On the Road with the Great March for Climate Action
After joining one of the largest moving protests in history with her daughter, Katie Arnold learns that orchestrating an effective march requires more than walking.
Last week I took my five-year-old daughter on her first activist march. It was day one of summer vacation in Santa Fe, and the whole season stretched languorously in front of us. What better way to celebrate her newfound freedom than by trekking 15 miles along the backroads of northern New Mexico with the Great March for Climate Action?
I’d first heard of the Great March a few days earlier, when it had come through Santa Fe on its way north to Colorado. Founded by Ed Fallon, a former state legislator from Iowa, the march is comprised of “climate patriots” who are walking from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. to inspire action to solve the climate crisis. Since leaving L.A. on March 1, they’ve averaged about 15 miles a day, camping in parks and parking lots along the way—a 3,000-mile, eight month journey that’s slated to end in Washington on November 1.
Earlier in May, I’d spent four days walking along the northern California coast with my sister, a sort of slow-motion ultra that had left me obsessed with traveling by foot. The climate marchers were doing exactly that, only on a grand scale, coast to coast, to raise awareness for a grave and urgent global cause. It was such an audaciously simple and seductive mission that for half a second, I fantasized about going the distance with them, along the spine of the southern Rockies, across the heartland, all the way to Washington.
Then I snapped back to reality. I have two young daughters, a husband, a puppy, and a job at home in Santa Fe. Walking for six months was out of the question, but I could walk for a day, or maybe two. I imagined trekking short sections with a band of selfless climate pilgrims, hopscotching around the country all summer to meet them. But first things first. Before I could join them, I had to find them.
I tracked them down on a Sunday evening in Santa Fe at their camp in a baseball field a few blocks from my house, their cluster of tents and vehicles barely visible in the late May dusk. A bright-eyed, 60-something official named Izzy greeted me warmly and explained that a core group of 30 or so have been walking since L.A.—a handful are “spirit walkers,” who hope to walk every single step—but plenty of people march for a few days or weeks, and I was welcome to tag along.
Which is how Pippa and I found ourselves, along with our friend Blair and her three-year-old daughter, Grace, in the parking lot of the Santuario de Chimayo, shortly after 7 a.m. on Wednesday morning. It was a modest encampment: Half a dozen nylon tents were pitched along the edges of the church’s gravel lot. Duffle bags lay where they’d been tossed on a black tarp. The chalkboard on the back of the kitchen truck advertised lentils and rice; under the scrawled heading, “Leftovers,” nothing was written. Two older women bent over a plastic basin, washing the breakfast dishes. At least three people were brushing their teeth, or their hair. Except for a couple of gear trucks and the odd Prius, it could have been just another morning on a group camping trip.
Freshly showered in shorts and sneakers, with two blonde girls in tow, Blair and I stood out like, well, two moms at their first activist march. Izzy found us right away, and a 50-ish woman named Judy motioned for us to join the morning meeting. The sky was patched with morning clouds, and the campers gathered in a loose circle, bundled in down jackets and nylon pants that sagged a little at the knees, smelling like fresh air and the physical exertion that comes from walking 15 miles and sleeping outside everyday for the past six weeks.
The group’s acting mayor, Miriam, 71, motioned for us all to hold hands for announcements. Someone said that they were mailing a letter to the President. A bearded coordinator named Jimmy urged everyone to show up for a rally in Taos on Saturday night; there would be an optional field trip to see the earth ships, if anyone was interested. Sarah, on the logistics team, briefed us on our route: We would walk north out of the village of Chimayo toward Truchas, 15 miles into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, along the rural byway known as the High Road to Taos. After Blair and I and the girls were introduced to the group and greeted with smiles and prayer hands all around, Miriam led us in song, a plaintive chant imploring us to not kill the earth.
In my fervor to join the March, I’d blithely assumed we would walk the whole way, and I’d brought a borrowed BOB off-road stroller as backup for when Pippa got tired. Blair had brought one for Grace, too, but at the last minute, as we were donning reflective safety vests and the marchers were shouldering their hand-written signs, we decided to take only one, for Grace; Pippa could ride on the front if need be. I’d also assumed that we’d be strolling quiet country roads, and possibly trails. I’d heard that before they reached Santa Fe, the marchers had been met by local Native American tribal members and escorted cross-country on sacred pueblo lands. I pictured us bent over maps, plotting a remote path through the wilds of New Mexico.
Instead, we were walking up the pencil-wide shoulder of Country Road 98 during Chimayo’s morning rush hour. Cars and pickups whizzed by, some arcing wide to give us room, others nearly clipping us. I clutched tightly to Pippa’s hand. The marchers seemed unfazed: They’d already walked 1,000 miles on roads just like this, through gritty L.A. fumes and sleet and hail and blizzards and deluges and dust storms (“I’ve stopped calling it climate change and now just call it climate strange!” Izzy declared when I first met him). They strung out along the white line, waving their signs jollily and flashing peace signs at the drivers. A middle-aged woman named Kat from Homer, Alaska, called out in broken Spanish to an elderly Hispanic couple who sat on the portal of their old adobe watching us pass, expressionless.
There was so much going on it was hard to focus on the walking. I thought about what Judy, who had joined in Payson, Arizona, and was going as far as Denver, had told me in the parking lot when I asked her if she loved marching: “It’s more complicated than that.”
