Politics on the Camino

In the United States, it’s a long-standing tradition among long-distance hikers to celebrate the Summer Solstice by hiking naked.  Because it didn’t quite seem appropriate to walk through tiny Spanish towns in the buff, I decided to commemorate the longest day of the year by taking a zero and heading by bus to San Juan de la Pena, a monastery built into the side of a cliff a millennium ago, with additions built onto it and onto it again, a testament of faith through the various architectural styles of the last 1000 years.

From the old monastery, I hitched a ride down to the sleeping village at the base of the mountain, where I enjoyed talking to a local ceramic artist and looking around two small churches.  When the couple who’d given me a ride into town were done their supper, they offered to take me back to Jaca.  It was perhaps a 30-minute drive, and, in broken English and more-broken Spanish, we spent the time talking about the upcoming Spanish election, where (just as in the then-upcoming elections in the US and UK) the country had the potential to set off in a very different direction.

With the US election results in, I’m reminded of the many Europeans I spoke with this summer who — without fail — asked some variant of “How could America support Donald Trump?”  Many asked why we couldn’t elect Bernie Sanders.  (I explained that I’d tried.)

As I wasn’t able to describe abstract ideas in Spanish, French, Italian, or German, I had to save my more elaborate responses for pilgrims and hospitaler@s who spoke fluent English.  I explained the dissatisfaction in our country and the fission of the traditional parties.  (Once Brexit happened, it was easy to point to other examples of conservative undercurrents.)  The response from my conversation partners was often something along the lines of hope and faith, a certainty that our young but powerful country would be wise enough not to give the nuclear codes to a volatile demagogue.  I wasn’t so certain.

Lacking wealth (and, often, health), straightness, and maleness, I’m afraid about the future of our country, especially now that our highest branches of government share one political party, making checks and balances far less likely.  Like many other liberals, I’m appalled that our next president will be a man who has mocked just about every minority in our nation, from women to Muslims to people who are disabled.  Presidential elections aren’t, as some take comfort in claiming, distant races free of repercussions for us average Americans.  Obama’s choices helped give me health insurance, helped keep a gas pipeline off my employer’s land, and helped ensure my friends could get married.

Soon, we will all live under a red president, a red Senate, and a red House of Representatives.  In Kentucky, we will also live under a Republican governor, with a red State Senate and a red State House of Representatives.  Our Washington Senators and most of our Representatives are Republicans.  In fact, there is one lone blue politician advocating for my county.

Wait.  Scratch that.  I just fact-checked myself and learned that, while our Democratic State Representative had won locally, he lost in the other counties.  So, that leaves Republicans, from Rand Paul to Donald Trump, attempting to protect our best interests.  We’re screwed.

I’m glad I got to see the AT while there were still mountains in Appalachia.

There are memes circulating about this election claiming that it was a case of hope vs. hate, but I disagree.  I live on the edge of Appalachia, in a state that went overwhelmingly red yesterday, but it’s not hate that I see everywhere; it’s a desire to be heard.  As Jonna Ivin wrote, “I know why poor whites chant Trump, Trump, Trump.”

Four years ago, I often said ruefully that when socially liberal people voted for Mitt Romney — oh, how I’d take him instead today! — they were deciding that their money was more important than other people’s rights.  Today, while the backing of Trump by wealthy voters is wholly unpalatable to me, I feel sympathy for — and even some empathy with — the poor who voted for Trump.

Classism is still very real in the US, and I have neighbors and coworkers who voted for Trump because they felt that he spoke to them, rather than about them.  He didn’t tell them they were uneducated hillbillies; he managed to inspire them and led them to believe that he’d change the narrative of their lives.  Like progressives hoping for a brighter future, their votes were also cast in hope.

That is the problem.

Yes, racism and bigotry may have bolstered Trump’s results significantly, pointing to insidious problems that we should make great efforts to solve.  However, hope for economic opportunity also figured into the results, and getting at the root of that is both more difficult and less complicated than eliminating hatred.

You don’t need me to tell you that our system is messed up, that our country is heading in a frightening direction; I’m certainly no authority, and I’m sure you worry about our trajectory yourself.  But, it is high time we reconsider who our opposition is:  There’s a whole lot more that my fellow impoverished Kentuckians have in common with seasonal Mexican farm workers than the election results indicate.

