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Living Aloha

By Ellie

A lot has happened since I last blogged on Feb 22 – about a month since I had first arrived to WWOOF/farm (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) on the Big Island. Now, almost three months into the experience, with only a month left, I feel the proverbial sand falling fast through the hourglass, so let me fill you in on all the deets . . . .

Over a month ago, the head of the WWOOFers left for California. As she is supposed to supervise us, it has made for some uncertain and even disorganized times, which leaves me with mixed emotions. On the one hand, lacking structure and direction leaves me feeling a bit uneasy and frustrated at times. But then I remind myself that it is a good dress rehearsal for real life where much is unstructured and you need to adapt. For me, it has provided a lot of freedom to pick the jobs I want to focus on. Obviously, there is always weeding to do, but I have been learning all I can from one of the older WWOOFers and “master” gardener, Kathleen.

To give you a little backstory, Kathleen lives in the yurt down from me (12 ft away – see picture) and is basically my Hawaii mom and best friend. She has taken me under her wing and taught me so much about gardening. So together, we have seeded tons of vegetables (red beets, radish, squash, tomatoes, cucumber, kale, Swiss chard, arugula) and fruits (cantaloupe, watermelon), and herbs (thyme, cilantro, rosemary, parsley, oregano, basil, fennel). For the soil we use, it is all from the big compost pile which we sift out to get smooth and luscious soil. The trick is adding a bit of goat manure to it, which acts as the best fertilizer. Who knew?

But better yet, she has taught me how to graft. Grafting is important when growing trees. This is because let’s say you have a nice, mature Cara Cara orange tree which has delicious oranges on it, and now you want to grow more of the same tree. If you take a seed from one of the oranges and plant it in fertile soil so it can grow, you cannot ensure that the seed you took will produce the same yummy fruit on the tree. So, to increase the odds and speed up the process, you graft.


This means you take a scion (branch cutting from the mature tree) and merge it onto the stock of the juvenile tree using cloth/grafting tape to secure it. Then, if successful, the scion and stock will grow into one another (takes about a month). The tape/cloth can come off and the scion will start budding, which is a sign the grafting was successful. Only then can you be confident your juvenile tree will eventually produce the yummy fruit that the mature tree (which your scion came from) produced.

Fun fact: through grafting, you can actually have a singular citrus tree with lemons, limes, grapefruit, oranges, and any other citrus growing on it! Kathleen told me she once grafted a singular apple tree that had 4 different varieties of apples growing. Isn’t that amazing?! The grafting process makes me wonder if college may be a grafting exercise – or experiment – of sorts, meaning it provides an opportunity to graft (or merge) seemingly disparate things and see what comes of it, both inside and outside the classroom.

Besides learning how to graft, through observation, I am learning a lot more about the land’s ecosystem. How the trees, plants, birds, wild boars, goats, chickens, bees, flowers all work together, and sometimes against one another. For instance, the wild boars are a farmer’s nightmare. They will break into the chicken coop and steal all of their feed and tip over their water jug, and when I bring down the compost for the chickens, if I wait about 30 minutes, the pigs will be there eating all of the chickens’ compost.

But in other situations, it’s quite amazing to see how when nature is balanced, it works really well together. Like how the free-roaming chickens will take care of all the pests. It’s a win-win, meaning the chickens get food, while the plants aren’t eaten. Similarly, fruit that drops from the tree, if we don’t pick it in time, will either be opportunistically eaten by the birds, bugs, mongoose, pigs, chickens, and goats, or if not, it will compost and fertilize the soil.

There is so much beauty in being able to experience and truly connect with the natural cycles of mother earth. Apart from being very grounded in taking care of the land, I feel like I am a deep part of it. Since I’ve been able to connect with my circadian rhythm being out here in nature, I wake when the sun comes up and go to bed when the sun comes down. Growing up in the big city of Chicago, I am able to reflect and realize how out-of-touch I was with my circadian rhythm. I wasn’t able to be deeply connected to nature, our source, which in turn limited my ability to truly connect with my body’s inner cycle. Overall, I feel blessed to be here.

