Saturday, July 14, 2007

Fellow wesleyanite walks across country for peace

Teens' 3,000-mile trek to D.C. is a rally of 2

By Colleen Mastony
Tribune staff reporter

July 9, 2007

LOVELAND, Colo. -- Against the majestic backdrop of the Rocky Mountains,
in the far eastern corner of Colorado where the land begins to flatten
into a vast golden prairie, two teenagers trudge along the weed-bitten
edge of an isolated highway. Blistered and sunburned, they endure wind,
rain and searing heat. But still, they slog forward in what has become a
quixotic journey across the country in an effort to end the Iraq war.

Ashley Casale, 19, and Michael Israel, 18, are walking 3,000 miles from
San Francisco to Washington in a trek they once had hoped would rally the
nation and lead thousands to join them in their epic March for Peace. But,
nearly halfway through their trip, the teens remain alone, wandering the
vast landscape of America, where few have paid them any attention.

"It seems like the country is asleep," said Israel, a rail-thin young man
with deep-set blue eyes, walking the roadside on a recent morning, his
voice sometimes drowned out by the roar of huge trucks zooming past. "A
lot of people we meet are against the war. But it doesn't seem like many
people are doing anything about it."

Sometimes cattle grazing in a nearby field are their only audience, the
chirping of crickets their only encouragement. They are the loneliest
peace marchers, sleeping in parks or behind abandoned businesses,
surviving on granola bars and peanut butter, hoping that more people will
hear of their protest and join them.

Their youthful idealism comes in stark contrast to a sense of complacency
in America, where polls indicate that a majority of Americans oppose the
war but relatively few of them have taken to the streets in active
protest. Even Cindy Sheehan, the longtime face of the anti-war movement,
has abandoned her quest, saying she feared her efforts had been in vain.
"I shudder to think what it is going to take, after everything that has
happened in this country during the Bush administration, to get the
country to rise up," she said.

With the Bush administration resisting the tide of public opinion turning
against the war, "there's a sense that simply carrying a sign to show
opposition isn't very useful today," said Lawrence Wittner, a history
professor at the State University of New York at Albany and author of the
book "Peace Action."

"College-age youth are very cynical these days, which is not to say they
like the status quo -- they may mock it and tell cynical jokes. But they
have very little sense that the world can be dramatically transformed,"
Wittner said.

Stark contrast with 1960s

The nature of the war in Iraq also has helped avert the outrage that led
to the large-scale demonstrations of the 1960s, experts say. Today, there
is no draft. The roughly 160,000 soldiers stationed in Iraq and the 3,605
who have died are dwarfed by the statistics of Vietnam, with 543,000
troops deployed at the war's height and 58,000 dead by war's end.

"I think a major reason people aren't out on the streets like they were in
the '60s is that people don't have anything personally at stake in the
war," Sheehan said.

Against this backdrop, the two teenagers have decided to walk. Their packs
leave bruises on their backs, and their shoes have worn holes. Their skin
has darkened to a chestnut hue and their bodies have grown lean. Over
seven weeks they have traversed four states, more than 1,400 miles.

They make an unlikely pair. Israel is quiet and soft-spoken, and wears a
floppy fishing hat. Casale is vivacious and outgoing, wearing outlandish
orange sunglasses and carrying a cell phone that constantly rings with
calls from activists and family checking the marchers' progress. They had
not met in person before the march began.

As they travel the highways, they have glimpsed the nation's conflicting
and complex feelings on the war. One woman working on a road crew in
Colorado choked back emotion as she told them her son was shipping out to
Iraq. "I don't like war either," she said before handing them her last few
dollar bills. A Vietnam veteran selling produce at a roadside stand
offered the travelers a free bag of cherries. "The government is sending
those boys to die just like they did in Vietnam," he said.

But the marchers also have faced the nation's anger. An Army recruiter
said American soldiers were making the real "march for peace" over in
Iraq. And a farmer who initially had agreed to let them stay on his land
abruptly asked them to leave after they told him they were protesting. At
the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park, rangers refused to let the
pair enter until they put away the signs that read "March for Peace." And
on July 4, a driver in a passing car yelled: "Bunch of hippies! Bomb

A idealist's idea

The idea for the march came to Casale last autumn. A freshman at Wesleyan
University in Middletown, Conn., she had attended war protests but thought
that a cross-country march could attract more attention. She established a
Web site,, sent out hundreds of fliers to other
college campuses and contacted peace groups around the country. Israel,
about to graduate a home-school high school program in Jackson, Calif.,
spotted a notice online. Though dozens of people showed interest, in the
end, only Israel and another woman agreed to walk.

They set off from San Francisco on May 21, carrying 40-pound packs. By the
end of the first week, the third marcher dropped out. Another activist
told them they would never make it to Washington by their target date,
Sept. 11. But they pressed on, crossing into Nevada and making their way
across the desert in two weeks. Then on to Utah and Colorado.

Their determination has endeared them to many. After seeing the holes in
Casale's shoes, a man in Sacramento bought her a new pair of sandals. An
elderly man in Colorado drove their packs ahead for two days and called
his friends who lived along the route to arrange for shelter.

"I read about them in the paper yesterday and thought, 'Oh my God, we have
to help them,'" said Bobbi Benson, 48, of Boulder, who helped drive the
packs forward through Colorado. "They just have such courage."

'This is the whole point'

On July 4, Casale and Israel walked the 20 miles from Loveland to Greeley,
two towns in a solidly Republican corner of Colorado. As they trudged
along the roadside, the Rocky Mountains dominated the horizon behind them.
And before them, fields of wheat and corn stretched for miles.

"People who see us today might see us as un-American or unpatriotic," said
Casale, about to dart across an expressway ramp. "But I think this is the
whole point of this country and July 4: People taking an active role, and
speaking out."

They walked for hours under the hot sun. When they finally made it to
Greeley, someone yelled an obscenity out a car window. A few minutes
later, a man in a Cadillac waved dismissively at them. But others honked
support, signaling with a thumbs up or a peace sign.

And when they ducked inside a restaurant, one customer, Carla DeVries, 51,
cheered them on. With perfectly coiffed blond hair and wearing a bright
pink sweater, DeVries said she is a Republican and supports the war but
said, "It's refreshing to see anyone do anything that takes adversity."
She smiled at Casale and said: "You stick to your guns."

Twelve hours after they began walking, the sun going down on Greeley and
the rat-a-tat-tat of celebratory firecrackers echoing in the distance, the
two marchers arrived at a beige split-level house, where someone had
offered them a place to sleep. A gray-haired woman rushed to the screen
door. "Welcome! Welcome!" called Jean Taylor-Smith, 74, embracing them on
the doorstep. "We didn't think you'd ever make it!"

Nearly halfway to goal

The two marchers were exhausted, but they also were nearly halfway to
Washington. On Sunday they were near Gothenburg, Neb. A peace group has
arranged a rally in Omaha, where they hope to draw large crowds.

"If I could have it my way, I would have hundreds of people out here. The
more people the better. But I still don't believe it's insignificant that
two people are marching," said Casale, sitting on a couch drinking a tall
glass of ice water, her list of contacts spread on her lap. "What we're
doing can be significant on a national level. But it's also the
individuals we meet. Everywhere we go, there's someone we can meet and
talk to."

Taylor-Smith, standing in the kitchen, beamed with pride.

"One person can change the world," she said, rushing to fill everyone's
water glasses, asking what the marchers wanted to eat. "These two will
plant the seeds, and the movement will grow."

- - -

No comments:

Post a Comment