By Steve Klinger
We logged over 6,000 miles this summer, most of it on the road, but also 2,000 nautical miles, sailing from Seattle to Glacier Bay and back again on an Inside Passage cruise. For me it was a trip both forward and backward in time, seeing people and places entirely new to me, but also reacquainting with friends and relatives, including two classmates I hadn’t seen in about 40 years.
One of the new acquaintances was my grandson, Henry, who was less than a month old when I looked into his wide and innocent eyes in Denver. Thinking back on it, I wondered whether, when he is old enough to follow the itinerary we took, there will still be glaciers calving in Alaska. Maybe so, but probably a lot deeper in the fjords.
As for the wildlife we saw – gray and humpback whales, sea otters and bald eagles in Alaska, elk and bison in Yellowstone – I’m betting the number and variety of such creatures will be greatly diminished in another generation, and that’s a best-case scenario.
The health of the oceans, vast and impervious to human negligence though they seem, has been dealt a new blow by BP’s disaster in the Gulf, a soiling of ecosystems whose true scope may not be known for years. Although the gushing oil has been stopped for now, unproven and untested chemical dispersants have scattered the evidence and left less predictable toxins in their place, and some scientists believe a buildup of methane gas in the area of the damaged well is more worrisome than the crude. To the fish and sea turtles and birds, it matters not the enemy who vanquished them.
In Sitka, Ketchikan, Juneau and then in Victoria, B.C. we saw remarkably beautiful creations of First Peoples, from the totem poles of the Tlingit to intricate, bright-hued rugs, wood carvings and articles of clothing (Tlingit, Inuit) that describe an utterly different relationship between these “primitive” civilizations and their sustaining planet than that of our own culture, whose main byproduct befouled Prince William Sound in 1989 and now the more southerly waters where the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank.
On our trip we used the marvelous gadgetry of 21st century America, including laptop computers and iPhones, to find lodgings, and restaurants and stay in touch with that part of the world we’d left behind, and we sailed in a modern floating city 11 stories high that contained a world unto itself, including a casino, numerous lounges and about four restaurants to feed our various addictions. We experienced the endangered wonders of just a corner of our planet as only modern travelers can, yet it was hard to forget that the same technology that put the world at our doorstep is also damaging the interconnected web of life systems on a vast scale, at a relentless pace.
We covered the great expanse of the Rockies and the Intermountain West in a few days’ time, thanks to the internal combustion engine and the fossil fuels that still power it, and we spent a month on the road, trying to find cuisine less poisonous than the standard restaurant fare of endless refined carbohydrates. We met a number of fellow travelers, mostly on the ship, who shared our frustration at the poorly concealed racism and mean-spirited rightwing backlash to the few diluted initiatives coming from the Party of Change. We met a lot of ordinary folks who obviously are having to make do with less than they used to have, but still have not connected the dots to see that belt-tightening won’t avoid the end-of-empire tsunami that will be washing their way in a year or ten or a hundred.
We gaped at the magnificence of Yosemite Falls as the bountiful snowmelt cascaded uproariously to the valley floor and Half Dome looked on impassively in shifting light and shadow. We smiled at the hordes with their digital cameras who had to position their loved ones in front of every natural wonder to prove for posterity and less fortunate relatives that they had established their own indelible bond of proximity with each landmark.
We stopped to read the signs that described the Native American settlements overrun by the white intruders who had the power to seize the beautiful territory they coveted, and how they attacked and banished these First Peoples (Paiute, Miwok, Chauchila, etc.) to inferior lands and bestowed their vices and diseases upon them, not to mention their places of worship, never seeing the irony of having unceremoniously evicted the native inhabitants from their own places of worship which were the lands they had settled.
When we finally made it home it was with wonder, weariness and some relief to discover our own home, still standing in the verdant shade of a hot July afternoon, a comforting oasis after leagues of open sea, after half a continent of forest and mountain, mesa and desert. Still standing but not removed from the contradictions of the world and the grand irony of human resourcefulness and genius, which has made nearly all things possible except the most important one: that harmonious, mindful oneness we lost in conquering those who lived it, lost in extracting minerals for economic gain, lost in disturbing the sacred rhythms of the greater order from which we arose – and now are losing ourselves in the process. For our collective journey of conquest and self-interest is rapidly taking us to that scenic overlook in the evolutionary road where the sign ahead can’t be missed: Dead End.