Peace in 1,800,000 Steps: Songwriter Rand Bishop’s Journey
Rand Bishop is a Grammy-nominated songwriter who, until moving back to his home state of Oregon in 2012, worked his entire adult life in the music business. His songs have been recorded by many, including Tim McGraw, Heart, Amanda McBroom, Cheap Trick, Indigo Girls and Toby Keith, who had a number one hit with Bishop’s song with Tim James, “My List.” Bishop has also been a producer, publisher, A-and-R executive and studio singer, and is a performer as well as journalist, author, playwright, screenwriter and educator. He’s funny, articulate and smart.
After feeling a growing personal malaise during last year’s election season, Bishop was heartened to find that nearly 1,800 people in his town of 10,000 marched in the Women’s March on Jan. 21. He was surprised to see that some red states had impressive turnouts for the march. But the hyper-partisanship of the past two decades among political parties and citizens pitted against each other had discouraged him, and he felt compelled to take action. What he decided to do was something I can’t even begin to fathom.
Rand took a 900-mile walk from Southern California to Newport, OR, along the densely traveled Highway 101, pushing a jerry-rigged jogging stroller holding camping gear and his guitar. Across the front of his cart, he mounted a sign that read “peace pilgrim.” I spoke to him about 11 days after he arrived back home. He said he was generally disoriented, and claimed to have a crazy farmer’s tan. I believed both of those statements.
Seeking a few inches of common ground.
Betsyann Faiella: What motivated you to do something as radical as walk 900 miles for peace?
Rand Bishop: I was motivated by the election and then the Women’s March. I thought, I can’t keep sitting by idly while this country turns into a nation I don’t recognize. I also figured out that using terms like racist and misogynist to describe people with whom I don’t agree is not constructive and it just makes the problem more pervasive. Perhaps I could be more effective encouraging people to communicate in a civil way; maybe there are seeds of resistance and discontentment out there that could be reached. I wanted to practice my own listening skills, my own ability to communicate without being judgmental and to seek those little square inches of common ground that I had to believe were there.
I had been entertaining the idea of promoting an Independent Pacific State, but when I saw red states marching, I just thought maybe we here on the West Coast aren’t so fucking smart and I should readjust my goals. And quite honestly, in the long run, I just wanted to know there were still nice people out there in the world.
BF: What’s a peace pilgrim?
RB: I was inspired by the original Peace Pilgrim and I adopted the term in honor of her. When I decided to take on this trek, I hadn’t even heard of her. But I decided I was going to do a walk, and I was going to sing for people along the way, and talk to people and interact. The founder of Peace Village, Charles Busch, is a very dear friend of mine. I took him to lunch and I told him what I was planning. He looked across the table and said, “So you’re going on a pilgrimage.” And internally my reaction was oh, God, that sounds pretentious.” But I nodded and said, “OK.” He introduced me to Peace Pilgrim’s work. She became one of my primary inspirations for doing what I did.
The term “peace pilgrim” was also concise. Most people are not going to have a lot of animosity towards someone who is promoting peace. If you’re promoting something more political, then you are creating an “us and them” situation.
BF: Was it music or conversation that was intended to be your icebreaker?
RB: I know music cuts through any situation, so that was a given, but conversation was something I really wanted more. People generally asked, “Hey what’s this peace pilgrim thing?” I didn’t engage in many political discussions because I didn’t bring up politics. Nobody disagreed that the country had gotten too mean. They might have been skeptical that it’s possible to engage anymore in civil discourse, but they all said, good luck, or good on ya.
BF: What were the common concerns among people you met along the way regarding America’s state of affairs?
