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 Iraq!”
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, www.marchforpeace.info, 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.” Colleen Mastony, Chicago Tribune