Route Finding

As I hurled myself uphill, rolling over wet, mossy rocks and trying not to get my 100 liter backpack caught on tree branches, I remember distinctly thinking about two things. First, that someone had got to be kidding, and second, that I missed the Appalachian Trail. I was in the New Zealand wilderness, trying to ascend a steep, heavily vegetated ridge that lead to our first on-snow campsite of the mountaineering section of my NOLS semester. We had gotten our first taste of off-trail travel the day before when we’d been directed to somehow find a way down a seemingly impassable pitch of terrain to a river valley below, and I’d watched as all 6 feet and 2 inches of my expedition mate Colt had disappeared into a trapdoor of thorny plants. The second day of the section was no different, only this time we were moving uphill at an alarming angle. How could they possibly expect us to do this? The thickness and aggressiveness of the vegetation was something that a normal person would look at and say, “There is not a single chance in hell that anyone could or should attempt to travel through that,” but naturally, that was exactly what we were supposed to do. We were traveling in the deep wild of New Zealand where we were handed a map with an X on it and instructed to figure out a way to get there on our own. Soaked to the skin and trying to keep my center of gravity below my head, lest my backpack’s formidable weight topple me over, I thought of days hiking on the Appalachian Trail in Maine, where there were blazes every few hundred feet and little log bridges over patches of mud, where the path was clear and where you could turn off your brain, turn on the motor, and just walk. You always knew where to go. You never had to worry about not knowing what came next. You just followed the trail set out before you.

There was none of that out here, in the lawless wilderness—we had to forge our own path, we had to make it up ourselves. We had to handle terrain that was more difficult, more complicated, and at times, more openly hostile than anything I’d experienced before. We couldn’t rely on the easy formula of a trail to guide us. We had to make it up as we went along, and sometimes the only way to get somewhere we wanted to go was to launch ourselves up a vertical, sopping wet, impossibly thick slope and just laugh when we found ourselves slithering on our stomachs, covered in dirt and moss and rain water, trying to slide our bulky backpacks under a low-hanging branch.  Because this was reality. And no one was remotely kidding.

Up until we are twenty-two years old and graduate from college, we can more or less follow pre-set steps that get us where we want to go. Go to elementary school. Then middle school. Then high school. Then college. The path is linear, it is well-marked, it is as simple as plugging different variables into a well-established formula. We know exactly what it is we have to do to get where we want to go, and we more or less know what the terrain is going to look like to get us there. It is safe and comforting because at every moment, we know what we are supposed to do. There is a path to follow.

But upon graduating, though some choose careers that allow them to continue following the same type of well-marked path, whether it be to graduate school or into a stable job, this is not the case for all, and in the current economy it is not the case for many. Suddenly the clear path we’ve been traveling on for our entire lives abruptly comes to a halt, and we find ourselves facing open wilderness. We find ourselves in charge of breaking trail on our own. And no one has come along before us to cut back the aggressive vegetation or put little log bridges across the muddy spots. We have to navigate the unfamiliar wilderness of adulthood on our own. And sometimes that means finding ourselves looking up into a patch of dense plants covering a steep pitch and knowing that one way or another, we have to get through it.

The final stop on my month-long trip through Chile and Argentina in March was Torres del Paine National Park, a Patagonian icon and something of a Holy Grail-like destination for me. I had dreamed for months of standing in front of the namesake rock towers and after lots of scraping together of money and twenty-plus hour bus rides, Marielle and I had arrived. We were camped at Campamento Torres, the free campsite just below the lookout for the towers. We had made friends with the park ranger on duty Sebastián and were sharing some mate, the traditional bitter Argentine loose-leaf tea, and sharing our stories one afternoon after we’d finished our hiking for the day. I explained that after my trip I was going to be teaching English in Chile for four months, but that after that I didn’t have anything specific in place. I had found that generally when I told people that I didn’t have a set plan for after August they looked at me either like I was insane, unfortunate, or both, but Sebastián grinned and took a sip of mate. “Mi palabra favorita es improvisar,” he said. My favorite word is ‘improvise.’

There are two entries in the English dictionary for “improvise,” one of which is “to create or perform spontaneously without preparation,” and then also “produce or make [something] from whatever is available.  The first definition is generally the one that first comes to mind, or that corresponds to the way the word is used most often, but the second definition is the one that spoke to me and to the situation I found myself in. Adulthood requires you to look out at the vast, untamed wilderness and produce your own trail from what is available, whether that happens to be the smooth, flat stones of a river valley, or the antagonistic shrubbery of a hillside. It requires you to make decisions each step of the way, to assess the terrain before you and determine how you’re going to negotiate it. Essentially, it requires you to choose. It requires you to be in charge. And that freedom, that responsibility, is equally extraordinary and bewildering.

After nearly two hours of pushing farther and farther uphill without being able to see any sign of an exit route from the dense, low-hanging greenery we found ourselves in, I heard Babalu utter a loud whoop from up ahead of me. After performing a few last acrobatic moves through bushes and under tree branches, I found myself out in a boulder field at a staggering elevation overlooking the river valley we were making our way up. Despite the forest still being wet from the rain the day before, the sun was pulsing in the impossibly blue sky, glinting off the snow in a way that was nearly blinding. Up to the left was the snowfield where we would camp, and the right the larger river valley we had come from. The mountains across it were immense and covered in snow, standing out vividly against the sky. The hugeness of it all, the absolute limitless feeling I got in my chest when I looked out around me and could see nothing but mountains for miles and miles and miles was astonishing. I forgot that I was soaking wet, that the thermal I was wearing that had started out a robin’s egg blue was now smeared with mud from top to bottom, that I had felt terrifying moments of where-the-hell-are-we-going-will-this-ever-end helplessness during the climb. I forgot it all and just stared out around me, unable to speak or move.

What we were seeing all around us we had arrived at because we were in wild, uncharted territory. Because we were traveling where there was no established trail, where we’d had to look at a piece of unmarked land and figure out how to navigate it. Following a trail would have been easier, but it wouldn’t have gotten us here, to all of this.  Though the journey to get to them was less certain, the things we could see by having to find our own way, by having to improvise, were staggering, were infinite.

And so we plowed on, into the sprawling, unfamiliar terrain that awaited.

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The Brochure

It was yesterday, as I found myself running around Santiago alone, trying not to get simultaneously deported and kicked out of my English teaching program, that I was hit with a vivid image of my NOLS kayaking instructor Ben looking out at a swollen, terrifying sea and proclaiming in his booming voice “Now THIS is the brochure!” Due to his Australian roots, the word sounded like “BRO-shuh,” and due to his slightly untraditional vision of the NOLS brochure, what we were looking at appeared to be a completely impossible situation.

