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In a Flash

By Sammy

This past week, Israel had two of its most important holidays: Yom HaZikaron and Yom Haatzmaaut. Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance, is a day full of sadness, stories, and broken hearts, as the entire country remembers its fallen soldiers who died to protect the country. Then, right when the sun sets on Wednesday evening, the entire country shifts in a flash to celebrate Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s joyous Day of Independence. So how does an entire country transition so seemingly seamlessly from sadness to celebration? And why are these two contradictory holidays so close together?

Yom Hazikaron started with a trip to Jerusalem. Some of us on the program, including myself, left very early to spectate the bitter struggle between an organization called “Women of the Wall” and the religious men who pray at the Western Wall everyday. We watched as the members of the organization tried to bring in a Torah to pray with at the female section of the Western Wall, while religious men and women blocked their path. The whole situation was extremely messy, with both sides truly dedicated to their point of view. The Women of the Wall sincerely believe in the statement they are making for all Jewish women, illustrating their strong push for equal opportunity between men and women within the religion of Judaism. At the same time, the religious men and women believe that trying to change the time-honored customs of the ancient religion is foolish, and that God does not want these traditions changed. It was very interesting to be a bystander to this conflict, watching how both sides at the Wall thought the other was delusional.

Following the event at the Western Wall, we went to our old campus at Kiryat Moriah in Jerusalem (where we spent the first semester studying), to listen to speakers and watch films about Yom Hazikaron. To begin the day of remembrance, we stood in silence on the grass, waiting for the long wail of the siren. Throughout the whole of Israel, a siren flares up in remembrance for the fallen soldiers. All life stops, and every single Israeli stands for a minute or two, simply listening to the scream of the siren and honoring the day. Various Israelis came to the campus to speak about their lost siblings, children, friends, and fellow soldiers. I felt such a deep connection to the fallen soldiers, realizing that I have been living in a country that these brave troops died to preserve. My connection to the day was magnified, not only from living in Israel for the year, but also because of my age. If I was born in Israel, at eighteen years-old I would currently be in the Israeli army, enlisting along with all my friends. The story of one soldier, Benaya, was especially impactful. Benaya’s brother explained to us how Benaya served in a unit that discovered and cleared out the underground tunnels used by terrorists. After leaving a seemingly clear area, Benaya’s squad walked back to the rest of the unit. A terrorist, hidden beneath a secret entrance, popped out and fired round after round from a machine gun at the retreating soldiers. Miraculously, every single bullet struck Benaya and no one else, as the rest of the squadron quickly took out the terrorist. Benaya’s brother showed us a film of Benaya’s life. Clips were shown of Benaya as a kid, Benaya with his brothers, and most impactfully, Benaya returning home from duty one weekend to surprise his mother. I could easily picture my own family, and I could imagine the crippling, heartbreaking toll it would take on them. Later, a couple of my friends and I bused up North to Holon, where we ran a 5K along with hundreds of other Israelis in remembrance of Benaya. I witnessed each of his family members speak, viewing pain just as fresh as in the video we were shown earlier. Finally, at the end of the day, my friends and I made our way to the bridge overlooking the highway by our apartment. We waited there for the last siren, watching as speeding cars slowed down, pulled over, and stopped. Israelis got out of their cars, and we all stood together as one community.




While somber, I felt such a sense of communal support, knowing that throughout all of Israel, we were all hearing and thinking and remembering the same ideas.

Then, in a flash, Israel transformed. The sun went down, flags went up, music started blasting, and people began flooding the streets. Israel’s day of independence had arrived. I asked my Israeli friend where I should go Wednesday night in Tel Aviv to celebrate Independence Day. He replied: any street! We quickly mobilized, and went to one of the busiest streets in Tel Aviv.


Already, hundreds of people were dancing, laughing, singing, and spraying fake snow out of canisters for some strange reason. Large pick-up trucks pulled up, with giant speakers in the back. These “Nachman” (named after Rabbi Nachman, a venerated teacher of old) vehicles were driven by religious Jews, playing festive Israeli and Jewish songs. My friends and I danced all night with Israelis from all over, celebrating the holiday. The party continued throughout the whole next day, everyone full of joy for the existence of the Jewish state of Israel.



So how does a whole country shift moods in just a flash? How do we jump from a solemn day of remembrance to a joyous one of celebration? Perhaps the two days are not so different after all. The men and women that died serving Israel died with love and dedication for the country in their hearts. They sacrificed their lives to protect Israel, preserving its existence for now and for the future.

Yes, we can never forget the lives lost, never fully overcome the pain of the fallen young men and women, torn from their families and friends. However, we can celebrate what they died to protect and be grateful for the gift of protection and existence that they gave the people of Israel. In some ways, the days are one and the same. We would not have fallen soldiers if we did not receive independence, and no independence without soldiers risking their lives on the battlefield. Israel as a whole must be able to never forget the past and prices paid, but never stop being grateful for their sacrifice and hopeful for the future.

Colon Hyphen Parenthesis

By Valerie

As a quintessential Gen Z-er, I am conversationally impaired without my painstakingly-curated digital repository of stickers, emoticons and emojis. How could I not, when they have the power to impart shades and nuances that colloquial devices cannot effectively convey? 


