Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Chapter Six: "You're Just Like Me!"

       The few days away had seemed like forever.  I landed in Las Vegas hoping to find an immediate ride back to Barstow.  Fergus very kindly picked me up at the airport and filled me in on the latest news.  The march was still in Barstow and still on the verge of departure across the Mojave.  Abby and the other marchers at his house continued to prepare for the march to arrive in Las Vegas, and Fergus said I was welcome to stay there if I wished.  I was grateful for the offer but told him I wanted more than anything to get back to Barstow to see camp for myself. 
A couple of marchers whom I had never met were heading back from Las Vegas and offered to give me a ride.  Bill Reynolds was a tall, lanky, dark Irish type, with thick, black hair and smiling, brown eyes.  He wore a large fanny pack slung low on his waist.  I carried my things to his van, a light green passenger van from which the back seats had been removed, and met Bill’s friend, Craig, from New York.  Bill wasn’t feeling well, so he lay on a makeshift bed on the floor while Craig drove.  I sat on an overturned crate in the back and asked if it would be okay if I played my guitar.  They said sure, so I played and sang as we traveled across the desert.  It wasn’t too long a trip, about 150 miles, but I needed to prepare myself for returning to the march, and the musical interlude gave me a chance to clear my mind for whatever was coming next. Neither Bill nor Craig let on that they were musicians, too. 
            Upon arrival in Barstow, I could see that the march was still in a state of ragged transition.  To the naked eye it looked like maybe two or three hundred marchers were still encamped at the BMX site.  Everything was as it had been when I left, but there were fewer vehicles, fewer tents and fewer people milling around.  The camp had a look of having submerged into the landscape, as though it had been there for a while and the dust had settled.  I bumped into Peggy Nelson.  She said she was leaving the march.  My heart sank.  This meant there would be no one to organize the peace march school unless I did it myself.  With all that had happened, I had had little time to learn the nuts and bolts of home schooling, and now the expert was leaving.  Prior to the march, I had taught toddlers, young adolescents, and kids with special needs; I had been a camp counselor, a babysitter, and a summer school teacher.  Up to this point, I felt confident about my teaching job on the Great Peace March, but now the work I had so looked forward to was turning into something to dread.  For starters, everything was in such a jumble that it was impossible to know which families were still with us, which families had departed and would not return, and which might leave—or return—in the days to come.  Given the state of affairs, it was not a job I relished, but I accepted that the lot had fallen to me.
            It was early afternoon, and I stepped into the food preparation tent to see if I could find something to eat.  The air inside the dome was heavy and warm and still.  A couple of folding tables had been set up on the uneven ground, but supplies had dwindled to a few boxes of non-perishables.  At one table, the flies had found our food—a large container of lumpy, mashed lentils and several plastic bags of day-old hamburger buns.  I thought of the descriptions I’d read of German rations toward the end of The Great War—turnip bread with turnip spread.  My students back at Maret had made a project out of the War, and one boy had baked turnip bread from his grandmother’s recipe so we could all taste what the Germans had lived on for weeks and months.  It wasn’t bad, but no one would want to eat just that.  I sighed and stepped out of the tent hoping other marchers had the resources to do what I did—set out for a local restaurant.

Post Card in My Journal: "La Espina" by Raul Aguiano Valadez
            I found Evan.  I was so thankful that he was still in camp.  Having Evan in camp was like having my own brother in camp, thought he was unlike either of my brothers.  We talked about anything and everything and, most importantly, we continued talking while the peace march collapsed around us.  Most of the time we talked about anything but the peace march, and more than anything else, talking with Evan was the something to do that had kept me in camp one more hour or afternoon or day while others departed.
Evan and Tim and I drove to a nearby chili diner.  It struck me as a funny coincidence that Tim’s van, “Sage,” as he called her, was a twin to Bill’s van that had transported me from Las Vegas; they were different makes but shared the same sage green color.   We sat at a table and ate our meals.  There wasn’t much more Evan and Tim could say about the march beyond what one could observe.  Everything was still up in the air.  As we sat talking, a local Barstow man approached our table and politely interrupted.  He said he’d driven by the peace camp and seen a lot of scraggly looking people and hadn’t known quite what to think.  “But seeing you,” he said, looking us over, “well, you’re just like me!”
We all laughed because we knew exactly what he meant—we were all just regular people.  We talked with him for a few minutes, hoping to extend what must have by now seemed like a long welcome on the part of the Barstow residents.

Portrait: Peace Marcher
When I returned to camp I couldn’t find my backpack.  I reported it to our security detail and wrote up a report for whatever good it might do.  With so many people coming and going, it was stupid of me to have left anything of value in camp.  Later in the afternoon I found it with everything in it except my wallet, so my driver’s license, travelers’ checks and credit card were all gone.  At a time when marchers were turning to personal resources just to stay in Barstow, mine had just vanished.  I was furious at myself for being so foolish.  I was obviously not inclined to ask my family or friends for any more money, so now I was truly at the mercy of the march.
