Thursday, June 9, 2016

Hiking the Midstate Trail in Massachusetts

My sister (18) and I (32) were planning a 7-10 day hike. She's a total beginner. I've done some hiking and one 2-night, 32-mile backpacking trip, but have other experience as a wilderness counselor (leading 2-3 week canoe trips=food repacking & prep, primitive camping, handling weather & other challenges; Peace Corps=lugging around a heavy backpack, figuring out Plan B, C, D, etc.). It was harder than we expected to find reasonable long hikes in the NE area. All long hikes seemed to have numerous "no camping allowed" areas, which makes it pretty difficult to do an extended or through-hike!  We stumbled across the MST (figuratively--on the Internet) and it seemed like a good fit because it went through/near numerous towns (helpful if you need to bail early or have a medical emergency), was described as a pretty easy trail, and could be accomplished end-to-end in 6 or 7 days, we figured, and we made commitments on the following days that would bind us to this end date.

Our plan was to start at the southern terminus (near Douglas) on Saturday morning.  The goal was to hike around 15 miles/day until the northern terminus, ending on Thursday night.  This appeared to be about 10-15 miles from Fitchburg, so we planned to road-walk there (or hitch a ride, or find other hikers headed that way--it wasn't a very specific plan) to catch a commuter rail (every 90-120 minutes during weekday daytime hours) to Boston, where family would meet us.

Here's what actually happened:
Day 1 (11ish miles): We started at 11AM as planned.  From the Southwest Main Street drop-off in Douglas, described on "A Thru-hiker's Guide to the Massachusetts Midstate Trail" (a very useful 4-page addendum found elsewhere on this site, I believe--thanks, "Nameless Mike" Benedetti!) we headed down a path to the trail.  You run it to it and then have to backtrack if you want to start at the actual southern terminus, then retrace your steps and follow it north.  We did this.  So we thought.  We kept walking and not hitting the southern terminus.  Finally, we ran across other hikers who explained that we were already about 2.5 miles north of the terminus.  We decided it wasn't worth it to backtrack this extra distance to touch Rhode Island and continued north. We walked about 11 miles and finally camped in the backyard area of a church - First Baptist - in Sutton.  A gentleman who owned the property next door said that folks had done this before and it shouldn't be a problem.  We found literally no place to camp for at least four miles prior to that due to either thick underbrush or heavy residential areas.  We made sure we were up and out early on Sunday (by 8:10 AM) prior to the church's service at 9:30 AM.

Our mileage went down the next couple of days and we realized by day 2-3 that a through-hike was no longer a priority for us.  Our packs were about 40 pounds each and this weighed us down significantly.  (I'll include a gear list later down, but suffice it to say we carried some supplies we didn't need. Overall were still pretty frugal packers, but water and food are heavy, and if you don't buy super-expensive, ultra-light gear you'll have a few extra ounces here and there that add up.)  We were totally exhausted after 11 miles and didn't want to rush through the trail in intense pain, so we decided to just enjoy the journey and go wherever we could.  Fifteen miles/day may not be unrealistic for many people on many trails, but it was for us.

Day 2 (9.5ish): the church where we stayed was apparently just past a turn (Junction of Central Pike and Douglas Road?) because we realized after a mile or two on Day 2 that we were significantly off the trail.  An iPhone map feature was very helpful in determining this, because we could compare our current location to the map and determine how to reroute.  Rather than backtracking, we found another road that would get us back on the trail.  Essentially, we stayed on that road (the pike? Sutton Trail Ave? it's hard to tell on the map), then went noth west on Sacarrappa Road until we hit Brown.  This worked great, except that part of Sacarrappa Road is actually closed off.  The bridge is "out"--but it could hold cement barriers so we figured it could hold us.  It did, and we found a nice water source under this bridge.  Unfortunately this road has also been the victim of a lot of dumping. :(  We camped the second night just after the turnoff from Putnam Road, prior to the big hill.  It was a nice wilderness-y area.  We got pummeled with rain but our Wilderness Technology North Duo tent ($80 from 2nd Adventure, free shipping, pretty lightweight!) held up just fine.  We hung our food in a bag in a tree but we could hear a dog in the distance and suspected there were houses nearby, so it may not have been necessary.

Day 3 (7ish): There is no "sturdy bridge" over the stream that we found, but it wasn't too difficult to navigate.  The next turnoff, which leads you back into the woods, came quickly but was VERY easy to miss. You're walking up a pretty steep hill under the powerlines and are so focused on moving upward that you can easily miss it.  It's a small painted blaze on a short post, not a plastic marker on a power line pole as others are.  We walked up the hill and had to retrace our steps to find it.  The "swampy" section appeared swampy, indeed, and my sister realized she was enjoying the road-walking better, so we skipped over that and just continued along Borkum.  We were really excited about the campground listed on the guide as "Charlton City Camping" next to Wee Laddie Pond.  However, when we got there, we saw no evidence of a campsite.  The few people we asked had never heard of it.  However, there was a "Virgin Mary Spiritual Vineyard" in the respective area on the map.  We continued walking and got to another long residential section.  We were ready to stop and there didn't seem to be any reasonable camping spots coming up.  We asked if we could use an out-of-the way spot (owned, we learned, by Canterbury Acres-- a horse farm and special needs program, very lovely!) to put up a tent, but the owner refused due to liability.  Homeowners a bit further up on E. Charlton Road, however, generously allowed us to use a section of their yard (a bit shielded from the house by some trees) and we camped. 

