After my high school Biology teacher saw what I did with the cat dissection, she said: “Had I known how you’d butcher that thing I wouldn’t have given you an ‘A.’” But it was too late: I was a senior and the grades were in, and the cat was a casualty of my drifting mind and my aspirations.
In my desk was a copy of Jack Kerouac’s masterpiece, On the Road, (just out in movie form) and it wasn’t long before I was putting myself as far out as I possibly could, hitchhiking through the West without clear destination and landing without definite plans. I slept in wheat fields beside truck stops, and next to hurricane-wire fences in industrial wastelands on the outskirts of cities. And all the while I was thinking about Kerouac’s characters Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise who most famously said: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
In the 20 years since, things happened to me that happen to us all, in some form or another. I got married. I had two children, a boy and a girl. I surprised myself by landing in my 40s. I became acquainted, as we all do, with loss, which can manifest in both the preciousness of the living and the stunningly thin line to oblivion. I understood why some people were religious, even if I was not.
In the last decade, I got very involved in important work: trying to stop climate change, which threatens everything I care about. And I began to realize that the problem might well be too big and messy to solve. As I myself failed, I realized everyone else was failing too: nonprofits, governments, activist groups, corporations. Even after ice melted and storms grew bigger as expected and fire and flood increased, people still didn’t believe, or didn’t act.
I am a resilient person, and yet I felt beaten down. I had lost Kerouac’s gift: a great, striving, eager, overwhelming craziness: “No matter what you do it’s bound to be a waste of time in the end so you might as well go mad.” Kerouac meant mad in a good way, like staying “up 24 hours drinking cup after cup of black coffee… talking madly about that holy new feeling out there in the streets…”
What happened to me, and to others in the climate struggle, is best described by another Kerouac heir, Bruce Springsteen, who said: “With countries, just like people,” (and I’d add movements) “it’s easy to let the best of yourself slip away.”
My friend the climate blogger Joe Romm, a great optimist, leaked a similar note of despair when he testified to Congress about climate change in July:
Lincoln said at Gettysburg ‘The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.’ That of course wasn’t true. But after testifying to Congress nearly a dozen times since 1995, I am quite convinced that nobody remembers what we say here….
Not long after Joe’s testimony, in which he called for Congress to be Winston Churchill on climate, not Neville Chamberlain, I was riding bikes with my 8-year-old daughter Willa at dusk. She zoomed down a hill, her hair blowing out from her helmet, grinning with her big and crooked front teeth, beautiful in the golden-hour light.
Skidding to a stop, she breathlessly said something both surprising and delightful: “Racing through the negro streets at dawn!”
That was Kerouac’s friend Allen Ginsberg, from the poem Howl, which she must have heard me yelling one night while cooking. It wasn’t an exact quote, but it was enough. Willa has said to me: “I think I want to do what you do. To work on climate change. It seems really fun… Or I want to be a famous actress.”
Her unbridled enthusiasm, her absolute sense that her future was bright — these are things we have lost in the climate fight; they are things we absolutely must reclaim. The narrative of our struggle on climate should be one of American elation, transcendence, epiphany, euphoria. It is not a long defeat, but instead the great opportunity of a species, the chance to save the world.
To me, that moment with Willa suggested a holy new feeling in the streets. I remembered On the Road, and the potency it gave my life. It made me eager for what Kerouac called “the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” For Willa and me, that means eagerly continuing on the long road to solve climate change. The very road, that Kerouac said, is life.
Auden Schendler is Vice President of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company. He is the author of Getting Green Done: Hard Truths From the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution.