I’ve been sitting on this post for a while. I struggled with it a lot. There is no way for me to talk about this subject and cast myself in a positive light; talking about it at all makes me hypocritical. I know. I agree with you. Ultimately, what this boils down to is trying to make myself feel better about my privilege. It’s self-indulgent and unproductive. But it’s on my mind, and tried my best to express my feelings, and I bear the responsibility of these problematic results.
No matter what I do, it never feels like the right thing. It never feels like enough.
There has never been a time in my life where my needs weren’t being met. Thanks to my parents, I’ve always had food, clothing, a place to live, healthcare, and a good education. I took them completely for granted. It was important to my parents to set me up for success in every way that they could. They both came from humble beginnings, but their parents – my very frugal grandparents, who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II – had just enough to build the foundation for my parents’ future. My parents both seized those opportunities and turned them into careers and investments, and they set a very strong example for me to follow.
I’m extremely fortunate. Even as an adult, if I were to reach out to my parents and ask for financial help, they would give me money immediately, without question, and without conditions. When I was thinking about buying my first car, I remember my mom telling me, “I couldn’t afford a car when I was your age, either. My aunt gave me the money for a down payment and called it a 0% interest family loan.” My parents understand that they are in their position today because they had a support system behind them, even a modest one, from the start.
After college, I swapped my parents for the military as a financial support system. True, the Navy employs me, but it also pays for my housing, food, healthcare, and even official travel totally separately. My paycheck is essentially my disposable income, used for leisure and whatever other bills I choose to accrue. With some planning, it was enough to pay off my student loans after four years in the Navy. Military pay isn’t going to make anyone rich, but the security of having the essentials covered is generally worth the trade-off.
I couldn’t be where I am today without the security and reliability of these financial support systems. I recognize this with an equal share of appreciation and guilt. I feel lucky, but it bothers me a lot that not everyone has had the same privilege as me. That’s why it’s important to me to give back, to do for others what was (and continues to be) done for me, now that I’m out of debt and able to do so. It is very, very hard to talk about giving away money without sounding like an asshole. The Bible isn’t everyone’s favorite source of moral guidelines, but I think it there is great wisdom in Matthew 6 on this subject:
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Sorry, God, but if other people didn’t talk about the causes they support, I would miss the opportunity to do my part. I have to find out about the needs of others from somewhere (usually podcasts, let’s be honest). So here it is: where some of my charitable money goes, where I found out about them, and why I do it – so maybe someone out there reading this will have the means and motivation to do the same.
I heard about Cooperative for Education from the Stuff You Should Know podcast. The idea of a direct sponsorship is very appealing; it makes you feel like your money is having an immediate impact on someone’s life. Cooperative for Education focuses on Guatemalan children, particularly girls, whose educations are often cut short by joining the work force to support their families. The student I’m sponsoring is almost done with the 10th grade, and my sponsorship ends when she graduates. Sponsorships start at $35 per month.
On a Sunday in Salt Lake City on my recent cross-country road trip, the priest at the Cathedral of the Madeleine was working directly with Unbound, which focuses on helping those in poverty attain or maintain self-sufficiency. I was moved by his passion and commitment to improving the lives of the less fortunate. Since I was already sponsoring a young person, I asked the priest if there was any need for a sponsor for an elderly person. (I had my grandma on my mind a lot, and how my mom and uncles are so devoted to her care.) There was, and now I support a woman in Bolivia.
Unbound has a ton of giving options and a wide reach. It is a good place to get started. In case it wasn’t clear, this is an explicitly Catholic organization. Sponsorships start at $36 per month.
I heard about Kiva also on Stuff You Should Know. I had never heard of microlending before they talked about it there. People from around the world post the amount of money they need, what they need the money for, and those loans get crowd-sourced incrementally at 0% interest. Loans are slowly paid back over time, and Kiva encourages you to reinvest the returned money in another person. This creates a charitable revolving door. A loan of $25, once repaid, could get lent out again and again to those in need.
There are many other microlending organizations out there, and I think this is a fascinating system and absolutely worth looking into.
When a friend asks for donations for a fundraiser or to help someone else in need, I don’t think twice. It feels good to show support for the people who love us. Plus, it feels good to give to a “cause.” It’s a win-win for everyone.
But when someone asks for money for themselves personally, we hesitate. Our egos get in the way. It feels uncomfortable to be the benefactor of someone we actually know. We worry that the person is trying to take advantage of us or that the friendship will be plagued by resentment. We prefer to give to strangers far away; we assume they will be grateful and will never depend on us for more.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. It feels wrong to turn away loved ones when my own family has given me so much throughout my life, to the extent that I took it for granted. Because isn’t that exactly what I fear? Being taken for granted?
If we can’t depend on the people who love us, what else is there?
Not many other folks have been as fortunate as me. So much of who I am is a direct result of what I’ve been given. If I could do that for someone else, even in a small way, why wouldn’t I? Shouldn’t I?
According to the Navy, it takes seven days to drive from Pensacola to Spokane. 2500 miles across seven days, at my slow pace and having to stop and pee every hour or two, means about 6-8 hours on the road per day. Not bad. But what if I wanted to go even slower than that? What could I see along the way? This desire led to an idea: could I turn this into something fun and still get to my next school in time?
I left as soon as I was able. I took 10 extra days of leave. Here is what I did.
Day 1: Pensacola to Memphis
I left in the morning on Thursday, April 20. The schoolhouse in its entirety had been before 0600 for a vague and nonspecific chewing-out. I packed up my car and was on the road shortly after colors.
