Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Day 18 - Gardiner, Montana / Yellowstone National Park

As we headed home from white-water rafting on the Yellowstone River and soaking in the Chico hot springs nearby, Andi and Ken gave us a little pep talk about media relations. We're all set to meet with The Today Show tomorrow and possibly some other news sources in the near future. Several students from the 40/40 group have already spoken with reporters from the San Francisco Weekly, Roswell's Daily Record, and most recently, the prestigious Chronicle of Higher Education. So we have a pretty good idea of what kinds of questions we might be asked, but it's always nice to get a little refresher the night before in order to keep certain ideas fresh on my mind.

Some popular questions have been:
  • What has been the most inspiring moment on the trip so far?
  • How is living 24/7 with 11 other people? Has there been friction between group members?
  • What do you think it means to be an American?
  • What experience are you most looking forward to?
  • What are you hoping to take away from this experience?
Every time these questions have come up in conversation I find that I have a different answer. It depends on the time of day, the context, and my mood, among other factors, but I never fail to come up with something completely different from the last pondering. Today one question in particular stayed with me long after the discussion was over.

What has been the most difficult thing about this trip?
My immediate reaction was to deny any difficulty. That's how I cope when I travel. If I get sick, if I forget something, if disaster strikes, if my plans fall through, if I find myself in an uncomfortable situation--no matter what--I put on a smile and just don't allow it bother me. Period. To be able to do this--to be able to make my happiness independent from my circumstances--has literally been a lifesaver during past experiences overseas. My continuous optimism and good attitude made it possible to take advantage of numerous "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunities and really enjoy them despite some inconveniences.

But as I continued to think on the question, I realized that not everything on this trip has been easy for me. Our "tricked out" tour bus, the group of students/faculty, the itinerary, and the people we've encountered along the way have all been great. My difficulty has been personal, not thrust upon me by physical circumstances.

It was a hard thing to swallow when I finally realized that I haven't been fully experiencing the events of the past two weeks.

The whole routine of being in a new place and adapting to the culture and environment has become exactly that -- a routine. Since 2006 I've visited 20 countries and had amazing experiences in all of them. My goal has always been to "live like the locals" whenever and wherever I go. But I've started to take for granted the privilege I have to travel, to witness new places and new ways of life. During the past 18 days I've visited 17 different cities and gone through the motions of "exploring" them. It's been fun. But have I genuinely taken the time to seek out and appreciate the uniqueness of each place? For most of these cities, the answer is a resounding NO.

Thinking back, there have been plenty of warning signs. I was frustrated with my blogs; I wasn't feeling inspired to write as I usually do when I travel. I commented to several people that I felt like my blogs held nothing of value. And while their kind encouragement was genuine and much appreciated, I knew it wouldn't change the fact that I wasn't proud of any of my articles. My writing has lacked enthusiasm and true inspiration; each night I've struggled to piece together some coherent thoughts about the day. Were it not for the class requirements, I wouldn't have published any of these pieces except for my response to our day on the Navajo Reservation.

I could be devastated at how much of the trip I've seemingly wasted. But I'm thankful for having learned this lesson, and I'm looking forward to being fully present, physically and mentally, during the 22 days that lay ahead. Don't get me wrong, I fully expect to have setbacks, but I'm going to make a conscious effort.

These past blog posts will forever serve as a record of my embarrassingly bad first attempt to discover America, but everything's about to change.


  1. Shirah. I think you might be over-thinking all of this. I have enjoyed your posts, and I really don't think they've lacked any enthusiasm. Don't be too self-critical, as some might mistake it for pride -if you know what I mean; and I think you do -heh heh.

    Anyway, just relax and have fun -it's our only chance to vicariously have fun with you. We're all stuck at work, you know...

  2. Shirah, As much as I love story-telling and using a blog for personal reflection, I think it is worthy to discuss if blogging might 'get in the way' on an intensely packed itinerary, surrounded (constantly) by peers/cohorts who are rich resources for interaction. All of us do not learn/reflect in the same manner...perhaps there are better options. Until we figure that out, however, I am certainly enjoying what I am reading each day. I deeply appreciate the effort and the personal reflections.

    When this adventure ends, I suspect that you will appreciate all of your posts (and those of your class) even more. Collectively, I believe you are accomplishing something that is incredibly valuable to your class and for those who will follow you. The quest to discover the meaning of 'being an American' has shown us that we are missing much by not leaving our cocoons/comfort-zones to engage the diversity of people who make us 'Americans'.

    I agree with Eric...allow us the pleasure to enjoy this vicariously with you. Enjoy! Keep thinking!

  3. Hi Shirah. I've been enjoying your blogs for quite awhile now without replying (I'm not much for e-mail correspondence, etc.), but I thought it interesting that I just read a C.S. Lewis quote right before reading your daily entry. He deals with a subject I know we all struggle with...living in the present:

    "The Present is the point at which Time touches Eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which [God] has of reality as a whole; in it alone, freedom and actuality are offered them. He would therefore have them continually concerned either with Eternity (which means being concerned with Him) or with the Present--either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself; or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present
    grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure," (The Screwtape Letters, pg. 68).

    You're way ahead of most kids your age (most adults, too) because you realize the value of "being in the moment" where you're connect to God and Eternity. Learning to STAY there is a life-long process which hopefully has shorter and shorter lapses. Enjoy the rest of your trip.

  4. Shirah, I have loved your entries so far. You're experience the trip in your own way, so I can't speak for your own experience. However, I'm going with Eric--don't overthink the blogs. React. Write about your day, and write about your daily (immediate) reactions in the context of the prompts I've given you. Give yourself and your writing the permission to be fun and relaxed! It's all good, and you're doing a wonderful job.


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