There are emotional dangers to traveling alone for long periods of time. I never know when loneliness is going to engulf me, and this past Sunday it came at me and knocked the wind right out of me.
For days there had been talks on the radio and messages on bulletin boards and notices and interviews in the newspapers about peace activists descending on Los Alamos. Really, it sounded as though there would be hundreds of people, maybe even thousands, coming from all over the country for a weekend of activities to mark the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There would be a weekend conference, a sack-cloth-and-ashes peace vigil, and it would all culminate on Sunday in an afternoon of speeches calling for nuclear disarmament.
My campground was just a half-hour up the mountain from Los Alamos, so of course I drove down for that final afternoon event. To get into the town I had to stop at one of the many booths stretched across a plaza and show picture ID to an imposing uniformed man wearing lots of badges. There were no other people to be seen around the huge complex of buildings where the atomic bomb was designed, built, and tested back in the 1940s, where in fact design and building still go on today. I don’t know about testing. The whole town had an odd feeling about it, more creepy than friendly, as though the company had provided everything everyone might want, and in a big way, but with little thought for actual comfort or pleasure. Proportions were off, to my eye, in many ways, starting with the fact that the town of 18,000 apparently has more millionaires per capita than any other town in the entire country, and the town itself sits in one of the poorest counties in all of the USA.
In Ashley Pond Park too, where the rally was held, the visual proportions were way off. The small group of participants (I counted only about 200, which caused the first sinking of my heart) sat on the vast lawn in front of a huge cavernous stage, a stage that dwarfed all the speakers. I leaned against a tree at the back of those people and found it hard to keep my mind on the speeches. And not only because the microphone seemed to lose power regularly.
I had come hoping to feel inspired, to feel less powerless, hoping to hear some new ideas for constructive action. But as I stood there I saw myself back in 1961 in Berkeley. I was walking with about eight other people in front of a nondescript office building that said Atomic Energy Commission on the door. We carried small hand-lettered signs that said Ban the Bomb, No More Hiroshimas, World Peace. We were so meek and polite that we moved aside to let passers-by walk past us. The Sixties had definitely not yet begun.
But I was almost brought to tears when I remembered the potency I had felt, taking that action, touchingly naive as it seems now. And now here I was, over a half-century later, standing under my tree behind the small sprinkling of people in the park, the speakers all making a call for disarmament, and all I could think of was the thousands and thousands of nuclear bombs that have been built since that day in Berkeley, bombs that are kept carelessly and without basic safety precautions firmly in place, bombs that are ready to detonate at any moment, either by intention or through carelessness. Nuclear bombs. Thousands and thousands of them.
When I did tune in to the speakers I couldn’t stand it. Most of them were self-promoting, telling us about all the fine work they do, about the awards they have won, the nice things famous people have said about them. The only actual suggestion for new action that I heard I could hardly believe: one speaker spoke as though to all the 9800 employees of the nuclear weapons laboratory, demanding that they quit their jobs immediately and join the peace movement. The next speaker, to her credit, did point out that that was not realistic, they needed those jobs, but she called on all the employees to refuse to work any longer on developing and improving the bomb, and instead to work only towards solving the problem of nuclear waste and of guaranteeing the safe storage of the current bombs. A great idea, of course, but was there even one single employee even listening?
I stood there feeling critical and mean-spirited, and was aware that because of my wandering mind I may have missed all the good parts. But still I was unable to change my attitude and join in with the audience. They applauded often and enthusiastically during the speeches and seemed inspired and full of hope. Somehow that just increased my growing sense of disconnection from my fellow humans. I was totally alone, impotent, terribly discouraged.
So on the drive back up the mountain I felt sad and hopeless. I desperately needed to be with a good friend, right away, but all I had were my fellow campers, and when I got back I found that most of them had packed up and gone home. But as I got out of my car one of the couples who were still there walked by. We had never said more than hello to each other over the past few days so I was surprised when they stopped and asked where I had been, what I’d been up to. I told them a little about my afternoon and then asked what did they think about it all?
“Oh god,” said he “I wish we had nuclear bombs all around every inch of the perimeter of this country, pointing out, ready to shoot off at a moment’s notice.” Wow. I had made some rather large assumptions about them based solely on the fact that they were camping in a tent, not an RV.
Well, I knew it was not the evening for me to stay put all by myself in the campground, so I drove down the other side of the mountain to the tiny town of Jemez Springs, population 375. The town seems to consist of just some buildings by the side of the mountain road. There’s an impressive library with a huge skate board park in front, five restaurants, six art galleries, plus some mineral hot springs and ten inns and B&Bs. No gas station, no grocery store. A town devoted to the visitor.
I chose the restaurant that had an outdoor balcony over the river, shaded by tall leafy trees rising up from way below, and from which I heard soft music coming. There was an empty table waiting for me, amongst the other four tables, two with parents and small children, two with couples, everyone dressed in shirt and jeans, just like me.
Once I had ordered I turned my attention to the musicians. The old geezer who was singing still had a good voice and knew all the words to what seemed like every song ever sung during the ‘60s. Next to him the sexy old harmonica player was flirting with him like mad, through both her playing and the way she twisted in her chair towards him. The two of them were on a roll, great fun. The drummer and bass player were unobtrusive.
It was the keyboard player who gradually pulled me in and had me totally mesmerized. He looked like he should have been on a surf board, young, handsome, with dirty blond hair and a sunburned nose. He played softly, as though just to himself, but everything he did was in reaction to the singer and harmonica player, or a gentle nudge to them to veer in a new direction. They were so tuned in to each other I don’t think they were aware of him, but I certainly was. He was inventive, full of tiny surprises, some real playfulness, and every now and then a few minutes of heart-aching beauty. Being so aware of every note he played I felt I was a silent participant in the group, I was one of them. It brought me back to feeling connected to my fellow humans again. I was no longer discouraged. I was no longer lonely.
Plus I had managed again to bury the acute awareness of how close we are at all times to total nuclear annihilation. I guess maybe it’s good to become aware of it now and then and face that reality for an afternoon. Maybe. Thinking of that keyboard player I know that it’s certainly good to be reminded often of the things that would make it a tragedy to be annihilated, and make sure we pay close attention at all times to those things. I drove back up to my campground humming and smiling.