Responding playfully to a lame quip from a close friend with a terse remark lacks the theatricality of a flamboyant swivelling “OK” sign. A sprawling dead-eyed Kermit screams exasperation of an intensity that beggars description, infusing an impassioned rant with a much-warranted melodramatic tinge. And who could decline even the most onerous request at the heart-rending sight of a puppy with its paws clasped in earnest imploration? 


When emails superseded texts as my dominant mode of communication for work and research, I balked at the cold, perfunctory exchanges. The striking absence of a warm human touch was discomfortingly at odds with my propensity for genuine, personal engagement. In a bid to lighten the tone of solemn discussions, I interspersed plain words with cordial smileys. But the bold attempts backfired, my well-intentioned overtures coming across as shallow and contrived. 


Dismiss it as childish naivete if you must, but I refused to accept that this– sterile, dull and flagrantly pragmatic– was the immutable nature of work conversations and relationships. Thus began a series of strategic efforts to transpose these dialogues to the familiar grounds of WhatsApp and Telegram. There, with an extensive pictorial arsenal once again at my disposal, surely I would be better-placed to forge more meaningful connections?  


Self-doubt and anxiety clouded the start of my endeavor. Was this appropriate? How would others react? Would my gestures be misconstrued? Preferring to err on the side of caution, I was conservative in my choices– especially with people many years my senior (boomers, basically)– carefully testing the waters before deciding to advance or retreat. It was a delicate balancing act that entailed not so much treading the fine line between the personal and the professional as constantly zigzagging across it, expertly adjusting the sails whenever the needle strayed too far off-centre.  


Unapologetically nonchalant responses threatened to dampen my enthusiasm, but a handful of earnest reciprocations convinced me that it was well worth the effort. I am still not quite sure what to make out of these relationships, though. They continue to awkwardly straddle the ambiguous divide between work and life, suffusing me with guilt-ridden gratitude for reaping the practical benefits borne out of mutual amity, while evoking bouts of skepticism towards the other party’s intentions when the friendly exploitation becomes too blatant and overbearing. 


I guess I’m starting to get a taste of office politics. 

What’s Next

By Hannah

After I finalized my decision to take a gap year last spring, I spent a lot of time thinking about what my goals for this year were going to be. I had a feeling that I was going to be changing my plans a lot for the year and wanted to have a way to ensure that I still accomplished certain things. The list went as follows: 


  1. Travel somewhere 
  1. Engage in new ways in my community 
  1. Meet new people 
  1. Read more  
  1. Form good self care habits 
  1. Spend time with my family 
  1. Get real world experience 
  1. Go outside my comfort zone 
  1. Improve my cooking 
  1.  Don’t be stressed 
  1. Have fun 


Looking at this list now, I feel like I am making good progress on every item, except for number 2. I put this second because I felt like it was something really important to me. Knowing I would be spending a good portion of this year at home got me thinking about how I could make the most of that. I decided that I wanted to find a new way to give back to the community I have called home my entire life. Especially now with COVID-19 and other crises facing us, I want to be able to look back on this time in my life and know that I stepped up. While I don’t know exactly what form this is going to take, I have been in touch with a few local organizations and am working on finding a couple volunteer opportunities to work on these next few months. I look forward to finalizing these plans very soon and hopefully having some cool experiences to share next month!  

 In the meantime, I am now back home from my time on the east coast, and have been enjoying spending my time outdoors (especially with my newfound appreciation for a California winter). I’m spending my time with my family and friends going on hikes, skiing, and even watching the Superbowl while having a picnic on the beach.   


Shifting to the City

By Sammy

Four months flew by in a flash. Four months in the holy city of Jerusalem.

Though I’ve known we’d be moving to Tel Aviv the whole time, I didn’t acknowledge how immense a transition it would be. Two diverse cities, both melting pots of cultures and religions, yet at the same time, completely opposite. To be honest, the difference only really hit me when playing Spikeball on the Tel Aviv Beach. I turned in a circle, taking in the light blue water, pedestrians zooming by on scooters, and towering buildings amid a bustling city. Less than a few weeks prior, I was playing the same sport with the same people, but instead my view consisted of a hilly landscape, a shining golden dome, and the ancient Western Wall. How could both these cities be part of the same country?

Birthright proved to be the perfect transition. Leaving our rooms in Jerusalem, our homes for the last four months, we embarked on a week of touring the country. We trekked up and down the whole of Israel, hitting all the sites from Haifa in the North to Eilat in the deep South. Each city felt like its own country, with a unique population made up of its own milieu of immigrants. Our guide taught us an interesting concept: ask any Israeli where they were born, where they served in the army, and where their parents are from, and we could generally infer their political opinions. Each city has its own circumstances, immigrants, and perspectives. Somehow, Israel seemed a state of many countries. In Haifa, a much less religious area, Russian immigrants dominate neighborhoods of the city. In Eilat, some Israelis can see the borders of Egypt and Jordan from their windows. We even traveled to Sderot, where brave Israelis live just miles from the Gaza border. There, almost 40% of children have PTSD from the constant rocket attacks. Depending on one’s location, people have between fifteen and five seconds to find safety in a bomb shelter! Even the parks, where children play everyday, were lined with these shelters.



We walked as close as we could to the Gaza border wall, led by one of the locals. To my deep surprise, her words were not bitter. She called the Gazans her neighbors, telling us of the family friends she had across the wall from before Israel gave the land away. She gave us ceramics with symbols of peace to stick on the wall, despite the constant aggression with Gaza.


