Up, down… and up again

From the garden in Hermance we rapidly transitioned back into dirtbag mode (not that we ever truly left it), traveling by bus and Bla Bla Car to Chamonix, France, the unofficial capital of Europe’s outdoor world. There, we met up with Matt’s college roommate, Mitchell, and his Norwegian friend, Ola, at a campground on the outskirts of town. Mitchell came to Europe after graduation with a purpose that resembles ours, though lacking in both planning and a return flight ticket. (See, Mom? It could be a lot worse.)

The plan was to hike the famous Tour du Mont Blanc, a 170-ish kilometer trail that encircles the Mont Blanc massif, and leads hikers through three countries and over almost 10,000 meters of elevation gain. So, the morning after meeting up with Mitchell and Ola, we went into town to buy the necessary supplies (food, fuel, map) and to cram down a massive cheeseburger before hopping on the bus to the trailhead in a little place called Les Houches. (While the trail officially starts and ends in Chamonix, it’s extremely common to skip the first 7k of the hike which is, as it was described to us, “not very interesting.”)

Being the tourist attraction that it is, the TMB has over 50 “refuges,” or accommodations where hikers can eat and sleep during the tour, which typically takes anywhere from 9 to 12 days. These refuges ensure that a hiker has a hot meal, a shower and a warm bed at the end of each day, but most importantly, it means that a hiker has to carry virtually nothing but a water bottle and a toothbrush. This makes the otherwise daunting hike enjoyable and accessible for people of all ages and physical ability.

Naturally we decided to forego all of this in favor of a more earthy and less expensive approach. We carried our backpacks and “unofficially” wild camped for each of our eight nights on the trail. (As far as we saw, we were almost the only people carrying more than a small day pack.) While not strictly prohibited, wild camping is generally discouraged and frowned upon along the TMB, though it’s widely accepted that many people do it each year. This meant we had to be a tad sneaky. At the end of each day, we covertly scouted out a camp site and waited until dusk to pitch our tents, breaking them down and moving on early in the morning. We were almost always able to find campsites that had already been impacted by people who were, no doubt, doing exactly the same thing we were doing. While this did have certain obvious inconveniences, we were overall extremely happy with our decision to wild camp and felt a level of authenticity that the refuges, no matter how rugged, just couldn’t provide. Each night after we found camp, we’d spend a few hours patting ourselves on the backs for a day well walked, studying the map and gawking at the next day’s elevation change, doctoring our poor neglected feet, and always capping the day off with story time (which was just me reading aloud from Dan Brown’s Inferno).

Our first couple of days on the trail were pretty brutal. On the first day we gained a thousand meters of elevation almost solely on paved roads in the direct line of the beating August sun. There’s something really depressing about seeing a truck grumble easily by as you trudge uphill, barely above a snail’s pace. The second day was worse. We left our improvised riverside camp early in the morning and almost immediately began a 1500 meter ascent over steep rocks and dirt, with no shade but with plenty of hiker pileups and curse words and despairing glances at the impossibly far off ridge line. I almost took off my pack and kicked it down the mountain a couple of times, but fortunately, good sense prevailed. At a false summit Matt had a physical meltdown and I feared I was going to have to use the “help” feature of our Spot communicator. (He was fine after some food.)

It might seem that these first days should have been the easiest, since we were fresh, relatively full and not yet worn down by the mountains and the weight of our packs. But as with any strenuous activity, it often takes a little time before your body stops its initial protesting and decides to cooperate with the hell you’re putting it through. I like to think that the moment my body gives up the fight is when it can really begin for me. So after about three days on the trail, we were feeling pretty used to it– all rocking and rolling, mostly past the agony of lugging a pack up and back down 5 or 6 thousand feet of trail each day, and psyched to be hiking on one of Europe’s most beautiful trails through some of the world’s most beautiful mountains.

