A Record Year


January

I wake up on New Year's Day in a hostel in Asheville, North Carolina, with the customary headache. It should not be how we start the year-  blurred, regretful, squinting against light-  but we never learn.

Mid-month, I summit Crowder's Mountain, a near-vertical ascent up shark-toothed rock faces that jut in every direction. Out of breath on the trail, but out of place off it. The relatively warm Carolina winter keeps me outside, moving, one foot in front of the other.

I continue freelancing for three Vermont newspapers, and it keeps me connected to my old life. I write about last year's real estate trends, women's economic inequality, and interview a few local authors. 

Late in the month, I drive the 200 miles to Charleston to see my aunt, and I whip my face red in the coastal wind. We eat crabcakes and walk the cobblestone streets. The Old Slave Mart on Chalmers Street still stands, amidst restaurants and shops and well-dressed southerners. How easy it is to fade and fold tragedy and trauma into just buildings and textbooks. How we forget that they seep into everything, pores and minds and hearts and all. Seven months prior, a white 21 year old took nine black lives inside a church, less than one mile from this old market. As I write this post, a year after my visit to this broken city, he has been convicted on all 33 federal counts. The country waits for his sentence. 

I leave Charleston under cloud cover and snake along Highway 17, tracing the lowcountry with my tires, and cross into Georgia. I've been accepted to the Savannah School of Art and Design for an MFA in Writing. I will visit, determine if this is the place. 

I camp at an RV park on Tybee Island for two nights, with the snowbirds who set up shop for the winter, outdoor carpets and tiki lights and signs saying "The Johnsons" and all. 

I am the only tent camper. I lay parallel to the ground in the 40 degree night, my body a line curling in on itself.

I sit in on a class, talk with a professor, attend an admitted students day. Savannah is dreamlike. Live-oaks bend their branches to the ground, elegant lashes of leaves. It is warm and sunny, brisk walk through historic squares. I end the day on the beach, PBR in hand, flirting with seagulls and listening to "Georgia on My Mind."


February 

On the first day of the month, I am offered a writing residency in western Colorado for the month of May. I'd nearly forgotten about it, having applied the previous August in a flurry of getting my life in order. I eagerly accept, and when the studio extends the offer to two months, for May and June, a plan takes shape.

I spend the month freelancing aggressively. The usual slate of album reviews, plus the community news that I've come to love, the kind where you dig into something small. Stories of quilt guilds, of art-based education, of a cancer survivor, and a blood donor who has given over 100 gallons of blood in his life. I feel lucky to hear their stories.

I play the waiting game with schools. NYU invites me to visit, then Berkeley calls. I book flights.

Leap year, February 29, I sit in on an NYU class and the impression is immediate. I meet with the program director, have lunch with a college newspaper friend, and grab beers with an former editor and friend from Vermont. I slip into the rhythm of the city. 


March

Straight from New York to Vermont for a few days. I buy my undergrad thesis advisor lunch, and she tells me to shed the formality and call her Lisa. I will try.

I see a slew of old friends and colleagues. You leave a place with your reasons and your memories, but distance and days can dull your love. You need to be reminded.

Burlington will always be the place where I became who I am. It is changing, and I no longer fit as cleanly, like two pieces of broken glass whose edges don't line up like they used to. People leave and that leaving carves a space, a sliver for the wind to get in. You steel yourself against it but you break, too. 

Still, over a pitcher and popcorn at The OP, I am home again for a few hours.

---

But nostalgia is short-lived, for it's off to Berkeley next, on this grand sweep of graduate school visits. California is a balm. It's been two years since I was here last, under very different circumstances. For work, fresh out of college, shoulders bent under responsibility, flush with how adult I was. If only. 

This time I stay in a cramped Airbnb with the toilet in a closet down the hall, the sink in another closet at the other end of the hall, and an Airstream trailer parked in the yard.

UC Berkeley is very official, precise, and efficient, intimidatingly so. But is has the most gorgeous campus, streams and redwood and steep hills. The people here are unflinchingly focused and qualified. I can see myself here, without a doubt. I do math and miles. It is far, it is expensive.

I spend a free day exploring, dodging rain, picking up volumes of poetry, catching a Colombian movie, mailing postcards with Muir quotes stamped on them. A missed connection that occasionally pops into my mind, even now.

Next, I slink to Michigan in a series of delayed, bedraggled, sleep-deprived flights. Another behemoth of a university, another college town that isn't mine but I'm glad to be here. A few days with a college roommate, restorative after the sprint of cross-country travel, admissions visits, forced-conversation mixers and an avalanche of papers and newsletters and materials.

