Memorial Day has never meant more to me. I'll frame my gratitude for this day with a story I heard told by someone else.
At the Donald Trump rally for veterans a few months ago, Mike Huckabee told a story about an Arkansas teacher's first day of class for the new school year:
Before the students arrived, an elementary school teacher removed all the desks from her class room. When the young impressionable minds began to file in, the teacher began getting flooded with questions about the desks. As young as they were, the students still knew something was amiss.
The teacher, after flicking the light switch, was able to temporarily garner their undivided attention.
The teacher promised each student would get their desk for the school year once they told her what they did to earn a desk.
One by one they offered up the answers you could imagine:
"By coming to school on time", one student said timidly.
"By paying attention!", one student exclaimed.
"By doing my homework!", another student shouted.
The teacher asked again, "Of course you will do all those things. But what did you do to earn a desk?"
The time passed, and one period turned into two. Still not one student had a desk.
By this time, a parent had recieved a text message from their confused child and immediately called the principal.
Now with the principal's unwanted attention, the teacher signaled to the parking lot and had the desks brought in.
One by one, uniformed men and women from each branch of the military brought in a desk.
As these men and women placed the desks into rows the teacher addressed the class:
"None of you earned a desk, because these men and women earned them for you."
I was born free. But I never earned my freedom. Generations of men and women before me paid for my freedom in blood so I wouldn't have to sacrifice my own life.
As part of the 1981 Inaugural Address, Ronald Reagan had this to say about freedom:
"If we look to the answer as to why, for so many years, we achieved so much, prospered as no other people on Earth, it was because here, in this land, we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before. Freedom and the dignity of the individual have been more available and assured here than in any other place on Earth. The price for this freedom at times has been high, but we have never been unwilling to pay that price. "
We have never been unwilling to pay that price.
We have achieved so much, and prospered as no other people on Earth.
I smile at times when I hear these PCT hikers from foreign countries discuss the United States. To me, sometimes they sound like washed up 30 year old men who never made it past high school varsity telling me why they woulda/coulda/shoulda went pro.
The reality is a lot of countries have something similar to freedom, similar in the sense that highschool football is similar to professional football (American football of course).
The freedom we have in this country is the apex of human freedom, the highest level achievable. And individuals, men and women, from every corner of the globe, have left their home countries for generations to exercise American Freedom.
The other countries of the world often imitate, but have never been able to reproduce American freedom, because quite frankly they don't have the individuals to pull off a procedure like that.
So why does this Memorial Day mean so much to me?
I have a new found appreciation for American Freedom.
I quit my job. I drove to San Diego. I sold my car when I got there. And I've been walking through the mountains and deserts of California for over a month straight.
Vast, amazing expanse of wilderness aside, out here, almost daily, I meet human beings who are so alive, their pursuit of happiness would leave most Americans speechless.
Last night, with the house guitar in hand, I swapped songs with a girl who has worked all over the world for charitable causes on top of three years of Peace Corps service.
She sang me "Landslide" by Stevie Nicks. I sang her "Hotel California" by the Eagles.
There's no way in Hell we agree on every political level. But we're here on the PCT, alive and free, Americans pursuing our own versions of happiness.
Consider today's encounter with another hiker in the context of Memorial Day:
While I was taking a picture of an abandoned gas station, Squints came within an earshot of me.
A PCT thru-hiker, he said he was going to the bar across the street. Well heck I don't need an excuse to join along, so I did.
Squints, from Denver by way of the great state of Texas, is a 25 year old white male like me. He's got a degree in finance and also quit his job to be here.
But in a previous life, there are other ways we could've met, perhaps a rice paddy in Vietnam, or even on the beaches of Normandy.
Because of the wars the United States have already fought and won, I don't have to meet Squints under those conditions.
My country does not ask me to fight for my freedom at this time. I get to meet Squints here, on the PCT, and I am grateful.
Tonight's beer, is brought to me by Zack Walsh, my high school and college best friend. Time and place have separated us in a few ways, but I know the sense of humor he has won't fade over time.
I've told more stories about Walsh than any other human being on the face of the Earth. He has an incredible gift of personality that I hope will serve him well on his own pursuit of happiness.
And back to that sense of humor, he donated $18.04, which is the year our Alma Mater was founded, the tattoo on my arm, and (at his request) enough to buy a half pounder with bacon to go with that beer.
God bless America.