At 5 a.m. in the darkness, driving through farms, fields and fog, with the defroster blowing cold air on my frozen sock-covered hands, I headed up to the high country once again. With a shrinking bank account and a truck with 330,000 miles on it and various parts regularly falling off, I made my way across the Central Valley to ask for endorsement for protection of a big swath of the Sierra — in a place where politicians actually advocated logging in Yosemite after the Rim Fire.
My mission? To make a national monument between Yosemite and Sequoia, which runs from 12,000 to 1,000 feet and encompasses three major watersheds – the South Fork of the Merced, the Kings and the San Joaquin Rivers – and about a million forested acres.
It’s a big and grandiose plan, some say. Yes, it is.
But on I drove in my truck with no functioning heater in mid-winter. By the time I knocked on a business door in downtown Mariposa or Oakhurst or North Fork or Coarsegold to ask for an endorsement, my level of total discomfort would reach a crescendo. I don’t like sales. I don’t really even like to talk much.
Deep breath. Open door. The jingle of bells. The suspicious eyes surveying me and my clipboard. It was awkward. I’d talk, listen, and ask and repeat this scene hundreds of times, after hundreds of miles of driving. What am I looking for? Just a signature. But I got a lot more than that.
What I discovered in being honest and vulnerable to complete strangers is that most of them care about the environment and they care about the place they live, even in one of the most conservative districts in the state. Many signed on. Some were doubtful. A few were caustic. But mostly, they were kind.
Even at the Forest Service office…
I made an appointment with the supervisor of the entire Sierra National Forest, to discuss how he might (or might not) like to manage a national monument. He was polite. He is organized, and the man can run a public meeting with aplomb, a good person to be in charge. But the Forest Service generally doesn’t like monument designations, but I thought I would ask, anyway. He said he wouldn’t quit. Well, that’s a start.
Naturally, my truck broke down out front, right after our meeting, and the Forest Service staff provided the jump. I made it about one mile, and it failed again. Then, a gentleman helped push the truck off the highway and disappeared. Then, a police lady stood with me in the rain, until I could get a tow truck. Then the Pep Boys staff gave me a free oil change with an alternator replacement, and I went home, finally arriving around 9 p.m. (I can’t even begin to detail the wonders my mechanic has worked during this time.)
I used to drive up to the mountains and hike and sit silently under the trees, and not say much, and it made me feel wonderful, alive and content. But I had no idea that the people and the towns around my favorite place were so rich with life and goodness too. If anything, I’ve learned that political rhetoric can interfere with a real conversation between real people, working to do the right thing.
If ever there was a cause for hope for a better world, I found it in them. I am grateful for every business person, organization and individual who signed on last year, who gave me a chance or cup of coffee or a piece of chocolate, or just a word of encouragement.
I look forward to another year of getting to know you. Thank you very much, from my heart to yours.