There were closer marches; Salem might have been a better choice. Portland didn't need me to bolster their numbers but knew a lot of people going to there and hoped to connect with my friend Katie. Even if we missed, I was bound to run into someone I knew and I wanted to be around people as we start these very strange times.
So off I went. I parked on the East side, grabbed a sandwich at Bunk on the way and as the rain began to pour down, I joined the line of marchers walking over the Morrison Bridge to the start of the March.
I learned some unexpected things.
The first thing I learned is why people don't walk over the Morrison bridge. The bridge has a couple of ramps to and from the Interstate and the sidewalks go underneath them. People die there. Others leave the things too spoiled to be used by even the most desperate of us. We all marched down, over and around piles of soiled clothes, sleeping bags, maybe a body, all of us thinking about when we last got a tetanus booster. When we got to the second underpass we wordlessly walked past it and right across the I-5 off ramp, stopping traffic. Eventually the police shut down all the ramps completely, sparing the rest of the marchers the experience.
It was perhaps good to be reminded on the way to the March that there really is a bottom we can all arrive at in a world that doesn't care, and that bottom is a terrible place. It was also good to be remember that many, many people who don't agree with me on politics do a lot more to take care of the people who end up here than I do. Nonetheless, I was happy to join in the line of people putting their lives in danger walking across an Interstate off-ramp not to repeat the experience.
I learned I'm not as comfortable in crowds as I used to be. I've spent most of the last 15 years alone or in the company of one other person living in a house at the end of a dirt road in the mountains, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. I got to the march early so I ended up close to the stage. It was fine early on but people kept coming and as the day progressed, I found myself stuck shoulder to shoulder with tens of thousands of like-mined people. I couldn't move at several points. Phone service died. There were sirens and helicopters flying overhead. People around me weren't sure what was going on. They were perfectly happy, surrounded by friendly people who shared their beliefs. I was thinking every human stampede resulting in loss of life started as a mass of like-minded people.
As my panic was getting worse, I learned another thing: Going to events like these alone is not a good idea. When the phones died I couldn't connect with Katie and her friends. If I had been with them, I'm sure I would have felt completely different. These are collective experiences. Going with a group puts you in the right head space. Alone, you tend to be introspective, at least I do. It's hard to chant when you're arguing with your panic prone internal monologue. We've spent enough time together for me to know when it's not being reasonable so I worked my way back toward the Hawthorne bridge where the crowd was thinner. I felt better.
I also learned if you don't wear war paint, who knows that you've gone to war? This was kind of a last minute excursion so I didn't have a sign or a hat. I was just a guy in a raincoat at a women's march. I felt bad because I was kind of dripping creepy and I didn't mean to. I kept scanning the crowd for someone I knew, which made me look like I'd been stood up on a date. It occurred to me that if I was standing next to me, I wouldn't want to be standing next to me. Yes, my mind is a rabbit hole. It's been that way since high school. If I'd had a sign, I would have at least had context. Even a pink pussy hat would have helped.
It wasn't until I got home and Carolyn finally checked in and the rest of the world began reporting about the marches around the country and the rest of the world that started to feel I had been a part of something great. And it wasn't until I talked to my sister, who is the undisputed queen of taking experience apart and looking at what holds it together, that I understood the last thing I learned.
I walk with the junk I carry. I walk with my insecurities, my weaknesses, my baggage. I'll never be able to let them go. They surround me like an invisible out of tune one-man-band kit; and just as irritating. But I walk.
And now I know who I walk with. The crowd was near 100,000; twice the estimate and easily one of the largest if not the largest gathering in Portland's history, so my nervousness wasn't entirely without merit. That crowd was 100% peaceful. As I looked at the images coming back from around the world and listened to my wife tell me what a life-changing experience marching in DC was, I found my reason for being there, in the rain, in a state of near panic, was to answer a question:
Who do you want to be walking with when you are judged? Because that's what's happening right now. We are writing ourselves into time and we will be remembered for who we stood with by all who come after us.
I want to be walking next to these people.
That's what I learned.
Also, it's OK to end a sentence with a preposition. Really. It's a whole new world.