A special Earth Day excerpt from China Lake...













Summer, Middle America . . . midday, with dark gray clouds closing over the horizon, raindrops dotting the deserted sidewalks while streetlights change for cars that aren’t there, a hooded figure draped head to toe in black appears in the distance chanting as he steps out from behind the blind corner of an office building and, beating the skin of a small plastic drum, he continues to the street and halts in the intersection just as another figure appears behind him, her red hair blowing as she drops her hood, crosses the asphalt, and reaches for his hand, holding it tight as together they turn and watch the others hobble out into the street and push past them, a sudden ragtag band of seers, saints, and shamans, visionary pioneers of a new world, the next great awakening, brothers and sisters, vagabond friends and lifelong lovers, the elect few who have recognized the truth and feel called upon to sing, to chant, and to shout and witness, boys and girls and grizzled elders looking skinny and limping but singing proud beside their fathers and daughters, grandparents, sons, and mothers pushing baby strollers, dragging overstuffed suitcases and carts with creaking wheels as they march east and chant in unison, others in the company lugging rucksacks, drums, and mandolins, half of them wearing neon green traffic vests while others hold aloft the golden regalia of their homeland, the heavy reflective highway signs that still line every roadway from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., signs beneath which they break bread, pray aloud, and bed down, except that the few they carry no longer warn of divided highways, winding roads, or dead ends but rather imminent extinction, and as their bright vests begin to billow in the driving rain, like the calm emissaries of some flickering world built just beyond the uttermost interstate off- ramp, the pilgrims press on up the length of Main Street and out to the perimeter of the city, and their shapes begin to dissolve into the distance as they take once more to the highway, leaving those in their wake to wonder whether they were even real, and whether or not they should follow, and where that would lead them, what fate they might find tomorrow on that narrow road far beyond the mountains.  

They left Los Angeles a thousand strong not long after the governor of California declared the drought a state of emergency. Reservoir levels had hit an all- time low, and some cities were completely out of water. Scientists described the situation as the greatest absolute reduction in water availability ever seen. Farmers were cutting their losses, selling their cattle, and leaving their homes while others started drilling new wells, sucking up such a volume of water from the ground that they made mountains rise and triggered earthquakes. And still the fields lay fallow. It seemed a miracle, but on the first day of the pilgrims’ journey torrential downpours flooded southern California, bringing an end to eighteen rainless months. But it didn’t last. Optimistic meteorologists predicted the return of El Niño as they passed over the San Andreas Fault near Palm Springs and continued up into the Mojave Desert, just south of China Lake. But El Niño never came.  

They walked the highway shoulder at night to escape the sun. In the mornings they doctored blisters, boiled oatmeal packets, and kept marching blindly into the heat haze. In Arizona, Navajo leaders blessed their journey and offered gifts in the form of sacred stones, and when raindrops began to dot the desert once again the elders declared it a sign: great sacrifices often bring rain, and their sacrifice was perhaps the greatest. The leaders of Zuni Pueblo met with them in New Mexico. They received eagle feathers and a special message, which they carried forth across the border of Colorado, marching twenty miles each day and bivouacking along roadsides and in whatever basements and churches would house them. When they reached Nebraska, they neither heard the dawn chorus nor saw the monarch migration, but curious onlookers stopped to talk to them in towns. Everyone always asked the same question — why? — and their answers seldom varied. 

“It was a sense of being commanded by a higher power,” their leader said. 

Others testified, “It’s a prayer of sorts.” 

“I’m praying for generations that may not exist.”

Those who had taken a vow of silence let the signs speak for themselves, “As for us, we can’t stop speaking about what we have seen and heard. Acts 4:20.” 

And what had they seen? “What I have seen is, out of suffering comes great love.”

Other pilgrims summarized the grueling 3,000-mile march, “Surrender your heart and follow what’s good.” 

“Pilgrimage may be thought of as the experience of finding a holy place. But it is not a journey to Eden. Transcendence does not come without the understanding of suffering.”

