Lola’s alarm goes off most mornings before dawn.
The 17-year-old high school senior from Sonoma County opens her eyes to a campground in rural California. She packs up her things — some snacks, the clothes she’s been wearing for the better part of two weeks and plenty of water — before setting out to walk for nearly seven hours.
Along the way, her small group of 16- to 29-year-olds traverse dirt country paths, concrete state highways and backroads, many of which crisscross through fields and farms in part of California’s agricultural heartland. They encounter hills browned by drought, dried up creeks and small town squares.
After they reach their next destination — usually another campsite outside another small town — they go to sleep, only to wake up and do it again.
Lola and her peers are on now on the final leg of an epic 266-mile march from Paradise, Calif., to San Francisco. On Monday, they’ll arrive at their final stop on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Their goal? Get the attention of lawmakers who have the power to enact policies to fight the climate crisis.
“My whole life I’ve just felt so much betrayal from my leaders who have told me that they’ll protect me,” Lola said. “They’ve proven again and again that they don’t actually care about us, and that they would rather have money than provide a livable future and a better world.”
The group started as seven people. It has swelled to more than two dozen during the journey.
“We’re in this space where our generation worked our asses off to get Democrats in power, and now we’re saying what we need — which is really strong economic recovery from COVID-19 rooted in the realities of the climate crisis,” said Sally Morton, who has helped to coordinate the march on behalf of the Sunrise Movement, a climate change advocacy group.
Morton, 27, has been involved with the movement shortly after the Camp Fire ravaged Paradise in 2018, an event she says changed her life. More than 150,000 acres were destroyed, thousands of structures burned to the ground and 85 residents died in the wildfires, which lasted more than two weeks.
Morton thought her best friend from college, a Paradise native, might be one of the casualties.
“It was really scary not to be able to get in touch with her,” she recalls. “I felt this deep rage about the climate crisis knowing that there were people who were responsible for it, and that I felt so powerless, so it kind of lit its own fire within me.”
Marchers chose Paradise as the starting point of the trek on purpose. It was a deliberate decision to honor the sacrifice and hardship of residents, and also to illustrate the severity of the climate crisis.
Their first steps in the 266-mile journey were on a property that had been lost during the fire. They were given ashes from homes that burned, and told the stories of how the landscape once looked.
As a powerful symbol of the group’s fight, the devastating impacts of climate change have been clear all throughout the journey.
There was Oroville, where they walked through walnut and almond orchards surrounded by ground so dry they could see it cracking. Then there was the triple-digit heat wave that lasted for the first few days of the trek and forced pre-dawn alarms.
“To see a mountainside covered in drybrush that looks like it will ignite in a single spark and the burnt trees left over from past fires is so overwhelming,” Vianni Ledesma said.
The journey took a physical toll on participants, too. At first, Lola thought there was no way her body could handle the challenge of the grueling journey. Blisters and heat rash, for example, are foregone conclusions.
“It feels really good to be putting my body on the line and suffering a little bit because I know that such good things are going to come out of it,” Lola said.
The marchers are fueled by snack bars, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and the occasional welcome delivery of homecooked meals from supporters, like lasagna, salad and brownies.
Sure, they could have traveled by bus or car. But moving by foot allows them to see the havoc wreaked by climate change up close and talk to the people whose lives stand to be most threatened by it.
“The most incredible thing so far has been talking to people in California, seeing the faces of the people we’re fighting for and connecting with the land,” Lola said. “We have been in the foothills and the orchards and so many landscapes. I feel so rooted in the state.”
Many of the people they’ve met voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. They still proudly fly campaign flags outside their homes or businesses.
While in office, the former president made a concerted effort to downplay the need to fight climate change.
But these young people say they’ve been surprised to receive almost nothing but support from these folks, especially when they drive home their desire to create green jobs for workers whose roles are being eliminated by climate change. Some can no longer grow crops or harvest the land.
“Basically it’s been beautiful the entire way,” Ledesma, 27, said of her encounters with people along the route. She recounted the only tense conversation she could remember with a man near Sacramento who was irritated by someone’s shirt heralding the Green New Deal.
The activists want policymakers to pass legislation that would create the Civilian Climate Corps, an idea proposed by President Joe Biden in the American Jobs Plan to employ thousands of young people in roles that would address climate change, strengthen natural defense and maintain public lands.
Such a program isn’t a new idea. Franklin Delano Roosevelent created a similar jobs program as part of the New Deal that put roughly 3 million young men to work on infrastructure projects that connected the country, beautified its resources and stimulated the economy in the wake of World War II.
Many of the farmhands and agricultural workers whose jobs and livelihoods could soon be eliminated by the ever-present threats of drought, wildfires and other climate emergencies are the same people who would would benefit from such a program, marchers say.
The last weekend of the trip will take place on the route’s final leg between Santa Rosa and San Francisco. Upon arrival, in one of California’s iconic cities on one of its most visible landmarks, the marchers hope to gain enough attention from the public that it forces their elected officials to listen.
And if they don’t, these activists have said they’re committed to the cause for the long haul.
“We’re going to continue to escalate until something big happens for climate change,” Morton said. “We’re watching. We know what’s going on, and until transformative policy and action is taken, we’re not going to stop.”