What Hiking in Death Valley Taught me About Life

photo (3)

(All photographs taken by me).

Several days ago, I traveled to Death Valley National Park to hike to the summit of Telescope Peak, the highest point in the Park and the Panamint Range at just over 11,000 feet. (Technical specs on hike at bottom). Although I have hiked several large California peaks before—including Mt. Whitney, Alta Peak, and El Capitan—Telescope Peak is by far the most remote and most desolate. One might think there’s not a lot to learn about life in a place as rugged and ruthless as of the Valley of Death, but one would be mistaken. Because as I’ve learned throughout my hikes in California and beyond, Mother Nature is the greatest teacher of all.

Hike up to any mountain—but particularly traverse the ridge that leads to Telescope Peak—and the first thing you appreciate is the smallness of man. So much of our lives are spent entrapped in man-made environments that we come to believe places like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc. are large and imposing. Far from it, dear reader. Perched upon the ridgeline leading up to Telescope Peak, I could see an area covering literally hundreds of miles with virtually no trace of civilization in sight. Before me lay immense valleys, deserts, dunes, canyons, peaks, and mountains—but I could discern no roads, no buildings, and certainly no people. I got a taste, in other words, of what the world looked like before the arrival of man.

photo (4)

And man, what a world. As Colin Fletcher observed in his wonderful book The Man Who Walked Through Time—about his solo journey through the entire Grand Canyon in the 1960s—there comes a point in every hiker’s life when his travels bring him “not merely new knowledge but new humility, and so new wisdom.” And as I stood there on the ridgeline with steep, snow-covered descents on either side of me, I was humbled by the vastness of nature. To my left, over 11,000 feet below me, I could see the lowest point in the United States: Badwater Basin. To my right, over 3,000 feet above me and almost 100 miles away, I could see the unmistakable summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States. In the span of one head-turn, then, it was possible to take in everything from a scorching-hot desert to the snow-capped Sierras.

But that’s just what was visible. What was invisible—but no less present—was the vast expanse of time that it took for Death Valley and the Sierras to be created, how long they have looked like they do, and how long after us they will still look like they do. And for me, that more than anything placed the smallness of the human world into perspective. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed: “There is a relation between the hours of our life and the centuries of time. … [T]he hours should be instructed by the ages, and the ages explained by the hours.” And from that one point in the Panamint Range, the ages spoke to me clearly and directly: man is a relative newcomer to this Earth.

photo 2

And that’s a humbling lesson indeed. Because as Colin Fletcher put it, we spend most our lives in the “man-constructed world … in which the days are consumed by clocks and dollars and traffic and other people.” Living in such a world day-in and day-out, we tend to convince ourselves that man has been here forever and that man will be here forever. We believe that the man-constructed world—monthly bills, foreign affairs, international organizations, daily routines, domestic politics, social media, the daily news, etc.—are all that matter and all that exists, when in fact that view is myopic. We are missing the bigger picture, which is that our environment was created long before us and will last long after us. To paraphrase something I previously wrote, we can’t continue without the natural world but it can (and will) continue without us.

Standing there on Telescope Peak, the lesson was as clear as the valleys below me. I knew then—felt it, breathed it—that this vast expanse of territory looked precisely the same then as it did when it was first crossed by Native Americans and as it probably did during the time of Caesar. I understood, as Colin Fletcher did at the end of his journey through the Grand Canyon, that “the ‘here and now’ is only a flickering heartbeat in many long, slow pulsations” of time. As individuals and as a civilization, man has been on this Earth for what amounts to a split-second in the grand abyss of time. And yet in that short time, we’ve managed to cause harm to this planet—through climate change, deforestation, pollution, fracking, consumption of fossil fuels, etc.—as no animal has done before.

photo 4

And yet we hardly seem to notice either our destruction or the natural world around us. We wait with breathless anticipation as to what smartphone (or movie, or videogame, or TV show) will come out next. We focus on achieving our career goals, on finding a life partner, on not falling behind on our debt, on what’s going on this weekend, that we often forget about the natural world that sustains it all. The latest peace accord or executive action or celebrity scandal makes the front-page news, but the harm that we’re inflicting upon the natural world does not. We believe that we are the smartest things to ever walk the Earth, forgetting that on the Earth’s time-scale we are mere children still learning about the sandbox that surrounds us.

