I am not usually susceptible to homesickness, but it hit me hard at one point in Yosemite.
I’ve always been a wanderer at heart. While I was in high school, my family first thought about moving from Illinois to California. I was excited about the adventure. Some of my friends couldn’t understand why I seemed to be so happy about leaving them. They didn’t understand that I what I was thinking of was not what I was leaving behind, but that the adventure that I had ahead of me.
I had lived almost my entire life in the same house—1014 Oakwood Drive, Round Lake Beach, Illinois. We had moved into that house when I was four years old. My sister had just been born. I have vague memories of the house we lived in before then, but as far as I was concerned, 1014 Oakwood Drive had always been my home. We had always had the same neighbors, the Nicolines. Lyle and Mitchell were the neighbor friends I grew up with. It felt comfortable and safe, just like home is supposed to feel. However, I knew there was a great big world out there to explore. I had been reading about it for as long as I could read and I was eager to see some of it for myself.
My parents eventually did sell the house and move to California…three years after I graduated high school! I stayed in Illinois when they left. I had a decent job in a machine shop by then. I stayed for about a year after my parents and sister left. Then I realized that I needed to get out and start seeing that world for myself. In the summer of 1986 I followed my family to California. Outside of my family, including the aunt and uncle who had always lived in California, I did not know anybody. I did not know where I was going. I just knew that California had mountains and forests that I wanted to see, and my family would provide temporary lodging until I found my way.
It was only a few weeks before I found myself in the California Conservation Corps, living in the redwood forests of coastal northern California. I was too busy to think of home very much. I was surrounded by new people from all sorts of backgrounds, from inner city LA gangs to suburban mall rats. Several people on my crew had just finished a Backcountry trails season. Getting on a Backcountry crew had been my primary goal ever since I had heard about the program at the Academy. I wanted to learn as much as possible from these Backcountry veterans. Every one of them was a good person, with good attitudes and interesting Backgrounds.
There was a lot to learn about the job, too. We had to find our way around the program and learn how to get the most out of it for the year we had signed up for. We had so much to learn about hand tools and their maintenance, like how to put a good edge on a McLeod or how to rehandle a Pulaski. We had to learn how to field strip a chain saw, clean it, put it back together, and sharpen the chain with a hand file. We did a lot of work in salmon habitat restoration, which meant spending all day in a creek wearing waders and learning how to move heavy things like logs and rocks with a block and tackle. We had to learn about stream ecology to understand what we were doing in the streams.
Homesick?! There was no time to be homesick! There was too much going on!
Even over the four day Thanksgiving holiday weekend I wanted to stay at Del Norte. They wouldn’t let me stay. They only kept a skeleton crew around over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. They wanted to give as many staff as possible the holiday off, too, so the Corpsmember population had to be minimal over the holidays. We had to apply to stay on the center over those holidays, and the only people allowed to stay were people who honestly did not have anywhere else to stay. These people would have been on the street if they had been forced to leave the center. So I got to go home for several weeks in November and December.
When I came back in January, my focus on getting onto a Backcountry trail crew intensified. There was the application process and the interview. Once I got picked, the focus became getting into shape to handle the physical challenge ahead. I lost track of the number of times I hiked up and down Requa Hill. I also made several trips up the coastal trail to Wilson Beach with a pack.
There were always new places to go, too. Between August and December ’86, I spent time in San Andreas/Fricot City, Klamath, a spike to Willow Creek, and two bus trips back and forth between Klamath and San Francisco. In off duty hours, there was so much new country to discover between Del Norte and Humboldt Counties alone there was no time to be homesick.
And then I headed to Yosemite! New places. New people. New jobs to learn. All of my focus was forward, on where I was going, not where I had been.
The pace changed a little bit when we hit The Mound.
We would go to work and swing a double jack all day. We would be too exhausted in the evenings to do much of anything other than eat dinner and wash the dishes. After the Amelia Earhart Peak weekend, I had no energy for anything for the next two weekends. After a couple of weeks of this, the Arctic Front hit. The wind that brought the cold only lasted one night, but the cold hung on for the rest of the month. There was no place to escape the cold. We couldn’t sit next to the fire all of the time. You could only put on so many layers of thermal clothes. I spent more off-duty time than usual sitting on my cot in the tent, blowing on my hands to warm them while staring at the tent walls. I remember writing my ‘Homesick’ journal entry sitting on that cot.
All of a sudden, all I could think of was Illinois. About all of the green trees that filled Round Lake. About hanging out with my friends and playing baseball in the sand lot. About Independence Day fireworks shows down by the lake. About sweating over a turret lathe in the machine shop. I got to thinking about Illinois so much that I drew a map of it in my journal.
I wasn’t ever tempted to quit the Backcountry, but I had reached the unimaginable point of looking forward to the end.