You know that feeling you get when you read exactly the right book at exactly the right time? I got that feeling this week while reading Wild: from lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. She’s a Minnesotan writer and I’d wanted to read this book for months, but I was just too busy in the months leading up to my move to Ethiopia.
And then I got here and had an urge to read every dystopian novel I had brought with, telling myself that Wild would be the perfect first book to read once I was on my own at my permanent site. I was right. I felt such a kinship with the author even though we went on incredibly different journeys over 15 years apart. It was still comforting knowing that we probably shopped at the same REI store in Minneapolis and that neither one of us could ever have guessed how profoundly we would be changed by our adventures.
There were so many passages that stayed with me long after I turned the page, but the ones I listed below are phrases that have actually passed through my own mind at some point in these last three months in Ethiopia. So if you want a glimpse into my head, here are my thoughts, put together much better than I could have ever done:
“It was a world I’d never been to and yet had known was there all along, one I’d staggered to in sorrow and confusion and fear and hope. A world I thought would both make me into the woman I knew I could become and turn me back into the girl I’d once been. A world that measured two feet wide and 2,663 miles long. A world called the Pacific Crest Trail.”
I found this especially fitting because I just survived PCT – Peace Corps Training. And though our PCTs took roughly the same amount of time, they were vastly different experiences. But it wasn’t until I read these words that it really sunk in why Peace Corps had become so important to me: I thought it could help turn back the clock to a time when life was simpler. A time when I could trust easily, love easily, a carefree time when I didn’t have so many questions. I joined Peace Corps because I wanted to help others, but also because I felt like I had lost myself over the last few years and thought that I could find myself again if I was given a fresh start.
“At which point, at long last, there was the actual doing it, quickly followed by the grim realization of what it meant to do it, followed by the decision to quit doing it because doing it was absurd and pointless and ridiculously difficult and far more than I expected doing it would be and I was profoundly unprepared to do it. And then there was the real live truly doing it. The staying and doing it, in spite of everything.”
This is essentially what passed through my mind on repeat my first two weeks in Ethiopia: this is ridiculously difficult and I’m unprepared. I had romanticized what it would be like to be in Peace Corps and I was confronted with more hardships than I initially thought I could handle. Luckily, I met some incredible people along the way who helped me see that I was strong enough to stay and see this through.
“I hadn’t thought that hiking the PCT would be easy. I’d known it would take some getting adjusted. But now that I was out here, I was less sure I would adjust. Hiking the PCT was different than I’d imagined. I was different than I’d imagined. I couldn’t even remember what it was I’d imagined six months ago, back in December, when I’d first decided to do this.”
I applied to Peace Corps almost 20 months ago and so much in my life had changed between that time and the time I left, but nothing could have prepared me for who I’d have to become in order to stick with this. My reasons for staying are now vastly different from my reasons for coming in the first place.
“I staggered north toward Kennedy Meadows, furious with myself for having come up with this inane idea. Elsewhere, people were having barbecues and days of ease, lounging by lakes and taking naps. They had access to ice cubes and lemonade and rooms whose temperature was 70 degrees. I knew those people. I loved those people. I hated them too, for how far away they were from me, near death on a trail few had ever even heard of. I was going to quit. Quit, quit, quit, I chanted to myself…”
Those first few weeks I definitely chanted quit, quit, quit to myself more times than you could possibly imagine. I didn’t hate people having barbecues or taking naps, but I hated everyone eating a bowl of cereal or going to musicals. I thought about everything I was missing out on, but now I mostly see everything I’m experiencing that everyone else is missing out on.
“’Don’t worry about it too much. You’re green, but you’re tough. And tough is what matters the most out here. Not just anyone could do what you’re doing.’”
You have no idea how green I feel. But I do honestly believe that not just anyone could do what we do. I have so much respect for my fellow volunteers.
“Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren’t a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was. The radical aloneness of the PCT had altered that sense. Alone wasn’t a room anymore, but the whole wide world, and now I was alone in that world, occupying it in a way I never had before.”
Peace Corps Training brought a serious contradiction of feelings, never in my life have I felt lonelier, but at the same time I never could have imagined how connected I’d feel to the other 69 volunteers who had all taken the same leap I did.
“Dismal as it was, I felt a spark of light travel through me that had everything to do with the fact that I’d be done hiking the trail in about a week. I’d be in Portland, living like a normal person again. I’d get a job waiting tables in the evenings and I’d write during the day. Ever since the idea of living in Portland had settled into my mind, I’d spent hours imagining how it would feel to be back in the world where food and music, wine and coffee could be had.”
It’s sad to admit, but so much of my time here is spent imagining what I’ll do when I get back to America – what I’ll eat, what I’ll drink, where I’ll drive. There are so many things that are out of my control here, so it’s easy to daydream about what my life will be like when I return.
“The five of us hiked together in duos and trios of various formations, or sometimes all of us in a row, making a leisurely party of it, the vibe festive because of our numbers and the cool sunny days. On our long breaks we played hacky sack and skinny-dipped in an icy-cold lake, incited the wrath of a handful of hornets and then ran from them while we laughed and screamed. By the time we reached Timberline Lodge 6,000 feet up on the south flank of Mount Hood, we were like a tribe, bonded in that way I imagined kids felt when they spent a week together at summer camp.”
I have my own tribe here in Ethiopia, and it’s comprised of the people I lived with in Sagure. We šay/buna-ed together, chased kids, cheered for America and Ethiopia in the Olympics, fought like siblings, and discovered a unifying love for a country none of us had ever imagined we’d live in.
“I didn’t know how living outdoors and sleeping on the ground in a tent each night and walking alone through the wilderness all day almost every day had come to feel like my normal life, but it had. It was the idea of not doing it that scared me.”
Three months in and living in Ethiopia feels like the norm. Cold showers, pooping in holes, eating with my hands, avoiding animals in an attempt to avoid fleas – I’m going to be weird when I return to America. And I still have two more years for all of this to get ingrained into my very being. It makes me wonder if I’ll still be dying to return to America when my service is up or if the idea will terrify me.
“It was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished my hike. Everything except the fact that I didn’t have to know. That is was enough to trust that what I’d done was true. To understand its meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was…”
If I can say this when my service is over, everything will have been worthwhile. Even if I can’t put into words what it means to me now, and even if I still can’t when I’m finished, it’s ok. I’m here for the journey, not to learn how to define my life for others.
If you’ve never heard of this book and like reading autobiographies, I suggest you check it out. Even if you don’t like reading autobiographies, you should check it out. There are so many things that will happen to me over the next two years that I’ll never be able to explain to anyone back home, but this book really speaks to the heart of a journey someone takes in an effort to find themself.