Packing Up: Mt Baker and the Healthcare Debate Fiasco

Our Peaking At 70 mission is not to just create paradigm shifts within ourselves, but to offer new perspectives, and to stimulate similar shifts in others.

Packed up and heading out; so looking forward to another shot at peaking!

Packed up and heading out; so looking forward to another shot at peaking!

Packing up—heading out to climb Mt Baker for 70th birthday. Excited to have another shot at peaking. After Mt. Shasta and the E. coli contamination, it took several weeks to get back into training… a blessing in disguise. It forced, or allowed, me to do a bit more study on diet, and additional experimentation with this aging carcass; and it did this at the critical time of public debate over our healthcare system.

If you’ve been following this blog you know I struggle with ulcerative colitis (UC); and you know I’m skeptical (to say the least) about standard medical protocols—the pharmaceutical approach that suppresses your immune systemand , oh, by the way, destroys blood cell production... just a minor bit of collateral damage, eh?!

Above I said public debate, didn’t I? I should have said pathetic debate. It has been superficial to the realities of individual and public health—just incredibly shallow. More on this in a moment.

While experimenting with diet I’ve been up on the Appalachian Trail four times in the past two weeks—the same steep, stone-strewed five-mile section each time—testing different boots or boot-sock combinations. It’s also where I do my best thinking. The clutter and chatter of daily living is gone so one can process all recent input and manipulate it into previous knowledge. That’s where it hit me that this bogus debate calls for a major paradigm shift: forget Repeal and Replace, let’s Heal and Rejuvenate. It’ll better for all of us, and it’s a lot cheaper.

The rain forest at a low elevation on Mt. Baker.

The rain forest at a low elevation on Mt. Baker.

To me, this debate is very personal. Eight years ago I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis; this was my introduction to the medical merry-go-round.  For two years I was very sick. Slowly I became convinced that current standard treatment protocols for UC were as arcane as George Washington’s doctors bleeding him to death in an attempt to get rid of bad humours. Five or six years ago I began experimenting with diet and supplements--gluten-free, grain-free, paleo, various probiotics and prebiotics, specific branch-chain amino acids, etc. Some things worked for short periods; nothing stopped flare-ups (inflammation and bleeding) in its tracks, nothing has kept it from recurring. Nothing includes all the prescribed pharmaceuticals. At least the diet experimentation had none of the collateral damage of the prescription drugs. In me, UC tends to be cyclic: inflammation and flare-ups every spring corresponding with the onslaught of tree pollen, abating every fall when all the pollen seasons are over. MDs have tended to look at me as if I have three eyes when I’ve relate this. The pollen factoid doesn’t fit in with the standard protocols, even though there are numerous articles connecting UC and pollen on the National Institute of Health’s National Medical Library website.

It seems to me, in the recent national debate, very few (maybe no one) are truly talking about healthcare, about making people healthier, or about lowering costs by making people are healthier. They all seem to be trying to figure out how to get Big Pharma, Big Ag, Big Insurance, Big government bureaucracies, and Big corporate medical centers/groups paid in a manner that keeps Americans from bitching about paying the bill.

Yet more and more books are being written and videos produced exposing the causes of the increase in disease conditions amongst Americans (and many Europeans). And more and more doctors are proposing dietary shifts to counter changes in both our food supply and in our eating habits that have occurred in the past 50 years. What I seen little of in these books, articles or videos are ties to the public healthcare debate and national healthcare costs.

Imagine if people ate diets that didn’t contribute to inflammation and illness. Imagine if we ate foods like our parents and grandparents did in the 1950s. Those much maligned diets somehow didn’t produce the degree of obesity and diabetes as the diets of the 2000s and 2010s. I’m not advocating a complete return, but shouldn’t we be asking why and where are today’s eating habits and food supply worse?

Let’s put some numbers to it. The current adult obesity rate in America is between 30% and 35% and it is projected to increase to 60% within twenty years. According to the CDC, the 2015 rate of diabetes in America is 7.4% or 23,400,000 individuals. In 1959 that rate was 0.87% or the equivalent if the population were the same of 274,900 individuals. If today’s rate reverted to 0.87% there would be 23 million fewer people with diabetes! Now imagine how much less our national bill would be for healthcare, and thus for healthcare insurance, public and private healthcare bureaucracies, and all the other adjuncts associated with the medical-industrial complex.  

If you can’t imagine it, try this: the average medical expenditure for a person diagnosed with diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association, is $13,700, although only $7,900 is attributed to the disease. Insurance costs and factors like lost work days are not factored in. Let’s be simplistic and use the minimums: $8000/year times 23,000,000 equals $184 Billion dollars/year!

That’s one disease.  UC and Crones affects about 1,600,000 people but the cost is a bit higher. Figure about $14.5 Bn/year (this figure seems low to me as the infusion of biologics cost between $4000 and $7000/month, but this is what the disease association reports—not included are all other IBS problems); for rheumatoid arthritis $19 Bn/yr. And on and on…

Now imagine a paradigm shift in our eating habits; imagine seeing autoimmune disease rates drop significantly; imagine cancer rates dropping. That’s the paradigm shift we should be talking about. Every person removed from these disease roles reduces the national healthcare bill. And more importantly, via diet change, they are less ill and they do not suffer the severe side-effects caused by harsh drugs.  Imagine if the national bill for healthcare were reduced by 50%! Now we have a proper discussion. Repeal and replace becomes moot. Let’s go for Heal and Rejuvenate.

So, forget repealing and replacing Obamacare. Repeal and replace Lectins. Repeal and replace GMOs! (BTW, the gene spliced into GMO crops is often a lectin.) Repeal and replace HFCs (high fructose corn syrup)! And repeal and replace the FDA’s lamentable food pyramid. If you want your countrymen to be healthier and you want lower healthcare costs, get rid of Obamacare, but also get rid of everything they’re talking about replacing it with. The system must be disrupted and shifted from an insurance-tax mandate paradigm to a patient-doctor-nutritionist paradigm.

Go further: Ask what’s making us sick? What has happened to our food supply? Why did it happen? What’s going on with the medicines we take? Who approves these drugs? And who approves GMO splices?

There are five major elements affecting the quality of our health and the cost of our healthcare—Big Pharma, Big Insurance, Big Corporate Hospitals and Medical Groups, Big Government bureaucracies, and Big Agriculture.  Before I go on I wish to be fair and very clear about individuals in each of these groups. There are tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, likely millions of individuals in these groups who are sincere, honest and caring, who are efficient and effective, and who strive to help others either recover their health or degenerate more slowly and die with dignity. Very seldom is there an individual who for some sick or evil reason tries to make or keep people ill. However, the system often over-powers the individual. Standard protocols and following laws, rules and regulations become paramount. My gastroenterologist knows the side effects of Mercaptopurine and all the other drugs, but believes the benefits outweigh the destruction.

