My first contact with my new neighbor was a typed note on my car at a trailhead up the dirt road from my house. After years of medical training, I had finally started working as an emergency-room doctor and was able to buy my dream home in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. I had lived on my quiet rural plot for nearly a year with my wife and three kids. The note told me to not park on this “private road.”
“You are intruding and your car will be towed if seen again.”
Fine. My kids and I could walk the extra mile. I crumpled the note. Whoever wrote it, I thought, just didn’t realize I was their neighbor (although I know that tensions can be inevitable among neighbors, our closest reminders that we must live together in civilization, whether we like it or not).
I learned the landscape surrounding my new home quickly. I’m a runner and tend to run far as time permits. Before long I had surveyed my vast backyard on foot and mapped out an extensive and exhilarating web of unofficial trails in my mind. Although the terrain initially appears to be composed of relatively monotonous, dusty ponderosa forests, subtleties slowly emerge: Variations in slopes and shadows, heart rates and sweat streams. A long, steady climb to a nearby peak. A quick drop to a valley floor, and cool water surrounded by spruce, oak, and aspen. Winding paths, expansive views of incoming storms, endless skies. There are always ravens, talking among themselves.
The tracks surrounding my house link civilization’s five-acre lots with wilderness and national forest. There are old hunting and game trails, neglected logging roads, and paths built by landowners to traverse their properties.
Months after I found the note on my car, while I was running one of these trails that leads to the national forest, a mountain biker flagged me down with waving hands.
“You can’t be up here. It’s private property,” he said.
I hesitated. “I thought you had a flat tire,” I told him. “It looked like you needed help.” But as I looked at him and his bike more closely, I could tell that his only problem was me.
“Hi, I’m Jon,” I said. “I’m your neighbor. My house is down there in the valley.”
He didn’t introduce himself back. I hoped not to cause trouble, but I pressed him anyway.
“Would it be OK for me to occasionally run your trail?”
“Doesn’t matter who you are. This is private property.”
“I understand. But I could give you something in return.” I attempted a more utilitarian approach, accepting that my moral appeal had failed. He clearly was not interested in treating his neighbor as he would like to be treated. “I have children. We could put them to work here on trail maintenance.”
He didn’t laugh. So I offered my services as a doctor in case he got hurt up here on his bike.
“Private property,” he repeated.
I could even be there, I told him, if only to regard the sound of a falling tree when nobody else was around, a rather existential approach. Now I was pushing him, resorting to sarcasm. He said he would sue me if I used his trail again.
“But George gave me permission to be up here,” I told him, starting to feel a bit desperate. George was a member of the homeownership collective. (I’ve changed all of my neighbors’ names to protect their privacy.)
“George’s property is his business,” he told me. “George is the only person allowed to use my trail.”
George’s land is also traversed by beautiful trails leading to national forest. But when I run through his property, he brings me coffee and invites me in. George must have accepted whatever arrangement this man had proposed. I wasn’t lucky enough to reach a similar agreement. I ran away with heavier legs.
Weeks later, another man approached me and my young daughter as we hiked to the ridge across the valley from our home. He rolled down the small dirt road in an ATV.
“Hey, this is private property,” he told me. “You can’t be up here.”
“Hi, I’m Jon. I’m your neighbor.” I waited a beat, giving my introduction a moment to settle into silence. “This is my daughter, Andi,” I introduced the little girl grabbing my leg. “We walk up here sometimes to look at our house.”
She pointed down into the valley and said, “That one’s ours.”
“You can’t be up here. It upsets me, my wife, and my dog,” he said. “And I have guns.”
My daughter’s eyes widened.
“Sorry to upset you,” I said and walked away with my girl, feeling lonely in my new community.
A recently retired neighbor of mine built a trail on his property that ran from the valley floor to a beautiful overlook. He enjoyed hiking and seeing other people on his path, which he adorned with a sign and handrails to the top. One day I found a new makeshift fence across the top of the trail, blocking access to the lookout. Evidently, the lookout touched another property, whose owner did not want anyone near his land. He was worried he’d be liable if someone were to get hurt on it. He could be sued. This made me sad for both old men: the one fenced out and the one afraid.
Most people who ask me to stay off their property justify their decision similarly. They could be sued. So they threaten preemptive suits. I’ve been warned that I could be sued if other children get hurt on the trampoline in my yard. I could be arrested for leaving my children unattended for a short time or letting them walk alone the quarter-mile of country road to their friend’s house. I’m beginning to wonder if it might just be best to wall the others out and ourselves in. Keep the kids close and contained, even if it means compromising the competence and resilience I’d hoped they would develop before adulthood. It’s starting to feel like a very threatening world.
These anxieties expand beyond my small valley neighborhood. Americans’ idea of community is becoming less cohesive, while our focus contracts inward. We become more suspicious of others, more concerned with ourselves. We feel victimized. We avoid face-to-face confrontation, shielded instead by screens or lawyers. We drop our heads into our phones in search of community, however fabricated and nebulous, instead of connecting with the people around us.
My peers who share my sense of alienation generally express it by criticizing our political leaders and hoping the next election will bring change. Instead, we need to accept more personal responsibility for creating meaning and order in our lives together.
Despite our best intentions, declared at our country’s founding, people are not “created equal.” We are created along the whole spectrum of privilege and ability. Likewise, there are simply no “inherent human rights.” There are only the rights we decide to give each other.
