How getting rescued by a Republican in the mountains convinced me that we need a mandatory national service year

Last week, I spent seven consecutive days hiking the middle section of the John Muir Trail — 100 miles of epic, high-altitude wilderness in Kings Canyon National Park. (And increasingly known by its Native American name, Nüümü Poyo.”) During the first few days, the weather was typical for the summertime high Sierra: bright blue morning skies with white puffy clouds that turn gray in the afternoon for a few hours of thunderstorms before clearing up in the evening to offer a celestial showcase of stars, satellites, and the milky way.

At least that’s how it was for the first four days and 60 miles of my hike. On day 5, the daily thunderstorm moved in with crackling electricity around 2 pm — just as it had every other day. But unlike previous days, it never stopped. For the next 24 hours straight, the rain came down steadily, flooding the rivers, the trail, my tent, my gear, and food. I heard a helicopter come down the next morning, and would later learn that it scooped up a fellow backpacker who was suffering hypothermia.

Not a smart place to spend a night in the rain

I put up my tent in the most foolish spot imaginable: it was around 5 pm when I took off my boots to cross the waist-high water of Bear “Creek.” An hour later, I came across another river crossing, this one nearly knocking me off my feet, and then 15 minutes later, yet another crossing. It was getting dark, I was exhausted and hungry, and I was in no mood to keep crossing rivers. Fuck it. I put up my tent under the pattering rain at the spot where it looked the least likely to flood. Not that I expected it to flood. I was sure that the skies would clear overnight just as they had every other night.

Wrong! The rain came down incessantly. At this point, the trail was a river, and everywhere else was a giant puddle. My tent was flooded and my sleeping bag was soaked. I couldn’t have slept for more than two hours all night.

Rescued by my enemy

At 8 am, the rain still coming down steadily, I was awoken by two yelling voices. I crawled out of the puddle of my tent disoriented until I understood why they were yelling at me: I had foolishly put up camp in between what were now two raging rivers. I was stuck, or I would have been stuck if it wasn’t for their help. They tied a rock to the end of a rope and heaved it across the river. We each tied our respective end of the rope to a tree and I used it to cross the rapids without being knocked off my feet. For the rest of the day, we hiked over 15 miles through the constant rain and countless river crossings. Our boots and socks were soaked, our feet blistered prunes.

Eventually, we made it to Vermilion Valley Resort, an isolated camping “resort” near the John Muir Trail that famously greets backpackers with a free beer upon arrival and serves up exaggeratedly American portions of steak dinners and breakfast burritos. Best of all, they had a washer and dryer to dry out all of our soaked gear.

Misery begets solidarity. And common ground

During the first hour with my two new companions, we kept our heads down and stayed silent as we trudged through the water, occasionally holding out a hand to help each other over a dangerous crossing. Eventually, we introduced ourselves.

Nearly everyone I met on the John Muir Trail was from either California or France. So, it was unexpected and refreshing when one of the two replied that he was from rural North Dakota. He had recently left the army to sell guns for a living, supported Donald Trump, served Christ, opposed any limits on assault weapons, and referred to abortion as murder. He was my political enemy. And he helped save my life.

You would think that the gun salesman from rural North Dakota and the progressive from Berkeley, California would naturally fall back into our stoic silence until we reached our destination; but no, we chose to earnestly and respectfully discuss our differing political views.

As we helped each other cross over unstable rocks in newly formed rivers, we found some common ground. For instance, he complained how liberals misunderstand the constitution, the role of the Supreme Court, and the legislative process. I agreed and shared Justice Douglas Ginsburg‘s efforts to educate all Americans about civics, especially liberals. I told him that while I support attempts to ban or minimize access to guns, I agree that it should be done properly through a constitutional amendment first and then state-based legislation. While I knew he would be against the pending legislation in the Senate to ban assault weapons, I was surprised by how enthusiastically he supported federal funding of mental health services (as a former service member of the Army, he emphasized). He described efforts by his local community to educate parents and children about gun safety and the seriousness of owning a gun. I offered that while I’m not big on guns myself, I have experienced firsthand that just because guns are mostly illegal in Mexico doesn’t make it any less likely that you’ll be shot by one.

The conversation turned to abortion. I mentioned that there was a parallel between the prevalence of guns in Mexico despite their illegality and the fact that abortions will continue whether they are legal or not. This seemed to prompt a genuinely new reflection for him. I sensed that someone he cares about might have had an abortion. He nodded that I had made a good point, and that he definitely wants access to contraception and even the day-after pill. But, he emphasized, he also would like to see more personal responsibility in our society.

Guns and abortions were the two most contentious issues. It was much easier to find common ground on a number of other issues, including privacy, infrastructure, and supporting small businesses. Eventually, the conversation petered out and we returned to our own thoughts. It struck me how different our conversation was from how our respective sides are portrayed in clickbait headlines. My supposedly mortal enemy, it turns out, doesn’t want to take away access to contraception; rather, he supports the morning-after pill. His main concern, in fact, isn’t abortion or guns. He’s worried that children are growing up addicted to screens and disconnected from their families … a complaint I routinely hear echoed by my progressive friends.

Having finally arrived to our free beer, we toasted to survival, laundry machines, and our new friendship. I felt grateful to live in a country where he and I can both live comfortably, respectfully, and with dignity despite our differing views. I hope to live in a country where everyone can feel the same.