We had spent most of the kayaking section “lily-dipping” through flat water, letting the sun tan our forearms and experiencing little resistance whatsoever from the elements. Instead of feeling like we were unwelcome trespassers in Mother Nature’s backyard, as we would later, she seemed to us a genial, nurturing hostess cradling us in her aquamarine arms.  It seemed impossible that clear skies, calm water, and bright yellow boats couldn’t be considered prime Brochure conditions, but the nicer the weather got, the more Ben seemed to call out across the water to the fleet, “WHERE’S THE DAMN BRO-SHUH?!” It was merely funny at first, one of the many amusing Ben-isms, but it became clear later why it was that Ben was inciting Mother Nature to bring it on.

It was a few weeks into the course and we found ourselves hitting our first major weather system—the clouds had been growing throughout the morning and less than a kilometer away from our destination we came around a corner and were blasted with an intense current, swelling waves and cold rain. I watched from my kayak as Ben gave a “cut it” gesture to Sally, our other instructor, and we were immediately instructed to get off the water. We pulled the boats onto a small beach in the cove we were floating in and watched while Ben paddled out into the open ocean around the corner to test the waters. Though a fiercely powerful rower, Ben was still unable to gain any ground against the strength of the water, and returned to the beach after a few minutes of effort, shaking his head at Sally. We went in shifts to the top of the leafy ridge to check the ocean on the other side of the cove, watching the whitecaps roll into shore. Finally, after what seemed like a soggy, cold eternity, we saw that the water had calmed enough for us to make a break for it.  As fast as we could, we got the kayaks into the ready position, pushed them out into the water, and hopped in. What we would face around the corner of the cove would be like nothing we’d seen thus far, nothing like what we felt prepared for.

The second we turned the corner, we ducked our heads down against the driving rain, trying to maintain our heading. Paddling became like pushing plastic through hardened concrete, and any attempt at communication between boats seemed to get lost in the wet, gray air. At some point I looked over to my left and saw Ben in his kayak, beaming at us and to himself. His Brochure had certainly arrived, though we hadn’t yet figured out why on earth that could be a good thing.

Nearly seven months after kayaking into the current in the Marlborough Sounds, I found myself speedwalking through throngs of Chilean businessmen on their way to work, starting to sweat a little and wondering if I was about to have to get on a plane back home. I’d spent the morning running in my business casual outfit first ten blocks in the wrong direction, then twenty blocks back to the Banco Estado where I had to pay my visa fine, and then to the extranjería where I would attempt to register the visa for the second time. Due to arriving in Chile over a month before my teaching assignment began and not being able to register my visa within the required thirty days, I was now experiencing the veritable roller coaster to hell that is bureaucracy. I’d spent four hours the previous Friday sitting in the extranjería waiting to file for my late-registry sanction, at which point I was told I’d have to pay a fine, but I had to do it at a particular bank, and I wouldn’t be able to do it until the next Monday because all the banks were already closed. I’d spent Monday morning trying to pay the visa fine before it got any higher and subsequently skipping the first several hours of my teaching orientation to do so. At the time, trying not to get deported seemed like a valid reason to miss a few introductions and housekeeping items. After walking 2 kilometers out of the way, then waiting twenty minutes for the bank to open, and then waiting another thirty in line, even at 9:30 the morning was off to a bit of a dismal start. As I was walking out the door to head to my orientation thirty minutes late, I read on the bank form that failure to register the visa within three days of paying the fine would result in more fines. Deciding to cut my losses with the orientation, I speed walked back to the extranjería to attempt to register for a second time. After two hours waiting in a cramped, poorly lit waiting room with Chilean daytime TV blasting at a jarring volume, I arrived at the counter to be told that I was missing important photocopies I hadn’t been told about and that they couldn’t do anything for me until I had them. Though up until that point I’d maintained a pretty positive attitude about everything that had been going on, feeling good about my ability to navigate the bank and the extranjería and a good deal of the Santiago streets in Spanish, this hit felt a lot like turning a corner and being blasted by a 3 knot current. Little did I know that the rain hadn’t even started yet—that in only a few more minutes I would arrive late to my teaching orientation and be told that failure to show up to any part of the mandatory training was grounds for dismissal from the program.

As I walked from the extranjería to the training center, I tried to practice deep breathing, tried to visualize that bright white light in, that black smoke out, and tried repeating over and over that I couldn’t control the raging storm going on around me, that I could only control my reaction to it. And that stressing and getting twisted up in knots would not change anything expect my experience of all of this, and that the decision to breathe deeply and think calmly was just as available to me. I was then reminded of another nugget of NOLS wisdom, one of the seven leadership principles that I had experienced many times on my semester in New Zealand and that I was unquestionably experiencing now. I could see the words written in the little yellow handbook we were all given on the first few days: Tolerance for Uncertainty and Adversity.

My first turn as Leader of the Day came near the end of our kayaking section—Ethan, my co-leader, and I had planned relay races, games and other fun activities for what we expected to be a relatively easy move on the water. Things had gone smoothly for the entire journey, until we pulled up at what was marked on our charts as a campsite. Justine and I hopped out of the boats to inspect the site, finding a place to store the boats and to set up tents and tarps. It became quickly clear that the spot was uncampable—overtaken by vegetation, hilly, and without a discernable fresh water source. We consulted the chart and found two other nearby camping options, so we rounded the boats back up and set out to try our luck at the next spot. Two more times we pulled up to a beach, hopped out of the boats, and determined that what was supposedly a previous campsite of another NOLS group was actually inhabitable. Ethan and I decided to take a beach break to figure out what the heck we were going to do, feeling the responsibility of the entire group on our shoulders. It didn’t help that it was overcast and cold, and that the morale and energy of the fleet was quickly waning.  I tried not to let the guilt and disappointment in myself that was starting to creep up on me take over as we poured over the chart, feeling as though I’d certainly failed the group as a leader. Ethan and I decided that our best option was to kayak three more nautical miles to what again was only possibly a campable spot.

When we finally arrived, everyone drained from the difficulty and the ups and downs of the day, we found ourselves engaging in what Ben referred to as “combat camping” – a fight against the encroaching tide to stay dry on the tiny sliver of beach. After setting up our tarps we all gathered in a circle to do the daily debrief, a discussion of what had gone well and what could be improved upon for the leadership of the day. I sat next to Ethan, prepared for us to get reamed out for leading the group astray not once, not twice, but three times, and waited for what our feedback would be. To my shock, the group and the instructors commended us for being able to roll with the punches, for being able to re-strategize when things didn’t go according to plan, and to deal with unexpected challenges in a calm and competent manner.

