On March 1, 1,300 people set out from Los Angeles on what was called The Great Peace March, with their goal to cross the United States on foot and draw attention to the cause of nuclear disarmament. But 10 days ago, the original organization of the march collapsed because of financial and insurance problems. Now several hundred marchers have regrouped and are continuing. Gary Stahl, like many others who set out with great hope, is considering what happens next. He has filed this report from two points along the road beginning shortly after the march began.
NEAR HESPERIA, Calif.
We are camped on the high California desert, 500 red and green and blue and yellow tents clustered around the white Lighthouse Church of the Desert. The Great Peace March has just walked 19 miles from Hesperia, out of a sandstorm before noon into pounding rains by late lunch -- soggy veggies in the mud of Victorville's park. Early arrivals got the bandstand, but the rest clustered under dripping trees. The ink from the Magic Markers ran on the welcome banners but middle-aged ladies with neat hair and inadequate coats stood in the puddles and told us "thank you" and "God bless."
It was cold enough for fingers to fail with buttons, and my numb toes squished in my socks. Lots of talk about blisters on soft-soaked skin.
Tomorrow we take down "Peace City" and move another 19 miles. The forecast is rain. I'm not sure whether the 4:30 a.m. wake-up will begin with the sound of 500 people unzipping their sleeping bags or with the rhythm of the brass, Buddhist-sounding bowl. At that time of morning, it is as hard to sort out these sequences as it is to find the socks that slid under the sleeping pad. But one can always find the 80 people in the breakfast line as it comes out of the darkness into the klieg lights of the kitchen trailer.
This is the second week of the Great Peace March from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., and I am occasionally terrified to think that we have about 37 weeks to go, walking 15 miles a day, six days a week. Our purpose is to focus attention on the urgent need to eliminate nuclear weapons in the world.
I've given up much less than most to be here. As a tenured professor at the University of Colorado, I know I have a job when I go home; as a professor of philosophy, I make little enough that a year's leave without pay hurts less than it might. We've rented our house in Boulder, Colo., unlike a number of people on the march, who have sold their homes to finance their participation. And I walked for a few hours yesterday with a man in his seventies who is taking the $3,200 cost of his participation out of his savings. His retirement community is just too unsympathetic, or apathetic, to even approach for contributions.
On that point, too, my wife and I are fortunate. When we threw a wine reception to raise money for Pro-Peace, the organization putting the march together, 250 people showed up to contribute more than $6,000. That was the easy part (the wine and the crowd helped), but writing begging letters to old friends and classmates unseen for 30 years was the kind of emotional extortion I swore I would never do -- but did. It is a lot harder for young people to raise money, and I suspect that a few have not tried too hard. Their friends are as broke as they are, and there is the occasional space cadet who feels that if the "energy" flows, the merely material will take care of itself.
Idiosyncrasies of equipment (mainly its absence) and the vagaries of weather complicate even the smallest details of the march logistics. Take the case of personal belongings, for example: Each of us has room on a truck for exactly two green plastic milk cases in which 9 1/2 months of gear is (somehow) stuffed. (How to choose between Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" and extra shoes?) But most of our trucks are still just empty shells -- no shelves yet -- so sorting cases by flashlight in the dark or rain is what used to be called a Chinese fire drill.
And if you factor in the fact that all 500 tents, and most of the sleeping bags, are identical, it is a situation that demands and tests patience. It also calls for a drink, but the march is dry as well as vegetarian. The latter is a necessity, since it costs $6.50 a day to feed us vegetarian, $8.50 for meat. The former is just a mistake.
Keeping warm (or cool) and dry, fed and rested and (relatively) clean, seems to take the whole day, leaving only odd times for the other whole day of meetings and "task forces" and "outreaches" and "facilitated" groups, and none at all for letters or a quiet read. Anyone who camps will come to realize why nomads do not develop elaborate cultures. We now have a shower truck, 18 stalls for the community, but doing laundry, after walking every day in the sun, is still an enterprise: "Chance of showers 40 percent, laundry 20 percent," goes the saying.