In addition to the utter awe I feel by the sunsets and night skies loaded with stars, I felt the same awe when our three pregnant mama goats each gave birth to two kids. We now have 6 baby goats, 3 girls and 3 boys. They are the cutest, and most playful, creatures. Jeanne, the owner of the retreat and farm, taught me how to care for the goats. Ever since, I have been taking care of them by myself, which feels amazing. In the mornings I cut Ti leaves or Hale Koa to give to the goats. Then I feed them some grain and milk the moms. The moms are sent up into the pasture to graze in the day with the rest of the goats, and at night I bring them back into the smaller enclosure to nurse their young ones. This is imitating the goat’s natural cycle in the wild because the mama goats are with their young at night, and in the morning, they will leave their young behind while they scavenge for good grass/plants to eat, returning to their young before sunset.

Taking care of the goats for about 3 weeks now, sometimes the little ones confuse me for their mama and will suck on my fingers. They are not timid around me anymore and will let me pet them, pick them up, and sometimes if I’m lucky, they will, on their own, come sit in my lap.

Besides the farm side of things, on the weekends I have been going to the Waimea Farmers market, which has sumptuous baked goods and delicious falafel, along with local artists displaying their works, and tons of fresh vegetables and fruit from local farmers. I also love to snorkel, taking the WWOOFer car (which unfortunately just broke down, because it’s so old) to spots around me, or sometimes down to Kona where the snorkeling is amazing. I love looking for shells so I will free dive down and look in all of the crevices, especially for cowrie shells, which are my favorite. I found two huge ones the size of my palm, both of which had creatures in them, so I couldn’t take them. But, a couple days ago, Alli (another WWOOFer) and I went snorkeling in Kona and found this secret cave, which had a ton of shells washed up on it, one of which was a massive cowrie shell with no creature in it… finally! We are planning to wire-wrap some of the shells and make necklaces and earrings.

Another highlight was my mom recently flew to the Big Island on my birthday week (March 17), and we island hopped to Kauai. It was my first time going, and she planned an amazing girls’ trip for us. From kayaking down the only navigational river in all of Hawaii – Wailua River – to a secret waterfall with a swimming hole; to hiking parts of the “Grand Canyon” of Hawaii, aka Waimea Canyon; to going on a boat tour alongside the beautiful Nā Pali Coast and seeing tons of spinner dolphins and humpback whales surface; to snorkeling at some of the best beaches, and so much more. It was so nice to celebrate my birthday with my mom, especially because I hadn’t seen her or any other family in over two months.

With one month left, I hope to continue to embrace each day with gratitude, and embrace all new, and even uncomfortable, situations that come my way, as they all provide learning opportunities.

A hui hou,


My Next Chapter

By Ellie

I began the next “chapter” of my gap year on Saturday, January 21, as I said goodbye to my friends and family back in chilly Chicago, and hopped onto a plane. Fastforward, about 8 hours later, I landed on the warm, and sunny, Big Island of Hawaii, where I’d be spending the next few months WWOOFing (Working On Organic Farms) on this farm/retreat in a small town within North Kohala – the peak of the island.

I arrived equal parts nervous and excited. The nervous part was unlike my first “chapter” – which was a 3 month sustainability/backpacking program with other people mostly my age – this chapter is not pre-programmed. Instead, it’s work and what I make of it (or don’t). That makes it instantly feel more real, and hence I suppose the nervousness.

Now, about one month later, I feel mostly settled in terms of the new environment and people. However, I am still adapting to the new tasks and challenges that I am faced with, all of which I am so grateful for as I learn something new each day.

So, in terms of where I am staying and what a day-day looks like here, let me break it down for you. The farm I am working on is attached to a mini boutique hotel, in which many of the guests come in groups to attend different retreats (yoga, writing, etc.). I am living in one of the yurts that is designated for WWOOFers. It has everything I need in it: a bed, sink, toilet, dresser, and desk. I am surrounded by grapefruit and pomelo trees which I gather and bring to the kitchen when they fall off of the trees.

Though I live alone in my yurt surrounded by paradise, I do have guests inside with me, like small geckos and some big spiders. Actually, I view myself more as their guest.  After all, who belongs here more: me or them?  Plus they eat the roaches, so I view them as friend, not foe.

