Posts Tagged ‘Grad School’

My attempt to back-blog the CDT while trying to beat the snow through Colorado and then writing my Master’s thesis failed (obviously). Now that I’ve finished that and school (!!!) I’m finally trying to finish the story before the next one begins.

Yes, you heard. Or read. I’ll be hitting the Pacific Northwest Trail in the upcoming weeks and have begun preparing for that with some much needed gear updates and whittling down my “post-thesis to-do list.”

The most common conversation I’ve had since finishing my thesis with friends, family, and random people met along the way, has gone along the lines of this:

Someone: Now that you’re finished with grad school, what are you going to do?

Me: I just moved back into my car and I’m going to go hiking.

Someone: So, you have a job lined up for after your hike?

Me: No. I haven’t thought about what I want to do after hiking.

Someone: Where do you want to go to get a job?

Me: I just bought a van to live in when I’m not hiking. I’ll figure it out when I get there.

Someone: So…no job?

It’s really getting close to being as old as the “are-you-going-to-carry-a-gun-when-you-go-hiking?” conversation. (The answer to that is no, by the way.)

Until the next adventure begins, please enjoy and/or comment on the story continued from last fall where I left off in North/Central Colorado to the Mexican border.

The San Juan Mountains: coming up!

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As the previous post gave away, I will be starting the CDT (Continental Divide Trail) going sobo in mid-June of this year, 2015!

Most of the motivation to go south is that I need to finish this semester of grad school.  I’ll then take next semester off.  I’ve been getting a lot of shit for going the “wrong way,” however it’s getting me more excited.  Most (if not all) of the nobos have already started this year and their pictures are making me jealous that they get to start sooner.  While I’m waiting for some of the snow to melt in Glacier, I’ll be hanging out on the beach in Washington.

I am ready to embrace the brutality and get a firm kick in the ass!


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I awoke suddenly.  I noticed all of my senses heightened and my body fully alert.  No thoughts crossed my mind.  I listened.  Munch, munch, munch.  I peered out my tent under my rain fly where I heard the sound of munching.  A large brownish black hoof stepped about three feet from my tent.  Then another.  Munch, munch, munch.  Bison.  Multiple bison.  Very close to my tent.

The bison seemed calm, so I stayed calm.  I laid there and listened, secretly hoping they would not accidentally step on my tent.  Maybe they just needed breakfast and breakfast happened to grow near the free campsite I occupied.  Munch, munch, munch.  I decided to look at the positive: at least I did not need to go to the bathroom first thing in the morning!  The bison munched and I listened.  Each time a hoof clomped down, I could feel the vibration in the ground.  My rain fly blends in fairly well with the pale grasses.  I hope they do not run into my tent.  Munch, munch, munch.

Eventually, after about half an hour of munching, the bison continued on their way.  From what I could gather, they munched their way north out of the small aspen grove.  I felt my body begin to relax as the munching grew fainter and I no longer felt the ground vibrate with their steps.

When I could hear them no longer, I got out of my tent cautiously and looked around.  I could not see any wildlife in the vicinity, so I began to make breakfast and a healthy amount of hot water for yerba mate.  I set up a chair in front of hippie TV, i.e. the Tetons, and sipped mate.  I had decided to camp in the national forest near Grand Teton National Park for two weeks to further enjoy the area and hopefully hike what I wanted to hike all year at grad school, but did not have the time to due to schoolwork.  To my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed lazy mornings drinking mate and watching the clouds change just as much as hiking.

As I sat there with mate and a good book, I watched as the clouds changed shapes and colors.  The clouds and the mountains played peek-a-boo all morning long.  The best part about sitting quietly and watching: the wildlife became accustomed to my presence and began to play, eat, run, and fly right in front of me.

One of the ground squirrels taking a look around.

One of the ground squirrels taking a look around.

Three ground squirrels lived near my campsite.  Two seemed to have some sort of dominance over the third, but the third had sneaky tendencies.  While one of the first two ground squirrels stood guard from a prime fallen log, the other ground squirrel nibbled at the ground or stood on its hind legs and used its forelegs to pull down a wild grass three times its size to eat the seeds on the top.  The sneaky ground squirrel took every available opportunity to sneak toward the other two ground squirrels and then hop away.

A female mountain bluebird flew in and startled the ground squirrels.  All four froze, eying each other for a few moments.  Deciding they could all eat peacefully, they began ignoring each other and carrying on with their business in close proximity.

