The ends of the Earth

I spent Feb. 23 to March 6 in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, an island nation halfway between Hawaii and Australia. It was weirdly easy to get there: A nonstop United flight from Dulles to Honolulu, then a five-hour flight from Honolulu farther into the Pacific to Majuro, the capital of the RMI. With an unavoidable overnight layover and the time warp of the International Dateline, it took 48 hours to get there from the East Coast. It is certainly the most isolated place I've ever been. The islands are actually thin ribbons of low-lying atolls coral foundations that have grown upward from the rims of ancient sunken volcanos. Landing on one in a commercial jet felt like driving a car onto a tightrope. All blue emptiness on either side, then narrow solid ground at the last second. Don't take my word for it. Take Google Earth's:

The RMI flew onto my radar last year when it filed a lawsuit against the United States. The charge was violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, a nearly 50-year-old agreement between nuclear-armed states and most of the rest of the world. The United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, China and France pledged to negotiate the elimination of their nuclear weapons if other signatories refrained from developing their own. Fast forward to 2015 and there are now nine nuclear-armed nations with a total of 14,000+ nuclear weapons among them (though the U.S. and Russia possess 93 percent of the total). The number of weapons is much less than the Cold-War peak, but the armed nations are modernizing and reinvesting in their existing stockpiles. This doesn't sit well with the Marshall Islands, which was the U.S. test site for 67 nuclear detonations from 1946 to 1958. The combined power of these tests, if parceled evenly over those 12 years, equals 1.6 Hiroshima-caliber explosions per day. One and a half Hiroshimas. Every day. For 12 years! The largest test was this one:

That's a four-mile-wide fireball. The light from the blast was seen from Okinawa, 2,600 miles away. The radioactive fallout was later detected in cattle in Tennessee. The detonations were somewhat inconceivable, particularly because there wasn't concrete destruction in the form of wasted cities. The damage was more insidious and longer-lasting. The U.S. shuffled the Marshallese around to make way for the tests, though not far enough away to spare them from fallout. We took a mini civilization and upset their harmonic relationship with nature, made them dependent on both money and medical treatment, and created a culture of victimhood and dependency. I don't mean to ignore the beauty and pride of the Marshallese people and customs. They endure. But the United States has had a profound effect on these wisps of land in the Pacific, and I wanted to visit and write about their tortured relationship with Washington and their unique confrontation of the planet's only two existential crises: nuclear warfare and climate change, which is causing sea-level rise. The RMI is really the only nation on Earth to have experienced both acutely, though testing affected everyone in the United States to a degree: A 2002 study submitted to Congress reported that "Any person living in the contiguous United States since 1951 has been exposed to radioactive fallout, and all organs and tissues of the body have received some radiation exposure." This animated graphic plots the 2,054 nuclear tests conducted around the world since 1945.

Here's the annual king tide last year in Majuro (a tide, not a tsunami):

What was most head-spinning, for me, was the fact that the United States still uses the RMI for military testing. Obviously we're not detonating nuclear weapons there, but we do use Kwajalein Atoll for nuclear target practice. Here's video of an intercontinental ballistic missile (unarmed, of course) being launched from California toward Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands in May of this year:

Anyway, I was only in the RMI for a week and a half, but this story and these photos are the result. Needless to say, a newspaper article only scratches the surface of a staggeringly complicated situation and a generous and resilient people. It all deserves its own book. Thanks to the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for funding the trip. Here's a selection of my photos:

And here is how it was initially designed for the front page by the Post's Robert Davis:

A walk during Holy Week

During Holy Week last year I was on the Sacred Peace Walk from Las Vegas to the Nevada National Security Site, formerly the Nevada Test Site, i.e. the place where we did our atomic-bomb testing for decades. I blogged about the walk beforehand, filled up a couple notebooks during it, and neglected to write about it after finishing.

 Leo, a former anthropology professor from San Diego, demonstrates that a peace walk can also be a peace dance.

Leo, a former anthropology professor from San Diego, demonstrates that a peace walk can also be a peace dance.

