The Journey Changes You

The following is the transcription of a written interview I did regarding walking across the US, art and activism, with Amy Harwood of Signal Fire. This interview first appeared in the journal Leaf Litter, December 2012

Amy Harwood: Can you give some context and maybe a short chronology? When did you get involved with the anti-nuclear movement? What years did you take part in peace walks?

Marisa Anderson: I got involved with the anti-nuclear movement in college in 1988 when I joined a student group organizing to participate in the annual spring encampment and civil disobedience actions at the Nevada Test Site. One of the members of the group had been on the Great Peace March in 1986 and was part of the early organizing for the Global Walk for a Livable World, an environmentally focused cross-country walk planned for 1990. I knew immediately that this was something I needed to do, so in January of 1990 I dropped out of college and hitchhiked down the California coast to meet up with the base camp. I spent 1990 jumping on and off the Walk, walking for long stretches of time, but also getting an immersive activist education, doing support work at Big Mountain, returning to  camp and organize at the Test Site and spending time in the Lower East Side of New York with squatters and the folks living in Tompkins Square Park.

The Global Walk ended in New York in October of 1990; in the spring of 1991 I went back to the Test Site where I met a couple of activists from Belgium who were planning the Walk Across America for Mother Earth, starting in New York in January 1992 and ending at the Test Site nine months later. The Walk was organized to commemorate the 500 years of Native resistance since the landing of Columbus, and also to highlight the fact that every stage of the nuclear industry, from mining to testing, happens on indigenous lands. I spent all of 1992 on the Walk, focusing on logistics and the infrastructure needed to move 120 people 15 miles down the road everyday. I worked in the kitchen, cooking and ordering food, drove support vehicles and did a lot of site scouting and route planning.

After the Walk my affinity group stayed together for several years, continuing to travel and organize. We built on the skills we had learned on the Walks and were able to offer logistical and technical support for actions and encampments throughout the 1990s.

Some basic facts about a cross country walk; it takes nine months to walk across the US if you walk six days a week, 15-20 miles a day; the community of walkers ranged from 50-300, depending on how close to a city or large action we were. Generally we were about 100-120. We had support vehicles on both Walks; a kitchen, a gear bus, a school bus with toilets, a vehicle to scout ahead, and a blister bus to offer daily support while people were walking.

AH: There is a long history of protest walks that spans so many different cultures. What qualities make long walks such an enduring symbol of resistance?

MA: A Walk is a pilgrimage; a journey imbued with moral or spiritual significance. Walking requires endurance and sacrifice, strength and extreme vulnerability.

Walking is very public, you are out on the road with cars going by all day, you are sleeping in a city park or a church or in the home of a supporter. You have to be ready at anytime to explain what you’re doing and why to anybody who asks. As a Walker you represent something outside of yourself, and as a community, a Walk offers a powerful representation of that commitment.

When you go on a long Walk, you are giving up your ‘life’ for the duration. You no longer have a home, a job, a car, whatever your props and comforts are. Daily routine, local identity, and security are put aside. You are agreeing to be mutually dependent for your most basic needs, on people you’ve never met. You are putting yourself at the mercy of the weather and relying on the limits of your physical and emotional strength.

Historically, Walking holds an iconic place in our national identity, exemplified by the many marches of the civil rights movement. Walking is also used in war, as punishment and cheap transportation. Certain types of forced marches are illegal under the Geneva Convention. The Trail of Tears, the Bataan Death march, and scores of other forced marches have been used to degrade and abuse prisoners of war.

There is an order of Buddhist monks, the Nipponzan-Myōhōji whose whole purpose is to walk and pray. Nipponzan-Myōhōji monks, nuns and followers beat hand drums while chanting, and walk throughout the world promoting peace and non-violence. They are a continuous presence in every Walk I’ve participated in or heard of, and to this day I can still hear in my head the sound of their chanting and the beating of the drum they walk with all day, every day.

AH: It’s always struck me that these walks have a performative quality to them. Do you remember feeling like you were on stage or utilizing the action of walking as a creative expression?

