Tag Archives: utopia

Paradise Lost

16 Jul

This post is the first in a series of two on my recent trip to California.

As far as hiking trails go, the Lost Coast Trail doesn’t appear overly challenging. Totaling just 24.5 miles over four days, this is a placid pace by my standards, and there’s little in the way of elevation to contend with. It’s a hike along a beach wedged between the Pacific and the King Range in Humboldt County, the longest undeveloped stretch of Pacific coastline in the lower 48. Its greatest challenges are three zones totaling just over eight miles in length that are impassable at high tide, so hikers must bring tide tables and pick and choose their start and stop times. Informal campsites sit at the mouths of creeks that feed into the ocean at regular intervals along the trail. The Lost Coast isn’t totally lost, as my party encounters plenty of fellow trekkers, but all but a handful follow favorable breezes from north to south, and long stretches are just my five companions and I working our way through the fog on a narrow band of land separating jagged peaks and unfathomable depths.

Hiking the Lost Coast is unlike a jaunt on a more traditional trail. One can’t just stare at one’s feet, or gaze off at the mountains or the sea for too long. Lost Coast hikers have to pick their lines, much like Alpine skiers, finding the best route over this avenue of choppy rocks and boulders and sand and incoming waves. Back sides of ridges, when wide enough, tend to be most stable, as do depressions behind them where the sand stays wet and thus more firm. Without obstacles, wet sand close to the surf is the best highway forward, though it bears the not insignificant risk of wet feet or frantic rushes inward at every rogue wave. Rarely is it a technically demanding trail, but it is often a slog over terrain that shifts beneath every footstep.

For this trip, I’m a new addition to a group that has, plus or minus a couple of members, taken a backpacking trip once a year for the past decade. The organizer is my uncle Bob, and our number includes my cousin Rob, Bob’s sister Betsy, her friend Amy, and family friend Ed, a divergent group of personalities with homes ranging from Louisville to San Francisco, united by a fondness for meandering down paths in the wilderness. Uncle Bob promises me an adventure, and after an hour of wrangling over food choices at a San Francisco, their two additional stops within twenty miles of a lunch stop in Santa Rosa, and a laborious gear distribution affair at a hotel in Garberville the night before our hike, I’m starting to doubt my wisdom in joining this trip. But they are entertaining company, and by the time we hit the trail, I’m reassured that I’m in the company of five committed adventurers.

We leave our cars at the south end and pick up a shuttle in Shelter Cove, a resort town that offers a fascinating mash-up of sprawling vacation homes and rural California country folk, a people forgotten in most conceptions of the state who wouldn’t be too far out of place in the rural Midwest. (Our shuttle driver, a Humboldt County lifer about my age named Connor, laments the annual Fourth of July homemade firework displays as “Armageddon” and a miserable undertaking for himself and his fellow members of the volunteer fire brigade.) After a two-hour drive through the mountains to take us 25 miles as the cormorant flies to the trailhead, we’re ready to set out.

At first, the beach hiking is novel, and we make good time. A couple miles in we round Punta Gorda, one of the westernmost points in the continental United States, and come to the abandoned Punta Gorda lighthouse, a lonely outpost here along the coast that lit the way for lost fishing boats for a few decades. The structure is open, and a climb up a rusting spiral staircase takes one to a deck with excellent views and even stronger winds. Down below, a gaggle of sea lions flops about in the sand and in the tidal shallows, singing with characteristic inelegance. At Sea Lion Gulch the trail meanders inward before it slips down to the creek, where we cross it twice in quick succession, little hops along rocks to find a passable course past this gouge in the coastline, the sea lion grunts echoing in the background. These turns inward to solid ground are blessed relief, though I don’t like them to last for too long: we are here for the beach hike, after all.

Our first camp comes at Cooskie Creek, a 6.5-mile excursion from the starting point at the mouth of the Mattole River and midway through a four-mile stretch of trail impassable at high tide. We are all sunburned, the cool, perfect walking temperatures and early morning fog lulling us into a false sense of safety, but otherwise no worse for the wear. We take a site on the south bank of the creek, while a large party occupies the opposite bank. They are quiet and we rarely interact, though we do marvel at their ingenious game of bocce using rocks on the beach. The wind barrels in from the ocean, and tent setup requires up to four people and a lot of rocks just to keep things upright. At sundown, we climb a small promontory and gaze out on the Pacific, west to Japan and south to Antarctica, with no bodies of land in between. The sun doesn’t set cleanly but instead fades away into the marine layer out over the ocean, lost in the eternal fog.

The wind dies in the night. No wind, no sun, West Coast resident Rob tells us, and sure enough, we are ensconced in clouds and fog as we head out. A dead seal on the beach attracts a crowd of birds, and Amy compares the beachscape to the final scene from Planet of the Apes. The waves rise as we go, and a crossing at Randall Creek requires an ambitious leap. Past the creek I pick out a trail up on to a flat, and now we’re rewarded with an easy stroll along a ridge, past a stream crossing with an unexpected bamboo grove and another where the discovery of a snake in the trail holds up the party for a spell. The crossing at Oat Creek features a stable log amid a small grove of trees, and a group of younger women has stopped here for lunch.