Simultaneously there are, in each of these groups, elements which have no interest in Americans being healthy. In fact, for some, the interest seems to be in keeping Americans sick, in treating symptoms but not curing disease. Big Pharma lobbies the FDA, Big Ag lobbies the USDA. The relationship between government and industry becomes cozy. Big Pharma has annual revenues in the $1.5 Trillion range. Yes, Trillion with a T! That buys a lot of lobbying. Protocols trickle down from on high. Few people are watching. Half of all healthcare bills for individuals are paid indirectly by the government from money it has collected via taxes. That system encourages inflation. Individuals seldom pay directly for services, and individuals and providers become less concerned when costs are not directly tied to treatment.

 If your doctor tells you, “There is no cure for UC (or RA, or MS…), we can only manage the symptoms; you’ll have to be on these meds for the rest of your life,” don’t doubt his sincerity. He has been convinced by the higher powers that he is doing the right thing. Still, I’d suggest you get up and walk out of his office. Find someone who says, “Let’s cure it.” That goes for all autoimmune diseases, most cancers and many other conditions. Let’s eat ourselves healthy.

Right now I’m experimenting with Dr. Steven Gundry’s lectin-free (or lectin reduced) diet (see his book The Plant Paradox); and also Dr. Joseph Mercola’s cyclic ketognic program and Mitochondrial Metabolic Therapy (see his book Fat For Fuel). Here’s an article from Mercola’s site that was published 30 July 17 subtitled Who Controls What We Eat:

Okay! Enough. Back to the mountains. Baker should be easier than Shasta being that it is only a bit over 10,700’. The climb has nearly the identical elevation gain that Shasta had, but one starts lower. The distance covered is almost twice that of Avalanche Gulch at Shasta meaning the trail isn’t as steep. Baker’s glacier might be a bit more tricky than Shasta—recall, this mountain gets lots of snow—in 1998 receiving 122 feet, more than any location ever in the U.S.! Collapsing ice bridges and crevasses are potential perils, but will rope up and gear up for any eventuality.

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The Shasta Story: Successes, Failures, Surprises, Lessons Learned

This is not quite the story I’d imagined writing prior to the climb.

The trip, the mountain, as kids say, was awesome (video below). The pre-hikes to get acclimated to altitude, despite a few blisters, went well. Perhaps the very best part of the trip was spending time with the support team—Cara, Adam, Patrick, Zach, and Tom, and with many of their friends. All are young, impressive; many are striving hard to establish creative businesses while simultaneously working in the tourist industries around Tahoe—bar tenders, valets, a tour boat captain—and also teaching mountaineering skills at local university extensions or in Spain, or Argentina, or teaching OSHA classes on how to rescue people from collapsed buildings… on and on. Smart, philosophical, driven by ideals, driving themselves—as Zach puts it, “If I’m not disciplined enough, I feel I’m not living the existence I want, or reaching the potential I seek.” It was a delight and inspiring to spend time with them, but more so it was reassuring that the younger generations is not all fragile snowflakes of all-too-typical media projections. On top of that, they took pretty good care of the old guy.

There were successes, but also failures (see attached photos).  Isn’t that the way much of life goes? We’ll always have them as individuals, as families, as towns, states or nations. If we were guaranteed success on every challenge, then they really wouldn’t be challenges at all, would they?

We arrived in the Town of Mt Shasta mid-afternoon on Friday. Unloaded (stayed at an Airbnb condo), began breaking down gear, went out to the local sports shop where I rented alpine touring skis/boots/poles, plus we picked up an extra avalanche beacon, probe and shovel so everyone would have that equipment. Back to the condo, continued working on gear, began drinking extra water to pre-hydrate. Drank more the next morning, and filled up my Camelback from the kitchen tap just before we left for the trailhead… about 7 or 7:30 in the morning.

Summit Pass.JPG

After getting summit passes we were on the mountain by 8:30. Not a big rush as we knew we’d be stopping at a mid-camp at 10,400 feet (starting about 6,900’), so there was plenty of time to get to where we wanted to be. Hiked for less than half a mile when we hit the snow; I switched over to the touring skis with skins to ski up/climb that way. The younger climbers all used split boards (snow boards cut to be able to use each side for climbing, but clasped back together for boarding down).

The route up is known as Avalanche Gulch, but at least for the first part of the climb, there’s little to worry about. The weather is amazing, hot, absolutely clear. I’m in a tee-shirt, Cara is climbing in shorts. We’ve all slathered ourselves with sunblock, lip protection. I wear a hat with a long bill; dark, polarized sunglasses. Patrick uses a sun hoodie, a light weight hoodie with an SPF factor someplace off the charts. A few climbers in other groups have full face masks and goggles.

The elevation gain is deceptive. Even where the trail appears horizontal, you’re climbing. And climbing. I work myself into a rhythm, and as the pitch steepens I begin counting steps. Every 100 steps I take a short break, five deep breaths with forced full exhalation to blow off as much C02 as possible, then a few relaxed breaths and the next 100 steps up.

Can’t say the climbing was easy. At least not for me. Pack weighed 35+/- pounds after the skis were off… so it was a matter of carrying that weight up 3500 vertical feet. Still that wasn’t the problem. That’s what I’d been training to do. It wasn’t necessary to go quickly. I simply wanted to keep a consistent pace, and enjoy the grandeur of the mountain.  If you’ve glanced at the attached photos you’ve likely guessed what’s coming. All that hydrating, and all the water in the Camelback, unbeknownst to us, was contaminated with E. coli. Probably not too much of a concentration as the young’uns didn’t have this trouble, but me, with my compromised guts… well, it wasn’t pretty. An hour in and I headed for the woods; then again the next hour. Pretty soon we were above the treeline and the places to get off the trail were rock outcroppings. At this point I had no idea what had set it off (the announcement wasn’t made in town until two or three hours after we’d left for the trailhead). And, of course, I’m doing my best to stay hydrated, slugging down gulps from my Camelback, knowing dehydration is the fastest way to become fatigued.

Along with my guts, my mind was churning as it always does on hikes or climbs. “Why climb? Why go to these extremes?” I’m thinking. “No one lives atop Shasta or Rainier or Baker or Red Lake Peak, or any of these high mountains. It’s not a matter of them being National Parks or National Forest Land. No one has ever established permanent residence up there. Peaks are inhospitable. They tend to be arid, wind-swept, subject to massive and unpredictable weather swings. They’re difficult to supply, difficult to sustain life. So what magic do they hold?” I’m having these thoughts amidst counting steps and now doing my best to do a mind-over-matter meditation to stay in control. “Why climb? It certainly is more than the physical challenge, more than the amazing vista. Why climb? What do the mountains tell us, or show us, that we can’t see, or simply don’t notice, from lower elevations. Perhaps it is a matter that as one ascends the clutter and cluster of lower environs dissipates allowing for clarity of internal and external views.” The external were magnificent.

At 9800’ one of the young guys took my pack. They could tell I was hurting. To me it was pretty embarrassing not to be shouldering my weight, but I was again off into the outcroppings… and now I was running out of supplies for this kind of thing. Good grief! We weren’t even halfway through the first day—at least time-wise. Without the pack the last 600 or so vertical feet wasn’t bad. Adam went on ahead, set up our tent and campsite.