This marked the longest backpacking trip to date for all four of us, though we can’t claim to be totally self-sufficient on the trek despite our strict avoidance of the tourist trap refuges and hotels. The TMB dips in and out of small villages, and almost every day we had the opportunity to restock our food supplies and get a taste of some version of civilization. While I was a little disappointed in the total lack of remoteness and the plethora of day hikers who I knew would be returning to their cars at the end of the day, I can’t complain about the convenience of being able find fresh baguette and a flushing toilet almost every day on the trail.

I think there comes a time on a backpacking trip of any magnitude when your thoughts are totally and constantly consumed by food. When, even though you’re enjoying the breathtaking scenery and reveling in the glory of being in the mountains, each step you take is really just a step toward all the things you want to eat when you reach the end of the trail. On this trek, Matt and I were eating oatmeal for breakfast, a bowl of broth and a handful of granola at the highest elevation of the day, and some form of instant pasta for dinner. We supplemented with hunks of bread and an occasional scoop of Nutella (for morale). We call this the backpacker diet, or in other words, the cheapest, lightest way to eat on the trail. While not totally filling or satisfying, we can live like this for a few days while we day dream about what we want to eat when we finish. I usually crave all things sweet and sugary. I dwell on ice cream and candy bars until I think I’m going to die if I see another pack of ramen noodles. I once found myself actually scolding my past self for turning down a brownie that my grandmother had offered me three months ago. Yeah, it’s bad sometimes. This hunger really hit us somewhere around the 6th day, when we were in Switzerland and couldn’t afford anything, and we rode it like a wave all the way back to Chamonix.

And so for nine days we walked like this, each day trudging up and plodding back down, exhausted but exhilarated by our good fortune to be there at all. The terrain on the TMB is extremely varied but with one constant– it is never flat, which for me means slow going. I was standardly the caboose of our four man hiking party. Usually Mitchell and Ola raced ahead, preferring to make one hard push to the highest point and then stopping to wait. Matt was consistently about 10 minutes behind them going at his own quick pace. And then there was me, always bringing up the rear, typically another 15 minutes or so behind Matt, doing my slow but steady slog up whatever we were climbing that day. I wasn’t any faster on the downhill. It’s a myth that descending is easier. While it’s less of a quad buster, it’s exceedingly tough on the knees and toes, especially with a pack. (I’ll refrain delving into the disgusting details of the state of our feet after this trip.)

A few days after we finished the hike was the start of the UTMB, an ultra-marathon trail race that follows the exact same route we were hiking. Any time I got tired or a little bummed out, I tried to remind myself that in a few days hundreds of people would be completing the circuit in a single day.

On our final day on the trail, we decided to begin hiking at seven, because we were excited to get back to town and because we were totally out of food and wanted to get there by lunchtime. By the time we reached our highest point of the day where we crossed from Switzerland back into France, an ominous front was moving in and the sky was dark and angry as far as we could see. Where the temperature would have been a comfortable 24 degrees Celsius it was rapidly dropping as the wind whipped away our hats and our motivation. We ended up making the decision to take a short cut back to town, skipping the last few ridge line kilometers of the trail in favor of a side trail that would let us descend more rapidly. The last two hours of our hike were a frantic scurry in the rain and we were elated to pop off the trail at a conveniently placed bus stop that put us near our campground. Our first stop, of course, was to buy slices of pizza and pain au chocolat at a bakery that Mitchell had been talking about for days, and then to the grocery store for our other cravings.

We spent the next few days relaxing in Chamonix, wandering around town and recovering from the hike. We got to see one of the UTMB events start, a 290k race that teams of three had up to six days to complete. We got to do a morning run with the North Face athletes who would be running the TMB route that we had just finished. We tried to do a day hike one day, but after sailing up the 600 meter ascent, we realized that we couldn’t possibly see anything that could rival the views we’d had on the tour, and we turned back.

