I feel I owe a great debt.
Above my desk, stems inserted into the tracking of my window blinds, are miniature flags from all of the countries I’ve visited. As I sit here, I count twenty-one, and that doesn’t include the Vatican or the United States, where my cross-country road trips have taken me to and through almost every state. It doesn’t count Tanzania or South Korea, where I’ll go this summer. They are spears with banners that sometimes fall on my head and desk when I drop my blinds too quickly. I recover and reclaim them: Iceland from my coffee cup, the United Arab Emirates from my laptop, Belgium from the books.
The United Nations above my window is not intended to boast of my privilege (which, surely, traveling is) or my intrepidness. I don’t write this now to shout, “See! Look at me; I’ve got the old wanderlust—that Kerouac flanerie we so romanticize. I’m Anthony Bourdain without the cooking know-how and dubious past!” The flags are there because I’m a fool for nostalgia. Moments of any day temporarily stall while I reflect on a meal, or a conversation, or an embrace, held somewhere in the world. But it’s important—oh, so important—to know that my insatiable traveling, my intense intense desire to learn the world and all the cultures in it, did not come from inside of me. These things were fostered by people. People to whom I owe a great debt.
To Jay Halio, who led my Study Abroad trip to London my senior year of college, where I fell in love with cities, with literature, with theatre, with wandering alone.
To Jessica Hudson, who met me at 330 am on Kovalam Beach in southern India to make me feel okay before we built houses for people who’d lost everything from the tsunami of 2004.
To Sandra Schmidt, who brought me to Ethiopia, where I fell in love again every single day.
These are people who led me in trips abroad who I think about often, because there isn’t a whole lot of me that didn’t come from those experiences. As far as essential things in life go, those trips (and the scores I’ve been on in-between and since) are my DNA. If you feel the brail of me, the topography will read: Ponce, Istanbul, Dessie, Kanyakumari, London. My transcript reads Hanoi, Dublin, Cusco, Dresden. My genetics, all Milan and Prague.
As deep as those pleasures are, I always feel I’m getting away with something. When I board a plane, or rev a car engine, or feel the pull of the train; I feel a bit of guilt in my fortune. For a long time, I didn’t know how to pay back the Halios, Hudsons, and Schmidts of the world; I didn’t know how to balance out all the surplus joy I was taking from the geography of the planet. Until, at the Community College of Philadelphia, a few other wanderers and I got together and had the gumption to design the Alternative Spring Break.
From the get, let me say that we didn’t invent the name, nor the concept, of the ASB. For me, the development of the trip came from my desire to offer students a little something of the life I have because of the places I’ve been. I wanted to be the cliché, to “pay it forward,” by leading a trip for people who may benefit from finding out a small truth as to how large the world is. When I started teaching at CCP, I was instantly interested in leading a study abroad trip. I was twenty-five, just a tad more idealistic than I am now (a smidgeon, really), and pictured myself leaning back against Horatio Nelson’s podium while my fearless students marveled at the constant epiphany that is travel. I marched right into the Study Abroad director’s office (okay, I had an appointment) and proclaimed said enthusiasm, only to be told—rather bluntly—that there’s a lot of seniority that goes into which faculty can lead such a trip. I was, then, a sadly ol’ adjunct, which means I didn’t have a lot of footing when it came to throwing my weight around. Rather than slump into the slough of despond, however, I organized.
As a member of the Leadership Institute, which mandated that my group develop a project at the end of our instituting, we decided to pitch the Alternative Spring Break. Here was the general premise, in two stanzas:
1) To promote travel and cross-cultural understanding in our beloved students.
2) To instill in them a sense of social responsibility in service.
The concept was simple: we load on a bus or plane, go somewhere else (anywhere else) and work with a community organization to serve our destination community. The first year, we teamed up with Habitat for Humanity, as I’ve had a lot of experience with this organization and it was ready to accommodate a large number of students in its aptly-entitled “collegiate challenge” program. As you can imagine—if you’ve already thought it—there was some push-back against our plan. Questions such as, “Well, why go somewhere? There are enough problems in Philadelphia to solve instead of going somewhere else,” arose to confront out design. Ready with retort, I explained that the travel function was essential to this program. Many of our students have not had the means to explore their world (even their own city!) and so are only familiar with their own surroundings. The ASB was essential in showing students how vast their experience could be if they could find themselves in different settings. Secondly, as most of our graduating students remain to live and work in Philadelphia, the idea was that, if we plant a seed of service in them, regardless of where that occurs, they will foster it back home. In short, learn altruism elsewhere, and practice it here.
