By Elisabeth Hoffman
Not many people accidentally walk 30 miles in a day.
But that’s what Greg Yost has done on occasion as he heads south along the Appalachian Trail. More than halfway now, he should reach Springer Mountain in Georgia before year’s end. He walks with a sense of urgency, not only to get back to his family near Asheville, NC, but to talk to people about the climate crisis.
Most thru-hikers, those who walk the full 2,190 miles in one continuous journey, take on this arduous yet stunningly scenic trip as a personal challenge. Greg did that sort of walk in 1989. The inspiration for that hike occurred in the summer of 1987 when he was working at Habitat for Humanity in Americus, GA. That February, National Geographic had published a fascinating article on the Appalachian Trail.
“It was soooo hot,” he remembered during his recent stop in Harpers Ferry, WV. “I was sweating and dying down there in that south Georgia heat in July, but at night I would read that National Geographic article over and over and over. That article was so well-written and so well-photographed, it in and of itself led to this huge spike in thru-hiker numbers, and I was part of that in ‘89.”
This time, however, Greg talks with anyone who will listen about fracked gas, climate change, methane leakage, and the dangerous buildout of fracked-gas infrastructure.
As he puts it, he wants to “educate and to incite rebellion.”
The Greg this trip is a different person, he says.
“We just don’t have the time or the money to build out all this new infrastructure that’s going to be in place for 30 years and expect to slow or even put a dent in our global warming problem,” he tells other hikers. “This is a real emergency and requires real tough decisions to be made. Incremental steps are not going to be enough here. We need to absolutely say no to building out this fossil fuel infrastructure.”
Greg’s daughter, Anna Farlessyost, proposed the walk. The last-minute – less than three weeks to prepare – father-daughter adventure was to be part of Anna’s gap year. After numerous injuries in Maine and many “0-mile” days, Anna reluctantly decided to take a bus home Aug. 10, less than a month into the trip. She’ll resume her walk in the spring. Greg carried on alone.
Trail names are usually bestowed on hikers. Cinderella, for example, got her trail name when one of her camp shoes fell off of her backpack. Three Prince Charmings came to her rescue and hike-shuttled it back to her. Anna earned hers after forgetting to pack her glasses, retainer and sleeping pad. “That’s a lot of forgetting,” Greg wrote in his Facebook blog, Preservation, Not Pipelines. That’s how Anna earned the trail name Dory, the blue tang that suffers from memory loss in the Disney film “Finding Nemo.”
Greg, however, chose for his trail name BXE, the abbreviation for Beyond Extreme Energy, a nonviolent climate group that uses direct action to try to stop dirty energy projects – for oil, coal and fracked gas – and to promote clean energy from the sun and wind. BXE focuses on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which approves nearly every fracked-gas project that comes before it. The group also supports front-line struggles, such as in Lusby, Md., where a fracked-gas export facility is being built at Cove Point; in North Dakota, where Native Americans and their allies are trying to block the Dakota Access Pipeline; and a host of communities battling pipelines and compressors, particularly in the Northeast. He’s also seeking sponsors (21 so far), who will pledge to donate a cent a mile ($21.89, or more is welcome) to Beyond Extreme Energy at the conclusion of his walk.
When he introduces himself, the question invariably arises: What does BXE mean? And that’s how Greg starts these conversations. By Day 53, he posted on Facebook, he had already had at least a couple hundred face-to-face conversations.
Not many hikers are thinking about these issues, he says. “What I think’s valuable,” he says, “is that they meet somebody who has this passion. And beyond the particulars, a nice guy considers this important enough to talk about. The next time they have an opportunity to learn something, they will take it in.”
He approaches the Facebook blog posts the same way. He knows that many, perhaps most, of his followers – nearly 300 – want to hear about his hiking adventures. They also know him as a high school math teacher, a position that garners him some respect. “So what I want to do is not just to give the facts and figures about the climate stuff,” he said “I want to normalize the idea that paying attention to this is not being weird or nerdy or abnormal. It’s normal to pay attention when your home and your lives are threatened. In fact, it’s normal to resist.”
Many view protesters as “whiners,” he said, so they are not inclined to be sympathetic to the direct action he thinks is critical: “I want them to understand [that] when a system is broken, when all the civil institutions that you would normally trust to take care of you and make good decisions, when they are all broken, what do you have left? What you’ve got is citizen action. I want people to consider this as an option. Not even an option. A necessity.”
“I’ve done a lot over the last seven years including risking arrest many times and putting my own body in the way of fossil fuel polluters. As much as I swim in these waters now, I know that for some of you I am something entirely different. You may not know anyone else personally who speaks openly and knowledgeably about carbon pollution and the climate. Through this blog – its tone, its humor, and hopefully its humanity – I hope to catalyze a resistance reaction within you so that you decide, as I have, to protect what you love. It’s your trust I hope to earn.” – Day 53, Friday, September 2
Last week, he wrote about an encounter with about 15 students, ages 11 to 14, and their adult counselors. When the question came about BXE, he was ready. After describing FERC and noting that its office near Union Station was blocks from the youths’ school, he laid out the planetary dilemma:
“FERC won’t stop saying yes to dirty energy projects that hurt people and make the planet get hotter. So they have to be pushed to do what’s right. And that’s what we do. We get up in their face so that they have to listen to us people and not just the dirty energy companies. They don’t like it, but we don’t ever stop. We interrupt them, we sometimes block their doors, we talk to their employees, and we generally make a scene. Sometimes we even get arrested for what we do. But we definitely won’t stop until they change and do better.”
