During spring break 2017, I traveled with 15 other spectacular individuals by plane into the heart of the American Southwest for eight days of community service and good old-fashioned outdoor recreation. We arrived in Phoenix on the morning of March 11, and after retrieving our multitude of bulky luggage, we set off in our motorcade for our first stop at the Palatki Heritage Site outside of beautiful Sedona, AZ. Upon our late afternoon arrival, we were promptly greeted by the young at heart couple–Vicki and Tom–tasked with overseeing the out-of-the-way yet culturally significant site. We were all quite tired from our trip but equally excited to take a tour of the aura-enriched region, which we were granted. Over the course of the 2.5 days we were at Palatki, we became very intimate with the history and tradition behind our primary service site, and we grew closer as we restored the access trails in the dry heat.
Following our departure from Sedona, we journeyed up to the Grand Canyon, and after a thorough distribution of all our gear, we set off towards our campsite destinations near the floor of the geological trough. We split into two groups for our descent, and I became very close with my mini-group peers as we worked together to accomplish (seemingly) simple tasks and shared our thoughts amidst some of the most beautiful backdrops available to mankind. To finish out the trip, we rafted down the Colorado River for 50 miles, spending multiple nights on the river and tightening our bonds of newfound friendship. Overall, my experience during my week in Arizona was one I won’t soon forget, not only due to the incredible adventures we had, but also because of the sincere gratitude of the people we helped.
What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project?
Going into the trip, I knew that if nothing else, I was going to more than enjoy the time spent in the Canyon hiking and rafting. Given my long-time love of the outdoors, I was ecstatic to find out that I had been selected for this popular Buck-I-Serv opportunity, and having never been to the Southwest, I was anticipating the new culture and natural environment that I would finally get to experience for myself. What I didn’t know prior to my trip was how much the people and the spirit of the place itself would rub off on me and change my perspectives. One memorable insight that stands above the rest came into form as we were preparing to depart from Diamond Downs for the rafting segment of our trip. As we slowly winded our way towards the mighty Colorado along a washed out dirt road, I couldn’t help but take note of the numerous children playing in the muddy gullies running parallel to our whiplash-inducing trek. Our put-in point on the river lied within the bounds of the Hualapai reservation, and what struck me the most was the joy these children got from such simple things, despite the evident poverty that permeated the small villages on the outskirts of the nearby towns. Here were people with every right to be angry at the circumstances they had been subjected to through countless years of discrimination and manipulation, and yet, they were friendly and seemingly happy to be alive. This called to mind my own perspectives, as well as those of the other people in my life. Too often it seems that we desire more creature comforts, more prominent standing, and more material happiness in our day-to-day lives. But seeing these people living carefree on the land of their ancestors and deriving delight from something as simple as a late spring melt-water stream really pulled my mindset back to the basics. It really set the tone for our adventure down the river, surrounded by nothing more than some of the most worthwhile scenery ever formed on Earth. Simply stated, I felt humbled to be in such an incredible place and fortunate to be living the life that I am.
Building off of that final point, the recreational segment of my trip to the Grand Canyon also helped me come to know a little bit more about myself and the world as I conceive it. Few places on this planet possess the grandeur and storytelling capacity as the Grand Canyon, and it didn’t take long for me to place this all at the forefront of my mind. While many may overlook it, the Canyon provides insight into a very different world than we know it today. Ancient lakes sat at the mouth of the great basin, left stranded by the uptake of water into reformed glaciers that dropped sea levels by orders of magnitude inconceivable in modern history. These lakes fed the rivers that little by little created a feat of engineering beyond the scope of human imagination, taking with them sediments that, in some places, canvas as much as a billion years of Earth’s past. When taken for what it is, the Canyon recalls a modest way of thinking that rarely frequents the minds of most people. It reminds us how small we truly are and in my personal belief, provides us with an inarguable reason to protect the planet that we have been gifted. Nature is after all a force to be reckoned with, and if we do not take care of her, we cannot realistically expect her to care for us. The Canyon–in its immensity and longevity–forces us to step back and consider our small existence within the context of an ongoing story. Yet, in so doing, it just as soon reminds us of our degree of influence as one species on a place so rich with life and geological might. Getting to experience this place so intimately along with 15 other insightful and humbled human beings was eye-opening in more ways than one, and it has certainly transformed by worldview for the better.
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?
Throughout the service-adventure trip to the Grand Canyon, I was able to be in the company of great people while doing good works for others and seeing a whole new part of the U.S. At the end of each day, our OSU group would sit around a fire (or a flashlight) and reflect on the events that had taken place up to that point while also challenging ourselves to open up and grow in association with one another. There were too many fantastic activities and interactions to account for within the confines of this recollection, but some stood above others, which I noted in my daily log.
