Sitting on my stool post story telling, I beamed with excitement as Natasha and Jared looked on entirely dumbfounded and grinning with gratitude for my efforts at entertainment. All the while, Jared’s new housemate Jenn sat sheepishly on the hardwood floor beneath the wood stove, tanning a sheep hide and I’m sure wondering who this eccentric individual who had walked in and instantly overtaken her home was.
I am a story-teller.
I think I always have been—at least as long as I can remember. Maybe this is a third-born trait, or a classic ENFP trait, or a Gemini trait—but it is most definitely one of my more defining characteristics.
And so, in light of recognizing that I thrive on story-telling, and because it is now the year 2015 and I have not yet told a story this year—I will tell one now.
This story is dedicated to Jared Fehr. The same evening that I barged into Jenn’s home, overtook her living room, and ranted of the day’s happenings, Jared gave me a compliment that at the time, he probably did not realize the impact it had.
Grinning whole-heartedly from the kitchen, Jared said to me,
“You are such an incredible human being. I don’t just mean because of your story-telling, which is definitely incredible. I just mean that your existence, in general, is incredible. You are an incredible human being.”
In the short time I have known Jared, he has not been one to hand out random, half-hearted compliments. He is the type that only gives one when he means it, and when he knows it need be said—so when you get one you know, you have no choice but to accept it as Truth. He has also, in the entirety of our friendship, never once presented any kind of ulterior motive, or desire to gain rather than give. Nor has he professed undying love and affection to me ever. It is because of this, that this particular compliment made me feel as though I should probably go write a song or a book or start a wilderness therapy program or all of the above. It made me feel as though I could, in fact, change the world. Because, you see, according to Jared, I am an incredible human being.
And that is something.
I learned a couple days ago that Jared is moving back to Colorado. My instinct was to pack up and leave as well. Not because I want to move to Colorado, and not because I cannot bear the thought of Vermont without him, but rather, because the absolute worst part of settling down anywhere, is knowing that at some point in time, I will be left behind—because I am no longer the one leaving.
And so, this story is an official an Ode to Jared. There is no gift to give that could adequately thank him for his recent friendship, and even more so, for the opportunity he gave me with the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps.
What I can give, is a story.
* * * * * * * *
The year 2013 was quite possibly the worst year of my life.
Not the calendar year—more like April 2013—April 2014. This was due to the fact that I had just returned from a year abroad teaching English in South Korea as well as traveling the world with my boyfriend Tim, who subsequently decided that he no longer wanted to be with me just two short weeks after arriving back in the United States. This would have been a ‘normal’ and survivable breakup—except that we moved overseas together. And traveled the world together. And touched the lepers of India together. And taught the slum children of Farridhabad how to play Frisbee together. And rode elephants through the jungles of Thailand together. And stood beneath Big Ben together. And swam the coral reefs of Malaysia alongside 100-year old sea turtles together. And survived Korea together. And looked at rings and talked of wedding venues together. And prior to all of this, ride-shared to Southern California together while applying to overseas jobs, slumming on the beaches, and ridesharing our way up and down the coast together while making sure to stop at the Grand Canyon at sunset en route to this California adventure.
What seemed an entire lifetime of adventure was jam-packed into one single romantic relationship. And so, for obvious reasons—I was a complete and total wreck when it came to a sudden and unexpected end.
It is okay to write this now. It is okay because it has been almost two years and just the other day I woke up and realized that I am okay. I don’t think of him every day and there is no pining or longing or aching. And that means something entirely wonderful—it means that I have healed.
But before I healed I went through hell. Before I healed I spent a week immediately following the breakup on the bathroom floor of my friend’s apartment in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I spent a week throwing up and dry-heaving and curled up into fetal position force-feeding myself Sprite and saltine crackers in sips and nibbles while I pleaded with God to take away at least the physical pain and eventually the emotional.
I lost ten pounds in two weeks. I went to the home of the family with whom I had lived pre-Korea and proceeded to go through all of my belongings. Rather than sign a lease and settle down in Northwest Arkansas as I had originally intended, I donated half of my things to Goodwill—some of which were apartment things like a toaster and an iron—but some things included a lifetime collection of piano music and art that apparently I gave away during this emotional blackout and severely regretted several months later.
As soon as I was physically well enough to travel, I loaded up what survived the Purging of Belongings and headed to St. Louis to be with my family and live with my parents for the first time since leaving home at 18 years old.
In the months that followed, I cried a lot.
I watched an ungodly amount of HGTV and I wondered if at 29 years old I was even capable of surviving yet another heartbreak—this one seemingly much worse than all that preceded it. I also dove head first into beefing up my resume, now complete with international job experience. My goal was to secure a job working for a nonprofit organization in the development department. After spending years volunteering for various nonprofit organizations, at one point founding and funding a well in Uganda, East Africa, I felt I was entirely qualified for such a position.