We cross Kinsey Creek and a rock field to the mouth of Big Creek, which we edge over on a log. Rob and I like the look of the site, an open stretch aside a large wash where other campers have set up driftwood lean-tos and tables, but the rest of the party is ready to push on another two miles to Big Flat Creek. These two miles are among the most tiring slogs of the trip, endless rock fields that turn ankles and require constant leaps, but in time I veer off and pick a way up a sandy slope to a much smoother trail atop Big Flat. The rest of the party joins me, and before long it’s as if we’ve left the ocean behind and are strolling through a large meadow. A number of private landowning holdouts dot the entire trail, most no more than a windblown wooden shack, but the one on Big Flat is flat-out surreal, a retreat of sorts that hosts a large group doing tai chi down by the beach. This part of the Lost Coast feels far too found.

Just past the retreat center is Big Flat Creek, our destination for the night, but it proves the most complicated stream crossing of the trip. The creek is wide and rushing, and Ed and I venture upstream with no luck in search of an easy ford. Most of the party settles for a shaky-looking log crossing, while Amy and I jump it at the mouth, where these streams are usually at their narrowest. The campsite, situated beneath a grove of low trees, already has a crowd, but there are enough sandy tent pads for us to carve out our own space. Night comes quickly on this day, with little time to linger on the beach, though we do admire the deer in the clearing next to us, and after dark a number of bats flit overhead. In the night, a chorus of coyotes wakes us all, the pack leaders howling away while the yips of their smaller brethren surround them.

I don’t sleep particularly well on Big Flat, but our long hike yesterday cues us up for a tame day of just 3.3 miles to our next site on Buck Creek. I sip some tea over breakfast and take a dump in a sandy hole in the ground, and we join a large procession of hikers out from Big Flat and down the coast. The fog is thickest on this morning, and it cakes the beach and leaves what we can see of the fire-scarred hills above us looming. After a placid stroll along the flat, it narrows down to nothing, and a rock slide diverts us down a jagged slope to a narrow beach. Each step brings new conditions, most dramatically at the bottom of a large landslide, where giant trees come to rest on the beach. The crossing at Shipman Creek offers a nice running start for the long jump across, and we press on and pass a few of the groups we’ve been leapfrogging with over the course of the day.

Buck Creek comes as a surprise, and we quickly decide the campsite, which perches on a bank with direct views of both the sea and the cascading creek, will more than do. The fog lifts with surprising speed as we set up our tents, and we then discover the site’s great drawback: a healthy crop of poison oak on all sides that leaves Amy and Betsy frantically detoxing after they tossed some gear and staked out a line for their tent in the shrubbery. Lunch follows the cleansing session on rocks along the creek, though my phone’s camera renders me an uninspired photographer for the rest of the trip after it falls out of my pocket and its lens cracks on a rock. The shots feature some fascinating new filters, if nothing else.

With some gas left in the tank, Bob, Rob, and I set out to climb the Buck Creek Trail, which rises from the camp and heads straight up into the hills. Straight up is no exaggeration: there is no such thing as a flat or downward step for a mile-and-a-half long, 2,000-foot climb. Thankfully, the sun gives way to pine forest just above the site, and while we’re still stepping gingerly around the poison oak, we can drag upward at a manageable pace. Finally, near the top, we come to a couple of clean vistas down the coast toward our parked cars at Shelter Cove five and a half miles away, and after a relatively flat half-mile past a junction with a little-used ridgetop trail in the King Range backcountry, we turn around and abuse our joints for a few miles back down. We burst back out of the forest and have a clean view of the rushing creek, the sun-splashed waves on the ocean; Amy and Ed are down on the beach watching the tide come in, while Betsy naps on her air mattress in the open atop the highest-lofted tent pad, the tents collecting heat for the night in the sun below. It’s a paradisal scene, one that fully loses me in this wilderness and makes me wish we could set up camp here for a week.

Our legs burning from the hike, Rob and I watch the tide roll in, larger and larger waves slowly creeping over the rock pile that cuts off Buck Creek from the ocean at low tide. Soon there will be no way in or out of this site along the coast trail, and we’ll have our site to ourselves tonight. After some poison oak preventative cleansing in the creek, I settle into the hammock along its banks to catch up on notes and zone out in bliss. I’m rousted for happy hour by an offer of Ed’s tequila, and as we sit along a log on the beach and gaze out at the sparkling waves, my mind goes back to an out-of-body sensation I had in a hammock in Puerto Escondido nine years ago, a simultaneous blend of exhaustion and tequila and revelation at the beauty around me. I idly wrote a story of two lovers at the end of an affair, at once alive to the possibility of utopia and aware it can never last.