Day 4 (8.5ish): Got nervous about water but reached the subdivision before running out.  A generous homeowner let us fill up from his hose. When we reached the Route 9 junction, we stopped at the Spencer Country Inn to figure out our plan to get home, since we'd be ending much further south than we'd planned (not near Fitchburg) and knew that we might have fewer intersections with/near towns after crossing Route 9.  Louise was very helpful there and gave some local intel on potential ways to get back.  We also charged our phones and used them to look up bus schedules, etc.  The inn is also a restaurant and although it isn't open Monday or Tuesday for dining, we could have stayed if we liked.  ($55 for a room.)  We definitely recommend stopping by this place--it's full of charm and history, and if you're going southbound and need a day to recuperate (or if it's pouring rain), this might be a good overnight or meal option.  We made it to the Moose Hill shelter with plenty of time to spare and spent the afternoon relaxing.  We again hung our food in a tree.  The area seemed to be crawling with poison ivy (though we aren't sure), so be careful!  The pond seemed stagnant but the water was OK after filtering.  There are houses not too far and some folks were walking their dogs along the path before 9AM in the morning so just be aware of this so you're not taken by surprise.

Day 5 (11ish): The plan we concocted with Louise's help, after looking at numerous options, was to veer off the trail about a mile north of Moose Hill Shelter.  Rather than crossing Paxton Road, we took a right and headed east toward the town of Paxton.  This would be a very short day -- around 5-7 miles.  Our hope was to stay here (in the Cascades Park, if possible) and then walk another 6-8 miles to Worcester on Day 6, where we could catch the commuter rail to Boston.  This would get us back a day early, but my sister's blisters were painful, and we didn't want to continue further on the trail and put ourselves in a position in which we couldn't get back on Friday due to weather, distance, etc.  However, this park is interesting.  It can be tricky to get in (GPS helped here too) but it's neither a developed city park (i.e. no bathrooms or picnic shelters we could find) nor an overnight camp site (closed at night).  It's lovely with trails, etc. in the midst of the city, but wasn't helpful to us.  So we just kept road walking.  We had suspected that it might be difficult to find a place to camp between Paxton and Worcester.  We hadn't realized that there is essentially no division between the two cities and that we'd be walking about five miles in Worcester proper.  We learned that when you have hiking gear in the city, kind people assume you are hard up and offer you food.  Little did they know, we still had about 8-9 pounds of food we wanted to stop carrying around.  We caught the 5:20PM commuter rail ($10.50 one-way to Boston, per person) and booked a hotel on Hotwire ($135 with fees) on our phones on the way.  Had we planned further in advance, we could have potentially camped on the Boston Harbor Islands to save money and preserve the camping experience, despite leaving the trail early.  We also realized that we could have stayed on the trail another day, reconnected at Thompson Road (just south of Browning Pond), and essentially done Day 5's road walking on Day 6.

Some general summary notes:
1. Roads are not often marked, so you'll hit a junction and not be sure if this is the correct road.
2. If you go more than a minute (not walking too quickly) without seeing a marker of some kind (new or faded blaze), you're probably off the trail.  This may not hold true everywhere but seemed to be the general rule.
3. There really aren't that many places to camp.  When we read that you can camp on private property with owners' permission, we imagined a far end of a paddock or an out-of-sight area on their land.  It might mean you are literally camping in their front yard because that's the only thing available.  This can make going to the bathroom very awkward.
4. Although the trail road-walks through towns, this may not be as convenient as you think.  For example, we walked by a lot of houses, but not a lot of public trash bins or convenience stores.
5. Hiking S-N is a bit more challenging because you're reading the trail guide in reverse.  Which means when you read "Turn onto E. Charlton Road," you've already been on that road for a while, and you're now turning off it.  It seems common sensical but it can actually be pretty confusing, so you need to read ahead and evaluate the instructions to make sure you're not confusing yourself.  (This applies to mileage notes as well--you may think you've hit a certain distance once you hit that road, but the mileage is referring to the other end of that road where you get off of it.)
6.  In general there were many water sources.  However, just because some brooks/ponds/etc. are mentioned in the guide, don't assume this is all of them.  There are many others and as beginners we weren't sure where we'd find them so we had to guess about whether to stock up fully (= more weight) or continue on to the next source.
7.  Be wary of calling this route "easy."  No route is easy when you're carrying gear.  We found the road walking to be especially hard on our feet.  Even without doing the mountain sections of this trail, we found some pretty steep hills and up-and-down-movement along the section we did, both on the road and in the wooded areas.
8. Many notes in the guide refer to stone walls, brooks, and cart roads.  However, these are plentiful--especially stone walls.  It can be hard to know if you are truly at the point mentioned.  Do your best to gauge based on the distance you've gone.