Remembering this phrase, Tolerance for Uncertainty and Adversity, as I walked home from orientation alone, having been pulled aside to be reprimanded for skipping and still not having sorted out the visa problems, I felt my heart rate slow, my breath even out. I imagined Ben looking at the situation I was in and saying, “Now THIS is the Bro-shuh!” I knew the reason that he’d wished to provoke the wrath of Mother Nature, the reason that a day that seemed like complete catastrophe had been reason for praise, was because the Brochure, the Uncertainty and Adversity, those are the places we grow. Those are the places where our abdominals strengthen from paddling against a forceful current, those are the places where our independence and competence soar, those are the places where we learn to keep breathing deeply as we walk even when things around us are spiraling into a tangled wreck. Navigating difficult seas, remaining calm and clear-headed in the face of uncertainty and adversity—the image of that, that is the Brochure. And though it may not look like the pretty picture we’d wanted, may we all be lucky enough to experience it, and to keep paddling right through it.

Traveling Light

Coming back to Chile for the third time was distinctly different than the second–less a breath-quickening miracle of a thing and more a warm, familiar loveliness. Spanish tasted like a favorite childhood food in my mouth, the air seemed to wrap its arms around me. Our first night in Santiago I felt the wild, sprawling love for this country that had been dulled my last departure by the state of my father`s health. I had missed Chile more than I’d been aware of, missed the quick, aspirated S`s, the steady reggaeton baseline pumping out of car stereos, the omnipresence of small, oblong avocados, the certain crisp flavor of the air.

Going back to Coquimbo to visit my host family seven years after living with them felt like a tug as natural as the gravity holding me to the stone patio overlooking the tiny bay. I sat at their kitchen table as I’d done dozens of times before, sipping black tea with sugar and talking about how things were going, and it felt like slipping into another version of myself, one that had been set aside somewhere, but that felt as right and as comfortable as a favorite old fleece jacket. It felt like this self, transmitted through the medium of the unique Chilean strain of the Spanish language, had just been waiting here for me to slide back into it. It felt as organic and as mine as any other part of me.

But it felt strange to line up all the other parts next to this one and create a cohesive, co-existing whole. The me sitting in Coquimbo chatting in Spanish to dozens of members of extended family felt worlds away from the me cross-country skiing through silent snow laden trees in Maine, to the me swaying to live music before the Chicago skyline. They all seemed strikingly disparate and yet equally valuable, equally authentic.  Would it ever be possible to unite them and the others in their company to create a complete self, or would some parts always be taking a backseat to others?

At the beginning of my NOLS semester in the fall, our kayaking instructor Sally told us that this was an opportunity to be our best selves–to come in fresh to this experience, leaving behind all the aspects of our personality we wished we didn’t have, and allow the most true and beautiful parts of our nature to take the lead. The air in the small room at base camp was  suddenly thick with the acceptance of the challenge. Everyone seemed to be mentally sifting through themselves, choosing what should stay and what should be left behind, just as we had when packing our 90 liter backpacks for the semester. The strategy was similar– take only what you need, only what will be the most beneficial and useful. We are often weighed down by the useless and the unnecessary. And so as we were instructed to lighten our gear loads, we were advised to lighten our identities as well.

As one of the oldest members of my NOLS group, I was approached for advice by one of my younger friends who was struggling with how to choose a college.  I told him what I firmly believed to be true– that in life wherever we go is bound to bring out different aspects of our personalities, and to choose somewhere you will be happy you must first decide what aspects you want to be brought out.

Sitting in my host family`s kitchen, I felt pulled in many directions, and was struck with the visceral and looming concern that many shades of myself would prove to be mutually exclusive– that I would be forced to choose. And it was one thing to unpack unnecessary or bulky items and leave them behind, and quite another to realize that you can either bring your socks or your hat or your gloves, but not all three.

It seemed to me as I switched between rattling off Chilean slang to my host sister and translating for Marielle in English, shifting rapidly between selves, that I either hadn’t come to terms with the reality of a difficult choice, or I hadn’t found the right backpack yet– one that would allow space to pack in all the best, necessary things. But luckily, our journey was young and so were we, and as you go you always find better ways to pack everything in.

belonging

There is a saying that ignorance is bliss and it is bullshit. It is true, but it is bullshit. It’s a cop-out, it’s an excuse for bad behavior. And in the case of the planet we live on, it’s fatal.

I have spent most of my life loving the outdoors. I climbed my first mountain when I was five, put on my first pair of skis when I was eight, and grew up in a house where the backyard was the primary babysitter. But I have also spent most of my life drinking things out of plastic bottles, turning on my car a few minutes early in the winter, absentmindedly leaving lights on, buying new things instead of fixing old ones. It was too easy to be ignorant, to conveniently separate the trees and mountains and lakes I loved from the habits I’d fallen into.

It was easy until I wasn’t walking on pavement, until I wasn’t sleeping inside permanent walls, until there wasn’t a trashcan to throw things into. These things are common necessities in everyday life, but they are blinders. Once they had fallen away it was clear that this was it. This was where we were from, this is what we had, this is what belonged to us—and what we belonged to.

I had been out in the field with the National Outdoor Leadership School for over a month when the blinders came off, when my compartmentalization stopped being an innocent oversight and started feeling like a blustering act of destruction. We were camped in a valley at the base of the Ashburton Glacier on New Zealand’s South Island, waiting out a snowstorm for our re-ration helicopter to arrive. The grassy braided river valley we’d descended into the day before was now draped in snow, the sky thick with flakes the size of dandelion heads. Having used up most of the food from the previous ration, we were supposed to spend the day in our tents, burning as few calories as possible, making strange soups out of the dregs of our spice kits.

But we were not spending a semester out in the wilderness because we liked to be inside. The storm was a calm one, with almost no wind and temperatures hovering just below freezing. I crept over to the tent my friend Justine was hunkered in and whispered through the tent wall to ask if she wanted to take a walk. We took off in the opposite direction of the glacier, letting the snowy grass soften our footfalls, handrailing the branches of the river we were camped next to. The silence of the falling snow in the enormous valley seemed infinite and impossible. We stopped when the river banked out and we would have had to climb or cross to continue. For a few moments we just watched the water moving, the only sound in the whole valley. We had spent a lot of time on the semester thus far sitting in spots alone and meditating, and staring at the water for even a few moments seemed to almost induce a meditative state. Watching its continuous motion over rocks and sand and around corners slowed the mind and the pulse, matching the easy rhythm of the river.

It occurred to me then, as obvious but overlooked things sometimes do, and as it would many more times before I left New Zealand, that we were nothing but guests here. The water in this river would move in exactly the way it was moving now whether we were here or not—and not just whether Justine and I had traveled to this particular spot on this particular day or not—but whether we as a human race were here or not. The water in this river was not here for our convenience, for our purposes—it was here all on its own, with no other original intent but to keep moving. I looked up at the towering mountains shielding the valley, at the vast white glacier behind us, at the gray sky spilling snow. It was all here regardless of us, independent of us, and at this point, despite us.