We break out of our trance to eat before we lose all daylight. Our dinners, always collections of freeze-dried packets we pass around, is best on this night, and we polish off the bourbon and turn our attention toward the darkening sea. Three boats dot the horizon, one of which suddenly seems to be flickering, as if alight; we later learn that it’s likely a fishing boat looking to lure in its prey. The half-moon lights up night well enough to cast shadows, and the marine layer stays just low enough to allow for superb star-watching. First Jupiter and the dippers, then Scorpius and Cygnus and Hercules, and Saturn for a hot second before the fog consumes it. I’m reluctant to turn in, yet I enjoy my best ever night of sleep in a tent.

The morning is wet, the marine layer dousing my tent fly, but the sun comes out quickly and keeps up warm for the last 5.5 miles up the beach. The choppy rocks continue for the first half of the hike, but after that it settles into a plodding but predictable march up the aptly named Black Sands Beach. I set my course along the shoreline, running in when the higher waves come and making sure to drink in the slopes to my left and the endless crashing waves to my right. The steepest climb on the hike comes up a road to the parking lot, where we collect ourselves ahead of food truck burritos and a beer at a Shelter Cove bar populated by grizzled local women. We are found again, headed back for a stop in wine country and the glitz of San Francisco to round out our adventures.

The trail has a particular allure for someone drawn to the notion of isolated inspiration, the egotist who never needed anyone to tell him that he could do great things if he put his mind to it. Thankfully, wilderness also has a habit of humbling these chasers as well. A year after an epic but largely solitary trek across this state, the jumble of people on this one enlivened it. It provided new short story inspiration, and a meander through a book on Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey, two very different champions of the West who, unlike some of the San Francisco cosmopolitans I brush up against upon my return to the city, understood a sense of place. “I may not know who I am but I know where I am from,” wrote Stegner, words that forever reassure a wanderer in search of grounding. On the Lost Coast Trail, I’ve found it yet again.

Part 2 is here.

Learning from Utopia

5 Sep

I usually like to imagine myself a cynic, but we all delude ourselves in our own little ways, and as a person who’s never had any shortage of aspiration, a utopian impulse surges up every now and then. As I’ve explained before, I have deep reservations about utopian thinking, and am not a candidate to run off and join a commune anytime soon. But there’s always something we can learn from past efforts to build a perfect world, and as I think about articulating a more complete positive vision, the time was ripe to explore a few older utopian dreams.

And so the past couple weeks found me reading a book named Utopia Drive, in which author Erik Reece takes a road trip through some scattered American movements that aspired to utopia. He visits the Thomas Merton’s old abbey, explores Robert Owen’s Equity Stores, and sits beside Walden Pond, among other locales. Most of these date to the nineteenth century, fascinating but quaint tales of cultish communities on the frontier that achieved varying degrees of success before their sexual morals or the power of an industrial economy laid them low. Reece refuses to consider them failures, though: the Shakers, the Indiana town of New Harmony, and the perfectionists of Oneida, New York, all lasted for decades and more or less approximated their founders’ visions for a spell. Their common theme among the relative successes was a religious fervor that went beyond some vague sense of a brotherhood of man, which says some things about attempts to order societies only on intellectual principles, but we’ll save that for another time. Now, religious or not, none of these communities remain.

These noble relics lead one to wonder if this old eighteenth century ideal of a utopia distorts the use the concept may have in the present day. Even Oneida, which was relatively well-integrated into its surrounding community, could close itself off from the outside world in a way that isn’t really possible today. Separation is now nearly impossible. Most of Reece’s present-day examples rely on a key export or somehow take advantage of the broader forces of capitalism, as did the one present-day intentional community I’ve visited in my travels. One resident of the contemporary Twin Oaks community in Virginia, whose hammock-and-tofu manufacturing enterprise it allows it to operate more or less as it aspires to, laments that her friends there, in the end, aren’t any happier than those on the outside, and few stay for long. Outside of a few true believers, Twin Oaks comes across as more of a temporary resting house to where one goes to restore oneself, not a community bound for time eternal. In a similar vein, Rod Dreher’s attempts to explain his religiously conservative Benedict Option communities have (to his intense frustration) usually been construed as attempts to found isolated communes in the woods. While not explicitly utopian—for the orthodox Christian, that can’t come in this life—the debate here is much the same, and hinges on the question of just how far one ought to go in retreating from the world to build one that can coexist with one’s ideals.

For my purposes, though, that isn’t necessarily a problem. Reece’s book succeeds because it’s not just an elegy for a lost past or idolatry of a few scattered communities in the present. Instead, he looks to draw from the utopian impulse that many people feel; to take that quest for an answer on how life should be lived and apply whatever lessons might come out of those who have asked these questions in the past. The end goal of utopia, one senses, should not be happiness, but a community that inspires the somewhat more virtuous lives of which happiness is a byproduct.