We bought a lot of gear new but also used what we had between ourselves and our parents.  We were really happy with what we brought and there was nothing we wished we'd brought but didn't.  Some things were extra, but partly that is because we had few medical problems, decent weather, and 2 fewer days on the trail than planned. 
Packs: Cabela's 80 or 90-L pack (way too big but we didn't fill it to capacity; already had this and didn't want to buy another) + Kelty 65-L pack (came with 10-L removable day pack, unclear if this is included in the 65-L capacity but we left it behind; worked great.) Cabela's pack had a cover; Kelty didn't.  Cover is very useful for rain.
Bags: Marmot 40-degree bag & compression sack (already had; worked great) & Copper River 20-degree bag (light but bulky.  However, it was $30; the next best 20-degree options were $130.  The extra bulk was worth the savings as we could attach it to the outside of the pack and line the casing with a trash bag for waterproofing.
Tent: Wilderness Technology North Duo.  Roomy, light (~6 lbs?), very easy to set up, $80.  Recommended.  Does not come with a footprint, but we had a lightweight tarp that worked well and only weighed a few ounces.
Sleeping pad: Thermarest Ridgerest.  Enormous but lightweight.  Pads are nice to have but can easily be $50 or more to get one that compresses nicely.  This was $15 so we gave it a whirl and it worked well.  Much better for car camping than backpacking, although it was easy to strap onto a backpack.  Honestly, it's more of a burden when traveling with packs en route the trail (e.g. on Greyhound, metro, etc.) because of the bulk than it is on the trail, although it makes it challenging to walk side-by-side with a partner because it makes your pack significantly wider.
First Aid Kit: We put this together using supplies we already had (thanks to a nurse mom).  We used a 7-day pill case to put in small quantities of creams and pills.  Included burn cream, first aid ointment, hydrocortisone cream, allergy pills, benadryl, naproxin (painkiller), and probiotic (in the event of diarrhea).  We also included sterile gloves, aloe vera in a travel-sized bottle, safety pins, ace bandage, guaze, pre-wrap, alcohol wipes, and Potable Aqua purification tablets in the event that our filter broke.
Toiletries: We repacked things in travel-sized bottles (pill bottles also work well).  Dr. Bronner's works great for everything--surprisingly well to cut grease on dishes, and we only used a tiny bit of the 3 ounces we took.  We had both natural bugspray and Deet bugspray (both helpful), as well as MosquitNo bug bracelet (skip it; not useful unless you're around literate mosquitos that read the "Don't bite me" instructions on the band).  We had sunscreen, toothpaste & brushes, floss (with a needle stored inside, to double as a sewing kit), a small comb, tweezers (in case of ticks), contact solution, glasses, and a Burt's Bees poison ivy soap bar we had lying around.
Water Filter: Sawyer Mini, $20.  Worked like a charm.  Put this (and the cleaning plunger, straw & pouch, though we didn't use either so could have skipped them) in a small drawstring bag that we then stored with the cookware.  Protip: Bring two (different-colored) 2-liter soda bottles.  Keep one for unfiltered water, then filter it into the other.  The filter screws right onto the bottle and the suction is helpful.  These also fit nicely into the side pouches of packs.  Additionally, unlike some filters, this allows you to get water at a source and then filter it later.  We also had a Katadyn water bottle with in-bottle filter.  A nice backup but unnecessary; it takes up weight and space in the bottle and makes it hard to drink.
Camp Stove/Cookware: MSR Pocket Rocket.  Awesome.  Lightweight, comes in a case, easy to use.  We also splurged on a Sea-to-Summit Xpot and 2 bowls & mugs which store inside.  We actually ate straight out of the pot usually, so the bowls weren't really necessary but were helpful.  This was a big purchase ($120 for those 5 pieces) but is likely to get a lot of use.  The portability can't be beat.  We were also impressed how easy it was to clean the silicone.  We packed the stove, a lighter (and matches in a ziploc), the cookware, a pocketknife, and a scrubby (didn't need--used our fingers or baby wipes for cleaning) in a mesh bag that also housed our water filter supplies in their own bag.  Very handy.
Safety & Misc. Items: In addition to the pocketknife above, we had another pocketknife, two headlamps, a small flashlight, a camera, extra batteries, a taser (at our father's insistence), a compass that was possibly faulty, two iPhones (on separate cell networks) and chargers, cash, debit cards & IDs, and a Charliecard for transit in Boston.  The camera was helpful for photos without draining battery life on the phones.  We also carried a small trowel for digging catholes, a pair of MaryJane crocs (flipflops would work as well but very nice for moving around campsite or nighttime bathroom runs)--these hooked outside the pack on carabiners.  We skipped toilet paper and carried a packet of unscented baby wipes (multipurpose, highly recommend).  We also carried paracord and numerous small carabiners.
Food: We spent about $180 at a standard grocery store.  It's important to repack food when possible to reduce trash and weight.  Tortillas, simple rice/pasta mixes, mac&cheese with sauce (no milk/butter needed), peanut butter, pop-tarts, lots of granola bars of various types, cracker sandwich packs, organic fruit twists (yum), gummy bears, oatmeal, cream of wheat, tuna & salmon in packets (not tins), babybel & laughing cow cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, and lots of dried fruit (apricots, apples, mangos, craisins, pineapple--too much).  We pre-made a couple bags of trail mix with pretzel bites, cashews, almonds, peanuts, M&Ms, and craisins.  We took salt & pepper in little paper packets (didn't use at all), cooking oil in a travel bottle (helpful but could have skipped), honey (bring less), hot cocoa mix (nice to have in rain), tea bags (ended up not using).  Neither of us are big coffee drinkers so we skipped that.  Overall it was nice mix of cook, no-cook, and eat-while-walking food.  We didn't buy any of the fancy dehydrated meals sold in outdoors stores.  However, we didn't have much for veggies at all.
Clothes: Skip cotton t-shirts.  They stink when you sweat and are cardboard-like when you wash and air-dry.  A quick-dry shirt (likely found at your local thrift store for a couple bucks) is preferable.  Ideally an outfit to wear and an outfit to sleep in are the only necessary items, but it's helpful to have extras so you can wash or if you get soaked.  We each wore sturdy hiking pants (e.g. Columbia quick-dry or cotton cargo pants) with belts, Merrell boots (break in ahead of time), and thick wool socks, like Wigwam, SmartWool, or UnderArmour.  We slept without socks but had two pairs--helpful for washing/drying; dried OK hanging from the back of our pack when in the sun; some better than others. The extra warmth was worth it to preserve our legs from bites, scratches, sunburn, ticks, etc., and the socks were cushiony.  Extra underwear is helpful for cleanliness. We each had leggings/yoga pants and an additional t-shirt to sleep in, as well as a long-sleeved shirt.  We (inadvertently) had extras: hiking paints, leggings, fleece, t-shirt.  Could have planned better in this regard, as a few pieces went totally unused.  However, we only got rained on once, so we'd have used more over more time or in worse weather.  Speaking of rain: we each carried a poncho that went over our bags as well as us.  Critical.  One was small and weighed a few ounces/fit in your hand when stored.  One weighed a pound or two and was bulky.  Work with what you have.  We also carried a baseball cap each (one not used at all) and a bandanna (awesome for holding back grimy hair and many other purposes).

