Movements at a crossroads
The father of the Pentagon Papers and a mother on a 3,000-mile pilgrimage cross paths in Sacramento
Lori Bohannon was not ready for this.
A 100-pound woman with a 50-pound backpack, she’d already walked 250 miles from Mendocino to Sacramento with no real plan or resources. The previous day’s trek had been uncomfortable, with only a couple of trail bars and some water to sustain Bohannon and her 11-month-old traveling companion, Ebony. “I protect her from other dogs,” Bohannon said with a smile, as the pup nipped at her leash. “And she protects me from other humans.” Bohannon and Ebony are walking to Washington, D.C., where Bohannon’s ultimate goal is to meet—mano a mano—with Laura Bush to appeal to the first lady as a fellow mother on behalf of children affected by her husband’s economic, environmental and military policies.
As luck would have it, the 40-year-old mother’s arrival in Sacramento coincided with that of a veteran activist whose path she never expected to cross. Daniel Ellsberg, the one-time RAND corporation researcher who leaked the Pentagon Papers and helped turn around the Vietnam War, was also on the road and, as his son Michael put it, “on the verge of total exhaustion.”
“He’s been going nonstop around the country since October, first on his book tour [on behalf of Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers] and now around the war.
“And,” the younger Ellsberg added, “he’s 72.”
Bohannon showed up late at the University Ballroom at California State University, Sacramento, after having made arrangements with a Midtown couple to pitch her tent on their porch (luxury accommodations after several nights of roadside camping). She quietly took a seat and opened a Mead composition book, the kind with the black marble cover, already half full. As Ellsberg spoke to an audience of about a thousand students and community members, Bohannon breathed a sigh of relief. It was good not to be walking and to be listening to someone who shared her humanitarian concerns and had been able to do something about them.
But Bohannon’s relief soon turned to anxiety. One of the organizers spotted her in the audience and came over. “All these people are behind you,” she said. “You need to tell them who you are and what you’re doing.” It took some persuading, but Bohannon ultimately agreed.
Bohannon will have at least five months to get over any shyness before reaching Washington. During that time, she’s carrying a journal—much nicer than her battered notebook, she points out—to gather questions and concerns from families she meets along the way. Still, the last thing she expected to be doing this particular night was addressing Ellsberg in front of a thousand people. Bohannon waited uncomfortably as the roving microphone worked its way toward her.
She had no idea what to say.
Bohannon started walking the day bombs started falling on Baghdad. She says she’s not just on an anti-war march but on a “trek for truth.” Her concerns include global warming and the reneging of the Kyoto agreement, the funding of international health organizations, civil liberties in the wake of the Patriot Act, economic disparity and access to health care. The idea to do this, she said, just came to her. She hesitates to describe it as a calling, lest people think she’s crazy.
Bohannon and Ellsberg are clearly on different paths. The man who leaked the Pentagon Papers—the 7,000-page document that revealed the secret underpinnings of U.S. decision-making in the Vietnam War era—has good reason to believe in the power of empirical evidence to sway public policy. But Bohannon’s sojourn is more intuitive and, in a sense, ritualistic. It also belongs to a tradition: not just Forrest Gump—“people always bring him up,” she laughs—but also 90-something activist Doris Haddock, who made the trip a few years ago and later circled the Capitol for seven days straight to support campaign finance reform during the John McCain-Russell Feingold debate.
Even George Bush Sr. spoke to the symbolic value of the cross-country sojourn when he suggested it as a “unique punishment” for a youth who shared his son’s middle name. “Make him leave his hair the way it is and his face as dirty as it is,” said the former president about John Walker Lindh, “and let him go wandering around this country and see what kind of sympathy he would get.”
Bohannon admits her own reception hasn’t been entirely sympathetic, beginning with her Republican parents. “When I told my father what I was doing,” she said, “he called me Hanoi Jane.”