On the drive through Alabama and Mississippi, I saw more churches than I’ve ever seen in my entire life, and I was surprised by how many abandoned buildings and homes there seemed to be. With so much empty space, maybe it makes the most sense to leave them alone. Almost everyone in Mississippi seems to have a small pond on their property, too.
Memphis is more or less exactly in between Pensacola and Kansas City. The motel that I stayed at was a short walk from historic Beale Street, which was alive with tourists and students with the Grizzlies postseason game nearby.
Day 2: Memphis to Kansas City
I really, really wanted to spend time in the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, but it didn’t open until mid-morning and I had someplace to be in Kansas City that night. I stopped by the Lorraine Hotel anyway, which has been preserved in time since Dr. King’s assassination there in 1968. It was here that I remembered that some of the most important American history happened in the past several decades, not centuries.
Coffee in hand, I drove through a bit of Arkansas (lots of armadillos dead on the roadside) and northwest into Missouri, where the temperature dropped and it started to rain. I arrived in Kansas City and checked in to one of the grimiest motels I’ve ever visited, but it was only for one night, and it put everything I needed in walking distance. After dinner and a quick drink at an upbeat gay bar called Hamburger Mary’s, I went to the Uptown Theater to see Welcome to Night Vale live (“All Hail”), which was great. On the walk back into the theater from a bathroom break, I also ran into someone who had been on my ship but had since gotten out of the Navy. Small world!
Day 3: Kansas City to Denver
This day was driving the entire width of Kansas. I stopped briefly at the Combat Air Museum in Topeka just to break things up, but it was mostly a lot of driving past oil wells and windmills and rolling farmland. I got to Denver late in the evening, ate dinner, and checked in to a hostel downtown, where I would stay for a few nights.
Day 4: Denver It is really hard to ignore the homelessness problem in Denver. It’s not that the homeless are a nuisance – they’re not – it’s that they’re everywhere, all over the city. Maybe other cities have more places for them to go, so they’re not quite so visible? I’m ignorant on this issue.
This day was a Sunday, so I went to Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. It was having major renovation work done on the facade, which was a shame, but the interior was beautiful, particularly the rose window above the organ. From there, I went to the History Colorado Center, which gives free admission to the military – thanks! My favorite aspect of this museum is the attention it gives to the more problematic parts of the state’s history, particularly the treatment of the Japanese during World War II and black people, well, always. I got a strong “let’s learn from these mistakes” vibe.
But the big attraction on this day was that Coheed and Cambria was in town on their “Neverender – GAIBSIV” tour, which is my favorite music from them. The show was fantastic. I know they – or at least Claudio – are sort of “over” that era of music, but they brought the energy all the same. I was unusually self-conscious about not having the outward appearance of the typical C&C fan, but as soon as the music came on and I could sing all the words, it didn’t matter. Plus, the folks around me on the floor were really considerate about keeping the mosh pit away from the smaller-statured people, which I appreciated. (The Dear Hunter opened for the show.)
Day 5: Rocky Mountain National Park
One of the girls staying in the hostel room was not especially considerate, so this adventure was fueled by lack of sleep and a single Voodoo donut.
It was a beautiful drive to Rocky Mountain National Park, where I was given a free National Parks annual pass for being in the military. This ended up saving me a bunch of money over the next two weeks. I’m really grateful that the NPS offers this deal.
I hiked from the Bierstadt Trailhead, which offered some really amazing views of the mountains, through to Bierstadt Lake, still covered in snow and ice. (I did not bring hiking boots to Pensacola, like a dummy, and did this hike in sneakers.) I circled around to Bear Lake and followed the road as the sky became grey and the wind picked up. Sure enough, as I rounded a turn and laid eyes on the trailhead where I had parked, it began to snow. Good and lucky timing.
Day 6: Pagosa Hot Springs to Chaco Canyon
Another night of lousy sleep at the hostel in Denver. I finished up making reservations for the rest of the trip, resolving to stay in private accommodations even if it cost more. I was on the road at 0430 and, very sleepy, drove south through the mountains in the dark. I began to notice the lovely little mountain towns along the way as the sun came up, and they reminded me of the vacations my family would go on during February school break to Mount Snow in Vermont.
Pagosa Springs was about halfway between Denver and my next destination, so it made for a perfect rest stop. I could smell the sulfur as soon as I entered the town. It was chilly and rainy, but the contrast made the hot springs more enjoyable, I think, just like using the onsen in Hokkaido in the winter. It was quiet at the resort, too, since it was the offseason, and all there was to listen to was the sound of the river rushing by.
It is over 150 miles from Pagosa to Chaco Canyon, but the last 25 miles took an hour by itself. It had rained there too, and the road into the canyon was, in better conditions, unpaved and rocky, but in these conditions was slippery as well. The drive in and out did a number on the underside of my front bumper. My car was almost completely covered in mud by the time I made it into Chaco Culture National Park.
It was raining and very windy as I located the campsite and set up my tent. Miraculously, it stayed dry on the inside, though I was drenched and shivering, my hands too cold to do a great job tying down the guy-lines. I threw some rocks on top of the stakes (which could only be set in sand) and got in my car to warm up and drive the loop around the park. Luckily, the weather cleared up briefly as I made it to some of the historical sites.
