Saturday, September 22, 2007

back from the wild!!

This blog will, for the next year, be the chronicle of my adventures with Americorps St. Louis' Emergency Response Team (ERT).

Last night I returned from the Illinois wilderness, south of Carbondale, where we did a trip called "Quest/Immersion," (sort of two trips in one). Not only is this the only ERT Americorps program in the country, but this trip is also unique to the St. Louis Americorps chapter. We also found out that we made a 1 in 5 cut to get onto this team, and that FEMA relies heavily on us for disaster relief all over the midwest. So basically, I went on a unique trip with a really unique group of people, AND I COULDN'T HAVE HAD A BETTER TIME!!

I've come to nickname Americorps "the hippie army" because it is like the US Army in that there is a lot of unknown and fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants about what we will be doing, when we will be doing it, and where we will end up, for an amorphous amount of time. I call it the "hippie army," though, because it is A LOT less militant than the Army, and a lot more about being in touch with your feelings, Native American ideals about stewardship of the Earth, and going with the flow. There is never a fixed agenda, and if there is, it is certainly never in writing, much less etched in stone.

While these observations may be having you thinking, oh god what have I let this kid go get herself into?? --don't worry. It's a fabulous test of my patience, and I never once felt like the leadership didn't have a firm grasp on the big picture of what needed to get done, nor did I ever feel the need to question their ability or competence in getting those prescribed goals met. This is, after all, the second oldest Americorps chapter in the country, and the directors of the program, Kathleen and Bruce, have been the grandparents of the group since it was conceived.

Okay, okay. Enough back-story- it's time for the Quest!

We arrived at the Americorps office at 8 on Monday morning. We were told beforehand to bring our belongings separated into two giant trash bags. One was for the two days we would spend hiking and camping in the wilderness, and the other for the three days we would spend at an actual camp. My old buddy Ben dropped me and my trash bags off at 8:01 and and I went inside to get my pack, which would serve as my slightly more substantial suitcase for the week. We were split into groups of about 15 (there were almost 90 people, including the leadership team) and were subsequently given plastic flagging so we could more easily retrieve our bags once unloaded from the trailer upon arrival in Illinois.

Aside: The thing with Quest is that it's all very hush-hush. All we knew was that we were going into a national forest south of Carbondale, and we would be sweating, hiking, and carrying extra group gear besides what we packed just for ourselves... but other than that, we had no idea what to expect out there.

So we packed our trash bags for Quest and the group gear into our hiking packs, and then flagged our camp bags with our team color and loaded those second bags into the trailer. Once the canoes were hitched up to one of the pickup trucks, our bags were all loaded via an assembly line passing gear from the building into the trailer, and then, finally, we loaded ourselves into the hot vans with weak a/c; we could hit the road. I think we left around 10:30-- which was apparently amazingly snappy performance compared to last year's departure.

We drove east for about 3 hours with only a vague notion of where we were going. When we arrived at a picnic area on the edge of the park, we all got out and ate lunch (PB & J on pita bread), loaded the rest of the food into our packs, and had a big group meeting standing in a circle on the gorgeously green grass. Bruce, the executive Director, led the meeting, reminding us about things such as team work, anticipating each other's needs, proper blister care, and what some Native American chief once said about how our lives are made up of concentric circles, not unlike the rings of a tree.

We finally got back on the road after our 2-hour lunch, and along the way, (our small team of 15) was handed mysterious maps of where we were, and where we would be going. The maps were laminated and had boundary lines delineating the edges of the wildlife preserve, the surrounding counties, and a lake called "Devil's Kitchen." They were topographical maps, but they did not have a compass rose on them, nor did they have a scale or legend, describing what the different types of lines meant.

The van was filled with questions that went unanswered: Is that a trail or a road? Are we on a highway or just a path? Is that a boundary or trail? How old is this map? Are these trails still there, or are they grown over and thus useless? Which way is north? How far apart are these "topo" lines? Is the grid in square miles? kilometers? tens of miles? Where are we going? Where are we now? How much longer until we reach our drop off point? Where is our drop off point?

The list goes on and on, but instead of getting frustrated with our leader's apparent silence and vagueness, our group pulled together and started scouting out clues on the road to figure out how the map corresponded with reality. We watched the clock on the van (since we were told not to bring watches) to see how long it took to get from one place to another. We paid attention to the curvature of the lake's shoreline as we drove around a small part of it. We noted what side of the tree trunks the shadows were on. We decided that we were headed past Little Grassy Lake, over to Devil's Kitchen Lake, and that when we finally stopped, we had arrived a small black dot called "Boat Access." We pointed out that it took no more than 5 minutes to drive from Little Grassy to Devil's Kitchen. We decided the grid was in square miles and that the top of the map was north.

_to be continued_

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