Since it’s winter, it is the “wet” season on the island, meaning lots of heavy winds and rain, and boy has it been raining! Usually, I’d be sad it was raining; however, I am always so grateful when it rains here because of how good it is for the plants, trees, vegetables, and fruit. Also, the weather shifts are drastic and neat. For example, it may be raining super hard, and then 5 minutes later it stops and the sun is out, and then it goes back to raining.

Also, I am super grateful that there are other WWOOFers and workers here with me. Though I am the youngest, I appreciate all of the friendships I have made and the ability to be surrounded by so many cool and interesting people who teach me much without even trying.

Every day here is different, but there is a general weekly schedule. The deal is I work 5 days a week (I have Saturday and Sunday off) for up to 30 hours. 24 of those hours include farming/gardening/land maintenance. Since the retreat is on 50 acres of land, you can imagine that the land requires constant upkeep, meaning there is no shortage of work. The landscape is plush with more fruit trees than I can count: banana, plantain, papaya, mango, orange, passionfruit (lilikoi), guava (strawberry and pineapple), cacao, soursop, breadfruit (ulu), pineapple, coconut…

In addition, we are in the process of starting a new vegetable garden (so we are seeding a lot). The vegetable garden will include: carrots, red beets, kale, swiss chard, radish, tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, and more. Like I said, each day is different, full of new tasks.

Not a cliche, my hands get dirty, real dirty, every day. I love that. I have had many days full of weeding around the ti, agave, kale, and aloe. Since we farm organically, meaning no pesticides are used to kill weeds, weeding always needs to be done. Each day there are fruits to harvest. When I first arrived, the surinam cherries, loquat, and lilikoi were in season. Now, the mangos are finally ripening and starting to be ready to harvest. Coconuts, oranges, lemons are always on the trees, perks of tropical weather.

Also, we have chickens (& goats and cows) on the farm that we feed with the compost from food scraps, or uneaten leftovers. I am in charge of feeding them and collecting their eggs on Tuesday and Wednesday. On the island, chickens have no predators so they are able to free-range with no issue. However, we have lately been having a problem with the mongoose (weasel-like animals) going inside their coop and eating their eggs, so we have to keep them in their coop from dusk til about noon. My favorite thing to do is gather some coconuts and chop them open with a coconut ax for the chickens. Boy do they love some fresh coconut!!!

And lest I forget, we are literally on the ocean’s edge. I walk to the property’s edge and down below, about 200 feet, is the Pacific churning, doing its thing. It provides instant perspective.

All of the tasks on the farm are different and rewarding in their own ways. Though weeding can be hard to do for 5 hours in a day, I am motivated because the landscape looks so much better and the plants have space to grow and thrive. I especially like being able to pick fruit right from the trees and utilize it in my breakfast smoothie, and just munch on them throughout the day.

I work hard during the week, and unlike most WWOOFing gigs, I am super lucky to have my own yurt and access to food and a kitchen to cook for myself.  I can also use the guest showers, pool, and yoga studio when they are not being used, and especially the WWOOFer car! Because we have a car, I have been able to leave the retreat when I am done with work and go exploring. So far, I have really enjoyed: finding cool snorkeling spots, going into town and eating yummy food, thrifting, attending ecstatic dance events, the Saturday farmer’s market in Waimea, and I can’t wait for more exploration.

Overall, I feel an overwhelming amount of gratitude for my bosses, for my co-workers, for the land and all it has to offer, and to all of my day-to-day experiences and interactions. I recognize that this is a gift, a rare moment in time, that also reminds me such gifts and opportunities likely frequently surround us, if only we looked and embraced them.  I could not be happier to be here and can’t wait to continue to update you all as my journey continues.

A Good “End” Feeds into a New Beginning

By Ellie

November 21: it was the last day my High Desert Center (HDC) family was together. I use the word “family” purposefully as that is what we were (more on that later).

I spent the morning watching the sunrise on the roof of our cool, painted, mini-school bus with my friend Amy, both of us still tucked in our sleeping bags. A few hours later we would be at the Phoenix Airport saying our last goodbyes. It was so hard to say goodbye to everyone, but I guess that’s a good sign. It shows how incredible my last 6 weeks with them on the road were. We grew so tight, people are already planning a reunion!