It was quite a week: walking 12-15 miles a day on the shoulder of I-95, using a teetering portable toilet hitched to a truck, pitching a tent in patches of prickly pears, spending a couple nights in a pagan temple across the street from the Air Force base where we pilot armed drones in foreign lands. There was a lot of hand-holding (literally), a lot of circling up, a lot of sharing of feelings, a lot of hoping for peace. Which, to an urban cynic, might sound like a nightmare. It was not. It was kind of transcendent, in the strict definition of the word. I largely kept my phone off, except to post the occasional Instagram. I largely was alone with my thoughts, except when I caught up or drifted back to chat up a fellow walker. There were about 25 of us. We were on an intentional physical trajectory. Despite my interloper status, I was accepted by the group. One woman, after we got to know each other over the course of the week, concluded that I am an "indigo crystal child." So I've got that going for me. Which is nice.

This year's peace walk is underway; in fact, some of them are probably being arrested right now. in an act of solidarity from my current position, off my feet and slouching at a think-tank panel on the U.S. defense budget, here are portraits of walkers from last year, with a quote or two. Except for Toby's, I took these photos as each person finished the 56-mile walk.

Felicia, 39, Berkeley, Calif.

"Younger people think this activism is passé. They look at you like you’re from Mars. On my first walk I was 35 and I’d never thought about nuclear weapons. By the time I got home I felt a sense of shame because I’d never spent any time and didn’t care about the issue. ... The desert is a drawing salve. 'Yeah, what do I believe?' You might be surprised after a walk like this."

J.R., 20, Las Vegas

“I do this for my generation. To be an example for them. To live for them.”

Toby, El Cerito, Calif.

“If everyone who was against war would occupy a military base once a month, we could stop this. It’s not that much work. People have a lot of power. They’re just not using it.”

Brian, Iowa

"I was in D.C. jail for a Witness for Torture action, and a young, buff Iraq vet said, 'Why don’t you care about our boys?' Then, when it was just him and me, he came up to the bars and said, 'I have the same nightmare every night. It’s raining blood and bodies and some of them get stuck in trees and some hit the ground and my girlfriend wakes me up screaming. Do you think war fucked me up?'"

Mary Lou, Las Vegas

“The time is this very minute. This very very very minute.”

Seamus, 56, Los Angeles

"Most people would say. 'What do you accomplish?' Especially since the majority of this walk we’re not encountering people. But I feel I’m doing something."

Vera, 25, Las Vegas

“I’m here with you guys," she said while a group of walkers planned a nonviolent action at Creech Air Force Base that would lead to arrests. “I hadn’t thought of it, but the seed has been planted.”

Leo, 71, San Diego

"It's shoestring morality. I’ve had my ass shot at in war. I’m a patriot. I’ve paid my dues. I’m not out there because I’m a peacenik. I have better things to do, but this is important. I’m voting with my body."

On Good Friday, most of the walkers processed to the real finish line, inside the test site. They were promptly arrested for trespassing on federal land and promptly released after being fined $637 each ($500 bail, plus $137 in administrative fees).

There are sad and strange and weird and wild stories to tell about the walk, but right now I'm saving them for the book.

Sand and stars

LAS VEGAS — Today I'm embarking on a 56-mile walk, from the atomic testing museum downtown to the Mercury exit of the Nevada National Security Site, a vast desert expanse where the United States conducted nearly 1,000 tests of nuclear bombs (99 of which were detonated above ground) from 1951 to 1992. The pocked earth is easily visible on Google Maps: 

I'm walking to shed some leg fat and reclaim my thigh gap. Jk. I'm tagging along on the Sacred Peace Walk organized by the Nevada Desert Experience, which anti-nuclear activist Sr. Megan Rice has been involved with over the years. Last spring I wrote about Sr. Megan and her two fellow activists' astonishing intrusion into the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee, and two months ago capped the story with an epilogue about their sentencing. But why stop there? I'm here, on vacation technically, to gather some material for a related extracurricular project. I'll allow that to sound more mysterious than it actually is.

I bought new sneakers for the occasion. I really have no idea what I'm getting into. I just plan to follow everyone over the course of five days from Vegas to the perimeter of the test site, where on Holy Thursday we will wash each other's feet. Then on Good Friday I'll watch people re-enact a nuclear version of the Stations of the Cross and perform "ritual resistance," which will include the crossing of boundary lines and perfunctory arrests. We'll be sleeping in tents off the highway every night. I might turn my phone off for the duration, although spotty cell service and a lack of electricity might make it impossible to turn on eventually. This would be in keeping with the spirit of the thing, according to the pre-walk reading suggested by the Nevada Desert Experience.