A mandatory national service

There was one policy issue that we agreed on more than any other: the United States needs a mandatory national service if it’s not going to come apart at the seams. “Doesn’t that go against your libertarian views,” I asked? “Well, I’m mostly libertarian, but I know a good idea when I hear one.” He told me that before he was deployed to Iraq, he knew nothing about the world, yet thought he knew everything. It wasn’t until he met “some real cool Iraqis” and “Black dudes from Compton” that the world revealed itself to be more complex than his preconceived notions.

There have been multiple legislative attempts to enact a mandatory national service for young adults since 2003, and they haven’t gone far. In 2019, a political scientist and the former director of USA Freedom Corps partnered on a Brookings Institution paper to understand why. Pointing to a 2013 Atlantic article by Conor Friedersdorf that argues that a mandatory national service would violate the 13th Amendment” by constituting “involuntary servitude,” the authors consult constitutional scholars who argue that most proposals (like the Franklin Project) offer so many forms of service (and ways to opt out) that the Supreme Court wouldn’t conflate it with the original interpretation of indentured servitude.

Still, while it may be legally viable, the report’s authors describe it as “politically impossible,” and argue that “advocating for it probably does more to undermine than to undergird the case for universal voluntary national service.” Indeed, a 2013 survey of 1,000 Americans found that only 12% strongly favor a mandatory national service while 52% strongly oppose it — especially among young people. A 2017 Gallup poll of 1,000 Americans found slightly more support for mandatory service, but still strong opposition among young people.

I wonder if that is starting to change. Bloomberg Philanthropies has invested heavily in working with mayors to launch service programs from city hall. As a presidential candidate, “A New Call to Service” was one of Pete Buttigieg’s main policy ideas:

Buttigieg is calling to expand opportunities through AmeriCorps and through new fellowships to 250,000, up from 75,000, and creating “a pathway towards a universal, national expectation of service for all 4 million high school graduates every year.” Buttigieg’s plan will add new service groups as well. Climate Corps will work to fight the growing threats of climate change. Community Health Corps will help communities deal with issues like mental health and substance abuse. And Intergenerational Service Corps will serve as caretakers for senior citizens. These new groups would work under the leadership of a “chief service officer,” a newly created position that would serve on the National Security Council and the White House Domestic Policy Council.

Last year, the New York Times editorial board published a long op-ed supporting General Stanley McChrystal’s call for a national service year:

Asking young Americans for a year of their time for their country would be a powerful way to inculcate that call to service. It would not be a panacea for America’s troubles, of course. But a year in which barriers of race, class and income were breached, working in areas like underresourced schools, national parks or the military, where the fruits of service were real and beneficial, could help restore a measure of the community, commitment and hope that America cries out for.

And just last week, while I was on the John Muir Trail, Jay Caspian Kang, an AmeriCorps alumnus, advocated for a major expansion of AmeriCorps in his New York Times newsletter:

Instead of just adding 16 percent to the budget of AmeriCorps, the White House should increase the size of the AmeriCorps work force from 250,000 to three million, embark on a substantial press tour to promote it, and broadly expand the benefits of enrolling in the program. This would be the first step in eventually calling for a revival of the Universal National Service Act, which would require every American to commit two years of their lives to national service between the years of 18 and 25.

Admittedly, it’s a difficult time to advocate for the government to create 400,000 temporary climate service jobs through a budget amendment (as Bernie Sanders unsuccessfully proposed last week) when businesses struggle to fill vacancies amidst wage inflation. Eventually, businesses will cut back their hiring, the unemployment rate will rise, and it will be the perfect opportunity to advance a new social expectation — like in Israel, Switzerland, and Taiwan — that all young people should come together for a year of service.

As if by fate, I stumble upon an AmeriCorps crew

My friend from North Dakota and I exchanged numbers and bid farewell the next morning. I would look him up if I were ever in North Dakota and he would do the same if he were ever in Berkeley, but we both knew the chances were slim. The storm had passed and the skies were clear. He decided to end his journey, while I continued on for two more days to Reds Meadow near Mammoth. As I hiked up and over a pass, I was listening to an audiobook by Fiona Hill, who argues that increased investment in higher education is the best way to overcome social polarization. I couldn’t disagree more. While higher education serves many purposes, the hyper-competitive selective sorting to get into a top school is driving our country apart. Already, we have a glut of over-educated, unemployed PhDs on the Far Left and a resentful “basket of deplorables” on the Far Right who never managed to enter or finish college. We need to build housing and infrastructure. We need to take care of children and senior citizens, and the most vulnerable members of our society. We need a year of service for everyone, not another 5 years of overpriced tuition for the lucky few.

I looked up and, as if by fate, there was a crew of six or so AmeriCorps workers repairing a section of trail that succumbed to a mudslide in the heavy rains. They were young, tattooed, and smiling. I took out my headphones and with middle-aged enthusiasm described my admiration for their work and the AmeriCorps program, how I’d like to join them, and anyway, were they having a good time? They were. They said it was hard work, and the best thing that they’ve done.

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David Sasaki

Mostly ill-formed reflections to figure out what I think myself. Occasionally a fully formed essay with strong opinions, loosely held.