Politically, Reece would appear to be an ally of the Bernie Sanders left, as his concluding chapter labels income inequality and dependence on extractive industries the two greatest threats to contemporary American existence. However, his takeaways from his road trip, while not necessarily opposed to such politics, point in a different direction. They carry an implicit understanding that turning the U.S. into Denmark (an ethnically uniform micro-state that makes Donald Trump look kind to immigrants) is not a realistic path. If the structural economic crisis is as great as Reece would have us believe, initiatives like raising the minimum wage will only amount to letting the people locked in steerage sit on the deck chairs of a sinking ship.

Instead, Reece’s answers are intensely local, and rarely involve government action. He points to Oneida’s silverware company and the Mondragón Cooperative in Basque Spain as models of cooperative ownership that successfully shared profits with workers for long periods of time. He gives a nod to land trusts, which can make homeownership reasonable for lower-income people. He talks about local loan programs, which can get entrepreneurs the capital they need to get off the ground, and managing public lands in trusts as well. (We’re already doing those two with some success here in northern Minnesota.) He explore things like local exchange trading systems, which provide structures in which (usually low-income) people trade the services that they’re capable of providing to one another (child care, home health care, picking up the groceries, etc.) in an exchange of labor instead of cash.

These are ideas worth tinkering with, and few require immediate political power to enact. For that matter, a number of them are less threatening to entrenched capitalist interests than direct redistribution. While this may disappoint the Jacobins in the crowd, it also raises the odds for success. The proposals amount to positive visions for a better society that do not always require their proponents to make bogeymen of opposing individuals or ideologies. Their implementation wouldn’t be seamless or without obstacles, but in all of this, one sees hints of an uplifting local approach that doesn’t lock itself in to old categories that drive people off before it’s even been tried.

The thrust of Reece’s proposals is also welcome for those of us who, despite entertaining occasional millenarian impulses, are mostly content living within the society that exists—or, at the very least, fear that blowing it up may blow back up in our faces in unexpected ways. One of the more fascinating images in the book comes when Reece quotes philosopher Paul Shepard on how the human genome “is encoded with a Paleolithic need for small communities and a closeness to the natural world.” While this certainly romanticizes caveman life, it does tap in to a certain communal bond made real. It underscores the need to build thick networks: close ties within an extended family, lasting loyalty to neighborhoods and place, homes with revolving front doors that people in and out and keep it alive with energy and creativity; a republic of front porches, in the words of one former professor of mine. It means a place to raise children who always know they have a town behind them. It may not be utopian, but it’s a place I’d want to live, and I have every intention of working to make it reality.

Utopia III

8 Oct

If the instinct toward perfection is an essential piece of human nature, it’s hidden itself pretty well this year. This presidential election cycle alone is enough to paint a dark picture, and that’s not even touching the rest of the world. Even the supposedly hopeful candidate in the Democratic primary spent most of his time calling for a sort of class war. The road to revolution isn’t always bright or happy.

Given this climate, one could forgive people for yearning for utopia anew. A piece in the most recent New Yorker explores some favorable books that favor the concept before landing in my preferred territory of skepticism of grand ideas and defense of gradually moving the chains. There need not be an ideal vision; merely a general direction, and confidence in the steps taken in that direction.

For me, this is a fitting time to reflect on that dream of perfection. The past month and a half has been pretty good to me, basically aligning with my hopes. I’ve gone home again. I have a secure job that I like, and that aligns with both my interests and my general sense of what I want to do with my life. I’m not going to be rich anytime soon, but I’m certainly living comfortably for someone my age. I’m back among some of my favorite people, ready to live a life in the same place as them, and work with them to build whatever comes next. I live in a big old house that nails the details for what I look for in a home. For years so much of this seemed so far away, and now, all of the sudden, it’s all here.

It’s a good time to be back. Autumn in Duluth is one of its more spectacular seasons, as these waning golden days invite us out to marvel in the tapestries lain across the landscape. I hike or run the rugged ridges of the countless parks, wreathed in orange and red and gold and orange. I savor the warmer evenings, sit out on my new front porch with a glass of wine and read some. My book choice for the weekend revisits an old favorite: Amartya Sen, an anti-utopian economist nonetheless filled with hope for gradual movement toward justice. The football field at East is packed when I go by on Friday nights, I watch Verne Lundquist (born in Duluth!) call SEC games on Saturday for one final year, all adding to a sense of timelessness. Well, I suppose some things change: the Yankees are sitting at home in October, and the Cubs of all teams are favored. No matter: there’s a haze of rightness about it all.

I’m not resting on my laurels. I’m too restless to do that, and while I can ground myself for stretches, there’s always another cycle outward. No need for congratulations, either: this is only the beginning, and there’s lots of work to do. Things are moving. Not toward utopia, and toward a state that’s slightly better than where we were before. Now that I’m settled in, it’s time to see what we can do to fight the cynical instinct: not to reach back up to utopia, but simply to reach out with the utmost effort, enough that we can come home content at the end of the day. Onward.

Utopia II: Farewell, 2014

31 Dec

Life is like the surf, so give yourself away like the sea.

