What am I doing here?

This is a question that I’ve spent the past three months thinking about. I’ve asked it, my friends have asked it — hell, complete strangers have asked it after they found out where I’m coming from. Elitist attitudes aside (nobody is “above” working a service job), it’s a damn good question.

The simple answer is that I’m bussing tables at a small diner, Priest Station, right outside of the west entrance to Yosemite on Highway 120. I work Friday-Sunday, and have the rest of the week to explore Yosemite and the Sierras. Seems pretty simple, but I didn’t end up here by accident, and this place is a long way from anywhere.

I think I’ve given at least ten different answers for why I’m here. I’ve said that I’m here for mountains, the West, a restaurant job, getting out of my bubble, hot springs, learning trad climbing — I think I may have even said that I’m here for a cheeseburger at some point. The truth is that there’s no single reason: it’s a complicated thing, with complicated motivations.

At the start of the summer, the vast majority of my reasons centered around Yosemite. I wanted the opportunity to be out West, to climb more, to be in the mountains. I also liked the idea of a service industry job, thinking that it would teach me a lot about people and hard work. Lastly, it was the best option I had. In order to fully explain why this was the case, though, I think it’ll be helpful to go all the way back to the start of my freshman year of college.

I was really stoked to start at Yale and live on the east coast. Given how long I’d been looking forward to it, the first month and a half felt like a waking dream — I couldn’t believe that I was actually there. As that wore off, though, it gradually dawned on me that I wasn’t out West any more. This probably seems obvious — New Haven is, in fact, in Connecticut, which is, in fact, not in the West — but the implications took a little while to figure out. Growing up in Portland, I took it for granted that I could, within a few hours, be in the desert, on a beach, in a forest, on a glacier — any type of landscape I wanted. I lost that possibility when I got on the plane that August, but I didn’t really know it until I read Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey’s love-letter-to-the-West-slash-National-Park-Service-roast. Contrasted against West Rock, the suburban climbing area I’d visited in New Haven that fall, Abbey’s descriptions of Arches National Park and descriptions of the West hit me harder than I expected. Visualizing Abbey’s starkly beautiful Western vistas compared to the bush-covered routes at West Rock, I realized that the West was my place — not that I was unhappy in New Haven or wanted to leave, but that the West was home.

At the end of the school year, I’d taken a job at a consulting firm in Chicago. I decided to spend a few weeks in Portland before heading to the Midwest, and that time reminded me just how happy I was out West. I’d convinced myself that I’d like Chicago, but shockingly enough, I didn’t.

I was unhappy in Chicago basically as soon as I got there. I don’t want to spend too much time whining, but in a nutshell, I didn’t fit with the company culture, didn’t find the work fulfilling, and couldn’t find any wilderness where I could recharge. This last point, unexpectedly, was key: I realized that when I’m unhappy, I go to the wilderness to think and get away, and without a car in Chicago, that wasn’t possible. I took the train to a state park in Indiana once, but it wasn’t a park in the sense that I was used to — there wasn’t a single place in that park where I couldn’t hear the road. I spent my time in Chicago daydreaming about Abbey’s West, tearfully calling friends late at night to try to find Chicago-area wilderness (spoiler alert: it doesn’t really exist, especially without a car), and emailing companies in the outdoor industry about jobs for the following summer. I had a few promising conversations with a guide service in Lake Tahoe, but that didn’t change my situation in Chicago, so when the opportunity presented itself, I was on a plane back to Portland.

I quit a prestigious internship halfway through, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, confirmed by the smell of the Douglas firs outside my window on my first night back in Portland.

I spent the rest of that summer in Portland. I managed to find another internship on very short notice (I owe a big one to Marcelino and Lee at Uncorked), and when my mom and I took a weekend to go camping at Lost Lake, I finally felt like I was home. It was obvious to me that I was happiest out West, and I went back to Yale feeling like I’d learned something.

Shortly after getting back to school, I had the opportunity to interview at a well-known software company for an internship the following summer. I surprised myself by getting an offer within a few weeks, and although I was still talking to the guide service in Tahoe, I didn’t have anything concrete there, so I accepted the offer from the software company. I wasn’t completely sold on the idea of another corporate job, although at least this one was in California, but it seemed ridiculous to turn down an offer with nothing else on the table.

