Day 1: The Fuzz!
Off to a great start — Day 1, and I already had the cops called on me!
It was getting on in the afternoon as I hiked up El Camino Real, historically connecting the Spanish pueblos, missions, and presidios of the California colonial period, now a paved strip hosting a bewildering array of nail salons, fast food joints, and Mexican restaurants. The last of many City Limits signs I’d passed (Menlo Park, Redwood City, San Carlos, San Mateo…) read Burlingame, about halfway up the peninsula to San Francisco. My feet and shoulders were starting to ache, and I was looking around for a place to camp for the night — but public green spaces are in short supply in the area. I decided to turn to a different strategy: find a nice person who would let me camp out on their lawn. It’s a strategy that has worked for me hitch-hiking in Scotland and in small towns from place to place… but I don’t recommend it in the wealthy communities of the greater San Francisco Bay Area.
I turned a few blocks off El Camino and blithely knocked on the first door I saw with a nice patch of lawn. The woman cracked the door open just enough to peer at me, and I began kindly explaining that I had just finished my PhD at Stanford, and was hiking home to Alaska, spreading the word about a field school we’re creating up near where I grew up. I’m looking for a place to camp for the night, and I’m wondering if I might pitch a tent on your lawn here? She hurriedly uttered “No you may not,” and slammed the door. Un-deterred (sure, I was bound to get a few negative responses), I walked on up the block. That’s when I saw a police car cruising my way. “Jesus,” I thought, incredulously… “She called the cops on me!”
He got out, all big chest and sidearm — “Do you have your ID, sir?” I fished around in my backpack for my license. Handing it to him, he asked “Did you ask a woman up the street if you could camp on her lawn?” his tone suggesting that I might as well have thrown a hand grenade through her window. I replied, “Yes I did, is that illegal?” He didn’t answer, squinting at my license. I began telling him about my hike North and how it ties into our project in Alaska. He expressed vague interest when I mentioned the kayak through the Inside Passage, and said so as he took my photograph — from the front, and in profile. That was about the time the second cop car pulled up.
In her suspicious eyes behind a barely-cracked door, and his dark sunglasses, it was easy to see the power structure created by wealth disparity in America. Hell, I could feel it — I was not welcome there, and he had the power to remove me. I genuinely think that if I hadn’t been able to pull the Stanford University card, he would have thrown me in jail for the night. These are the ways that the wealthy and powerful maintain the hierarchy that defines this nation. I kid you not, that cop car was there in 3 minutes flat. The police in these communities effectively serve as private guards, ensuring that nothing threatens the wealthy suburban lives of their residents.
The status quo of entrenched hierarchy is especially pronounced in our educational system: because public schools are funded by local property taxes, the most expensive districts have the finest schools, with the most opportunities. And conversely, poor neighborhoods have dysfunctional schools with overtaxed and underpaid teachers, and crowded, decrepit facilities, in many cases leading to a spiraling deterioration into violence, substance abuse, and incarceration. Thus, the power structure is actively maintained largely through an educational system fueled by money, and in this and so many other ways, the American Dream of “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps” is a load of garbage.
I worry about this when I think of Inian Islands Institute. No two ways about it — bringing students up to remote Alaska is an expensive thing to do. Will wealthy private schools like Stanford and my alma mater Pomona College be the only ones able to send groups to our program? Will it be just one more amazing opportunity for students already showered with amazing opportunities? Will it be conservation for the conservationists, environmentalism for the environmentalists, adventure for the adventurers, travel for the world-travelers? Will students growing up in urban, inner-city environments, racked by nature deficit disorder, who have seen no more green space than a one-block city park, get a chance to experience this vast and mind-blowing Wilderness? I hope that years down the line, when we are established and have a reputation for teaching great programs, we will able to pool together some alumni to create a fund to bring at least one underprivileged group of students out each year. I can hardly imagine the power this place would hold for those kids.
“If I decide to let you go, I’d advise that you walk up to the next corner, take a right. You’ll hit El Camino Real. Turn left, and just keep walking.” He decided to let me go, and I decided to take his advice. Checking into the Budget Motel in San Bruno a couple hours later, I reflected that I still retain a lot of small-town naivete from my Alaska days, and it gets me into trouble from time to time. But I intend to keep that mindset, to keep living as though there is trust and community in this world. I’ll just keep walking.