Later that evening, all twelve of us huddled inside the four-person tent to have a debate about mining conservation lands in New Zealand. It was supposed to pertain to a specific piece of current legislation in New Zealand , but the debate ended up spiraling into a discussion of conserving land in general, of what our responsibility was as humans to the land

“Where do you think the materials for your cell phones come from?” Our instructor Jared asked us.

Where do you think everything comes from? Where does every piece of material for everything we use everyday come from? It comes from the earth. It comes from things that existed independently of us, that we decided to use for our own convenience. That we decided were put here for us to use. That we decided belonged to us.

And as the debate continued I got quiet, thinking of watching the river move earlier in the day. Thinking of the snowy saddle we’d kicked steps up the day before to get here. Thinking of the sky hanging over us. Thinking of all the different kinds of grasses we’d walked on. Thinking of not just the mountains surrounding our campsite but of all the mountains I’d ever seen, of all the mountains I’d ever loved. And I knew then that the walls of the system of compartmentalization I’d been using had just crumbled. I could not have spent three months out here, in the only place that can be fairly called “the real world” and go back to act as I had before. To pretend that the actions of one person among billions didn’t matter. To act like I didn’t have a responsibility to protect the places I loved—to protect my home. And not just the conservation lands, not just the wilderness—but the air and the water and the planet as a whole.

Everything in the frontcountry, as we called it out here, was put in place for our particular use, to make our lives easier, for our purposes only. Roads, gas station mini-marts, supermarkets, car dealerships, Apple stores. At what point had the fact that the human mind could engineer a smart phone become more amazing than the fact that trees and rivers and mountains somehow existed in their own right?

When I came back to the U.S. after my three months with NOLS, I began coaching the middle school ski team in my hometown. I remembered my own time on the team with a visceral clarity.  When I was in middle school things had been simpler, quieter. No one had cell phones, no one had any kind of social media. We did ski team because we loved the snow, we loved the outdoors, we loved a sport that didn’t cram us inside the sweaty school gym. The team was co-ed, which in the sixth through eighth grades was just about the thrill of a lifetime. The bus rides home after practices and races were almost better than the actual sport itself, a time we spent playing games and talking about things and developing crushes on each other.

Coming back to the middle school cross-country ski team ten years later was something entirely different. Not only had AOL instant messenger, the main form of communication in 2003, been all but rendered obsolete, but also every other method of connection had been ramped into high gear. Most of the athletes had iPhones, on which they had access to their Facebooks, Twitters, Instagrams, and Pinterests. They spent the bus rides Snapchatting each other and taking pictures of themselves, of hacking into each other’s various social media accounts. Gone were the days of bus trivia and hand games, gone were the days of being only connected to the people on the bus at that moment. Channels to the outside world had been opened, and a little of the magic had been lost.

But what worried me most was not the loss of the bus culture that had been such an important part of ski team for me—what worried me most was the seeming loss of connection between the athletes and the environment in which they participated in their sport. And obviously, in 2003 we still got cold and we still wished there weren’t so many hills on the course, but for me at least, there was a certain thrill in that feeling of icy chill at the start line, of the quiet moments coasting through the woods when no one was watching, of the inherent link between the sport and the environment.

On the third and final section of my NOLS semester, spent backpacking in the Ahuriri conservation area, our instructor Andy gave a lesson on the six ecological principles and the interconnectedness of nature. Interconnectedness was the antithesis of a compartmentalized attitude about nature and the environment. It said that everything we did, everything we were, was connected to everything else. There was no such thing as loving the outdoors and not molding your actions to reflect that love.

But even more than that, what it demonstrated was that though as someone who loves the outdoors I had no excuse not to do everything in my power to protect it, acting in an environmentally conscious way was not a luxury. It was not trendy, it was not something that only people who like chucking themselves into the backcountry for three months at a time have a responsibility to do. Interconnectedness means everything is connected—everybody is connected. Every single person that exists on this earth has an equal responsibility to protect this planet and its resources.

We spend so much time assuming that everything on this earth belongs to us—its trees for our oxygen, its waters for our navigation, its land for our repurposing, and forget that we belong to it. We belong to this planet in a way most of us like to forget, while we mindlessly consume and destroy and ignore.

And while everything that we are doing now to reduce our impact, to change the way we power our worlds is of course crucially important, I realized that though caring about the environment is not a luxury or a political belief or a pet cause, it is extremely difficult to make people do anything about something they don’t care about.

At the end of practice the other day I stood brushing my skis off, watching the sun sink behind the trees, casting a golden afterglow on the snow around us.

“Will you look at that?” I said to the kids standing around me, thinking to myself for the thousandth time how lucky I was to have a job that allowed me to stand out on a snowy hill and watch the sun set every day.

A few turned to briefly glance at it, but most kept shoving their skis into their bags or texting on their phones, asking what time it was and when the bus was getting here.

Doing everything we can now to find new sources of energy and reduce our consumption and repurpose old things is pivotal and overdue. But raising a generation of kids who grow up with their faces shoved into high-def screens and fail to create a personal relationship with nature is raising a generation of people who will do nothing to protect it. We protect what we love. And so maybe inspiring each new generation to love and feel connected to nature is just as important as finding different ways to power our cars and heat our homes.

Everybody belongs to the earth. Not just outdoorsy folk or liberals or hippies or environmental activists, or eco-gypsies, as my brother referred to me in my birthday card this year. But also people who spend most of their time indoors, people who hate the cold, kids who are growing up in their living rooms instead of their backyards. They belong to it too.

You don’t have to spend three months on the wilderness to start appreciating the earth, to start acting consciously (though it certainly does the trick). Go outside for a few minutes. Breathe in the air, taste its crispness. Stare at moving water for ten minutes, and let your heartbeat match its rhythm. Play in the snow. Take a walk in the woods. Lay in the grass.  Feel the sun on your face, the wind on your skin. Acknowledge your place in the interconnectedness. And pass it on.

Time to Grin and Brace It

It was four in the morning, it was sideways-sleeting, and the tent-pole-cup was broken. I stood huddled in my rain gear, aiming my headlamp down at my tentmate and my instructor who were laying sideways on the icy snow, trying to speedy-stitch the stirrup back to the tent body before they lost all dexterity in their hands. It was four in the morning and I was supposed to be snuggled up in my sleeping bag inside the tent, but instead I was outside getting pelted with rain on the side of a snowy mountain, the blackness around me increasing the sense of being in the absolute middle of nowhere. It was at this particular moment that I began to question what the hell it was I was doing there, why someone would intentionally volunteer to put themselves into this kind of situation, and when the hell we were going to be able to crawl back into the warm(ish) dry(ish) tent. The answers to the first two questions seemed uncertain, and the answer to the third was not until we had fixed the tent.