Half an hour later, I heard the clear call of a red tail hawk in the distance, but coming closer.  All three ground squirrels immediately dove into their holes and I searched the skies.  I heard the call several more times before I located the hawk flying in gracefully above the aspens.

The next night, the temperature dropped into the upper 30s and I fell asleep with my hat on planning on waking up early in the morning.  The moon shown so brightly, that I could see just fine inside my tent without a head lamp.  However, I did not plan on waking up around 2:30am.  Grunt.  Munch, munch, munch.  Grunt.  Instantly alert, I laid in my sleeping bag listening.  My body did not feel the ground vibrate, and the munching seemed faint, but apparent.  The sounds came from the direction of my feet, so the bison munched to the west.  After careful listening, I decided to poke my head out and see how far away the bison munched.  They peacefully munched and grunted down in the sagebrush, about fifty feet or so away from my tent.  After the previous morning, that distance seemed oddly comforting.  Laying awake, I listened and heard quite a variety of bison noises that I had never heard before, all variations of grunts.

Hippie TV

Hippie TV

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This title worked equally well for both a thru-hike and grad school.  In a thru-hike, the last two hundred miles or so begin to feel weird.  As the end of the trail gets nearer, an odd feeling comes up; the long, epic journey will stop in its current form and change directions.  The body rallies, excited to sit on a couch and eat for a week to regain lost weight and allow muscles to relax, but the mind begins to feel unrest.

My feet begin to hurt for a new round, probably because I should replace my sandals but I am stubborn and do not want to only for the last little bit.  My hips have absolutely no fat left on them and I’ve cut off a chunk of my sleeping pad and duct taped it to the hip belt of my pack for extra cushion.  My legs and arms show a summer full of scratched mosquito bites, gashes, scrapes, and bruises.  My stomach growls even after eating 800 calorie meals.

The destination feels great, but the mind and the body thirst for more, just moved to a new place after some rest because the journey made the highlights of the trail in its own right.

In TSS, the capstone represents the final push toward graduation.  Most of our grad class works field education in Kelly split into three teams: one team of six, one of five, and one of four (but the team of four has adopted other members).  I am in the team of four which created a course on Sustainability and Leadership, or SNL for short.  The course spans for three weeks, has nine Summer Search high school students, has two weeks in Kelly, one week front-country camping in Yellowstone National Park and visits a farm.

In true TSS style, we also had a group to teach the week before our capstone course so we work for a month straight.  Many, if not all, of those days are 12+ hour days.  Free time does not really exist.  In my “free time” right now, I’m working on this synthesis homework project…

My brain has hurt for a month straight.  My room has papers scattered everywhere.  I found a book in my bed one night.  I cannot process words very well without yerba mate in the morning.  My “to-do” list never ends and usually covers an entire page.  Teaching has somehow become more relaxing than logistics.  I’m not drinking from the fire hose, I am the fire hose!

This summer has taken the term “flexi-pants” to a whole new level.

Rainbow in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.

Rainbow in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.

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Reaching that moment when the mileage left drops from four digits to three digits allows a thru-hiker to breathe a bit easier.  Maybe we will beat the early winter snows!  Maybe our bodies will hold up long enough to reach the finish line!  Maybe we can continue eating oatmeal for another two and a half months even though we’ve eaten it for three months straight!  Maybe our new sandals or shoes will last until the end!

Bittersweet overall, this milestone always means that something great will eventually come to an end.  With a worn out body and perpetually sore feet, the drop in mileage provides a needed dose of motivation.  A new burst of energy comes with the excitement which will fuel another segment.  It becomes a reminder of how awesome life really is on trail: wake up, hike, eat, hike, eat, hike, eat, hike, go to bed under the stars with the fresh air.

This point at TSS comes with Spring Break.  A week off?  Really?  Whoa!  Returning back to campus, we have only two more classes (Spring Teaching Practicum and Advanced Elements of Field Ecology Course Design, abbreviated to AEFECD, but pronounced as affected) and a Summer Capstone.  The burst of energy after spring break combined with melting snow and longer days gives a new breath after the winter.  By melting snow, I mean that the snow is only about two or three feet deep around campus instead of somewhere around six feet.  Some of the sagebrush began poking out a few leaves above the glassy white snow blanket.