Birthright was cut short after a week however, due to the COVID-19 lockdown imposed by the Israel government. We found ourselves quickly whisked away to the city of Tel Aviv, where we were more likely to see skyscrapers than synagogues from our windows.

A new sense filled us: independence. We were cooking our own meals now (sometimes with disastrous results), and finding our own internships. After Spikeball on the beach and finding an internship at a high frequency trading start-up, I thought I grasped the fact that we were living in a real city. Then my friends and I had our phones and wallets stolen. In my private Jewish high school, we did not even have locks on our lockers. We left our stuff wherever, trusting in a moral Jewish community. Often, when people come to Israel, they assume that because most everyone shares the same religion, there is a mutual trust among Israeli citizens. That idea seems foolish now, but in the places I and others on my program grew up, “Jewish” felt like “trustworthy.” However, that clearly was not the case. We tracked my last phone location from Find IPhone to an obscure bush in a random park, finding our empty phone cases and wallets strewn about. Our cash was gone, but our cards and IDs were thankfully still there. We were living in a city now. I might not have realized it before, but all my life — and I’m sure others on my program feel the same way — I’ve felt that I’ve been protected by some sort of safety net. Throughout school, it’s easy to assume you have something to fall back on. You have your shared community, shared routine, and a simple justice system: break rules, you’re punished; excel, and you’re rewarded. You had a family to go back home to every night that could help you with any problem. I had a rough understanding of the concept of “the real world” before this trip — leaving school, making a life for yourself. However, I can’t say that I ever really understood it. With independence comes the hard truth that you’re responsible for everything in your life. Making sure you’re healthy, safe, and thriving. There’s no plan in place to ensure your success, and no clear and swift justice system to make bad things good again. This second semester is going to be a fabulous and shocking learning experience for many of us. We are in charge of our own schedules and our own well-beings, and have to deal with the troubles life brings us without always having external help. I’m not worried about this new responsibility, but instead excited to take care of myself and see how I thrive. A new city, a new lifestyle, and a new independence.

Winter break in Tel Aviv

By Sami

This year I got to spend my week-long winter break in my grandparents’ vacant apartment in Tel Aviv. With very few expectations and very many Corona-related restrictions, four friends and I arrived in the apartment on Thursday night, and after resetting our screwed-up sleep cycles we decided to make the most of our vacation and explore the city. We scootered from one side of the city to the other along the picturesque beach at sundown, saw our first Christmas tree of the year in Jaffa, joined our Tel Avivian friends from the program to explore the famous Rothschild Boulevard and Neve Tzedek artist neighborhood, and swam in the freezing Mediterranean Sea. With a little over two days left in our vacation, my friends were all packed up to return to Jerusalem, but I decided to stay behind for the rest of the break. My roommate exclaimed with a worried expression, “You’re going to be all alone for two days,” and I responded enthusiastically with a grin and excited eyes, “I’m going to be all alone for two days!”

These last few months in Jerusalem have been packed with so many memorable and fun experiences, but spending almost every hour of the day with friends who live with me got overwhelming at times. What I needed most of all during this short winter break was some quality time to myself. Although I wasn’t able to explore Tel Aviv fully during my two solo days because of the lockdown, I still had a bike and an apartment to myself. On the first night I watched just about every Disney Pixar Short ever made, ate lots of popcorn, and grilled a fish for the first time.  The next day I went for a long bike ride (we’re allowed to leave a one-kilometer radius only for exercise) along the beach and through Hayarkon park (like the Central Park of Tel Aviv). Spending time alone, without so many distractions, gave me the clarity of mind I needed to fully appreciate all of the amazing things that have happened to me this year. Additionally, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more adult than those few days where I was living alone, making all my meals, and doing whatever I felt like doing with no one else to tell me otherwise.

Living Through Lockdown in Europe

By Lizzy

On October 31, the French government imposed a 6-week national lockdown in an effort to slow the spread of the Coronavirus. Considering the rapidly-increasing case count, the strict measures were absolutely necessary. However, since I was living alone in Paris at the time, this meant I would have to spend the next six weeks quarantined in my 12 x 12 foot apartment with no human interaction besides the cashier at the grocery store.

I was trying to mentally prepare myself for the isolation— and I was even considering returning to the US— when I received a call from a family friend who lives in Belgium. Having heard I was in Europe and realizing I would be quarantining alone, he offered to let me live with his family during the lockdown. So, 3 hours later, I had packed up my apartment in Paris and caught the last train for Brussels before the lockdown began.

My friends live in a renovated 150-year-old barn in the Belgian countryside about an hour from Brussels. While they live on a small plot of unfarmed land, their house is surrounded by independent farmers, and I frequently see tractors plowing crops outside my window.

I have found that the Belgian countryside is the ideal setting to spend a lockdown— farmland stretches for miles, and the rural culture provides little opportunity to catch the virus: for instance, instead of going to a crowded grocery store, we bike to a nearby farm for meat and eggs, and we buy bread from a bakery in a tiny local bakery which is almost always empty. I have especially enjoyed taking advantage of the outdoors during my time here, as the landscape is incredibly beautiful!

Additionally, while the house is far more isolated than my apartment in Paris, my French has improved during this time more than it ever would have had I remained in Paris, even if there hadn’t been a lockdown. The children in the family I am staying with speak only French, so I am constantly immersed in the language as I communicate with them.