One of the most fascinating aspects of an ancestral puebloan site is the mystery of it; architectural practices of the early twentieth century allowed excavators to remove (and sell) artifacts from the site. But, the Rangers explained, once something goes missing from the site, even something apparently without significance or value, that a small piece of the ancient story go with it. It removes context that can never be replaced. For this reason (and others), there are still so many questions remaining about the people who lived in Chaco Canyon. They built tremendous structures that were able to house numbers far greater than those who lived there permanently. Was it a seasonal trading post, where inhabitants moved on to someplace else when the weather turned cold and blustery? Were they forced to abandon the canyon after a catastrophe, from famine or from enemies? There is so little evidence left behind. It made me think a lot about the sort of things we are leaving behind today, and what sort of conclusions people will draw about us a thousand years from now. The physical setting of the canyon, too, leads one to feel very small and introspective: massive cliffs ring a sprawling plains littered with sagebrush, where the wind howls in forceful, sporadic bursts. You can walk and walk and feel like you’re not going anywhere because the canyons seem simultaneously so close and so far away.
The Chacoan people did leave evidence of their understanding of astronomy, though, with their buildings’ structural alignment to solar and lunar cycles and the “sun dagger” on the Fajada Butte, which seems to have been designed to predict the equinoxes and solstices. The canyon itself maintains a gold-tier “dark sky” designation, meaning there is very little light pollution in the area and it is ideal for stargazing. That night, the rangers gave a lecture on astronomy, then we all bundled up and went out to look at the night sky. The weather had been lousy earlier but the sky was totally clear by then. The rangers, who really impressed me with their encyclopedic knowledge of astronomy, pointed out the well-known constellations to us. We used telescopes to get a good look at Jupiter and the Messier 3 star cluster. There wasn’t much to see of the Milky Way due to the season, but we could see the very edge of it. The edge of our galaxy! It was dazzling and overwhelming; in every direction, we were surrounded by stars. I thought that the night sky at sea was unbeatable, but this experience was very special.
When I returned, my tent was surrounded by hail but, mercifully, still standing intact and dry on the inside. The temperature had dropped below freezing and, between shivering and the loud snoring at the camp site next to me, I had a very, very restless night. It was my first camping experience. Despite less than ideal conditions, it went all right. Of everything I got to see and do on this trip, I think this was my favorite place.
Day 7: Chaco Canyon to Tusayan
I packed up my tent and spent a little more time among the ruins. It was still very cold and windy, but it felt good as the sun came up. There was no phone reception in the canyon and I had gone off the grid without telling my mom that I had gotten to New Mexico safely. I worried that she was worried. So I made the slow, bumpy drive out of the park and headed west for the Grand Canyon. (The original plan was to camp out there, too, but temperatures were dropping below freezing there too, so I canceled and stayed at the Holiday Inn in Tusayan instead, right outside the park.)
The first time I drove around a bend and got a glimpse of the Grand Canyon, I was hit with a wave of vertigo. Everyone knows that the Grand Canyon is big. I knew that aircraft carriers are big, too, but I couldn’t understand how big they are until I saw one in person. It was like that. It seemed inconceivably immense – as in, beyond what I could actually comprehend – and it took a while for me to get used to looking at it. I parked the car and did a short, easy hike around the rim. I wouldn’t go within several feet of the edge. Terrible mishaps kept running through my head, accompanied by the voice of Lester Holt: “US Navy sailor falls to her death in Grand Canyon while on vacation.” I watched the sun go down and cast huge shadows across the canyon below. I would be a little braver the next day.
Day 8: Grand Canyon, South Rim
After a delicious, complimentary Holiday Inn breakfast, I headed back into the park. I began with the steep but well-maintained and popularly traveled South Kaibab trail, which led down into the canyon itself. It was cold and blustery while walking in the shadow of the cliff, but as the sun climbed up higher, it became a warm and cloudless day, perfect for hiking and photos. I went as far as Cedar Ridge, stopping to rest and eat a snack, then went back up. I was expecting the return trip to be extremely arduous, since it was all upwards, but it wasn’t too bad. I still had a lot of energy when I was done.
I visited the Tusayan Ruins and museum, which had some ancient puebloan kivas as well, but these were remnants of foundations. Next, I went to the desert watchtower, where I climbed to the top and paid a quarter to get a better look at the blue-green Colorado River. From up high, the river looks like a little trickle, but the magnification revealed that it moves through the canyon pretty aggressively.
My last adventure was the Grandview trail. This one was really scary. There were several moments were I stopped and considered whether or not I ought to continue. The path was very steep and narrow with the sharpest drop-offs I’d ever seen. A wrong step and there would be nothing in between me and a long fall into the canyon below. At one point, I stopped for a break and was considering turning around and going back up when a couple edged their way passed me. The woman was holding a blanket around her shoulders and wearing sandals and seemed completely at ease. I – carrying a backpack containing two survival packs, spare clothes, and enough food and water to last 48 hours or more – was in awe. (In my defense, I had just gotten out of a survival school, and might have been in a very particular mindset.) I carried on a little longer, stopping often, worrying always, until I got to a point where I was just too scared to continue. Going up was much easier than going down; now my momentum was upward instead of downward, and I worried more about a misstep causing a chipped tooth instead of a plunge to my early death. I was exhausted by the time I got back to the top – not from the exercise, but from the fear.
Day 9: South Rim to St. George, Utah
I had planned on spending a few hours at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon on my way up to Utah, but the roads in weren’t open yet. So I drove from Tusayan to Glen Canyon Dam, where I stopped for photos and to use the car wash at a nearby gas station to get the mud from Chaco Canyon off my car. (I had never used an automated car wash before and the employee there was unusually kind and patient with me. Thank you, car wash man!)