152 denied resumes later, I learned that I am not.
That’s right. One hundred and fifty-two. I know because I made an Excel spreadsheet of all jobs I had applied to, complete with application date, as well as date I was rejected. Not only was I being denied jobs in the development sector for which I did not actually qualify, I was also being rejected for social work jobs for which I absolutely qualified.
I ended up waiting tables part time at a local Restaurant and Winery in the suburbs of St. Louis where I lived with my parents. And when the job ended due to a discrepancy with the owner, I became a barista at Starbucks. I got up at 3 o’clock in the morning to work for eight hours on my feet not making coffee, but emptying trashcans, sweeping floors, and making whipped creams—for minimum wage. Not only was this job absolutely horrible in a thousand different ways, but here I was with a four-year college degree and six years of experience in the mental health field and making minimum wage.
I lasted a month.
And after that month, I decided it was time to give teaching try—again. This time in the States. Because according to many of my fellow ESL teachers, teaching ESL overseas is entirely different from “really teaching” in the States. My substitute teaching career was a mix of kind of wonderful and very awful. The very awful parts were the days I substitute taught middle school in the ghetto. I will spare you the details. The kind of wonderful parts were the days I spent substitute teaching at a private Hebrew Academy in the nursery-aged classroom. On those days I built towers out of cardboard bricks and learned the Passover song in Hebrew and made arts and crafts and drank juice and learned what Kosher meant and pushed tiny Jewish children in swings in sunshine alongside incredibly kind teachers as we all sweated the day away in our ankle-length skirts and wrist-length, collarbone-covering shirts as was required attire.
It was during my time as a substitute teacher at Epstein Hebrew Academy that I decided teaching was not for me. I decided this not because it was a dreadful experience, but because it was actually a quite nice one. It was in fact, the best substitute teaching experience I had. But upon realizing it was the best teaching experience I had—and that it still meant being indoors for about seven hours a day, confined to one classroom, I realized that if this was as good as it gets, it was not for me. I am not meant to be confined.
And so the endless job search continued.
A Google search for “nonprofit jobs in Asheville, North Carolina” led me to a job posting on indeed.com for the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps. Why I decided on Asheville is unbeknownst to me. If I remember correctly, it was simply because numerous individuals had throughout my life, spoken its praises and ensured me that I would “love it there—it’s so you.”
I had given up on St. Louis. Not because I wanted to—I was resigned to the idea of living there for at least a few years as I now had a nephew, my parents were only getting older, and it was quite nice to live in the same city as my family for the first time in eleven years. But the fact that I was still underemployed a year after returning from overseas and after a year of aggressive job searching and applying led me to believe that just maybe, there was something for me out of state.
I applied to Vermont Youth Conservation Corps thinking that I would be training in Vermont for a couple of weeks and spending the remainder of my employment with the organization in Asheville, North Carolina, as that seemed to be what the Indeed.com job posting implied. I remember very clearly getting off of Skype after my hour and twenty minute interview and saying aloud to myself mid-laughter,
“They either think I’m crazy—or I just got myself a job . . . or maybe both. Probably both.”
According to the job description I would get to live in the woods with teenagers while building trail. So—I would get to live and breathe and eat outside and potentially change the lives of adolescent youth. Just my cup of tea J
I received a phone call from Jared two weeks after my interview. I was in the parking lot of the Hebrew Academy and immediately after getting off the phone broke into hysterical sobbing. A year of rejection and barely surviving on a total income of $7,000 and I had finally secured a job that wasn’t waiting tables or emptying trashcans for minimum wage. Not only so, but it meant adventure. This meant leaving the suburbs and traversing to an entirely new place that until then I had never even visited—the Northeast.
Doing so meant selling my most prized camera lens to pay for a catalytic converter for my car in order to make it successfully pass Missouri State inspections. It meant driving four hours south to an affordable mechanic and it meant quitting my incredible volunteer job as a freelance photographer for a documentary film crew. It meant packing up and leaving my family to move to a state I’d never been where I didn’t know a soul.
A twenty-two hour road trip turned into twenty-seven road hours stretched out over three days due to stopovers in Louisville, Indianapolis, and Lewisburg. And let’s not forget when my check engine light came on at around 1:00am in Akron, Ohio. I spent the night in a budget motel that reeked of mildew and had hair on the pillowcase and sheets. I cried myself to sleep that night as I remembered the last hotel stay I had was in London, England with Tim after walking the shores of the Thames River at dusk.
