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LDS HUMANITARIAN SERVICES WORKER
As he handed me a check for $250, my dad made no effort to hide his doubt that I could complete my journey. “See you in three weeks,” he uttered skeptically. With tears in her eyes, my mom sprayed Windex across my car windows and promptly wiped the glass clean. Standing beside us, my brother videotaped my departure with the precious Sony camera I had purchased on credit just a few days earlier. I took two cases of water from my dad and put them on the floor of the car. With every move, my body shivered. Anticipating the journey ahead, I was shrouded in uncertainty. My throat choked up as though bricks were stacked from my stomach to my neck. I swallowed the emotion, climbed in my Jeep, and reversed out of the driveway.
This is it; no turning back. My mind raced as I repeated the words: No turning back. I was scared. I knew there was a chance I wouldn’t succeed, but I had flushed the possibility from my mind. Failure simply wasn’t an option, no matter what obstacles I encountered over the next fifty weeks. While I drove slowly through the familiar streets of my hometown toward the on-ramp of the highway — the on-ramp of my journey — the car was silent. I had turned off my cell phone. The radio was off. But my mind was rambling. Where am I going to end up tonight? Where will I eat? Do I have enough money to eat? Should I cash the check my dad gave me? Ambivalence hammered through my thoughts like static noise, and I needed to drown it out before it got the best of me.
It was a thousand miles to Salt Lake City; I was nervous and drove cautiously, trying not to let worry overwhelm me. I could not afford to have my car break down or get a ticket on top of the historically high price of gas. Before starting the climb over California’s High Sierra, I pulled over at a truck stop to stretch my legs. As I headed across the parking lot, I couldn’t help but notice all the different people passing through, ambling in and out of the rest room, walking to their cars. Lots of people live their lives on the road, I thought. Now I’m doing it, too. I was just starting out and had a long way to go — I knew I’d be crossing many borders. As I watched those around me, I realized that my anxiety came from anticipation of something entirely new, something I had never done before, but just because it was new to me didn’t mean it was wrong, unsafe, or foolish. A sense of calm and renewed confidence replaced my stress. Driving on, as I admired the scenery, I became preoccupied thinking about documenting my journey. I thought about the web site I had recently created, and I brainstormed topics for the first entry in my online journal. I was tempted to set up my camera and chronicle the picturesque ride. In the meantime, I looked forward to staying with relatives in Utah, whom I hadn’t seen in years.
To break up the drive, I decided to spend the night in Reno, Nevada. I parked the car near a university for the night and reluctantly crawled into my sleeping bag in the back of the Jeep. I had slept in the back of a car before, but this time, I was in an unfamiliar environment and was uncertain of the neighborhood just outside my car door. As I tried to sleep, Sasha called. “You’re sleeping in your car?” She was concerned, but also expressed criticism. “Why are you too cheap to get a motel?”
“I don’t have money for that; I need to save,” I explained, not for the first time.
“Well, have a good night. Call me tomorrow.” Much of the day, I was distracted by anxiety and anticipation, but as Sasha and I hung up, the noise of the day completely subsided. I was alone in a sleeping bag in the back of my car hoping all that I was putting myself through would be worth it. I locked my eyes shut to fall asleep, but every time a car passed, I popped up to check if it was a cop. I knew it was illegal to sleep in a car on the street within city limits, but I was desperate. The combination of anxiety and the chilly night air of the high desert kept me awake. After tossing and turning into the early hours of the morning, I decided to give up on sleep and start driving into the sunrise.
The statue of Brigham Young in front of the Mormon Temple.
“Welcome to Utah.” As the sign approached, I pulled over and stared contemplatively. I made it! This is real! State Number One, job Number One — working for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Historically, Mormons had settled in Utah in the mid-1800s to escape the persecution they faced in other states. Given the Mormon influence, the decision to work for the LDS in that state was easy; landing an actual job, however, was close to impossible. The Mormon church typically prefers to hire Mormons. I wanted to avoid the question, “Are you a Mormon?” So I did everything I could to deflect it, answering questions conservatively and with extra courtesy. I didn’t want to give any reason that might hinder the possibility of getting a job, so I didn’t mention the objective of my trip. Ultimately, I settled for volunteering at the church’s Humanitarian Center. This was not my ideal choice — I didn’t know how I could make ends meet by working volunteer jobs. Still, I was eager to get started, both for the week and for the year ahead. I stayed with my Uncle Mike and his wife Linda, who provided a gentle buffer as I adjusted to my new life; I knew I’d be spending many nights of the year in the back of the Jeep or in a stranger’s house (if I was lucky), so staying with family was an ideal way to kick off the trip.