I struggled with the Spring Teaching Practicum because instead of field education in Kelly, I had to go on “Outreach.”  Instead of the kids coming to us, we went to the kids in their schools across the state of Wyoming.  Now usually, the complaints about Outreach deal with long travel time in vans, having to stay in hotels, and leaving the Kelly life behind.  My main complaint: I really just don’t like little kids in large groups.  Field Ed had an age range of 5th-12th grade.  In contrast, in Outreach, I taught 3rd grade, 1st grade, pre-k, and only two days of 6th grade.  Not to mention that the spring season means the beginning of thru-hiker season and I would not be thru-hiking.  Rough.  I could not wait to get back to teaching older kids.  At least they can zip up their own jackets.  Luckily, all summer I would be teaching high school and only one week of 5th grade.

The Tetons reflecting into Jackson Lake on my 60 mile bike ride.

The Tetons reflecting into Jackson Lake on my 60 mile bike ride.

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About half way through a thru-hike, one of the common questions that plague thru-hikers begins to nag on the thru-hiker’s conscious: What are you going to do after the trail?  Many times, I want to slap the person asking it even though they do not see the harm in the question.  Yes, I should figure my life out in more detail.  Yes, I should have a five year plan, or a ten year plan…. blah, blah, blah.  But, I would rather live in the present and try to enjoy the trail as a trail and not as a transitory period in which I discover what I want to do in the “real world” of jobs, money, bosses, rent, utilities and all of that stuff that does not matter on trail.

Most often asked by day hikers, or people not experiencing the intensity of a thru-hike, the question becomes like a mosquito that you cannot kill and it just keeps biting your forehead over and over.  It seems wrong to tell people that I have no idea what I want to do afterward.  This usually begins a slight panic mode.  What if I can’t find a job?  What if I have to move back in with my parents?  What if I run out of money sooner than I anticipated?  What do I want to do with the rest of my life?

Mid-way through the year at TSS, all grad students must begin thinking about what they want to do post-TSS.  The grad program only lasts one year in the Tetons and we need to apply to another school (out of roughly six choices) to finish a Master’s Degree.  Due to application deadlines, I had to begin thinking about what I wanted to do next year.  Everyone around me began talking about it.  All of our faculty kept asking us.  My parents kept asking me.  The question was everywhere.  Where I decided to apply would determine what degree I would end up getting.

Because the University of Wyoming accredits TSS, a firm push to apply to UW exists.  In fact, all grads had to visit UW for three days despite saying that I knew I did not want to go there or live in Laramie.  I took it as an entertaining trip and good excuse to get to know my fellow grads even better.  I decided not to apply.  Instead, I applied to Prescott College.  However, once I decided I wanted to go for the Prescott program, I had another challenge: the application requires that the student applying envision and outline three courses that he or she would like to create and take as a student there.  Not only would I have to figure out what program area I wanted to continue studying, I had to come up with three classes I would like to make up and take.  Now, talk about overwhelming!

Remembering back to the beginning of the year when we, as a grad class, completed an activity in which we had three concentric circles laid out on the ground, the center representing our “comfort zone,” the middle ring representing our “stretch zone,” and the final ring representing our “panic zone.”  One of our faculty read off a list of activities and sports while we placed ourselves in one of the circles to become more aware of ourselves and to show that one person’s comfort zone is another’s panic zone.  The question, “What are you doing after TSS?” threw me straight into the stretch zone/panic zone border depending upon the day.

Eventually, I came up with something and went with it with the help of many other grads and many long talks with my Mom.

From Jackson Hole Mountain Resort when I tried not to think about next year.

From Jackson Hole Mountain Resort when I tried not to think about next year.

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In a thru-hike, after either my feet stop hurting or I become numb to their pain, I find myself studying trail maps.  The first two weeks of maps, I studied before I began hiking.  After that, I always needed to figure out the next few hundred miles of re-supply rations and where challenge points would show up.  Challenges to look for usually included a distance larger than 90 miles between resupplies, water gaps of 20 miles or longer, towns with no good resupply options, drastically changing terrain in terms of elevation, large river crossings, national parks or forests with special permit needs, etc.

By taking time to study not only the maps for the next day, but the larger overview gave me a better perspective on what would come soon and how I should prepare myself.  If I knew the terrain would have drastic changes in elevation, I would lower my expected daily mileage and therefore take more food out from town.  If I knew I would have two long stretches without water, I would grab an extra Gatorade bottle or two from the last town so I could carry more water.  If I knew a town would only have a gas station to resupply out of, I would usually have a mail drop of food to get more healthy calories.

