It has been a long, exhausting journey these past twelve months. There has been extreme joys, beautiful memories, and a parting of friends to all the corners of the world. There have been the pain of growth and the love of family defined by the blood, sweat, and tears shed side by side with one another.
I look back and I smile because the memories are good. And as the year comes to a close, we reflect back at who we were and what we have become.
The majority of my year was filled with the experiences of AmeriCorps. I finished my second year as a member of the AmeriCorps St Louis Emergency Response Team (ERT), which was my fourth and final year of service with AmeriCorps. One cannot put into words the happiness (and struggles) of running around in the woods with individuals that I have come to know as more than friends, but an extended family born out of hard work, laughter, and complete and utter silliness.
I spent (what seemed like) months working alongside the Missouri Dept of Conservation at the Peck Ranch Wildlife Refuge, constructing fireline through the use of backpack blowers and through the process of felling snags and hazard trees.
It was hard work, but through the company of great people, we made it fun. We spent days running chainsaws, learning from experience, and growing together. Yes, I broke the plastic casing to a GoPro (the final tree in the video above) but it was awesome, none the less.
I also spent a month (or more) down at Roaring River State Park restoring glades in the back hills of the park. My team had the opportunity to set fire to hundreds of burn piles that were created by others, even though we ended up chasing a couple run-away fires up the hillside. There is nothing better than hiking a mile and a half through the woods in 70 degree weather to burn a couple piles, only to return a week later through the snow and light off over 100 piles, all before lunch.
I also discovered the different methods of lighting off burn piles. Most of the time, we were advised to keep the fires small and manageable, so the flames were no more than 6 feet tall. Other times the burn piles that we created were up to ten feet tall and lit off from a distance with old diesel fuel, allowing the flames to reach high into the sky. As seen in the photo above, we are standing about 30-40 feet away from the burn pile behind us and were still feeling the heat.
The opportunity to serve in AmeriCorps is more than a journey of hard work and enjoyable experiences, it is a path of self-discovery. I got to have long conversations with my teammates about life, love, and our purpose in the world. We stayed up late into the evenings watching the setting sun as we learned about one another and ourselves. It is a safe place to express your thoughts without the fear of judgement, a place where you can grow through the thoughts of others and be a sounding board for others.
As our year of service was coming to an end, I got the opportunity to depart Missouri and make my way up to Montana for several weeks before the rest of the Corps arrived for the end of year celebrations. The six of us piled into a single truck, packed to the brim with supplies and tools, and drove the three days into the mountain wilderness we called home. I worked and camped off the trail in a trailer with three other second years and two amazing ladies who were crazy enough to decide to return the following year to help teach and lead their teammates and assist the program to grow.
We did more than work and play together. We explored. We sang. We made crazy (and funny) videos. Lets just say that Montana was filled with great friendships that continue to grow, despite the distance that separates us now.
One of our biggest projects in Montana is trail clearing and maintenance. Every year, hundreds of thousands of trees fall in the woods (even more due to the pine bore beetle). A fraction of those land on a trail at some point. We spent weeks hiking hundreds of miles as we cleared trails, including parts of the Continental Divide Trail.
Many of the trails that we cleared headed right up into the mountains and ended up at beautiful views, glacial lakes, and mountain peaks. On good days, we would be able to spend a little bit of time at the top as we ate lunch (or a snack) and rested our feet before turning around and heading back down the mountain.
I also received the opportunity to work alongside an amazing group of retired smoke jumpers and two other second year members who are some of my closest friends. We camped out at the cabin and assisted in rebuilding the fence that encircled the area to keep out stray animals and unwanted vehicles. We were basically the pack mules, hauling the logs and fallen trees in from the woods that were used for the jacks and rails.
These guys were awesome. We hung out after work listening to their stories and their adventures as some of the elite wildland firefighters, and discussed how much has changed since the days they fought fire in the wilderness.
Since departing from AmeriCorps I have wandered far and wide. I spent several months in the process of searching for a job. I put in what seemed like hundreds of applications, from positions with the USFS, DNR, State Parks, and Dispatch positions from Alaska to Flordia, Hawaii to Maine, and everywhere in between. I had several places contact me back for interviews, before I eventually was offered a position with the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office in South Carolina as a Telecommunication Operator.
I started my new position the week after Thanksgiving, where I got to gather with some of my family in Athens with my grandparents.
Looking back, this year has been a blessing of hope and persistence. I continue to write and go through the process of editing Journeys: the adventures of a Nomad. I have started the Drawing Challenge with my cousin, a project to keep us both active in our sketchbooks. I have continued with the 52 Week Photo Challenge Course (this is the last week) and look forward to continuing with the Critique Group in the next year.
I will continue to explore. I will continue to have adventures. And I will continue to learn to live and love to the fullest.