That seemed to quell the critics, and off to Sebring, FL we went.
The next year: New Orleans.
The next: Michigan (I took a sabbatical from ASB and wrote a novel in London).
The next: Chicago.
The next: Huntsville, AL.
The next: Avery, Co., NC.
I should mention that in some of these previous six years, there was more than one trip, to a variety of different locations; these were the ones with which I was involved.
Here’s what you have to know: I love my job. I love my job with all my heart. Most people do not understand how special it is to wake daily and teach your favorite thing in the world (literature, writing) to groups of intelligent and spirited students keen on what their education means for their lives. I am very proud of working at a community college; I couldn’t imagine working in a university. The mission of providing accessible education to communities for whom education has been denied since the dawn of higher education in America is something I consider every time I walk into the turn-of-the century gorgeousity that is the Mint Building. Pedagogically, I view teaching as a profession, an art form, and a social service. I’ll never be rich for it, but I am fulfilled in ways most folks will only read about and dismiss (maybe this is you—now). I hate to borrow from Lou Gehrig (or any Yankee), but I know I’m the luckiest bloke alive, occupationally.
Walking into a classroom is a balm for me, a sweet panacea from anything the outside world can do. I used to think, when I first started, that I’d love teaching because I would have the summers off. That idea ended when, one year, while hiking the perilous Grinnell Glacier trail at Glacier National Park in Montana, coming within thirty yards of a grizzly bear, I found myself thinking about the Fall term, about all those new students, about the books we’d talk about. Around me was one of the most beautiful vistas in all of the United States, and in my head, I was in a windowless CCP classroom flanked by cream-colored cinder blocks and a whole bunch of eyes vetting my aptitude. Wondering if they could trust.
And yet, as fulfilled as I am in what seems Plato’s literal cave allegory (seriously, why are there always burnt-out lights?) the Alternative Spring Break has become something deeply treasured in my human experience. Each year, I use my Spring Break to fly or drive somewhere where I can try to show students the world. Where we can build houses. I imagine my colleagues sipping coffee in European cities, or just catching up on sleep. I’m sleeping on a futon, or a bunk bed, or a church floor, aching from construction work (I’m an academic, right?), and chilling the most recent crisis (“I NEED cold medicine,” “It’s too cold in this convent,” “Can we go to Walmart again?”). But the truth is—the real truth, the main truth, and nothing but—I am giddy in love with hanging with these folks and doing these good things.
I don’t exactly feel like Halio, Hudson, or Schmidt (how could I know how they feel?) and I know spending a week in Elk Park, NC isn’t the same as a semester in London, but I think, if for even just one of them, that these trips are meaningful, I’ll do them until I retire.
That takes me to last month: to ASB 16, Avery.
The sixth year of ASB, this one was special for me because it was my fifth chaperoning. Half a decade traveling around with students and building houses. Having spent the last ASB in Alabama as the only chaperon on the trip (which, despite that, was still one of my most memorable times) I was overjoyed to learn I’d share these duties with Jeff and Wes. Because two Jeffs was too much for the students to handle, I quickly became Jeff (a) (as I am an English teacher) and the other Jeff became Jeff (1) (as he works in financial aid). Wes stayed Wes.
Our altruistic motley this year was about as diverse as this planet offers, which accurately represents our institution and fully enriches our ability to interact with those beyond our own histories and experiences. Multiple languages floated around, multiple religions were observed, multiple ethnicities abounded, multiple countries of origin were represented. There was a nice mix of veterans—students who’d taken the trip in previous years—and newcomers, and the group—a benefit to any chaperon—soldered together to become instantaneously familial.
Our drive down was a straight shot, the road running parallel to Shenandoah and the Appalachian ridge, which took my attention perhaps too much from the road. Expectedly, all of the students behind me in the 15-passenger van were asleep, save for my co-pilot, Amatullah, with whom I had a lovely five-hour discussion that spanned from education and pedagogy to her Hajj to Mecca. Certainly, good conversation curtails road weariness.