But I love learning about, playing in, and reflecting upon that sandbox. And as I stood there on Telescope Peak assessing the scene around me, I was reminded of what Theodore Roosevelt said at the Grand Canyon in 1903, and about what lessons we might’ve missed while we were too busy playing with our iPads. As Roosevelt said: “I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel, or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You can not improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you[.]”

photo 1

But as I left Death Valley and made the long drive back to San Francisco, I was saddened to recall that “the great loneliness and beauty” of the wilderness is not what we are likely to leave for our children. Instead, the realities of what one sees on Route 5 slowly set in: drought, unemployment, recession, development, construction, poverty, and the like. As Curtis White put it in Orion magazine, the modern world of “global capital triumphant” has removed many of us from the “great loneliness and beauty” of the world in exchange for “the cold comfort of the television and computer monitor[.]” Perhaps it would benefit us all, in other words, to take a hike and see what we’ve been missing.

Technical Specs on Hike to Telescope Peak: Getting to the Telescope Peak trailhead is both long and difficult, and the National Park itself offers zero help as there are no signs letting you know where the trailhead is. Not one. So, presuming you are coming into the park from the West, take Route 190 East into the park. Once on 190 East and about nine miles before reaching Stovepipe Wells, there will be a turn-off to a right on the road marked “Wildrose.” This is the turn you want to make to reach the trailhead. This road is technically Emigrant Canyon Road—which you can Google Map—but please note there will be no signs there indicating that this is Emigrant Canyon or that it takes you to Telescope Peak; the sign will only say “Wildrose” but that is the road you take. Also, please be advised that there is no water or gas once you make the turn towards Wildrose, so if you are in need of either gas or water continue on Route 190 East until reach Stovepipe Wells, which is where you can obtain both.

Take Emigrant Canyon Road for 20-odd miles as it winds through beautiful landscapes until you reach the Wildrose Campgrounds. Continue on the road (pass the campgrounds) and keep going past the historic Charcoal Kilns that are about six miles ahead. Once you pass Charcoal Kilns, the path turns into a fairly rough unpaved road and I would strongly advise using a 4WD (ideally an SUV) vehicle for this final section of the journey. After eight miles on the dirt road, you come to Thorndike Campgrounds, where you can camp for the night or park your vehicle for the hike (the trailhead begins at the end of the road a mile or so past Thorndike). Alternatively, if you continue on the road past Thorndike, you can go on for the final mile which will take you to the Mahogany Flat campgrounds, which is both where the road ends and where the trailhead begins. Once you’ve reached the trailhead, it’s about eight miles (one-way) to the summit. The trail is fairly narrow and steep throughout and there’s no question this hike is strenuous. Additional details on the hike itself can be found here.

—Winston A.

Follow me on Twitter. Like my Facebook page.

Ayn Rand is Dangerous & Delusional: A Brief Primer on Atlas Shrugged


“I have long been of the opinion that if work were such a splendid thing,
the rich would have kept more of it for themselves.”
—Bruce Grocott, 1988

Against my better judgment—because surely a 1,168-page propaganda piece for laissez-faire capitalism is a waste of my time—I’ve decided to read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Thing is, I’m not even halfway through it and already my mind is primed to explode, for it is full to the brim with nonsense. In an effort to counter some of the myth-making and romanticizing that has been done around this novel, I wanted to write a brief primer on the ideas laid out in the text and why they are dead-wrong, delusional, and dangerous. The bottom line, however, is that no one needs to read this novel again.

And you don’t need to read this novel, by the way, because nothing in it relates to you. How do I know that? Well, for starters, virtually all of the characters in the novel are business executives and industry tycoons. Are you a C-level Executive or railroad magnate? I’m guessing no—the odds are overwhelming that you are not. But there’s the rub: in Ayn’s world, the only people who matter are the wealthy and the owners of capital. The working class, your average Joe, and the middle class are all rendered invisible and irrelevant in her world. That’s why, when describing the success of the fictional Wyatt Oil Company, Ayn writes that “one man had done it, and he had done it in eight years” (emphasis mine). Gone unmentioned are the countless low-level employees who had to do the hard work to turn Wyatt Oil—or any company, for that matter—into a success. The novel never inquires what it’s like to manually work on hammering down a railroad, or what it’s like to spend hours at a time in a coal mine, or what it’s like to do the dangerous day-to-day work on a petroleum pumpjack or oil derrick, etc. Ayn doesn’t give a shit about working conditions for your everyday American—she’s concerned with how executives do business and how they increase profit.