Numerous climbers dotted the mountain. Shasta gets about 5000 people a year attempting to summit, and most of them try from early-June to mid-July (depending upon the year). Later in the season as the high snows melt back, chunks of ice and rocks tend to break loose causing hazardous conditions for those below. On this day most of the climbing parties (and all of the guided climbing groups) set up well below us. Looking down a number of tiny, colorful tent cities dotted white crests, and about us on our little knoll there are perhaps two dozen tents.

Fast forward: I was up at 11, and 1, and 2, and 3… ugh! Except that the night sky was incredibly beautiful. The constellations were so clear you could reach out and grab Draco by the tail, or maybe grasp a dipper and use it to melt some snow over Patrick’s camp stove. Amidst the stars the Milky Way carpeted a swath about the globe, the tiny lights making a fabric flowing off into the deep universe. Here I’m grumbling to myself about being out of the tent, heading down to the ice privy, and simultaneously looking up in awe. Starlight reflecting off the glacier silhouetted the entire mountain. The soft snow of the day had crusted over and was every so slick in the middle of the night, forcing one look down; then, looking down into the valley the Town of Mt. Shasta was a flickering square patch of light in a rolling terrain of dark grays and black.

The guided groups began their ascent between 2 and 2:30. By 3 the climbers ascending the side of the bowl above our mid-camp, each having a headlamp, looked like a line of technologically-advanced ants. We had planned on an alpine start at 4 or 4:30, so we were all up at 3:30 getting light packs ready, but with the way I was feeling I had to tell them I didn’t think I should even attempt it. Bless these guys, they did their best to talk me into it saying they’d pull me up, and if I was still feeling bad that they’d come back down with me. Still what I was thinking about was no place off the trail the higher up you go! I climbed back into the tent, into my sleeping bag, angry at myself, at my guts, but sure I’d made the right decision. Cara stayed in camp with me. By about 8:30 we’d packed up, gotten our skis on (in her case snowboard) and began the ski down.

I was tired and this was the first time I’d ever skied with a 30+ pound pack on my back—that throws off your weight transfer when you’re trying to turn, so it requires extra concentration. But it was great skiing, and my guts seemed to be, if not settled, at least cooperating! It wasn’t until Sunday evening, after cleaning up and then going to dinner that we found out about the E. coli contamination in the town’s water supply. Damn!

A side note: Adam and Patrick didn’t get started until 5:30. Adam set his Strava GPS app as they left camp. On the way up they passed all the guided climbers, many of whom had started out 3 ½ hours earlier. They summited, Patrick with his summit monkey (see video), and were back at our mid-camp by 10:30. Of all the people (about 150) who had taken that route and registered it on Strava, they were the second fastest climbers.  These guys are amazing.

So… that’s the Shasta story. Not quite the one I’d expected to tell. For the prior several weeks I’d been thinking about Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property (that was the original phrase from the Articles of Association of 1774), about the pursuit of property being the basis for so many of our freedoms; then also about Congress banning the slave trade to America in 1807 while it was still going strong in Europe, South and Central America and the Middle East; about defeating tyranny and resisting the lure of establishing an empire... about all the good this nation has done, so much of which seems to be lost as our daily consciousness is bombarded with continuous negatives. I had sketched out an essay to be titled Lest We Forget, and on the mountain the thoughts about Why Climb? and Uncluttered Clarity were pieces to be added, but these thoughts are going to have to wait for a future post.

Lessons Learned:  Did you know, when you’re on a glacier on a bright sunny day in late June—just about the day of the year when the sun is the most intense and the angle of reflection off the snow is nearly vertical—chemical sunblock barely works, and even if you put it on the bottom of your nose, the reflected sun actually goes up your nostrils and gives you a sunburn inside?! Or that a short beard doesn’t protect your face, and you need to rub sunblock into your stubble?! Or wear a face mask. A sun hoodie might be an essential piece of gear. Other lessons: Need more practice with the GoPro camera; Adam got some terrific footage; mine, just so-so. It needs to be instinctive, which means practice. Cara’s Wild Perspective Photography shots captured the magnificence of Shasta in a way GoPros just can’t. They’re essential as we begin to assemble elements for the Peaking At 70 documentary. When climbing one plans for all sorts of contingencies from avalanches to freak storms—always attempting to strike a balance between potential need and weight carried—but how do you plan for tap water contamination? Life throws curve balls. I'm not sure there was any way to predict or avoid what happened. The important thing is to always be striving for the best.

Next up: Mt. Baker. “Mount Baker, also known as Koma Kulshan or simply Kulshan, is an active glaciated andesitic stratovolcano in the Cascade Volcanic Arc and the North Cascades of Washington state...” (Wikipedia)  At 10,781’ it is not as high as Shasta but the elevation gain of the climb is nearly identical. This mountain received, in one year (1998), more snow than any other location in America ever received—122 feet! So much snow that early that winter it topped the ski lifts at the one resort, and the resort had to close. These snows, and the crevasses created, make this “iciest” mountain a challenge. No skiing up. Depending upon our route we may need to rope up.

Hopefully going into this one a bit wiser!

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O' Dear Lard!

It is Saturday morning, and I am not out on a training hike but doing Saturday morning chores. This is part of the challenge of Peaking At 70... not just the training, or the need to complete all the daily, weekly, monthly tasks any working person has, or the medical issues associated with tree pollen and colitis flare-ups (see earlier post on Setbacks...), but also the need to stay current on events, as what's happening right now is, of course, symptomatic of the America we wish to rediscover. And, and again of course, these events are not alone but need to be put in context so the current makes sense and meshes with the historical. Right now we need to talk about the cultural significance of lard.

Where I should be... instead, with lard on my mind, it's off to the dump!

Where I should be... instead, with lard on my mind, it's off to the dump!

I'm on my way to the dump, listening to a classic radio station that is rebroadcasting a program from early 1945--The George and Gracie Show.  George Burns and Gracie Allen, what a hoot. Fun. Funny. These old radio programs from before the time of television led you into imagining the scenes, the conflicts, the silly resolutions. This one is an enjoyable break from the program I had been listening to about White Privilege.

Of interest, this morning, are the advertisements. The soap company commercials are built right into the script of the program, blending seamlessly with the dialogue. 

There is also the war announcements. This is April 1945. World War II is raging. The U.S. Fifth Army has opened a major offensive in the Po Valley in Italy, and the Allies are heightening their search  for German U-boats of the Wolfpack Seawolf suspected to be heading to the U.S. east coast equipped with V-1 or V-2 rockets. The nation is also mourning the Death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The war announcements/ads, I'm guessing, are precursors to today's Public Service Announcements. One suspects that in 1945 they received greater attention.

"Are you saving lard?" That's what the announcer wanted to know. Lard, 1945!!! "Are you donating lard for the war effort?" This is a plea for lard. Lard is important for the war effort! Seventy two years ago animal fat was an asset, and donating it was a patriotic act. Today lard is treated not only as an unwanted by-product, but seemingly as a toxin (kind of like carbon dioxide).