RB: Far and above was income inequality and the desperation of what used to be the middle class, with homelessness being epidemic. The people that are losing their homes — more and more they aren’t people who have dependency or mental health issues. They are seniors who have worked all of their lives, people who don’t have a partner or anyone who can help them out, and rents are totally out of reach. I heard this in every single urban area and places like Eureka and Coos Bay. I met a 70-year-old lady in North Bend named Anna Marie, who was really smart, fiercely pro-life and a Mormon by choice. She was the mother of nine children, and she told me she was “temporarily housed,” so she was homeless, basically. This woman had been honored for her community service, and she planned to hitchhike back to her temporary housing in Coos Bay later that day. That’s criminal. Everywhere I went, I heard complaints that there was some force driving rents out of reach. In California, it’s grape growers, marijuana growers and tech people. Other interesting concerns were our national parks and one-parent homes. Meanness and divisiveness was a big concern.
One of the most meaningful moments of my life.
BF: What was your most profound experience on the road?
RB: An older guy I met in a wheelchair asked me to play him a song and I played “Healing Time,” a gospel-y kind of hymn-like song. He leaned forward so he could hear me better and raised his crucifix to his mouth and kissed it. I could see he was crying. When I finished he kissed the crucifix again and said, “I love you Lord.” It was one of the most meaningful moments of my life and my career.
BF: What was your most disappointing experience?
RB: I had a couple. One disappointment was the Unitarian ministers, all (except one) of whom paid lip service to what I was doing, but made no effort to assist me. [Bishop is Unitarian.] It was not very Christ-like. And then there was the guy who slowed down beside me in a huge truck and then gunned it to spray gravel at me. After that, he used his coal rollers to blanket me in toxic black smoke. I figure, this guy probably thinks I’m homeless and pushing all my worldly possessions up the 101, and he decided to commit a deliberate act of absolute cruelty.
BF: Did you get some good song ideas?
RB: I think I got some good ideas, but I can’t concentrate enough to refine anything! The first idea I had, which is totally sincere, is “I’m just an old man trying to matter.” You know, when you get to a certain age, you just feel kind of invisible, women don’t look at you the same way they once did. You wonder if your life matters anymore. Fortunately I have the ability to pull my guitar out and sing for people, and that is always significant. I have a wonderful relationship, and my parents love me and my brothers love me and my kids kind of love me.
BF: Did you change anyone’s mind who might not have agreed with you?
RB: I don’t think I changed anyone’s mind. But maybe I opened up their awareness to things they may not have been paying attention to. In Brookings, OR, I got a place on couchsurfing.com. I looked on the host’s profile and he was standing with his arm around another man, and I assumed they were a couple. He ended up being a realtor living six miles north of Brookings, all uphill. I finally arrive at 8:30pm to a private community, thinking I’m going to be staying in a palace owned by a gay realtor. I get there and the guy’s house has a “Trump — Make America Great Again” poster on a gravel driveway. There’s old appliances all over the porch. His car was full of garbage, and there were really offensive pro-choice and anti-Supreme Court bumper stickers all over it. I think, “I can’t possibly be in the right place.”
I knock on the door, and that was the beginning of an evening spent talking to a very unusual guy who was very bright and well-traveled, but had some seriously wacko ideas, including that evolution can’t be proven because “no one was there to see it.” It was a great opportunity to talk to someone very unlike me. I had a hard time not taking issue with a number of things he said, but he was totally respectful of me. We talked, listened to each other, and it was very civil. We found a number of things we were in agreement with. When I asked him the question I was dying to ask — “What does ‘Make America Great’ mean to you?” — he said exactly what I thought he was going to say:
Well, I’d like to see America return to a manufacturing-based economy. I’d like a man to be able to get a good job, to make enough money to buy a home, raise children and retire. I’d like children to get a quality education and not just be trained to take tests. And I’d like to see us go back to a set of moral standards that are meaningful.