It was October 16th. We had been out in the backcountry of New Zealand for over a month and yet this was the first moment I’d experienced that had been such a forcible reminder of who the boss was out here. If slanting, freezing rain and gigantic wind gusts hit your tent all night, no one was going to call it off. No one was going to spare you. No one was going to fix it for you while you rolled over and went back to sleep. You had to wake up, put on your rain pants and rain jacket and fix the tent yourself—lest you all be blown off the mountain when the tent poles snapped.

We had spent the hours leading up to the fateful tent-pole-cup disaster in a state of bleary-eyed flux between trying to fall back to sleep and snapping upright to brace the tent poles when a gust shot over the mountains and ripped its way through the valley we were camped in.  The intensity of the volume of the wind shaking the tent and the pressure of the walls pushing down onto your shoulders and neck seemed almost too great to be believed. The patheticness of the tent in the face of the power of the wind was so absurd it would eventually become funny, but for now, we just braced, laid back down, braced, laid back down, and braced, in bewildered, exhausted silence.

We had been lulled into a false sense of security on our first month of sea kayaking, treated to brilliant, spotless skies and glassy waters, spending sunny afternoons lounging and cooking on beaches and sleeping soundly through quiet, windless nights. The switch to the snowy mountains of the Arrowsmith range had heralded an entirely new ballgame with an entirely new set of rules. I woke up the morning of October 17th to discover that storing things in the vestibule of the tent was not an option on mountaineering like it had been on sea kayaking—my bowl and spoon, left there the night before, had been claimed by the wind.

I was angry. I scribbled in my journal the next day, “The weather shat itself around 9:30/10 last night and since we are camped in a frigging wind tunnel we got our shit completely rocked. Woke up at 12:30am to insane wind shaking the tent…I’m sure there is some kind of lesson or growth to be gleaned from this that will perhaps occur to me later, but at the time it was just miserable, a seemingly interminable moment that made me long for an actual building and a warm dry bed.”

During the night it kept repeatedly and pointlessly coming to me that there had to be some way out of this. That this couldn’t actually be happening. But there wasn’t. It was. It was four in the morning and the weather was shitting itself and if we didn’t brace the poles, if we didn’t repair the tent, we were going to lose the only home we had out here.  It was a situation in which the only option before us was to just suck it up and do what needed to be done.

Much of the first few days of the festival of challenging outdoor situations mountaineering brought us was spent in a sort of pouty protest, a sort of indignant disbelief and vague sense of injustice. But the earth owed us nothing. In fact, if I were Mama Nature and had been treated the way she has been, I would have been whipping a lot more than 80km/hr winds at tents parked in her backyard. The longer I walked around with the there’s-no-way-this-can-actually-be-real entitlement, the longer I was going to be miserable.

The next few nights were more of the same. We had been forced to hunker down due to the weather, and had spent a few days huddled in tents whose size seemed to decrease with each passing moment. We spent most of the day catching up on sleep we’d lost the night before, finishing the only books we’d brought with us, and getting so sick of cards that we ended up just lying in our sleeping bags staring at the yellow tent ceiling.

The night of October 17th was marked by fierce winds but no rain. We were better prepared this time, ready for what we were about to endure, and had decided to split the night into shifts of tent-bracing, so that the others could at least get a little bit of sleep. At 11pm I was tapped awake and sat up in my spot in the center of the three-person tent, ready to do my duty. I had reason to believe that half of why the previous night had been so god-awful was because I had been operating under the foolish delusion that I could somehow fall back to sleep in between giant gusts of wind. This time I decided to stay sitting up through my shift, waiting in the dark for the next gale to arrive. With my two tentmates sleeping beside me, I sat up straight, keeping my eyes closed, listening to the air whoosh around the valley outside, ready to raise both my arms up to steady the poles when it was necessary.

After passing some time like this, I began to experience a strange sort of calm. My heartbeat began to pleasantly decelerate, my muscles became relaxed, and my mind began to wander. I thought of everyone in the world that I knew, most of them separated from me by nearly a day and a half, and thought of what they were doing at that precise moment. I thought of my mom and little brother getting ready for school, I thought of my friends going to work, and I thought of my two expedition mates sleeping beside me, able to rest because I was sitting up, awake, meeting the wind. Suddenly I was no longer furious or affronted at nature for sticking us with this inclement weather.  I no longer believed I was owed kindness by the environment, I no longer expected there to be some kind of escape route I could take.

The weather was the same as the night before, but I wasn’t. I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t miserable.  I wasn’t absorbed in my own head, in my own discomfort. I wasn’t wondering what the hell I was doing here. I was sitting on the side of a mountain in New Zealand, feeling purposeful and peaceful, holding our house up against the wind.

An Open Letter to the Post Office, Racist Robert DeNiro Look-Alikes, and Brave Second-Language Speakers Everywhere

During my lunch break today, I found myself speed-walking through a gray, cold Portland to the post office to mail some paperwork. I cannot emphasize enough how much I loathe the post office. There are about 400 different ways to send a letter or package, each one requiring a different envelope/box and label, and if somehow you manage to be thick enough to pick the wrong one, prepare to belittled until you feel like the most worthless creature on the planet.  How could you possibly not have memorized every single speed by which you can mail a letter and what the envelope looks like to do so? I never leave the post office not feeling like a complete fool. I felt the dread and anxiety clawing at my insides the entire walk there.  How could I be a college graduate and be totally incompetent when it came to trying to mail a freaking letter?  No doubt I would find some way to completely botch the entire thing and watch my self-esteem be annihilated by the US Postal Service–again.

Sure enough, when I stepped up to the counter, I had picked the wrong envelope. I was right that to overnight something you couldn’t use priority, but apparently you couldn’t use the one I had in my hands either. Obviously. The man behind the counter, a middle aged guy who looked a little like Robert DeNiro (Are you allowed to tell someone that?) pointed me in the right direction after I had made a few self-deprecating remarks that masked the complete and total inadequacy that was making itself right at home in the pit of my stomach. I filled out the corresponding label and got back in line, which had somehow tripled in size since I entered. A few spots ahead of me in line was a man trying to mail a money order. I guessed he was a couple years older than I was and appeared to be one of Portland’s many Somalian immigrants. It was pretty clear from the bits of the conversation I could hear between him and Robert DeNiro that his English was spotty at best.  I was a native speaker and could barely get through mailing a letter with my pride intact. I couldn’t even imagine what an epic rollercoaster through hell this must have been in a second language.