Of course, lard, at least on some diets, has been re-recognized as an important part of one's intake. The energy from fat may keep one from overeating carbohydrates; and unlike sugars and some carbs, fats don't feed candida or other "bad" yeast infestations. 

But, for a moment, think about this call for lard--collecting it and donating it--think about it from an economic perspective. Once it was an important asset; today I'd venture a guess that few people can recall their mothers, grandmothers or great grandmothers pouring grease from a pan into a tin on the stove where it would cool and solidify. Actually, I do recall my mother doing this when I was very young--perhaps five or six years--seven or eight years after this George and Gracie broadcast. Once a standard practice, I'm again guessing, most of us discard the lard as waste. Even today's poorest Americans dubiously collect it.

O' Dear Lard! The announcement reminded me of just how privileged were all the folks of my parents generation. If you're using the Trumps or the Clintons, The Buffets or the Koch brothers as your model or racial privilege, isn't it time for a paradigm shift? 

Visit us at and let us know your thoughts on white privilege, what they're based on. Current thoughts and historical realities just might not mesh.

Memorial Day: I Never Hiked Alone

A long, long time ago in what seems like a galaxy far, far away I hiked contested hills with a rucksack, weapon and Ashai Pentax 35mm SLR film camera. At the time we didn’t use the term hiked; we humped ruck. For our overnights we didn’t say camped, but instead we set up NDPs (night defensive positions).  And when I took the photo below in 1970 our means of transportation to the trailhead was other than what I do today. Most importantly, I never hiked alone. During those years hundreds of thousands of us humped those trails, or flew the unfriendly skies. Some lost their lives in pursuit of… of what?

With troops of the 101st Airborne Division in I Corps, Vietnam, 1970.

With troops of the 101st Airborne Division in I Corps, Vietnam, 1970.

As mentioned in earlier posts this blog and the Peaking At 70 project are not simply about the challenges of climbing and crossing glaciers. They are also about rediscovering America. Just as one retraces their track if they miss a flash on a trail, one might wish to retrace our history to find out where we are.

Sunday, May 21, 2017: I’m back on the AT. This section begins flat, becomes gently rolling. The Housatonic River is to my right as I head north toward Cornwall Bridge. To my left there is a broad field (photo below); and west of the field is the ridge. About a mile north the trail will veer into the woods and up Silver Hill. On the trail at the end of the field there is a small sign which explains that heritage plants and farming techniques from the time of the American Revolution are being used here to preserve the accuracy of the agricultural knowledge of that ere. Caution is advised as the field is not sprayed for ticks. Perhaps that’s what set off these thoughts… in pursuit of what? Life? Liberty? The right to…?

On the Appalachian Trail south of Cornwall Bridge

On the Appalachian Trail south of Cornwall Bridge

Then it hit me. The reason it is hard to answer that question is the same reason many current conundrums are in dispute. Let’s face it, right now everyone seems to be talking or writing about fake news as if fake news has not been around for a very, very, very long time. Indeed, throughout much of history, fake news has been the norm.

There was an article in the local paper last week about a conference at which the participants defined the concept variously as “propaganda efforts to shield President Trump,” or “false stories circulated about prominent Democrats.” They also cautioned about confusing fake news with misguided priorities or biased discussion of events and issues.

Odd! How about fake news is news that is less than real, less than accurate, less than balanced? How about fake news is half-truths, as in, half-truths are lies. It is not simply a bias. It is disinformation. Worst of all: Fake News becomes Fake History. Both are devastating to individuals and to cultures.

Allow me a few examples.

For my third novel, Carry Me Home, I analyzed the raw data from an internal report by ABC, NBC and CBS which listed all evening news stories about the war in Southeast Asia that aired from 1963 to 1977. The total number of stories was 9447. Of that number 473 dealt with one incident which occurred in March of 1968, but remained unknown to the public until November 1969. From the time of first airing to the end of reporting approximately 10% of all news dealt with this one incident--the American atrocities at My Lai. In that incident American soldiers killed between 340 and 504 unarmed civilians.  No excuses. It was an atrocity. In the scope of the war the numbers are small—around 3/10,000ths of the war’s dead—but in reportage the focus was immense. More than any other action it convinced a large portion of the American public that their sons had become baby killers. Incidents in which thousands, even tens of thousands, of civilians were murdered by communist forces often went unreported. If half-truths are lies, what do you call 3/10,000ths truths?

Other fake news (again by omission): in early 1959 Hanoi’s politburo, in secret, essentially declared war on the South by initiating three infiltration routes into the South. The most famous of these tracks was Route 559 (for May 1959), or as we called it, the Ho Chi Minh Trail. On that route and trails 759 and 959, the North sent into the South what were called at the time agents or insurgents. Today we would call them terrorists. From 1960 to 1962 these agents assassinated or “disappeared” approximately 19,200 village, hamlet and province officials, including school teachers. Consider how we react today to a suicide bomber killing 25 and injuring 100. In 1960 South Vietnam was a nation of less 11 million people. The terrorist events it endured would be the equivalent today of terrorists killing over 630,000 Americans in three years. Many people still question why we got involved. Some think it was because North Vietnamese patrol boats, in August 1964, fired a few rounds at American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Let’s go back earlier: A more devastating fake news story—created as disinformation and circulated as propaganda yet reported often enough to have become “factual history,” is the story of Ho Chi Minh in 1945 quoting from the American Declaration of Independence, and thereby showing, according to some historians, his desire to be an American ally. To accept this hypothesis one must ignore not just Ho’s personal history, his actions, and the actions of his faction of Vietnamese communists, but the actions of communists in much of Europe and the rest of Southeast Asia as well. As WWII wound down the American OSS armed many indigenous nationalist groups, including the communists, in France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, et cetera. In every country non-communist nationalists attacked occupying German or Japanese forces; in every country communists “nationalists” attacked non-communist nationalists groups. [See Dr. Mark Moyar’s book Oppose Any Foe for a fuller discussion.]

For years, decades, after the American effort in Southeast Asia ended (note—the war went on for ten more years without us) fake news, skewed reporting, false or biased stories and half-truths devastated many of my fellow veterans. Twenty years ago I delivered the following in conference at Texas Tech University:

It is important to keep in mind that our cultural story, our mythos, includes not only the misjudgments, errors, crimes, atrocities and scandals of our past, but also the great accomplishments, the altruistic struggles, the valor and sacrifice earned and waged with tremendous effort, that has brought betterment of the human condition to millions. If only the negatives of our story are reinforced, and the positives are denied or dismissed, then our culture will have no positive role models, and our behavior will reflect our negative self-image.

If you want to honor the memory of those who humped the trails in Vietnam, or in any and all of our wars, and of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, ditch fake news. Realize, also, that accurate story insulates those who survived from the ravages of stress disorders, and the nation from unnecessary domestic polarization.

