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To begin a day's walk in California's Mojave Desert is like stepping into a child's drawing: Odd, Dr. Seuss-style cacti interrupt a dot pattern of endlessly repeating gray bushes; the sky is crayoned a solid, royal blue with a brilliant sun; layers of purple hills extend in endless vistas to the next valley and next again. There are no sounds but the mesquite-scented breezes whishing lightly across the brittlebush and the occasional flinch of some tiny, prehistoric creature under dry sticks a few paces ahead.
After I had walked a hundred miles of the Mojave through pleasant days and bitter cold nights, the winds began to rise. Dust blew across the highway and whipped around, more than once sending me staggering. It grabbed my straw hat repeatedly and sent it wheeling across the highway. It was my late friend Elizabeth's poor old garden hat, and it was not to last much longer-nor were my old bones, I thought.
Even at its harshest, the desert is a meditation, where the mechanisms of politics and oppression seem distant and otherworldly. One can consider things more creatively at such a distance. And old age is no shame in the desert: Save for my walking companion, I saw no creature less wrinkled than myself.
I am here: That is the sole fact from which, in the desert, all distractions fall away. The desert teases with the idea that spiritual enlightenment, elsewhere requiring a lifetime of discipline, might happen almost effortlessly here. This tease is not malicious, I think, but the natural warp of things in the neighborhood of great truths. Indeed, most of our great spiritual stories begin in the desert, where there is less to misdirect our attention from the fact of our mortality and our immortality.
I begin my story in the desert not to mimic the great stories of our culture, but because it is where my adventure began. I pray that I may be able to describe, in ways that will be useful or interesting to you, what I learned along my way. If you are not much interested in campaign finance reform-the reason for my protest walk-do not worry: I will not pester you too much about it as we journey together between these covers. You will not need imaginary earplugs I hope, just a good imaginary hat.
I was still something of a desperado in those first months of the walk-roaming over the dry and blank space remaining at the end of a life. Or was it the lull between acts? Who can ever know at such times? There is an urge to just walk into the desert, away from the road, and be done with it. There is also an urge to have some ice cream with chocolate sauce. Life is what we patch together between those competing desires.
So I walked and remembered my late husband, Jim, who had died six years earlier, though the open place that he left in my heart was still fresh. And I walked and remembered my best friend, Elizabeth, who had died just the year before after a long and difficult illness-as had Jim. I replayed over and over our times together as I trudged along. If my eyes were moist when I thought about the long days and nights of their deaths, the desert wind would dry them. I had been quite depressed since their deaths, and this was finally my chance to walk out my memories and my grief. The landscape was right for it. The deteriorations of a lifetime are shown in fast motion in the desert: The Mojave wind and cacti and my sweat were making a mess of Elizabeth's old hat now, and the desert sun had faded its band before my eyes.
My thin and otherwise quiet walking companion, thirty-two- year-old Doug Vance, was clanging sharply in the wind-his dangling canteens and belt-loop supplies spinning like mad wind bells. He took hold of my arm at times to steady me, though he was no Plymouth Rock himself. The gusts slapped around the campaign finance reform sign on his backpack and sent his bamboo Chinese hat flying back to choke him with its chin string. Passing trucks added to the hot whirlwinds of grit and roadside litter. We had been lucky with the wind and temperature through most of the Mojave, but the final miles approaching the Colorado River and Arizona were very difficult. I had the presence of mind to realize, Dear God, I'm indeed out here doing this!
Seconds later, chasing my hat again through cacti, the idea of walking across the United States at my age seemed a less than perfect idea. I was being foolish: The country is too big for an old New Hampshire woman with a bad back and arthritis and emphysema and parched lips and a splintered hat. These were not so much my own thoughts but doubts planted in me by others. I was trying to resist them, but the harshness of the desert was eroding my own propped-up notion of my abilities. I would remind myself that I had endlessly tramped the mountains of New Hampshire as a young woman and I was still strong enough to cross-country ski and hike with a heavy pack. Anyway, it would be better to die out here, spending myself in a meaningful pursuit, than at home in my old chair-this I repeated to myself a thousand times. So many people, even in my own family, had said I wouldn't get fifty miles. I would just think of that and let myself get a little angry. That would give me a boost.
Approaching the hills along the Colorado River, the mountains of Arizona visible through the dust storm ahead, I realized that I had indeed crossed all of California. That was something. I had come 260 miles from Pasadena. And Sunday, across the river, would be my eighty-ninth birthday-if I lived to see the end of this blowing dust and sand.
In that dust ahead was an old, blue-green van that would be our water oasis and evening camp through the desert.
After mile number eight each day, I would cross the highway and go to the van for a cold drink and a little nap before my final two miles. Curling up in the tight space, I would fall asleep to old memories of the great, overcrowded Volkswagen trip to Alaska in 1960 to stop hydrogen bomb tests that would have destroyed a native village. I also remembered camping trips with my sister when we were Girl Scouts in 1920, and great hikes taken later as a young bride and mother on the mountain trails of New England.
While I waited to cross the Mojave highway for my eight-mile rest, motorists, when there were any, would speed by and give me a curious stare. I must have looked like the old woman of the desert. I remember staring into the eyes of one elderly woman passenger as she looked me over. She must have been wondering about me as I have wondered about other people seen walking along remote highways.
