Pausing our car-centric lives, a surprising tortoise, and news from the Valley of the Cool Sunshine.
It’s nearly the Summer Solstice, and these long daylight hours always feel hopeful. Last week, we rode our bikes down Pikes Peak. Up top, it was in the 30s and windy. The high-alpine wildflowers and grasses were just about to come to life, and marmots patrolled the lichen-encrusted boulders.
As we approached tree line, the smell of pines invigorated our lungs, filling them with phytoncides. Phytoncides are healing gifts from the trees, compounds which boost our immune systems. Yes, science is teaching us that even five minutes among trees improves our heath.
The road up 14,115-foot Pikes Peak is iconic, but also a rather colonialistic tribute to man’s will over nature. It’s about to endure the 100th running of the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, where dozens of racecars roar to the summit. It got me thinking about roads, just before two of our country’s other iconic roads — gateways to Yellowstone — washed out, along with the economies of towns like Red Lodge and Gardiner, who depend so heavily on those thin ribbons of asphalt and the tourists they deliver.
It is immensely tragic, but after looking at the photos, it’s also hard not to be in awe of the power of water. When humans are gone, it won’t take long on the geologic timescale to wash away our road relics, our noisy rivers of pavement that prevent birds from hearing each other and does from crossing safely with their fawns.
Damn cars. They are all at once our greatest tool, our God, and our scourge. In A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, one character who had just arrived on Earth tried introducing himself to cars (instead of humans), as he presumed they were the dominant life form on the planet.
In the lower 48, the farthest place you can get from a road is just 21.7 miles. That magical point is actually in Yellowstone. And yes, I am guilty of heavily participating in the car culture I’m about to criticize. But just because we use them a lot, doesn’t mean we can’t start to rethink our relationship with them.
Environmental writer Bill McKibben pointed out recently how cars have taken us humans further apart from one another. “We went from people who traveled (together) by train and streetcar and boat between towns and cities that were relatively compact and contained, to people who sprawled… alone. The average American has half as many close friends as the average American of the 1950s—because when you spread out, you run into each other less often. But even if [cars] didn’t actually make us happier, we clung to our new forms tenaciously, and when they were threatened in the 1970s we lined up to save them.”
During the energy crisis of the ‘70s, Jimmy Carter made a plea to Americans. He said, “Ours is the most wasteful nation on Earth. All the legislation in the world can’t fix what is wrong with America. Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption… owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning, that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”
Of course, we did not heed Carter’s wisdom. Instead we unfurled into the great decadence of the ‘80s, laced with ever-enlarging SUVs and pickup trucks we drive for fashion, not necessity.
Today’s EV (electric car) movement is a positive one, and urgently needed, but it is not the full answer. Ultimately, we need fewer cars, fewer roads, less distance between us, and less emphasis on immediate gratification. I think that it is possible, because deep down doing that makes us feel better.
A while back, my dad and I walked part of the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. We walked 10 to 20 miles each day, and after only a couple of days, motorized transportation seemed foreign and unwelcome.
I wrote this on my last day on the Camino, April 27, 2011:
And so, like that, it was over. I waved goodbye to Dad and walked onto the bus. It’s the first thing I've been on in a while that’s powered by something other than my legs. And it went toward Pamplona. Undoing all of yesterday's hard work. Past the Auberge Jacke from last night. Past the mysterious Obergon. Through the tunnel, under the wind turbines. Past the castle under construction, and the wheat, grass and mustard fields waving in the wind. Yesterday’s 25km erased in a mere 20 minutes. Tempered flat brown by the tint in the bus windows; the winds and smell of the flowers replaced with someone's B.O., thickening the stuffy air. Outside is now gas stations, traffic and freeways. So foreign after only a brief travel down the Camino. And I'm sad. Fighting back tears sad. Longing to have more days. Longing for the feeling of aching feet. Buen Camino, Dad. I hope it is the wonderful journey that you so deserve. Everything’s changed now. I’ve changed. I hope I can remember that change.
My dad continued on, eventually meeting up with my brother for the later stages of the 500-mile extravaganza. Today I often wish I would have taken more time off, to travel farther on it with both of them. I still long for the simplicity of life on the Camino.
I suspect I am not alone. I suspect there are a lot of us who yearn for more simplicity in our lives. A slower pace. Filling our souls with the nourishment of companionship, kindness and nature, instead of material stuff. The simple joy of walking.
On a side note: our current predicament isn’t exactly our fault. Our car-centric culture was crafted by the same oil profiteers who covered up global warming for decades, and are now keeping gas prices high in order to reap record profits (in the first quarter of this year, Shell made almost three times its profits over the same quarter last year). They will use those earnings, along with expensive prices at the pump, to sow more political discourse, to ensure those politicians who support their profit-over-planet mentalilty gain even more power.
It’s important to realize all of these ways we’ve been had — from an over-the-top car culture, to the false notion that growth economies are necessary — so we can start healing that mindset, and voting in politicians who are willing to make the swift, sweeping positive changes we desperately need.
One of those is a simple rethinking of cars, so they don’t rule our lives. Let’s replace car-lined downtown streets with walking malls and green spaces. Let’s turn to e-bikes, e-scooters, bicycles, and our own feet.
And let’s go for a walk. A really nice, long walk.
To our friends in Montana and Wyoming, know we are thinking of you, sending our compassion, and hoping the cleanup and the times to come aren’t as daunting as they look right now. Let us know if we can help.
Now for a bit of slow-moving, happy nature news
This headline says it all: ‘Fantastic giant tortoise,’ believed extinct, confirmed alive in the Galápagos. You can read more about Fernanda here.
News from the Valley of the Cool Sunshine
Steve and I haven’t made much headway on our abandoned house project recently, as we have been doing a fair amount of traveling. But we did manage to install a deck at my mom’s house.
By “we,” I mean Steve masterfully planned out and executed the whole thing, and I followed his orders with screw gun in hand.
And finally, Happy Anniversary, Steve!
This Solstice marks year eight for us, and what an amazing journey it’s been so far. I love you, Steve! I couldn’t have even dreamed up a better life partner and friend.
And happy Solstice to all!