Indeed, even with the traffic and the effort required to keep Pippa moving forward in a somewhat straight line and Grace entertained in the stroller, I could see that the walking was the easy part. Harder by far was coexisting outside with a disparate group of people for eight months while trying to rally around a common cause. Of the three dozen walkers, nearly all were nearing or over 50, semi-retired or empty-nesters. Three or four were under 25, including a woman in a long skirt who was doing the whole march in silence (except for singing). Then there was Mac, 24, a spirit walker who had just graduated from the University of Michigan and was marching—or rather hobbling—barefoot. “Walking is not just about the activism,” he told us. “I believe that I’m connecting to the earth and transforming myself, and through that, others will be inspired to transform, too.”
But what about the activism? When I asked Kimberly, a masseuse from Des Moines with salt-and-pepper hair, what message they were hoping to convey through the March, she explained that their mission statement was still a work in progress. “It’s about water and energy and solar,” she said, “and the Keystone Pipeline. We’re working on our vision as a group.”
The logistics of organizing such a massive undertaking are tricky, too. When they showed up in LA for the start of the Great March, on March 1, Miriam explained, “there was hardly any infrastructure set up. There were no dishes or pots. We had to do everything from the beginning.” The original plan had envisioned a thousand full-time marchers, but so far on any given day, there have been less than 50. (Many marchers come and go, walking for weeks or months and leaving for just as long to tend to things at home; they hope to recruit more en route, starting in Denver in June.) The March adheres to the principles of non-violence and is self-governed through an elected city council, mayor, and judicial board. Early on, the marchers implemented once-a-week rest days to catch up on the real lives they left behind, but they were so busy doing laundry and sending emails and fundraising (each full-time marcher committed to raising $20 per day to cover food and expenses) that they started calling them “stay days.”
A mile from the Santuario, the March turned north onto busier NM 76, the High Road, threading through farm fields and horse pastures and past ramshackle adobe art studios. Pippa had taken to straddling the front of the stroller rather than walking, which was a relief—the cars were coming faster, and the shoulder had narrowed—but made for awkward pushing. Under the weight of both girls, the BOB lurched and swerved in the soft gravel like a fully-loaded shopping cart with a bad wheel.
Our fellow walkers were unfailingly optimistic. “You’re the youngest marchers we’ve ever had!” they exclaimed cheerfully to the girls, as they took turns helping Blair and me maneuver the stroller up a long hill. One of the marchers, Bob, had volunteered to drive the sag wagon, Kimberly’s Prius, that morning, and he kept pulling over to direct us safely along dodgy sections through the blind curves. Drivers honked and slowed to wave or give us the thumbs up; others ignored us altogether.
Our girls rose to the occasion of their first environmental march. Pippa gamely hopped in and out of the BOB, feeding Grace bits of Larabar, listening patiently while the marchers talked about climate change, and complaining only a little: “When are we going to get to the trail, Mama?”
We were still ten miles from the nearest trail, a dirt forest road that that would spare us from Highway 76, when Blair and I decided to pull the plug. Grace had begun to clamor to get out of the stroller, but the High Road was still far too busy for her to toddle safely, and Bob graciously offered to shuttle us back the Santuario in the Prius. We shook hands, hugged the marchers goodbye, and wished them luck. It was just after 10 am. We’d walked three miles of the Great March for Climate Action, one-one-thousandth of the way across the country.
Driving back to Santa Fe, I tried to make sense of the morning. Part of me was inexplicably glad to go home, to not have to walk en masse to Washington and sleep in parking lots and eat lentils from the back of a truck. But the other half of me knew we’d only just nicked the surface of the Great March. Like any adventure, it always takes a few days to find your place—outside and in the group. “It’s a constant discovery,” Judy told me. “You’re wondering where you fit in.” It’s changing—we all are—all the time.
For nearly everyone I talked to, the reality of marching was so different from the fantasy. Not better or worse, just different. “Before the March, I’d been afraid of sleeping outside,” Kimberly explained as we walked. “Now I can’t imagine not.” Earlier Judy told me, “there’s a timelessness to living outside that most of us never get to experience.” And for 18-year-old named Bernise, who’s taking a year off college to walk, the March “is so much more amazing than I ever expected.” I’ve spend the last couple of years running ultra-distance trail races, and marching three miles for a cause with young children felt harder than running 50.
I asked Pippa what she thought of being part of one of the largest cross-country marches in history. “It was cool,” she said automatically—high praise from a kindergartener. But then she was quiet for a while, and I could tell she was thinking. “They’re still walking,” she marveled. “And they’ll still be walking at Halloween.”
Years from now, long after the March is over, our children—these very girls—will inherit the problems of a warming, changing world, and it will be their crisis to solve. Had Blair and I and our daughters made a difference by walking that day? Will we turn off the lights and stop ordering our lattes to go in paper cups? Think twice about driving, and ride our bikes instead? Meet the March in Omaha after all? For the sake of our daughters, and their daughters, I really, really hope so.
But probably, it’s more complicated than that.
For more information about how to meet up with the March or donate, go to climatemarch.org. Full-timer marchers and part-time walkers are always welcome; see the route and schedule online.