MA:  Political protest is essentially theater, and we would use the power of spectacle generated by the sight of 120 colorful, ragged loudmouths to generate attention for issues affecting the communities we walked through. In that way we were able to help activist communities garner media attention for campaigns specific to their local area. We did outreach in every community we passed through and we had musical groups that performed at churches and community centers as part of these outreach programs. We were not so much on a stage, as in a zoo or fishbowl; as a Walker, you are on display, and hopefully you can be creative in your response to that vulnerability. Some people carried banners or signs and there was a lot of singing, which really helps pass the time when you are walking every day for 8 hours.

AH: When you would meet people in the communities you passed through, how would you explain to them what you were doing? 

 MA: We got a huge variety of responses; some people were instantly ready to drop everything they were doing and join the Walk, other people thought we were totally insane; some people were immediately able to place a nine month cross-country Walk into a historical and political context and others had never heard of or imagined that such a thing could exist. I learned to meet people where they were. It’s much more useful to look for a few points of agreement, something to build on, than to try and convince a skeptic to swallow your entire agenda. I learned that if I listen to people I learn more than if I talk to them, and that people often answer their own questions if they have enough information.

AH: Years ago I was canvassing for a political campaign and just by chance the artist William Pope L. happened to be in the midst of one of his iconic “crawls” across the city on the very street that I was walking door-to-door. In both artistic expression and activist intervention, there’s an urgency to grabbing people’s attention and make it so they simply can’t turn away. What are your thoughts on this moment of opportunity for change?

MAObviously there’s more competition than ever before for people’s attention. The flickering lights of the advertising/entertainment industrial complex have figured out how to completely distract us from the completion of a meaningful thought.  That said, I think kids growing up are learning filtering skills that I never learned, and that behind the clamor about ‘social networking’ is an innate desire for community. Going forward, I hope that the huge equity gaps built into US culture will result in a thriving underground as the cracks start to show in the political/business/media corporate behemoth system.

AH: On Signal Fire trips we hope that traveling over landscapes in slower, human-powered ways is good practice for endurance and self-reliance, while still being a part of a group. How has the experience of walking for months with a large group shown up in your life now?

MA: The most obvious lesson I learned is that any task, no matter how daunting, can be accomplished by breaking it into manageable pieces. It’s totally cliché, but you really do walk across the country one step at a time.

I learned that delegating accountable leadership on a task-by-task basis is the most productive way to get things done in a group. In large groups, you’ll never get everybody to agree on anything, and it doesn’t matter! It’s a waste of time to keep talking and talking trying to reach consensus because all that happens is that people get tired and exit the conversation, or dig in and lock horns. In community, like in life, the food needs to get cooked, the dishes need to get done, equipment needs to be maintained; none of these things happen by talking about them, and in fact, the hungrier you are, the worse your decision making process is.

I learned survival skills, self-sufficiency, carrying in my pockets everything I need if I get separated from the group, understanding geographically where I am. I realized only a couple of months ago that I am still constantly scanning a landscape in terms of where can I sleep if I have to, where is the access to water, where is a dead-end that will force me to backtrack, where is the short cut that’s not on the road. These things are essential when all you’ve got is your body to get you where you need to go, and there’s no promise of comfort or shelter, no car to magically transport you. I’d still rather walk than ride a bike or travel by car. If I have enough time, I will always do my daily errands on foot if I can.

AH:  Peace walks have a lot of ritual. How has this informed your musical and artistic work?

MA: Process is fluid and the journey changes you. Who you are and what is important at the beginning of any exploration will often completely transform by the time you reach an end. I didn’t know what I was doing when I dropped out of school to join the Walk; I didn’t have an articulate explanation for my actions, but I knew that it was an absolute necessity for me. I learned to not question the voice that compels me, to not seek an answer in the middle of a process. In terms of ritual, I think I learned how to gauge my commitment, I found ways to follow a path in the dark, and patience to allow myself to explore hidden terrain without needing to turn on the blinding flashlight of reason and logic. I learned that exploration takes time, process takes time; you can’t control that journey.