I said, “I can’t take issue with any of that. But let me ask you, when was America great?” He responded, “Post-World War II into the early ’50s.” I said, “Have you thought about this? That was pre-civil rights, so was America great for everyone?” And he said, “You know what? You’re right, I never thought about that.” He had made some decisions he hadn’t really thought through and he was willing to listen and reconsider. Was American great, or was that just nostalgia? We don’t remember that the Cuyahoga River was burning and acid rain was beginning to fall from the sky. Those were some of the costs of a manufacturing-based economy. Sure, it was great that a man could do the same job his dad did, buy a modest house. When I mentioned that opportunities back then for women were pretty limited he said, “Well, I believe in equal pay for women. If a woman is doing the same job as a man, she should be paid the same.” He came up with some really wacky shit, though, I have to tell you.
I think the presumption is that everyone on the other side is stupid, and maybe some of them are. But calling them stupid isn’t going to help, and I’ve been guilty of it, believe me. It’s really tempting. I can’t say I’ve changed anyone’s mind, but I’ve been listened to!
“I can’t say I’ve changed anyone’s mind, but I’ve been listened to!”
BF: Do you think efforts to communicate with others in meaningful ways can be scaled quickly enough before life gets more untenable?
RB: Yes. I’ve discussed this with people of all different persuasions. Nobody likes the hyper-partisanship that’s happening in this country, the vilification of the other side, the “blame game.” I think there is a way, and I haven’t figured out what to call it or how to market it, to create a movement based on the idea that we stop supporting any political party or individual who tries to solicit funds or support by blaming the other side instead of telling us exactly what they promise to do — their agenda. “Sorry, we’re not supporting you if you’re not representing your constituents rather than your political party.” I get 20 emails a day telling me something dire is gong to happen if I don’t give $5 to the cause. It wouldn’t be a partisan thing, it would be about supporting anyone who wanted to actually represent the people.
BF: How are you doing now?
RB: I’m having a hard time with re-entry. Every night I dream of pushing the cart. I feel confined indoors, from being outdoors 10 to 20 hours every day. I understand it’s common with homeless people — not wanting to sleep inside. I’ve been suffering a bit of depression. The pilgrimage consumed my life for months, so there was the inevitable letdown. It’s challenging. I’m not whining, I’m just being honest. I have no concentration at all. I am totally confused and distracted and my energy is pretty low. My legs and feet are still pretty traumatized, and I walk four to five miles a day, including a three-hour daily walk with Millie, my dog. And I‘m working at Peace Village.
BF: What is that?
RB: Peace Village teaches people the power of peace. I lead the music for the opening and closing circles, which I’ve been doing for six years. I teach a media literacy class for the 12- and 13-year-olds. It’s pretty important; we’re all just barraged with media and the generation coming up is pretty vulnerable to bullshit. I call the class “We’re Too Smart for That.” I’m also doing a seminar for a segment of the campers, a Q-and-A about the pilgrimage. It’s a full day’s work.
BF: If there is any upside to the election, what is it?
RP: I think we might have remained very complacent had Hillary become president, and there would have been a lot of business as usual. Now people have to be involved, we have no choice. I think we can look at the US in terms of someone who has a dependency issue and you see them spiraling down. I believe it started in the mid-’90s when [Newt] Gingrich and [the late Lee] Atwater began this hyper-partisan approach in Congress, and then, later, when we had the audacity to actually elect a man of color to the White House, it just created the worst situation we could possibly have. So I think we’ve hit bottom, and I think the decision we’re making is: we’re either going to get some treatment, or we’re going to end up destroying ourselves.
BF: What’s your plan for the future?
RB: Right now, I’m just writing and letting it lead me. I think I’d like to put the pilgrimage journals into a book form, and I want to do some sort of multimedia show, a one-man show or a small-cast thing that has real emotional impact and provides a sense of hope.
I spent my entire life in the music business, living in music capitals my whole life, living under the stress of “what have you done lately.” I was very relieved that when I moved here, that all my roles were gone — professional musician, husband, provider, father — and I was anonymous. I’ve been really thriving. But that can only last so long for someone like me! I’m looking forward to playing music a lot more, making myself available for house concerts. I’m sort of back to the way I felt in high school — I just want to be part of the scene. I’m a lot more forgiving now, not so much of a snob.