—Luisa, Y tu mama también

My 2014 is coming to an end at a villa overlooking the sea in the Virgin Islands. It’s not utopia, but it is a spectacular place, and I am blessed to be here once again.

It’s hard to pretend to know how one becomes fascinated with utopia, and the earliest childhood memories probably lurk behind it somewhere. But if I had to name a place where my own imagined ideal worlds were born, it was probably here, where I first came when I was nine. This led to something of an infatuation with tropical islands, and I can trace the whole arc of my invention of new worlds directly back to that trip.

Few things inspire quite the way travel does, with something new around every corner. This endless opening creates new possibilities, and digging into the details frees the imagination to embellish reality with our own little flourishes. The Virgin Islands were my first real trip into the unknown, and while I’d hardly call them the most exotic or inspiring places I’ve been—my host here cites the local “intellectual wasteland” as the reason he wouldn’t settle here, and I’m inclined to agree—it’s still a bit more than your run-of-the-mill beach vacation. The stories born from that trip, both childish and grandiose at once, slowly became my way of making sense of my world, with everything contemplated there, all great questions with their own place. In time, they made their way out of my mind and into the written word, with countless pages filled.

This time around, I’m not exactly questing for new inspiration. Whatever it was I set out to achieve when I first started writing in fall 2008, I’ve done it. That doesn’t mean I don’t still revisit and build on the past stuff, but it’s all right there before me now. 2014 was a decent year, and a good foundation for whatever may come next. The pace isn’t always ideal, but things are moving.

Where to? Hard to say, though that may be a good thing. Better to avoid the ideal image and instead chip away, somewhere within a framework that makes sense. I’m not sure where I’m going, but I have some idea of how to get there. That doesn’t mean it’s all about the means, and not at all about the ends—benchmarks are essential to keep things moving, and proper management of the utopian instinct isn’t quite content with simply doing one’s best, no matter the results. That hunger and desire can’t go away. One must seize the moments, stay in control—even when taking control means letting things go a bit. From a thoughtless afternoon in a hammock to an extra rum and coke, there are times when even the most relentless managers must lose themselves in the surf. One can aspire to both ends without contradiction.

I haven’t always managed that balance, and I’m as certain as anyone that we cannot build Jerusalem on earth. But to stand in the face of that impossibility and still carve out something good—what more can I ask for? As I enter my second quarter-century, many of the more fanciful dreams born of that first trip have washed back out to sea. But that doesn’t mean they still cannot be inspiration, and that things cannot all come together in, somewhere between dreams and reality in the flux I live through every day.

And so we move on to the next year. Here’s to continued progress, as the waves allow, and the wisdom to know when to barrel into them, and when to ride the tides. Somewhere in here, there are answers. The search goes on, but I’ll be home at the end of the night, as I always am.

Utopia

15 Dec

To the west of Mexico City, in the mountains of Michoacán, lies a small city that once aspired to utopia. Its champion was a man named Vasco de Quiroga, a sixteenth-century bishop who was among the heroes of the miserable tale of colonial America. Tata Vasco, as he is affectionately known among the indigenous Purepecha who still populate the region, did all he could to save the natives from the predations of imperial Spain. The contemporary city of Pátzcuaro, of course, is no utopia; it’s in one of the less stable states of a tumultuous nation, gripped by the poverty that afflicts so much of Mexico. Yet even so, something from that past lingers in the proud indigenous communities that still make the handcrafts Tata Vasco divided among the villages, and in the timeless cobblestone streets that carry in the wind off the nearby lake.

There is good reason to be leery of utopia. The last century has been defined by the horrors perpetrated by people who thought they were creating utopias, and anyone with any sense of the tragic side of human life knows what a delusion those dreams of earthly paradise may seem. How easy it is to dismiss utopian thought as naïve, or even reckless, as the true believers barrel ahead with their agenda without a thought about what they’re doing to the world. How often do we hear vague appeals to ‘freedom’ or ‘justice’ without any concept of what these words actually mean? They are the canards of sorry souls who try to invent broader meaning for their lives, placing themselves in some grand sweep of history; a desperate attempt to make life relevant in a world where we cannot share transcendent meaning and are left to invent things for ourselves.

The skeptic’s stance is a scathing one, vicious in its demolition of that utopian instinct. And yet, just as much as the tragic impulse, the drive to utopia is part and parcel of the human condition. It can take curious or even sorry channels, but no amount of cynicism can bludgeon it to death. Retreat from utopia is just as much of a utopia itself, an impossible ideal inseparable from nihilism and all its attendant contradictions.

Dreams are not reality, and should never be mistaken for it. But they are an integral part of the cycle, ever reminders that our rational thoughts, when carried to all their logical conclusions, cannot even begin to answer all of our questions. They inspire awe, and even fear. As they should. To die, to sleep; to sleep, perchance to dream: aye, there’s the rub, for in that sleep what dreams of death may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.