The drive in to Zion National Park from the east was unbelievable. My jaw was hanging open the entire time. The massive layers of colorful sediment rise up all around and contrast beautifully with the green trees and a cloudless blue sky (I got really lucky when it came to the weather, with a few notable exceptions). I made a brief visit to the Human History Museum, which had to close early due to the federal hiring freeze leaving rangers short-staffed (hmm). I did a short hike on the Watchman trail, which followed the Virgin River up into the bluffs overlooking the visitor center and the green, green valley beyond. From that vantage point, Zion truly looks like a desert oasis. I checked in to the Days Inn at nearby St. George, which was really nice as far as two-star accommodations go, and planned out all the hiking I wanted to do the next day. There was a lot of it.
Day 10: Zion National Park
Most people want to hike up to Angels Landing when they come to Zion, but after the Grandview experience at the Grand Canyon only two days before, I was okay with passing on the hikes with severe drop-offs. I was ready for easy trails and seeing as much as possible in one day. This day was also my mom’s birthday. It would have been super rude to die in Utah on my mom’s birthday.
The park prohibits POVs past a certain point, which is great for cutting down traffic and carbon emissions. Park shuttles run up and down the length of the canyon at frequent intervals. I don’t think I waited more than 10 minutes to hop on, even in the busiest hours. To start, I rode the shuttle to its final stop, which was an easy riverside walk. This hike is supposed to turn into the famous Narrows, where you can walk through the river to the narrowest point of the canyon. As the canyon began to close in over me and it got darker and cooler, I came to a sign that said that the Narrows were closed due to snowmelt. Huge bummer. So I walked back to the shuttle and did the Weeping Rock trail (beautiful hanging vines and water trickling down the rocks), the Kayenta trail to the Emerald Pools (not the color advertised, but the upper pool was pretty neat), then the Grotto trail, which led me back to the Lodge where I could sit and eat my lunch. Then I got back on the shuttle for Canyon Junction, where I took the Pa’rus trail along the Virgin River (you could hear the sound of running water almost the entire walk, which was very pleasant) back to the visitor center.
Zion National Park is not just a beautiful place, it is also a well-run and maintained park. It is proactive about accessibility and concerned with public education. All of the trails are well-marked and maps are easy to follow. Of all the parks I visited on my trip, this is the one I recommended most strongly to my parents as being visitor-friendly. I got the feeling that the rangers took pride in helping people learn about and enjoy their park.
On the way back to St. George, I visited a ghost town in Grafton. This led to a lot of research on my part about what constitutes a “ghost town,” exactly, since these were just some abandoned (and well preserved) nineteenth century prairie homes. It is hard for anything to seem eerie on a bright, sunny day, with cattle moo-ing happily in a nearby pasture, a man in a cowboy hat holding his children up on the fence to look at the animals, and an older man with a small wooden easel set up near one of the homes. On the drive away from Grafton, I spotted another man in a cowboy hat and boots, only this one was wearing daisy dukes with his t-shirt tucked in to the waistband. He was out walking his dog, no leash. He waved cheerfully at the cars that gave him space on the narrow unpaved road. I thought, that man is standing in his truth. Good for him.
Day 11: St. George to Salt Lake City
I did a short hike in Kolob Canyon (the Mormons renamed everything around here, it seems) in the northwestern area of Zion National Park. The Timber Creek Overlook Trail led to an outcrop that overlooked the wilderness below. It was quiet and sunny and I sat there for while, thinking about how the canyons seem permanent and eternal from my perspective but are actually products of cataclysm and the slow march of time. It was a peaceful realization that things that seem like the end of the world might one day turn into something very beautiful.
The drive north to Salt Lake City was one freeway the entire way, speed limit 80. I checked in to the hostel with some help from another guest (the place was unstaffed and everything was confusingly automated). It was Sunday, so I went to Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine, which had a visiting priest whose upbeat and charitable character I admired. I ate dinner downtown and then went back to my tiny room with no window. You get what you pay for.
Day 12: Salt Lake City I started off the day with a visit to the Family History Museum, where one of the nice elders helped me begin compiling a digital family tree. I was blown away by the amount of information freely available there. I thought that my grandparents had all been first-generation Americans, but I was wrong: my paternal grandpa emigrated from Quebec when he was a child. Doing the research was a lot of fun, but I also realized that there is just as much that I can learn from my parents anecdotally. I would really like to sit down with them one day to learn as much as I can about my grandparents’ lives.
Next, I visited the Church History Museum, which helped fill in some of my knowledge gaps about Mormonism.
I had to leave Temple Square after that to find a coffee place, where the man who was behind me in line made a big show of forgetting his wallet and asking me to cover his lunch. I did, but it wasn’t out of altruism; he had made a scene and I felt uncomfortable and wanted to end it as quickly as possible. He caught up with me as I was trying to escape and revealed that it had been some kind of hidden camera prank and offered to pay me back. But that made me feel worse, like I had been preyed upon and only narrowly passed some half-assed social experiment.
After that, I stopped by the convention center, where a very sweet and very old woman gave me a tour. She, like all of the volunteers around Temple Square, was uncommonly patient and knowledgeable. I got to hear a little bit of the huge organ as the organist was practicing. My guide showed me all of the art around the building as we went up each floor, finally leading to the roof, which had a very clever garden where each corner resembled the trees and flowers found on the mountains or plains in that direction. There was a part for wildflowers, too, that was allowed to grow freely and naturally.