Our days on the TMB, aside from being filled with awe inspiring landscapes, served to change my perspective on backpacking and my other various outdoor recreation endeavors. The tour was hard. It was only nine days, but those nine days were long and difficult and downright exhausting. We were hot in the day and cold at night, hungry and occasionally lost, our feet and knees and backs hurt, we woke up early and went to bed late, and we realized that even if you’re prepared, backpacking is hard. But it’s supposed to be hard. Of course, I’ve known this all along, in a vague sort of disconnected way. The TMB made me understand more about why we put ourselves in these situations that we know are going to be at times a little rough, at other times totally miserable. It’s something that’s nearly impossible to explain, but really easy to feel once you acknowledge that the world is bigger than you, the mountains are tougher than you, and once you can learn how to be thankful to be a teeny tiny speck roaming through all of it. In the past few years I’ve developed an enormous respect for nature, but have naively continued to try to be better than nature, to be stronger and smarter and braver than it is. And while I know that I can still work toward being these things in my life in general, all that I need to be toward nature is humble.

After a few days in Chamonix, we said goodbye to Mitchell and got on a bus to begin the journey to our next destination– the French island of Corsica.

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The Laugavegur

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We arrived in Reykjavik on what just so happened to be the day of the biggest soccer game in Icelandic history. We stumbled across a public viewing of the game against Austria and got to spend our first afternoon abroad cheering on an underdog team with a couple thousand very excited Icelanders. It was quite the welcome party.

After that we hopped a bus to Landmannalaugur (which we learned how to pronounce about two days after leaving it) which is the starting point for the Laugavegur, the most popular hiking trail in the country. The bus ride was really an adventure in itself, spanning across most of the country and ending with several miles of windy, narrow dirt roads and lots of cringing on my part as I was sure the 50-passenger vehicle was going to tip over at any moment. Icelandic people seem very confident in the capabilities of their buses.

In all the 55 km trek took us three days to complete (though we still aren’t quite sure if you can call it a day when the sun never actually sets), covering 15-25 km each day. (We are still struggling with kilometer-to-mile conversions.) Along the trail, there are huts that provide indoor accommodations for people who have reserved in advance, and very expensive campsites for those who haven’t. We fell into the latter category, but the presence of bathrooms, picnic tables and clean water each night made us feel like we were living in the lap of luxury all the same.

I think we’re both still a little speechless at how insanely beautiful the landscapes on the trail were. Every few hours it seemed like we were walking into a different place altogether: we started in yellow rolling hills and hot springs that reminded us of Yellowstone, and moved from there into some of the most beautiful jagged mountain scenes imaginable, we camped on the beach of a calm blue lake, then walked into a black desert rimmed with green peaks, we hiked along lush mossy canyon walls jutting up from a narrow but raging river, and finally into a forest populated with small trees and a million wild flowers.

Though it’s still early in the summer (a season which averages in the 50s), we were by no means alone on the Laugavegur. Even now, when many miles of the trail are still under snow, people flock to it by the bus load to experience it’s world renowned awesomeness. We saw and camped with dozens of people from all parts of the world each day, and the campground where we are now is teaming with hikers. (Without moving from where I sit now, I can hear at least five languages being spoken– and we are seriously amazed at how the rest of the world seems to speak perfect English.)

The trail deposited us in Thorsmork, which is basically a campground and a bus stop, and is crowded with people who have either just come off the trail or are about to begin it. (You can tell which is which by how dirty and hungry they are.) Our plan is to continue on the extended section of the trail, another 30 km, which squeezes between two glaciers and heads further south to Skogar. Presently it’s raining incessantly and all of our gear is soaked, so we’re taking a rest day in Thorsmork in the hopes of getting some of our stuff semi-dry before we head on.

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A day in the life

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Today we reached the west coast and our 375-mile mark. In the hour that we’ve been here in Lincoln City, we have secured a campsite and erected our teeny tent, giddily scarfed and slurped giant ice cream cones that we’d been promising ourselves all day, and briefly visited the unsurprisingly unpleasant oceanfront.