***

Modern man likes to pretend that his thinking is wide-awake. But this wide-awake thinking has led us into the maze of a nightmare in which the torture chambers are endlessly repeated in the mirrors of reason. When we emerge, perhaps we will realize that we have been dreaming with our eyes open, and that the dreams of reason are intolerable. And then, perhaps, we will begin to dream once more with our eyes closed.

—Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude

***

My own relationship with utopia is a tortured one, filled with both wild dreams and relentless reasoning. I’ve also been skeptical of it, often even downright hostile, and justifiably so. Yet I can’t quench the thirst. I’ve written my own utopias in search of one, populated entire worlds that I could disappear into forever, if I so chose. Much of this has been a lonely search, though not always so; at times I’ve dragged unwitting victims along, as in my own journey to Pátzcuaro, and at times I’ve managed to convene a little salon with no limits on what it might ask. The conclusion is always the same.

Utopia is something that these paltry, inadequate words will never quite capture. The Socratic critique rings true: the more we know, the more we know we don’t know. And the more aware we are of utopia before us, the more hollow it all seems when we can’t quite find it. No one can, for too long. Small wonder so many believers in utopia are also prone to disappointment and even rage, when it all falls short. The glimpse is ever a dangerous one.

One must push things, to find that glimpse; live a bit, and tread on untested ground. But the search needs grounding. All journeys have a beginning, and all have an end. We have stories that write themselves; things we can bend, yes, but never break. We are what we come from, and in these bounds, we must find whatever it is we search for. Utopia is right here before us, if only we open up our eyes. Perhaps that defeats the point of utopia, but if that’s the case, it’s no great loss.

(Utopia II)

Thanksgiving with the Zapatistas

27 Nov

It’s late November 2010, and for the first time in my memory, Thanksgiving week doesn’t involve that drive south across Wisconsin, south to family and football and gluttony and sneaking a beer from the basement fridge, that sense of rightness taking hold. No; instead I’m far to the south, sprawled in a hammock on a beach in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, writing idly in a little red notebook, nodding off, and then waking with a sudden start, at first unsure of where I am before the delight of paradise takes control. What bliss.

Truth is, though, I’ve never been very good at staying in the realm of bliss for very long. I’m too restless. I need action, I need meaning. And so I’ve deigned to drag my eclectic traveling party on to another destination, one that will require a bit more thought. Our grand tour across southern Mexico won’t just stop at the beach; instead, it has to go back up into the turbulent heart of this nation, as far away from any façade of Mexican serenity. We’re going to spend Thanksgiving with the Zapatistas.

We leave Puerto Escondido on an overnight bus, the road hugging the coast, and we wake somewhere near the crossing point into Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. It shares a long border with Guatemala, and its twisting mountain ranges and jungles are near-impenetrable: this is as far as one can get from the borderland Mexico so many Americans know, the last frontier of a nation trying to convince the rest of the world it belongs in modernity. A state whose people trace their roots back to the Mayan empires of past millennia. The coach rolls through the dismal state capital before scaling the ramparts of the Sierra Los Altos. Base camp for Thanksgiving weekend is the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, a city whose name pays homage to Bartolomé de las Casas, the friar who convinced the Spanish monarchs to have mercy on the natives. In the heart of indigenous Mexico, some things never change: after the Zapatista revolt in 1994, the one man who managed to tried to bring the rebels and the government to the table for dialogue was the bishop of San Cristóbal, Samuel Ruiz.

Our first day in San Cristóbal is a tame one, as we wander the sprawling markets and sample the most real coffee we’ve ever encountered. The sky is grey, the air cool up here in the hills, and though the city bustles with tourists and boasts restaurants from every corner of the globe, it still has a sense of quiet, a sense of reverence. We dine at a Lebanese place and find a colonial hall that shows a documentary on the Zapatista revolt, brush up on the details of their unexpected 1994 uprising against the Mexican state after the ratification of NAFTA. A group of peasants in ski masks stood no chance against the Mexican army, but the Zapatistas captured the hearts of many in Mexico and beyond, a native group that knows the power of a symbol and stays true to its roots. The fighting stopped years ago, but the Zapatista caracoles remain autonomous, carrying on life at their own pace.

We wake early the next morning and begin our Thanksgiving Day pilgrimage. We board a van that rises up from San Cristóbal de las Casas on a newly-built road, winding its way even further up into the sierra. I marvel at the sheer vastness of mountains, those barriers that no free trade agreement could flatten. Pictures cannot do it justice, the verdant green hills and the towering cliffs, the homes clinging to their sides, perched so precariously that they seem vulnerable to any great wave of change, yet sitting on plots of land that have barely changed over the past thousand years. We come to San Andrés Larrainzar, where the government and the rebels met in a church atop a mountain, reachable only by a long stair marching straight up its side. Here, the parties negotiated their peace accords some fifteen years prior. They answered no questions, resolved no disputes. There are no signs of that now, though: life goes on.