So, about the last 6 weeks… We left Paonia, CO – which had been our basecamp for the first seven weeks – and headed down through Utah, Arizona, and then into Mexico. No hotels or Air BnB’s for us.  Instead, we stayed on Native American reservations, in state and national parks, in locals’ backyards at times, and with families in Mexico, mostly camping under the stars.

At the beginning of the road trip, I made it my goal to try and find 50 different species of animals (mainly birds). Going in, I knew very little about birds and their different general groupings, how to identify them, etc… However, I used a pair of binoculars and always referred back to the “Sibley Guide to Birds” (nothing like an old fashioned book sometimes). By the end of the trip, I doubled my goal, getting to 100 different species of animals (some 20 lizards and mammals, the rest birds.)

From the Common Raven, Red-Tailed Hawk, Wild Turkey, Canada Goose, American Kestrel, Northern Flicker, Acorn woodpecker, Mexican Jay, Vermilion Flycatcher, Sandhill Crane, Great Blue Heron, Allen’s Hummingbird, Rutty Duck, and so much more, I was constantly on alert! Seeing birds in the woodsy areas of Colorado, to the hills of Utah, in South rim of the Grand Canyon, then in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, to the palm trees and lagoons of Mexico never got dull. Being able to identify a new species and re-identify a species I had already seen was such a thrill. And, in the last week of our journey in Mexico we went to an ecological site where the biologists caught and banded birds to track their migratory patterns. It was so cool to see the process of recording the birds’ features, banding the birds, and then setting the birds free. Holding the juvenile Cooper’s Hawk and being able to set it free and watch it fly away was magical. Later, Dev (our leader) told me that I could work for biologists banding birds and actually get paid to travel to do so. I can see myself coming back to this part of Mexico, arranging another homestay, and working for these biologists for at least 3 months. I would be learning a ton about birds, getting better at speaking Spanish, and immersing myself in their culture.

Apart from looking for birds, we did so much more! Here are some of my favorite moments… In Utah: waking up early to watch sunrise in the otherworldly Goblin Valley; hiking through and learning about the Ancestral Puebloan ruins in Cedar Mesa; staying on the Navajo Reservation and learning about their customs and culture. In Arizona: hiking from “rim to rim” of the Grand Canyon and swimming the Colorado River at the bottom (19.2 miles in 1 day); hiking about 50 miles of the Arizona Trail; going to a thrift store and buying clothes to dress up and trick-or-treat for Halloween in a small town near the Mexican border called Patagonia; crossing the Mexican border in Nogales and seeing what a border town looks and feels like. And finally, in Mexico: meeting and staying with my homestay family (Roxana, Carlos, Yami, and Christian); making tortillas with my host mom; playing soccer and basketball with the local kids; going swimming in El Gulfo with everyone (freezing); buying fish at a market and cooking them for dinner; going to a neighbor’s birthday party and feasting and dancing all night long, and so much more!

Big moments aside, what of course defined the 3 month experience were the many little moments. And that’s where my HDC family – my fellow 13 participants and five staff members – come into play. From late night poker games played with rocks since we didn’t have any poker chips (each rock was 25 cents), to showering in streams, rivers, and sinks, to watching Sing 2 and cuddling in our sleeping bags in a 6-person tent, to sitting on the roof of the bus and letting the wind blow through our hair during remote rides, to cooking banana pancakes for breakfast, the list goes on and on…

Overall, this program has given me so much. It has taught me new ways to live simply and sustainably. It has shown me the beauty of nature and also its dire need for us to protect and restore it. It has given me life-long friends. It has allowed me to grow my confidence, leadership, communication, and enthusiasm for life. In short, I am changed because of it, meaning it was transformational. Can’t ask for more than that in a gap year program.

And it has prepared me for my next journey, which is more solo (than group) in design. I won’t have the comforts of having 16 others besides me. I will be WOOFing (Working On Organic Farms) on the Big Island of Hawaii picking, growing, and planting fruit and taking care of the goats and chickens during the weekdays, and then exploring the island (hiking, swimming, snorkeling) and hopefully getting a marine conservation oriented internship on the weekends. I believe HDC has given me the confidence to venture off on my own and rely on myself for most everything. Though I will miss all of the memories and people from the last 3 months, I am enthused about what is next. Till my next blog … Aloha

“Yes,” Squirrel Heart is . . . Edible

By Ellie

Today marks my 54th – and last – day in Paonia, Colorado, the home base of my High Desert Center (HDC) Program. Tomorrow the group – me and 11 others – venture off on the road for the 2nd portion of the program.