Though this certainly wasn’t how I imagined my trip to Europe, it has been an incredibly rewarding and enjoyable experience, and I am so grateful that my friends have allowed me to stay with them during this time!

Adventures in Maui


By Matthew

When I embarked on this Hawaiian journey I hoped it would be filled with amazing experiences and adventure, sunsets, surfing, warm evenings and the maybe even sounds of a ukulele playing in the background.  Looking back, it was nothing like I expected.  Yes, it was spectacular, and of course it was warm, but some aspects of adventure and companionship were more nuanced than expected.   I knew some things about everyday life when camping on a remote farm were going to be wildly different from home, but I never expected three of my passions – driving, surfing and simply meeting friends would be so complex in Hana.

Our host purchased a 1998 Ford Ranger for us to use and we were all so excited for this freedom and mobility.  I got a taste of the craziness that lie ahead the moment we left the airport. We drove two and a half hours home along the Hana Highway to get to our new residence.  This road is world famous for its 620 curves, 59 one lane bridges, and the breathtaking views from this treacherous road.  I got to experience that road 24 more times over the course of 3 months.  Sometimes I would be the white-knuckled driver, other times I’d watch fearfully from the passenger seat, and every third trip from the bed of the truck – looking backwards, lolling back and forth on the verge of vomiting with unrelenting rain showers pouring down on me.  Seeing that road the first time set the tone for the trip and forced me to wrap my head around the twists and turns to come.  The journey quickly evolved from something cool and visually mesmerizing to a nauseating rollercoaster that seemed to never end.  But by the end of the trip we had trimmed the drive to two hours and felt like masters of the jungle stock car race.

While Hana is known for its plentiful natural resources, people are few and far between, and US mainlanders even less so. We had hoped to make some local friends eventually, and after several days in a row of playing Frisbee and making diving football catches in the waves after work with a group of locals curiously looking on from afar, someone finally came up and asked to join in our game.  We were so excited.  Before long we were grilling out on the beach with about 20 other “woofers” (Working-On-Farm) from the Hana area. That initial connection turned our rather predictable farming and swimming routine into Frisbee Fridays, Volleyball Sundays, Soccer Wednesdays, and big wave Thursdays.  It was awesome and it was a game changer for us.  They were great folks loving the land the way we’d hoped to, leading us on cliff jumping expeditions deep in the rainforest or along ocean coves, searching for secret beach spots and trading farming secrets over an evening fire. Their willingness to befriend us and share their own network and adventure took us to all corners of the island.

Surfing was something we all learned to love very quickly and occupied many weekend hours.  Saturday afternoons we would finish work, throw our day packs, cameras and surfboards in the truck and hit the winding road in search of waves. We would drive all over the island chasing breaks appropriate to our abilities. As our surfing skills grew so did our appetite for bigger waves.  Pacing the wave or standing on a board was easy in the grand scheme of things.  Our understanding of where to set up in the lineup, how to read the water, identifying consequential landmarks became critical areas of focus.  Many of those tasks did not come easy, as the help from the local crowd was nonexistent, not very welcoming to outsiders and far different from the Hana “woofer” crowd.  Every new break we went to posed different problems and challenges, whether it was the paddle out, navigating the crowds of surfers, finding non-deadly exit points, or avoiding the ever present reefs.  One by one, through much trial and error we were able to steadily progress without getting killed and soon were catching waves beyond our wildest dreams. Some of my best memories from the trip materialized from not just surfing but the adventure of finding secluded spots, beating others to the break after a rainstorm and checking out the sights from various parts of the island.

Our host had suggested that dietary changes were coming our way upon arrival in Hana, as were eating schedules, work routines, bathroom protocols and basic daily hygiene.  I will admit that all of those required some measure of adjustment, but the act of simply getting to and from the beach, meeting new friends and surfing waves ended up being far more challenging than I could have imagined.  But everything we learned in that arena was worth the additional effort.  I can now drive with laser focus and have perfected the hairpin turn as if driving a golf cart.  I can size up a surf break and manage to navigate the water, natural obstacles and enthusiastic inhabitants like a native.  And I have learned most important of all to embrace new and different people, to realize how everyone loves to play, and to keep putting myself out there in search of new relationships and experiences.  The easier stuff somehow became the challenging stuff, but it made Maui a better experience and will stay with me forever.

Coding 101

By Camille

Growing up as a member of Gen Z, I’ve been surrounded by the internet since birth. Unlike my grandparents, and even my parents, I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t just type, click, and be bombarded with a stream of answers. The onset of COVID has made technology and the internet even more relevant to daily life than I could have ever imagined. As I finished my senior year of high school from home, I began to realize just how mediocre my understanding of how it all works really is.

I decided to gain a basic understanding of what goes on behind the scenes of the hundreds of websites I’ve visited throughout my life. So, this past semester I’ve been immersed in a Web Development course through my local community college. In short, I’ve learned that things are a lot more complicated than they appear to the average user.

Studying CSS layouts

As I began to dive into the rules that govern HTML and CSS, I began to notice many similarities to my journey learning French. Instead of learning how to communicate in a foreign language with other humans, I was learning how to communicate my content and style desires to a computer. In both cases, the process begins with having to look up every other word, but eventually you start to build up a vocabulary and a comfort level.