The more I thought about the job, the less I liked it — the company didn’t seem to be a good cultural fit, and I wasn’t excited about the work they were doing. I kept emailing with the guide service, but they eventually told me that they’d hired someone else (with actual experience, can’t blame them there). This started a months-long frantic brainstorm session between me and anyone who’d listen, involving documentary film production (I’ve never made a movie), espresso-fueled grant writing sessions (still coming off the caffeine high), and “thoughtfully” considered last-minute tickets to Pakistan (yes, really). Nothing was panning out, and I’d started to resign myself to the software job, when another opportunity fell into my lap.

I was half-awake, scrolling Facebook at breakfast one morning, when I saw a post from Conrad Anker, one of the best climbers in the world and a personal hero of mine, saying that his family owned a diner outside of Yosemite, and that they needed summer help. I sent them an email, thinking nothing would come of it, but when they replied to say that they wanted to see my resume and schedule a call, I started thinking about it a little more. By the time I talked to Steve and Denise, Conrad’s siblings who run the place, I was pretty excited about the possibility of being in Yosemite for the summer, even though (as Denise made sure to mention) I’d be cleaning a bunch of bathrooms. Honestly, considering how not-excited I was about the corporate gig, cleaning bathrooms sounded pretty good. They offered me the job, and I told them that I’d spend the weekend thinking about it and get back to them the following week.

I spent the weekend looking at legendary Yosemite routes and talking to Matt, one of the waiters at the diner and an absurdly good climber. By the time Monday rolled around, I hadn’t gotten any less excited about the job, so I called Steve and told him I’d be there in May.

It’s funny to me how simple that initial reasoning was, considering how complex it’s become since. Over the past three months, I’ve realized that this summer is one of those things that I’ll be processing for a while — I’m learning lessons, I think, that I don’t even realize I’m learning. I absolutely do realize that I’m learning some things, though, so what follows is a (definitely incomplete) list of what I’ve learned this summer.

  • The West is where I’m happy. I knew this to a certain extent before this summer (especially post-Chicago), but the degree to which this is true amazes me. The mountains, the sky, the space — I feel like I have room to grow out here. Also, pine trees are great.
  • Wilderness is best when shared. You learn a ton on solo trips about yourself and how you respond to fear and the unknown, but the real beauty of wilderness (for me, at least) is in how it brings people together.
  • The scariest experiences are often the most transformative, but trust your gut. If you’re not feeling it, just hang out at a coffee shop for the day. The mountains will always be there, and because consequences are multiplied in the alpine, don’t push it.
  • There’s a difference between rational and irrational fear.
  • Trail magic is real, and so much better when you give more magic than you receive.
  • The highs and lows of solo travel are amplified. The highs are really, really high, and the lows are really, really low. The people you meet, though, make it all worth it — they can turn a low into a high in a few minutes.
  • The generosity of the people you meet in the mountains is unparalleled. I’m not sure if this is something that the mountains do to you, or if they just attract a specific kind of person, but this continues to amaze me.
  • Heroes are human. We put them on pedestals, but they’re people just like everyone else.
  • Risk assessment is a skill that needs practice, and it’s not real practice if you’re not willing to admit that you were wrong.
  • Being a good person will get you further than going to a good school. (And no, going to a good school does not make you a good person.)
  • Working in the service industry teaches you more about people than anything else. If you know how to build a rapport, make someone laugh, and improve their day, it makes life way easier.
  • Tipping matters; do so generously if you’re able. It makes a difference.
  • If the chefs are happy, everything in a restaurant runs better. Iced tea is a good way to make them happy.
  • If you can make the road your home, you’ll feel comfortable anywhere.
  • People are inherently good. There are clearly exceptions to this, but I’m convinced that on the whole, people are good.

So where does this leave me? I’m honestly not sure. I’ve been searching for a unifying theme that can explain this summer in a sentence, but I don’t think one exists. I know that I’ll carry these experiences with me for a long time, but they’re too varied and complex to sum them up quickly.