Finally, I went on a tour of the Beehive House. With me in the group was one very rude man and his friend who spent the tour trying to defuse his remarks. Every other comment out of his mouth was a smart-assed criticism of the LDS church. And, sure, they have a problematic history. Which faith doesn’t? At the same time, though, he was in their space. Why was he even there if he had so many hard feelings toward the church? The women who led the tour (one was from Kanagawa!), for their part, were extremely patient and understanding and probably deal with this sort of thing a lot. I did my best to keep the conversation focused on Joseph Smith and his story, and after the tour I chatted with the women a little more. They were both so kind and enthusiastic. They gave me a Book of Mormon to keep, which hopefully I will read one day.
I did some shopping. One of the employees at LUSH was from Massachusetts (“Everyone here is so nice. I hate it!” she said about Salt Lake City). I treated myself to some chocolate-covered strawberries from Godiva. As I was leaving the downtown area, a panhandler got really angry with me after I turned him down. (There are signs all over Salt Lake City imploring visitors not to support panhandling, and underneath those signs are often old parking meters which allow someone to donate money to a charitable organization instead.) I was surprised and spooked by his aggressiveness and was ready to go back to the hostel after that.
Day 13: Salt Lake City to Jackson Hole, Wyoming
I stopped by Antelope Island State Park on my way north from Salt Lake City. I saw the Great Salt Lake and bison for the first time. On my walk back from the beach, though, I was descended upon by a plague of gnats. They swarmed around my face and followed me all the way to the car and I sped away with the windows open to get them out. After driving some distance, I stopped someplace else for photos and the gnats were on me again! I could see them in hovering clouds, like patches of TV static, along the roadside. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was awful.
I drove up to Teton Village in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The Village is a collection of hotels and stores nestled at the base of a ski mountain. It was the offseason, though, so most of the businesses were closed – and I got accommodations for pretty cheap. I liked The Hostel at Teton Village immediately upon seeing a beautiful black cat sprawled out on the check-in desk. I spent the rest of the day driving around Grand Teton National Park, seeing the Chapel of the Transfiguration and the structural remains of some early settlers. I had dinner at a busy family restaurant where it seemed like everyone knew each other’s names. That was nice.
Day 14: Grand Teton National Park
Up until this point, I had been doing pretty well hiking around on my own. None of the parks I had visited had aggressive wildlife, and my biggest concern had been not falling to my death. But Grand Teton National Park is absolutely bear country, and at the time of my visit they were just coming out of hibernation. Hikers in this area are frequently warned to not hike alone and to keep their food sealed and/or in their cars. It’s also worth mentioning that I’m scared of literally everything and bears are especially terrifying. I was eager to hike around this unbelievably beautiful park, but I was also very apprehensive about being on my own.
I started with Taggert Lake with the intention of seeing Bradley Lake first and then circling around back to the trailhead, but the way toward Bradley Lake was still covered in snow with no discernible trail markers. The Taggert Lake trail can be done in a loop as well, and after taking some photos of the thawing lake, I teamed up with a retired lawyer from San Francisco to finish the hike. We each had a moment of falling into the snow up to our waists and I think we both were glad for the company. We realized after some time that we weren’t totally certain that we were still on the trail (not well marked with snow cover), which was confirmed when a family from the Netherlands was spotted slogging towards us. They had given up trying to find the trail and were heading back to Taggert Lake. Together, the five of us went back the way we came.
Most of the area around Jenny Lake is under construction, but the northern overlook was still open, so I stopped there for some photos. The cathedral peaks nearby looked like they were shining as the ice melted in the afternoon sun. I saw a ton of elk at the Elk Preserve area and bison grazing and butting heads. I think my favorite stop on this day was one of the boat launch areas onto the Snake River, where the marshes were home to boreal chorus frogs. I really like frog sounds. The river was audible in this area, too, so the combination of frogs and river water sounds was very relaxing. I recorded it on my phone to listen to later.
Day 15: Yellowstone National Park
If I had to have one “bad” day on this whole adventure, it would have been this one. The direct road between Grand Teton and Yellowstone parks was still not open for the season, so I drove almost four hours to the western entrance instead. That was fine, but my long life of traffic crime finally caught up to me and I got pulled over for speeding on the way there. With all that’s going on nowadays involving law enforcement, it was truly a privilege that my principle emotion was shame rather than fear. The cop was nice enough but it left me feeling angry at myself all day.
The exhibits in the visitor center near Old Faithful were really well done, both fun and informative. I got to spend some time looking at them before the geyser’s next scheduled eruption. I actually got to see Old Faithful erupt twice: once from near the visitor center, and once from an overlook, totally by coincidence.
I walked around the upper geyser basin. There are so many geysers in this area alone. Old Faithful is the most popular, but there are several that were more memorable to me: the Castle Geyser, which bubbled and steamed like a pot on the stove; the Solitary Geyser, which was a placid hot spring until a pipe was installed, turning it permanently into a regularly erupting geyser even after the pipe was removed; the Spasmodic Geyser, which is a spot-on name (erupts often and from different places along the pool); the Giant Geyser, which last erupted in 2015 and, before that, 2010 (it must be great to be there by coincidence and see it erupt); and the Grotto Geyser, which looks more like a curved fountain than a cone.
All of the “hikes” in this area are along boardwalks due to the delicate and unpredictable nature of the thermal land. I walked up to Biscuit Basin to see the Sapphire Pool and the other thermal pools. They had some of the most striking and unique natural colors I’ve ever seen: the waters were a deep aquamarine ringed by minerals and algae-like bacteria of all colors (many white, but some yellow, black, copper, yellow, and teal). The Morning Glory pool was especially interesting: its coloration used to be even more vivid, but visitors throwing objects into the water clogged the natural vent below and changed the bacterial composition of the pool.
