An East Coast Adventure!

  1. Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project. Write two or three sentences describing the main activities your STEP Signature Project entailed.

My STEP Project took place over the period of time from June 8th-June 22nd, and it involved me and my travel partner Emily Akkari venturing to a number of national parks along the east coast – namely: Cuyahoga Valley, Shenandoah, Congaree, Smokey Mountains, and Mammoth Cave. At these parks we hiked, explored, and participated in ranger-led events, all the while documenting our experiences through photography.

  1. What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project? Write one or two paragraphs to describe the change or transformation that took place.

This trip was a wonderful opportunity to get out of familiar territory and leave my comfort zone. Because of the success of this trip, I am very much looking forward to going on similar trips in the future – and they will be much easier to plan now that I have this experience! It was truly liberating to be able to travel on my own, following my own agenda; and the time spent with my travel partner helped me develop my personal skills and teamwork, while also offering me new and different perspectives as we travelled.

The cameras that we were able to purchase with our STEP funds really enabled me to see the world in a way that I hadn’t been able to before; as we travelled through the many, beautiful national parks that the east coast has to offer, I was able to view the natural landscapes in a new light. I found myself paying even more attention to angles and lighting, with a new appreciation for the aesthetics of nature that I had not previously been able to notice. When you start looking at the world through a photographer’s lens, you start noticing all of the little views and opportunities that the world has to offer. You can take a snapshot of a beautiful view, or touching moment, and then reflect on it in a way that would otherwise not be possible.

  1. What events, interactions, relationships, or activities during your STEP Signature Project led to the change/transformation that you discussed in #2, and how did those affect you? Write three or four paragraphs describing the key aspects of your experiences completing your STEP Signature Project that led to this change/transformation.

One of the most transformative of interactions throughout the course of the trip was my interaction with two of the volunteer rangers in Congaree National Park, Steve Dennis and Bill Wilson. Out of all of the people that we interacted with throughout or project, they were the two that had the greatest passion for knowledge and sharing that knowledge. As we walked the boardwalk in Congaree, they would stop and identify birds by their song, identify and share information about the plants and trees of the park, and point out all of the hidden wildlife that we were passing without even knowing. We saw all manners of birds, insects, fish, and turtles and other assorted wildlife that we encountered. Their clear passion for nature, wildlife, and educating visitors about the national parks was truly inspiring and made me appreciate my surroundings in a way that would otherwise have been impossible. In addition to this, they also shared a passion with photography; Billy Dennis and I spent a portion of the boardwalk hike photographing birds, and he showed me a thing or two about how to use my camera.

My favorite of the personal hikes that we took was probably in the Smokey Mountains. Emily and I had just gone through a rather long day of driving through the more commercial areas around the Smokey’s and were somewhat disappointed that we didn’t get to spend more time out and in the thick of the park, when we decided to go up to Clingman’s Dome – even though the hour was growing late. As we drove up the scenic drive towards the dome, we were reminded again about why these mountains were called Smokey; the clouds seemed to bleed out from amidst the trees, and we found ourselves driving higher and higher towards them. When we finally reached the top, and arrived at Clingman’s, we found it virtually abandoned. There were only one, or two other cars there at most, and we were greeted with the still and quiet of the landscape around us. A thick fog had settled atop the mountain, and as we hiked the rest of the way up to the observatory, we had only the odd trill of local birds and small snails sluggishly moving across the path to keep up company. This was by far the more serene and unique experience of the trip. Lastly, our interactions together as a partnership. We urged each other on and waited for the other, making sure we were safe along the trail and any other excursions we went on. We helped each other take photos, took turns driving our long drives, and tried to accommodate each other’s needs as best as we could. This, most of all, was the most important, I think. It showed what it’s like to interact with only one other primary person and how to best adjust to these interactions.

One final aspect of the trip that we life-changing was the dynamics of travelling with only one partner. As Emily and I travelled along the many highways that  the eastern United States had to offer and hiked the many trails and pathways in the park, we had only each other to lean on. This was a great team building exercise of a sort, as we relied on only each other to ensure that we had a pleasant and effortless trip.

  1. Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life? Write one or two paragraphs discussing why this change or development matters and/or relates to your academic, personal, and/or professional goals and future plans.

This was an incredibly transformative trip for me, personally. I feel that this experience has allowed me to develop a new perspective on the world around me, and the United States as a whole. I was able to travel on my own, and be responsible for my own transportation and well-being, truly, for the first time. I have a newfound confidence in my abilities to carry myself through the adult world and find success wherever I am –geographically or otherwise. I also see the true value of the national parks; whereas before I saw them merely as a tool or opportunity for leisure, I know understand the inherent value that they provide to not only our nation, but to the world as a whole.

National parks are a gateway into a world that many people nowadays do not get to experience; they are a portal into the natural world, unadulterated and untainted by the pollution that cities and large masses of people in general inevitably produce. They are a look back at how the world used to look, and they are is truly a luxury that many of us take for granted.

I will be adding more specific details of my trip to this story map: https://arcg.is/1Oy4zP