Assisting with the trail maintenance at the Palatki Heritage site in Sedona required fairly simplistic work on our group’s part, but it made all the difference for our site supervisors, who would have spent as much as a a week or more attempting to do the work that only took us a day and a half. Eric, our Forest Service overseer, was a quiet man with a soft face that spoke volumes his words couldn’t. His face at the conclusion of our task was one of humbled gratitude and near disbelief that so many awesome people would be willing to spend their spring break helping out. This same sense of gratitude was expressed more verbally on Tuesday, March 14th, when we traveled to the Yavapai county food bank and bagged nearly 200 meals for area youth. Some of the bank’s staff were reduced to tears as they explained how important the meals were for people who couldn’t afford to eat well otherwise and subsequently thanked each one of us repeatedly. While it felt as though we hadn’t done much, it was empowering how far small acts of charity and kindness can really go, something that stuck with me throughout the week.
The second half of the week imprinted on me equally as much. Prior to our Canyon descent, it was a real joy to watch as everyone excitedly stuffed their backpacks and chattered with one another. My group started down first and consisted of six people, generally the more experienced of the bunch. Following the switchbacks down the steep walls, the size and sheer magnitude of the Canyon left me awestruck, knowing full well that this was a place capable of testing a man’s wits. My downsized group’s leaders, Ethan and Anthony, kept us on point and provided comic relief and encouragement each day we were in the Canyon. After our long hike down, we were all a bit slap-happy upon pitching camp near Cottonwood Creek, and we grew much closer to one another while appreciating the landscape around us all the while. This appreciation was further fostered as we ascended the Canyon the following night, climbing towards a sky so full of stars that it little resembled the one I had looked at so often before. The last leg of our trip–rafting down the Colorado River–was also made up of many interactions and memorable events. Overall, however, it was purely incredible to paddle between the ancient walls of the Canyon’s main corridor and to take on the forceful rapids that we encountered on occasion. On our second night on the river, we slept on the rafts and awoke the following morning to the sunrise casting a pink hue across the largely untouched landscape. During that time, I felt completely at peace looking on from the front of the raft, and as I contemplated the serenity of the moment, I silently cried out of joy. Not too much later that same morning, I was somewhat overcome by another emotion, which was alarm. I had known prior to the trip that the Colorado River watershed was in trouble from excessive utilization of its waters, but experiencing this first hand made it all the more worrisome. We hadn’t even gone a full 50 miles before it became apparent that the river around us was shrinking and decreasing rapidly in depth. This certainly struck me and hit home the point that we must do a better job of protecting our natural resources if we have any hope of preserving such unspoiled places. Every action we take as a species has consequences, and it is up to us to ensure that our children and their’s can experience such magnificent places as the Canyon for decades to come.
Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life?
I found my entire experience in Arizona to be highly rewarding and transformative. The service and recreational components both provided both the group and me with a new perspective of an unfamiliar place and its people. Most of us had never been to the Southwest, and it enabled us the opportunity to get a glimpse into a different lifestyle (and some of the unique challenges) that several million Americans experience everyday. Of course not every moment of each day was perfect. Much as in any extended encounter with the same people, there were some frustrations, quips, and hurt feelings, but by and large, we became very close as a group of individuals and enjoyed one another’s company throughout the week. The personal satisfaction derived from the the faces of those we helped as well as from now being able to say that I’ve camped in the Grand Canyon and conquered its mighty river will stick with me for years to come as I reflect on my time well spent at Ohio State. Helping others is one of life’s greatest pleasures, and although it isn’t always easy or fun, the reward is always just as good. This sentiment was reaffirmed for me during my time assisting at Palatki and the Yavapai County Food Bank with the others, and it has pushed me to continue serving others when and where I can. Moreover, it was worthwhile to represent our university and the state of Ohio itself by dedicating half of our spring break to alleviating the workload of others in a faraway place. From East coast to West, we are all one people in the U.S., and we should always be willing to set aside time in the service of others.
In addition, my career path was made ever more clear by having the privilege of so intimately experiencing one of the wildest places in the country and perhaps the world. I always knew growing up that I wanted to become a scientist and do my part to preserve this place that we call home and the people with whom I share it. Seeing firsthand the beauty, power, and scope of the Grand Canyon will imprint on me forever and further refine my perspectives of the natural world. We have been given much to be thankful for in this world, and this includes the easy-to-overlook beauty of a wild place, something that has vanished in far too many corners of the globe. Being in the Canyon refueled the slow-burning fire that I have had for so long to impact our planet for the better and to share with others all that it has to offer us if we just take the time to look. Being in the company of 15 other unique individuals was a wonderful thing in such a fantastic place, and I don’t doubt that the STEP program served its purpose well for my development. Had I not been given the stipend, I don’t know that I would have been able to parallel the experience that I took part in, and I may just have easily ended up at home doing less productive things. I am grateful for the opportunity I was given to be a part of the Grand Canyon service-adventure trip, and I will continue looking for more ways to help others in the spirit of being a true Buckeye!