A look inside my course notebook

While it was rewarding to stretch beyond my comfort zone, this semester was not without its frustrations. I had never realized the importance of a single semicolon or bracket until forgetting one and messing up my entire page, leading to a search through the code for the rogue punctuation. Working on assignments began to test not only my knowledge of the course material, but also my patience and organizational skills. By the end of the semester, I was able to pull together the things I’d learned to create a homepage for a fake travel organization that adapts to the device it’s being viewed on, whether that is a phone, tablet, or computer. As I turned in this final assignment, I felt a sense of relief that the whole thing came together without any major catastrophes, but also a hunger to go deeper into the intricacies of more complicated programming languages like Python and JavaScript.

The desktop version of my final webpage


My Road Trip Itinerary Pt. 2

By Christina


Horseshoe Bend

Page, AZ: Our drive from Springdale, UT to Page included a stop at the Coral Pink Sand Dunes near Kanab, UT.  I had never seen desert sand dunes before and was blown away by them.  The state park has sandboards and sand sleds for rent, and we tried one of each.  Sand boarding and sledding were incredible ways to experience the dunes up close, and both the board and sled actually worked.  Despite having no sort of snowboarding or skateboarding experience, we were able to ride down whole dunes successfully.  The sand dunes were a unique and stunning stop on our trip.  My one piece of advice for the dunes is watch the weather and avoid going on a windy day.  We went on a very windy day, and the sand was brutal whipping in our faces.  Wear eye protection and expect to get sand everywhere.  Lake Powell, our final stop of the day, was the most unique and stunning lake I’ve ever seen with its red rock backdrop.  I’d love to go back in the summer when watersports are possible.  We also did the short hike to Horseshoe Bend: on a windy day the sand was brutal, but the view was stunning and totally worth it.



Tusayan, AZ: We stayed in Tusayan while visiting the Grand Canyon.  The weather wasn’t ideal this time of year: it snowed heavily on us while we were there, so we weren’t able to see the canyon as much as we had hoped.  However, when we did get to see it, the Grand Canyon was absolutely stunning, especially with the coat of snow over the higher regions.  We hiked the rim of the canyon and ventured a couple miles into the canyon.  Both trails were covered in snow, and the hike into the canyon was particularly slippery at this time of year.  The Grand Canyon was definitely the coldest place we visited on our road trip: it was around 18º F when we were in the park.  I wouldn’t recommend going as late in the season as we did, but the canyon is a must-see for any traveler.


The Grand Canyon


San Diego, CA: San Diego gave us the perfect change in weather.  Temperatures were in the 60s and 70s, and the ocean water was just warm enough to enjoy.  I took my first ever surf lesson in Pacific Beach, which I highly recommend doing.  Getting up on the board was doable, which made the experience really enjoyable.  We also spent lots of time in the beach town of Encinitas, just 30 minutes north of downtown San Diego.  Every fish taco we ate in San Diego blew us away- from Oscar’s Mexican Seafood to Fish 101.


[IMAGE 3] with caption:

Surfing in San Diego


Three Rivers, CA: Sequoia National Park was one of the most stunning places we visited.  The size of all trees in the forest made me feel equally small and empowered.  General Sherman- the largest tree by volume on Earth- absolutely blew us away, but the fact that this tree was not a freak-of-nature in this forest was the most unbelievable part.  Other trees were wider or taller or older than Sherman, and to be surrounded by so many monumental works of nature humbled and shocked me.  For a six foot tall person, looking up at General Sherman is the equivalent of a mouse looking up at a six foot tall person.  That’s exactly what looking up at those trees felt like.


General Sherman


San Francisco, CA: We balanced city and nature time well on our road trip, and San Francisco was a nice escape to city.  We went for a waterside trail run with views of the Golden Gate Bridge one morning.  We recommend visiting Chinatown- we had a delicious dim sum dinner one night- and the Castro district for its history and symbolism of LGBTQ+ pride.  For ice cream, Salt & Straw was a must, and it doesn’t get better than eating it in one of San Francisco’s many parks with gorgeous city views.


The Golden Gate Bridge


Carson City, NV: We didn’t end up having time to visit Lake Tahoe, but the drive from Carson City to our destination- Park City, UT- was unique and gorgeous.  We passed salt flats and drove through Salt Lake City, UT at sunset: the purple sky framing the mountains that completely surround the city was unbelievable.


I never thought I would take or enjoy a road trip: I hate long drives, I don’t like living out of a bag, and there’s nothing I love more than a home cooked meal.  The road trip pushed me way out of my comfort zone in many ways, but it was the best experience of my life.  I saw what I now know to be some of the most gorgeous places on Earth.  I had nothing outside of the trip to stress about and was able to fully immerse myself in and enjoy the trip.  I spent every drive looking out the window, taking in the rolling hills of Kansas or the Rocky Mountains or California’s coast.  I couldn’t be happier that I jumped on this chance at adventure, and I spent the entire trip in awe, surrounded by some of the most beautiful places on Earth.

Leah’s trip with Outward Bound

By Leah


I just got home from a 50-day Outward Bound course, backpacking and canoeing through Big Bend Ranch State Park and Big Bend National Park. It was more complicated and exhausting and rewarding and wonderful than anything I’ve ever done before. I’ve decided that the best way to illustrate this experience for y’all is to share a series of excerpts from my journal with you–the greatest hits from my nightly debriefings and self-indulgent ramblings. This is the second of two installments–my time in the desert, from November 16 through December 6:


Nov 16

Today was a good day. We drifted into Mariscal Canyon and down two named rapids. It wasn’t easy, but everyone managed to stay dry–no dumps.

