I’ve been to war in Iraq three times. I just got back from Afghanistan. I raised my hand to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies. I believe the Constitution is the single greatest achievement of mankind. What does that mean in my gut? I believe I’m defending my land. The actual countryside. Even when I’m overseas.
My dad was in the US Forest Service for over thirty years. He took his job as a steward of the land seriously. I took my first cross country ski strides in New Hampshire, my birthplace. There are 48 peaks in the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire that are over four thousand feet tall. I’ve climbed them all. I hiked most of them with my Dad. I remember him saying things like, “You think the Chinese would protect a place like this?” Funny, since I married a woman with Chinese heritage.
We used to hike a trail into the Pemigewasset Wilderness in the White Mountains. We ran into a hiker who commented on the “old growth forest.” My dad said that it wasn’t. The person insisted. My dad said we were standing on what used to be a railroad for a timber company and that all of our surroundings were completely logged off within the century. The person blinked uncomprehendingly. My dad was on his own time, and not in Forest Service uniform, so we hiked on.
The land operates on a temporal plane that’s indifferent to the people on it. When my dad looks at the land, I bet he feels like some people do when they look at the stars. Thanks to my Pop, I try to imagine the land as it changes and morphs through infinite time. My enjoyment of the land is strangely enriched when I imagine vast, Ice Age glaciers where my little family is hiking. The land is resilient. And, somehow, more beautiful because it doesn’t need me.
Our people choose to protect our land. Our country was the first government in the world to create a national park. I’m proud of us. One of my favorite authors, Wallace Stegner, wrote, “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
This same country sends me to war in an F-16. I don't get to pick where I go. I have opinions about war. I’m not a robot. But, I am typical. Like many warriors, my real-time motivation in combat is to fight for the guy right next to me. There’s a soldier on the ground who wants me to strafe an enemy position. He has to holler into the radio to be heard over the gunfire and shouting in the background. Believe me, the only thing I’m thinking about is how to help him. There’s no philosophy. No international politics. I’m fighting to save his life.
My greatest joy is being in the outdoors with my family. When I come home from war, we make time to play outside. We climb Oberg Mountain together in the fall. We ride our bikes along the Munger Trail and the Gitchi-Gami Trail along the North Shore. I wake everybody up at the cabin so the kids can stand on the dock and stare open mouthed at the eerie glow of the Northern Lights. I’m blessed.
If I do my job right in combat, my fellow Americans get to come home alive. But for me, there’s more than that. Maybe one of those Army guys I helped goes home to Kentucky to fish with his kids. Another Marine goes ice climbing in Colorado with his wife. Another goes to Florida to scuba dive with his dad. Maybe that’s how some of those guys will feel joy. I am happiest cross country skiing with my family like I did this week. Our form of government preserves public land for our people. Sure, it’s a mental stretch to go from the Constitution to public land to war to gliding across the snow. But, this is why I fight. We can talk more about it, if you want. You’ll need skis.
Eric Chandler is an F-16 pilot and lives in Duluth, MN.