Indeed, she goes further than that to imply that working-class individuals don’t matter at all. At one point, when executives Hank and Dagny are talking, Hank says “whatever we are, it’s we who move the world and it’s we who’ll pull it through” (emphasis mine). His mention of “we” clearly refers to executives who pursue profit above all else—and that “we” most certainly does not include you. But here’s where Ayn veers into the delusional: executives move the world & pull it through? I don’t fucking think so. To borrow an oft-repeated line from Marx, it’s the workers of the world who move the world and pull it through. Without laborers doing back-breaking work to pick crops in California, there’d be no food on your table tonight. Without miners delving deep into the earth day-after-day, there’d be no raw materials for your jewelry or electronics. Without public transportation drivers, you’re not getting to work. Without janitors, your office restroom would have shit all over the floor. Without (millions) of employees doing capitalism’s dirty work, in other words, nothing can get done—Steve Jobs and Elon Musk be damned.

But in Ayn’s upside-down world, the precise opposite is true. That’s why she can write—with a straight face, apparently—that character Sebastian d’Anconia “spent years, pickax in hand, breaking rock from sunrise till darkness … fifteen years later, [he had a] silver coat-of-arms above the entrance of a marble palace, the gardens of a great estate, and mountains slashed by pits of red ore in the distance.” Ah yes, because the path to a marble palace lies through fifteen years of breaking rocks with a pickax. Go fuck yourself, Ayn. Never mentioned in Ayn’s novel are the millions of workers around the globe who spend year after year pickax in hand, or working retail, or hustling menial admin work, picking fruits, working in a mine, etc. who never get anywhere close to a “marble palace.” Anyone who has spent time in a working-class neighborhood knows that the majority of people work hard every single day, and yet only an extremely small percentage of us can lay claim to a marble palace or “gardens of a great estate.” Shit, many people I know would be thrilled to have 1500 square feet and a 60-inch HDTV. Ayn, however, embraces the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches fairy tale to the max—use a pickax for 15 years, she tells us, and you too can have your beachfront mansion.


What garbage. As John Cassidy observed in The New Yorker last year: “the Horatio Alger myth is still a myth. Relative to many other advanced countries, the United States remains a highly stratified society, and most poor kids still have few prospects of making big strides.” (One wonders whether Ayn would recommend they grab up a pickax and get to work). Of course, the reality that economic mobility in America has always been anemic is totally lost on Ayn. And why should she care about the plight of the poor? After all, as one of the main characters in the novel says: “We haven’t any spiritual goals or qualities. All we’re after is material things. That’s all we care for.” And there you have it, in plain English. Ayn—and her famous novel—don’t care about the conditions of America’s working-class, and she certainly doesn’t care that most of us will never, ever “make it.” What she cares about are material things: money, profits, and the assorted luxury goods they can buy (marble estates, Ferraris, Rolexes, yachts, etc). The whole thing reminds me of the famous 20th-Century cartoon entitled Pyramid of the Capitalist System, in which the mass of laborers are struggling—“We Work for All,” it says—under the weight of a handful of business executives and a bag of money at the top. We might as well add Atlas Shrugged to the average Joe’s burdens as well, for the text does no favors for those who are working-class. Like the businessmen atop the socio-economic pyramid, the novel doesn’t see or care about the workers who actually make this world work.

—Winston A.

Follow me on Twitter. Like my Facebook page.

Obama, DoubleSpeak, and the Permanent War Footing

Cleanedspeech “America must move off a permanent war footing.”
—President Barack Obama, 2014 State of the Union

I’m sorry, but who is stupid enough to believe this guy anymore? Just over one year ago, Obama told us that we cannot remain on a “permanent war footing.” Fast-forward to February 2015, however, and Obama seems to have dug in his heels into that bellicose foothold. As has been widely reported, Obama has requested authorization from Congress to go to war against the Islamic State (ISIS) in a draft resolution worded so broadly that, as the New York Times editorial board put it, Obama “would get virtually unrestricted power to engage in attacks around the globe as long as it can justify a connection, however tenuous, to the Islamic State” (emphasis mine). In other words, Obama’s plan is to move away from a permanent war footing by entering into an unlimited, endless, limitless global combat operation. And to think DoubleSpeak died with Orwell’s 1984. Ha!