In Elk Park, NC, we found our abode: a community center with attached living quarters (read: two rooms of bunk beds, a bathroom per sex—let’s not get into this right now North Carolina, but we’re looking at you—and mercifully, a fully stocked and capable kitchen for our present, remarkable cooks. I have family in North Carolina, and always thought of them as intensely sweet and romantically apt storytellers. There’s this strange slowness to the way they tell stories, drawing out the narrative in robust and endearing ways. I remember listening to my cousin at my great-grandfather’s funeral, telling stories that lasted an hour but contained only fifteen minutes of real cosmic time. And I was enraptured. Here, in Elk Park, we experienced a similar kindness. Carolinians opened their world to us: they met us, talked with us, shared with us their stories, and accommodated our every need. When I take CCP students to a place that hasn’t experienced as much diversity as our beloved Philadelphia, there’s always a part of me that is at least conscious of the potentiality of conflict. My haunches aren’t up, but they quiver. As a chaperon, it’s my job to have an awareness for problems in my forethought and to mitigate any potential adversary wrought from the exposure of myriad cultures. Perhaps a bit too cautious, I take seriously my role as protector on these trips, no matter the diminutive nature of the thought (i.e. these folks can handle themselves). And yes, there were Confederate Flags everywhere; and indeed, we talked about them. But our direct interaction with the wonderful folks of Avery Co reminded us that, despite what we might presume, there are humans everywhere who recognize that everywhere, we are humans.
There’s a lot of hurt in the world, but we can insist on mending
The beauty of the surrounding mountains was stalling. If you need to understand my penchant for mountains, read literally any other of my travelogues. Still, Avery, the secret that it still is (despite the rich Floridians building gated communities on mountainsides), provided us with all the authentic ruggedness we idealize when thinking about the great American outdoors. We all come from a flat place. There’s a lot of advantage to Philadelphia’s being so flat (bike riding, right?), but when we see what the Earth can do when it pushes against itself, it is impossible to not marvel.
The lot of us, every one, put in enough sweat equity to justify a year’s worth of blue-collar work for a bunch of academics. Students and teachers, whose noses are typically buried into the spines of books, hands cramped with typing, climbed 30 feet of scaffolding, swinging wild hammers, lugging timber, laying floor. At one point, our master builder in Avery and new dear friend, Bruce, turned to me and reflected, “These students are really intuitive.” He was referring to how, after the first day, no one had to be told what to do. Angie immediately climbed the scaffolding. Mijuel went right to the saw. John located the hammers. Lindsay found the extension cord. Taylor sought out nails. Monique went for the wooden planks. Et al. All picking up where we’d left off. I responded to Bruce, “They’re like that in the classroom, too.”
Craig—one of the most enthusiastic Avery locals who welcomed us with affection, befriended a number of us, went jogging with a few of us in the wee hours of the morning, and baked us cookies—brought his dog Chief, a 4-month old boxer, with him whenever he stopped by the worksite or our temporary home. This was, obviously, a smart move, as nothing endures a group of people like a puppy. As for me, Chief liked mostly to chew my beard.
If you are so inclined to put yourself in situations where you can summon the courage to instigate the unknown, this world will prove to you it is a very generous host. I’d like for this to be true about our daily lives (and it can be), but when we travel, we are faced with the propensity of experiencing things wholly foreign to our human experience, which can prompt nuanced appreciations for ways of living beyond what we could have ever imagined. In Avery, ideas floated around in our small, shared space about how to use our downtime. We read various travel blogs, cross-referenced glossy brochures, and randomly queried our local facilitators about things to do.
Imagine my surprise when group consensus voted for my quasi-jestful suggestion of skiing. I mean, of the 20-something group members, I was the only one who’d ever been skiing before; so, frankly, the idea of putting a bunch of neophytes on metal slats to precariously slide down an icy mountain on our “Spring break” went from being a comical suggestion to a dangerous reality. But, I am democratic if anything, and so those who so chose to brave humanity’s various death temptations joined me in a van to head toward Sugar Mountain. Did I mention it was night skiing?