Our ride today was shorter than usual- 27 miles- but we’ve decided to celebrate our beach arrival by clocking out early to relax and triumph in reaching this unofficial destination. So on this not so typical day of bike tourist-ing, this is to be a narrative of a typical day in the life of a bike tourist, or at least, these particular bike tourists.

Morning: We try to start our days fairly early, to take advantage of the daylight, which here in the Pacific Northwest lasts from 5 a.m. to nearly 10 p.m. The magnitude of this earliness almost directly depends on the legality or sketchiness of our camping situation. For example, if we have paid to pitch our tent at a family-oriented state park and have received a neat little permit to display on our tent proclaiming our permission to be there, we may sleep until eight and piddle around for a while, leaving camp nearing ten o’clock. However, after a night of cowboy camping between a shed and a train track, we will depart very early and with a purposeful haste. (We’ve only had one close call with these “unofficial” campsites involving a disobedient dog and a man who took his “Volunteer” status way too seriously.)

We eat instant oatmeal every single morning, sometimes accompanied by scoops of peanut butter or handfuls of cheerios, but usually just the oatmeal, straight out of the package and halfway cooked. We don’t make coffee, because I would rather drink no coffee than instant coffee, but maybe I’m just a snob about it. Once Matt’s little alcohol stove is cooled enough to pack up, we hit the road.

Mid-day: Biking is probably at its most pleasant during the mid-morning hours. Then, traffic is often slim and the incessant wind hasn’t yet reached its full, infuriating force. The frequency and duration of our breaks of course depend on the terrain and the weather, but we typically take a major rest after our first 20-ish miles– unless we are climbing one of Oregon’s many hills or mountains, which it seems we nearly always are, in which case I stop to drink and pant and cuss approximately every 50 yards, while staring in incredibly fierce envy at the cars that whiz past us as if the road is flat or something. In this style we’ve ridden some of the state’s most beautiful scenic highways and experienced the landscape’s drastic changes through the magnifying glass that is traveling by bicycle. Matt is constantly pointing out trees and birds and vistas while we pedal up, up, up, but I tend to be mostly unable to appreciate these little wonders until the descent.

Anyway, we like to take our big, middle-of-the-day-making-good-progress breaks at, of all places, Safeway grocery stores. They’re everywhere out here, and they have everything we need: cheap cold drinks, air-conditioning, and tables next to outlets– Safeway is a bike tourists’ paradise. So we sit, recharging our phones and our burnt muscles, looking at maps and camping options, until we are mentally and physically boosted enough to get back on our bikes that double as suitcases and back on the highways that will take us onward.

My biggest hope on any given road is simply that it has a nice wide shoulder with little debris. Road shoulders are useful to us in a myriad of ways: they help me to not see my life flash before my eyes every time a truck passes; they help drivers to not yell at us to “Get off the road you hippies,” and therefore help me to not make rude hand gestures; they give me a place to perform my hill-climbing drinking-panting-cussing routine. The only people that road shoulders don’t seem to be useful to are the drivers of logging trucks, who always seem to swerve closer to us in what can only be a conspiracy against cyclists because anyone who rides a bike must be a tree-hugger.

Most of the time, how many miles we bike in a day depends on where we will be able to camp. Usually we are able to hop between national forests and state parks from day to day, but sometimes they are too far apart and we find ourselves stuck in what I think of as no man’s land, but the problem is that it is certainly some man’s land, which is why we can’t camp on it.

Evening: Inevitably, we find somewhere to sleep, questionably permissible or otherwise, and we settle in. In a secure spot we set up the tent; elsewhere, we sleep outside on the ground, ready to ride. While heating water on the trusty stove, we pour over our maps, discussing and re-discussing where we’ve been, where we’re headed, where we’ll be able to camp. These conversations are detail-oriented to the point of obsession, and the conclusion we almost always come to is something along the lines of, “Eh, we’ll see what happens. It’ll work out.”

