As I picked blueberries and cherries last weekend in the shadow of a cloudy Mt. Hood (Wy’east), I meditated on what ‘community’ and ‘home’ mean to me. In the past year, I’ve called five different places Home: Chicago, IL; Boston, MA; Corvallis, OR; Istanbul, Turkey; Hood River, OR. In three of the five, I knew zero people in the area the day I moved, each time opening myself up to the search to find friends and a sense of community.
Hood River falls into the category of one of those three. Before I moved to Hood River to work for Cascade Mountain School and Mt. Adams Institute in Trout Lake, WA as an educator for their outdoor/environmental summer camps, I had once ridden my bike through Hood River on a bike trip around Mt. Hood and had stopped at Ground for coffee on a road trip to Idaho. I moved to Hood River looking forward to reconnecting to my roots in the Pacific Northwest and exploring the Gifford Pinchot National Forest with campers. I knew that if finding my sense of place and purpose in this new community were slow and challenging, I could always fall back on nature and trees – forgiving and resilient, embracing and nurturing, accepting and grounding.
I dove right in to my job at the end of May, no time to dwell on transitions back from living in Istanbul since January. My first day, I was told Cascade Mountain School is built on reciprocity. Our students last year gave 400 hours of service to the Trout Lake Valley and Hood River. In return, we’ve received over 350 hours of instruction in ecology, sustainable agriculture, stream restoration, glaciology, cheese making, and more from the generous experts (and all volunteers) in these communities. As I’ve learned what goes into running environmental education programs from my dual perspective as assistant organizer and educator, I’ve witnessed the reciprocity that is pivotal to Cascade Mountain School’s mission and programs.
The intricate layers of community in Trout Lake and Hood River make these places unique. I’ve met third-generation Trout Lakers, role models with roots in Yakama Nation, many Portland transplants, and families connected to the seasonal agriculture work in the organic valley. Fortunately, the warmth and openness of people here has allowed me to feel grounded and welcome with surprising ease.
As I’ve started to connect the names on registration forms with faces, I’ve begun to realize the extent of my own roots in the Pacific Northwest. Like the Armillaria fungus family whose mycelium has been found to connect over 2000 acres, I’ve discovered my local networks are much larger than I thought. A K-8 teacher who brought his class to CMS in early June was my OMSI outdoor school teacher in 2006. A good family friend used to be Trout Lake neighbors with one of my program directors. And the woman I rent from in Hood River helped organize my high school cross-country ski races. For the first time in the past few years, I am able to call myself a local (to the Pacific Northwest) and reaffirm that the world is actually quite small and connected.
I’ve been asked, “Does this feel like the middle of nowhere to you?” Compared to the past five months I spent living in Istanbul, Turkey, Trout Lake is geographically in the middle of nowhere. Population-wise, definitely: 16 million Istanbuls to 900 Trout Lakers. But the strong sense of community support and countless new friends, neighbors, parents, and coworkers who have welcomed me in to their circles makes this feel far less rural.
As camp approaches and med forms arrive in the mail box, as we develop curriculum and prepare to purchase over 50 loaves of bread this summer, I’m itching for campers to start arriving. I hope this summer that I’ll continue to uncover the many faces and experiences behind the reciprocity at the core of Cascade Mountain School, Mt. Adams Institute, Trout Lake, Hood River, the Columbia River Gorge, and beyond. I am amazed and humbled by the people who generously support these unique opportunities for students to explore the outdoors and discover their own sense of place amongst mountains, rivers, and farms.