This next part is road tripping in an old, small, crazy-painted mini school bus for five weeks down into Mexico. Specifically, we first head down to Utah (Goblin Valley slot canyons, Cedar Mesa ruins), then into Arizona (Navajo Reservation, Grand Canyon, Apache Reservation, Arizona Trail, and explore border Issues), and finally down to Ejido, Mexico, where we will be immersing ourselves in Mexican culture, as we try to live authentically with native villagers.

I feel bittersweet: excited to embark on a new adventure, but sad to leave Paonia, a place that has fostered so much community, curiosity, learning, and self growth.

Over the last month so much has happened – too many outstanding memories to be able to share all. However, I will share one key memory. Late September our group went on what we call a “Minimalist Trip” somewhere in the West Elk Mountains of CO. The 12 of us split into two groups, each of which would try to survive 2 days and 1 night on VERY minimal supplies. By this I mean one pot (for boiling water/cooking), three matches for lighting fire, and one knife (for cutting and butchering). Forget sleeping bags, this meant not even a blanket to keep us warm at night, no water (we’d have to find some), and no food (we’d have to forage or hunt). Our group was ambitious and wanted to see how we’d do by purposefully setting ourselves up for lots of discomfort, especially during the long cold night.

While we were driving up before being dropped off in Nowheresville, we passed by a dead squirrel on the side of the road. All of a sudden Dev (one of the counselors) stopped the bus and went out to fetch the squirrel. He told our group that we should take it with us in case we are not able to catch any critters. We put it in a garbage bag and resentfully took it with us, hoping we wouldn’t be having roadkill for dinner.

After parking the bus we all hoped out, said our goodbyes and best wishes to the other group (which was living in relative luxury compared to us: warm clothes, three blankets, and water) and headed off to find a sleep able spot. While hiking up through the brush our eyes were peeled for any edible plants, bugs, and critters. The first thing we spotted were grasshoppers, which I did not partake, as I was not desperately hungry . . . yet. However, I did find some clover flowers, which I ate. Next thing we spotted were chipmunks. Our tactic was to encircle them and for someone to throw their throwing sticks at it.  Bad plan: the chipmunks were way too fast and there was too much brush for them to hide.  So, we decided we would be better off finding a campsite first so that half of the group could set up camp while the other half tried to hunt for food. On the way we passed a stream of water and filled up the pot in case there was no water near camp.

We hiked uphill for about an hour and a half and finally passed by an open prairie which seemed to be a grazing spot for cows or sheep. Half our team of six (plus 2 counselors) grabbed their throwing sticks and went on the hunt for critters, while I and the other three walked into the woods surrounding the prairie and started to set up camp. This entailed clearing sticks and brush off a flat ground area where we’d be sleeping. We collected pine leaves for the bottom and top layer of our forest “bed.” The middle layer was duff which added some cushion to the bed. It was super important for us to make sure the bed was at least a foot off the ground: the farther off the forest floor the warmer we’d stay at night. Remember, we had no warm clothes, tents, or sleeping bags – nothing. The “bed” was just wide and tall enough for all 8 of us to fit. Along the entire base of the bed, we dug a rectangular ditch in the ground for a fire pit. We then stacked a ton of huge rocks along the back of the fire so the warmth would only blow towards us.

By the time we were done setting up camp, the “hunting team” came back empty handed. They’d come across a couple squirrels, but they were just too darn fast. So, we collected enough firewood to last the night and were able to start the fire with just one match – we never ended up using the other two. Once we got the fire going, we put the pot of water on it to boil.

Meanwhile, the roadkill squirrel was all we had for dinner, and at this point of the day, having had no water or food since 8 am, I was actually grateful we had taken it with us. Back at homebase in Paonia, I – a city girl from Chicago who previously had maybe, at most, roasted a hot dog – learned how to kill and butcher meat rabbits (which we ate for dinner). So with that knowledge and hands-on experience, I was semi-confident I’d be able to take on a squirrel. My counselor and I butchered it together. Of course, you can’t eat any animal before inspecting closely for disease.