After a few minutes it appeared that the money order man had made some kind of error and left the line to amend his envelope, and it was then my turn. I stepped up to the counter and presented my envelope, sheepishly muttering that I hoped I had it right this time. After it was confirmed that I had and a tiny sliver of dignity was returned to me, Robert DeNiro began to process my order. From behind me, money order man seemed to be still having trouble figuring out how to properly address his envelope and asked a clarifying question. Immediately Robert DeNiro snapped. “I’ve explained this to you four times,” he practically growled. “Put the addressee on the right. Your address goes in the upper lefthand corner. No.” Huge, frustrated sigh.On the LEFT.” Several times during the next few sentences he became so exasperated with money order man that he broke off mid-sentence. He eventually called in some back up in the form of a co-worker to deal with this horrific inconvenience. “Can you explain this to him? I’ve done it six times. Seriously.” As if this wasn’t enough, Robert DeNiro then looks at me as if he and I are some kind of conspirators and whispers “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Almost too shocked to know what to do I managed to spit out “I messed it up too. It’s really confusing.” Despite the fact that money order man’s confusion was certainly no more infuriating than mine, Robert DeNiro shook his head. “No no, you’re fine.”

After I’d paid, I wanted to go over to money order man and let him know that the post office was one of Dante’s lesser-known circles of hell and that what had just happened was so beyond okay that I no longer felt like eating my lunch, but I was so flustered and shocked by the entire situation that my gut instincts had me busting out of there without another word.

Though I’m sure it has happened countless times and in countless ways for my entire life, this was a glaring, punch-me-in-the-face reminder of the fact that I was a young white female, and of the kind of treatment some people feel that merits. Usually when I come into contact with a disgruntled employee, I try to remind myself that maybe this person has had a bad day, or hates his or her job, or has some kind of reason to be so grouchy and miserable. But what I had just unwillingly been a part of was something entirely different– two nearly identical mistakes had been treated in utterly different manners based solely on what the customers looked like. While my incomprehension of every single tiny rule of the postal system had been treated with (actually unprecedented) patience and respect, this man’s far more excusable confusion had been the cause for anger, rudeness, and quite frankly, inexcusable and atrocious discrimination. As an educated, native English speaker, my ignorance actually made me the one, if anything, who deserved less patience. I remembered the creeping advancement of terror I’d felt when I had to change planes in Santiago, Chile two summers before and was certain I wouldn’t be able to figure out how to get my bag through customs and recheck it onto my next flight. Processes that are confusing and difficult even in a first language suddenly become harrowing trials of one’s mettle in a second language.  The fact that this man had had the courage to walk into the post office and try the best he could to simultaneously struggle with this bewildering slice of bureaucracy and the language barrier was unbelievable to me.  And the fact that this bravery and effort was rewarded by being loudly, publicly berated after I had just made a similar mistake and gotten nothing but a helpful nudge in the right direction was disgusting and awful and sad. I had received preferential treatment that I did not want or deserve just because of the ethnicity and nationality that I was born into.

Having never found myself in such a blatant instance of undeserved preferential treatment based on my young-white-female status, I was not able to react quickly enough to say in the moment what I would have liked to say to the money order man, to say what he deserved to hear. But here it is.

This place is the absolute worst. It is unnecessarily confusing and pointlessly complicated and basically impossible to figure out unless you happen to work here, in which case it is then painfully and exasperatingly obvious. Every time I come in here it makes me feel totally inadequate and stupid and I hate it. The fact that you didn’t know where to address your money order is completely legitimate and understandable. And oh yeah, it’s also TOTALLY NOT A BIG DEAL. Please disregard the inexcusable disrespect and lack of patience or empathy you were just treated with and keep doing the best you can.  Living in a country where they speak a language that’s not your first is exhausting, complicated, difficult, and at times flat-out maddening. The fact that you came in here and gave this a shot anyway is impressive and applaudable. I don’t know you, but I’m proud of you.

Stick THAT in the upper lefthand corner, Robert DeNiro.

the things we carry

There are a million ways to try to hold on to things. We close our eyes, we narrate, we imagine, we recreate, we pinch our fingers, we clench our fists, we stare and stare and stare. We clutch and we grab and we cling, trying to keep what has already passed. We seem to be programmed to resist the shift, resist the transformation of things ending. To ease the ache we often try to create physical artifacts of what has slipped away, of what we have left behind us.

Photographs turn memory to public property, turn moments into something stiff and unnaturally glossy. When there is a photographic representation of a moment, it suddenly becomes the signifier, the primary representation of that moment. Perhaps as time goes on we begin to remember the photograph instead of the moment itself. Those moments you can hold in your flattened palm. What you have to hold differently are the moments that live only inside your head, the ones the camera didn’t catch, the ones that you maybe can’t see, but you can feel. Those require cradling, require cupped fingers.

In New Zealand we took pictures at the top of peaks, we took pictures when the sun was out, we took pictures when we turned a corner and were stalled by the expanse of scenery before us. Those moments too are memories. Those moments were beautiful and important. But the moments that I’ll cradle, the moments that I’ll cup my sunburned fingers around are different ones, are ones that I can feel more strongly than I can see. All of us standing in the driving rain at the top of a leafy ridge, thoroughly soaked through our neoprene, looking out at the ocean, waiting for a window to make the final paddles of a journey. The way the light came through the yellow tent ceiling as we sang Ingrid Michaelson’s “You & I” after I ran through the thick silent snow to get there, realizing I had remembered the words. The inexplicable, warm calm that came over me as I sat up in the middle of the tent through the night, bracing it against roaring winds funneling themselves in over craggy mountaintops. The hugeness of the silence the morning we climbed up a ridge guided by headlamps to watch the sun emerge. The freezing, electric jolt to our entire energy when we flung ourselves into an alpine lake still cased with ice. The tumbling inertia of laughter it took only a look to set off. The feeling of fleeting togetherness as we sat on top of box containers watching the sun go down for the last time, the strains of the guitar Colt held in his hands filling the atmosphere.  These were the things that lived only inside us, that we would have to hold closer to keep, or perhaps hold in a different way.

The last day out in the field we moved slowly. We took longer to pick up our feet, we chose routes that led us out of the way, we stood longer contemplating where to cross a river. We took breaks even though we weren’t tired, we baked a pie on the side of a hill in our sleeping bags, we spent hours huddled against our backpacks, hiding from the wind, watching the rising sun burn the bottoms of the clouds red. We did all these things and yet we still came to the finish, we still popped up over the last hill and saw the way out, the way to the end. No matter what measures we took to prolong it, the end continued to loom, waiting for us to arrive. We stopped on a wide, flat hilltop and shrugged off our packs, quiet. Justine suggested we do cardinal acknowledgements, a sort of Maori yoga practice we had learned that brings you closer to the earth—acknowledging north, south, east, and west, sky, self, and earth, that allows you to push out all the curling black smoke within you and gather in all the incandescent white light of your surroundings. The five of us stood in a line, spread out across the hilltop, and repeated the motions facing north, south, east and west. We opened our arms up to the sky, brought them down close to our chests, bent low and grazed the grass with our fingertips. We pushed out the fear and the sadness and the negativity, we pulled in the power of the mountains, the freshness of the air, the warmth of the sun, the calm of the sky. We faced each direction and said thank you, and at the end we turned in toward each other and said Namaste, the light in me acknowledges the light in you, and then it was time. We all stared down at the patch of beech trees winding through the valley toward the road beyond it, knowing that there was a sort of bittersweet inexorability bringing us toward it. Each step we took contained the thousands of other steps we had taken over the previous months—sidesteps across swift, murky rivers, lunging leaps from one boulder to the next, plunging steps deep into mushy snow, careful steps along narrow footpaths, triumphant steps up the last few meters of elevation gain. These steps were the same as thousands of others, and yet they were different because they were the last ones. Because when we set our packs down it would be for the last time, when we pulled our boots and gaiters off and laid our socks out to dry, it would be for the last time, when we did everything we had been doing for months, it would be the last time. The magic, the spell of perpetual skin-tingling awe that had wrapped itself around the entire expedition would be broken. But no matter how languid we allowed our cadence to become, no matter how many times we paused, the only direction in which we could move was forward.

