Sitting here, staring at a blank word document, I find myself (for once in my life) somewhat speechless. The past five months working at the King Conservation District (KCD) and serving with AmeriCorps have been far and away the best experience of my life. I’ve gained an incredible amount of knowledge about the natural world we live in, how past management has resulted in the forest health issues we see today, and how future management can help correct these issues. Having no prior work experience or formal education in natural resource management or the environmental sciences, it was a bit like drinking from a fire hose at first, but everyone here at KCD, along with our many project partners, have been so accommodating and willing to teach that it wasn’t long before I was up and running on my own instead of just sitting back and observing. Not once was I ever treated as just the new intern or given menial office tasks (which is great for everyone, because I don’t even know how to make a cup of coffee, and boy are some people picky about their caffeine). Rather, I was instantly welcomed as one of the team, treated with respect as an equal, and my input valued during staff discussions (you fellow prior junior enlisted know how strange a feeling that can be at first).
All of this has served to make my transition to a new career field a smooth one, but the best part of all has been the variety of people I’ve met, the opportunities that have been afforded to me, and the projects I’ve worked on. There is no threat of monotony, even in the office work to be done, and I’m so grateful to have the ability to set my own schedule as I see fit to meet the current project workload. The day-to-day variability keeps me on my toes and reminds me daily how much there still is for me to learn, but it ensures that I’ll be well-prepared for any career opportunities that come my way at the end of this program.
I have to say, though, that my biggest takeaway from all of this has been something that the Mt. Adams Institute has stressed throughout all of our trainings thus far. It’s something that you might not ever think about (I certainly never did), and that’s the idea of “sense of place”; that is, what exactly is your connection to the natural world and why is it important to you? I wish I could tell you that I’ve always loved the outdoors, that it’s been in my blood from the start, but that’s far from the truth. As a child, I enjoyed running around, climbing the occasional tree, and playing catch with my dad, but that was about the extent of it. I was a Boy Scout for several years, but at the time it just wasn’t what I was interested in, and for a long while I had very little connection with the natural world. Over a decade later, when the opportunity came for me to travel to Colorado Springs for six months of schooling with the Army, I jumped at the chance. I had never lived outside of the Midwest, only seen a tiny fraction of the rest of the States, and had never been to that part of the country. Something about the idea of Colorado, of towering mountains, lush forests, and raging rivers resonated with me on a primal level and I just knew I had to go there and see it all for myself.
Deep down, I think part of me knew I belonged out west, surrounded by the splendor of our natural world. I fell in love with Colorado and the Rockies (the mountains, mind you…certainly not the MLB team. Go Tigers!) almost immediately, and my six months were up entirely too quickly. After crossing the Cascades via driving through Snoqualmie Pass a year later and seeing Mount Rainier towering on the horizon, though, I knew I had found my home (much to the chagrin of my mother back in Michigan). My past two years in the Pacific Northwest have been nothing short of life-changing. The places I’ve gone, trails I’ve hiked, and the things I’ve seen – sweeping panoramas of rolling hills covered in verdant forests, mirror-like mountain lakes tucked away in private corners of the world, roaring falls sending water tumbling hundreds of feet, jagged mountain ranges just begging to be climbed – have all played their part in solidifying my sense of place here in the PNW.
It was only fitting for my first mountain summit and first overnight to occur on my two-year anniversary in Washington State. Camping on the side of Mount Adams was a truly surreal experience for me: knowing how far I was from civilization, carrying everything I needed to complete the two-day journey on my back, being so fully immersed in the beauty that nature has to offer us, watching the sunset, moonrise, moonset, and sunrise…words could never do it justice. I’ll let these pictures say what I can’t and instead end by saying that this opportunity with AmeriCorps and the Mt. Adams Institute has helped me to realize who I am, what’s important to me, and what I’m meant to do; and for that I am truly thankful. I had started to think myself somewhat naïve for still believing it was still possible to find a job that you loved to do, but it’s simply a matter of realizing your passions and finding the career path that capitalizes on them.