She takes me to the wildlife refuge she volunteers at. Where abandoned reindeer, cougars, albino pythons, warthogs, and peacocks go when people don't want or can't keep them, or when animals are rescued from environmental disasters.

I end my travel sprint in Massachusetts, staying with several other friends (at this point I should extend a large, digital thank-you to everyone who housed me that month. I owe you.) I visit Boston University and meet someone who has applied to the same schools as I have. We chit chat over a pile of appetizers and agree to stay in touch.

After three weeks of cities and transit, I return south. The decision makes itself. It is the school that made me want to apply to journalism school in the first place. I'd thrown it out of my mind, said it wasn't for me, too big, too pretentious, I could do this a million other places. Those lies we tell ourselves come clean in the end. In the circular way of things, I've been there before, when I was twenty-one, dipping a toe into this world. I'll return, twenty-five, both feet in now.

With purposeful calm, I send in my deposit to NYU and head immediately to the woods. Oconee State Park in upstate South Carolina. I hike and build fires and eat jerky and turn my mind toward spring.


April

I prepare for my western summer: two months in Colorado and one month on the road. All-weather clothes, film and cameras, road atlas, books, camping gear. I load my father's orange 48 L Osprey Kestrel backpack (larger than my own green 38 L) and a canvas sail duffel. 

I find out Prince dies when I'm driving my grandfather's car, listening to the radio. The station queues up Kiss, Purple Rain, Raspberry Beret, Let's Go Crazy.

I finish freelance assignments and make a semi-spontaneous weekend trip to Kentucky to see an old friend, one of the oldest. Order of the day: whiskey distillery and Daniel Boone National Forest. The Red River Gorge is thick backcountry, and I am white-knuckled at the wheel, teetering on switchback roads. We leave our cars at the trailhead, snap a photo, all smiles and catching up, packs jangling, our strides wide.

We struggle, packs loaded with unnecessarily ambitious provisions for the night (sweet potatoes, sausage, corn, beer) and lose our way on the Wildcat Trail. Light leaves us and we are grumpy and spent. We finally crest a ridge and tuck into a hollow, cook up a mess of food, and crack beers. Only one night. Too short but you take the time you have.

In the morning, eight hours back to Carolina, through brilliant sunshine and rolling, green Kentucky hills. 

In four days, I am gone. I fly to Denver on April 29 and won't return until August. I am filled to the brim with anticipation. After years of daydreaming, months of planning, my western odyssey is in sight. Hand to brow, I eye it down.


May

The train ride from Denver to Glenwood Springs is a visual feast. Raptured rush of Colorado River and the deepest red dirt. I make it to Paonia late in the day.

My new home for two months is a painted green mystery house of artists and writers. It's a town of characters whom I will come to know like family, endless orchards of stone fruit (cherry, apricot) plus pear, apple, even peach. It's an orange cat named Tomatoes who teaches me how to love cats, despite a life defined by dogs.

I meet three incredible ladies, my fellow residents. We put on a workshop series at the library and go on the local radio station. We read at the monthly open mic night at the pizza joint, and frequent the writer's workshop in town. The annual fashion show is a fête for all times.

There's a tension in the town, in much of the west, between the old-timers, the coal miners, the ranchers, and the new-comers, the artists, the east-coasters. Paonia is both a hippie enclave and a conservative stalwart, part of mining country. 

Cider at a barn dance, VW buses parked in orchards. I hike the Black Canyon of the Gunnison over Memorial Day. I shoot pool in the town dive. I bike until my lungs and legs scream, but these mountain roads are unlike any I've traversed before. I read like mad and write like it too. At the foot of Mount Lamborn, at the backyard brewery or in this tilt-a-whirl artists' haven, writing creek-side with purpose, I no longer feel like I'm running.


June

The May ladies depart and three new residents arrive. My second day meeting them, I flay several layers of flesh off of my palms and fingers in a miscalculated rope swing leap.

I almost pass out from the strips of skin hanging like wet paper, the searing sting of iodine. I bandage my marbled red and white hands and don't write or type for days.

Summer arrives early and the days quickly heat to 90 and above. We discover Montucky beer, a delightful portmanteau of Montana and Kentucky.

There are a series of events: Orlando, Brexit. We're isolated out here in this mountain valley and I start to feel guilty. How can we be reasonable citizens, how can one possibly keep a pulse on everything? 

I deal with a series of bureaucratic nightmares with NYU and make myself sick with worry. Lessons I will learn: there is always an answer, you or someone else will find it. 