We eat ramen noodles and instant mashed potatoes every night, sometimes followed by a course of blackberries that we picked from the side of the road and have carefully kept at least somewhat un-smushed all day. Last night we had road kill pineapple for dessert, by which I mean that we found a perfectly good pineapple on the side of the road and we took it with us and we ate it delightedly.

Our days end with a single beer when we feel like splurging, and me reading from The Last American Man, the story of Eustace Conway, modern-day mountain man, which is probably the most appropriate book anyone could read on a trip like this (except, perhaps, a guidebook or a book of biking tips or some other sensible read). Sometimes we manage to stay awake until night falls, usually we don’t.

And then we do it again.

Oregon Aint Flat

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Almost one week of being bike tourists and we are already getting accustomed (or in Matt’s case, re-accustomed) to living the dirtbag lifestyle. We made the 2,500-mile drive from Tennessee in a day and a half, thanks to Matt’s marathon driving skills. In Bend, Oregon, we got lucky with a free parking spot for the month and struck out with a few sets of clothes, a tent and sleeping bags, a stove and no experience. Riding away from the car and knowing that the next time I see it I’ll have pedaled myself several hundred miles all over Oregon was probably one of the strangest feelings I’ve had.

We were not cyclists before this trip. At home we rarely ride more than ten commuter miles a day, we don’t wear much spandex, most of our gear for this trip is borrowed and we bought our bikes on Craigslist. We had certainly never ridden with weight on our bikes before, and I’ve been pedaling in Chacos. On our first day of this tour we biked 35 miles, my longest ride ever up until that point. Ill-prepared? You could say that.

From Bend, we headed north for the Columbia River that marks the southern border of Washington, passing along the way a few tiny towns and never-ending fields of wheat, which according to a nice farmer’s wife is producing a skimpy harvest this year. We spent two days riding through a roller coaster of rolling hills, which can be very disheartening because the joy of topping one hill is immediately erased by the sight of the next one, and the next one, and repeat this cycle for 50 miles. We stayed one night in a town called Moro, the biggest town we’d seen in days with a population of 300. Moro is the kind of place where the local convenience store sells goods that were purchased from a real grocery store in another town miles away, but we thoroughly enjoyed this little taste of civilization before we headed back into the hills.

Now, we’ve just surpassed 200 miles, and have spent the past couple of days biking the beautiful but ferociously windy Columbia River Gorge. This is not the kind of wind that will ruffle your hair and cool you off on a hot day. This is the kind of wind that will blow you and your bike off the road, or bring you to a dead stop when you would otherwise be coasting at 20 mph down a hill, or keep you up all night because the sound of your flapping tent can be equated to a train passing overhead. It makes for an exceedingly difficult ride, even on the rare flat stretches.

Already we have met several interesting people who are curious or excited or confused about what we’re doing. People love to give us advice about routes to take or sights to see along the way. They want to scribble in little directions on our maps and tell us about their own outdoor endeavors and ask us a million questions about our plans (and are usually shocked at our general lack of plans, so they offer us even more advice). Yesterday a couple gave us their phone number so that we can send them pictures from the country’s second tallest waterfall when we reach it.

We’ve already received a fair share of what wanderers call Trail Magic. Trail Magic is little miracles for dirtbags, when things work out all too perfectly given the circumstances, such as finding an awesome campsite just as it’s getting dark or being given a free cup of coffee, for example. (Yes, those really are the kinds of things dirtbags hope for.) Two days ago, after a hellish 55-mile day involving 30 mile an hour winds and a very steep and unpleasant gravel road, we limped into a town called The Dalles and treated ourselves to some Mexican food. At the restaurant we asked around about free campsites nearby, about which the waiters were clueless. As we were about to try our luck sleeping at a city park, a very nice young lesbian couple in the booth behind us offered to throw our bikes in their truck and drive us 12 miles back the way we had come to a free campground on the river, and to then pick us up the next morning and drop us back in town. We couldn’t have asked for anything better, because we got to meet some cool local people and because on a trip like this there is nothing quite as comforting as camping in a place where you’re actually allowed to be. (I have to say, though, that it was pretty depressing to drive in ten minutes what it took us most of the day to bike).

