Smack dab in the middle of the California coastline, 429 miles south of Crescent City and 473 miles north of San Diego, there’s a county named Santa Cruz. It’s hard to say anything definitive about the place (beyond describing its geographic features) without falling into contradiction. There are clashing cultures, different languages, and disparate histories in and of this little cluster of towns. It’s not a huge county or an exceptionally diverse region, nothing like New York in that regard. Still, I know, beyond question that here like there, there is no frame, no point of view, and no single narrative that can adequately describe this area. Santa Cruz is an enigma.
The mystery of Santa Cruz is part of its charm, and I’m not talking about the Mystery Spot, although it is pretty rad (even if it’s just a house on a hill with weird angles). That’s the way it goes here, though. People visit Santa Cruz and they become all happily confused. Then, apparently, they want souvenirs and authentic experiences. So, there are knick-knacks at the Boardwalk, ice creams full of butterfat, and t-shirts or hats stamped with one of the official SC graphics for them to buy. It’s a place where big chunks of the economy (medical marijuana, public education, and land speculation) are based on confusion. Santa Cruz is fog. It’s a place of ephemera. Santa Cruz is a wave. It’s a place with caves and underground markets. Santa Cruz, with the ocean reflecting its ethereal sky, is also smoke.
Chris Danzer wants to end the problem of childhood hunger in Santa Cruz County.
Enter Chris Danzer, a character with almost biblical solidity. He sees things in black and white. He’s survived cancer, automobile accidents, and more traumatic events than you’d be likely to believe. He has a clear goal: to end childhood hunger in Santa Cruz County.
I met Chris, appropriately enough, somewhere you go to in order to wake up: a coffee shop. In this coffee shop there’s a round table. Chris gets there close to 6, he orders himself a mocha, and then he sits with his back to the wall in the front room. Behind him, there’s a huge mirror giving the illusion of double the space. Brandon Irwin is usually there about the same time and sits to his left. It was in November of 2012 that I sat down at the round table and after a short while we began to discuss the prospects of writing about Chris’ near-death experiences. After I read his manuscript chronicling the stories he wants to shape into a book, I was compelled to give it a shot.
I realized, from reading his stories, that he’s a person with an iron will. In time, I came to learn that he has an equally tough determination to make a difference in the lives of others. In addition to hearing his stories, I found that Chris was making very bold plans for a charity event that involved walking around the county’s border. He said he wanted to end childhood hunger in Santa Cruz, and I took him at his word. That’s how we founded Not on Our Watch: an Epic Trek to End Hunger in Santa Cruz County. We forged a common vision over coffee and conversation.
We’re here to end hunger. You want to get in our way?
Initially, I was providing content (photography, writing, and video) for our web site and Facebook page. At some point I decided it was only appropriate for me to join the event, though. How could I really write about it if I didn’t commit to doing it? At least, that’s the question that kept occurring to me. Really though, it’s the wild kind of idea I’ve always wanted to do but couldn’t find anyone brave enough to actually attempt it. The opportunity for me to join the trek emerged out of the training walks that we’d done. Through training, I proved to Chris that I would be an encouraging force and not a distraction. I think that he could only safely say that after we’d walked for seven and a half hours through the night all around town. When you’re thinking about walking for 91 miles non-stop, you don’t want to take unnecessary chances.
Our first training walk was just a short jaunt. We left from Coffeetopia on Portola, hoofed it out to Aptos and back in four hours. Most athletic events don’t take four hours. For us, that’s just a tiny little training walk, though. 4 hours equals only 1/9th of our estimated time for the event. Since the tide was super-low that day, we’d walked out along normally impassible sections of the coast on the beach only to get our feet wet fording the Capitola River. It was upon returning from Sea Cliff that things got interesting.
On our way back, coming into Capitola, we saw a semi had gotten stuck making the turn up the hill towards Shadowbrook and was hopelessly blocking traffic. Not only was the truck wedged, the driver was desperately making moves to get it free, and he was only making it worse. If he kept trying to make the turn in the same way, then he was going to take out a major light pole in a matter of minutes.
Danzer, who owns a trucking company, knows how to drive truck. So, when he saw the situation he jumped out into the street and began barking orders. The guy standing on the sidewalk trying to direct the driver stopped motioning. Like an angry boss who’d just found his workers making an absolute mess out of his business, Chris belted out directions, standing in the middle of the road as though that’s exactly where he belonged. In a few moments, he had the truck back on the road, saving the trucking company some serious money and freeing up the traffic jam that was blocking the bottleneck of Capitola Village. We’d just happened upon the problem, but Danzer knew how to solve it.
Chris Danzer helping a semi to get unstuck
A few days later, we went for a more serious training challenge. We met at Coffeetopia at 8 pm and planned to trek until 6 the following morning. This would give us practice walking all night. I brought my dog, Luck with us. She’s a Blue-tick hound, and her breed hunts at night, so I’ve taken her on many a nocturnal photography mission. Luck comes fully alive at night exploring the smells from the day, all settled and thick along the bottom two feet of air. For her, the night is revelatory. For us, it is part of the challenge of walking for more than 30 hours straight.
Luck enjoying her training
The biggest obstacle to ending childhood hunger in Santa Cruz County is simply an emotional one. This problem must be caused by a collective failure of the will. It’s as though we flag under the pressures of fear instead of facing our responsibility with courage. Or, maybe it’s a blind spot. Perhaps people don’t know or choose not to believe or care about poverty and its effects on our youth. There’s no good reason, especially not here in a county overlapping some of the most fertile agricultural land in the nation, for 1 out of 4 kids to regularly miss meals. How do we account for this indifference? What faulty system of levies do we think we’re we hiding behind?