The driver pulls to the side of the road and announces Oventic. The four of us clamber from the van and make our way over to a gate that blocks off a side road. A man in a ski mask awaits; he scarcely reaches my chest, but he still has an air of control. We deliberate, and he asks us our reasons for visiting. We answer as respectfully as possible. A few other masked men mill about, murmuring in Tzotzil. We wait. Are they suspicious? No; this is merely the pace of life in Oventic. Explosions echo further down the road. Has the fighting resumed, on this day of all days? No; a religious procession is climbing the way, shooting off fireworks as it goes. Before it arrives, we are summoned inside.

The cement street cascades down the mountainside, wooden buildings lining both sides. Shops, meeting halls, a women’s center, a school, a clinic with an ambulance. Another masked man, this one somewhat older, guides us downward with a few declarative statements. We may photograph the murals along the walls, but not the people. The street empties into a level clearing, a schoolyard with a basketball hoop. The children tear about the schoolyard, all save one, a boy settled beneath a tree, plugging away at his schoolwork with contented poise. The two of us steal a quick grin. No, they don’t have much; most everything is made of wood, and the public restroom is little more than a trough. But it is no failure, either: behind the gate, there is an ease to life not visible in the poor Mexican communities on the outside, a difference most obvious in the children of Oventic.

Our guide, warming to us, takes us to a pair of stores filled with Zapatista swag. The shopkeepers know just enough Spanish to conduct a sale. Foreign capital in action, even in a commune. The mess of modernity, the impossibility of true isolation: they try to build an autonomous community, but if it were not for their international allure that draws in us tourists of revolution, history would have forgotten the Zapatistas. The Mexican government would have crushed them in short order. They may not exactly be a model for other struggling villages; few others can match their PR savvy. But they’ve succeeded, and even if they do not have much wealth, they certainly have their pride. We are shown the gate and flag down the next pickup truck to head down the highway, offering the driver a few pesos for a ride in the bed.

The truck dumps us in San Juan de Chamula, a dusty town of 50,000 that serves as the gateway to Zapatista country. The feel couldn’t be any more different: the poverty is immediate and anything but idyllic, the vendors aggressive even by Mexican standards, with one little girl dropping her wares on our lunch table at a restaurant and refusing to leave. It is a different world, but yet another world awaits: the inside of the town church is something wholly alien for all of us. The nave is dark, lit only by thousands of small candles, its floor covered in pine needles. The worshippers kneel before countless altars to saints, chanting in Tzotzil, the aroma of incense lulling everyone into a trance. Christian and pagan faith, blurred together in the haze. We stumble out and wander the square in shock for some time before coming back to our senses.

A van takes us the rest of the way back to San Cristobal de las Casas, the heart of indigenous Mexico somehow reborn as a cosmopolitan magnet for adventure-seekers. We meander its streets, sit in the placid zócalo and try to imagine an army of invading masked men. We visit an Irish pub, climb a hill to a church, fool around on a curiously placed exercise course. Then, Thanksgiving dinner. No turkey, just pizza in a colorful Italian place, with the Tuscan countryside painted on its yellow walls. A bit of wine, a beer run to the Oxxo, and a night of drink and debate.

What’s it all worth, this rebellion in the backlands? An assertion of identity that transcends any losses, makes all the costs worthwhile? A noble but failed effort, doomed by the march of progress? Delusion on the part of a bunch of uneducated natives? It’s nearly seventeen years since the Zapatistas first took up arms. Seventeen years of fitful fights and useless treaties, of paramilitary incursions and aggressive government responses. Surges of interest, with the tales of Subcomandante Marcos circulating the internet, the foreign support flowing into San Cristóbal. Claims of a new left, a postmodern revolution, the birth of indigenous rights in the Americas. Moments when it seemed like it would all go wrong, when the obstacles blocking the Zapatistas seemed more imposing than the mountains of Chiapas: the brutal massacres and that image of Marcos, shrunk down to size by the austerity of a Mexico City plaza, desperately trying to rally the revolt into a broader movement with his “other campaign” during the 2006 presidential race. It wasn’t to be: whatever its gains in Chiapas, the EZLN has not changed life for the vast majority of Mexicans. It never did quite know if it was a localized revolt or a national movement, and the question of scale kept it from taking off. The paradox of the modern left: it understands the importance of unique identities and is happy to harness the power of the state, but there is no bridge between the two.

Most of those trappings are gone now, as are the forceful rejoinders from the Mexican state. Forget the leftist rhetoric, the development theories, the ideals of efficient economics and what a modern nation should look like. There are only people, trying to make do. Maybe someday the government will finally be able to provide for Mexican peasants high in Chiapas; it’s certainly made some progress on that front, however haltingly. Maybe someday free enterprise will open up those mountain passes, or they might fade into irrelevance as globalization’s losers empty the land. Consider me a pessimist on both fronts.