Others, though, are trying to put together an effective support network. First, it was just her husband, Paul, a house painter who’s staying home with their 10-year-old son, Josh. Bohannon figured that if she ever ran into real trouble, Paul would be her rescue team, driving the truck to wherever she was. But an early attempt to meet up while still in Northern California was fraught with problems. Not having cell phones, the two missed each other on the road and ended up camping out separately before finding each other the following morning. On Paul’s trip home, the truck broke down and, while he was off getting help, was broken into. Even the seats were stolen.
But Bohannon does have one other lifeline: A woman in upstate New York volunteered to start a Web site, www.trekfortruth.org, that charts her progress and reaches out to people who may want to help along the way. “Ideally, what we’re trying to do is have people expecting me,” said Bohannon. “Right now, I’m going into each town cold, and it’s difficult.” Bohannon hopes to have her advance team operations in order “before I get into the foothills and into less receptive areas like Nevada and Utah.”
Yet, even among the vineyards and natural expanses of California wine country, she has found the going less than hospitable. “In St. Helena, I didn’t fit in there because I don’t have money,” she said. “People kept telling me they didn’t know where I could camp, but it’s that way out of town.”
Ellsberg would dearly love to get his hands on a new set of Pentagon Papers—so much so, in fact, that whenever he speaks, he asks people to encourage anyone they know in the government to step forward. A senator making allegations about the government’s secret motivations is one thing, he told the crowd; what’s needed are the documents to back them up.
Empirical as he is, Ellsberg isn’t about to dismiss the cumulative power of symbolic gestures. “It does give me hope when I see people protesting,” he said, “even though they don’t have a day-to-day effect on George Bush.” Ellsberg said protests could keep the worst from happening. “We didn’t level Hanoi—we went pretty far, but we did not quite level the population in Hanoi. We did not go to war with China. And we did not use nuclear weapons. And if you think there were no proposals for that, you’d be mistaken. So, the anti-war movement had a very big effect in putting a lid on the violence, horrible as it was.”
When the microphone finally came to her, Bohannon gave her name and asked to read a letter she’d written to Laura Bush. A few folks turned around and glared, perhaps wondering who this woman was who had the audacity to talk about herself instead of asking a question of Ellsberg. A handful of hard expressions softened when she got to the all-too-brief mention of her cross-country trek. It was easy to miss, but enough folks picked up on it—or at least agreed with her sentiments—to give her a round of applause.
Unfortunately, the moderator was not one of them. “Since that wasn’t a question,” he said, “can we move on to someone who does have a question. People have been waiting patiently …”
Bohannon looked crestfallen, but then Ellsberg stepped in. “Well, first, before we move on, I want to say that I’m very moved by your letter,” he said. “It reminds me how much we need creative, imaginative and committed ways of saving ourselves—this country—from the abyss we’re sliding toward. As for the idea of seeing Laura Bush, well, you won’t see Laura Bush, I imagine. But we need to think in those terms—appealing to the wife of General [Colin] Powell, who I’m sure disagrees with what Bush is doing. We do need to think broadly about what we can do to avoid fascism at home and massacre abroad.”
The microphone was passed to another questioner, who began to talk at length about the “cabal” involving George W. Bush, Richard Pearle, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft, etc. Quietly, people began going up to Bohannon to give her money, encouragement and contact numbers for friends in remote parts of the country. “They didn’t understand what you’re doing,” one man told her. “If you keep at this and the media picks up on your story, you will get to talk to Laura Bush.”
Bohannon and Ellsberg are now back on their respective roads, one looking for another smoking gun, the other a place to sleep. Ellsberg is in Denver at this writing and then on to New Hampshire, Ohio and Miami. For Bohannon, the going is slower: Three nights after her encounter with Ellsberg, she was camping along the American River Parkway when a bunch of teenagers partying nearby threw a wet, sandy blanket on her and Ebony. In Placerville, a local reporter hooked her up with shelter at the Peace Pilgrim Center, but when she made it to Sly Park, news of a closed pass and oncoming snowstorm forced her to make her first compromise, accepting a ride on to the next town.