Today we will continue along the river on the Washington side and cross back into Oregon at Bridge of the Gods. Soon we will turn south and head for the coast, entering gladly into a more populated and less windy part of the state. We have very little to depend on except willpower and our own bodies (and maybe a little Trail Magic here and there), and this creates an odd sort of freedom that can only come from having no stuff, no money and nowhere to be (except, of course, back in time for fall classes). Luckily we both love ramen noodles.

Orevwa Ayiti

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Home again.

Our trip home from Haiti was almost as exciting as actually being there. We had an evening flight out of Port-au-Prince, which on a good day is about a two-hour drive from Petite Riviere on a road that is partially paved, though often only gravel or dirt. There are no traffic laws in the country, so motor vehicle experiences quickly and often turn into near death experiences. The driver assigned to take us to the airport arrived to pick us up only 45 minutes late, so we were off to a timely start. On our way, we stopped in a city called Miragoane to say a quick hello to Father Granjean, a Monsignor who has been with the American Haitian Foundation since its beginning nearly 20 years ago. When we arrived at his home he was still conducting mass at the cathedral across the street, and we waited on his porch for an hour until the service ended. Still, a very timely morning. What we thought would be a brief greeting turned into an enormous breakfast with Father Granjean, the church’s bishop, and several other priests coming from church in their suits and collars– and then there was Matt and me, in our shorts and t-shirts and baseball caps which we shed out of courtesy to reveal our dirty and disheveled hair. We ate Sunday Soup. After we dined, we were promptly sent on our merry way to continue our journey into the capital city.

Two planes, a night sleeping in the airport, one shuttle bus and a car ride later, we found ourselves back in Tennessee, a little tired and hungry but overall no worse for wear than before our month in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. I was given all sorts of advice before we flew south in June: Only drink bottled water. Don’t eat any freshly prepared foods. Don’t go anywhere alone. Avoid rivers. Wear lots of bug spray. Don’t eat the barbecue. In general, watch out, it’s a very dangerous place.

Well, I drank and bathed in the rainwater we pulled from the well. We ate freshly caught fish, or beef, goat or chicken, or whatever else was served to us because Haitian food is delicious, and because it’s okay that the woman who cooked it probably didn’t wash her hands first. After the first few days, Matt and I were allowed to travel about the town unchaperoned, out to eat or for a drink or to the market. River crossings are unavoidable. Bug spray is necessary, but, let’s be honest, easy to forget. And the barbecue is fantastic.

We didn’t catch malaria or cholera or any other illnesses, we didn’t have any dangerous encounters or guns pointed at us, no one cursed us or threatened us or threw rocks at us, we didn’t fall off a mountainside, very few people begged or demanded money, we didn’t starve, we weren’t flung from a motorcycle, we didn’t get heat stroke, no one tried to steal from us, and the food didn’t make us sick. We didn’t even get sunburned. Maybe it is a dangerous place, but maybe dangerous is often confused with unfamiliar, or different. In four weeks I was never scared, I never feared for our lives or our health, I never thought that I was in any more danger than I would be in the US.

Many of these good fortunes are thanks to our friends, Gouel and Wilkens, Michena and Jimmy, Fernandez and Carmello, Tamara and Dady and Odeil and Tony, and the list goes on. We were welcomed and looked out for by so very many people, most of all by Gouel. There’s a saying that every Haitian has a White Man. Maybe some would consider us Gouel’s white man, adhering to the stereotype that says he used us for money or resources and we used him to make us feel better about our luxurious American lives. Many would say we were a lot of our Haitian friends’ white man (or future white man, since we currently have no money or resources but have the potential to).