We made camp at a place where two canyons cross. Then a game of camouflage, and shrieking and laughing and diving headfirst behind rocks and into cacti, and our dirty tattered selves dragged our feet back to fried rice and rehydrated chocolate pudding and a roaring fire. The sun fell behind the canyon wall early, but kept glowing through her high orange curves. As afternoon faded to twilight, the haze in that twist of the canyon glowed golden, then finally crept away. We tucked each other in under tarps–it will be a very cold night.



And now I’ll read another chapter of my book and listen to the quiet sounds of camp–there’s a game of hearts going on several feet away. And the Milky Way will turn above us (or, I suppose, us below it), and tomorrow will come like every other day before and after it, and I will wake up early to help light the fire.


Nov 18

I woke up at 6-something to the sound of a bell ringing. It was tied around the neck of a horse–a small herd had wandered into our camp. It rang lazily for 20 minutes, or maybe 20 seconds, as I drifted in and out of sleep. Either the dewy morning started to turn blue-gray with mist and slowly rising sun, or I was just in a fog from my own half-consciousness; but for a moment, the desert was lush and the air was cool and wet, and two white horses stood over one of my friends as the bell floated in and around us.

And then the spell was broken–a headlamp was bobbing up and down, and someone was whooping and running. And the bell stopped for a second, then pounding hooves and crushing river cane, and silence again.

Two of us woke up early to the sunrise, and we made the fire and I poured chai powder into mugs and he poured boiling water and coffee into them, and people yawned and stretched and lifted their tired selves into the circle. And the morning went on, until it wasn’t new anymore.

We carried our things out of the clearing and through the river cane and down the steep muddy bank, and half of us stood waist deep in the water as the other half lowered helmets and paddles and pots and pans and buckets and ropes and clothes down to them and into the boats, and heavy things were tied to things that will float, and extra paddles were pinned in under the thwarts. And we floated down the river, and the river floated through those ancient crumbling rocks, slipped between them, slowly coaxed them out of its way.

And soon we were at camp. My sleeping mat thrown into a ditch (the best way to sleep on the riv is cradled in a ditch). The instructors joined us for our last dinner on the Rio, and we sat close together bundled up around the fire, headlamps off, quiet voices. A pack of coyotes howled upstream. Another pack started howling downstream.

We talked about what the river means. A water source, and transportation, and a livelihood. Dividing where you can camp and where you can pull over for lunch or to scout a rapid. Dividing identical desert into two arbitrary portions–when my boat flipped going down that rapid, and we were soaked up to our chins, and our things were floating down the river, and all we knew how to do was panic, we didn’t swim to shore in Mexico or the United States. We swam river right. The river was just the river, and the banks were just the banks.

We talked about paddling through Santa Elena, the layers of sediment forming wrinkles and age lines in the rock, the canyon walls shooting up above us–way up above us is where the water used to be, an incomprehensibly long time ago. And incomprehensibly far in the future, if whatever comes after humans happens to paddle down the Rio Grande, maybe they will be able to look up, up, up, and see how high up we once were. The river is a giant calendar, a clock, on a scale that we aren’t built to wrap our heads around.


Nov 21

Up at 5:30, and we packed our bags and tied them into the trailer and loaded ourselves onto the van. I’m one of the leaders for the day. We set off down a broad wash as the sun gradually made her appearance over the canyon walls.

Lunch was right before a narrow part of the canyon–high dark walls, and twists and turns, and soon after there was clear flowing water and trees and plants and all lush green as we picked our way through the pools–the most beautiful place I’ve seen out here yet–and the trees were so tall, and leaves crunching under our feet, and the pebbles in the streams kaleidoscopic blue and green and red.

Then we left the narrow bit and trekked on through washes lined with smooth slabs of mint green rock, filled with bright orange gravel. Just as we started to lose the sun, we found Oso Spring–fresh, clean water. And by “clean,” I mean not too much decaying matter to purify using iodine, and the beetles living in it looked happy and healthy. We filled our droms, and I switched sunglasses out for normal glasses and grabbed my headlamp.

After the spring came a complex network of washes, dividing and going every which way. By the time we got to the first fork, we had already lost the light. Not all washes are marked on the map, so usually–in the light of day–we use landmarks to make sure we’re going the right way. That’s not an option in the dark. We wove through the washes, not quite sure if we knew where we were. The terrain looked almost like the shutups from week one–narrow, and bouldery, and every 20 feet (or less) we had to stop to either scale some formidable rock formation or bushwhack through.

We blindly groped our way through the dark. Packs on, packs off, passing them up through the crags, hands sliced open on cacti. I distracted myself by making sure everyone was okay, and looking at the map, and smiling and saying how close we are to a theoretical campsite that I had no idea of the location or existence of. And “everything’s going to be okay,” and “soon we’ll have the best dinner and the best night’s sleep of our lives,” and “thank you all for your patience; you’re doing amazing,” trying to convince myself of those things more than I was trying to convince them.