Speaking of which, Obama’s say-one-thing-but-do-another approach to foreign policy has reminded me of 1984 in countless ways. For example, there’s the line in 1984 that reads “Winston could not definitely remember a time when his country had not been at war[.]” I’m scratching my head here trying to think of a time my government was not bombing someone, somewhere, but I’m at a loss to think of when that was. Can you? In the 1980s it was Grenada and Panama and the end of the Cold War, in the 1990s it was Iraq and Bosnia/Kosovo, and in the 21st Century it’s been everywhere from Afghanistan to Iraq to Yemen to Somalia to Libya. I know, I know—but these are different conflicts, you might be thinking. Wrong. As Orwell again notes, “war had been literally continuous, though strictly speaking it had not always been the same war.” Same principle applies here.


The cast of characters changes as often as the seasons, but the theatre on display is always the same: war. And here’s where 1984 offers us the best lesson for today: “To understand the nature of the present war—for in spite of the regrouping which occurs every few years, it is always the same war—one must realize in the first place that it is impossible for it to be decisive.” That’s what we must understand if we ever want to bring an end to the War on Terror, because the way things are going this conflict has no end in sight. And I have written about before, increased surveillance and increased warfare are not the solutions to this conflict (and we know that because, if they were the solutions, the conflict would have ended long ago).

—Winston A.

Follow me on Twitter. Like my Facebook page.

The Super Bowl as Bread & Circus: Income Inequality in America

CleanedKraft Group

“Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbors, films, football, beer, and, above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds.
To keep them in control was not difficult.”
—George Orwell, 1984

Millennia ago, the poet Juvenal observed that the Roman state effectively forestalled peasant revolt by essentially bribing them with “bread and circuses”—the state offered just enough food for the masses to survive and just enough mindless entertainment to keep the people focused on gladiatorial games, not real reform. Fast-forward two thousand years, and one wonders whether bread and circus has reached its apex in that annual American tradition known as the Super Bowl. Because you know what? Orwell was right—it isn’t difficult to keep people in line and under control.

Let’s review the facts on the ground. American workers have been steadily sliding down the socio-economic ladder since at least the 1970s. The already-wealthy top 1% of American earners absorbed virtually all of the post-recession gains in the economy (see here, here, and here). Many American workers will soon be either displaced or replaced by robots and other technological innovations (see here, here, and here). Income inequality in the United States is so extreme (see this video for a wonderful primer) that numerous authors have wondered aloud as to whether we’re living in a second Gilded Age (spoiler alert: yes, we are).

But Orwell’s prescient observation rings true despite all that: give the people American Sniper, new iPhones every year, and the annual Super Bowl, and none of the facts outlined in the paragraph above matters anymore. Who gives a shit about income inequality when the Patriots are in the championship again? Who cares about Wall Street hedge funds laughing all the way to the bank after the Great Recession when there’s a Seahawks game to watch? Who cares about the American working-class drowning a bit more each day when we can watch over-compensated athletes toss a ball around for a few hours?

Well, fuck all that—I care.

And I hope you care, too. Because if we don’t care and if we continue to go about our daily routines as if the second Gilded Age isn’t unfolding before our very eyes, then all we can expect is for income inequality in the United States to widen. In a game far more important than any Super Bowl—the game of life—the American working class has been losing for decades. And you know who is winning? It’s not the Patriots or the Seahawks—it’s the top 1% of American earners like Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Indeed, it’s telling that at yesterday’s trophy presentation, the first person to be presented with the Vince Lombardi Trophy was not the winning team’s quarterback Tom Brady and not even team coach Bill Belichick, but rather it was team owner Robert Kraft. He’s the real boss of the Patriots organization, and he’s also the real winner of last night’s game (his current estimated fortune of $4,000,000,000 will undoubtedly grow as the Patriots continue their dominance and lucrative marketing deals).

CleanedSuper Dumb

Meanwhile, now that it’s Monday and the Super Bowl is over, the remaining 99% of Americans didn’t win jack and they had to go back to work today and back to their routine. Back to weekly meetings, back to being buried in paperwork, back to the never-ending monthly bills, etc. The American middle class will continue to get squeezed in this Wall Street-led economic “recovery,” and we will increasingly find ourselves working longer hours for less pay. We are a nation of (increasingly) overworked & underpaid workers, but as Orwell observed it’s not that hard at all to keep us in line with some beer and football. Actually, take a look at the ESPN calendar I’ve included in this article. As you can see, there’s a sports game of some sort (NHL, NFL, MLB, NBA, whatever) scheduled virtually every fucking day. That’s plenty of fodder to keep us all entertained for hours and hours.