Without a doubt, I sometimes trespass on land I run through. The concept of private property is fundamental to American society and should be protected. To that extent, my neighbors are justified in their anger. Like other issues, however, there are nuances to consider. First, there is, to put it mildly, a complicated history of land ownership in the West. I’m reminded of this as I drive past arid Native American reservations in the areas surrounding my lush mountain home or read of billionaires and developers buying and excluding people from swaths of beautiful—even sacred—lands. Most of the mountain trails near my home existed long before their current ownership. I suspect there may be easement laws protecting the public’s right to use these trails, but the ultimate “right” to the land seems to belong to whoever can pay a lawyer more or has connections to authority. Second, is this: What is the decent thing to do? The neighborly thing to do?
Privilege and power ultimately determine what is a right. But it is possible to take that responsibility upon ourselves, in our daily lives, in how we act and speak to each other.
Most of my neighbors do this. They are good to each other. They don’t threaten lawsuits as they hide their fears behind property lines. They are willing to solve problems through conversation and cooperation, not threats and litigation. They stop to say hello. We talk about small things, make eye contact, and slowly develop relationships. We can count on each other for things we need. We make a community by developing trust and meaning among ourselves.
I kept using the mountain-biking neighbor’s trail. I figured there must have been some misunderstanding. All bikers know what it’s like to have to share a trail.
I eventually saw him again, and again I asked permission. He told me he worked his whole life so he didn’t have to see other people on his trail. When I asked why, he told me that people may destroy his land. When I suggested that people could also help him maintain the trail and that he might build relationships and trust among neighbors, he told me that he gives to his community through donations to charity. I ran away angry, muttering to myself that good deeds can’t simply be bought with extra cash.
Despite my righteous indignation, I’m sure I share some similar fundamental values with this man. I don’t want people to destroy the trail either. I also like to be alone, away from people. I worry about crowds and overuse, especially by people who look just like me—white, privileged—who seem to have overrun many areas in the West. But I am his neighbor. I don’t invade intimate space, staying hundreds of yards from his house. I don’t publicize the trail. I am a good steward of the land. I leave no trace. I could help. I would be grateful. Even so, he made it clear: I was not welcome.
As humans, we are unique in our ability to understand that others, too, have a light of consciousness within, with its own perspective, knowledge, beliefs, intentions, emotions, and desires. But we are also lazy. Without mental effort, it’s easier to ignore others’ perspectives and humanity if they don’t benefit us. It’s hard to bear the weight of understanding another’s humanity but necessary if we are to live well with each other. Our differences are less than we think if we bother to look.
I was warned to watch out for a certain reclusive neighbor, who I’ll call Danny, known for his anger, who lives at the top of our mountain road. I knew immediately when we first crossed paths. I had my head down, my vision blurred by sweat as I climbed a steep dirt road. I felt a red SUV pass me too close, too fast, and I heard the tires skid.
I kept running.
“Hey! You! Stop now!” He got out of his car.
I considered my options, slowing. For some reason, I stopped and turned back to the angry man.
“This is a private road! Do you live up here?”
I didn’t feel any urgency to answer him that, yes, I did have a right to access the road. I found his animation and aggravation somehow fascinating. I wanted to see more of it.
“Where do you live?” he demanded, his face distorting.
Although I worried briefly about the health of his heart under stress, he brought out the worst in me. I told him what I took to be the truth of the matter.
“I’ve heard about you, Danny. Do you know that you are despised by your neighbors?” I asked. “And you’re getting old. You’re going to die someday soon, Danny, despised by your neighbors.”
He shouted expletives, told me he didn’t care. He yelled that it was me who was going to die. He walked to his SUV and started digging in the glove box.
I froze. My God, I thought, what a stupid way to go. I considered turning to run but felt too terrified to move, especially if it meant exposing my back. He emerged furiously from his car. He was waving an iPad.
I stood there dumbly, overwhelmed by complicated emotions, somehow grateful to this awful man for not murdering me. He awkwardly shot photos of me, collecting evidence, I suppose, to get to his lawyer.
I felt awful, physically sick. I should have known that that was no way to connect to someone. I put my head down and ran away, feeling his hatred follow me, now worried about my own mortality.
Undoubtedly, there will be tensions between neighbors, and people will be difficult, but we need each other to exist. Relationships give value to our lives. This is even more apparent now, in the midst of a pandemic. A crisis like this risks exacerbating our worst inclinations. Fear, mistrust, selfishness, and entitlement are as dangerous and contagious as a virus.
More than ever, we need to remember that we are all in this together, vulnerable neighbors on a vulnerable planet, all sharing the same basic needs—food, livelihood, dignity, toilet paper, access to medical care, and compassion. We are going to be forced to carefully consider our own mortality as others around us get sick and some die. We are going to be forced to reexamine our values. Such dire circumstances tend to reveal one’s true character. What can we hope to learn about ourselves? What is our responsibility to one another? Who are we if we succumb to fear and panicked self-preservation? Where will we find meaning when we are at risk of losing everything?
As we look into ourselves during these trying times, I can only hope that we will find the answers in each other. If you can’t, well, keep running. Tell the ravens about it.
Look carefully enough, however, and you will see yourself in your neighbor. All alone together, quarantined here on earth.
Lead Illustration: Calum Heath