Then one last push, up one last narrow pass, and either side of us began to flatten out. Packs off. We’re scouting ahead. And we stepped up onto a flat but shrubby spot, and we wandered, and finally (finally) we came to a clearing. It was the most beautiful campsite we’d ever seen–overrun by cacti, barely any room for our sleeping bags, but the most beautiful campsite ever. We rolled in at around 9:00. The chefs started cooking–it was the most delicious dinner I’ve ever eaten. And now, somehow, it is 12:03. Tomorrow, we walk 12 miles–for real this time.

Enjoy it–the hardest days are, invariably, the best.


Nov 23

We woke up, and made pancakes with margarine and honey, and turned off our alarms and handed in our watches, and turned in all of our books, and made a pile of our bowls and mugs and group gear.

And then we walked for a moment, and now I am here, alone, on solo, for two nights. There is the wind, and the mountains, and the sun on my back. I hear a bird somewhere, and maybe a cricket. No–two crickets. I set up a shade structure, which is currently fighting the wind. And now, I sit.


It must be midday by now–a while ago, an instructor dropped off my food for until tomorrow night. It’s not much–one smallish bag of gorp. I’ll save it for dinner tonight and breakfast tomorrow.

I found some rocks that I like, but I’m not done looking.


I just moved my tarp and set it up as a tent in a flat spot.

The sun is behind the mountains now. Her last moments really were something. Green and gold on the mountains, a meadow of prickly pear and sotol and creosote and ocotillo transforming the desert, however briefly, into a lush and beautiful and perhaps even forgiving place. If I hold my breath, there is absolute and perfect and beautiful silence. It’s just me out here–just me, and the mountains, and the knowledge that in 24 hours, someone kind will be here with a hot dinner.


Nov 24

I’ve woken up–probably by magic?–just as the silhouette of the mountains in the east begins to get sharper. I dreamt that someone was saying that the sun was about to rise, and opened my eyes, and sure enough, it’ll probably happen in about 20 minutes. I will put my shoes on, and a coat and a hat, and I will drink water, and I will go sit on top of the rock and watch the day begin.


I sat and watched until finally the sun climbed over the mountain and rested on me. And now I get to spend the rest of my day watching shadows shorten, and lengthen, and melt away.


I tried to set up a shade structure, and battled with the wind for a while, and lost. It felt like I was trying to lasso a parachute. But after resting for a while, a few hours maybe, I finally decided to get it done. I may have won this time, but it doesn’t feel like a permanent victory.


I found my favorite rock. I finished my bag of gorp. This evening one of the instructors will bring dinner, and then I will go to bed (under the stars this time, I think–it’s too windy for a tarp), and tomorrow one of them will come to get me and we will all be together again. I wish I could stay out here longer. I’m glad that I have to leave while I still feel that way.


Nov 25

I woke up before the sun again. Convinced my limbs to carry me out of my sleeping bag, and drank some water, and packed everything really quick. So my pack was set up in the smooth gravel patch, and the sun was just about to rise, and me and my water sat up on the rock and watched the sun come up–watched the shadows materialize.

And 7:00 came, and an instructor came over the hill and told me it was time for everyone to be together again. And I made my way down the hill, down the wash. And other people began to filter in silently (we had all sworn to be silent), and one of us took drink orders by gesturing and waving bags of powders around, and soon we were huddled there quietly with warm mugs in hand, huddled together in our suddenly broken loneliness.


Nov 26

Woke up to good mornings, and Happy Thanksgivings, and a world that felt very cold compared to my fetal position cocoon in the bottom of my sleeping bag.

Today someone found a perfectly intact shell in the sand. Like a snail or some other ocean-dwelling creature. Perfectly smooth and white and spiralled, and maybe less than an inch long. Many, many years ago, longer ago than we can comprehend, an animal lived in that shell under the ocean. And after hundreds of millions of years of it being sifted through the sand as the landscape around it turned from seafloor to desert, it ended up between her thumb and pointer finger.


Nov 27

Up at 6:45 to a purple sky, and a line of gold melting over the horizon where the sun could cut through the clouds.



And piling into the van, a couple hours to the national park.

Today was our real Thanksgiving–we had cranberry sauce and turkey and mashed potatoes and stuffing and gravy in our resupply. After we finished shuffling trash and food and med kit supplies between our packs and the van, the 10 of us sat close in a circle and ate and said what we’re all thankful for.

The Chisos are on the horizon–incredibly permanent in contrast to everything else around us.

And despite their permanence, we are always surrounded by those same violent forces that rip the mountains out of the ground and crumble them back into it. And somehow we argue about bowls and food and time. And the mesa is in the distance now, neatly sliced into her two portions. The mountains would be embarrassed for us if they knew how much we fight over them.

Tomorrow, independent final begins. We’ll see a lot less of our instructors–they’re not traveling with us anymore. We’ll run into them at lunch, and we’ll meet up with them when we find camp for the night, but during the day they’ll be shadowing us from a couple miles behind, and after we meet up in the evening they’ll keep going and find a campsite out of sight.



Dec 1

We were technically on trail all day, but it wasn’t maintained. Guesswork weaving through a system of washes. At one point we went hours without seeing a cairn–so much relief when one finally came into sight.

By the time we made it 5 miles, it was already mid-afternoon. 6 more miles to the next spring, and no hope of navigating there after dark. So we squeezed a few more liters out of a puddle of bees and algae, then set off to find camp. We had to whip out the handline to climb up through the wash. And now we’re nestled into our sleeping bags on top of a grassy hill–there are no clearings here. But it’s comforting–it feels like being on the river, being cradled by the plants and the ground.