John Muir wrote, “These beautiful days must enrich all my life. They do not exist as mere pictures—maps hung upon the walls of memory—but they saturate themselves into every part of my body and live always.”

The way we hold on to things is not through two dimensional snapshots or even written words. It is not through retelling, through mentally recreating, through nostalgic daydreaming. Even when we must walk away we can hold on by reaching out our arms and gathering it all into our chests, by carrying the muscle memory of all of our footfalls with us as we take our next steps. By letting the sun seep into our skin, by letting the mountains press themselves up against us, by letting the air fill our chests, by keeping the electricity buzzing through our veins. The way to truly hold on to things is not to attempt to preserve memories that immediately begin to fade and curl at the edges, but to allow the experience to inform every step we take afterward, to evoke the spirit, the energy, the essence of it all in everything we do. The actual expedition may have been over, but it would be palpable in everything we did next.

One of the principles we were taught in our Leave No Trace training was “Leave What You Find.”  But we hadn’t. We couldn’t. Every incline we had panted up, every shoreline we had washed our dishes at, every scree field we had sidehilled, every sunrise we’d snuck out of the tent early to watch, every spot we had wandered off to to just sit and look, every patch of matagouri we’d hurled ourselves through, every gust of wind we’d stayed up bracing the tent against was now an indelible part of us, glowing through our ribcages and out the tips of our fingers. We couldn’t have left what we’d found if we’d wanted to. And while we stretched out our arms on the hillside at the end and tried to hold on to everything that had happened, it became clear that it would also be holding on to us.

Out Here (written in the field 9/27/12)

The thing about the wilderness is that it equalizes us, it sets us all on flat, even ground. We are all small in the face of mountains, all vulnerable before swelling seas, all dwarfed by the limitless sky. Facing the elements we are our raw, basic selves. All else falls away. In that rawness there is clarity, all the wind on the water going still so we can see straight into the depths.

We are no longer defined by the years we have lived, or what we have been called, or the things we can do. We are all equally young and alive, swaying in the arms of the ancient earth. We are all equally young next to the rocks and the waves.

With us we have only the parts of ourselves we can carry, only what travels with us always. We may find things that have been hidden, we may remember what we had allowed ourselves to forget. We may stretch ourselves taller and wider to mimic towering trees, taller and wider than we might have ever imagined.

Back where we’re from the land is covered. Cloaked in artifice, pounded and blasted and moved and molded to our convenience. Back where we’re from we are covered. Steeped in beliefs that belong to others, folded over and compressed and colored until we forget the feel of our own skin. Out here the grass grows long, the trees grow tall, our eyes open wide.

Where we’re from we are so often looking down, down at the tiny screens we hold in our hands, down at our own feet as we walk, down when we can’t meet someone else’s eyes.

Being out here calls you to look in all directions at once. Not just down, at the plants and animals you walk beside, but out, at all that lies between you and the horizon, up, at the sun and the clouds and the big ancient blue above us, and also in, at the tiny reflection of the universe we hold within our ribs, behind our eyes, in our fingers and ears and mouths and toes. Our eyes no longer squint, trained on abstract things we hold in our hands, they open and clear to take in all that is around us.

Where we’re from we’re kings and queens of concrete, we cradle the power in our hands. Returning to the wild we are reminded that all we have created are constructs, all our control conjured up in our minds. Out here we do not have to go to churches and temples to pray to the idea of something greater, we can simply stand before mountains and see it.

Being out here makes you feel small in ways you need to feel small. We are not all-important, we are not all knowing, we are not invincible. We are blades of grass, we are particles of wind, we are stones smoothed by water. Think of all the trillions of things happening each second all over this planet, the breathing, the flowing, the moving, the growing, the loving, the living, the dying, and try to feel like you are all that matters. You cannot.

Being out here makes you feel big in ways you need to feel big. We are not a set of nine numbers, we are not a one-word definition, we are not contained. There are mountains and seas and skies within us. Try to think of all the shades of yourself, of everything you’ve ever seen or thought or dreamed or felt or believed and try not to feel infinite. You cannot.

Being out in the wild reminds us of all the smallness and largeness of ourselves because this earth, this sea and sky and rock and tree and mountain, this is where we are from. Not a town with a name and a sign, but the ancient, persisting, elemental earth. We are not names and birthdates but hearts and souls reflecting the browns, the greens, the blues.

forward is the direction of real life

Recently I was on a hike with my family in Zion National Park in southern Utah, a trek called simply “Observation Point” for the stunning views of the canyon. The first thirty minutes of the hike consisted of tightly laid switchbacks streaked across the steep rock face of the canyon wall, a calf-burning beginning that left us all lunging for first dibs on the gatorade by the top.  When a trail starts in such a way it is easy to become quickly discouraged and lethargic. Feeling the burn a half-mile into an eight mile hike is never a good sign and often prompts thoughts of turning back, or at least bitter, unpleasant realizations of how far you have to go before reaching those stunning canyon views. “I can see the canyon from here,” my brother pointed out sardonically, leaning against the red sandstone.

Just around the corner after the switchbacks leveled off a bit, we were plunged into the heart of a narrow, mini-canyon with steep walls towering to dizzying heights overhead. Scattered along the canyon floor were pools of stagnant water, seemingly the remains of a dried up river that had once filled the space in which we now stood. “Wow,” I heard behind me, the whispered word expanding to fill the air around us. My once-cynical brother had changed his tune, and I felt the tightness in my calves begin to ease, the swelling of my lungs begin to slow.  It was not even eight in the morning and we were the only ones in the narrow canyon, the only sounds around us the light trickle of water over smooth stones and the breeze being tunneled through the tight space.  There was something almost alien about it, about the entire landscape before us, so exotic and unexpected.