Final notes:
The Midstate Trail was worth a try.  It has many lovely points.  We only saw a section of it (about 5/12s).  Finding good camping spots is a challenge but we made do.  Don't underestimate the difficulty of hiking if you're a beginner.  Be willing to ask for help (water, camping in the yard, etc.).  Be flexible to allow for changes--going further or not as far; leaving early or staying late.  Lastly: it's ideal if you have someone who can drop you off and pick you up from a trail, but not having this doesn't make it impossible.   Good luck and enjoy!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Christmas Update 2015

Dear family & friends,
What a lovely year it has been, filled with unexpected and delightful changes.  Last year, I left Portland on Thanksgiving to spend December with family, not knowing where the path would lead.

I stayed through mid-February, covering maternity leave for the McCook Central High School assistant librarian, and helping with the one-act play.  Christmas Day 2014 brought a letter from Camp E-Nini-Hassee, an all-girls therapeutic wilderness program in Florida.  Under the Eckerd umbrella, ENH is a sister camp to my former beloved Camp E-Ma-Etu in North Carolina, where I spent 2007-2009.  I have often thought fondly of my days with Eckerd and considered returning in one capacity or another.  I left for Florida in February, only to promptly be given an interview with McKinsey & Company for a San Francisco-based position.  I explored this possibility but ultimately joined the counselor staff in Floral City, Florida, in March.  There, I worked with amazing young women and co-chiefs (as counselors are called) in the Ayukumkus group through mid-July.  Highlights included a two-week river trip on the Suwannee River (my 6th canoe trip with Eckerd), several girls' camp graduations, reading Harry Potter and singing to the girls at bedtime, a "blood and guts" ramble, pow-wow fires, butterflies, dragonflies, fireflies, and noisy armadillos rustling under the tent/cabins at night.

The job was every bit as magical as I remembered, and incredibly demanding.  If I arrived by 8:15 AM on Wednesday, I'd stay until late Sunday night or early Monday morning.  As counselors, we were on duty from 6AM until 10PM.  During the eight nighttime hours, we were still near the girls in campsite, but we were relieved by nightwatch staff to write documentation (~2 hours per day), decompress with a co-counselor, check phone messages, attend to any personal needs, and sleep.  It was invigorating and exhausting.  On our two days off per week, I had adventures with other staff in nearby Inverness or around the region.  Yet without a car, I felt alternatively stranded or overly dependent upon my co-workers' generosity.  I had come in response to a letter seeking short-term assistance, and while it was a fantastic 1/3 of a year, it was not a permanent arrangement.  We explored a teaching position at camp, but ultimately I instead accepted an opportunity to join the student affairs staff at South Dakota State University.

When I visited my sister Beth (now a senior) in Brookings the weekend before departing for Florida, I would have never guessed that I would return five months later to become a Jackrabbit myself.  Halfway into my yearlong contract, I am amazed at how filled my life has become with a family of students.  As a residence hall director, I oversee two halls that consist of three Living Learning Communities (LLCs): Ag/Bio, Healthy Lifestyles, and Honors, with a combined 300 students.  I have 18 student staff members who serve as Community Assistants, and whom I absolutely adore.  I've taken up water aerobics and learned to rock-climb at our awesome Wellness Center, and the commute from my residence hall apartment to my office is an enviable two-minute walk.  Beth generously shares her car with me, but I spend most time on campus.  Living two blocks away from her is awesome, and we manage to live independent lives but still see each other and collaborate fairly frequently.  We're looking forward to co-presenting a talk at the first-ever TedX-SDSU in February.