I hike a spectacular three lake loop with a new musician friend, and we picnic by one of the lakes. Alpine trees, piercing cold water, 10,000 feet. Sublime. That evening, the residents attend a baby shower for the residency director. Half the town is there. And, two days later we host our final open studio, everyone drinks too much, and we leave riding a June heatwave.


July 

On July 4,  my roadtrip companion and I set out from Denver in our rented Kia Rio, The White Whale, and the dream is underway. She'd been abroad for two years, and this was making up for lost time. It was more than that, too. When you've known someone for over a decade, you know the running narrative of their life. You miss small things. So when you have a stretch of time, you start to fill that in.

Eleven national parks in five weeks. Nine states. In total, forty-one national park units visited. 6,800 miles driven. About 135 miles hiked and walked.

Temperatures from 32 to 100 Fahrenheit. Elevations from 1,000 to 12,000 feet. Mountains to deserts to canyons to caves to glaciers, and rivers to lakes to hot-springs. Dozens of full-fat ice creams. Watching sunrise and sunset at the Grand Canyon, rainbow geothermals at Yellowstone, swimming at Grand Teton, complete solitude at a backcountry ski hut on Ophir Pass, endless beauty that I could never enumerate or name. Five weeks for which I will be forever grateful.


August

My friend and I part ways in Minnesota and I begin to drive solo back to Denver, across the impossibly flat land of Iowa and Nebraska. I make it to Omaha, watch half of Dead Presidents at a bar and bed down for the night.

I rise at 6:00 to crank out the remaining 500 miles, zipping past field after field of hay-bales at 80 mph. When I pull into a rest stop for gas and a snack, an Amish woman in the bathroom asks me where we are, what number exit on the highway.  I tell her and watch, astonished, as she whips out a cell phone and places a call to convey this information.

I reach Denver mid-afternoon, jumping back an hour in time, drop off the car and begin the loathsome task of repacking my gear, which has been strewn about the car for 30 days. I eat dinner at 5:30, at a Ruby Tuesday's down the road from the hotel, and pass out at 8:00. I catch the airport shuttle at 3:45 am, and am back in Carolina before the end of the day.

Just like that, it's over. The book closes. My western summer snaps into the past. 

I begin a new life. I cut off five inches of hair, pack two large suitcases, and move to Brooklyn on a hot Saturday in mid August. I meet two of my new roommates; I already know the other, the one from college that I had lunch with in February, when I knew nothing about where I was going and feared it would never work out. It did.

The skyline from our roof centers me on that first night. So big, so blue. So mine.

The next two weeks are a blur of bootcamp, orientation, and finding my way around. I am always sweating. I am always walking. I have a new student ID card, burgeoning friendships with classmates, and a favorite dog at home. I fumble my subway route and learn my streets. I get a mattress and a bookshelf. I make a home.


September

The roommates and I quickly settle into a groove. There are weekend outings, a day hike in Mohonk Preserve, a swim at Coney Island, karaoke nights, beer after beer. 

School picks up. Chasing interviews, spot-reporting, dreading audio software. Data journalism workshops, guest speakers, editor talks, summer internship info sessions (how can it be time for this already, I think.) I have my hands in everything and every day is new.

I befriend two people outside my program, one a fellow J-schooler whom I met in Boston at BU's admitted student's weekend. We are all excited, bubbling over to be discovering the city.

My college roommate also lives here. Having a seven-year familiar face is like going home without having to. Whatever forces bring people to a place, it always surprises and humbles me.

I look through old film that just got developed. Images of previous Septembers, smudges of blue ponds, thick pine. I always miss things, always carry a torch. I thought New York would make me frantic, make me crave space and familiarity. It does, sometimes, but most of all it makes me feel boundless. Strange to throw your arms wide open in this cramped city, to catch all you can.


October

More reporting and more outings makes this an eclectic month: pop-up ballet, the Gowanus canal, a Supreme Court case on trademark law and free speech, following a slam poet who suffered a serious concussion. School has settled into a groove. Much of it feels banal, routine, but I put foot to pavement and pen to paper and keep going.

My roommate asks me to be her bridesmaid in the sweetest way possible. We've only known each other two months, but there's no question.

One Friday night, I journey to DUMBO to work a professor's daughter's bat mitzvah for some cash, waitressing and bartending. I've never witnessed a mitzvah, and the ceremony is truly beautiful. It is gratifying to watch a young girl talk about herself, her faith, her values, with authority, with poise. I wish we saw more of that.

A few days later, we watch the final debate, heckling and cheering with the rest of the crowd. How many young girls watched it, I'm not sure. 

