A bridge crossing the American Rive in California.

“All revolutions have failed? Perhaps. But rebellion for good cause is self-justifying — a good in itself.”
– Edward Abbey

It was one in the morning. I steered our rented Lincoln Town Car through the cool, moonlit Sierra Nevada night. Not wanting to take any chances, I was observing all traffic laws. It was illegal for me, at the age of nineteen, to be driving the car in the first place, and I didn’t want to put us at any greater risk. My mother, my sister and I had just been on a pizza, chocolate, and Coke run, in preparation for the next nine hours, during which we would hike down into a canyon, huddle together to keep warm, and wait for my Dad to come along the path, at the 79-mile point of the 100 mile trail race that he was competing in. We were coming once again from the town where the race would end, back into the mountains for the third time that day, back into the towering trees, the vivid clay of that California wilderness where the roads were few, twisting, and narrow; always bumpy, sometimes paved.

Soon we would come upon the bridge that we had crossed several times that day, your typical western eyesore, an immense iron and steel structure that spanned the American River, carrying us into the dense, sparsely-populated woods, and separating us from the civilization of Auburn, where we would return one last time, either to cheer my father as he crossed the finish line or help him retrieve his bags if he was forced to leave the race.

Being there in the majestic Sierra Mountains, surrounded by virtually undisturbed nature, overwhelmed me with patriotism. This wonderland, this vast expanse of wood, rock, water and dirt was my home, the land where I was born and reared and would probably spend the rest of my life. But beneath that patriotism was something else — a faint but growing sense that something wasn’t right.

“Here I am,” I thought, “admiring this river and these mountains, and yet driving down this major highway in a luxury sedan, swigging Coca Cola Classic. Isn’t this a contradiction? Why do the symbols of American consumerism seem more dear to me than these rocks, these trees? How can I be so moved by this landscape and still permit myself to support the forces that work to destroy it?” A phrase from a car commercial ran through my head. “The heartbeat of America,” I thought. “My America.”

As we passed the warnings “steep grade,” “slow,” “left lane ends,” I knew we were nearing the river. Recalling the ugly yellow road sign at the head of the bridge — the sign that prohibited me from taking in the best view of the American River — I wanted to do something rash, to defy the laws I had hardly even questioned before. “No stopping on bridge.” So far we had obeyed.

But this time, sailing down the final slope before the river, I knew it was going to be different. Even though my action would most likely go unnoticed, even though it was one in the morning and no other cars were on the road, I was compelled to do it, to raise my chin in defiance and say “Take that!” to the government agencies, politicians and businessmen who were responsible for countless obstructions to my peace of mind — the dams, the strip mines, the shopping malls that defaced and destroyed the spacious skies and fruited plains of our fine country. For purple mountains majesty, I slid my foot over to the brake.

I could see the red glow of the brake lights in the rearview mirror as I checked behind me for signs of other drivers on the road. Nothing, not even the hint of a headlamp. The landscape which had been rushing by in a blur began to crystallize, the wind on my face softened, and I began to hear the sounds of the river. There was a sudden bump, and then we were on the long bridge, moving slower and slower, the speedometer sinking backward toward zero, the pressure of my foot on the brake increasing. When we reached the middle, I stopped the car completely, slid the gear shift into park, turned off the ignition.

“Why are you stopping? What’s wrong with the car?” my mother’s sleepy voice called out from the back seat.

“If you don’t start moving right now, I’m gonna be sick,” threatened my sister, her fear of heights blinding her view of the night-darkened valley.

I turned the key enough to open all the windows in the car. “Shhh . . . Just listen. Just watch.”

The air was almost completely still, stirred only by a gentle breeze that seemed to whisper in my ear a song of beauty, of eternity. The full moon shone down on the river below us, rippling in silver waves. There were no stars, but the water was illuminated enough that we could see some of the trees and brush along the riverbanks. Everything was so quiet, so peaceful.

“Start the car, Kezia. I’m scared.”

“Start the car, honey.”

And so I did. I didn’t mind, really, for the act was done. I felt as if Henry David Thoreau was smiling down upon me as I drove on across the bridge and back up out of the valley. This was no major feat, but it was significant to me. It was only the smallest rebellion, a tiny act of civil disobedience that would never make the TV news, but it marked for me an initiation. I certainly wasn’t going to change the world, but I had made a change within myself. And really, that was the most important thing.

by Kezia Bacon Bernstein, Correspondent
September 2001

Kezia Bacon Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.