In his "Pilgrimage through a Burning World," peace-studies professor Ken Butigan writes of the devastating holiness and "nothingness" of the desert, a "terrain of madness and devils." Walking great distances is a test; walking great distances in the desert is a contest, Butigan says, because in order to adapt mentally one must empty oneself of the hungers and worries of regular life. To put it more bluntly: "The desert doesn't give a damn," as theologian Belden C. Lane wrote in the journal Cross Currents in 1994. "Its capacity for indifference seems almost infinite. Precisely this sense of danger and disregard fed the spiritual vigor of early desert monasticism." I did some promiscuous underlining on a printout of his essay, which was titled "Desert Attentiveness, Desert Indifference": 

Much of popular contemporary piety is so individualistic and ego-centered, so prone to the cultivation of niceness, so disconnected from questions of justice, that it risks anything to avoid giving offense or making demands. The spiritual life of mainstream American churches and synagogues is eminently unexceptionable, generically inoffensive, culturally correct. We substitute amiability for friendship, agreeableness for dialogue, pleasantry for compassion. The acrid smell of the desert is lost. [...]

In a landscape where nothing officially exists ... absolutely anything becomes thinkable, and may consequently happen. [...]

The desert invites an ignoring of the ego [and] the rigorous ordering of one's desires.

And in a section of the essay titled "Learning to Pay Attention," which I might re-title "Reporting" for self-educational purposes, he says:

People who dwell in wilderness, living close to the land, often evince powers of attentiveness that seem magical by comparison to others. But the difference is only one of discipline. Most of us have little experience paying careful attention to anything. [...]

To move slowly and deliberately through the world, attending to one thing at a time, strikes us as radically subversive, even un-American. We cringe from the idea of relinquishing, in any moment, all but one of the infinite possibilities our culture offers us. Plagued by a highly diffused attention, we give ourselves to everything lightly. That is our poverty. In saying yes to everything, we attend to nothing. One can love only what one stops to observe. [...]

The practice of paying attention is the rarest of gifts because it depends upon the harshest of disciplines. So uncommon is it for us to grasp the beauty and mystery of ordinary things that — when we do so — it often brings us to the verge of tears. Appalled by our own poverty, we awake in wonder to a splendor of which we'd never dreamed.

Then, finally, in a section titled "Ignoring What Doesn't Matter," Lane explains the type of person who would make the Sacred Peace Walk:

...indifference properly understood can become a source of profoundly liberating power. Adopted as a discipline of ignoring what isn't important — in light of the truth of the gospel — it becomes a counter-cultural influence of great significance. People who pay attention to what matters most in their lives, and who learn to ignore everything else, assume a freedom that is highly creative as well as potentially dangerous in contemporary society. Having abandoned everything of insignificance, these are people not easily co-opted. They have nothing to lose.

This describes Sr. Megan and many of her fellow activists. I myself am not such a person. I'm a barnacle on their enterprise. An observer, a lurker. My convictions are not religious or spiritual but journalistic in nature, though you might argue that a journalist's search for truth is comparable to — even occasionally in cahoots with — an activist's crusade to spread truth, or her version of it. Anyway, I'm curious to see how the desert environment affects the act of reporting. I'm assuming I'll be taking as many notes on myself, as a foot soldier of materialism who is momentarily deprived of it, as I will on those other walkers who have nothing to lose.

In addition to a tent, a hat and a Nikon D7000, I'm bringing two books with me — Jonathan Schell's "The Fate of the Earth" and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's "Wind, Sand and Stars" — though I don't know if I'll be able to stay awake in my tent after a day's walk to do any significant reading. I'm especially keen to read Saint-Exupéry, known to me heretofore as the author of "Le Petit Prince." In 1935 he crashed his plane in the Sahara Desert and, with scant supplies or water, spent four days hallucinating and wandering toward death until he was saved by a Bedouin. I'm just into the first chapter, and there's a stunning paragraph in which he silently addresses the surly, preoccupied bureaucrats on his bus route in Toulouse. "You have chosen," he writes, "not to be perturbed by great problems, having trouble enough to forget your own fate as man. You are not the dweller upon an errant planet and do not ask yourself questions to which there are no answers."

The Sacred Peace Walk is not a survivalist expedition by any means. It's an organized jaunt attended by a support team and support vehicles, and it all takes place on or alongside a highway, and a portable toilet is trailed behind a van that follows us the whole way. It will be nice, though, to read "Wind, Sand and Stars" on desert terrain, away from things that don't matter, nearer to nature's indifference, on an errant planet. To look down and see sand. To look up and see stars.

More to come.