The complexity of global systems can be staggering to comprehend, and maybe it’s in this web of noise that we lose focus on our priorities. It’s time that we refocus and reprioritize our actions. The slogan “think globally, act locally” has been a staple mantra of globalization, and this mentality has been around long enough, now, to include time as a key consideration. It’s time to act NOW to help build a better set of circumstances for later generations. We may find that it is only by working for the future that we can really salvage ourselves.
Chris and incoming Mayor of Santa Cruz, Hilary Bryant
In thinking about the future macro-impacts of present micro-actions on global and local systems we find the power to leverage change. One of our most important jobs is to build networks of strength in order to maintain healthful communities. The way we expend our vitality through the economics of everyday living will determine the outcome of future events. This gives us some degree of control, locally. We know that, now. That’s not a mystery to us any longer; what we do here and now with our time, energy, and money impacts the range of possibilities available in the future. What do we think is going to happen to the kids who don’t get enough to eat? How is that going to help anyone in the future? Nobody thinks it’s a good thing to let children regularly miss meals; why does it happen?
Not on Our Watch: an Epic Trek was formed as a charity event to raise awareness about this problem and to raise money to do something about it. Now that we know that this is happening, we feel compelled to act. We’re committed to ending this problem. Chris Danzer had the idea of walking around the county’s border non-stop as a way of achieving this goal. I found the idea to be bold enough, but set within a modest enough scale to be effective, so I decided to join him. Or, as Chris says, “sometimes crazy works!”
Jake J. Thomas at the beginning of a 10 hour training trek
We set out from Grind Out Hunger Headquarters right around 4:30 in the evening, on the 30th of December. I was finishing a coffee, Danzer had a chew in, and the night looked like something from a Hemingway short story crossed with an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Two men with two different points of view with one common goal: to put an end to childhood hunger in Santa Cruz County. The magnitude of the 91-mile trek makes the training walks seem puny in comparison, so it’s pretty easy to get going in the beginning. When you finish up, though, and you mentally multiply that length of time by however many number it takes to equal the course, then you feel like it may be impossible. Well, at least I did. But, I’m training. Right now, I think I stand a slim chance of finishing, but I know it will be extremely challenging.
It was dark by the time we’d reached Freedom Blvd and the oncoming traffic had a nagging habit of crossing the white line, so we kept stepping into the soft marshy grass on the side of the road like a couple of silent movie actors. Cars transformed by night became great twin-eyed bulls of light and mass that roared past us at a steady flow and we, like stealthy matadors, had to keep a vigilant eye on the timing of their passing. Then suddenly out of the flow of nuisance two lights pulled to a stop and a voice shouted out! “Guys!”
It was the Borellis. Nick and his wife had brought us cider and bananas. What good folks! Nick Borelli’s an amazing photographer who has been doing cycling events for charity, so he understood the challenge we were undertaking and wanted to support our efforts. Coming out of the trance induced by walking against the stream of lights, their gesture of kindness provided a welcome boost of energy.
Chris Danzer walking on Freedom Blvd with a mostly full moon
The fact of the matter is: we all have to face our own deaths. Before that fatal moment, in the time we have allotted to us before we make that crossing, our experiences of death will vary. This has a huge impact on the way we live our lives and has some power to determine what we are able to achieve. We have no definitive knowledge about the end of life, but many people who have come close to dying express having experienced a sense of calm. I know that the times when I’ve come closest to death were eerily free of anxiety. When Chris shared his stories with me, he reported the same thing.
Brushes with death can teach us a lot about the inherent value of life. They hold the chance to inspire us to brave our condition of mortality without surrendering to the response of fear. Fear, as we all know from experience, can be a heavy weight on the will. And these are times, for sure, that require the willingness to act.
Chris Danzer near the end of a 10-hour training trek
Once we broke off of Freedom and started walking through Watsonville towards the airport, the cold had become a factor. When we would stop to stretch, I could not let myself relax. The heat was leaving my body through every possible pore in my clothing, and the cold air that sucked in was biting my skin. I had a shirt, sweatshirt, and jacket on, but the cold was raking my chest, and the lower half of my body was far worse. Cold motivates you. You want to get warm. We walked for 9 hours without so much as a store to buy a cup of coffee from or in which to warm up for a moment. That was the real challenge of the trek. It was the sense of deprivation: cold, dark, and out there. We trekked through Buena Vista and out to San Andreas to make our way back along the coast. Chris told me later that his ankle was the size of a grapefruit for more than half of the time.
When you choose to dedicate your time and energy to solving a problem in the community something happens. Your energy increases. Your sense of self-esteem increases. By committing to end the problem of childhood hunger in Santa Cruz County, we receive the motivation to attempt something we’re not even sure is possible. The course is 91 miles and will likely take more than 32 hours. That means we’ll be walking through most of two nights’ worth of darkness without taking a rest for sleep. That’s a lot of darkness to get through, it’s a lot of exposure to the elements, and it’s a lot of terrain to cover. Since we’re leaving at 3:00 in the morning we’ll see the sun rise twice, and we’ll still have a ways to go. In committing to the task, though, a freedom comes with knowing that if all we succeed at is raising awareness about this problem then we’ll have done something good.
The oath that Danzer wears on his arm