I still have no idea what I want my thesis project to be, and I feel like I'm chasing loose ends of stories. Nothing of consequence. But, I have inklings, a skeletal outline. It's not enough but it has to be, for now.

I post up at a college friend's country-show in lower Manhattan, sipping beers and crooning along to Marshall Tucker Band, Johnny Cash, The Band. Flashbacks to Burlington bar nights.

My first New York Halloween is appropriately wild, with costume and face paint and double 4:00 ams, and we turn the corner toward the last half of the semester.


November

My roadtrip friend, who is now at Harvard, visits the first weekend of the month and we have fun taking the East River Ferry under the three bridges, catching up and remarking about how different life was three months ago, when we were five or six days without a shower, chasing the next big national park adventure. Now, we are grad students plagued by deadlines. I go to Prospect Park for the first time, in all its autumnal glory, with two new friends. They keep me grounded, give me good, no-bullshit advice. Usually, I'm the one dispensing it. Sometime you need to have it dished right back at you. 

Election Day starts off like any other Tuesday: two three-hour classes, separated by a three hour chunk of free time. I walk with a classmate to her voting station. We talk about life, we're buoyant for the day ahead. At 7:00, class lets out and everyone goes off to find a television. I'm already tired by the time my roommates and I head to the bar to watch the results.

As it unfolds state by state I become more and more awake. Everything is both sharpened and surreal. Laser like focus on the numbers, dreamlike insistence that something is wrong, this is not real. We leave the bar at 1:00 in denial. I am feverishly texting our other roommate, who is in Chicago for work, that this can't be happening. 

Two of us stay up until the bitter end, watch the 3:30 acceptance speech, trudge to bed. I wake at 6:30, check headlines, fall back asleep and get up to watch her concession. I shower and walk the streets of Williamsburg for a while. Heads down, it's raining, and no one knows where to go from here.

Afterwards, I start thinking about what kind of journalism I want to do, what kind of writer I want to be. I'm still considering that.

There is a wall of post it notes, neon and abundant, in the Union Square subway station. People write messages of love, compassion, sometimes politics. It is one of those affirming New York moments when you remember why you love this place, why you love stories. 

I go to a female motorcycle club party out of curiosity and connection, and just before Thanksgiving break, I go to my first New York concert at Webster Hall. The Brooklyn indie-R&B trio is called Wet, and their songs are strangely salient to what's been kicking around in my head. It's cathartic, collective, cleansing to be in the crowd. 

Thanksgiving is brief, but I get out for a hike and remind myself of the shape of my homeland.

I can see through the trees now, leaves have fallen, obscuring the trail. I follow as best I can from memory, and maybe a little bit from hope, from wanting it to be this way.


December

Classes wrap up early, but we are not released until all assignments and edits are turned in. I work quickly to get everything done, done, out of my hands, out of my mind. I am not particularly proud of any of my pieces, but I am still glad to be in the program, and I start to look forward to spring semester, to digging in. I haven't found my groove yet. It is a source of some concern but others tell me they feel the same. Roommate Christmas brunch and classmate Secret Santa party remind me of the amazing people I've met here.

The last two weeks are here-and-there, everywhere. I head to Carolina and visit my 13th National Park: Congaree, on the solstice. I love the beginning and ends of things, marking the seasons. I am stubbornly temporal. It is warm everyday, despite technically being winter, and I feel lighter.

My grandfather and I make a pilgrimage to Ike's for burgers and he tells me his stories, as always. He's got a new truck, finally gave up on his 1999 F-150 with the duct-taped seats. Christmas is small and easy. My father is in good spirits and leaves a handwritten note for our place-cards. 

I pop up to Boston for a few days and return to New York for New Years. My college roommates and I have a mellow eve-  dinner out, a few drinks. We let the year fizzle out. It feels appropriate to share it with close friends, relaxed, conversational, not in a crowded bar pounding drinks. I wake up New Years Day without last year's headache, and smile. Sometimes, you do learn.

What was 2016? 365 days of adventure, discovery, exploration, escapism, and learning. A year of uprootedness. Hikes and roadtrips, mountains and deserts, friends new and old. Buses and trains and planes and cars and my own boots. Living semi-nomadically in South Carolina and Colorado, and a dozen places in between, before landing in New York. Indelible moments, snapshots in the wheel of my mind, gathered here. 

We walk across the Brooklyn Bridge in the 50 degree sun. I look up and down the river, follow the narrowing needle of skyscrapers. Crossings, thresholds, impossibly blue sky opening up.