While I am having a blast in my current life, I continue to explore other paths.  In October, I again took the Foreign Service Officer Test and passed.  With the help of some editing-savvy friends, I revised and submitted my written narratives and will soon learn whether I advance to the third stage of the selection process.  After the exam (and relevant preparation), I joined the cast of Lie, Cheat, and Genuflect, a farce produced by Brookings Community Theatre.  As "Jane," I was onstage for the first time since high school.  It was an enjoyable experience and begins a humble theatre résumé that I hope to build upon in the coming years.  I continue to conduct Harvard College interviews as an alumna, and I'm making progress on personal goals related to music performance, writing, and artwork.

A lovely (and very much intended) consequence of my time in Florida and South Dakota has been the chance to spend many great moments with family.  I was able to attend the Gasparilla coronation and my cousin Emma's graduation, an extended family Easter, and a lively Timmel family reunion.  My mom worked hard to bring all my siblings and nephews to Florida to spend time together prior to the reunion, reaffirming the importance of family connections.  Likewise, back in SoDak, I've had several opportunities to spend time with my family in Salem, Vermillion, and Sioux Falls, including Becky's confirmation, Anne's coronation as Homecoming Queen, and numerous performances and school activities.

The year has been fruitful.  I've had three jobs, added two locations to the places I call home, and widened my family with marvelous youth and colleagues, while clocking many hours with my longtime relatives.  I've been challenged and rewarded.  As I reflect on the past twelve months, I am grateful for their twists and turns.  I look forward to an equally unpredictable 2016.

Here's hoping the year to come is filled with laughter, light, and love.

Andréa Mayrose

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Happy Birthday, Peace Corps!

March 1 marks the 53rd birthday of the U.S. Peace Corps.  It's incredible to me that JFK had created the organization (under the State Department) within about 6 weeks of taking office.  The first volunteers were on the ground in Ghana before the end of the year.

I am lucky to have found an active Returned Peace Corps community in Portland, and it is exciting to learn from others (many significantly my senior) who have served in countries all around the world and who continue to believe in the importance of the Peace Corps and its mission.

This is a picture-of-a picture of two of the wall hangings in the Peace Corps provincial office in Northern Province.  The President of Zambia, elected during my service, and an old school PC poster overlooked many a report-writing and Skyping session in that office.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Christmas Letter, 2013

I'm rather embarrassed at my delinquency in posting anything.  I started writing, in my journal (Peace Corps service made me much more of a handwritten pre-writer), a reflection on my first two weeks in Portland...but before I finished it, I found that three weeks had passed...and then four.  My recent journal entry, a draft of my annual holiday update, will have to suffice for now.

Dear friends,
Happy holidays!  As I write this in December 2013,  I have recently felt snow, for the first time in nearly three years...

2013 has been a year of transitions, of movement, of family and friendship.  The new year broke to laughter and dancing, nine volunteers in the yard of one of our homes, in a village in Kasama district, Zambia, after a memorable 60-mile bike ride the day before.  The first third of 2013 was filled with projects, events, and visits to close out my work and life in Zambia.  From watching the national football (soccer) team in Ndola stadium and meeting many of the players and coaches afterward, to being initiated by women in my village in a coming-of-age ceremony with two fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, to our village HIV & family planning event, to having my little sisters pile into my bed for a last-night sleepover before I left, teary-eyed, my village for the last time...those last few months in Zambia were filled with beautiful moments.  Farewells came and went, and I found myself on a train to Tanzania...a plane to the United States...a bus to South Dakota, via North Carolina...a car back to Florida, via Wisconsin, Illinois, and North Carolina...and a plane to Boston.

Nine weeks after leaving Zambia, I was able to empty the suitcase and put my things in a drawer.  The summer embraced me in familiarity--Harvard's campus, bustling with high school students and my 17-member undergraduate staff, new and old colleagues with whom I deepened both professional and personal relationships, new streets and old in Cambridge & Boston to explore and enjoy--but it, too, passed. 

I asked my heart where it fancied to journey, and it answered off I went to work, however briefly, for Alaska Wildland Adventures, at two remote lodges.  Though I initially entertained staying in Alaska, I decided that this was a time for reconnecting, and once the people who had drawn me north left, Alaska was going to become too cold, dark, and far away to be alone.

So I returned to South Dakota, realizing that in two and a half years, I had only spent a few weeks with my siblings, and that my lack of tethers gave me a wonderful opportunity for bedtime-story-reading, volleyball game and cross country-meet watching, substitute teaching, and bonding with the kinfolk back in my hometown.  While I do not feel that South Dakota is the place I want to build my life, I always enjoy going home, and I had a wonderful six weeks living in my mom's basement spending time with my family while searching for the next job and place to which to venture.  I also prepared for my goal of having one of my brothers move with me and complete his senior year in a new location.  During the process, I found a very temporary camp-counselor-like position at a co-curricular camp in Wisconsin, and the ten-day interruption this provided allowed me not only to meet some students and teachers from Chicago and fellow staff at House in the Wood, but also to see 9 different friends in Chicago and Madison en route home.

