When I visited the Brooks Range north of the Arctic Circle many summers ago, I was hit with a curtain of ice that cut down much of my hiking. I was short on food at this point: oatmeal, cliff bars, and a block of emergency rations meant for shipwrecked souls. Perhaps I was shipwrecked, philosophically speaking, but I managed to take in the glorious north with its iced hills shimmering under the low and golden light. On the hike back out I realized that I hadn’t had my heart in the hike. I was hit with a harsh sense of loneliness and nihilism, which the desolate Arctic air only exacerbated. I longed to see my friends back in Denali and to have a few beers, though this time I wouldn’t have any stories to share.
I hitchhiked back down and met a family of friendly hunters. But moving south of Fairbanks, I didn’t find too many cars. As per my youth, I decided I could walk the remaining 120 miles in no more than five days. And so I set off to do it. I was coming to the end of my time in Alaska and knew it would soon be time to move to the lower-48, see more friends and sign up for the Army. I had committed myself to do it, a decision which had come about from a mixture of thoughts about doing “what was right”, planting my roots, and as a way to perform my duty for my country. This trip was meant to show me a little more of my adopted country, show me what I was fighting for, (to borrow a cliché), and, I figured, walking 120 miles in a few days would be part of preparation for basic training.
At about 3 am, exhausted, I found a place to sleep. I woke up an hour later as the traffic picked up and headlights hit my eyelids at increased frequency. I stuck out my thumb and was immediately picked up by an old man in a rusting car. As is the custom when hitchhiking, I struck up a conversation. I’m not sure how, but soon we were on the topic of me joining the Army. The man wasn’t exactly a liberal, but the conservatives in Alaska, at least back then, were of a different ilk than in the lower-48—a little more free-spirited. He, however, didn’t seem to like the idea of me joining up.
This was 2002, with the run-up to Iraq kicking off and Afghanistan having been “won”. He claimed that Afghanistan was simply an uneven fight against “cave-dwellers” and Iraq was a family affair for the Bushes. Even the first Gulf War was a matter of Bush senior’s own oil company drilling into Saddam’s oil from Kuwait. I listened patiently, having heard these points before, and I didn’t dismiss them out of hand, though I think I felt like doing so. Back then I subscribed to the worldview of The Economist along with all its accompanying disparagement of fringe views. He then pointed out some hills—he was railing succinctly against power and especially oil companies at this point—and stated that the hills, they had oil, but the oil companies were trying to keep oil prices high and thus wouldn’t drill here.
It’s hard to look back on this conversation, having now traveled so much in terms of my views of the world, having come to believe that the powers that be certainly were in conspiracy back then—and now—and that it’s best to simply assume that such coincidences are more than that. Which is not to say that I’m exactly like that old man for he had also talked on about how China was the real problem and that they would someday, if they chose, hit us with nukes, hide them under the sea next to our coasts and unleash 1000 foot waves upon our cities. Right. This isn’t to dismiss his other views, but it does speak to the observation that many people create conspiracies to deal with an already conspiratorial world.
I look back, thinking of how if I engage someone in a conversation about our wars I always meet someone like my younger self who will parrot mainstream views and dismiss any additional facts because they aren’t in the mainstream. To accept any outside contradicting facts is to assume the mainstream news is either in conspiracy, or incompetent, or in the grips of some huge psychosis as are the rest of us who are uninformed. And like this old man, who was tired and angry at the world and its corruption and had thus retired to a corner in Alaska where he didn’t have to deal with too much of said world, I now find myself dismissed or given the eye for claiming that there are other powers and motivation at play beyond the official proclamations. Or I am sometimes dismissed as if my views don’t change much.
Of course, recently, with Russia in the news, it would appear that conspiracy is on most everyone’s lips. I find that odd, though not exactly surprising since we’re all apes, with limited facilities with which to judge our world. Add a perfect bubble and the rumor machine that is the internet and knowledge of our world becomes ever harder to comprehend and intuitions become less trustworthy. And as the world grows murkier, us apes will look to people we think we can trust. Is an age of prophets upon us? I don’t know.
I look back at young me and how he was stuck in a bubble, resistant to changing his worldview, and going so far as to risk a ride over it. I see that I’ve learned a lot since, but I see the world less clearly now and trust those who claim to see it clearly even less. So beware the prophets. But beware, even more, that murky view of the world, especially if it hinders us from acting to better the world we live in, forces us to look past the actual monsters that exist for ones that don’t, and worst of all: forces us to hide from the world in hope that it all will pass us by.
Nelson Lowhim is a veteran and writer. He is the author of many novels, short stories and essays to include CityMuse, The Struggle, and the Labyrinth of Souls. You can find more about him and his work at nelsonlowhim.blogspot.com