Challenges, Setbacks, Resilience and Self-healing

5/14/17: Six weeks to Shasta. I’m back on the AT. There’s a song running in my head—Another Op’nin’, Another Show*—except the lyrics have morphed: Six weeks en I’ve gotten the curse; four weeks en conditionin’ couldn’t be worse; two weeks, en I’m ever so meek; then outa the earth comes the big first peak! *(Another Op'nin', Another Show is the opening number of Cole Porter's 1948 musical Kiss Me, Kate.)

Let me explain. Six weeks to Mt. Shasta and my conditioning has been going downhill for nearly 75 days. I think, believe, hope it has bottomed out and I’m heading back up. But I’m still bleeding. That’s going to be a limiting factor for recovery. And Shasta looms.

Hiked alone again today. It’s Mother’s Day. Sun’s out, temp’s 55 to 60. There’s a sea of vibrant green everywhere I look. One can still see into the forest but the new leaves cut the distance to less than half what it was in March.

Challenges and setbacks are not simply due to the elevation, steepness or length of climbs, or to the age of the climber. At 70 we all have our histories of physical trauma and life-related wear and tear. We carry our health concerns with us as much as we carry our backpacks. If you’ve read earlier post in this blog you might have noticed there’s a gap between Mt. Mitchell, NC (6684’) at the end of March and this entry. Four days after Mitchell, with team members Patrick, Cara and Tom (plus mountain dogs Diego and Dana) I skied up Red Lake Peak (10,069’) south of Lake Tahoe on alpine touring skis (more on that at a later point). The spring setback had already begun, but it had yet to hit me full force. Soon it would--not like a ton of bricks but like a pound of toxic dust.

For those who have experienced something similar this may evoke “been there, done that.” To others it may seem totally alien. In me spring tree pollens cause severe inflammation, painful cramps and internal bleeding. Medications—antihistamines to steroids—don’t stop it. Diet has little effect. Supplements—probiotics, prebiotics, anti-inflammatory herbs and oils… well, maybe in combination they ameliorate the intensity of the symptoms. Still from the first cedar pollen of late winter through the red maples and box elders, to the ash and oak I’m battling flare-ups, bleeding and anemia… not good things for one in training to climb 14,000’ glacial peaks. Talk about a challenge!

With few switchbacks this climb is relatively steep.

With few switchbacks this climb is relatively steep.

Today is the first day back on a trail of any significance since Red Lake Peak on April 1st. This is the same ridge hiked in January and February, though this section—from the Rt. 341 trailhead south toward Mt. Algo and on to Schaghticoke Mt—on average is steeper. There are not a lot of switchbacks on the up trails, the flats are short, and there’s a pretty good descent into the ravine between peaks where a stream is gushing from the heavy rains of the previous week. Where the trail crosses the creek, water crashes against the stepping stones and rushes through the gaps between. I test the first few stones… the rocks are slippery… the leap to the next stone is about four feet, and that stone is under four inches of fast flow. I check my pocket for my phone. Usually I keep it in a zip lock bag, but I’d forgotten to grab one before I left. So, I’m thinking, if I slip off, the pool below the rock is maybe five feet deep, I get soaked, my phone gets soaked, my training schedule takes a hit because I’m not prepared. I know the procedures if you’re on a long hike, but today’s goal is to get in 4+ miles with a 25# pack on relatively steep terrain, and get back in time to cook Mother’s Day dinner. Getting dunked will disrupt the plan.

The rains of the past week made the stream crossing a bit dicey.

The rains of the past week made the stream crossing a bit dicey.

I back out, move up stream. After maybe 300 yards I find an old tree fallen across the stream. The bark is soggy and loose, but I decide I’ve gone far enough off the trail so I pull myself up, stand, test the log, take a few tentative steps, then cross.

But we were talking about challenges. They are not simply the feats themselves, but how we react to them, how we view them, accept them, meet them face on or shirk them. Do we persevere if our first foray fails? Do we bang our heads against the wall in frustration, curse those who are more physically fortunate, or do we find an alternate route on which to advance?

I suspect my training log looks a bit different than most. I track workouts, training hikes, durations and intensities, but I also track ingestion, excretion and bleeding. That’s what you do when you have idiopathic ulcerative colitis. I say idiopathic because every gastroenterologist I’ve ever spoken to has said we (meaning the medical community) don’t know what causes it. They also say there is no cure; they can only treat the symptoms. This infuriates me; sets up a dual challenge. One to keep me from asking them, “Then why am I in your office?” and; two, to convince them pollen is the main trigger. My medical history is consistent with this explanation. Early spring, early pollen season, early onset of symptoms; late spring, late pollen season… well, you get the idea. I try to keep the meds simple. Suffice it to say I believe in ten years the current standard protocols for UC will be viewed to be as crude and as archaic as George Washington’s doctors bleeding him to death to get rid of bad humors.

Like so many guys turning 70, physical challenges are not confined to just one part or one system. Some of my undercarriage has been replaced… ah, that is, I’ve a titanium hip with chromium-nickel-cobalt large-ball and socket. Now that is something that works well! It was the recovery from the 2006 surgery that got me into hiking and climbing.

Wish I could do the same for my left knee. No ACL, no meniscus, no condyle cartilage. After damaging the joint playing football in 1966 my knee would randomly lock. A year later that happened as I was jumping down a terraced hillside; landed on my heel and drove the tibia through the joint and into the femur breaking the ends of both bones. It kind of wreaked havoc with other structures, too. There were no replacement knees in 1967, no artificial cartilage. They basically took everything out, smoothed out the bones, and told me if I kept active the bones would burnish themselves against each other. The joint hasn’t been right since, but it works. Didn’t keep me from getting drafted; nor did it stop me from playing league soccer until I was 56. Who would have thought?! On downhills, particularly if I’m not wearing my brace, the femur slides forward on the tibial plateau, but I’ve learn to disregard the crunching--when you know what it is, and know that it really isn’t doing more damage, you can displace the thought.

Because today is a return-to-training hike I take it easy. The day could not be more pleasant. I pause to take a few pictures atop Schaghticoke peak, sit beside an Eastern Ribbon snake sunning itself on the next rock. The clouds are beginning to gray. Rain is forecast, but not for a few hours. Then, within minutes the wind picks up. Time to head back.

View from Schaghticoke Mountain.

View from Schaghticoke Mountain.

Throughout the setback I’ve tried to keep up a minimal training schedule: two mile hike with 15-pound pack here, a dynamic motion work out there.  All the gastroenterologists point out that UC is an auto-immune disease, and that the trigger isn’t important once the disease has progressed to that stage. They want their patients on immuno-suppressant therapy, but that comes with collateral damage potentially far worse than the UC symptoms.

My view is that our bodies are self-healing organisms, that we have encoded in our DNA specific plans of action to deal with injury or invasion of our corporal environment. But you’ve got to give your body a chance. That means removing trauma and toxic elements; realizing that most pharmaceuticals are poison; doing what you can to facilitate healing; using pharmaceuticals only if more natural cures don’t work. To me, immuno-suppressants for life, is a life, and early death, sentence.

Can you will yourself back to health? Does positive attitude and action bolster the immune system in a medically meaningful way? Can one resolve to be resilient? Many of us know people who are “professional patients;” people who follow a track the opposite of what we are here encouraging. But between, there are people who are mentally tough, who take all the right steps, and who still succumb to affliction. Resolve does not guarantee recovery; resilience is complex; and the path to recovery may have numerous switchbacks and dead end trails. But… ya gotta try.

The wind has picked up considerably. I’m back at the steam. This time I head downstream to look for a better place to cross, then decide if I get wet now it’s okay as I’m on my way back to the trailhead. As I approach the stepping stones and logjam from below I see a lovely yellow and green stick on the rock I’m about to… oops, not a stick, a yellow gartersnake. Most of them are black with yellow striping; this guy’s yellow with black and green. I nudge him off the rock with the tip of my hiking pole and he slithers into the stream.

On the other side and still dry: I pick up the pace. As easy as I took it on the way out, I’m now pushing it on the way back, and feeling stronger with each step. Cloud cover has darkened the overhead. Rain feels imminent. Another tune begins streaming in my head. I’m thinking of individuals, and societies, and nations, all facing challenges with analogous elements, all having the same options and same tools to confront or to avoid. Some challenges may be easy to conquer; others may be beyond our abilities to meet, way beyond our capacity, completely impossible. But how do we know? How do we… should we… the tune playing in my head is from Man of La Mancha: To Dream the Impossible Dream.

It is now raining quite hard.

Rebuilding Foundations

Macedonia State Park, CT to Mt. Mitchell, NC

These hikes are 775 miles, 4400 feet of elevation and a month apart, but to me they are very close together.  Let me explain. We’ll come back to other climbs, to Setbacks and Challenges, in the next post.

The section of the Blue Flash trail in Macedonia State Park that I covered on February 19th was only a bit over 4 miles, so the hike was not long. My objective was to move steadily, at pace, over slippery rocks and melting snow. There were two steep up sections, one steep down, and one very steep down that required alternate use of poles and hand grips and a short glissade—that is, sitting on one’s butt and skimming down the snow cover as if on a playground slide. The reason for moving steadily was to maintain a higher heart rate thus laying the foundation for the more difficult climbs to come.

The standard formula for base training is to take 220 minus your age, then multiply the results by 0.80, or 220 – 70 = 150 x .8 = 120. 120! That’s all? Are they kidding? The standard formula applies to average guys. I think, after these past years’ health issues, I'm pretty average; but if I go back 10 years when I was in better shape those standards never seemed to make any sense.  Hopefully as this training continues, and as the challenges become progressively more difficult, those numbers will again become ultra conservative. If I again feel like 40 I might be looking at 220 – 40 = 180 x .8 = 144. That would be the target heart rate for sustained activity for a 40-year old; 162 when pushing the intensity.

I take my pulse after the first up section—120. Not bad, but I feel as if I’m dogging it. On the relatively level trail between ups I relax even though I’m moving faster. The day is gorgeous. A turkey vulture silently rides the rising air current above the west side of the ridge. He swoops low enough overhead for me to see individual feathers. Cool. Into the next up. My pulse is now 140. That’s 93.3% of max—supposedly too high for a guy just months short of 70. But I feel fine.

 In a little over a month I’m heading down to Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina—at 6684’ it's the highest peak east of the Mississippi. Then it’'' be out to Lake Tahoe to learn to climb on alpine skis in preparation for Mt Shasta this summer. The Connecticut hikes are like the footings of the foundation.

Davidson, NC, 3/26; two days before Mt. Mitchell and the Old Mitchell Trail: Flew down four days ago for a family wedding. Great celebration: congratulations Joey and Carolyn.  After all the festivities were over Kate and I popped into The Flatiron Grill in Davidson for a late evening repast. Good food, good service, as one should expect from any decent restaurant, but truth is it was late and I was nearly falling asleep in my sweet potato fries. I apologized to the waitress, mentioned the wedding.

                “Oh, where are you from?” She politely asked.


                “Me too!” She beamed.

                “Oh, whereabouts?”

                “A small town in the northeast.”

We chatted for a few more minutes, then she added, “I have a 19-month old. My husband’s deployed. He left three weeks ago for a year. When he gets back we want to move back to Connecticut. Both our families are there. I had to quit my day job because childcare is so expensive, but back home both our moms are excited to babysit…”

More foundations: In 1978 while I was writing The 13th Valley I had the wonderful opportunity to work in Larkspur, CA with a crew replacing the crumbling foundation of a historic Victorian mansion. We jacked the house up less than ¼ inch so as not to disturb walls, plumbing or wiring, then section by section we removed the old stone foundation and poured new concrete footing and walls; finally bringing everything level and lowering the house onto the cured substructure. No disruption above, but a totally new, far stronger foundation below that should last for centuries.

Mt Mitchell; Tuesday 3/28: On the Blue Ridge Highway approaching Mt Mitchell State Park. It is one of those days where the sky is picture perfect blue with interestingly shaped clouds that evoke thoughts of fluffy animals. Each turn reveals a new, amazing vista. I want to stop, take pictures; but I also want to get to the trailhead. The online description of the hike calls it moderately rough. I’m not sure what that means, and I want to give us plenty of time. Kate is going to hike with me. I’ve been building up a base for this for three months. As a nurse she walks miles during every shift, but those are different miles, in some ways far more difficult, but they’re not rutted ups and downs.

Kate on Mt. Mitchell. Rain, wind and fog--the day was wonderful.

Kate on Mt. Mitchell. Rain, wind and fog--the day was wonderful.

As we turn from the highway onto the park road the sky closes. Perhaps we’re in one of those fluffy animals. At the ranger station (trailhead) the wind is howling, the temperature has dropped 15 degrees, and fog obscures peaks and valleys. We’re here. We’re going to climb. We check in with the ranger. He issues standard cautions, asks if we’re prepared for lots mud and wet. I think he’s chuckling to himself, thinking these old folk are not going to make this climb.

From the office we take a few moments to use the facilities, change to hiking boots, add a layer of clothing. I meet a fellow who is headed up to an adjacent peak—part of his job. Weekly he climbs to a collection station to gather data on particulates dissolved in whatever precipitation has occurred. Later in his lab he’ll analyze the content to determine the pollution carried in by the winds. I mention the Adirondacks, the acid rain that wiped out many lake fish, and many trees; and the recovery that has happened in the past quarter century. He explains how the local phenomenon is similar, different. It’s another foundation to think about.

We climb. Actually we descend so far we begin to think we’ve headed in the wrong direction. We check the trail map. It’s gotta be right! But it doesn’t feel right. We retrace our steps to the last trail marker, turn again and continue down. Then up. And up. In places the trail parallels a road that goes to the peak. That feels like cheating. Other spots it moves away from the road, dips into rock crevasses too narrow to go through face on; pops up over crags then drops you into mud puddles. In the trees there is little wind but when the trail comes back to the crest the wind howls and we re-zip our jackets. As windy, foggy, muddy and wet as it is, it’s actually very pleasant. The greens in the woods here are more varied than those up north. Some of the mosses are so vibrant they seem to glow in the dank caverns.