“We hope the heart and mind of the people will be awakened.”


It’s the day after Halloween. I’m hungover, sitting in the rain, staring over the grass at a small party rental stage where a woman stretches trash bags over a pair of PA speakers. She fastens them with duct tape, crouches back behind the cabinet, and swaps some wires. Her face looks unhappy. Several men stand alongside the tiny stage, shaking their heads as she taps the microphone, makes a grimace, and switches out more cables. It’s hard to tell if she’s afraid of electrocution or the opposite. But as her lips continue mouthing silent words, as she drops the mic and picks up a megaphone, stretching the strap over her shoulder, I decide the PA isn’t working.

“Please do not leave bags unattended. They will confiscate them or worse.” 

She stands on the little stage at the center of the grass, sole captain of the raft, while the wind shifts and drives the rain in at a westward angle. 

“Bags need to remain on your person,” she says.

One of the trash bags flaps out from the duct tape, inflating like a wind sock, as she stares toward the traffic lights blinking on H Street. Unzipping my hood, I gaze over my shoulder, scanning the green lawns, but they spread spotless between the flower plots and the bricked paths of bored tourists. 

“The police have been very accommodating,” she calls again.

I try to light a cigarette and look inconspicuous. The thought crosses my mind that I could stand and leave, just walk away, and that I probably should. But I want to see them. There is something about their journey, its symbolic gesture, that moves me. Anyway, I drove a thousand miles to be here. 

“Please do not leave bags unattended!”

Reaching under the park bench, I drag out my rucksack, the same faded army surplus issue I’d been holding the first time I watched the pilgrims pass in Iowa City. The ATM wouldn’t accept the eight- dollar check from the restaurant job I’d recently quit, and I kicked the machine while it beeped and then I turned as the drums, chants, and cheers drifted up the block. The procession crossed peacefully along Clinton Street and out onto the pedestrian mall, and I followed after them, comforted by the thought that I could kill time before I went back to George’s Buffet and started drinking again. They formed a circle beneath the stucco walls of the Sheraton Hotel, and I stood at the periphery, staring fascinated toward a doctored road sign while students and shoppers stopped to ask questions. 

A pretty girl with dimples came out from the vintage shop. I’d seen her around. She worked there. Whenever she looked at me, I always felt certain that she wanted me to die. She lifted her phone and pointed up the narrow promenade toward two young boys, maybe five or six, sitting calmly inside a sky-blue covered wagon. They were both eating sandwiches. Along the side of the carriage, someone had scrawled the words “Catastrophe Ahead.” The boys watched as a woman twirled around the plaza on a pair of old roller skates, her long red hair bouncing in bright phosphorescent waves as she lifted a black sign high above her helmet: “The only way to combat our extinction is extraordinary action FROM THE HEART.” 

“They must be having fun.” 

I pointed toward the children. 

A man, probably sixty, about my mother’s age, turned toward me and nodded. “Mmm,” he said. “How many kids get to see the country at that age?” He combed a gnarled, granite- colored mustache with a long fingernail and smiled. “They’re blessed. We’re all blessed.”

The man introduced himself as Don and explained that he and the others had already been on the road for six months. “We have a woman in her eighties,” he said, squinting as he pointed across the ped mall. 

“They don’t have to go to school?”

I gestured toward the children. 

“Their parents are teachers,” he said. “They were teachers.” 

He said he was from Arizona. He’d walked here. “Join us,” he said. 

“I can’t.” The university had recently awarded me a position teaching prison convicts creative-writing classes online. 

“Okay,” Don said. “Next time.” 

Among the pilgrims stationed that afternoon in Iowa City, there was a girl named Sean. She’d recently left college, shaved off most her hair, and just started speaking again. She said the 109-day self- imposed silence helped alleviate her depression, a despair born from the fact that 150 species vanished daily. “I could be present and listen to all those who have important things to say,” Sean said, “the birds, the wind in the trees, the cars zooming by, the songs of all my friends.” I was amazed to learn that Sean had walked most of the journey without any shoes. “You have a whole new awareness when you are barefoot and feeling what you are walking on,” she said. Not wearing shoes brought her closer to the earth. “I am massaging her and she’s massaging me back. Sometimes it hurts, but it’s always good.”

