BOULDER, Utah – Atop Hell's Backbone Road, a spectacular mountain road to pretty much nowhere, two of America's better angels see hope for an awakened America with a clear sense of what "great" means.
Up here in crisp piney air, Blake Spaulding and her friend, Jen Castle, show what is possible. But after nearly four years in Trump-polluted purgatory down below, it is clear that recapturing the soul of America will take far more than electoral victories.
"We have to realize that this planet is the best spaceship we could ever have to traverse the cosmos," Blake told me, "and if we don't trash the place, we can have some fun along the way."
True enough. The challenge is beyond a change of leaders. We need to fix America and rejoin a wider world to steer our spaceship planet onto a wiser course. This is our last chance to heed a warning from Justice Louis Brandeis more than a century ago:
"We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few. But we can't have both."
Boulder, population near 200 since 1890, was once the most remote settlement in the lower 48 states. Until heroic crews carved a gravel road and bridged a deep gorge in 1933, it was a two-day burro trek from the nearest town. Electricity arrived only in 1947.
Now a paved highway snakes along a narrow spine 29 miles past Escalante above rock sculptures that reach to the horizons. It's not for the faint-hearted. Icy winter snow or a badly handled curve can send you hurtling down 1,500 feet on either side.
Blake and Jen pitched up in 2000 after catering raft trips down Colorado River rapids in Arizona. Boulder lived mostly Old West-style, heavy on beans and beef. Soon, devotees drove days to bump elbows with locals around the fire at their Hell's Backbone Grill.
Dishes like "dreamy creamed Swiss chard" and Buddhist prayer flags at first befuddled conservative Mormon families whose forebears pioneered the place. But Blake and Jen made friends fast, and they got a liquor license for a well-stocked bar and wine cellar.
They added a six-acre farm to produce 160 crop varieties on impossible high-desert soil: fields of staple grains, gardens of exotic greens, and trees bursting with fruit. Along with an online shop, they kept an energized Boulder buzzing.
The grill closed in 2020 before COVID-19 could find its way up Hell's Backbone. Now the menu, including The Dinner Jenchilada, is takeout or served on the patio. Indoor dining will likely return, but much of the wilderness splendor around it may be soon be gone.
In one of his last acts, Barack Obama established the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. A year later, Donald Trump cut its 2,000 square miles by half and slashed 85 percent off Bears Ears National Monument, Bill Clinton's legacy across the mountain.
Blake joined environmentalists to block the decision in court. A lawsuit is pending. Meantime, prospectors, ranchers and developers are moving in with plans that would obliterate ancient Native American ruins on land sacred to a dozen Indian tribes.
Utah exemplifies the reality of Trump's repeated boasts about streamlining regulatory bureaucracy. That guts the EPA, the U.S. Forest Service, the Army Corps of Engineers and agencies that have protected water, air, biodiversity and wildlife for generations.
An executive order in July weakened the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act to limit public review of government permits. It followed 100 rollbacks of federal rules, which are badly needed as climatic changes wreak increasing havoc.
Conservationists and Indian tribes have kept much of the plunder at bay in courts. But another four years of Trump would destroy rich heritage from the Alaskan wilds to Florida coastlines.
National monuments, unlike
parks, are multiuse; local authorities are required to hear public comment, but nothing defines how. Early in 2017, Blake rose at dawn and drove two hours to be first in line for a hearing at the Garfield County seat of Panguitch.
Known to be articulately outspoken, she was excluded from the few allowed to speak for a measured minute. In Boulder, when I asked what she would have said, she made her minute count:
"We are ever more disconnected as our society's pace accelerates and mechanizes. The only way we can remember we are human animals is to spend time in nature, to delight in actual quiet, hear bird songs and become friends with plants. If we need this now, in 50 years when I'm long gone, we will need it way more."
Grand Staircase-Escalante, she said, shelters 665 distinct species of wild bees, a crucial component of its ecology. That's one example. When you tear out chunks of nature's elaborate web, expect eventual calamity.
"There are endless reasons to save it, and the reason to destroy it is for outdated fossil fuel and minerals," she concluded. "We are strip mining our planet, our mother. We have a responsibility to save it for future generations and to do right by contemporary indigenous people."
When Trump savaged the two monuments, then Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told reporters, "This is not about energy." He denied repeatedly that mining was planned. But the area is rich in coal deposits. And Energy Fuels Resources (USA), America's only uranium processing plant, sits just outside of Bears Ears.
The Washington Post obtained documents that debunked Zinke's alternative facts. The American subsidiary of a Canadian company had lobbied hard for more land to allow easier access for radioactive ore. Andrew Wheeler, its chief lobbyist, now runs the EPA.
Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act of 1906, used 100 times by presidents to designate national monuments or protect land with "significant natural, cultural or scientific features." It is not clear whether later presidents can rescind that protection.
But Trump bulls ahead. From Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on down, he has appointed lawyers and lobbyists who before joining government worked hard to open public land for private use. And official spin misleads much of the electorate.
Headlines hailed the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act, which Trump just signed into law. Essentially, it only replaces funds approved in 1965 to maintain national parks that were diverted elsewhere over the years.
Senators Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana, fighting to keep popular Democrats from taking their seats, pushed the bill. Environmentalists liked it, but ranchers and agribusiness didn't. Trump signaled he would veto it.
Gardner, visiting the White House, pointed to a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt and played on Trump's vanity. The bill would allow him to emulate a beloved Republican who championed the great American outdoors. "Put it on my desk," Trump said.
Mitch McConnell reluctantly plucked the bill from his dead-letter pile, badly in need of those Senate seats. Trump affixed his signature with great fanfare, declaring himself to be the greatest environmental president in more than a century.