The Humanitarian Center is a warehouse located in an industrial part of Salt Lake City, which is nestled in the mountains. An associate was expecting me on my first day. “Thank you so much for donating your time. This is a great blessing,” she stated gratefully as she handed me meal cards. Wow, an all-you-can-eat buffet for lunch, I thought.
“Do you have vending machines here?” I asked, curious to address a stereotype of Mormons and caffeine.
“Yes, down the hall.”
“Do you have Coke?”
“Yes, we do!” the associate told me. I was surprised — I didn’t think Mormons drank Coca-Cola. I went down the hall to get a drink and check it out for myself, and sure enough, there were Cokes in the vending machine — but they were caffeine-free, which made me laugh to myself.
I was set for the week, but I needed to work hard — I needed to set the tone for my trip, my project, my conscience. I knew I would have to learn this job and all my jobs quickly if I was going to make the project worthwhile. I wanted, as much as possible, to be treated as a normal employee, not as a visitor. I looked around the facility and spotted a quote on the wall: “We are to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to provide for the widow, to dry up the tear of the orphan, to comfort the afflicted, whether in this Church, or in any other, or no church at all … .” I felt humbled by these words and motivated to make my best effort for their cause.
My task for the week was to package Hygiene Kits to send to Louisiana for victims of Hurricane Gustav. The Church planned to send out 500,000 kits, each containing a comb, toothbrush, toothpaste, towel, soap, and brochures from the church. Dressed to impress in their suits and neckties, each group of associates had a quota of kits to produce; if one team slowed down, another would have to pick up the slack. I tried to keep a fast pace, but it was tedious work; I noticed I wasn’t the only one glancing at the clock as the day wore on. Still, despite pressure to meet our quotas, all my coworkers appeared grateful to be working there. Only after I heard their stories, did I understand why. I was working side by side with refugees from Africa and Southeast Asia who were part of a program run by the church called “Developing Self-Reliance.” The program teaches English, provides job training, prepares participants for employment, and finally — after two years — offers them job placement.
Hearing what my coworkers had been through made me reflective and subdued. Preparing for my fifty-state odyssey, I had spent energy worrying about traveling alone, being far from home, working for weeks at a time, spending money, and the general unpredictability of the year ahead. Yet here was a group of people who had fled from war-torn countries and lived through tragedy I would never know. Their experiences reminded me of my dad’s family and their struggle under similar circumstances. Both had experienced corrupt governments, persecution, marginalization, and forced migration. At the Humanitarian Center, these refugees would work for two years. They had to make money for their families and acclimate to a new life — a new country, a new language, a new existence — completely foreign to anything they had ever known. We had come to this church in Utah for different reasons, though we both left home and were starting over. Nonetheless, I was humbled by the refugees. I knew the fear and concern I felt about the weeks ahead was nothing compared with what my fellow warehouse workers had been through. “We’re blessed every day. We accept whatever path God chooses for us,” one had explained. Despite our differences — and thanks to our similarities — I could relate. Whatever God chooses, I thought. No turning back.
I decided to drive through Wyoming to get to Colorado, and soon after crossing the state line, the flat, colorless landscape changed to mountains and green meadows: the cloud covering dissolved as the sun blazed in the azure sky. Wyoming’s rocky terrain was overcome by enormous snow-covered mountain ranges and I wondered if every state would transform as swiftly when I entered. I wondered if I could transform that way, too.
As I approached Denver, I called Katie Thomas, a fellow USC alum, to let her know I was on my way. I found her through a college alumni network on Facebook. Though we’d never met, she was willing to let me crash on her couch for the week. When I arrived at her apartment an hour later, she had just returned from a 10K race. “There’s always some athletic event in this city,” she explained. When she took me to a city park to play football with her friends, I realized I was having trouble adjusting to the higher altitude: I had a bad headache and suffered shortness of breath. Still, I couldn’t help but notice the prominent bike lanes and throngs of joggers everywhere. Everyone seemed so active and energetic; I could understand why Denver is rated one of the healthiest cities in the U.S.
