Story last updated at 4/4/2012 - 11:34 am
When I was 17, I participated in my organization's first Alaskan backpacking expedition: 42 days in Gates of the Arctic National Park. When I look back on it, 10 years later, I don't remember the stress or the homesickness; I remember the most rugged, beautiful, amazing experience of my life.
Immediately after returning home, I began making plans for through-hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT). However, as my ideas confronted reality, my AT plans became week-long backpacking trips around my new home in Bozeman, Mont. I came to accept that my Alaskan adventure would probably be the most remote, intense wilderness experience of my life.
Then came the summer of 2009. I had spent three years working in a high-paying yet unrewarding job. I took a couple weeks off in the end of May and drove to the Southwest. After spending too much time in Las Vegas, I decided to get in my car and I drove to Yosemite National Park for the first time.
I was out of my car in Yosemite for about one hour. The truth is, I had totally lost connection with what I used to love. I was also too out of shape to enjoy hiking in the mountains. I went to San Francisco, caught a Giants game, then turned my car northwest back towards Bozeman. On the way, I caught the sunset at Lake Tahoe and could not believe I had never been to such a beautiful place so close to Bozeman - I was no longer doing what I used to find so important and fulfilling.
I told myself that when I got home I would look in to outdoor jobs and apply to at least one. So, one sleep-deprived morning I found a Bozeman-based Americorps conservation program on the Internet and filled out an application. When I woke up that afternoon I had an email asking for an interview. A day or two later I was hired.
I spent a summer working and living in the mountains of Yellowstone National Park as a crew member. Every free day I had, I spent on backpacking trips in the alpine ranges of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. The first month or so was hard for me, as my body was not in shape for the demands I was placing on it. But I was still mentally tough and I got through it.
The next year, I got to participate in another first, as a crew leader for our first wilderness immersion trail crew. I spent two 70-day hitches deep in the Frank Church Wilderness in central Idaho. We rerouted trails through talus fields, repaired wilderness cabins and in 140 days repaired 40 miles of wilderness stock trails.
I spent two terms, almost two full years, serving in AmeriCorps. A couple things happened.
My annual income decreased by at least 80 percent and I had to move out of my nice downtown apartment - I had roommates again.
But I was proud of myself. I formed positive relationships with other members. I helped people, from wilderness trail users to low income Montanans whose homes I weatherized. I had positive impacts on the lives of other people. I gained an altruistic worldview. I got to create something tangible that people still enjoy to this day.
I now work for SAGA, a similar AmeriCorps funded nonprofit organization in Juneau and Anchorage. I train our crew leaders and write educational curricula for our programs. I work directly with the youth we serve, and still get to fire up saws on trail improvement projects. I love working outside, working with my hands and working with youth. AmeriCorps helped me combine my passions. It reenergized me, and continues to push me towards service.
This is one in a series of installments written by former AmeriCorps volunteers who served as SAGA Connections members. Visit www.capitalcityweekly.com to read more from this series. For more information about SAGA, visit www.servealaska.org.