On Halloween, I got the call that a position was most likely waiting for me at Mediation Case Manager, which administers the Oregon Foreclosure Avoidance Program on behalf of the state Department of Justice, pending an in-person interview.  Five days later, I was on a plane, two suitcases filled with essential belongings.  Four days after that, I had signed a job offer and a lease on a lovely little apartment, and I rushed to Goodwill and Trader Joe's to buy a blanket, pillow, pot, spoon, and groceries--the basics for my first night in my new home.

Eight weeks after my arrival, I feel...really great.  I feel comfortably settled into my house (though I'm still buying things) and job (though I'm still learning things).  I'm starting to have people I call friends...even close friends.  Learning that my brother was not going to join me (due to legal opposition from one parent) was an adjustment; I had structured my entire life at this time to support this goal.  However, I've embraced the opportunities that this change allows.  I've visited a lot of bars and coffeehouses, laughed and flirted and mingled.  Socially, the atmosphere is laden with possibility; Portland is full of youth and energy and ideas, just as I had heard (and hoped).  At the same time, I'm finding that though I didn't plan to live alone, and probably will not for long, I have loved my moments of solitude.  In one way, it's a part of my life in Zambia that I can preserve here.  Recreating aspects of my Zamlife that I loved, and adapting them to shape my life here, is something I hope to continue in the coming months and years.

As I approach my thirtieth birthday, a central question of this time of transition has been what am I building? Nearly eight years out of college, I have experience...yet I remain surrounded by open doors and paths untraveled.  I sense that graduate school emerges nearer in my future, but I'm still toying with what sort of classroom I want to enter.  I recognize that military service is still a possibility, and I'm deliberating how entering into service now might take a different shape than it does for those who enlist in their...youthier youth.  It's an exciting time: I'm old enough to bring a degree of insight to whatever path I venture down next, but young enough that many avenues are yet open.

Both the short- and long-term future are rich with options, and sitting alone in my apartment, I consider all the things a small city offers me.  I can take a class at a community college--Spanish, art, theatre, computer programming, EMT certification.  I can join the Peace Corps community monthly book club and writing workshop.  I can spend time drawing, painting, creating, and learning to read Tarot in my living room.  I can join any of many "young professionals" networking groups or Meetups in the area.  I can buy a membership at a fitness facility, or find a dance club/class, or explore something new, like tae kwon do.  If my brother isn't coming, I can rent out my room, or host friends and couchsurfers, or move into a bigger, shared house when my lease ends in March.  I can settle in deeply to Portland, or take advantage of three different summer job opportunities, or continue exploring career opportunities for the long-term future, while still investing my all in my current job.

In life this past year has been composed of many delightful mini-chapters, each distinct, each introducing the next just as it draws to a close.  I anticipate a continuation of this story structure in the near future; the stillness I feel amidst the ongoing change is not apathy but rather contentment at the pace and manner in which my life is unfolding.  My itchy feet remain firmly planted in possibility.

I am grateful, too, to acknowledge the incredible blessings that this year has brought me.  My family and friends in Zambia, who ushered in the new year and bid me farewell, who remain close in heart if ever so distant.  My extended family, many of whom I got to see for the first time in years: my maternal side at my cousin Matthew's wedding, and paternal side at my grandmother's funeral.  My immediate family, gathered in one place for the first time since December 2010, including my brother Michael, whose much-awaited return from his tour with the Army in Afghanistan came none-too-soon in November.  My four nephews, with whom I had a renewed chance to become acquainted (and vice versa) this year, even if a certain seven-year-old among them likes to admonish me, "You should be married by now."  And the gamut of friends across the country, with whom I got to reconnect, both in many of the places I've been living and en route here and there, from the first month of my arrival to last night.  I'm grateful for the employment I've had of all different sorts, keeping me busy, teaching me skills, easing my transition from Peace Corps work, and making my 2014 taxes the most complicated yet, with five different states and overseas residence for which to account.

This letter comes post-Christmas, rather than before.  Another new year has broken--this one in a much different way than the last.  I felt more than a small bit of nostalgia for what I left behind, for moments like that one, celebrating at midnight under the brilliant African sky.  I know for certain, however, that I've neither left behind Africa forever nor denied myself a promising horizon.  I am grateful for 2013 and all of the incredible people who filled it with joy, and I am excited for all the fruit that 2014 will bear.

Peace and love,

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Tell the ones that need to know...We are headed north

(written 11 September 2013)

Today was my fourth time in the Ted Stevens International airport in the past month.  How quickly the foreign becomes familiar.