My first weekend in Colorado was relaxing and fun. The calm, pleasant atmosphere eased my transition and I was excited about the week ahead. Katie was welcoming, her apartment was comfortable, the scenery was beautiful, and I felt right at home in an active community of runners and outdoor sports. The concerns I had only a week earlier began to subside as I looked forward with relief and excitement to working as a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) at the Denver Federal Center. I had secured an internship with the agency after calling both private and federal organizations. Water is an essential life resource — we need it to live, it’s critical to irrigation, and it provides habitat for animals. To assure safe, clean water needed to survive, it’s vital to have information on water quality and composition. That’s where the USGS comes in. The agency works to protect us by studying water and providing scientific information others can use to purify and protect the water we consume.
I chose hydrology in Colorado because the state’s rivers, which originate in the Rocky Mountains, are a significant water source for much of the West. Half our country’s drinking water comes from rivers, and the other half comes from aquifers, which, like oil reserves, are underground. Once depleted, they are difficult to restore.
After a few days, I understood from experience at least one of the things hydrologists do: hike on trails with ski poles and water containers to collect water samples from reservoirs, canals, and rivers. Every morning, my colleagues and I put on waders (waterproof pants and boots) and life vests and drove deep into the mountains on some of the highest roads in the country. After driving as far as we could, we hiked in farther and waded into rivers to collect samples. It wasn’t that simple — the current was often so powerful, I was knocked off balance, nearly dropping the bottles and testing equipment. Once the samples were secured, we tested them on-site for oxygen content, turbidity, and pH before submitting them to water treatment centers. In addition to sampling, we measured discharge rates (flow volume). Taking samples was a long, monotonous process. To avoid contaminating them, we had to be very cautious, wearing rubber gloves and quickly securing the samples into Ziploc bags. Despite the tedious nature of the work, I loved trudging through the streams. I loved the cool air, warmth of the sun, and working outdoors. My coworkers were friendly, inviting, and informative, which made the job even more pleasant. One of the interesting things I learned from them is that when rain hits the surface of a river or other body of water, the chemistry of the water changes instantly. Jason, one of my colleagues, told me, “If you’re interested in hydrology to strike it rich, you’d be in the wrong profession.” It was clear: Everyone there was genuine and committed to ensuring the water we drink is clean and safe.
Carefully measuring the discharge rate every three feet, across the Big Thompson River.
I didn’t see Katie much because my work hours were so long (mostly due to the two-and-a-half-hour commute twice a day). I continued to have trouble sleeping — but this time, it was because my mind raced with excitement. I was in stimulation mode: Everything was new, interesting, invigorating. At night, I couldn’t wait for the next morning, to start over and take it all in again. Each evening, when I was preparing for the next day, I took a few minutes to catch up with my biggest fan: Sasha.
“What’s going on tomorrow?” she asked.
“Research in the watersheds!” I was excited — after only a few days as a hydrologist, I was scheduled to attend a national conference with all the experts. Everything was going better than I imagined, I told Sasha, with only one exception. “I’m really concerned about my web site,” I confessed. This was important to me because the web offered the best way to stay connected during my trip. I had been relying on my cousin to keep my site updated, but it had become stagnant.
“I can do it. I’ll even improve the layout for you.” Sasha volunteered, and I couldn’t have been happier. Problem solved; everything was smooth and steady.
The next day, as part of the conference, we went into the field to collect more samples. We took a shuttle bus 10,000 feet up a mountain, where we rendezvoused with a group of thirty hydrologists and climbed an additional 2,000 feet to conduct research near the summit. To avoid the risk of getting my camera wet from rain predicted that afternoon, I left it on the shuttle bus. When we returned to the bus after seven hours in the field, my camera was gone. Immediately, panic set in. The bus driver told me he had left it at the conference center. I was flabbergasted — the camera was a huge investment for me and though my year was just beginning, it already carried many memories I could not get back. When we returned to the center, I rampaged through the lobby searching hysterically. I spotted the camera sitting by itself on a table. I was shocked that it hadn’t been snatched up. From that moment on, it was attached to my body, no matter what. I couldn’t risk losing it again.
Despite that panic, I realized as I left Colorado that my anxiety about the weeks ahead had subsided. The shock of leaving home and of my new life on the road began to diminish. Nonetheless, though everything was going so smoothly, I didn’t want to get too comfortable too soon. There were many borders yet to cross. Just about everything about the year ahead remained uncertain; however, as time went on I was less afraid.