Despite the New Age vibe, I liked Sean. I want to see her again — I want to see that her depression has passed.

Across the grass now, a spare trash bag rips loose from the corner of the stage. “Announcement, announcement . . .” It tumbles out, a slither and a roll; then the wind hits it harder, lifting it over the grass, and it hovers like a ghost, drawn magnetically toward the iron bars along Pennsylvania Avenue, and no one chases it.

“Come meet us at the finish line,” Don had told me in Iowa. 

“Where’s that?” 

“Washington, D.C.”

He gave me his e- mail address and cell phone number and told me to keep in touch. I’d written several times over the intervening months — I wrote Sean as well — but neither ever wrote back. 

The lady onstage continues bleating through the megaphone, “Don’t place things on the ground and walk away. They will probably be gone when you get back!”

The anxiety in her voice is palpable, electric — despite the broken PA.  But it’s hard to tell whom she’s talking to. 

According to Ed Fallon, the main organizer of the Great March for Climate Action, the most beautiful aspect of their journey was talking to the American people. “We are on a pilgrimage,” he said. Walking in and of itself “is not going to change anything,” Fallon told reporters in December, but it does represent “the commitment that hundreds of people are willing to make to get the rest of the country thinking about, talking about the commitment we all need to make to move beyond this crisis.”

“We want the challenge of seeing this march grow,” Fallon said. “When we get to Washington, D.C., we want to see thousands of people, tens of thousands of people descend upon the White House with the clear message that we want climate action and we want

 it now.”

I was expecting huge crowds, hundreds of curious onlookers waiting at the finish line to greet the pilgrims, to mock and jeer and cheer their historic march. But so far neither party has arrived.

Another megaphone starts in across the park. There’s a circle of ten or so people assembled in front of the White House. I can’t read their signs, but I hear the words. “Unite! Unite! Unite against ISIS!” Were they referring to some primordial Earth Goddess or the Islamic state? Standing up from the park bench, I stub my cigarette on the wooden armrest and watch as the smoke curls and lifts away into the canopy of yellow autumn leaves, thinking, while I pace, of a few days ago inside the US House of Representatives, when I’d gazed up at a ribbon embroidered in blue and gold and read aloud for the first time the words Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way. For some reason, staring at the original artwork, some of its characters nearly life-size, I noticed something at the center of the painting that I hadn’t ever seen. 

And it made me smile.

In his summary of the painting, the artist too showed fondness. Emanuel Leutze described “a young vagrant with a fiddle on his back assisting his equally young partner for life up to the rock to peep at the distance.” The two, Leutze wrote, “express careless happiness in spite of their scanty equipments.” The term “partner for life” I find particularly touching. It is, I think, the only true optimism in the piece. I don’t know why I never noticed these two carefree, sane individuals. These two urchins, headed together toward life’s summit, are bewitched not by gold but by each other — she by the light in his eyes, he by her body’s fitness. All of earth, sky, and human coin would mean nothing if you were not here to help me waste it.

“Is that your bag?” a cop asks me suddenly. 

“Yes, it’s mine. Sorry.” 

I want to tell him that of all the characters, of all thirty-two people painted in Leutze’s Westward, only one walks without shoes — it’s the girl climbing up the rock ledge beside her partner for life to peep at the distance. She expresses careless happiness in spite of the fact that she’s barefoot. But I refrain from insanity. 

“Here they come,” the cop says. “Bunch of fucking bums.” 

Blue sirens flash along the flanks of white motorcycles as the police brake, dismount, and stand in the intersection, blocking the traffic along H Street. They’re all wearing reflective neon traffic vests, same as the marchers, whom I can hear now — drums, pots, and pans clanking, boot heels beating on cobblestones as they lift their voices high, like the road signs, flags, and banners I can’t yet read behind the walls of the Hay-Adams Hotel.