            The Barstow days were low, yet it was the time when most was happening.  Like a caterpillar wrapped in its cocoon, dangling from a dry leaf in winter, a transformation was underway, but for me, the anxious hours of hanging around in camp waiting for the march to get moving tried my patience.  Word was that we would be stalled in Barstow for anywhere from two days to two weeks.  I tried to calm my restlessness by taking a walk with Jeff from Atlanta into the nearby hills.  When I returned to camp, I ran into Evan and Tim in the parking lot.  They were packing their belongings into Tim’s van.  “We’re driving down to Baja to wait it out,” Evan announced.
My heart sank.  I wasn’t sure how much of the Great Peace March I could take without Evan around.  “What if the march leaves while you’re away?”  I asked.
Evan kept packing as though he hadn’t heard me.  His polite silent treatment reminded me that he and Tim had not had a break, as I had.  They needed to get away, period.  Still, I was desperate for them to stay.  Evan popped his head up and said, “We’d like you to come along.” 
The idea hadn’t occurred to me.  I hesitated, not sure what to say next. 
“Another marcher, Karen, is coming too,” Evan added, as if to quell any concerns I might have, and I did, about traveling to Mexico with two guys I’d just met a few weeks earlier.  I watched them pack, wondering what to do.  I really wanted to be in camp when the march started to move again; on the other hand, it looked as though that wouldn’t happen for several days at best, and possibly as long as two weeks.  Maybe a trip to Mexico wasn’t a bad idea.  “We’ll be back in a week,” Evan assured me.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yep, can’t stay more than a week,” he answered.
I didn’t ask or wonder why.  I trusted Evan’s word.  I stood in the parking lot watching him and Tim pack the van, Talking Heads’ Little Creatures playing on the tape deck.  Talking Heads were my favorite band at the time; back at Warner Bros Music in Los Angeles, I had copyrighting the album.  That was my music.  I couldn’t imagine listening to it fade away down the road leaving me standing in the parking lot in Barstow.  Every minute or so, Evan and Tim would add an enticement, but they acted as though they were talking to one another.  Karen appeared with her gear, and the boys introduced us.  She was petit with curly, honey-colored hair, rose-colored glasses and a friendly smile.  She was up for the road trip and caught on quickly that they were trying to convince me to go, joining the litany of good times they were going to have south of the border.  Finally, the promise of Kahlua on the beach prevailed over lumpy lentil spread sandwiches.  “Alright, alright,” I said, and I headed to the gear truck to pack up my belongings.  I could hear a voice telling me to stay, but I went anyway.
Before we left, I checked in with one of the Policy Board members to tell him that four of us were going away for a few days but planned to return.  I still hadn’t found my wallet, and I didn’t have time to phone David, so I was heading to Mexico with no identification, no money, and having told no one that I was going.  I had never been so completely unfettered and free.  It was nerve-wracking.  I loved it.
            We stopped at a grocery store in Barstow to buy food and supplies, though none of us had very much money.  Karen took charge of the shopping.  She gathered her version of the essentials: black beans, brown rice, seaweed, buckwheat flour, soymilk, and spices.  These were not what I would have chosen, but, penniless, I was in no position to object.  As we stood in the checkout line, Karen glanced at the Great Peace March identification tag hanging around my neck.  “You’re Laura Monagan?” she said with sudden surprise.
“Yes,” I answered cautiously, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“You’re friends with Olivia Morrison!”
“Yes,” I said, wondering how she knew that.
Karen explained the story from her end as I put it together from mine…
            Months earlier, Olivia, a college friend of mine who lived in Des Moines, told me of a friend of hers who was debating going on the Great Peace March.  I was working as a volunteer at PRO-Peace at the time, so Olivia asked my opinion of the march.  I told her it was well organized, staffed by competent people, and headed for big success.  She, in turn, passed that opinion along to her friend.  Well, it turned out that Karen was Olivia’s friend.  So, there we were, Karen and I, standing in line at the grocery store, the peace march in shambles, preparing to head to Mexico to wait for a phoenix to rise from the ashes.  We laughed and hugged and laughed some more, Karen jesting that this was all entirely my fault, and me apologizing for the crazy mess I’d gotten her into.  We agreed that, for better or worse—and we hoped it wouldn’t get much worse—our destinies were linked now and, possibly, forever. 
            Evan, Tim, Karen and I drove south, listening to music and talking all the way. We spent a night at a campsite in Encinitas, CA, ate a sumptuous breakfast at a beautiful little café called “The Shepherd,” then continued down the Baja peninsula.  We crossed the border into Mexico, drove until well after dark, and then turned off the highway and followed a dirt road westward, we estimated, toward the Pacific coast.  Three very inebriated Mexican guys in a pick-up truck confirmed that we were headed toward the playa, and that it was okay to camp there.  Tim joked he would have offered them a few beers for their trouble, but they looked like they were already saturated.  We followed the road to the end and set up camp in the dark. 
