Gentle reader, the snake spared him. We turned tail and headed back to the rest of the group, and by the time we’d reached the spot where the snake had reared up, it had slid back beneath a manzanita bush five feet from the trail. It was still rattling to raise Cain, bound and determined to let us know exactly where it was, for which we were thankful. We passed the spot cautiously and then tore down the trail. We revised our hiking order: a grownup would lead to watch for early evening sunbathing reptiles and to bear the brunt of any potential strike with his or her full-sized and therefore less vulnerable body. We wound around the ridge onto a level path shaded by Jeffrey pine, which soothed us with their bracing fragrance. Eventually, we scrambled up the dome of Mt. Pacifico as a bleary pink sun drained out of the sky. After watching for the last flash of light and collapsing by the picnic tables, we set up camp and cooked, hazed by twilight and fatigue. On our pads that night, we watched shooting stars and huddled together beneath a wind whose nightlong argument with the treetops wouldn’t let me sleep for more than twenty minutes at a time. The moon rose, backlighting my dreams of pink-eyed mountain lions and lodges of Jeffrey pine into which Husband’s hippie friends would not let me go.
We were lucky, after having been foolish enough to put our kids in harm’s way by taking them high into waterless, snake-infested mountains. Foolish or no, though, we’ll do it again, as we are about to this very weekend.
As I write this, I’ve been reading about the Syrian refugee crisis. Not too long before we took this hike, that meat truck filled with fifty decomposing humans was found in Hungary. A few days later, the shocking picture of the tiny drowned boy on the beach in Turkey showed up in my Facebook feed.
I never know how to react to this kind of thing, as a posting and as an event in the world. The images seem sensationalistic, and they are, but they’re sensational because the situations are. The failures that have caused these situations are so big that I feel helpless to change or influence them. At the same time, I understand these situations to be caused by historically specific human actions that are not inevitable.
So a couple of days later, I signed a petition asking the US government to accept more Syrian refugees. I didn’t repost either the article or the petition. When it comes to reposting, I fret that I haven’t done enough research, that the photo will prove to have been staged or exaggerated, that the petition to be scurrilous. Maybe in fact the US government already does accept a lot of Syrian refugees, and I’ve just signed a petition that actually lowers the number. Besides, what sentimentality or selfish crypto-racism or ethnocentrism impels me to respond to this tragedy and not to endemic gang violence (which also targets children) in Chicago, or San Salvador, or downtown LA? I don’t like activism that takes ten minutes; it feels insincere and ultimately ineffective. On the other hand, maybe activism that takes ten minutes is better than no activism at all.
Whatever this is – ambivalence, guilt – makes it hard for me to write, because what I’m writing about are first-world problems, or at least a first-world perspective on problems. My kid almost gets bitten by a rattlesnake because I’ve taken a three-day weekend to guide him into a well-regulated, taxpayer-funded backcountry. We get some blisters from our hundred-dollar shoes, sip water from highly engineered water bladders, and eat ten-dollar hiking dinners. This other child drowns because a rubber dinghy – the first step in his father’s plan to achieve a “normal” middle-class life in Vancouver – flips in the Mediterranean in the middle of the night. What I’m trying to say here is hard, partly because it’s obvious and partly because it doesn’t go anywhere, but I’ve got to try to say it anyway. Somehow when I write, I always come around to the insignificance of my experiences and ideas about them in the face of global social injustices.
Maybe this reaction is conditioned by GenX futility, maybe by my gender. I postulate that my self-silencing when it comes to representing my adventures has something to do with gender (more on this later). My adventures don’t matter, especially given their internal or domestic character, and since they’re by definition about relationship as well as territory. By contrast, a male adventurer – take Kerouac, because why not – wouldn’t question the cultural significance of his adventure, even in the shadow of Auschwitz and during the first frosts of the Cold War.
The picture of that baby plagues me, and probably in what’s ultimately a very selfish way: for every disaster, I imagine it happening to my kids and I’m a wreck. Gun violence, ebola, human trafficking, kidnapping by the Mexican drug cartels. I find ways in which my situation is not really like those situations – the large (but not impenetrable; c.f. gun violence) economic safe-zone that protects them and me from tragedy. And then I feel guilty or confused or hopeless about that safe-zone and how little I’m willing to do to extend it to others, except think about it and write about it and plan to donate to Human Rights Watch and Doctors Without Borders once I make more than 20K a year.
See, and I don’t have an answer. No closure, no healing, no satisfying conclusion in which I figure that being brave enough to say something I believe in and care about somehow ameliorates social injustices and human suffering on a global scale. I wish it did. But I don’t think it does. It’s just something I want to do, something without which my own life will be sadder and more disjoint than it is right now.