NOTE: I just dug this up in my freewriting file on my computer. I forgot that I had even written it.The original date is below:
Last year, at almost precisely this time, I found myself standing in line at the tiny Durango-La Plata County Airport waiting for my tickets to print. Behind me, the La Plata Mountains loomed large and icy, framed by the thick glass of the terminal windows; to my left a stuffed bear in a flyfishing getup stood sentinel by the gift shop.
We were pretty quiet, my family and I. Looking back I think we were in shock. Peace Corps had been thrown around our family dinner conversation for almost a year and a half now, but I am not sure if it really hit us until we stood there, next to a flyfishing bear and backed by the familiar mountains that supported our world.
I had decided to join the Peace Corps on a whim in the fall of the previous year. I had just finished an idyllic, albeit short, season at Grand Teton National Park; living in a one room cabin, flyfishing every day at twilight, and always with the rugged, glaciated backdrop of the Teton Range framing my every moment. After such a jaw dropping experience, I found myself back home in a strange doldrums of sorts. I like my home and I love my parents, but it didn’t feel right to be back in the role of live-in son. Sleeping in my room and eating for free weighed heavily on my mind. I was no longer who I was and thus home was no longer the place it had long been to me. In the midst of all of this confusion, I grew more and more frustrated by the lack of job offers from the NPS, despite the slew of applications I had fired off to many parks all across the country; I am not picky. No bites. A large part of this, I knew from unfortunate experience, was from the Preferential Hiring points afforded veterans; most of whom deserve it. Many hiring officials never even make it to my application.
I was reading a book that fall at home, a creatively titled sequel to Muleady-Mecham’s book “Park Ranger” called “Park Ranger: the Sequel”. It was a good book and shared details about the Ranger’s life that had been too dark to be shared in the first book. But it wasn’t the fatal car crashes or high-angle body recoveries that commanded my attention, it was a brief mention of a ranger who got permanent status through “Peace Corps Preference”. I called some of my NPS friends and researched it. Sure enough, service in the US Peace Corps would qualify me for not just eligibility, but noncompetitive eligibility. Translated, it meant I could be hired without even having to apply for a position. It was a loophole, a magic bullet; hell, I figured, I could put up with anything for two years, so long as it led to that. If I went into the Peace Corps, my career was assured. I began my application that night.
A season in Big Bend fell in my lap shortly after my application went through and I handled interviews from SW Texas trying to determine my placement, which had been narrowed down to the entire continent of Africa. Silence for awhile and I began a summer season at Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina, deliberately turning down interviews for positions in Yosemite and Wrangell-St. Elias so I could be closer to my extended family in the east. I spent the entire summer driving around Appalachia and the Piedmont visiting family and friends that I hadn’t seen in years. It felt so good to reconnect with my forgotten roots; to chase fireflies and walk around barefoot. I reeked of bug-spray and sweated constantly. That said, the serenity offered by the island and the constant boom of the surf gave me amazing peace. I left in the fall, more connected to the place than I had ever been before. I had people to miss and people to miss me, I can’t wait to see my rediscovered family again.
A few months after that, I found myself in line at the airport, waiting to go to Morocco. I was bound for Africa. Africa. A name I had associated with mystery, danger, wildness for my entire childhood was to be my home for two years—four times longer than I had ever been away from home. Add to that the fact that I was to live in the midst of an Islamic culture, the enemy according to some. A few of my friends thought that I would be killed on sight, simply for being an American. Even my parents, two of the most broad-minded people I know, were concerned for my safety. Even I had my doubts, we are spoon-fed so much hate by our national media, that it worms its way into our collective unconscious. America, a nation that defines freedom for much of the world, was pointing the finger at an entire religion, billions of people, for an atrocity committed by a few fanatics. Our spin doctors told us who to hate and who to fear, within a decade the very sight of a man in a prayer robe and traditional beard sent our psyches into paroxysms of terror.
The moment I stepped off the plane in Casablanca, the first time I met a Moroccan in my training village, and when I was fed, tended-to, and loved by two separate families, I knew I had been lied to.
Over the course of the past year, I have learned what defines a culture, I have seen grace, nobility, and love far surpassing my expectations. I have come to legitimately love the people here; even as I struggle speaking their language they are kind, understanding, and amused. I have had to relearn patience in the face of a system that is barely held together. I have relearned how to speak, how to cook, how to bathe, and even how to go to the bathroom. I never realized that culture begins at birth; arriving in Morocco I had to relearn everything. Even now, after so much work, I feel like a precocious 3rd grader. My only real achievement is staying well for the past 5 months—and sick for the first 7.
I have also learned to live with myself, I can be alone for long periods of time without growing lonely; I read and write almost every day. I sit in the mornings on the cement expanse of my roof, regarding a vista that I know would have tourists talking for many months after. The unknown has slowly become known, and the unusual is now commonplace. I have watched my friends grow and change with me, many of them are leaving next month. They are finished with their service; they have done what they came to do, and now it is my turn to help new volunteers through the ups and downs of their first year; just as the previous volunteers have helped me. In many respects, the two years lived in the Peace Corps, is like living an entire life Birth to Death. The amount of personal evolution is stunning; and difficult to encapsulate. I found it difficult to talk about with people when I was home for Christmas—was that really two months ago? I am not sure if this evolution is making me a better person, or simply more accepting of my faults. Sometimes I think the former, other times the latter.
What is for sure, is that I have made a home in this place that was initially so foreign and unknown. I have grown to love it; to find peace in its chaos, and to see indescribable beauty in each day spent in the high Atlas.
Had I known any of this, I would have smiled to myself as I stood in that airport, to the right of the flyfishing bear, between my silent parents. I would have strode confidently toward the gate, ecstatic with the prospect all that was to come. As it was I hugged both my parents, all of us choking back tears, and taking one final look at the mountains through the windows, and at the bear by the door, I boarded the plane and was gone.
Thanks for reading,