In grad school, in order to prepare and understand the overview of the program, I had to listen to vast quantities of information and process it quickly.  At the beginning of our fall teaching practicum, our teaching team began to look overwhelmed from a mass intake of information and as one of our faculty, Matt said snickering, “It’s just like drinking from a fire hose!”  As if that was meant to make us feel better.

In order to teach effectively, we had to know the TSS systems inside and out to know where we would have difficulties and to know what we could and could not do with students.  At this point, I’d become numb to my brain hurting, and just began trying to continue absorbing more and more information.  No open toed shoes.  No swimming.  Stay 100 feet away from wildlife.  Then came the famous, “What would you do…WHAT would you do?” scenarios.  We had to constantly hear scenarios from past teaching situations and try to think about what we would have done in that situation, then find where it says what to do in the operations manual.  For example:

What would you do if you are in upper meadow and a thunderstorm rolls in?  You see lightning and heard thunder soon afterwards.  You have eight students and a chaperone.  Two students begin crying.  Where do you go and what do you do with the upset students?

TSS also took getting an overview to a whole new level.  Not only did we have to drink from the fire hose to learn how to teach effectively, we also had to juggle classwork on top of teaching.  We had to learn the local ecology, geology, fire regiments, glacial impacts, cultural history, and more.  To effectively teach students, we had to know the content inside and out.

The Tetons from the West, on our grad backcountry trip

The Tetons from the West, on our grad backcountry trip

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At the beginning of every thru-hike, my feet hurt so much that when someone asks, “How are you?” I can think of no other response besides “My feet hurt.”  It takes my feet several weeks before they either stop aching or I just become accustomed to a constant foot ache. I consistently find myself walking down the trail talking to my feet.  “Feet, you’ve done this before, you can do it again!”  “Come on feet, we have miles to walk before we sleep.”  “There’s a stream in four miles you can soak in, feet, just keep moving.”

"Hippie TV"

“Hippie TV”

At the beginning of grad school, we were told that if we felt slightly overwhelmed, that was normal.  The first few weeks, when asked “How are you?” I could only say, “My brain hurts.”  We had class from 9am-5pm Monday-Friday and sometimes we would hear, “Oh, you gus don’t mind a working lunch, do you?”  Topics ranged from WFR scenarios to aspen regeneration to TSS systems to risk management to glaciers to fire ecology and so much more.

My brain felt like it would explode.  I had to take notes or I could not remember everything.  I had to tell myself consistently, “I chose to go to grad school.”  I had to tell myself “keep listening” and “keep drinking yerba mate” in order to stay awake.  I had to tell myself “don’t worry, the weekend will come soon.”  TGIF had a whole new meaning.  At the very minimum a weekend meant that I could process information in my own way, at my own speed if nothing else.

Moose through a scope

Moose through a scope

After two years off from undergrad, my brain felt like it went through a blender.  Adjusting to going to class and doing homework made my brain just hurt, especially because class now lasted eight hours, not a series of hour and twenty minute sessions.  My body had become accustomed to physical challenge, not mental exhaustion so thorough that I would need extra sleep to recharge my brain.  Each night, I went to bed absolutely exhausted mentally, but restless physically.  My body did not know what to do.  I did not understand why I would become so tired when all I did was sit in a classroom or outside and listen.

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Over the past year, I have completed my first year of grad school at Teton Science Schools (TSS) in Grand Teton National Park (GTNP).  The program consisted of taking block scheduled classes and teaching field education to kids pre-k through 12th grade.  If I only had two words to describe the entire year, I would use “mentally exhausting.”

To top off the year, we needed to complete a final synthesis project.  In true TSS project fashion, the assignment is incredibly open ended and can take any form where reflection on the core competencies (knowledgeable field scientist, effective educator, innovative leader, and conscientious community member) can show.  Oh, and let’s not forget that our grade also depends on the uniqueness of the project.  Typically, with these kinds of projects, three phases exist: the initial freak-out where I have no ideas what-so-ever, the idea, and the implementation of the idea.  The longest phase is invariably the first phase.

Finally, the idea came: to revive my blog and reflect on the mentally exhausting year in terms of a physically exhausting thru-hike.  In the next seven posts, the first part of the title will show a typical challenge in thru-hiking while the second will show a mentally exhausting problem of grad school.

Welcome to my past year.


My cabin for the year: one room, no bathroom, no kitchen.

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