I could have spent another day in Yellowstone easily. In particular, I wanted to see the Mammoth Hot Springs in the northern part of the park, but I had spent all day by the geysers and pools. I didn’t want to make the eight-hour round-trip drive again the following day. I decided to stay in the Teton area instead.
Day 16: Grand Teton National Park
Coming back to Grand Teton National Park turned out to be a great idea. It was a warm and cloudless day. My first stop was Schwabacher Landing, which has some of the most iconic views of the Tetons with the Snake River serpentining below. Next, I went to Jackson Lake and dam, which are overlooked by Mount Moran. These were some of my favorite photos from the whole trip. I went back to Jenny Lake and got some great photos there too. Mostly, I took it easy on this day, walking on the bike path around the park and enjoying the sun and fresh mountain air. I had been going, going, going for more than two weeks by this point, and it was starting to catch up to me.
Day 17: Jackson Hole to Missoula, Montana
It is more than nine hours from Jackson Hole to Spokane. I could have done it in one day. But I had extra time, and I found a nice hostel in Missoula, so I decided to take it slow.
I’ve been using my journal to recollect daily events on this trip, and I laughed at what I wrote for this day: “I really like Jackson Hole. It seems to pride itself on its wild-wild-westernness. I picked up a coffee and a sandwich before hitting the road, and today the road hit back.” There was a shredded tire, still mostly intact, in the middle of the freeway, and, not wanting to swerve into adjacent traffic, I ran over it. It dislodged part of the plastic under my front bumper but that, thankfully, was the worst of it.
I spent the rest of the drive playing tag with these huge black stormclouds. Eventually, it caught up to me, and the rain quickly turned into hail the size of golfballs. I pulled off to the side of the highway and waited. To be truthful, I was very scared that the hail was going to damage my windshield; it was hitting my car so hard and loud. It lasted only ten minutes or so, and my car held up.
I checked in to the Shady Spruce hostel in downtown Missoula, which was a really nice repurposed home. It was my favorite of all the places I stayed.
I got my hair cut and ate dinner and walked around the downtown area. Missoula is definitely a college town, but also family-friendly. Everyone was uncommonly polite. I spent less than 18 hours there, but it left a positive impression on me.
Day 18: Missoula to Spokane For the first time in more than two weeks, I woke up and put on a uniform. I went to church at St. Francis Xavier, which was just a short walk from the hostel. The priest there was enthusiastic and funny and joyful, and the congregation was genuinely kind. I really enjoyed the Mass there. After that, I was on the road for the last time.
It was a beautiful, rainy drive through the mountains. I would have enjoyed being a passenger on this leg of the trip so I could spend more time looking at the mountains rising through the mist and less time looking at the road. I stopped for lunch, then arrived at my ultimate destination, Fairchild Air Force Base, around 2PM on May 7, where I would spend the afternoon wandering around, trying to find where to check in. (No command quarterdecks in the Air Force. Even the instructors in my school admitted that their branch is “military-light.”)
In total, I put 4,875 miles on my car. I drove through 15 states. I saw six national parks and six new cities. I saw two live shows. I went camping for the first time! It was also my first experience with driving more than a few hours on my own. It was a very exciting 18 days, but the way I knew it was a great trip was when I was ready to go back to doing the Navy thing again at the end of it.
I hope the rest of the year brings even more adventures!
On New Years Eve 2014, my friends and I went tubing in the snow, and on the way back, the car got a flat tire. We spent hours in the cold waiting for AAA, talking and teasing each other and reminiscing about the year that was quickly coming to a close. 2014 tried to stick it to us for the last time, but we made it home just before the big countdown. After that, everyone agreed that we wanted an easy year for 2015. “Please, please just be chill.”
For me, things turned out very well. Welcome to a really long post about a really great year!
When I came home for holiday leave, I kept hearing about how skinny I had gotten. This is very confusing to me because I’m the heaviest I’ve been since 2012. (It’s also a little baffling how easily people offer commentary on my body, but that’s probably for another post.) My focus on running this year has changed my physique a little. It’s not better or worse, I think, just different.
I ran up “the hill” in Busan and around the harbor in Sydney. I set new race records (26:40 for 5k, 53:40 for 10k) and ran a half-marathon for the first time. I started training for a marathon but recently lost motivation for the longer runs. It is really hard to want to spend more than an hour on the treadmill after the workday. Plus, that kind of training demands a sacrifice from strength work. Going forward, I think I’m going to try a more balanced approach. I’m getting a little blasé about fitness because I’m sort of on autopilot now, and other hobbies have been dominating my time and attention. (Read: Fallout 4 came out.)
I haven’t seen my counselor since the week before the court-martial (more on this another time). Not professionally, at least. I bought her a little glass kangaroo in Sydney to put on her desk, and we chatted for a while when I dropped in to give it to her. She reminded me of how far I’ve come in 18 months. She also told me what I didn’t need to be in a crisis to come see her.
My counselor is one of the best things to happen to me in a long time. If you have ever considered going to counseling but have some reservations holding you back, please give it a try! I know it can be scary, but there is nothing wrong with talking to another person to make sense of things. We do it with each other all the time! But a professional gives you a sympathetic but unbiased perspective, which is invaluable.
With the exception of a few difficult times, I’ve been consistently happy. I’m learning to manage my anxiety in a constructive way. I’m really lucky to have the Navy and my family and friends as support systems. I couldn’t have done it without them. Thank you all for being there for me, especially when it wasn’t easy and I was difficult to love.