“Welcome, marchers!” the megaphone screams.

In my mind, in the mental image I’d formed of the Great March, it was the opposite of Emanuel Leutze’s painting. People were pulling covered wagons in both, trekking overland across America in search of a better life, but one route led west, the other ran east. One congratulated something false. The other warned of something true. 

“Hello! Hello! Marchers!” 

The Great March for Climate Action was going to be the greatest cross- country march in US history. Tens of thousands of people crossing the country together, rising up from the darkness of the past, out from the Valley of the Shadow, and gaining momentum every month, every mile, every minute. Soon they’d flood Washington with a democratic force so colossal in its weight that Congress, the courts, and the president could only bow before progress and save us from extinction. 

Neon traffic vests flap over dark rain jackets as they cross the grass and circle around the stage, chanting ancient folk songs from the 70s: “This pretty planet spinning through space . . . you’re a garden, you’re a harbor, you’re a holy place.” The covered wagons are gone now, as are the two boys and Don from Iowa. But there’s the redhead on roller skates, twirling in green glitter spandex pants, lifting her road sign, and singing beside her friends, “golden sun going down . . . gentle blue giant spin us around.” HBO is here. A special human interest story. “All through the night, safe ’til the morning light.” There’s an obese man in a jean jacket that says Earthman on the back beating a drum. A white boy in a Redskins beanie. An old woman wearing round- rimmed glasses and clapping her gloves. A radio host in a checkered golf cap. My black hair tied back in a bun. HBO zooms in on the flushed, shining faces as they keep cycling through the rhyme —“golden sun going down . . . spin us around!”— four times, eight times, twelve times, until the rain abates and the song empties into silence. 

The megaphone from the competing protest idles through the oak trees.

“Unite, unite, unite against ISIS!”

A girl in a white beanie lifts a road sign and parries, “This Little Light of Mine!” and the other marchers fall in line.

“Right here in D.C. . . . I’m gonna let it shine!”

Camera flashes flicker over the wet grass.  I scan around the circle, searching for Sean, but I don’t see her. 

In reality, only four Americans walked across the country. 

The core four are joined by a small support staff that drove cars, plus twenty or so other marchers who hiked most of the way but ducked out here and there for personal reasons. 

“For climate justice . . . I’m gonna let it shine.”  

“Over the earth . . . I’m gonna let it shine.” 

I had wanted to talk to Sean. But now, in a way, I feel happy she isn’t here. I have no idea what I would possibly ask her.

“For poor and hungry folk . . .”

“All around the town . . .”

“Trusting in the Goddess . . . I’m gonna let it shine.” 

But Sean was there. I saw her later, but I felt too bad to talk to her. She had her shoes on, and she looked sad. “I know now,” she told a reporter, “that marches are not going to save us. I still struggle with this desire to save humanity, though I’m not sure if that is our natural course.” 

She said all things must come to an end. 

“We humans are no exception. I just hope we come to ours with grace.” 

A woman named Cathy steps onstage and introduces herself, patting her gray, shaved hair before she taps a Buddhist prayer bell. Scanning the circle, I do see a difference in tone between the young pilgrims and the old. It’s hard to identify, to name the divide exactly, but there’s something restive in the eyes of the millennials. Disappointment or anger maybe that nobody is here. Or perhaps it’s self- consciousness, resentment at the fact that many of the aged marchers outdid them in miles. Or maybe I’m just projecting. 

The bell’s warm resonance fades, and Cathy stands smiling, exuberant, calm. “All of you, welcome. All of you have participated in the Great March for Climate Action. It doesn’t matter where you joined us. Even if you joined us today, we are all participants in the Great March for Climate Action.” 

Her invitation is generous. I’d like to feel serene, calm, part of the collective — a positive, adamant, and accepted member — but I really just feel tired, wet, and useless now. I need to get drunk again or drink more coffee. Besides the marchers dressed in neon traffic vests and official green t- shirts, perhaps twenty others, including myself, turned up at the finish line. All told, maybe seventy-three people. 

