I asked the lady at the post office if she was serious. Is there really no food in this town? No gas station, no restaurant, no grocery store? She nodded again, and offered me a water bottle.
I was several months into a cross-country hitchhiking trip. On this particular morning I had set out on foot, expecting to get a ride. I walked nearly ten miles and only saw a couple cars on my way. No one stopped. To keep from going crazy I strummed my banjo, screamed into the open fields, played with bugs. Unfortunately the horse flies were thick, and I was pretty sure I’d be eaten alive.
By the time I reached the highway my back was aching, my skin was bubbling, and my feet felt like they were splitting open. But off in the distance I could see a little collection of trees and buildings with a train running through it.
Town! I thought to myself.
I dragged myself down the highway only to turn up in Bradshaw, Nebraska, a town without food.
Just a few months before this episode in my life as a vagabond, I had been a student at UC Berkeley. I started school with so much exuberance, excited to study political science and then one day run for office and make the world a better place. I thought I knew exactly what I wanted out of my education.
While I was sitting in school, a small group of young people in Texas were climbing into trees to protest the Keystone XL pipeline that would pump thick black tar sands through their backyards and into refineries that would spit out toxic fumes and poison the surrounding communities. I thought there was no way they could lose the battle.
Three years and six majors later, I realized I had absolutely no idea why I was giving so much money and precious time to this bloated institution. I had watched my political heroes commit war crimes and sign away precious pieces of the earth to extractive industries and no longer wanted much to do with electoral politics. I found the male-dominated philosophy department at Berkeley uninspiring. My history classes required me to read so many books I didn’t have time to sleep.
Even more discouraging were my geography and Gender and Women’s Studies classes, which made me painfully aware of the terrible violence being done against women, people of color, queer people, non-human animals, indigenous cultures, and our planet, yet demanded I sit through hours of lectures, weighing the merits of Malthus, rather than go plant seeds on the Gill Tract farm or march against police brutality in the streets of Oakland.
While I was sitting in school, a small group of young people in Texas were climbing into trees to protest the Keystone XL pipeline that would pump thick black tar sands through their backyards and into refineries that would spit out toxic fumes and poison the surrounding communities. Watching from afar, I was so inspired by their bravery, and as they put their lives on the line, I thought there was no way they could lose the battle.
When the pipeline was built through Texas and Oklahoma, I knew I couldn’t just keep watching. I left school because I couldn’t read another textbook while the world around me burned. I had to do something.
So it was that I found myself hitchhiking through Montana, snow boots strapped to a backpack nearly as heavy as I am, which grew lighter as I gave up on the luxury items (deodorant, shampoo, my extra t-shirt) and as the seasons changed and the weather lightened up. I was heading to South Dakota to follow the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline down through the GMO cornfields of Nebraska, into the plains of Oklahoma, and onto the streets of Houston, Texas.
On the road, the books that so plagued me in school were fuel for my curiosity. As I camped at a spiritual blockade camp, a circle of tipis and a sweat lodge on Sicangu Lakota land constructed in the way of the pipeline, I read page after page about the ongoing genocide against Native people, about the American Indian Movement, about indigenous feminism, about Lakota oral traditions. The words I read were burned into my mind by the face-to-face conversations I was having with organizers, about white supremacy, about what it means for me, as a settler, to take part in this blockade.
And I was learning so much more than the books alone could teach. At a direct action training camp, organizers from Texas taught me how to start a tree-sit, a great tactic for halting construction or logging. In Nebraska, in a dilapidated house by the train tracks, where they let me set up my tiny tent in the overgrown backyard, I learned how to give myself a tattoo, sitting wide-eyed in the kitchen, gripping a needle dripping with India ink. I taught myself banjo, standing alone for hours on the side of the highway, waiting to get picked up. I milked a goat for the first time. I made entire meals out of food from grocery store dumpsters. I hopped a freight train.
Maybe the most important thing I learned is how to trust other people, and how to trust myself.
When I told my friends, my family, even my fellow organizers I was going to be hitchhiking the route of the Keystone Pipeline, most people told me that it was reckless for anyone, especially a female-presenting person, to put their life in the hands of a stranger. And yet, I rode in SUVs, minivans, electric cars, box cars, semi-trucks, and even on a motorcycle from California to South Dakota to Texas to Tennessee to Alabama, to Arizona with more than a hundred absolute strangers, and heard so many stories of heartbreak, inspiration, adventure, and commitment. Every day the media bombards me with stories about people committing acts of violence against each other, about crime, about fear. And yet, the vast majority of folks I encountered on the road were generous people who can imagine a better world.
There is a lot to be afraid of in this life. I am part of a generation that is witnessing rapid climate change, that is faced with a militarized police state, that is fractured by racism and hetero-patriarchy. I am lucky to be insulated by my own privileges, but really in the grand scheme of things, getting in a stranger’s car is no more perilous than what most people contend with every day.
As I sat on a bench in Bradshaw, Nebraska, stomach throbbing, trying not to cry, I got a phone call from a stranger, someone I had met briefly the day before. She had gotten my number from her neighbor who had lent me his couch for the night, and just wanted to call to check on me. When I explained where I was, she got in her car and drove two hours out of her way to pick me up, buy me pizza, and deliver me to my next host.
The decision to go back to school has not been easy. Since returning to the Bay Area, I have started working on a sailboat and spent most of my time writing, playing music, and protesting police brutality. After more than a year of setting my own schedule, my own goals, giving up that freedom and handing my time over to a handful of professors to do with as they will feels like a huge sacrifice. But, I am inspired by the students who have been taking to the streets fighting for justice, and I want to stand with them. I’ll give this school thing another go.
Lesley Haddock, presently a senior at UC Berkeley, is a co-founder of Fueling Dissent, a multimedia storytelling project documenting resistance to the Keystone XL Pipeline and other extraction projects in North America.
One in a series of personal Perspectives. We invite readers to submit their own essays—inspiration can come from CALIFORNIA magazine or CALIFORNIA Online stories, the news, issues of the day, or campus life. Read more.