We did eventually reach the midpoint of the hike from which we were supposed to observe, from which the stunning canyon views did indeed live up to our expectations. And while I’m sure I’ll remember the enormous openness of the air on the cliff and the dizzying drop to the canyon floor below, I’ll never be able to forget the way it felt when we turned the corner at the top of the switchbacks and gasped a little at what the guidebook hadn’t prepared us for, at what we had only been able to see after hiking one step at a time up the side of the canyon wall. To see the stunning canyon views, and also to see the hidden narrows, we had to keep climbing even when our muscles and our lungs pleaded with us to just turn around and go back.

The end of August has always signaled the end of summer (or the beginning of the end for those of us on the quarter system), the end of the warmth and the freedom and the late sunsets. Fall beckons in all its fuzziness, with its long sleeves and its nights spent curled up in the library and the way even the ground seems to feel different underfoot. We have been trained, we have been conditioned to start to want all these things at a certain point in the year, to start to move back toward classrooms and book bags and sweaters and coffee without ice.

But this year, with the exception of those of us going to graduate school,  we have outgrown it. We have gone past it, we have moved beyond it, we have left it behind us. But it still tugs at us. I still feel like in some alternate universe I should be flying back to Chicago, back to the same streets and the same people I spent the last four years with, but we have to realize that that will not and cannot be true. That is all behind us now, whether we still feel like we should be buying books and pencils or not.

Cheryl Strayed, a writer who I have mentioned before and who I admire beyond belief, recently did an interview with Orion magazine about her bestelling memoir Wild and in it she is asked about a point on the Pacific Crest Trail when she survived an encounter with a Texas longhorn bull  and was faced with the decision to either turn back and chalk the entire trip up to be a giant mistake, or to continue on down the trail. Strayed eventually chose to keep moving forward, a decision she details in the interview:

“That decision to move forward in the direction of my intentions is one I make every day in everything I am—writer, mother, human. Or at least I do when I’m doing my best. We all get stuck in place on occasion. We all move backwards sometimes. But moving forward is what we’re here for so I try to do it even when I’m afraid there might be a marauding bull waiting for me down the trail. Forward is the direction of real life.”

Forward is the direction of real life. As seductive as it may seem to lose ourselves in comforting, familiar daydreams of the past, to perhaps wish that we were going back to something we already had, backward is the direction of nostalgia, backward is the direction of memory. It is forward, then. Despite fear, despite uncertainty, despite difficulty– forward is the only direction we have.

Forward is the direction of real life, and forward is the direction in which we must move, no matter what lies on the trail ahead. Because if you stop on the side of the tough parts and refuse to move, if you turn around and walk back down the hill, you may never encounter a Texas longhorn bull, but you will never get to see the stunning canyon views, you will never find the unexpected narrows.

Love the past for what it was, but move forward, into whatever is next, into whatever awaits.

If you have to go away, at least try to remember how we were tonight.

Chicago is a place I’ve left dozens of times. To go home the snowy woods for Christmas, to live in Chile for the summer, to Guatemala and Miami and Utah for much needed breaks during the school year. But each time I left, each time I took a cab down Dempster, that traffic-congested, strip-mall-lined corridor, I held a return ticket. Leaving wasn’t leaving, really, because there was always the coming back. Maine was home but Chicago became home-base, the place from which trips were launched, trips that lasted a few days or a couple of weeks or even several months, but that always brought me right back to that lakeside skyline.

As I opened up my confirmation email a couple of days ago my eyes caught on a line at the top, the two words that made this plane ticket, this trip so different than all of the others. One way. And that one way was forward. Onward, into something else, into the next step, into the future. Leaving this time was different because even if there was at some point a coming back, it wouldn’t be the same as all the other coming-backs, because I wouldn’t live here.

Suddenly walking around became a giant string of goodbyes. Goodbye Chicago skyline from Grant Park, goodbye Lake Street El stop, goodbye Norris, goodbye Kresge, goodbye spot on the lakefill I’d stop on my runs to stretch and look at the water, goodbye Allison Hall, goodbye Sheridan road, goodbye Pi Phi porch, goodbye Hamlin street, goodbye Simpson street, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye. Nostalgia, when it hits, crushes you like a thick, slow-moving fog.

The summer before freshman year of college I would spend my lunch breaks from shifts at the Gap Outlet in Freeport sitting on a ledge across from the Lobster Cooker, reading books in a desperate attempt to escape the mindless chatter and chain-smoking that my co-workers would indulge in in the break room. One of the books I read that summer was Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, a book that seemed to inherently resist its readers understanding or finishing it, but that I chugged through on that stone ledge for lack of anything else to do. Garcia Marquez’s novels and short stories are perpetually saturated with that fog of nostalgia, a nostalgia that seems to exist almost in its own right, beyond merely being an emotion that the characters experience. At some point in the book, someone with the last name Buendía, who’s first name was probably José Arcadio just like fifteen other characters in the book who are all related to him (hence the its near incomprehensibility) sits at a dinner table and says to whoever he is with “If you have to go away, at least try to remember how we were tonight.”

With that simple line I was immediately imbued with the same nostalgia that hung heavy in the hearts of all of Garcia Marquez’s characters. Suddenly a place I had been itching to leave transformed before my eyes, suddenly everything I saw was something precious I was about to lose. By remembering exactly how we were, exactly how everything was, the nostalgia was thickened, was solidified until it became almost impossible to move.

The words came back to me, four years later, as I was getting to leave Northwestern, leave Chicago, and the nostalgia settled in more heavily than ever. Because when José Arcadio Buendía urges his dinner companions to remember how they were tonight, he isn’t just speaking about that night—he is speaking of all the nights they spent together, of which this one just happens to be the last. I wasn’t just going to remember how we were my last night, sprawled across the couches of my best friend’s living room, full from dinner and hesitant to move because I knew once we did it would be over, I was going to remember how we were every night that had elapsed between this one and the first one. How we were the night the night we slept on our sleeping bags on the lakefill after eight days in the woods, how we were the nights spent up late in the hallway talking because there was no one to tell us when to go to bed anymore, how we were the nights in library towers when instead of studying we’d drink too many Red Bulls and start sending each other cat videos, how we were the nights we had to bring each other cheese cake and hold each other as we cried, how we were how we were that night there were five inches of fresh snow on the ground and we flew down Western in a cab anyway, how we were the nights we’d jump in the lake when the air got too hot, how we were the nights we’d sprint to the shuttle stop to take the bus up north, how we were the nights we swayed to music underneath a great dark sky, how we were the nights that didn’t seem to have enough hours—how we were all the nights we were together. If I have to go away, I will at least try to remember that.

It is a beautiful and difficult thing, to care about something enough that you will miss it when it’s gone. It is a beautiful and difficult thing to walk away from one thing you love toward whatever next awaits you. And in that strange place, that dissonant union of beauty and difficulty lies the sweet sting of nostalgia. Of knowing that whatever you have must end in order for something else to begin.