Disaster disconnect in the wilds
September 18, 2005
While Katrina flooded New Orleans, rain pounded down on my tent in the Holy Cross Wilderness. Water seeped through the edges of my tent floor as the levee burst onto Canal Street. I mopped up with a T-shirt while the Ninth Ward drowned in sewage and oil.My flood was an absurd microcosm of the macro flood that hit New Orleans. Clean, cold mountain rain is a far cry from the brown toxic sludge that swamped the city where 30 years ago I stepped over inebriates lying in the gutter on Bourbon Street and wondered how a major American city could thrive on celebrated decadence.When the rain paused, I strapped on my pack in a high basin at 12,000 feet and marched into a dense black cloud boiling up from below. “This is like walking into Hurricane Katrina!” I joked to my buddy as the first thunderclap boomed and a spattering of raindrops dotted our Gore-Tex jackets.The rain hit us horizontally, driven by a hard, cold wind. We pulled hoods over our heads, leaned into the storm and never once thought about the hurricane victims. We were ignorant of the 34 people found dead in the abandoned nursing home, of the thousands of disaster-stricken victims, and of the gross negligence of government agencies.Two and a half years ago, I hiked out of the Grand Canyon after five days on the river and four days route-finding across the Esplanade to discover that the United States had invaded Iraq. Surfacing from the bowels of the earth to find the world forever changed was sobering, not only because of the grim sociopolitical implications, but because of how completely disconnected I was from the turmoil and despair of others.On April 21, 1999, I bushwhacked over redolent sagebrush flats from a remote canyon rim in Utah, tossed my backpack into my car and took a last, deep breath of warm desert air. Then I started the engine, drove down the sandy road, switched on the radio and entered the horror of the Columbine massacre.While I had been plodding through a deserted canyon wonderland of Indian ruins, fern-fringed springs and piñon-scented campsites, the age of schoolyard innocence had come to a violent and bitter end. People were dead, lives were ruined, fear reigned.On April 19, 1995, I rode my mountain bike up the final climb from Potato Bottom on the White Rim Trail. Pedaling toward the ranger station, where my car was parked, I noticed that the flag fluttered at half-staff against a perfect blue sky.It was an hour before I turned on the news and caught up with the Oklahoma City bombing that had killed 168 people, many of them children. While I was exploring the slickrock contours of the Canyonlands with a group of friends, mass mourning was wringing tears of shock from the nation’s heartland.During these revelations I have felt like Rip Van Winkle, blissfully adrift as the world reels through violence, disaster, war, grief, loss and regret. My psychic isolation is circumstantial, but it also comes from choosing a rural lifestyle that has so far detached me physically from widespread misery.Still, there is no immunity to widespread sorrow, and a creeping malaise known as “weltschmerz” has steadily clouded my world view with pain, sympathy and an edge of cynicism. Distance buffers my malaise into a seemingly pointless and ultimately fleeting abstraction.Spared from immediate catastrophes, yet subjected to their aftermaths, I ponder my fate against those less fortunate and wonder how and why. I feel like Blaise Pascal, a 17th-century mathematician and religious scholar, who posed an answerless query with the haunting question, Why?”When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant and which know me not, I am frightened and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been allotted to me?”Paul Andersen wonders what will greet his next re-entry from the wilds. His column appears on Mondays.
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