As the march began, we walked out of camp and toward Claremont, Calif., with no arranged place to sleep; limited funds and the litigious society in which we live combined to cancel our campsite at a local high school. But we came sweating off the road into a cool, green park and a waving welcome, bands and speeches, the marchers chanting "Thank-you-Clare-mont" again and again.
In a morning, Claremont had taken us all in, fed and showered us. It is unlikely that its residents know how much they did for us; perhaps we also did something for them in at least making an occasion on which the churches and synagogues, the peace and justice groups, and endless individuals could work together on an issue connected with peace and survival.sk,2
The chance to talk to people face to face, not as a representative of some stereotypical point of view, is close to the core of why many of us are on this endless march. I taught my first course on nuclear war at Hunter College in 1958, and have, it seems, talked and talked, marched and phoned ever since. Yet the world is more objectively terrifying now than ever, as is the sense of unreality my wife and I have when we talk with our sons about their futures. Perhaps if we can make a shift of figure and ground so that the starkness of our possible annihilation stands clear, we can work together to push human history a few more years into time.
It is only some such almost empty inclusive goal that makes the starting point of the march possible. Outside of this, difference overwhelms agreement. I walked one morning with a senior and distinguished law professor, with a woman who last year bicycled 2,000 miles to plant peace trees in towns from Minnesota to New Mexico, and with a retired carpenter who writes (good) poetry.
With seven nationalities, ages from 10 months to 78 years, it would be difficult enough to build a political structure with small, parliamentary steps. But to do it with "consensus," as we (the "we" does not include me) seem to be inclined, leads to endless overlapping meetings.
I begin to suspect that the verb "to facilitate" is essentially intransitive. The other night, too late at night for folks getting up at 4:30 to march another day, a vote was called for; the facilitator replied, "I have trouble with voting -- it's not in my process -- but perhaps we could just have a show of hands?" So representation and structure do creep in under the rhetoric.
Rumor abhors any vacuum of fact, and facts are scarce, since all is in flux. My grammar of march talk now lists three acceptable ways to begin a declarative sentence: "Supposedly . . .," "I've heard . . .," "Someone said . . ." And a tentative category of official rumor is emerging, possibly taking the form "So and so, who's on the staff, told me . . . "
Consensus works much better with music, and -- as armies have known for centuries -- a beat will always move an aching foot a few more feet. So last Wednesday, after 13 miles and about three quarts of water apiece, we took a break. I put my feet up (literally: it stops the swelling), changed to dry socks and did other intellectually stimulating things. But the slow, chanting beat of a Siamese drum got out of hand, and within minutes there were 200 people gyrating to a reggae beat pounded out on the corrugated steps of the portable john, accompanied by a makeshift tambourine in the form of a leaky canteen full of rocks. Twenty minutes of head shaking, sweat spraying and stomping was cooled down with the dregs of warm canteens, but only stopped when the march monitor insisted we "move it out." I was never that young.
Now, if all goes well, we start across the Mojave Desert. But first a day or two of work in Barstow, Calif., putting our equipment in order. The desert should pare down the march psychologically as well as physically. It is an appalling thought. I've never missed my computer so; nor will I ever (until two weeks after we reach Washington in November) take for granted a hot tub and a cold martini.
BARSTOW, Calif. -- Last week I sat on a rock on a traffic island in a TG&Y parking lot in Barstow, Calif., and watched as marchers with tentative smiles and photo IDs stopped shoppers and handed out leaflets. Money would help, as always, but so would the offer to take a marcher home for a shower or a night out of the cold rain of the high desert.
We are still in Barstow, and it is still raining. At lunch the sign on the box of apples said, "Welcome to Valley Forge." Though we have been on the March a month now, the shape of the next nine months and the next 3,100 miles to Washington are increasingly blurry.sk,2
The expected cliche' at this point would be to say, "but spirits were high." Oddly enough, they are. So on Tuesday, eight miles out on a muddy road in the desert, it was only raining lightly; several hundred people, bright with ponchos, stood lumped in groups, like cows all faced downwind. We waited for another bombshell about "the situation" from our lurching headquarters in Los Angeles.