But we didn’t send money donations or unwanted clothes and goods, and we didn’t spend a week on a mission trip in a controlled environment. We lived with all of these people for a month. We ate a meal with them every day, we slept in hammocks next to them, we panted and sweated walking high into the mountains together, we played competitive games of soccer on the beach, we passed around cokes and beers and plates of food, we sat at crooked tables playing games with bottle tops, we watched movies in French with English subtitles and in English with French subtitles, we all complained about the heat, we made fresh fruit juices, we discussed history and religion and marriage and culture, we taught each other languages, we met a million family members who offered us whatever they happened to have to eat that day, we talked about why America is rich and Haiti is poor, we took turns playing Temple Run on cell phones, we danced Kompa and the cha cha and everything in between, we picked on whoever fell asleep first and pulled each other out of oncoming traffic and cooked spaghetti hotdog and did laundry together (helping someone wash their dirty underwear spells friendship to me). Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t feel like anyone’s white man.

While we did get a deeper look into Haiti than most of the country’s visitors do, it was still only a glimpse. I saw and came to understand lots of things about the history and culture, but it all still comes down to the fact that I am an outsider, a visitor who went home to hot showers and air conditioning and Wal-Marts. I went to Haiti with my eyes, ears and mind wide open and learned many, many things, but how much could I truly learn while knowing that my stay there was so very temporary? That’s a question I can’t answer. I have lots of questions about Haiti that I can’t answer, and part of me feels as confused as I did when I first arrived in Petite Riviere. Maybe some things will come to light when there is time and distance between Haiti and me; maybe it will all become as clear as the creeks I was warned away from. But if I learned anything about Haiti, it’s that it is a country of subtle nuances and blatant ironies, of freed emotions and limited opportunities, of complex history and uncertain future. As long as Haiti is Haiti, there will be confusion and unanswered questions, but there will also be generosity, vibrancy, endurance and an authentic love simply for the gift of being alive.

In the morning Matt and I will begin our drive to Bend, Oregon. There we will park the car and begin a very different kind of adventure on our bicycles. We plan to ride as far north as we can in the first two weeks, and then head back south along the coast. Neither of us has been on a ride of this magnitude before, so there are sure to be some mishaps and misadventures along the way, but we are so excited to embark on this new journey in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

Away We Go

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For college students, summer break holds endless possibilities. We can study abroad in virtually any country on the planet, we can wait tables full-time to save up for real life (or beer), the studious among us can take summer classes, we can make a valiant attempt at screening every show on Netflix, we can intern in the hopes of securing a job or even a reference for after college—the list could go on, well, all summer.

After wrapping up another year at UT, I’m happy to say that Matt and I will be doing none of these things this summer. In just over two weeks we will fly south to Haiti to volunteer for the American Haitian Foundation for 30 days. The AHF is an organization based out of Signal Mountain, TN that operates a school in a coastal village called Petite-Riviere-de-Nippes. I will be working with some of the school’s teachers to further develop their conversational English skills, and Matt plans to start up a community garden and teach basic sustainability principles to the local people.

My preparations for our trip to Haiti have included getting 3 vaccinations, obtaining anti-malarial medicine, frantically trying to memorize everyday words in Creole, and buying unreal amounts of bugspray and sunscreen. My mental preparations are still underway.

Following our return from Haiti in early July, Matt and I are planning to go on a bike tour in the Pacific Northwest. We have decided we will drive to Bend, Oregon (where a kind soul has agreed to let us park our car for free), and then ride a loop of about 1,500 miles throughout Oregon, Washington, and hopefully even a little bit of Canada. Neither of us has been on a bike trip of this magnitude before, so it will undoubtedly be full of mishaps, sore legs, learning opportunities and totally new experiences.