Amid all of the sadness and anger of yesterday, I saw the best side of America, too, when an 18-year-old waiting in line at the polls behind me gushed to her mother, “I’m about to vote for the President of the United States of America.”  Her enthusiasm, her hope, her passion choked me up.

In closing, I don’t have a conclusion — we’re all months away from that — but I have a beautiful quote from the Talmud:

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.  Do justly, now.  Love mercy, now.  Walk humbly, now.  You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”


Hitching a Ride in a Police Car

The general consensus among the American public seems to be that hitchhiking is terrifyingly dangerous.  Truth be told, most of the time it tends to be pretty uneventful; however, there are exceptions, and I’ve experienced several.  I’ve written about one of my favorite hitches previously, and, inspired a bit belatedly by #CrimingWhileWhite (and even more so by #AliveWhileBlack), I decided I should recount the time I hitched a ride in a police car.

It would be difficult to have lived in the United States during the last several weeks and not know about the impassioned and thought-provoking discussion surrounding race and racism that has recently been pushed to the forefront of the media’s discourse.  This bleeding heart liberal will refrain from being too political at this juncture, except to say that I have often found myself on the receiving end of white privilege.  Not just that.  Perhaps “blonde privilege” is a more accurate description.

In the summer of 2013, on the hitchhiking trip Quiver and I took and that I linked above, we headed through my favorite region of New Hampshire to get to Franconia Ridge, where we hiked to meet a mutual trail friend of ours.  Now, the western edge of the White Mountain National Forest is sort of my old stomping ground, as I spent the summer of 2010 there, doing research at Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest (thanks to the National Science Foundation’s REU program).  And, it was this fact that I used as my “inch of truth” when I was confronted by a police officer on the side of I-93.

Police officers have a tendency to harass hitchhikers.  As wanders and vagrants, we are both relatively likely suspects for misdemeanors and relatively vulnerable to attacks from authority figures.  We don’t know people in the community — or in the police department — of whatever town, state, or country we find ourselves in, and the consequences of not politely complying with police officers can feel more significant to us.

I know all of this because Quiver, who has hitchhiked 45,000 miles in 47 states, has been harassed by police officers many times, and he’s told me the stories from his encounters.  As a poor, six-foot tall, bald man who likes to wear a sarong, Quiver stands out and has found himself questioned by the police numerous times, regardless of the fact that he had completely complied with the local laws.  Some police officers have just given him a hassle; others have ushered him out of their district; still others have brought him to the department for questioning.

When hitchhiking solo, I haven’t drawn the attention of police officers.  When I’ve hitchhiked with Quiver (which is my favorite and more frequent way of hitchhiking), I have had my ID run three times.  Twice, we were completely in the right:  Our IDs were run illegally.  The third time, we were actually hitchhiking where we shouldn’t have been.

You see, near Cannon Mountain and the Kinsmen, I-93 and US-3 merge to form the Franconia Notch Parkway.  Before the merger, there are a couple exits from I-93 onto US-3.  Quiver and I were in this area, hitchhiking up US-3 and not making fast progress; everyone on the road only seemed to be going a few miles.  So, at my suggestion and because I knew that the roads merged eventually, we walked up the exit ramp and hitchhiked on the side of I-93, off of the broad shoulder.

Only moments after we got there, a police officer pulled up in front of us.  Quiver figured this would end poorly and tensed up.  With years of blonde privilege fueling my confidence, I approached the police officer innocently and asked what was wrong and how we might get to Franconia Notch.  Instantly, he softened and explained that we needed to get to Lincoln; the next thing I knew, he was offering to drive us there.

With that, Quiver and I hopped in the back of the squad car.  Seeing my friend looking incredulous made it really difficult not to grin.  We rode six miles up the highway, chatting with the now-friendly and helpful police officer the whole way.  He dropped us off on the edge of Lincoln Center and wished us well on our journey.  We thanked him for the ride.

It would be a couple years before I’d catch another equally unusual ride — in a mail truck.  (Sissy Hankshaw would be proud!)