The loudspeaker, a loan from supporters in Claremont, asked querulously again and again if our head speaker from headquarters was yet in camp, but no one seemed to pay much attention to the rain or to the loudspeaker. About 40 people stood in a circle and sang -- not necessarily peace or march songs, but just singing.
The kitchen crew called for volunteers: a storage truck was to be "repoed" -- old hands at creditor repossession fall easily into slang -- and a chain gang was needed to unload. In three minutes about 80 people were passing boxes and banter about "egg-actly" this and "butter-that." Nothing to make Garrison Keillor nervous with jealousy, but undoubtedly cheerful.
I would have loved a photograph of a man with a saint's beard and a raincoat styled from brown plastic trashbags and cinched at the waist with a green cord, but didn't risk my telephoto lens in the rain.
Best rumor of the week: Sly Stallone and David Mixner, head of Pro-Peace, will drop out of the black sky in a helicopter to give a golden solution to all of our problems.
Mixner, at least, did arrive on Friday, the 14th; he announced the bankruptcy of Pro-Peace, our sponsoring organization. After all the delays and disasters, it was almost a relief, surely not a surprise. (I noticed address books in evidence among the crowd, sure sign of expected disaster and threatened separations.)
Mixner spoke to rings of marchers seated and squatting on the damp ground, with cameras and mikes crowding to be in on the death. He is a big man, and his weight is not in muscle; but as he stood massive in a neat, gray sweater with his rich voice quavering, no one could not miss his pain or question his commitment. We sprawled to our feet and cheered him to the skies, and the cameras.
I think his vision of the March was right; 5,000 people walking from L.A. to D.C. would indeed be a massive catalyst to break the nation loose from its numb acceptance of nuclear escalation and impending catastrophe. Anything of this scale is always risky. That he failed does not mean that the risk was not worth taking, much less than his reading of the urgency of the task was flawed. Anyone who can read history or calculate throw-weights of warheads can see annihilation on the horizon. But it will take vivid political theater to let this fact into consciousness.
The camp seethes with alternative ways of continuing the March. People have somehow planned to be away from jobs and homes for nine months, but fed and supported by their contributions to Pro-Peace. Now that is all gone to the creditors so we must raise and earn all over again our passage across the country. I simply don't know how some people can think of managing this, but they will.
The intense concern, though, is not personal, but about the shape of the March. Some perceive the bankruptcy of Pro-Peace as the welcome end of an overly corporate (and corpulent) Hollywood blitz. Most of us, I think, see it as a regrettable but not yet understood threat to the March and especially to the activities of education and "outreach" that could have flourished so nicely under the logistical umbrella of the original plan.
In any case, it is now "The Marcher's March," newly incorporated as the "Great Peace March for Nuclear Disarmament." We are a virgin corporation, pure of debt. We are also essentially free of assets. And at times the populist fervor -- all power to the marchers -- threatens us with a rejection of staff expertise that will leave us free of experience as well.
But we are, in spite of it all, literally getting our act together. A strong representative board has been "empowered." (This term seems to suggest mysterious energy as well as political delegation.) Though the board acts on all matters, its mandate must be renewed within the week. Nevertheless, it can act without the endless palaver to which our passionate predilection for "consensus decision-making" had apparently condemned us. (Although "consensus decision-making" is clearly an oxymoron.)sk,2
The immediate job is getting the March across the Mojave Desert, and on to Washington. This is only the means, of course, though "walking the country" may become an end in itself for the few who forget that the end of all of this exertion and discomfort is multilateral nuclear disarmament. Especially in the tight-bonded and focused community of the March, I find this distinction somehow to keep clear. "Going on" can easily mean "walking on no matter what," not working for human survival. With just a bit of ego involvement, persevering can easily slip into vociferation.
At what point does it makes sense to go off to work for the test ban treaty, teach a course, or tumble back into electoral politics? There are excellent reasons for doing any or all of these. Or for marching. Only two things are clear: too many guesses and half-knowns are floating around for any choice to be clean; any of these choices is better than the psychic numbness that pretends we can go on with things as they were.