In fact, Trump's hit list for opening public land to coal mines, oil drilling, and other private exploitation amounts to more than 13 million acres, nearly the size of West Virginia. He has yet more plans to entrench an oligarchy that allows him free rein.
Robert Reich's slim tome, "The
System: Who Rigged It, How We Fit It," exudes hope. The key, he writes, is waking up voters to just how badly democracy has been crippled.
In 2016, the richest one-hundredth of 1 percent of Americans accounted for 40 percent of campaign contributions. That bought a tax cut, which increased the federal debt by $1.9 trillion. Next to nothing trickled down. Stock buybacks sent the Dow soaring.
"The problem is not excessive greed," he wrote. "If you took the greed out of Wall Street, all you'd have left is pavement. The problem is the Street's excessive power."
Senators raise tens of millions for a job that pays $174,000 a year. Half work as lobbyists when they leave office. In one passage, Reich quotes Trump in 2016: "'I give money to everybody, even the Clintons, because that's how the system works." To which Reich adds, "Those might have been the most honest words ever to come out of his mouth."
Countless examples, from reprehensible to outrageously corrupt, show staggering unjust inequality. Poor people lose homes for a missed payment. Taxes bail out corporations that lose multiple billions. CEOs make 300 times their worker's wages.
One answer is graduated taxes, as in all other wealthy nations. For the über-rich, money is how you keep score. For those living week to week, it is no game. America's richest 0.01 percent—160,000 households—owns as much as the bottom 90 percent. The poorest half of the nation controls just 1.3 percent of its wealth.
Amazon paid no income tax for two years. Its 2019 bill was 1.2 percent of a $13.1 billion net profit. That year, Jeff Bezos joined 180 CEOs of the Business Roundtable to pledge fairness to all stakeholders, employees and customers included. Weeks later, Whole Foods cut health benefits to part-time workers, saving what Bezos earns in two hours.
Another answer is cutting through bullshit. The book is framed as a reply to Jamie Dimon, who was stung when Reich criticized him. Dimon said he was a patriot before being CEO of JPMorgan, a Democrat who did much for the impoverished. Yes, Reich agreed, but he is also dangerously deluded.
"Socialism," Dimon wrote in his 2019 letter to shareholders, "inevitably produces stagnation, corruption and often worse – such as authoritarian government officials who often have an increasing ability to interfere with both the economy and individual lives – which they frequently do to maintain power."
Was he listening to himself? Big money is about profit only for shareholders and huge risks guaranteed by the public treasury. In short, corporate socialism. Capitalism is for proletariat. Social democracy, hardly a Soviet gulag, is simply a fairer capital economy.
When Adam Neumann dreamed up WeWork as an office-sharing company in 2010, JPMorgan lent him enough to buy buildings but also a $60 million jet, large estates in Westchester County and the Hamptons, a $27 million Bay Area home and a fancy Manhattan residence, along with toys like a quarter-million-dollar Maybach car.
WeWork lost $2 billion in 2018. Neumann was forced out before an IPO in late 2019 with a $1.7 billion severance package and a $46 million a year job as consultant. Thousands of employees faced layoffs, compensated by worthless stock options.
Reich's book skirted the big question: How much time is left to fix America? Fierce lightning ignites drought-stressed forests. In California, fires burned a million acres in the first half of 2020, including 5,000-year-old redwoods. Inland hurricane-force storms devastated 10 million acres of corn and soybean in Iowa. It will get worse.
With so many crises at home, few Americans look beyond our insulating oceans. The threat is not a world war but rather countless unstoppable small ones. And now, more than missiles, the danger is microbes.
At the Republican
convention, Trump flayed his all-purpose scapegoat. China unleashed a deadly plague on America. But he did everything right to beat back COVID-19, he said, and the economy is roaring back as never before. Really? Look around.
South Korea reported its first case on the same day as the United States. By late August, 310 Koreans had died. We will be lucky if our death toll is under 300,000 by November. Other countries tested and traced. Everyone masked up. We did everything wrong.
Early in January, Xi Jinping admitted the threat. China shared research, airlifted aid to the United States and took over the leading role at the WHO that America abandoned.
In just over three years, Trump's policies have spurred China to begin reshaping the world in its image: harshly authoritarian, with no regard for cultural diversity, human rights, free expression. It plunders the world for resources by corruption and coercion.
And that's just China.
The Republican convention reached absurdity that overloaded the Twittersphere with mockery. Kimberley Guilfoyle, Don Trump Jr.'s girlfriend, delivered an unhinged rant, so strident that Mother Jones added North Korean martial music as background.
After promising it would be uplifting after the Democrats' "dark...gloomy" convention, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida reflected the tone. Under Biden, he said, "they'll disarm you, empty the prisons, lock you in your homes and invite MS-13 to live next door."
No one has been tougher on Russia than Trump, speakers said, brushing aside the Republican-controlled bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report on ties to his 2016 campaign and his long courtship of Vladimir Putin, released just weeks earlier.
In nearly 1,000 pages, it went far beyond the Mueller Report with intimate details of links to Russian intelligence and dirty tricks. But it stopped short of specifying a coordinated campaign. Republicans reduced it all to two words: No collusion.
Up on Hell's Backbone,
Blake has no illusions about what America faces beyond protecting wilderness and natural beauty. "In practice," she said, "we have a lawless administration. So much of it is horrendous, world-destroying, soul-crushing."
But, in her better-angel mode, she exudes hope that enough Americans will stand up and take action. Voting, she says, is the basic minimum. People need to defend what matters to them and join others for a larger purpose.
With time on their hands, Blake and Jen began circulating "A Love Letter From Helles," their little community's newsletter. It includes a quote from Jane Goodall, now 86, who knows about primate societies, from chimpanzees to humans:
"You cannot get though a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make."