From the outside the squirrel did not look too injured; however, it did have a lot of internal bleeding, which made it harder and smellier to prepare. In addition to the meat, we kept its heart and liver, as they are both edible.

To state the obvious: never in my life did I think I’d be butchering and eating roadkill squirrel for dinner, but when you’re hungry and without any other source of food, you have to make the most of what ya got. You know, adapt or die, as the saying goes.

Honestly, it didn’t taste bad. If I was blindfolded, I’d think it was . . . chicken.

After dinner, the sun set, and the cold started to come in – fast. After all, this is the mountains, more than 6000 feet elevation, something this Midwesterner was not used to. Thank goodness for the fire – a literal lifesaver – because if we didn’t have it, we would have gotten hypothermia. I was tired and laid down on the bed with the hopes of getting some sleep. Unfortunately, I got all of about 30 minutes of sleep the whole night; the same went for everyone else.

When you laid down, the warmth of the fire was not strong enough, so you couldn’t sleep without freezing your whole body off. Apart from the coldness of laying down, we were surrounded by a hundred or so baa-ing sheep – apparently, we were on their grazing land. Listening to the sounds of the sheep in the dark forest reminded me of a scene from a horror movie. As you can imagine, sleep quickly became less of a priority. Instead, my number one priority changed to staying warm. During the entire night into dawn – as I huddled near the fire – I daydreamed about how comfortable the other group must be with their three blankets. Once the sun finally emerged, however, a huge joy rushed over us. We had survived the night!

No question about it, and no way to sugarcoat it, the trip was miserable at night. But at the same time, it was also crazy exciting. Building our own “bed” and fire ditch, butchering a squirrel, listening to the sheep and their sheep dogs fight off coyotes all night long, and most importantly being surrounded by people who did not complain and instead comforted one another and soaked in all of the experience together was – fortunately – hopefully just a once in a lifetime-type adventure.

A trip that tested my boundaries and limits. A trip I will never forget . . .

5 Day Backpacking Trip

By Ellie

This week has been quite the journey as it marks my first time backpacking ever! Out of the 12 participants in the High Desert Center (HDC), we were randomly split into 3 groups of four. My group was a bit special as we had a special guest counselor leading us (a master minimalist backpacker) named Jeremy, along with his dog Mo!

During the 5 days we hiked through the West Elk Mountains of Colorado, and boy were they beautiful. But before we left basecamp in Paonia, we had to pack. Packing light is key in terms of backpacking so I only brought one set of clothes (day clothes for hiking, and warmer clothes for the night) along with 2 sets of warm wool socks. I had 5 packets of oatmeal for breakfast, trail mix and peanut-butter filled tortillas for lunch, and dinner consisted of either pasta with peanut sauce, curry, beans and rice, or mac-n-cheese. We cooked all of our food in a pot of boiling water over stoves that we made out of soda cans!

We averaged out hiking around 6.5 miles every day. During the hikes we were surrounded by beautiful tall, thin Aspen trees. Jeremy taught us how aspen trees are actually one single organism, meaning the tens of thousands of roots protrude from a single root system! In the fall, you can tell which aspen trees are a part of the same organism because the color of their leaves will change simultaneously. Besides being surrounded by these beautiful trees, along the hilly hikes we passed by lots of bear poop as well tons of berries. I love being able to eat what I can detect along the trail, so with the help of Jeremy, I identified and ate rose hips (not my favorite), thimble berries, raspberries, and (my favorite) huckleberries.

The hardest day was the 4th day as we hiked to the very top of the 12,752 ft tall Mt Gunnison. Though the hike up was very steep and especially challenging with a pack on, it was all worth it once we got to the top and I could see a panoramic view of all of the other Mountains in the region and beyond. My advice for anyone who decides to climb a tall mountain is to take a fat nap at the top, it hits different!

Overall, my first backpacking experience was filled with a lot of special memories, and though it was very challenging physically and mentally, there is something really special about living and existing out of only a backpack. It really made me appreciate all of the things we deem as “necessities” but are actually “luxuries” once getting back to basecamp. Thanks for listening and I can’t wait to share more!