My goal was to read two books a month this year, one physical and one audio. I ended up reading 41! I’m proud of this. A 45-minute walk to and from work made this pretty easy. Here are my top five faves from what I read this year:
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski
Bag of Bones by Stephen King
Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)
I did two online classes on edx as well and both were challenging and fun! If you want to learn about something new but don’t want to spend money or, really, deal with rigorous academic demands, I highly recommend this website.
SPIRITUAL Still going to church, still trying to be a good Catholic. I got the chance to visit cathedrals in Nagasaki and Sydney and Zhangjiang, and while the differences were fascinating, it was the similarities that resonated most strongly with me.
I went to Christmas midnight Mass at home in an area that was mostly wealthy and white. The church and the choir were incredible, but I couldn’t help but notice how miserable the other parishioners looked. Maybe they were tired because it was so late. But, despite the beauty of the place and the joy of the celebration, the people around me made it feel like a funeral. It made me grateful for the joy and kindness that I see at the chapel on base. I’m going to miss it when I leave.
I made pretty poor decisions in terms of romantic partners this year. Fortunately, I can look back at them with only mild embarrassment instead of hurt or despair. It warrants serious reflection, though. Why do I find myself attracted to vacant, trifling people? Why do I give so much to people who give so little in return?
I don’t have the answers yet. Until I do, I think I need to be a little more choosy about in whom I invest any emotional energy.
We had a number of big certifications this year, including one for the system for which I’m responsible (which also involved a coworker and I desperately troubleshooting at the eleventh hour): TMI/MCI, 3M, ATFP, DC. We got the Battle E! I went to a few great schools, including the SAPR VA school, which was one of the most positive and useful experiences I’ve had in the Navy to date. I began my Reign of Terror as workcenter supervisor. We went to China, Singapore, Korea, Australia, Hong Kong, and Guam. I got my second warfare pin and got recognized as JSOQ, which, for some reason, doesn’t seem to happen often for my department. A big thank you to my chain of command for advocating for me!
There have been a lot of changes to my own division this year and most of them have been very positive. We got a bunch of motivated, hard-working, cheerful booters, and I adore each one of them. Our upper chain of command have been almost entirely replaced, and I’m learning a lot from our new leadership. I don’t dread going to work as much as I used to. I’m happy and grateful to be a part of my division. I don’t think I could have said that last year. (Actually, I know I wouldn’t have – I went TAD to engineering to get away from them.)
After coming home from one of our underways, I picked up the ukulele that had been sitting, neglected, in my closet. The challenges that frustrated me to the point of quitting seemed to fall away. I’m not good at it, but I love singing and making music, and it makes me happy even when it sounds like trash. No one has to listen to it but me! (And maybe my neighbors.)
I got a PS4 and have played The Last of Us, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Destiny, and Fallout 4, and if you’ve interacted with me for more than 30 seconds you know which of those takes the cake.
I didn’t see many movies this year, but of those that I did see, Mad Max: Fury Road was the best, and probably one of my favorite movies of all time. Honorable mentions to Jurassic World, The Martian, Spectre, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
I started writing a novel but was quickly reminded how much I struggle with writing fiction. I quit soon after. Oh well. I tried. Shout out to my friends who are still writing their stories! I see you!
Other adventures: I tried pole-dancing for the first time in Tokyo. The Patriots won the Super Bowl, and I cried about it at work. I went to Japan’s bizarre fertility festival. One of my friends made all of my favorite foods for my birthday, including a cheesecake. I bought a living room set! I went to the hot springs in Hakone. I also went to Kyoto via bullet train, where we got to dress up like ninja and samurai! I shot a bunch of guns for work (including M-16 full auto and a laser gun) and for fun (bird shoot while home on leave). I was reunited with a dear friend in Guam. I spent a day with Aboriginal people in Australia. I developed a taste for whiskey. I dressed up as Yuffie from FFVII for Halloween and spent the night in Tokyo. I hit $10k in savings. I cried at the airport on holiday leave when my friends showed up to greet me. Lots of crying this year, but, as opposed to 2014, most of it was happy tears!
GOALS FOR 2016
All in all, the best parts of this year came from my family and friends, old and new. It’s not just the big stuff, either. It’s the little moments that matter, and they most easily come to mind when I slide into one of those dark places. You guys make my world better just by being a part of it. Thank you for sharing your kindness, joy, humor, and passions with me. Thank you for being exactly who you are. And thank you for reading my blog!
Here are some things I’d like to do in the coming year:
Climb Mt. Fuji! The ship will finally be around during climbing season. No excuses!
Stay single. This will be challenging because I love to love. But I’ve been a serial monogamist since 2008, and it’s time for a break.
Read 48 books, or more! (I may have a problem.)
PCS. I guess this is inevitable but I’m still excited about it! I love Japan but I’m ready to start the next chapter of my Navy life.
Be more diligent about journaling. Day-to-day events seem boring and unremarkable until time passes and you realize those things were actually very special!
I’ll finish with a story:
When I was home for the holidays, my dad and I were arguing about my Life Choices. We both agreed that the Navy is not a long-term situation for me. His perspective is economical: for each year that I spend in the Navy, I’m losing money that I would make at a better-salaried job. I argued that I was living comfortably and had opportunities from the Navy that I wouldn’t get any place else, and that I was going to enjoy it until it no longer served me. Things got a little tense.
After he left the room, I complained to my brother about the argument. “What if I look back on this fight in 30 years and realize that he was right?” I worried. My dad’s girlfriend, with whom I don’t have much of a relationship, told me, very seriously, “Don’t listen to him. Follow your heart.”