The month began with a week at the backcountry lodge: kayaking one fair evening, a tiny hike up Cottonwood Trail, although split-shift hours didn’t permit me to make it all the way to the tundra.  A night of merriment and costumes in a staff tent-cabin crawl.  Hastily-made arrangements to be present for the funeral of my last grandparent back in South Dakota, and an invigorating return to Alaskan air. 
Round two of this foray into the country's largest state: I spent a night in the company’s Anchorage house, used for folks in transit, rode down to Cooper Landing (with one of the employees who’d most made me feel at home that first night I arrived) and to Seward with the Operations Manager and RPCV (returned Peace Corps volunteer) who had conducted my phone interview in July.  After a laid-back evening in the port town of Seward, I boarded a boat for the four-hour, relaxed journey to the Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge, another of the parent company's remote locations for Alaskan getaways.  A cold sea breeze accompanied us as we saw sea otters, harbor seals, orcas, humpback whales, puffins, eagles, and more wildlife in Resurrection Bay.  A glacier calved as we bobbed alongside it, keeping enough distance to maintain safety without compromising the view.

We reached the lodge, and I got aquick tour and whirlwind introduction to the 20+ members of staff.  The next ten days were filled with much of the same work as I’d been doing at KBL—washing dishes, folding sheets, preparing cabins for guest occupancy—but in a different location, with different views, a different vibe, a different staff community.  The “new girl” feeling never quite wore off, but I was welcomed all the same.  Kayaking and canoeing in the lagoon, stargazing on the beach, hiking up to the base of Pedersen Glacier and to the ridge that offered spectacular 360 degree views, and reading a John Grisham novel by candlelight filled my off-time hours. 

As we wrapped up the season, there were nights of singing along with talented renditions of Avett Brothers music by talented manipulators of piano, guitar, banjo, tambourine, and cow-hide drum.  ("Pack the car and write the note.  Grab your bag and grab your coat.  Tell the ones that need to know.  We are headed north.")  Games of Apples to Apples, Celebrity, and Big 2.  Stitching to help one guide finish her homemade bridesmaids’ gifts as she prepares to wed another staff member next month.  More costumes and drinking and dancing.  And laughter—so much laughter.

Reverse the trail: boat to Seward, shuttle to Cooper Landing, then to Anchorage; taxi to the airport.

And somewhere in there…I did what I came to do.  Had the conversation I flew over 3,300 miles to have.  Watched the Kenai rush by and the sun dip below the trees and the last embers of the fire die out.  Felt the steady rhythm of the rocking chair—how I love rocking chairs.  (If only I had succeeded in convincing YasiProsper, my carpenter, to learn how to craft one in Masamba.  I may never have left.)

Felt the warmth of friendship.  A closeness I still don’t know how to explain.  The certainty that the story is still being written.  Though goodbye was painful, I know it’s not forever.

I came to Alaska to see not just an old penpal, but to experience for myself the place and community that he’s admired so much in his writing, lauding such praises as, “Alaska gives me more than any place I’ve ever been.”  In venturing north to glimpse this feast, I found myself nourished by it as well.

 Because through the few weeks of this Alaskan adventure, there were conversations upon conversations about the future.  There’s something empowering about a community full of dynamic, seasonal workers, who are well-acquainted with instability, who believe in the power of the flow, who trust that everything will work out for the best, and it’ll probably be a darn good ride along the way.  It’s amazing to stand in a kitchen overa skillet of eggs and say, “My plan?  Well, that pretty much ended last night.  Today I’m deciding where to buy a plane ticket,” and be affirmed by a response of, “Cool!  Me too!”

I often feel a bit like the little bird in the children’s book who asks the other animals, “Are you my mother?” in a search to figure out where he belongs; like Ellen DeGeneres in that old commercial with Beyoncé:  “Are you my people?”  I don’t know if I totally fit in at this Alaskan company.  These folks are far more outdoorsy than me; I always enjoy camping, but the idea is sometimes less appealing when I have a bed in front of me, and perhaps my call-to-adventure side is a bit muted by my laziness side.  I don’t have a lot of technical skills in outdoor activities; by contrast, this staff includes folks who are among the best young kayakers and skiiers in the country, and many of them have done extended through hikes on such endurance-testers as the Appalachian Trail.  The conversations about travel and hiking and national parks were so different—both in what was said and what wasn’t—from those I had with my colleagues and friends in Cambridge.

But still.  There were many things about this environment, these people, that reminded me of my Peace Corps experience and fellow volunteers.  There were laughter, encouragement, hugs, long talks about the lack of a plan so many of us have.  There were moments of introspection and clarity.  I’ve decided not to stay in Alaska, at least for now, and my first flight of the day touches down in Seattle shortly.

Yesterday, a few of us explored Anchorage a bit, particularly enjoying the art and history and children’s imaginarium we found at the museum.  We walked home along a Cook Inlet trail.  As we walked along, I looked at the mountains and thought, I could have stayed here in Anchorage this winter, and been happy.”

But of course.  Happiness can be found everywhere.  My Peace Corps replacement, a young woman from Oklahoma, arrived in our village last week.  My home has become hers.  My family and community: hers now.  I’m off to keep creating new ones.  Headed north, south, east, or west...I know I'll always find a Brooklyn that will take me in.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Next Step Begins

(written 17 August 2013)

Just under four months since I finished my service in the Peace Corps, and I find myself again sleeping under a mosquito net, waking up with a keen awareness of the temperature outside, blowing out a candle in my electricity-free, simple cabin, using an outhouse, and marveling at the beauty all around me.