SOUTH DAKOTA RODEO ANNOUNCER
As I drove on Highway 20 into South Dakota, my father’s parting words still resounded in my mind: “See you in three weeks.” Entering South Dakota, I was starting my third week. Contrary to my father’s doubts, however, I was still going strong and had no intention of turning back.
On the road, I spotted a cowboy riding atop a galloping horse, which nicely signified the start of a week working at the rodeo. Before arriving, I had envisioned vast valleys with roaming buffalo and rodeos full of cowboys competing for glory. I wasn’t too far off — after making a few calls, I learned that rodeo is the state’s official sport.
I searched the Internet for information and found the South Dakota Rodeo Association. I called and was connected first with bull riders, but riding a bull was out of the question. Then I talked with the Association president, Dan Pirrung, who referred me to rodeo announcers, one of whom told me he would show me the ropes.
While I pulled off the exit into Oelrichs, the smallest of small towns (population: 145), I felt really far from home and I knew right away that I wasn’t going to fit in. I drove into the dusty parking lot, where hundreds of people wearing Wrangler jeans, button-up shirts, cowboy hats and boots crowded around trucks and horse trailers. My Jeep stood out from the other vehicles, and in my running shoes, T-shirt, and loose-fitting jeans, I knew I would stand out too.
I emerged from my car in search of Sugar Ray Quinn, the announcer who had invited me to Oelrichs and who was excited to be a part of my endeavor. As I walked bewildered through the parking lot, a man approached me and tipped his cowboy hat. As soon as he said “howdy,” I knew it was Sugar Ray. His smooth, robust voice was enough for me to recognize him; perhaps my running shoes — or lack of a cowboy hat — were all he needed to recognize me.
Sugar Ray took me to meet the judges, timers, and scorekeepers before he climbed a ladder into the announcer’s booth. Before long, I heard his velvet voice introduce me over the loudspeakers hanging from utility poles. He told the crowd about my 50/50/50 trek; as people turned to look at me, I could only smile and nod while some raised their eyebrows, some applauded, and a few gave me a thumbs up.
I became dazzled by people I met and the world around me. Above the rodeo arena, an enormous American flag rippled in the breeze, which carried the sound of twanging guitars as they came through the loudspeakers. From the shoulder of the highway overlooking the arena, a line of bikers peered down onto the cowboys standing around me. I realized there was a deep-rooted rivalry between them.
“Heya Cal-e-furnea, come on ova he-ere! Ima show ya how to wrassle a steer!” someone shouted suddenly, as I turned around to a handful of eager faces. But they weren’t watching me for amusement; instead, I sensed their genuine desire to share an experience that was central to their culture. I didn’t want to wrestle a steer … but there I was. This is it, I thought. This is what it’s all about.
The cowboys brought me to a pen and showed me how it’s done: Grab the steer from behind, grasp its horns, and dig your heels into the ground to slow it down. A twelve-year-old kid demonstrated the moves for me, but I just couldn’t get the hang of it. I grew frustrated and coached myself out of the failure. “Let’s do this!” I yelled as I chased the steer through the pen. Two other cowboys hopped in and together we got the steer to the ground. I felt a sense of both accomplishment and disbelief — it was surreal to think I was rolling around in poop chasing a steer with a bunch of cowboys. But soon enough, I would fit in easily.
“If yaw really gonna to do this, yal need ya-self some gear.” Bill White had approached me earlier and commended me for my mission. Now, however, he insisted on dressing me for the role. Nothing I said could convince him it wasn’t necessary. Before long, his wife showed up with boots, a belt, and five button-up shirts with fancy pearl clasps and detailed stitching. While I suited up, Bill described more of the rodeo to me — including what makes the animals buck. “There’s a flank strap attached,” he explained. It’s a common misconception that the animals are damaged or hurt during the rodeo, he elaborated; instead, what makes them buck is a loose strap tied around the midsection. The horses and bulls buck to try and remove the strap, and once the rider is off the animal, the strap quickly releases and they stop bucking.
I was surprised their clothes fit me so well, although their tight Wranglers were loose on me.