I’m back to thinking about foundations. At the moment the news is full of reports about the current administration attempting to replace ObamaCare. There’s a wonderful section on healthcare and management—on its evolution from the time of Norman Rockwell’s drawing of a doctor in his office holding a stethoscope to the chest of a doll held out to him by a little girl, to the corporate hospital, massive insurance companies, complex government bureaucracies and the Affordable Care Act—in the book The Life of Men, by Dr. Jeffrey Rabuffo. It seems to me there is a tremendous amount of screaming going on by pundits and politicians. If the ACA is to be repealed and replaced, why do people on the extreme ends of the issue think it can (or should) be done with the stroke of a pen? It took years for it to be implemented, for the new bureaucracy to be established (actually there are elements that are still unfolding). It has changed the financial landscape of medical care along with the medical infrastructure. Parts of it are crumbling and cannot sustain healthcare to nearly one-third of the country. . Still, wiping it out overnight would produce chaos… but that doesn’t seem to be in any of the actual proposals. Instead it seems that the structure will be jacked up about a quarter inch, and then section by section the crumbling parts will be removed and replaced with something solid enough to last centuries. No disruption above, a fixed social system below.

From the peak of Mt. Mitchell just about all that could be seen was fog.

Super Bowl: Deer, Bobcat, Coyotes, Mountain Lions...

Training Hike #5: Appalachian Trail – St. John’s Ledges to Caleb’s Peak to 341 road loop back; 4.82 miles; 5 February 2017 (Super Bowl Sunday); sky threatening snow.

The ledges are steep, steep as the top of 14,000-foot Mt Bierstadt in Colorado, but the distance is shorter and the elevation gain is minimal, maybe 600 feet. Because of increasing snow and ice cover on the granite the going becomes tenuous. About halfway up I collapse my hiking poles and stow them on my pack so I can use my fingers to hook ridges in the rocks and pull myself up. This is not a technical climb. This is an old guy not wishing to slip, drop six or eight feet and clunk his noggin or scrap off his beard. Or nose. I’m slow and deliberate. This really isn’t very safe, and as usual, I’m the sole hiker on trail.

To the right a relatively flat trail section between the lowest ledge and a middle ledge; to the left a portion of the lower face. Only spotty snow here, but by several hundred feet up it increased to 50% coverage.

To the right a relatively flat trail section between the lowest ledge and a middle ledge; to the left a portion of the lower face. Only spotty snow here, but by several hundred feet up it increased to 50% coverage.

The upper ledge leads to a false crest. The weather is worsening. This has happened in a short time and over a short space. The wind picks up, snow squalls dither, the sky descends into a darker shade of winter gray. Decision time. I’ve really just started, but if I go on then return and snow has made the ledges really slick… hmmm. I can either abort now, descend before the weather hits, or go on but return by a different route. I head southwest toward Caleb’s Peak.

The hike to the second peak is steep but not bouldering steep. Again no one is in sight. There is one human track iced into the trail, I think about 24 to 48 hours old, heading north. There are literally hundreds of deer tracks on and crisscrossing the trail, and amid these are feline and canine prints—bobcat and coyote.

As a solo hiker this makes me uncomfortable. I unhook my small cylinder of pepper spray and clip it to my jacket pocket for ease of access. Truth is, I’m kinda nervous. Although pack coyotes have taken down lone hikers, I’m more concerned about a mountain lion. They’re rare in Connecticut but about a year back one was spotted down by my home trotting through a neighbor’s yard with a fawn in its maw. They stalk silently, attack viciously from behind. Plentiful deer might attract them.

The thought makes me uncomfortable and I miss the next flash and lose the trail. Damn! This is an easy hike. I’m only two miles from the heart of Kent. I chastise myself, retrace my steps… had missed the turn where the trail had bent back upon itself before again going up.

The AT actually passes below Caleb’s Peak so of course I leave it and climb. Now the sky lightens. Looking east I feel as if I can see all the way to Waterbury. A`, so it’s only Waterbury! Hey, it’s an early training hike. And I feel like I’m on top of the world looking down on creation… oops! Song lyrics I sing to my grandson when I babysit… poor kid subjected to grandpa’s monotone… but it puts him to sleep better than Rock-a-bye Baby or Soft Kitty.

Decision time again. I think the threat of snow has passed. I could go back but the distance is less than I’d planned, so I continue on until I hit Rte. 341. Now it’s a road hike back. To keep it interesting I pick up the pace, get a cadence going in my head.

Decisions and balance: for me, scrambling up the ledges, crossing icy rocks, is a test of balance, and approaching 70 my balance certainly isn’t what it once was. Can it improve? If I push the envelope a bit more with each training hike will it return? Seems to me I should ask this question of the country. We’ve lost our balance. What needs to be done to regain it?

Total distance: 4.82 miles. Time—do I subtract out the time talking to road walkers? If so, about 2 hours and 15 minutes: 2.15 miles per hour. The section at the ledges was slow going, but dang! at that rate it’ll take me days to get up Shasta. Ugh!

Ah well. Time to go watch the game.

Dividing Lines

Training Hike #4: Appalachian Trail, 29 January 2017; Bull’s Bridge to Indian Point; 8.1 miles, 1000' +/- elev. gain (2000' +/- cumulative), base temp 36, ridge line temp 28. [Not a major hike by any means, but I’m reminded of talking to through-hikers years ago, who had trekked from

From Indian Point looking east. 

From Indian Point looking east. 

Georgia, who had just crossed northern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, only to be shocked at the steepness and difficult of these low Berkshires.]

Dividing Lines

From the ridge between Bull’s Bridge and Indian Point, looking east one can peer east, down upon the Housatonic River and the tiny cars on CT Route 7, or west across Old Rt. 22 and Ten Mile River in NY. Nowadays, as we zoom along on Interstate highways, we tend to think of state lines as arbitrary--if we think of them at all. But thinking back to our colonial period this ridge was a barrier difficult to cross. It makes the demarcation between states understandable. The ridge, part of the Berkshire chain, extends north separating Massachusetts and Vermont from New York.

Today I hiked alone… again, which is nice. No one else on the trail except at the very beginning a guy walking his dog. Chilly along the road, temperature dropping as I zigzag up the east face. As the elevation increases it gets quite cool but I’m stripping off layers and sweating. At the lowest point on the ridge the trail is icy but south-facing--lots of bare rock. Half way to Indian Point the trail is slick and the ice continuous. It makes one focus. All is good.