I'm keeping house at a lodge on the shores of Skilak Lake, on the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska.  I've been here in the Northern USA for about four days--enough to remind me both how uncomfortable transitions can be and how quickly we settle in to new environments.

What brought me here?  Ten letters, more or less, written over five and a half question that cried out louder than any others.  The urging of my heart to be where it felt it needed to be.  As I journeyed from Boston to Minneapolis, and Minneapolis to Anchorage, I realized, my soft landing is over.

Harvard--my Cambridge home--felt like a moment, begun and finished in one seductive bat of an eye.  It was all I hoped and anticipated it would be: students, staff, colleagues old and new.  Street musicians' melodies wafting in my dorm room window, more pizza and ice cream than one could ever need, endless amounts of food savored under the magnificent chandeliers of Annenberg dining hall.  It was new relationships and old ones taken to new depths.  It was sculling on the Charles, talking into wee hours, alternately being silly with and scolding high school students.

Come early August, the fairy tale ended, as it always must.  The students moved out, the glass slipper lay idle on the stairwell as I fought another round of the recurring battle with my suitcases.  The trip included, as a bonus, a night in Minneapolis with my high school classmate Angie, who had switched apartments since I last saw her (two weeks prior to my Peace Corps departure).  An icy plane ride provided glimpses of breathtaking Alaskan scenery below.

My arrival in Alaska was simultaneously warm (the people) and chilly (the weather).

Imagine your first embrace with a friend you've not seen in so long you've forgotten his face.  Imagine surroundings that are new but remind you of places you've loved.  Imagine becoming roommates--even temporarily--with the stranger who picked you up at the airport.  Imagine knowing that right at this moment is where your plan ends.

And the real transition--from the Peace Corps to the unknown, the next step--begins.

Back at camp in North Carolina, we used to sing karaoke to The Fray's How to Save a Life.  I hear a particular line in my head all the time, with one word change: "Had I known how to make a life."  I once rejected the notion that I am an academic, and was gently corrected by a professor that I can call myself one or not, but it doesn't make me any less a scholar.  I haven't figured out what I'd like to pursue as advanced training; it's fluctuated among ideas including filmmaking, fine arts, disaster relief, crisis intervention, Master's and PhD's degrees and biscuits for all.  But if nothing else, I think I'm currently and unavoidably a scholar of the shapes and rhythms of human life.  I'm fascinated by what fills our days in various roles and locales.  I'm intrigued by how much my rhythm can what stays the what that means about me.  Is who I am determined by what I do?  If so, when what I do changes, what of me stays the same?

For now...the air is crisp, the mosquitos hungry, the lodge cozy, the kitchen always filled with myriad delights for both nose and tongue.  My hands feel the soreness and fatigue of dishes and cleaning.  My body slips into deep sleep at night, and in quiet moments throughout the day, I pause, rocking back and forth in a rocking chair, keeping time to the lapping of the water on the shores of Skilak Lake.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Reentry: One Week

(written 15 May 2013)

I've been back in country for one week.

My first impressions of America:
 - Stairs are common, and my knees still creak.
 - The post office staff is remarkably efficient, they don't debate shipping costs, and they possess supernatural powers that allow them to transport a package from Florida to Alaska in a mere 4 days.
 - More water is run down the sink for no reason than is needed for an entire day's use in the village.
 - Paper towels are extremely wasteful but so handy that they're used ubiquitously.
 - Houses are enormous, with vast amounts of wasted space.
 - Mid-size cars have grown and are practically the size of an SUV.  Everyone drives the same non-grey, nondescript color.
 - Food is unbelievably good.  The variety is staggering.  Yet many people eat mostly non-food or highly-processed food, both expensive and poor in nutrients, which is confounding given the availability of delicious nutritious options.
 - Eating out appears to be the status quo.
 - Air conditioning makes every place too cold.
 - Many people spend the amount of money that would put a child in my village through grade 8 or 9 for an entire term (and the absence of said amount prevents many from enrolling) on a meal or an outfit without batting an eye.  I have done so numerous times already, though I cringed a little inside.
 - iPhones have taken over the nation.  They do appear to be pretty handy.
 - Cars can now turn on without the driver removing the key from his/her pocket.
 - Sidewalks are every bit as wonderful as I recall.
 - The current dress styles are not particularly flattering on my body.

and perhaps most importantly,
 - Family stay family despite years of absence.

Reflections on myself:
 - I have a strong sense, influenced by Zambia, of what kind of family lifestyle I do and don't want my (future) kids to have.
- Writing letters to people I care about is still a priority.
 - Not having my own phone (and hence not knowing for certain the date, time, or anybody's latest plans) is pretty nice, and I may stretch that out as long as possible.
 - I almost miss nshima.
 - My body still hasn't quite figured out a rational sleeping/waking schedule.
 - I'm getting back into some "American" habits far too quickly, even if I resisted them the first couple of days.
 - Constructing sentences in Mambwe is already a challenge.  Caipa sana.
 - I'm scared.  Of forgetting.  Of losing my language, my connections, my values.  Of Zambia drifting away and becoming a hazy phase in my life's timeline.
 - I hope that, despite our distance and potentially years (ahead) of absence, my Zambian family will also stay family.