A family friend asked me last week how Matt and I decided where to bike, and I shrugged and candidly responded, “Well, I’ve never been to Oregon before.” She laughed as I contemplated how that small exchange of words so immaculately describes my travels and my life.
Let the adventure begin.

Wyoming — check!

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We have come to our last few days in Wyoming and will soon begin packing up the tent and loading up the car, exactly two months to the day from when we arrived here. Our very last weekend was spent hiking to Static Peak at 11,300 feet (which I convinced Matt to complete in one day by conveniently failing to mention that it was almost 20 miles). We were chased from the top by a dark cloud– because no one wants to be on top of a mountain in a storm, but you especially don’t want to be on the appropriately-named Static Peak.

Our summer has been filled with spontaneous adventure, constant laughter, and relentless beauty. I knew this would be the summer of a lifetime, but never did I expect that it would be so all-around perfect. As a matter of fact, there are a multitude of things that happened this summer that I never thought I would experience.

For one, I never expected to live in Wyoming—but then, who really does expect to live in the least populated state in the country? I believe Wyoming is a state of many misconceptions. You picture farmland, cows, maybe some grassy plains, and probably more farmland. While a large portion of Wyoming does fit the stereotype, this is positively one of the most unexpectedly striking places I have ever been. The landscapes are incredibly diverse—and while the mountains, valleys, plains, and boiling hot springs are certainly beautiful in themselves, the contrast therein is what creates such ethereal magnificence.

On a similar note, I didn’t expect to have a cultural experience in Wyoming—again, who would? The ethnic and cultural diversity here is astounding and traveling here from overseas is extremely common. On any given outing it is normal to hear at least five different languages being spoken and to see clothing and customs from all over the world—all coming together, ironically, at a chuckwagon dinner.

I never thought I would live in a tent for an extended period of time. It’s certainly not the most ideal living situation, but this tent has been a fortress, never yielding to the rain, wind, or even snow. In this tent we’ve shared candlelit dinners on a Tupperware box table, watched countless late-night episodes of Friends, planned and packed for our quests into the wilderness (and recovered from them afterward), and, by my calculations, blown up our air mattress 54 times. While I am so looking forward there not being a parking lot between the bathroom and myself, I will miss the amusing simplicity of life in a tent.

I never expected to have to slam on my brakes for a bison standing stubbornly in the middle of the highway. I think I’m going to miss them almost as much as I’ll miss the mountains—I’ll also miss our ongoing debate about whether bison are the smartest or dumbest creatures on earth (it really could go either way). Many a car ride has been filled trying to figure out what the bison are thinking or why they’re doing what they’re doing—which usually isn’t much more than eating and walking, but every now and then you’ll get a jumper, or a ground roller, or even a rain dancer (the “Buffalo Shuffle,” according to Matt—it happened, I swear). I’m not sure why I feel so attached to these big furry cow cousins, but I know it just won’t be the same without the fear of totaling my car on a bison (who would probably think a fly had landed on him) every time I go somewhere.

I never ever expected to have use for an ice axe. When Matt packed them I remember thinking, “Oh, cool, just a precaution. Never going to have to actually touch that thing.” Wrong. I always supposed tools like that were reserved for hardcore climbers, summiting Everest or K2—not for lowly little me playing Let’s Climb a Mountain. But sure enough, those axes were absolutely vital to our ascent of Grand Teton—though I never want to need one again. (For that matter, I suppose I never expected to climb a mountain, but those mean looking ice axes stand out in my mind as a testament to the risk involved.)

More than all of these things, though, I never expected, at 20 years old, to have a life so overflowing with possibility and adventure. We have had the most amazing two months here, 2,000 miles from home, and are making plans to travel further and wider all the time.

Sunday night we’ll leave the campground and the Tetons and the bison behind (probably a little tearfully), and arrive alongside the sunrise at Glacier National Park in northern Montana. From there we’ll stop in the Badlands to tack one more park onto our trip, and then resume the almost 40-hour drive back to home sweet Tennessee.

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