take responsibility, even in small measure, for ending the Cold War.  I wondered about the unseen implications.  It was sobering to consider that by doing something good, I might be creating negative repercussions that could be devastating.  Then I thought about the kids who were afraid they weren’t going to grow to adulthood for fear of these hideous weapons.  I thought about Jack Geiger’s typical American city, and I thought about the woman in the black Jaguar.  The balance was still tilted in favor of the peace march and nuclear disarmament.  I added Congressman Markey to my list of honorary peace marchers.  I didn’t know whether the legislation would pass, but I felt my citizen power rising.

Portrait: Peace Marchers
I had purchased my peace march journal in a Santa Monica bookstore that sold religious and New Age literature.  At the top of each page, the journal gave a quotation by Yogi Amrit Desai for reflection and meditation.  I used the journal primarily for writing, but I also tucked into it some photos of my family and a few close friends, Andy’s rose, a couple of post cards, and some wild flowers I had collected along the way.  Every once in a while, the quotation and the day’s events came together in a way that could only be described as magical.  Not the rabbit-out-of-the-hat kind of magic, but the quiet, right-place-at-the-right-time kind that lets you see that everything really is connected.  The meditation for May 6, 1986 read, “Love is a gentle breeze you can hardly feel.  It’s not the thrills or flood of emotion.  You have to be sensitive to it and acknowledge it to receive it.” 

Journal Entry—May 6, 1986
Perfect quotation for the night we have dinner with Evan’s mom, Lotty, at her house in Salt Lake City.  She greets us with hugs and warm hospitality.  We get a fire going and sit on the floor eating nachos and talking about the march, Evan’s childhood, and the south.  Lotty speaks with a gentle southern accent, and her stories are flavored with subtle, wry wit.  We invite Joe, a neighbor, to join us for a dinner of chicken and dumplings and more conversation and laughter.  I see now why Evan has such a loving approach to the world in general.  Moms who love their children have children who love the world. 

The march left Salt Lake City on May 8th, headed eastward toward the Colorado border.  I thought it best to stay behind until my lungs cleared completely, and Tim kindly extended his hospitality.  One of the marchers who stayed at Tim’s house was Willa, a conga player and massage therapist from New Jersey.  Willa was witty and wry with a self-deprecating sense of humor.  I liked her from the moment we met.  She had waist-length, salt and pepper hair, usually pulled back in a long braid, often topped with a colorful, knitted beret that gave her a neat, happy hippie look.  I didn’t know Willa well until Salt Lake, when she took pity on me and gave me a foot massage and a light-hearted pep talk about the cards that were stacked against us for staying well on the peace march.  We had to shoo away the bad energy, she said, kneading mercilessly at the soles of my feet, and bring positive, healing energy to our weary bodies.  I told her I probably could have used an antibiotic, too, but she reminded me that antibiotics don’t do much for a viral infection, so the foot massage would have to do.  And it did.  In the morning I felt much better.  I awoke and sat looking over the back of the couch out the living room window at the huge snowflakes floating down with the rain.  It was a beautiful sight, but I worried about heading up into the mountains in wintery weather.  The last thing I needed was a relapse.  Nevertheless, I spent the morning preparing to leave: doing laundry, gathering up cassette tapes, collecting articles of clothing left behind by the others, and packing my crates and daypack.  I felt energetic and ready to meet the march in Grand Junction, Colorado.  Before I left, I composed a third stanza for “Three Blind Mice.”  My song was slowly taking form.

“Friends, a circle of them, light up this road, walk two by two,
Wrap an arm around and talk like a toad, I will, will you?”
I have waited for a pull on the strings;
 We all have wings.  We all have wings.