My Crazy Idea
Mother, what are you thinking about?" my son, Jim, said as we were driving toward Florida a year earlier. It was February 1998. I was looking in the side mirror at an old man beside the road-we had just sped past him. My son was headed for a three-week camping trip in the Everglades and had agreed to drop me off at my sister Vivian's house in Pompano Beach. I had just returned from my best friend Elizabeth's funeral.
The old man on the road, wearing a black watch cap and a full-length mackintosh, leaned against his cane and blew his nose with his bare fingers. He was miles and miles from any town or house, carrying only a paper bag. "What's with the old man, do you suppose-way out here?" I said.
"Looks like he's on the road again, Mother," Jim replied.
We talked for a few miles about Jack Kerouac's life and sang a few bars of Willie Nelson's song. That sounds cheery, but I was quite melancholy.
This old man mesmerized me. His image resonated with something very deep. Now that Elizabeth and my husband no longer needed me, I had been worrying about how I might use what remained of my own time. As we drove further, there seemed to be some connection with this man on the road and that slow-boiling question.
I had been on the road with my husband nearly forty years earlier when we worked to stop the Alaska bombs. This old man was perhaps some ghost of those days, still out there like a part of me. He was calling, as might my Jim be calling. That is rather what it felt like.
Something else had also been eating at me: In the 1960s during the Alaska project, we were able to appeal to the sense of fair play of U.S. senators and representatives. They listened to our appeal and made a decision they thought best. They did not have to consult with their campaign contributors, nor did they care that we had not given money to them. I felt a real sense of belonging as an American back then, in the early sixties. There was a sense that we were adults who respected each other and listened to each other. I don't mean to overidealize it, for politics is often a dirty business underneath. But the backroom scandals we heard about back then, where cash was traded for votes, are now the front room norm. There is no room for regular citizens in that front room, and there is no shame.
I had been watching the change. During my husband's final years, in the early nineties, I had worked hard and successfully to bring some modest respite services to the families in our area who were caring for Alzheimer's patients. The logic of these programs was obvious, yet our only way of getting funding was to raise money privately, which we did. From what I was hearing in the community, and from my own experience fighting the interstate highway system, which had threatened to destroy our little town of Dublin, New Hampshire, congressmen were no longer interested in what some person or village might need if they were not major campaign donors. For the first time in my life I felt politically powerless-something no American should ever feel. It was like living in some other country.
My women friends in our Tuesday Morning Academy, which is a little study group in New Hampshire, had looked at the campaign finance situation in detail over the previous few years. We had become quite knowledgeable about it, just as we had studied many other issues.
Our group had its origin in 1984, when the Extension Service canceled an adult study class for lack of students. Nineteen of us-mostly retired-were nevertheless set on the idea of learning something new, so we accepted the leadership of Bonnie Riley, a retired teacher whose passions are poetry, drama, and history. She is tall, blue-eyed, and as dignified as a queen, with her light hair fixed in a French twist. She loves dance and in fact studied as a dancer under Isadora Duncan's sister in prewar Germany. She taught school in Africa and has had many fine adventures. Now, as a volunteer, she teaches Shakespeare two days a week to the men in a New Hampshire prison, who love her above all other human beings. Her father was a brilliant man-a Pittsburgh steelworker who labored among the sparks of the Bessemer process by day and poured out the scintillating ideas of our civilization before his daughter by night. Those sparks remain in her eyes, and she passes her father's love of learning on to her friends and students.
At her invitation, we began meeting at her house in Francestown. We continue there today after fifteen years-occasionally picking up a new student and burying an old. Bonnie decides what we will study next, as she has a good radar for issues and knows well our interests and gaps. A new subject always begins with a provocative book on a good topic. We studied China in great detail for a full year and then the Middle East. We never stop with just the book: We find related books and articles and we each make reports. Our Tuesday meetings begin around 8:30 a.m. with some ballet exercises to get the blood moving and our brains in gear. We hold our class in her living room until noon.
We are good followers because Bonnie is a good leader-we trust her because her commitment to us is unselfish, skillful, and generous. It is easy to be a good follower when you have unselfish and competent leaders.
When Bonnie's husband leaves town from time to time for a conference, we ladies have a night out. During one of these evenings-on the same day when the newspaper reported the Senate's failure to pass Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold's campaign finance reform bill-I said, "I am terribly distressed about what is happening to our government. It seems to me that the rich are taking over and that you can't get elected unless you have a million dollars!"
Bonnie, the wonderful leader, said, "Well, Doris, what are you going to do about it?"
"Me? For heaven's sake, what can I do?"
"Well, what can you do?"
So I thought it over and remembered what Jim and I did during the Alaska campaign in the sixties. At the next meeting of the Tuesday Academy, I had a plan ready.
"We can make up a petition and send it out to all our relatives and friends throughout the whole fifty states. When we get them back, we will send them to our senators and ask for a meeting to discuss what should be done. What do you think, girls?"
I was still naive enough to think that today's senators and congressmen care what people think and would even look at our petition. Times had changed more than I realized, and politics had become far more "hardball." But we hadn't fully learned that lesson yet, so the ladies agreed to my plan. It took us two years, but we organized tens of thousands of petitions demanding campaign finance reform. We each sent them to our two senators and waited for replies.
What I got back from one of my senators was a form letter quite like the letters senators in other states were sending to others of us, saying that spending money was a form of political speech protected by the Constitution. My other senator didn't respond at all, and when I contacted him he said he never received the petitions. I sent him fresh copies of all of them. Again no response.