Shit. I was going to make a point here about income inequality in the US or something, but there’s a sporting event I have to check out and I forgot what I wanted to say.

—Winston A.

Follow me on Twitter. Like my Facebook page.

Why Online Privacy is Dead & Why We Don’t Deserve it Anyway


Fuck it—Ben Franklin was right. If those who would give up “essential liberty” for “a little temporary safety” deserve neither, then the only possible conclusion is that we are getting precisely what we deserve with widespread government surveillance. And by “we,” I am referring specifically to the peoples of Europe and the United States, for the general public on both sides of the pond have done nothing to challenge state authorities who assert more and more power for their sweeping surveillance practices. It seems like every week I read a new story about government surveillance—like this one from The Guardian three days ago—and every week it becomes increasingly obvious that the right to privacy in the 21st Century is dead.

And let’s not misunderstand the facts: privacy today is dead because we let it die. In fact, I’m starting to think we just don’t care about privacy. How else to explain that nothing has changed to government surveillance practices post-Snowden? (If anything, surveillance has “changed” only in the sense that it has expanded even more). The NSA, GCHQ, and the rest of the Five Eyes are as active as ever. Snowden barely gets mentioned in the news these days—let alone Julian Assange or Wikileaks—and the debate about online privacy has been muzzled. As the Huffington Post summed it up this week: “the kinds of dramatic changes that many advocates hoped for [regarding NSA surveillance] have come nowhere close to fruition” (emphasis mine).

WD - Camerass

I’m not surprised, and that trajectory won’t change anytime soon. While the American and European governments embrace ever more aggressive forms of surveillance—including this report, also from The Guardian this week, about Europe’s proposal to require the blanket collection of information on passengers flying in and out of the continent—American and European citizens are too busy entertaining themselves to death to care. We’re too busy watching American Sniper or The Interview, playing Angry Birds or Candy Crush, streaming cat videos on YouTube, or doing a million other mindless activities instead of defending the right to privacy.

Meanwhile, organizations like the ACLU, the EFF, or The Intercept tell us they are fighting to rein in surveillance and protect our privacy online—except that, again, nothing ever changes. They release an endless number of reports detailing how governments are catching and cataloging information on the general public, but it’s clear that alone will never bring change. In fact, these organizations seem to have already conceded defeat, as they often say it’s up to us to protect our own privacy online by using encryption, Tor, and things like that. But these folk are living in fantasyland. Your average person doesn’t seem to care about state surveillance at all, and even if they did care, your average person is not tech-savvy enough to be able to use those mechanisms consistently and correctly. (And make no mistake about it: if you don’t use encryption/Tor/etc. consistently and correctly, you may as well not be using it at all—that’s just how that stuff works). In short, we can’t rely on encryption or Tor to solve the surveillance problem because those methods will never be embraced on a large-enough scale to cause a hiccup for the NSA or GCHQ.


Which bring us back to square one: everyone knows by now that Western governments have embraced surveillance in a big way (to say the least) and everyone knows by now that real reform ain’t coming (at least the way things have been going). And so, again: what else can we conclude except that we don’t deserve liberty or security? It’s often said that you get what you pay for, but it’s also true that you get what you fight for. The public in Europe and America have not fought for substantive surveillance reform in any meaningful way—we seem to have tuned out from that debate a while back—and therefore it is no surprise to read, week after week, about yet another government surveillance program.

But I’ll be honest with you: it’s also fucking depressing. For a brief moment in June 2013—yes, it’s been that long since the PRISM story first hit the presses—I felt the world would wake up to global state surveillance in disgust, and that we would unite to zealously defend our privacy. But we didn’t. We tuned in for a few weeks at most, accompanied the personal drama as Snowden went from a Hong Kong hotel to a Russian airport, and that was it. The show was over. As Snowden disappeared into Russia the movement to defend our privacy seemed to vanish along with him. We tuned-out of the surveillance debate and tuned-in to catch the latest episode of Mad Men.

Problem is, we’ve been sitting on the couch ever since.

—Winston A.

Follow me on Twitter. Like my Facebook page.