I’d be lying if I said that this summer has been all wonderful — in some ways, it’s been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Despite working in a restaurant and interacting with hundreds of people every day, I’ve found loneliness unlike anything I’ve previously known. I’ve made countless phone calls to my best friends in search of a connection with someone who’s known me for more than three months. I don’t think anyone saw the tears in my eyes as I drove away from the campsite where I was tackled by a maybe-rabid dog as I slept, but they were there. The fear I felt on exposed, insecure traverses 700 feet above the Tuolumne pines still makes my palms sweat, partially because of the cheese-grater pendulum fall potential, partially because of the intense guilt that had occupied my thoughts for weeks after falling fifteen feet head-first without a helmet. I felt guilty for the hospital bills, but more for what I knew I was putting my mom through. Throughout my recovery, I kept questioning why I climbed in the first place, given how randomly lucky I’d gotten (another few yards and I’d be in a wheelchair) and how unlucky two far more experienced climbers had been on a nearby route just a few weeks before. Sitting concussed with seven staples in my head, reading the accident reports on how Tim and Jason died, made me question everything.

It’s not all bad, though — I’ve spent a lot of time in my own head this summer. There’s been a lot of thinking, a lot of growth, and not very many showers. Between the nights spent wide awake in my tent terrified of the noises outside, the edge-of-possible pitches that redefined my sense of what’s possible in the mountains, the evenings at the diner trying to serve fifty thirsty hikers in desperate need of lemonade, the cinematic sunsets over landscapes that reminded me of the first time I read Desert Solitaire, and the human connections that inspired me at the best of times and quite literally helped me survive the worst of times, at the end of my time here, I’m grateful for this opportunity and the people that have defined it.

There’s a yellow brick road that people seem to expect me to follow — I’m supposed to find lucrative internships at brand-name companies (probably on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley) in order to beef up my resume and get a full-time offer before senior year. The thing is, when I tried to follow this road last summer, I crashed pretty quickly. I’ll end the metaphor here before it gets too painful, but I’ve never been less happy than I was at that company in Chicago. The world I was expected to inhabit spat me out faster than I realized, but the force of the expected is so strong that I kept applying to similar jobs (like the one at the software company) before I finally realized what was happening. I’d be at that software company, too, if the job here hadn’t materialized completely by chance.

I’m incredibly lucky to be in a position where I can take a job like this. After living expenses, I’m not making much money at all — and those living expenses are minimal. I’m living in a tent, camping for free on public land, and eating an unholy number of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and gas station burritos. I understand the privilege that’s necessary to take the time and financial resources that I did in order to make this summer work, and I also know that so many of my peers are using this summer to pay off loans or support their families. Spending my summer this way requires the immense privilege of someone of my identity and experience set, and leaving the yellow brick road has highlighted the ways in which this privilege perpetuates itself.

For those of you with privilege, I’d argue that you should forget the expected and use the space to reflect — ideally by getting out of your bubble. Do what makes you happy and gives you meaning, not what people think you should do, but also recognize that not everyone is able to do this. The yellow brick road promises that everything will be okay, but it also doesn’t have very many on-ramps. It does, however, have a fair number of exits, and if they’re available to you, take them thoughtfully.

Maybe this is the defining lesson of the summer. This kind of experience is something I’ve been dreaming about for years, and I’m so, so glad that I decided to go through with it, against the grain of what I was expected to do. We all have those daydreams floating around, the what-ifs, the if-onlys, and we also have an equal number of reasons why they’ll never work. Maybe there’s a job we think we should take, maybe we have too much stuff to fit into a car, maybe we’re scared of being lonely. Here’s the thing: for many of us, these reasons are scary but well within reach. There’s usually a way to make it work, and if you do so, it can be an amazing experience.

From a certain perspective, this summer has been a waste — I haven’t learned any new programming languages, haven’t added anything particularly flashy to my resume, and haven’t really made any money. From my perspective, though, this summer has been transformative — I’ve lived on my own terms, chasing and defining happiness and meaning for myself, and I’ve met countless incredible people doing the same. It hasn’t been easy, and it’s absolutely been risky (primarily with regards to my head and my personal finances), but as Brendan Leonard, one of my favorite authors, asks:

“Is it more foolish to risk your life or risk wasting your life?”

I know how I’d answer.

Many, many thanks to the phenomenal group who read early drafts of this piece before I knew where it was going. Mom, Liam, Vic, Christina — you rock (pun 100% intended).

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