Two hundred and fifty one years ago the winter in the Berkshires varied from a bit too warm to freeze the lakes solid enough to drag cannon-laden sledges across the ice, to cold bitter enough to freeze soldiers driving oxen. On January 18th, 1776 Colonel Henry Knox left Fort Ticonderoga with 58 cannon weighing 120,000 pounds. Crossing the Berkshire Mountains required 80 yoke of oxen. From 1776 by David McCullough:

   …snow in the Berkshires lay thick, exactly as needed but the mountains, steep and   tumbled and dissected by deep, narrow valleys, posed a challenge as formidable as any. …Knox…wrote of climbing peaks “From which we might almost have seen all the kingdoms of the earth. … It appeared to me almost a miracle that people with heavy loads should be able to get up and down such hills…”

As I walked I thought about this project, Peaking At 70, about the logistics, the budget, the time frame. And I thought about Henry Knox and the soldier under his command. Climbing, dragging the cannon up the steep slopes was difficult, but going downhill was more treacherous. Sledges had to be lowered inch by inch, roped to trees and men. Oxen don’t work in reverse.

I’ve come to the conclusion this project needs to be done in steps. Isn’t that the way of all projects? At first conception it was one big picture. Now I begin to see the pieces, how they’ll be arranged, organized; what parts can be handled, which ones will need to be postponed, what might need abandoning. Not the climbs, and certainly not the training, but the number of people. This blog will be the foundation for the book; the videos the base for the documentary; the interviews the fodder for the enlightenment--Rediscovering America.

The original idea was kind of a Travels With Charley (Steinbeck and his dog) trip… a trip to gauge the pulse of the nation at a level below the raging national news media. Not sure how it morphed into getting a group of old guys to cross western glaciers and peak above 14,000 feet. That's not important, now, but what is is this land, this nation, from purple mountain majesty to sea to shining sea… how did it happen... what has happened to it?!

Think about it: 120,000 pounds of cannons, plus the sledges and all the gear needed to sustain men and animals on a trek across the Berkshires in the dead of winter. That feat makes the 1954 trials of the Red Chinese Army bring artillery to Dien Bien Phu look like a cakewalk. To my mind it is comparable to Hannibal crossing the Alps in 218 BC. This is our heritage.

The ridge rises and falls as it runs north; most of the elevation gain was achieved ascending the east face, but there are short, sharp ups and downs. Imagine trying to climb, to cross this obstacle with any significant weight. For training I’ve about 25 pounds in my pack—way more than needed for a quick day hike. Descending is more difficult. What’s true for cannon-laden sledges is true for 70-year old knees. I’d better consider wearing a neoprene sleeve and my G-II Unloader brace. That’s one of the challenges of peaking at 70!

Once across the mountains Knox’ journey to the outskirts of Boston was a bit like a Memorial Day parade with farmers leaving their fields to watch the spectacle. On the night of 4 March 1776, under the cover of low, dense fog, those cannon were towed to the tops of the twin hills of Dorchester Heights, and by mid-morning the next day British General William Howe knew he’d been beaten. Soon he ordered the withdrawal of British forces from Boston. America was on the rise.

Now, 241 years later, America rising seems to be not only in question, but seemingly, to some, to be undesirable. So I have a few questions I’d like to ask. They’re designed to not extract quick TV-learned, radio-learned, or internet-learned responses. Today’s pundits all talk to niche audiences, and to hold their listeners/readers they speak in bias. But if you ask a man or a woman to look forward 25 or 50 years, and you ask what does he or she want for his daughter or her son, the answer seldom is less immigrants, giant border walls, free abortions or genderless bathrooms.

Look forward two, three, five decades. What do you want for your fellow countrymen?

What divides us, and what keeps us united? At one time the great obstacles were physical. The peaks and valleys, the ridges and rock faces are still there, but they are no longer the barriers of our separation. We need a paradigm shift. We need to see each other in the light of these and other different interrogatories, and not in the shadows of nouns.

Conception: Rediscovery, Paradigm Shifts and Peaking

As noted on the website (but expanded here), the original idea for this project came to me on New Year’s Day 2017 as I hiked up Under Mountain Trail to the AT (Appalachian Trail) and on to the peak of Bear Mountain, Connecticut’s highest point. I was finally feeling well enough to attempt this modest climb, and my mind was bouldering from thought to thought. The day was overcast but warm for January 1st, conditions which reflected my mood.

The preceding year had been fraught with flare-ups and remissions, and with nasty political turmoil. If news reports are to be believed our country was, and is, more divided, and its people more polarized, than at any other point in my life… a state I found (and find) deeply disturbing. But is it true? And if so,Why? And what can be done about it?

New Year's Day 2017, Appalachian Trail, Salisbury, CT

New Year's Day 2017, Appalachian Trail, Salisbury, CT

How does one go about rediscovering America? As I slipped on an icy spot on the trail, John Steinbeck came to mind—I don’t know why.  I had not read one of his books in decades, but what I was conjuring up had dual and complimentary elements--a trip to rediscover America and to gauge the pulse of the nation, and a challenge to open perspectives and to reconnect to self… something in the vein of Travels With Charley... but with more of a bite. The realization of the need for paradigm shifts came a bit later, but we’ll get into that farther along the trail.

How to do it? As we go through each trip and each training hike in preparation for climbing the three summer peaks of 2017--Mounts Shasta, Rainier and Baker--there will be new observations, cogitations, questions. How to rediscover this land, this nation, from purple mountain majesty and from sea to shining sea… from original ethos to the essence of its people a dozen generations later? More than a quarter century ago I told a reporter I believed the basic American character was one of integrity and honesty, altruism and a belief that we could help other people and other nations. Has that dissipated? Or been destroyed? Or is it still there, perhaps in hiding?

Are we truly are so different? Has niche marketing and niche news reporting stripped us of common anchors to such extent we no longer share similar aspirations; or worse, no longer consider ourselves to be countrymen? Are we all just this or that specific identity without any unifying glue? Race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, legal status, wealth and education levels, red state or blue… what’s your demographic? Does it, or do they, define you? Or is it limiting you and keeping you from a more fulfilling life?

In late 1971, during my second deployment (we didn’t use that term at the time), I filled the slot of an artillery group’s race relations officer. This group controlled one quarter of all land-based nuclear weapons in Europe, and par for the period racial tensions were simmering.  The military was going through a reduction in force, and junior NCOs (I was a Spec. 5), under the authority of senior commanders, were preforming duties far above their pay grade. Totally unqualified as I was, my commander, Colonel Harry Brooks (later Brigadier General and the first head of the Department of Defense’s Office of Equal Opportunity) mentor me in the paradigm shifts brought on by the Civil Rights movement. One of his lessons stuck with me: It is not a problem if young black soldiers or young white soldiers want to socialize with others of their own race; but it is a problem if a young black soldier or a young white soldier wants to socialize with soldiers of a different group and he doesn’t because either the soldiers of that group or the soldiers of his group ostracize him.

Has niche marketing and niche media lead to our ostracizing those who are not part of our demographic? I hear it reported continuously, but in my current limited experience I find something quite different. Why? That is something to be discovered.

Come, Let’s Talk America. Be part of the journey. Rediscover with me. I have a feeling we’re going to find that the amazing place called America might still be here, tarnished perhaps, but still strong of heart.