On the speed lift to the top of the mountain—a quad I commanded by myself—I had to snuggle inward against the cold. Toward the top, the resort did not illuminate the black diamond trails’ lights, which left the peak in essential darkness. As the hanging V of my skis swept through this nothing abyss under me, I had one of those moments: those, so this is life, eh?, moments. Never—read: ever—would I have expected to be on a mountain with CCP students skiing on an Alternative Spring Break, an evening after we worked all day building with Habitat for Humanity. It might be a shame or it might be a necessity, but life doesn’t provide for too many of those moments. Perhaps, if it did, it would blunt the force of the epiphany. But there, on a random chairlift in North Carolina, I could only stare down at the abyss, shake my head quizzically, and smile. On the entire mile ride down the mountain, glutes and thighs on fire (damn you fifteen-second Pocono slopes!), I was simultaneously extremely thankful and extremely hopeful that no one had yet broken a leg or torn an ACL.
I am not a gullible or naïve person, but I can’t believe that I can still be surprised by things after all these years. You’d think that after ten years of taking classes in higher education, nine years teaching, reading countless books, and traveling to myriad and breathtaking places around the Earth, I’d be just about bored with it all. But the surprises, man they keep coming, and man they keep knocking me from my toes to my heels. And in Avery, it was not a waterfall in El Yunque or a market in Kanyakumari; not this time. This time, it was a bunch of CCP students who, falling, bruising, braking by slamming into other skiers (I realized that the bunny hills are by far the most dangerous hills on the mountain), and getting up to brush of the snow and do it all over again, students who surprised me with their endless drive to surprise themselves. Like Amatullah and Andrea, who never stopped. Who, despite having no lesson (other than my dubious instruction on how to pie-wedge and French fry) ended up on perilous blue slopes, barreling down without fear, tipping the edges of their skis to near vertical drops with shrugged shoulders, and falling with an explosion of scarves, ski poles, gloves, and iphones all over the mountain. Zig-zagging down in all my experienced pretension, I collected the shrapnel of their materials and slowed to a spray by the clumped bodies of downed students, hoping they were alive and intact, only to arrive at—every time—the laughs of endless hilarity. They were absorbing every nuance of this new experience and did so with supreme glee; and I, the chaperon, felt kindled in me a warmth that fastened me to them forever.
When I came back to the lodge to rest and rub the blood back into my ankles (the million-foot stench of the rented ski boots wafting from my socks in a Pepe le Pew float that wilted flowers as I passed) I found some 21+ers enjoying a local craft while watching newbies tumble down the mountain from warm confines behind plate glass. They saluted their professor/chaperon, who joined them in their reverie.
Abraham asked how I was. The conditions: icy. My quads: sore. I’d never skied for so long before: that mile trek down from the very top that felt so good I must’ve laughed aloud—during an innocuous solo part of the route—and strained my legs in ways I’d never felt. In such contentment, I skied right back to the lift, ascended, and did the whole thing again, before the current rest in the lodge with those very fine people. (He was probably just being kind; was looking for an “I’m cool.” But I’m verbose, know what I mean?).
Abraham looked at me slyly, as he was wont to do, and replied, “I want to do it.”Context is everything in rhetoric. Anything means nothing without the specificity of environmental information. All that exterior influences the interior. Abraham is from Africa, had never donned skis before, and when I showed him how to latch his boots in, his otherwise penchant for athleticism ceded to the raised eyebrows of skepticism as he regarded me, wondering if I was serious. Yep, I nodded, this is where the fun begins.
So, later, in his zest for experiencing the next great feat, he demanded through my reservation to join him at the top so he could try his luck getting back down in one piece. Abraham’s skiing style was to touch the tips of his skis, tuck the poles under his arms as he’d no doubt seen countless times at such venues as the Olympics, become as solidly tense as possible, and aim for the bottom. This worked okay in straight corrals, but in a long, swerving slope, it meant trampolining down the mountain as he’d fall to a heap in a pile of clothes and equipment, stand up, dust himself off, and go at it again. We negotiated the entire mountain in 50-foot intervals, but we made it. The whole thing a strange comedy: we humans go up just so we can come back down. But therein was the supreme magic of the entire experience. There was nothing special about my criss-crossing the mountain while glancing at the ranges beyond. I’d been there. But Abraham, skiing for the first time, summoning the incomprehensible bravery to attempt that route, may have been one of the most inspiring things I’d ever seen. What drove him? What drove Amatullah and Andrea; Angie, Jose, Leslie, Carmella, and all the others who went to do this new thing and do it with such daring? What makes people, these people, throw not just caution, but themselves to the wind? For me, the episode on Sugar Mountain has become a symbol for the entire Alternative Spring Break: we challenge everything we know, are challenged, and find something not at the highest peaks, but when we come back down.