She didn’t have to support me. She didn’t have to weigh in at all. She had no dog in the fight; if anything, it was in her best interest to agree, at least outwardly, with my dad. But that simple vote of confidence reminded me that it’s okay to trust my instincts, that I have the support of good people, and most of all, that things in my life are going pretty well. I’m a very lucky lady.
Sunday duty at home is usually quiet. Very seldom is the brass onboard. No contractor work or major evolutions means that watchstanding is more relaxed. We have no choice but to be on the ship, so those on duty try to make the best of it by catching up on work, getting ready for the week ahead, or just doing whatever activities they would have done at home. One of my coworkers, anticipating an easy day, brought his guitar. I had a book.
In this mindset, on my last Sunday duty day, I asked my duty department head if I could go to Church. Technically, we’re not supposed to leave the ship on duty, but as long as it doesn’t interfere with watchstanding or other responsibilities, DHs usually let their sailors take off for a short time. So, when I asked, I had my arguments all ready.
“Ma’am, can I go to Church this morning at 8?”
I braced myself. I was revving up for a fight.
“Yes, of course,” she said, gently, kindly. “Go.”
“I’ll only be gone an hour and I’m not on IET or – oh,” I stopped, awkwardly, realizing that she wasn’t giving me even the slightest bit of trouble. That’s it? Just like that? I can go? A wave of relief washed over me. I thanked her (twice) and left. No one stopped me.
Joining the military necessarily means a loss of one’s autonomy. The needs of the ship often come before the needs of individuals. Personal plans that require time away from work, even on weekends, are never a guarantee. In many ways, you forfeit control over your ability to manage your own time and make decisions. A recall, ship’s movement, major evolutions, duty – all of these take priority. Those with families have it especially hard, and a supportive spouse is more or less essential.
I also understand very well when it’s simply not possible to attend Church: underway, an all-day watch, a major event, a casualty – all of these would understandably, from a professional and, I think, moral perspective, would take precedence over a Sunday Mass. I have a commitment to the ship that goes beyond any other civilian job responsibilities. Sometimes the ship needs me in a way that nothing else could.
In a conflict, though, which takes priority: your ship or your faith?
I have had a few negative experiences at my command when it came to balancing the needs of the ship and my own need to practice my religion. Specifically, the conflict was that I had no demands that would have prevented me from attending Mass, but I was reprimanded or outright forbidden from doing so anyway.
One of these situations was a duty day. It was a holy day of obligation. I asked to go, citing the lack of responsibilities (late night watch, no team membership, work done, no drills), and was told the following: “If I let you go, I have to let everyone else go, and that’s not realistic or fair.” This argument was both fallacious and insulting, a great example of the rules being read too literally to the point of being nonsensical. Besides, on the same day, this person also allowed a number of duty personnel to attend two separate events off the ship – a mando-fun picnic and a Captain’s Cup game – because they were “command functions.” The hypocrisy was overwhelming and still continues to trouble me, more than a year later. I was scolded for having a bad attitude (true) and for not taking my duties seriously (not true). I was not allowed to leave the ship. And, according to the duty status instruction, he wasn’t wrong for preventing me from doing so.
The other situation wasn’t a duty day. I was in engineering. We were getting ready to light off after a long SRA, which meant working weekends. My chief openly admitted that our work was done and we were coming in on Sunday just for show, since the rest of the department had to work. With that in mind, I asked to come in an hour late so I could go to Mass before work. I offered to stay an hour later to make up for the lost time. Chief said no, citing the same reason as above: “If I let you come in late, I have to let everyone come in late.” This time, I lost it. It wasn’t that there was some tasking that was preventing me from going. There was no work to be done, especially during that one hour. We all knew that we would just be standing by all day until they let us go – one of the many infuriating aspects of ship life. The fact that I couldn’t fulfill this moral obligation for absolutely no reason made me totally break down. My division officer, seeing me clearly upset, told me, with agitation, “Just go.” It was humiliating that it had to come to that. This time, I got to go, but it was at the expense of my professionalism and military bearing. My chief and division officer thought I was using Church as an excuse to not work. That hurt me.
Given these two negative experiences, it’s pretty clear why it was such a relief to be given that one hour for Church without any drama. My DH didn’t have to let me go, but she did, and it made a huge difference in my attitude. I was engaged and involved in the demands of the day. I was eager to be supportive of the duty section, as though in return for a favor. I was positive and attentive on watch. My morale was great, even on weekend duty, and it cost the duty section nothing at all. Isn’t that a good example of the correct balance of priorities? In the absence of necessary or urgent professional demands, why not allow personnel to address their personal, human needs? It makes for less resentment and more productive, reliable sailors.
It actually doesn’t matter how many personnel are onboard the ship at any time if they’re all bitter and vindictive, showing up late for watch or not at all, hiding when duty section gets called away, not responding to casualties. We’ve all seen the creative ways that sailors get into trouble after their liberty has been curtailed for a while. After being told “no” to their needs for so long, even the strongest willed person will eventually break, turning around and telling the Navy “no” in response. A healthy balance of personal and professional priorities keeps everything (and everyone) going.
For better or worse, the ship is rarely the most important thing in a sailor’s life. When I think about whether or not to stay in the Navy, it’s those negative experiences – those restrictions on my autonomy, particularly being needlessly prevented from doing something that is very important to me – that come to mind first. It is difficult to belong to an organization which prioritizes strict (“strict”) adherence to rules at the expense of practicality and of their personnel’s non-professional wellbeing. Sometimes, shit happens. I know. You can’t always get what you want, especially as another cog in the wheel. But, repeatedly, in the long run, is it worth it?