And then it happened. A 12 year old girl made my day. Maybe even made this whole trip worthwhile for me. Eyes alight, she threw her fist in the air in an act of spontaneous, irrepressible emotion. Eye contact was total. She got what we are doing. They all did, really, in that moment. What they saw: We have power. And it’s right when we use it.
This girl’s enthusiasm, though, however personally encouraging it was for me, nonetheless prompts some uncomfortable questions for her elders. To wit, what is wrong with us? Why aren’t we stopping people who want to dig the hole of global warming and environmental degradation ever deeper? Why can 12 year olds understand this stuff, but we seemingly cannot? Year after year after year, why have we allowed the folly of new billion dollar investments in fossil fuels to continue? Where is our courage, our intelligence, our conviction? Don’t children deserve action, not apathy, from us? – Day 99, Tuesday, October 18
On Sept. 11, Greg turned 50 on the trail. “I am appreciative of the best birthday present ever, the chance to hike long distance again,” he wrote on his Facebook blog. “I want to add that this is more than just a masochistic dream vacation for me. It’s also preparation. I’m reminding myself of places, feelings, plants, animals, communities, clean water, clean air, health, and sanity that I’ll fight like hell for. I’m banking this time away now, building up some spiritual resources that I’ll need to draw upon soon. For I mean to spend myself completely in my second half century.”
Sometimes he meets “courageous folks fighting pipelines, compressor stations.” Tom Denny, for example, is fighting a 650-megawatt gas plant being built near his home and is mere miles from the controversial Minisink, NY, compressor station that was completed a few years ago. Denny’s “point of entry,” Greg wrote, was not a public meeting. It was severe headaches that his doctor couldn’t explain.
Those of us who haven’t suffered the misfortune of having fossil fuel companies invade our homes and our lives will not easily understand the sense of desperation that comes from having no choices available other than fighting against long odds or just plain rolling over. Thanks, Tom, for not rolling over. You deserve real, tangible support from all of the rest of us. Your fight is our fight whether or not we yet understand that like we should. – Day 72, Wednesday, September 21
Greg has decided that hiking south is by far the better way to go. It’s harder at first: “You encounter the toughest parts right away, when you are not in shape. The trail is instantly hard,” he says. It took him about six weeks to acclimate, including “the matter of losing 30 pounds – any extra weight makes you more miserable than you need to be.” The benefits of going south, starting in late July, are that he avoided the northbound “mob” – there are about 15 or 20 northbounders for every southbounder – and, for the most part, the black flies that greet northbound hikers in New England over summer.
“Walking this trail is like getting to open lots of presents on Christmas morning. Each new hiker I meet is a gift and seeing old friends … is just that much better.” – Day 99, Tuesday, October 18
His hardest days came in early September in Connecticut, during days of drought and high humidity. Places he expected to be able to find water were sometimes dry. One day, he had to hike 6 or 7 miles without water. “My clothes were drenched from my own sweat, yet I had nothing to drink. This went on for hours, my strength gradually leaving me, literally dripping away,” he wrote on Facebook. Fortunately, at the summit, a water spigot was working. Other days, he relied on “trail angels” who leave water jugs at road crossings for hikers.
Most days, he wakes at 5 a.m., sometimes even 4 a.m., and walks until late afternoon, has dinner, and then resumes hiking. As the days shorten, he’s had to turn on his headlamp as darkness falls. When he’s had enough, he looks for a flat spot, rolls out the sleeping bag, writes his blog entry and sleeps in the open. He’ll pull out the tent only if it rains and he can’t reach a shelter. It was also useful for keeping out bugs in August. Nights are getting cold, but the mummy sleeping bag has kept him warm. He doesn’t sleep that well, mainly because his feet are so painful. Not from blisters but from metatarsalgia. His knees also hurt: “That’s not just me, that’s every hiker,” he says.
The mathematician in him loves creating spreadsheets on his smartphone. Every night, he logs his miles. He’s written crude formulas that anticipate what date he will arrive at certain places. His average is picking up – especially given that he logged many days of zero miles while Anna was trying to heal on the trail. So now he knows he’ll arrive in Georgia in 2016.
The journey offers Greg much time for reflection, particularly about how best to seize the crisis of our time, to create a new community and to move forward. He wrote this on his birthday:
“There’s a chant I’ve heard at many protests and demonstrations: ‘We are unstoppable. Another world is possible.’ It’s a chant that gives voice to hope that wells up in people, especially young people, when they lose their sense of isolation for a moment in the joy of taking the street with others who share their deep hope and longing.
I think of these words often in the mornings on my hike. I recommend them to you, too, to use like a mantra. But I feel it’s important to distance ourselves emotionally, at first anyway, from any image of a crowd chanting exultantly and triumphantly. Rather, say the chant slow and low. Growl it. Get to know the truth of it for yourself. Another world is possible. Do you believe that? I feel myself being changed and prepared by that insistent meditation. And then, ‘We are unstoppable.’ Who are ‘we’, these people who will fight instead of watch or look away? I’ll tell you what, I’ve noticed that when I look for them, I find them. In fact, it’s sadly comical how easy it has been for me to find them.
So on today’s day of rest, given more to reflection than mileage, those are just a few thoughts about what my walk means to me. As always, I appreciate having you along. – Day 62, Sunday, September 11
Where’s Greg? Follow along here.