Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A job, a friend & Mississippi sunsets

Several new, short videos this week.

Exiting news! I have obtained employment for the spring season with Mountain Trail Outdoor School in Hendersonville, North Carolina. They initially turned me down for a position when I first applied, but I wrote an email response to the director, asking for feedback on my interview and including a more thorough response to one of her interview questions. She replied a couple of weeks later by offering me a job. I have included here part of my e-mail to her; a passionate explanation of why I do what I do for work, and a pat on the back to all of you other outdoor educators who do the same:

 "Why is outdoor education important?"
I am surprised that after several years in this profession, including many hours of solo reflective time and writing about my thoughts and feelings, I had never been asked this question.  And so, largely for my own peace of mind, here is a more thoroughly thought out and unsurprised response:

Several years ago, someone told me about an old wise man, who said that only two things make people happy.  One is connection with other people, and the other is connection with nature.  Since then, my understanding has become that people ARE nature, or at least an essential part of it, but that many of us have lost that connection and understanding.
     Outdoor and experiential education is important because it re-connects children to the natural world that they are a part of.  In a time when video games, TV and facebook are the icons of kids lives, it becomes increasingly difficult for kids to care about what is going on "away from the power outlets." Not only does being in the outdoors increase their interactions with the real world (water, plants, animals, rocks and sky), but well planned lessons and fun games will increase their understanding of how the natural world works to provide them with what they need to live.  The air they breathe, the water they drink, the materials necessary to construct their homes and schools, and the electricity that comes from the outlets are all taken for granted until these processes are understood.  Ultimately,  if I can help a child to understand how the Earth and the Sun have been working together for billions of years to produce the things necessary for their survival and enjoyment, I feel that I have taken a step toward the even larger goal of encouraging them to be stewards of those resources and processes. 

If I can, in addition to this, make the outdoors an exciting and adventurous place to play and learn, then I will have helped to set them on path of appreciating nature for the rest of their lives.  Books such as "Last child in the woods" make glaringly obvious the social, psychological and physical benefits of such a lifestyle choice early in life.  With a wealth of environments with which to interact, countless questions to be answered, and sensations to stimulate all the senses, the outdoors is a classroom unparalleled by any constructed environment.  For the health of future generations, a true, hands-on understanding of how the world works, and a way to connect to the natural world that they are a part of, I choose to spend my time teaching children outdoors.

12/18/11 Rosedale, MS to Hollandale, MS: 62 miles

The sunsets over the Mississippi River have been fabulous. I have taken pictures each of the last 3 nights. With the short days, I find myself struggling to get to my destinations before dark, but as a result, I pedal into the beautiful sunsets, and arrive at camp with a sense of peace and beauty.

Four types of animals and one plant:

Today, I was bit by a dog. I have been chased by more than a dozen at this point, but none of them seemed very serious or intent on actually hurting me until today. A gang of 5 or 6 ran out between some mobile homes, coming directly at me, and working themselves into a frenzy. None of them was very large, and they didn't seem like the types of dogs that I should be scared of (no pitbulls, german shepards or rotweilers). One of them had white curly hair, like a poodle, and the one that actually jumped up and bit my hand as I slowed down to shoo them away was just a puppy. Generally, my strategy has been either to speed up and outrun the slow dogs, or to stop and be assertive with the ones who get close, but this group wouldn't have it. They barked even more loudly as I slowed and shouted at them in low tones, until I got close enough that they actually started nipping at me. After I got bit, I actually kicked the one that bit me, and then took off pedaling as fast as I could, which only made 2 of the dogs continue to chase me. The dog that bit me, a small, thin, grey one, kept chasing me for nearly half a mile at more than 15 mph. It would actually get ahead of me, then try to turn in front of me, to which I did not flinch, so it got out of the way and then kept running right next to me, barking and growling. When I finally outpaced it, I stopped to look at the damage. Luckily, I was wearing fleece gloves with liners, because the dog managed to draw blood through the gloves, even though it didn't manage to puncture any holes in the glove itself. I sustained only the loss of a couple of 1/8 inch diameter patches of skin.
For the last several days, the main types of roadkill that I've been seeing are possums and armadillos. Armadillo shells make a very satisfying crunch under a bicycle tire. Not so surprisingly, I haven't seen any possums during the day (as they are nocturnal), but I would love to see a living armadillo.

It must be mating season for red-wing blackbirds, because they are gathering in the thousands. They make great, swooping clouds over the roads, changing their direction and swirling about in flocks that remind me of a the spinning double helix that is always shown as “DNA” in graphic form in science books. They land on the tops of empty trees together, filling 6 or 8 trees completely with birds, taking the place of the leaves that have fallen to the ground for the winter. They chatter loudly and cheerfully, and sound healthy and happy.

Yesterday, I started seeing people wandering about in fields underneath giant old trees, picking things up off of the ground. In several places, I would see this, and look at the trees to try and identify what it was they were gathering. Today, I stopped under one of these trees, which seem to be planted in every front yard and every field. Pecans are in season, and everyone is getting their share. At the tree I stopped under, I gathered over a pound of the 1” long nuts in their shells in about 10 minutes. These pecans are much smaller than those I have seen in the grocery stores, but they sure are tasty. Raw pecans are much sweeter and softer than any I have had before. What a delicious, free roadside treat!

After crossing the Mississippi River from Memphis, I spent the night with couchsurfers Melanie, Dave and Suze, all teachers in the Teach For America program in Marianna, Arkansas. As they stated, no one would come to live in that town if it wasn't for the Teach For America program. After being treated to a hot veggie burrito dinner, Melanie, Dave and I went to the local high school basketball game, where the stands were packed with 600 people, and 97% of them were black. I admit, this made me nervous at first, but I calmed down shortly. The games were very lively, and the level of play was quite impressive. I am beginning to realize that it has been a long time since I was anywhere near to being a minority someplace. The world of outdoor education, recreation and employment is still totally filled with white people. In the last job I held in Los Angeles, at Radio Shack, I was the only white male working there (there was one white female) out of about 8 employees, but that was over 6 years ago. While I have never harbored any prejudice, I had kind of convinced myself that I didn't even really notice someone's race or ethnicity anymore, but that is simply not true. It is much more noticeable when I am one white face out of 10 in a crowd of 600 darker faces. It was a good experience.

As I pedal further south, the colors of the leaves are returning. The colors now look very similar to Northern Minnesota in late October, with pinks and yellows dominating a scale from brown to bright red to intense, sunflower gold. I suppose this means that I am biking faster than the seasonal changes move south. I will get to experience autumn for that much longer. After all, winter is still 3 days away!


Yesterday was a grueling, 95 mile push through the heartland of Mississippi. Ups and downs along the way included the first actual hills I have encountered, which were very nice to ride due to great views of the surrounding forests. I also ran into a closed road, which detoured me onto a nasty gravel road, which I rode for 7 miles at 8 mph. If ever you need to torture me for some reason, make me ride a 100 lb bike on a deep, chunky gravel road for endless amounts of time in the dusty south through fields of mud and dust. Yuck.
I am now in Madison, Mississippi, at the home of some more couchsurfers, who have been very hospitable. Today, I will meet with my friend Pete, from San Francisco, who is flying into Jackson, MS to ride with me into New Orleans for a little over a week. I will have company on the ride for the first time!

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