And then there was Grandfather.
Perhaps Avery County’s greatest tourist draw, Grandfather Mountain features a switchback road to a swinging bridge (reinforced metal; we’re not Indiana Joneses) about a mile above sea-level. This was all well and good—and beautiful—but like so many things in life: the best part of Grandfather was when we turned our backs to the attraction and went on the few-mile hike in the other direction, to ascend higher and higher, through more treacherous terrain.
For the last eight months, I’ve become an obsessive climber. I go to the rock gym by my house two or three times a week, find myself bouldering in the Wissahickon as well as up the banister of my house, and looking up Youtube videos of the best ascents in the world. Sometimes, I lose sleep over thinking through a problem (the term for a particular route on a rock). Climbing is the ultimate exercise; it is simultaneously a physical feat and an intellectual activity: one must figure out how to ascend before attempting to actually do so. There are calculations of gravity and bodyweight, endless finger strengthening exercises, and negotiations of a toe about an inch or so on a chip in order to make a subtle move. But really, I’m not an expert climber, nor do I ever aspire to be. I got into climbing because—genuinely—I love it. I feel like a kid, simply trying to get my body up random things. It’s the most fun thing I’ve discovered as an adult and, as I examine the various bouldering routes at CCP, or in the forest behind my sister-in-law’s rural Ohio house, or along the bombed out corridors of highway; I typically want to do little more than climb. As my good friend Alex Wildman once asked, “You know who’s the best climber in the gym? The one having the most fun.”
So, why not bring that to ASB Avery? Along Grandfather’s wonderful hike, there are a large number of bouldering problems one can attempt. In seeing me try a few, a couple of the students, naturally, wanted to join in. Now, I know what you’re thinking: what kind of chaperon takes students skiing and rock climbing for the first time? You’re probably right. This may not be best practice. But I’m not going to deny anyone the intense intense joys of life just because I’m worried about a few fractures am I?
At any rate, there are makeshift ladders and ropes to assist on the more technical parts of the hike, but myself, Andrea, and Angie decided to forgo all of them, encouraging courage, in favor of bouldering the nearby crags in order to ascend. Up the entire mountain, we slowly climbed our way via routes we discovered as we went. And there, 5800 feet above the ground, these ladies were able to do some amazing things on the rocks. They had no fear, and they beamed the entire way. At a high vantage point, we met up with Sabreen, Leslie, Adam, and some others. We took in the panorama, breathed in the semi-fresh air (there was a controlled burn in the valley that spoiled this a little) and felt like safe little grandchildren on the lap of the mountain. John looked out at the valley in amazement. Amatullah laughed radical at the altitude.
There’s just too much more to articulate, and here I’ve gone, rambling along. I doubt many people could make it to the end of such a soliloquy, but I don’t care. This one I write for those students, because once a year, I push myself to the edge of exhaustion during my “break” only to feel rejuvenated in my every day because of the light coming from these people. You know, I tell people all the time that I never complain about my job. When people see the end-of-the-semester stack of papers I tote around each May and December, they look at me with the wide anime eyes of shock and sadness and I just nod and say, Hey, it’s what they pay me for. I’m one of the very fortunate few who gets to discuss the thing I love most with people I can’t help but fall in love with; then occasionally, I go hiking and skiing with them on mountains.
That’s worth the arthritis and blurred vision of research paper grading.
I could barely write the end of my travel journal this year. In my tired scrawl, I wrote of my lack of creativity in the exposition, “Inarticulation at the end of a joyous burnout.” Some extra nostalgia: some of the students, who I’ve had in class, are moving on. Carmella, Angie, Danny; they’re off beyond CCP and ASB and every other acronym that means something to me. And though I get heavy with the prospect of such a moving on, I’m called back to my favorite Whitman poem, “Song of the Open Road,” and perhaps one of the most important stanzas therein: “Allons! we must not stop here,/ However sweet these laid-up stores, however convenient this/ dwelling we cannot remain here,/ However shelter’d this port and however calm these waters we/ must not anchor here,/ However welcome the hospitality that surrounds us we are/ permitted to receive it but a little while.”
We all must go on.
From Avery, we went on, to Ashville and Richmond, back to Philadelphia. From ASB16 we moved on, back to our studies and families and papers.
From it, we’ve gone; but in it—just maybe—we’re anchored.