Halfway through New York I ran out of gas. At three o’ clock in the morning, the nearest gas station was 31 miles away. Not a single lamp lit yard of highway in sight. I still have no idea, aside from pure miracle, how I made it to the next gas station.
What I remember all to vividly is puking into a Winnie the Pooh gift bag. The gift bag my best friend Fern gave me during my stopover in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. The gift bag full of road trip munchies and good reads for my time in the woods. The gift bag I spastically dumped out and proceeded to puke into, while driving 70mph on black New York highways without gas, as I called my mother sobbing, asking whether or not I had just made the biggest mistake of my life.
“MOM I CAN’T STOP PUKING AND CRYING AND MY STOMACH IS IN KNOTS AND I HAVEN’T SLEPT SINCE I LEFT ST. LOUIS AND I’M OUT OF GAS AND THERE ARE NO GAS STATIONS FOR MILES AND WHAT IF I’M WRONG?!??! WHAT IF THIS IS THE WORST DECISION OF MY LIFE?
Am I making a mistake?”
My dear mother, in true Lynne Tomlinson fashion, talked and prayed me through the night.
Eventually, I made it safely to Richmond, Vermont. I rolled into training three hours late, stomach in knots, head spinning. I was wearing $200 Diesel jeans, Birkenstock sandals, a St. Louis Cardinals shirt, and a full face of makeup.
Everyone else was in Carhartts and work boots. And zero makeup.
From what I remember, I appeared to be at least somewhat confident and thrilled to be there. In reality I was scared out of my mind and entirely out of my element. It wasn’t until a few days later that I learned my five months in Asheville, North Carolina was not at all the plan. I had unknowingly moved to Vermont.
The following months presented the most intense culture shock I have ever experienced. I have lived in the suburbs of St. Louis, the ninth ward of New Orleans, sub-Saharan Africa, and South Korea. And still, being on trail crew was the most intense cultural shock experience I have had to date.
Maybe it is because when I lived overseas I expected the shock. I expected not to fit in. I expected to be out of my element. I expected to not understand things—to not know things. What I did not expect, in moving to Vermont and joining a trail crew, was all of the above.
But I didn’t fit in. I was out of my element. I didn’t understand things. I didn’t know things. And most of all, I felt entirely inadequate. There was a time we stood in a circle at training with a tarp full of tools at our feet. We were instructed to pick a tool and describe its use, how to safely carry it, and why we find it useful. There were two tools I recognized. A shovel and a flathead screwdriver. The flathead screwdriver turned out to be a chisel and not a screwdriver at all. Thankfully, the shovel was not picked up on the first round so I was safe. I stood in awe as my fellow crew leaders proceeded to pick up tools such as pick mattocks and McCleods and describe in detail just how incredibly useful they could be in building trail.
What. Was I thinking.
I am a social worker. I am a writer. I am a freelance photographer. I am many things. What I am not—what I was not—was a conservation worker and a trail builder. And yet—this is where I was. I was in Vermont. I was a Conservation Crew Leader in Vermont with not an ounce of experience in the field. My co-leaders told story after story of experiences on other trail crews out west. I sat silently by, in awe that this world of trail crew even existed, and wondering how I could possibly have not known of its existence for twenty-nine years.
The following six months were a blur of freezing mornings, coffee addiction frenzies, twenty-pound weight gain, fireside chats and jam sessions, once-a-week showers, endless carbs, dirty hands and a whole new world of trail-building. It was eating constantly and never being full. It was hours at Laundromats and realizing that the $20 in quarters we were instructed to bring would not be get me through the season. It was realizing that Merrell ‘water-proof’ hiking boots are not waterproof at all. It was learning what it meant to “pack light” and finally admitting that I will never fully grasp how to “pack light.” It was lots of rain and lots of cold when in Vermont—and lots of heat and lots of hot during my summer in North Carolina. It was recognizing how vital a co-lead is, and also recognizing that not only am I a decent leader after all, but I actually enjoy it. It was blazing a trail where there was none, and seeing the ecstatic and thankful faces of those for whom we built it. It was constructing giant teepees out of sweet gum. It was learning what an armored crossing was, spending days building one, and hearing each other's life stories as we inhaled coffee and tea in between digging and picking and rock hunting and setting. It was putting up with, as well as putting out--a whole lot of flatulence. And on the very worst of days--the days that I was cold and wet and hungry and scared to death of what may or may not happen at the end of the season because I would be unemployed again. . . On those days it was me looking up for just a moment to see a canopy of maples and smelling the fresh air of the forest and feeling the ever-constant drizzle of New England rain and saying aloud, "At least I'm not at Starbucks."
It was creating something useful and preserving something beautiful and living alongside some of the most amazing human beings I have ever known.