“Utopia is a disease of the intellectuals, not the people,” said Octavio Paz. It was a disease that afflicted even him, a critic of the revolt that destabilized the treaty that was supposed to welcome Mexico into the modern world. For the children of Chiapas, there is no economic theory, no national liberation, no grand vision of a changed world: simply life as it has been, and their daily struggle to make it all work. Culture may shift and erode, but its shadow is long, and its loss drains the world of some of its wonder. It will endure, and with it the people of Chiapas, trying to carve out some stability in a world increasingly wont to discard any sense of order and tradition.

The next day is a quiet one, all in San Cristóbal. And then another van, this one north, past more Zapatista art and a few military installations, winding through the mountains to a pair of waterfalls and the ruins at Palenque. The Mayan city in all its splendor, then its drab modern counterpart, a mercifully short stay. Then another overnight bus ride, once again putting pen to paper as I try to give it all some order. Mexico defies order, of course, and that may be its greatest lesson: even in its turbulence, it holds together, pulsing with life, a life I’ve found during my four months south of the border.

It is a pulse that is, blessedly, alive and well in my own family, and it’s time to make that drive south across Wisconsin again. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Silicon Valley and Technological Utopia

28 May

Silicon Valley troubles me, and I don’t think I’d survive very long in Palo Alto. This isn’t anything personal, really; I know plenty of lovely people who have gone out there to seek their fortunes, and wish them nothing but the best. It just isn’t me. I have never owned an Apple product, and I do not wear blue jeans (though this is more for practical reasons than some great boycott or fashion statement). I am a fan of Evgeny Morozov, who has made a living out of writing books with such fantastic titles as The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom and To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. I prefer print journalism to online content, and real books to e-readers, weight and bulkiness be damned. My musical tastes are fairly mainstream, and though I do a lot of writing, I do not see much glory in the supposed genius of individual creation or some “entrepreneurial spirit;” rather, I think that things are far more complicated than that, and that the works of most any person stand on the shoulders of countless forerunners.

That said, I am not a Luddite. I spend too much time on this laptop every day, and though I do not use my smartphone heavily, I happily embraced mine when I first got it. I was quick to jump into the world of internet message boards as a teenager, and have actually built some real connections through that, along with a side career of hockey coverage. I enjoyed the early community-building of Facebook, though I use mine less and less as the site has grown more and more commercialized. While I do not have a Twitter and am driven nuts when “social media analysts” appear on the news to read famous people’s tweets, as if tweeting were anything other than writing or making a very short statement via any other method of human communication, I have been known to go spying through other people’s Twitter feeds, and before long I may have an account (primarily for hockey purposes, though one never knows). Being a teenage boy in the era of the internet opened me up to other, umm, “wonders” unavailable to previous generations. I am grateful to live in an age with the technology that we do have, and would not want to go back to some earlier time of alleged simplicity.

What really bothers me about Silicon Valley is not precisely the downside of its various breakthroughs (though they are real), nor anything explicitly superficial (though I do think the superficial is often deeper than we think it is). It is, instead, the hubris of a culture that believes technology can save everything. George Packer has an excellent exploration of Silicon Valley in last week’s New Yorker, though it is, sadly, behind their paywall (as most everything I try to link to on that site seems to be). Taking pride in a quality product is one thing; believing that one’s product somehow offers the answer to the world’s ills is quite another. There’s the pretension of claiming one’s industry will drive the future of the nation’s economy while simultaneously employing only a handful of highly skilled and educated workers. The political ethos of the Valley, to the extent that it exists, involves a naïve, cheery optimism that leads its champions to take pride in their own successes while remaining completely unable to understand those who did not make it to the top. It is libertarian in nature, but not in an aggressive, Ayn Rand-ish way. It does recognize, at least on some level, the value of human connections, given its emphasis on social networks. But it is a very impoverished view, presuming that these networks can somehow weave together into a social fabric that can replace the institutions that form the building blocks of the United States as we know it. To see how this dream looks in practice, look no further than Palo Alto and San Francisco (the free preview of the Packer piece does a good job of painting this picture). While this gentrification and growing inequality is not at all unique to the Bay Area, it certainly belies any supposed exceptionalism along the San Andreas Fault. Instead, it is a microcosm of the 21st Century United States: glistening in wealth, but atomized; socially liberal, but only skin-deep in its diversity; caught up in this myth that further liberation will somehow solve all of our problems.

I’m painting with a broad brush, of course, and perhaps I’m picking on Silicon Valley. It probably isn’t hard to find similar attitudes in other elite ghettoes, from New York investment banks to Washington bureaucracies to the Boston academia. But, at the very least, many of these people seem cynically aware of their positions, and public opinion of these institutions reflects that accordingly. Silicon Valley, on the other hand, remains a fairy-tale land of opportunity and possibility, a realm of happy groupthink unaware of the dark side of their worldview. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, the old cliché goes, and once again, the old cliché proves true. The most dangerous people tend to be the ones who cannot conceive of the possibility that they might be wrong. I can only hope that Silicon Valley is more mature than Packer suggests, or that it will mature–or, if necessary, be exposed for what it is–before long.