Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Classic Memorial Day

This summer is starting out to be quite an adventure. Yesterday began with a +3-mile hike and picnic along the Eno River, where we saw various sizes of turtles sunning themselves on logs and rocks, lizards scampering up trees, and water snakes slithering through the river grasses. The snakes swam up to the water's edge, mouth open, checking us out as much as we were checking them out. Then, we went swimming in the quarry, where we stepped barefooted, gingerly over the red clay and dry pine needle-covered slopes to jump into the cool green water. The first jump in smelled like silty freshwater lake and uncertainty of what lay below the surface, and the longer we stayed in the water, the longer it smelled of the thrill of kids jumping off the ledge through the trees and of warm summer days when you don't have to be anywhere at any time. Hiking back to the car in our wet swimsuits and shorts (which gradually looked more and more like we had incontinence issues) sealed the summer in. The grand finale was a BBQ, the last hurrah at one of the party houses we came to know and love. Many of us are moving on to different parts of the same big city, and others are going to places further afield, and the reality of this split is starting to sink in. We've spent two years together, laughing and complaining over familiar beers and randomized music play lists. So the national Memorial Day may be about honoring fallen soldiers, but for us, yesterday was about honoring our journey together thus far.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Still on the mountain

I have that feeling these days, a lingering wish to be back on the mountain. It happens often - anytime I've spent more than a day living the rustic lifestyle. A few weeks ago, some friends and I hiked 5 miles up Mount LeConte in eastern Tennessee. We left on a Monday morning, backpack straps buckled and tightened, water bottles and hydration packs filled, coffee and toast warming our bellies. The trail we took was the steepest one up the mountain, a daunting task, but with the help of trail mix, energy bars, and a number of pit stops and photo opportunities, we all arrived at the lodge in just over 3 hours. One of the Mount LeConte lodge staffers showed us to our cabins, which had real beds and bunk beds with pillows, sheets and wool blankets, heaters in each room, and a big porch with rocking chairs. Restrooms were either flush toilets accessible only with the keys hanging in each cabin or pit toilets, which were always unlocked. Two pumps delivered cold filtered water and a hot water tap by the lodge filled our buckets for washing up. Thin, smoky coffee and hot cocoa were being served all day. Breakfast and dinner were served hot in the dining hall, family style, and lunch was sandwiches, trail mix, and cookies, served in a paper bag. During the day on Tuesday, we hiked, napped, played games, read, anything to fill the time and take in the fresh air.

We rose early to watch the sun rise from one peak, then hiked after dinner to watch it set from another peak, dipping below the mountaintops in spectacular color and drama. Of course, we applauded, another feat of nature successfully completed.

Camping out always makes me feel like this, because it's simple living at its best. Each summer for 6 years, I spent two weeks at Girl Scout camp in Wisconsin, where we slept on cots in platform tents. The summer before my senior year of high school, some friends and I spent a week on Manitou Island in Michigan, where we slept in tents, cooked meals in our dutch oven, and bathed in the lake. During my sophomore year in college, I backpacked for a weekend in the Ozarks, a trek made more difficult by hay fever and a lack of proper hiking footwear. No matter the length of the trip or challenge of survival, it's still the same feeling. The only time you have to worry about is breakfast time, lunch time, dinner time, and swim time. Your clothing options consist only of what's clean or dry, but usually not both, and by the end, usually neither. And nothing matches, so don't even try. The food is hearty, full of starches and sugars, often a little burnt, but always the best you've ever tasted. Your body is tired in that I'm-really-living kind of way, your hair smells like campfire smoke and lake (or well) water, and there's a constant layer of sunscreen and dirt on your skin. By the end of the trip, you're a little sunburned, the mosquitoes and flies have eaten you up, and you've scraped your shin or shoulder on a rock or branch. But you don't have to worry about bringing your wallet, cell phone, and keys with you everywhere. The constant drone of TVs and radios, road noise, and echoes from loud neighbors is gone. None of the trappings of civilized society even exist out there. It's just you and the wind, baby.

And when you come home, life is just too comfortable. Too easy. You can get in your car and drive anywhere, instead of hiking two miles down the ridgeline. Your bed is too soft, your coffee too gourmet, your home too secure and sheltered from the elements. No one is there to serve you grits, eggs, pancakes, juice, family-style. You're not sharing a space with 5 other people. Nothing on TV is nearly as interesting as the landscape over the valley you stared at for an hour. Life is too easy and too lonely after you come down from the mountain. It's much better when you're sipping from flasks, wrapped in fleece and flannel, playing card games and joking about who in the group you'd eat first if stranded without food. It's an intimate experience where you're allowed to be pensive and philosophical, and you can't help but throw your arms around your friends at any given moment because personal space means nothing when you're all equally dirty and tired and completely satisfied with life in that very moment.

So yeah, even though I'm facing an exciting move to a new city and a meaningful new job, most days, I'd rather still be on the mountain. Maybe it's the early human in me, longing for a more communal life that's closer to nature. In the meantime, day hikes and longer camping trips will have to suffice.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Not-so-divergent pathways

My brother and I have the same birthday, but we're not twins. In fact, growing up, we were quite different. I was the serious kid who spent a lot of time in my room, reading books and listening to the radio. My brother spent more time getting and keeping my parents' attention by flexing his creative muscle with hands-on projects. We often played together when we were younger, saving our stuffed animals from tragedy and molding homemade play-dough. As we got older, we seemed to be on very different career paths. My brother, an extremely talented trombone and tuba player, looked forward to a promising career in music education, while I hoped to apply my love of science and writing to a career in environmental journalism.

A lot has happened since high school. Our budding talents are still being put to use, but now we're in the same industry. My brother always loved to work with his hands, creating public artwork strung between the kitchen table and counter tops and mixing his own pretzel dips. Now, he's the head pastry chef at a popular Chicago brunch spot. As a teenager, I dreamed of owning a farm with horses, and I marveled at the fact that we ate cherry tomatoes and broccoli from our little suburban garden plot. Now, I'll be researching economic issues related to agriculture and environmentally sensitive farming practices.

So yes, my brother and I are now employed in the food sector. But really, what makes people happier than good food enjoyed with family and friends and contributing to community development? Guess we're not so different after all.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Grad school makes you a huge nerd

Never have I laughed so much at a bunch of bars and pie charts. Who knew graphs were so hilarious?