As the first of two days of the rodeo ended and people vacated the lots, Sugar Ray came over. He, Bill, and some others were headed to Hot Springs, a nearby town, and invited me to join them at a motel there. I was reluctant to take them up on the offer — they had already given me food and clothes, and now they were offering a place to stay. Nonetheless, after driving through the few streets in town, I knew I had little choice. I needed a good rest for my rodeo debut the next day. That evening, they took me out to dinner and urged me to try a local dish: Rocky Mountain oysters. As I stabbed the meat with my fork and took a bite, Sugar Ray confessed that it wasn’t seafood. It was a local dish: bull’s testicle. Like so many others before me, I’m sure, I had been fooled, and reflexively spit out my food. We laughed about it, but when I went to bed, I was still grossed out.
All night, when I anticipated my role as an announcer, my heart felt as if it would pump out of my chest. Sugar Ray made it seem so natural and easy, but I was afraid of appearing in front of crowds and I knew I’d fumble over names, numbers, and times. My mind raced when I tried to think of things I could say as filler.
As it turned out, Sugar Ray had me announce the kids’ events: a three-barrel race, the youth steer-wrestling, and rodeo musical chairs. In that game, the kids circled a series of barrels on horseback, dismounted, and ran to vacant barrels instead of to empty chairs.
I spent the next two nights in Sugar Ray’s house, which is filled wall-to-wall with rodeo photos. Both nights, I was entertained by his impromptu voiceovers during the television commercials. To complete my work week in South Dakota, I needed to head across the state to Sioux Falls to meet Dan Pirrung. As president of the South Dakota Rodeo Association, he had invited me to the Sioux Falls County Fairgrounds, where the rodeo state finals take place.
When I arrived in Sioux Falls, instead of meeting the locals in their cowboy hats and Wrangler jeans, I was introduced to a group of men in orange jumpsuits. Dan explained that they were inmates at a Corrections Center, but were in for minor offenses. They had been released into Dan’s care for the day to help set up for the event. This source of labor kept the costs down for Dan and gave the men a chance to see something they loved. They were interested in my mission and coined a new nickname for me: fifty/fifty. Together, we spent the day preparing for the rodeo — assembling bleachers, unfolding gates, and spreading soil over the arena. That’s when I got the chance to try using the tractor.
The inmate operating it looked bored, as if he had used the tractor a million times, while I was itching for the chance to try something new. I climbed up on the massive machine, whose wheels were higher than my waist. As instructed, I turned the gears, and the machine took off, spreading soil beneath it as I rolled forward. I felt like I was sixteen, driving a car for the first time — only this vehicle felt much more compact and scary. I drove the tractor through the periphery of the rodeo, which was decorated with banners from sponsors. After hours of toiling to set up for the event, I sat on the bleachers scanning my GPS, wondering where I’d stay that night. As though reading my mind, one of the rodeo guys approached to ask if I needed a place to stay. His name was Steve Klein, and he looked like a real working cowboy. He was rugged looking and covered in dirt. He had a no-nonsense way of talking that was intimidating, if not for his gentle gaze. As he stood before me, dirtier than the convicts, I wondered if he lived in a rusted trailer or a scary shack. Still, my budget was tight and I longed for a place to sleep other than my Jeep, so I agreed to take him up on his offer.
I followed Steve north to a town called Crooks. He led me off of the pavement to a dirt road sandwiched between the main road and cornfields. With every passing mile, the houses became larger and more impressive until we reached a sign that read “Klein Ranches.” Within minutes, we approached a white, two-story farmhouse — Steve’s home. I was shocked. My stereotype of Steve, based on his grungy appearance that day, proved to be far off base. The Kleins, Steve, Debbie and their three adult children, gracious and welcoming, were happy to host me for the rest of the week, taking me to rodeo dances and horseback riding, serving steak dinners — I must have eaten a hundred steaks while I was in South Dakota — and driving me to and from the rodeo.
My duties at the state finals were the same as those at the rodeo in Oelrichs. I announced the same events as I had with Sugar Ray. Only now, I was alone, announcing before 3,000 spectators. This time, I didn’t feel like an outsider. I had acclimated to the rodeo culture and took it on as my own. Even a newscaster commended me, noting that I “walked, talked, and even looked like a real cowboy.” The important thing was: I felt like one.
I was sad to leave, but I needed to get on the road to my next destination, next-door North Dakota. It had been a great week and I knew my experience in South Dakota was irreplaceable. I had pushed my boundaries and sought experiences in a place completely foreign to me — experiences available only in South Dakota; I felt positive about my project and my ability to see it through to the end. I felt confident. I wasn’t yet ready to ride off into the sunset, and for that, I was thankful.