Dec 3

Up at 6:00 to all of our water frozen. But, thank goodness, a smudge of sunlight on the horizon.

The sun rose, but the Elephant Tusk left us in its cold shadow. We filled up at the spring, droms full of mosquito larvae, and left the trail and went up a mountain. Building a trail of cairns behind us to let the instructors know which way we had gone, and leaving notes for them to pick up–games and puzzles and jokes; little things that mean a lot now that we don’t get to talk to each other much anymore.

These climbs are never easy. They’re treacherous, and exhausting. But oh, the views. And the far off mountains, and the streaks of iron across the landscape, and the looking back at where we’ve been, all shades of red and green and blue.

And then we were picking our way down, and we stopped for lunch, and the instructors found us. And as soon as everyone was done eating we kept moving, the instructors giving us a 30 minute head start in the hopes that we wouldn’t accidentally run into each other again until we made camp for the night.

Then climbing over rocks, and scooting on our butts, and stumbling (just for a moment though), and high steep walls around us. And eventually the walls fell away. An expanse of washes and small ridges was in front of us; a meadow of cacti and gravel and dust. And we picked a wash, and set off down it.

We traveled down the wash for a long time–rounding Elephant Tusk, and heading due east (or maybe a bit south, but who’s keeping track?), and we lost sight of the cairns, and then it was dusk, and we should’ve been at the road by now.

We decided to make camp, and to triangulate our location before we lost the light, and to call into base if we didn’t see the instructors soon. We found out where we are (it turns out a mile or two too far south) and started our normal evening routine. I saw in the distance what looked like it may have been a headlamp. And someone had just pulled out the sat phone to call into base camp and tell them where we were, but she put it away. We turned on our headlamps, and we waved them around, and we shouted and sang, and that far off light vanished down a hill. We hung a headlamp on an ocotillo so that they’d be able to see us the next time they got to high ground, even if we weren’t looking towards them.

The light appeared again, in a different place. And we sang and screamed until it vanished again.

And then we didn’t see the light for a while. We sat down to eat. And we passed spices around, and talked about our day, and cracked jokes, and everything else a family should do around the dinner table–or, in our case, from our sleeping mats in a circle around the two camp stoves. And we decided that if the instructors didn’t reach us soon, we’d call base to make sure they were okay.

When the light appeared again, it was close enough to see that it was two headlamps, not one. We served ourselves seconds as they disappeared into another wash.

And then the two lights were nearby again, so near we could see them bob up and down with every step. And we shouted, and we jumped up and down, and our instructors emerged through the bushes. And they told us that they’d taken the trail that we’d tried to go on, and scouted for an hour when they didn’t find us at our meetup time, then gone back to where they’d last seen us as we left the narrow walls at the top of this wash, and then seen my light and followed it here for over an hour. We offered them food and a place to sit, and they thanked us but declined (they’re not allowed to accept, now that we’re traveling independently), and they laughed and joked and moved on to their own camp.


Dec 4

Our last full day in the field–a final push to Glenn Spring, where we filled up then made the short walk to camp. We aired out our feet, and I handed everyone a mug of hot cocoa. The 8 of us made up a little ceremony for the end of our time in the desert–constructing one last cairn, and a few words to thank the wilderness, and now we are snuggled up in our sleeping bags.

Thank you, desert. Thank you for long days and freezing nights, for brilliant sunsets, and magical springs, and your desolate hills, for cradling us and pushing us on. Thank you for the smudge of Milky Way in the sky–just a suggestion that maybe (maybe) there is something bigger than us.

I hear a few drops of rain falling–just a few. And a chunk of snowy ice just fell in here with me. It won’t truly rain tonight. But somewhere out there, it is raining–the washes are filling with water, and the small creatures hiding in their holes. Maybe a rock that hasn’t moved in thousands of years will be pushed a fraction of a fraction of an inch closer to the Rio. Or maybe not.


Dec 5

I woke up in the middle of the night to quick footsteps and headlamps and a sound like someone tapping on my tarp. And someone shouting over the wind–“it’s raining; lightning and thunder are 30 seconds apart; put your tarps up!”

And I lazily pulled my tarp over me and my things like a blanket, and the hail fell, and the lightning didn’t get too much closer, and we lay like that under the dark sky as the desert screamed her final goodbye.

Then it was morning, and we were in the van, clinging to each other as we drifted in and out of sleep–about 2 hours to base camp, driving through the national and state parks and into Redford and finally home.


Dec 6

Base camp, and a shower, and wearing my normal clothes for the first time in 50 days. We had our graduation ceremony–just the 10 of us. Eventually it was 9-something in the evening, and some people went to sleep, but a few of us students and both of the instructors sat close around the fire, and we talked about everything for a few hours.

And now the quiet conversations are over, and everyone’s gone to sleep–I can hear their breathing evening out, one last time.

One last night in a sleeping bag, all my layers on, the top plugged up to trap in the warmth. One last night with all of these stars strewn across the sky–more stars than I have names of numbers to count them with. One last night knowing what I have to do tomorrow. But that’s okay. There will be other places to go, and things to see, and people to miss.

Goodnight. Sleep warm.