In the morning we were surprised to find ourselves surrounded by several other campers, Mexican families, all of whom had apparently come to the beach for the Easter weekend.  The boys communed in broken Spanish with the locals.  They found out where we could get firewood in the tiny pueblo nearby, and Evan traded one of his few cassette tapes so we could listen to some Mexican music.  We moved a little farther down the beach to a more remote spot, and there we spent the next week camped out, listening to whales spout off shore, walking on the beach and eating simple, delicious meals of mussels that Tim pulled from shallow caves along the craggy shoreline, and beans and tortillas that Karen cooked over an open fire each night. 
Karen was a fabulous cook.  All those crazy ingredients made perfect sense in her able hands.  By the end of the week we had lovingly dubbed her “Iris Bean Blossom.”  The four of us spent hours sitting around our camp fire, sipping Kaluah and Mexican beer, singing and talking, staring at the flames, all the time wondering if there would still be a peace march when we returned.  The days were pleasant enough, slightly overcast and a little too cool for swimming in the ocean, but fine for exploring the caves along the beach and the villages along the peninsula.  Nighttime was another story.  When I lay down in my sleeping bag, I had the uneasy feeling that I didn’t belong here—or anywhere.  The Earth was a leviathan breathing beneath me, waiting expectantly for me to resume my mission, and I could feel her growing impatient.  When I finally dozed off, sleep brought only restless, ragged-edged dreams.

Iris, Me, Tim and Evan Waiting It Out in Mexico
Our retreat to Mexico gave me an opportunity to think about other things, too.  At this short distance south of the U.S. border, Mexicans were living at a level of poverty that made me question the meaning of national boundaries.  In the pueblos along the Baja Mexican peninsula, a meal meant literally a plate of rice and beans wrapped in a tortilla, not the gourmet, overstuffed burritos with fresh tomatoes and lettuce and chicken and cheese and salsa that we enjoyed in the States.  I kept thinking about the perfectly ripe avocados we’d had a few days earlier at “The Shepherd” in Encinitas and wondered why there were none to be found in Baja.  To celebrate Tim’s birthday, we made a party of what was available in the local markets: sweet cakes that Iris and I only pretended to enjoy because they were bland and baked with lard, and colored ribbons we found in a tiny notions shop and tied to the Sage’s side mirrors.  We romanticized the poverty and imagined returning to Baja some day to open a restaurant and live a simple life by the ocean, but in truth, the discrepancy between standards of living was a harsh lesson for us “Haves.”  
At the end of the week, we all awoke one morning with the same idea: breakfast at “The Shepherd.”  We packed up the van and drove north to the border.  As the border police checked the van, I realized that I actually didn’t know my traveling companions very well at all.  I wasn’t sure whether they might be carrying drugs with them that could get us all thrown into jail.  With no identification and no money, I had a sudden pang of realization that I had put my wellbeing in their hands, and I wasn’t entirely sure how it would turn out.  In the end, the van was clean, I breathed a secret sigh of relief, and the glue between us started to dry. 
In Encinitas, we learned that, by coincidence, my sister’s husband was doing a folk concert at a small theatre the next evening.  I suggested to my traveling companions that we stay to hear it because I thought they might like Raleigh’s music.  I phoned him and he graciously arranged for us to get tickets.  It was pretty much the same program that he had done in Washington a few weeks earlier: “leftie” folk music filled with political irony, well-timed humor and a healthy questioning of authority.  The evening turned out to be an important turning point in our trip.  Because we had gotten last-minute tickets, the four of us were seated apart from one another, and each of us had a kind of private revelation during the concert.  By the time it was over, Iris, Evan and I had confirmed our determination to push on with the march, if, indeed, there still was a march.  At the end of the concert, though, Tim broke it to us that that he would leave the march and return home to Utah.  It was a personal decision deserving of respect, and when the three of us tried to change his mind, we could all see that he had already thought it through and put it to bed, so we did, too. 
            We returned to Barstow and discovered that the march had left just two days after our departure to Mexico.  This meant we had missed the five-day walk across the Mojave Desert, a difficult trek along the Power Line Road.  I was ecstatic that the march was alive but sorely disappointed and ashamed for having made the decision to leave Barstow.  The marchers had reached a casino called Whiskey Pete’s on the California-Nevada border.  It was already nighttime and quiet in camp when we arrived.  We parked Sage just outside the camp and celebrated our return.  I saw Simon, my old friend from the PRO-Peace office, and I was so excited that he was still on the march that I must have kissed him half a dozen times.  It felt great to be returning to the fold.  Sheila from Boulder joined us at the van, and we stayed up sharing stories, passing a bottle of Grand Marnier, which Evan, the southern gentleman, drawled “Gra-yund Mannuhs,” and singing into the night.  We were parked well away from the sleeping marchers; nonetheless, at some point a “Peace Keeper” on security duty came over to wish us a friendly but firm goodnight.  We quieted down and nestled into our sleeping bags in the van.  I didn’t know about the others, but I lay awake most of the night staring out at the dark desert sky, imagining the Great Peace March that would now be.