“At this time,” Cathy says, “I would like to introduce Miriam, our mayor, our special person, and our spirit walker.”

Whistles and cheers whirl around the circle as a woman in her seventies slowly mounts the stairs at the side stage. It seems pretty clear that the old people run the show. 

But Miriam doesn’t have much to say. 

“I would like to say: we made it!” 

And that’s all she says. 

“We made it!” the crowd affirms. 

“I want to show everyone,” Cathy says, “what was given to us that I have carried across America.” Her hand makes an A- OK sign as she presses her thumb and index finger together, but I can’t see anything. “I bring a stone from the elders of the Navajo pueblo, who said, ‘Take this to Washington and tell them they need to protect our sacred land.’” 

She reaches back inside a crumpled Ziploc. 

“I bring an eagle feather from Zuni Pueblo with a similar message, ‘We must work together for Mother Earth who has brought us forth and whom we must love and care for.’ ” She lifts it high overhead and shuffles slowly in a circle for all to see. I wonder if Cathy knows that it’s a federal offense for a nontribal member, a white woman such as herself, to carry an eagle feather on her person. “An eagle feather,” she says, “from . . .” 

She has to pull her note card back out and read the name. 

“From Zuni Pueblo.” 

At this time Cathy introduces Pat. 

Pat jumps onstage, gesticulating wildly while she holds the megaphone tight against her lips. “Washington, D.C., doesn’t see climate action happening every day,” she warns, waving her hand toward the White House. “But today they do!” 

Pat is much younger than Cathy and much more aggressive. I turn my head and close my left forefinger carefully over my ear.

“I want each and every one of you,” she screams, “to think of one action, one idea that you will take, and bring that idea to mind!” 

Pat allows a generous moment’s pause, and in that fragile time frame I attempt to summon to consciousness some action, some minor coup d’état I might discover that could meaningfully affect climate change mitigation. But nothing really comes to mind. Maybe I shouldn’t have burned fifty gallons of gas driving here. I told the man at Starbucks yesterday that my pumpkin spice latte only needed a single paper cup’s insulation. Perhaps I could do that again. I don’t need three to keep the skin of my palm from melting off. I’ve been drumming in metal bands for the past fifteen years and still have plenty of calluses. 

“A couple years ago,” Pat shrieks, “there was a man who had an idea!” 

She might do well as an MC during the karaoke blackout hour. 

“The idea was to convene a coast-to-coast climate march for climate action!” 

Her head hangs and her bangs block her eyes. 

I wish I was still as drunk as she is. 

“His name is Ed Fallon!”

Fallon is a former Iowa congressman. He’s in his late fifties and wears a checkered golf cap and a jumpy smile. In 2006 he made an unsuccessful run for state governor, receiving a noble quarter of the vote. He now hosts an Internet radio program called The Fallon Report. A sandwich shop in downtown Des Moines advertises gluten-free paninis before each episode. 

“Technology is not my forte,” he says, raising the megaphone. 

On YouTube, most of Fallon’s radio shows have between zero and fifteen plays. 

“Um, hey,” he says. “This is really . . .” 

He stares beside me into the face of a young kid from Colorado, or at least that’s what the flag patch glued to his messenger bag seems to indicate. 

“‘Surreal’ maybe is the word that comes to mind.” 

I scoot my heels over the wet grass, following the front line of marchers as they inch closer to the stage. Despite the paltry Internet clicks, Fallon speaks in the frank, husky, even- volumed voice of a man accustomed to an audience. “I’m walking down the streets of Washington, D.C.. and somehow I still feel like I’m walking down the streets of Los Angeles. Something about this climate march just kind of . . .” His eyes cast about for the right expression. “Time warps,” he says. “It does such strange things, and it goes fast and it goes slow. It becomes meaningless.” 

He pauses for a breath, but it looks more like a wince —“meaningless,” probably not the exact punctuating term he’d hoped to land on during his opening remarks…