What I came away with was a love for the outdoors that I always knew I had but never knew how vital it was to my very well-being. I didn’t know how at home I would feel in a big red barn or in a tent in the woods or how familial a group of near strangers could become. I didn’t know that I would ever be okay going out into public without an ounce of makeup on and unshaven legs. I didn’t know that I could ever actually see muscles on my very own arms or successfully carry an eighteen pound rock bar up Ascutney Mountain. I didn’t know a lot of things before VYCC.
And there was pain there. There was pain as well. There was an awkward and unprofessional almost-relationship with my supervisor and the scars that followed when I was sent to North Carolina for the summer and did not hear from him again. And there was my nephew being born two weeks after I left St. Louis. There was my grandmother dying three weeks into my season and another family member being placed on suicide watch while I was thousands of miles away and without adequate cell phone reception. There was the end of the season and having no idea what the hell I was going to do or where I was going to live or if I was going to stay.
There was living on a near-stranger’s boat in the bay for a week, in a cabin at a state park, on a couch at a friend’s apartment. There was unemployment and a quickly dwindling bank account and fear of the unknown.
And then? Then there was social work.
Then there was taking a job with Washington County Mental Health as a Behavioral Interventionist. There was realizing that just maybe, although I swore time and again I would “never go back to social work” that is where I am supposed to be.
So here I am.
I am living in Montpelier, Vermont. I am living in the Northeast, where sometimes I wake up shivering because the temperature has dropped to sixteen below zero and I failed to turn on my electric blanket before I went to bed.
Sometimes when I go outside in the morning my nose hairs freeze, and sometimes I come home from snowboarding and my toes are frostbitten and white and numb and I call my roommates freaking out because I think I’m going to have to have them amputated.
I spend my mornings with Heather, siting on our couch staring out at ‘Deep Thoughts Mountain,’ convincing ourselves that we are not required to be motivated or productive until 1 o’clock in the afternoon on non-work days. I spend my evenings with my girls—my clients—attempting to convince them of the potential they don’t believe they have.
And the time in between?
The rest of the time is spent cooking roommate dinners and writing songs and watching live bluegrass and realizing how very small Montpelier is as I share a microbrew with one of ten total bartenders at one of three bars in town. The rest of the time is spent learning how to snowboard and shooting video for my musically inclined friend Britt Kusserow. The rest of the time is spent researching wilderness and outdoor therapy programs as I attempt as best I know how to start my own right here in Montpelier, Vermont.
When I first came here I only saw the beautiful. I came to Richmond. That was home. And I came to build trail. And that meant the parts of Vermont I saw were the trails and the mountains and the rivers and the postcard towns.
But now I work for Washington County. Now I work in Berlin and Barre. Now I see the reality of Vermont—and that is a great disparity between the very rich, upper class and the welfare heroine addicts and the 25-35 year old nature-loving transplants. And it is not so beautiful anymore. It is painful and real and not so much a temporary dream as a permanent choice and way of life.
This way of life that is not so beautiful anymore is still the best I’ve ever had. Vermont to me is not heroine addicts and rich upper class and extreme liberal views and maple syrup and Cabot cheese and tourism. That is not what I choose to see.
I choose to see the Green Mountains and golden capitol building at the bottom of our hill and the rivers that run through every town as far as the eye can see. I choose to see the broken young people that I am privileged enough to be given the opportunity to love. I choose to see the wonder that is Bolton Valley Ski Resort and all of the endless snowboarding and skiing and beautifully bearded men the world has to offer. I choose to see my candle-lit living room and my dear roommates and friends as we write music and sing our hearts out and don’t give a care that most times we are out of tune and can’t figure out the harmony and don’t actually know how to play more than four chords on guitar. I choose to see the countryside littered with red barns and cattle and sheep and horses and solar panels and cedar homes. I choose to see VYCC alumni coming to stay and visit every other weekend because the bonds we’ve formed will last a lifetime.
And what else to I see?
I see that for the first time in many years I am alive again.
My job is heart-wrenching and terrible in a million and one ways but it means something. It means something to get to go to work and know that I am making an infinite impact—though I may not see that impact until ten years down the road. And although I am no longer building trail or living in the woods I know what it means now. I know what it looks like—to live out of a pack and to always smell terribly and to eat three times what I would in my ‘normal’ life and to look up to the sky midday to see that I am surrounded by paper birch and white pines and covered in mineral soil. I know what it is to live alongside fellow human beings that understand what it is to travel, to roam, to love the earth, and to continue to survive on almost nothing in order to do something that makes us feel alive.
So thank you, Jared Fehr. Thank you, VYCC. Thank you for taking a chance on a young woman who had never held a mattock.
Thank you—for bringing me to Vermont.