Thursday, November 12, 2015

“Into the Wild”

I recently finished an interesting book that I had wanted to read for a long time, entitled “Into the Wild” by John Krakauer. I had watched the movie when it came out about ten years ago, but had never read the book that it was based upon. It was nice to read the entire story while remembering what my eyes had seen in the movie theater.

It is the true story of young Chris McCandless. After a successful four years of college, he set off on a journey to find himself, while rejecting traditional societal values (and purposefully separating himself from his family). He gave away his $25,000 savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, and took up life as a vagabond, even using a new name for himself—Alexander Supertramp (I always liked “The Logical Song”—it is one of the 100 iTunes songs I brought with me).

He enjoyed many adventures out west, including canoeing down the Colorado River and into the Gulf of California. However, his ultimate goal was Alaska. He eventually made it to the Alaskan wilderness, where he lived for about four months. Unfortunately, he got sick and died alone in the isolation he had so doggedly sought.

It is a bit ironic that I finally read this book while in a slightly similar journey of self-discovery at the conclusion of my traditional career and before I become truly retired. My journey of self-discovery is not nearly as drastic as Alexander Supertramp's was, but I do find myself questioning some of our typical American societal conventions while working here in a small, rural village on the under-developed Caribbean island of Dominica.

I'm finding out that I'm doing okay without having a car, microwave, washer/dryer, or other typical American luxuries. I don't miss the materialistic gluttony of some Americans, nor do I miss the overall media focus on sports and celebrities. Nor am I missing television—especially as the American political campaign season heats up.

I especially don't miss the unabashed deceptions (pandering to our lowest intellectual elements) that are tolerated—indeed, promoted—on both sides of the political aisle. I used to be an idealistic political science major, but lately politics just makes me feel sad. I had much higher hopes for where we would be as a civilization by this time, but instead I feel like I'm living through a repeat of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. It makes me worry about the future of our country as well as our planet.

I'm not ready to change my identity and become a hobo, nor do I intend to hold Alexander Supertramp on a pedestal, because I disagree with the way he did things (especially towards his family). But there are some things to be learned by such journeys of self-discovery, whether it is from this book, or other similar stories such as Henry David Thoreau's “Walden.” In fact, I can still remember reading a captivating book while in elementary school entitled “My Side of the Mountain” about a boy who ran away and lived on his own in a hollow tree. Maybe that is where my interest in escapist literature started.

In some respects, space (another interest of mine which I enjoy contemplating) is the greatest escape—the final frontier. Concurrent with my service in the Peace Corps, astronaut Scott Kelly is spending an entire year living on the International Space Station on a different journey of discovery. [You may recall that my students hollered at him when he passed overhead recently.]

When I was young, I wanted to be an astronaut. I even cloistered myself in the floor of my tiny bedroom closet and pretended that I was isolated in a space capsule when those early astronauts flew in the 1960s. While I was working at NASA in the 1980s, I filled out all the paperwork to officially apply for the position of astronaut although I knew my “political science” degree did not count as a science degree (but the Chief Scientist for the Space Station still wrote me a heckuva recommendation letter).

In some respects, my Peace Corps service is my moonshot. Just like an astronaut in space, I'm a long way from home and communications with my friends and family are extremely limited. It was “one giant leap” to step into the unknown, to challenge myself in a new and different environment, where I am learning something new every day. So far, I'm glad I took this leap.

This experience is also my summer in the Alaskan wilderness, my stint on the other side of the mountain, or my time on Walden Pond. I'm still trying to sort out a lot of things in my own life (such as “what do I do after concluding my federal career?”), and this mission of service (teaching in my village) has already become one of the most eye-opening experiences of my entire lifetime. I know that my life will forever be impacted by my experience here in Dominica, no matter what the next chapter of my life holds.

Besides remaining in contact with my parents, there is another big difference between me and Alexander Supertramp. Thankfully, I have a very supportive village whose good people will make sure I don't die alone in the wilderness. In some respects, it takes a village to raise a Peace Corps Volunteer. [Please do not read that as any sort of political endorsement.] We will see at the end of my service what I have truly learned about life. In the meantime, I'm truly grateful for the opportunity to contemplate it all while living in this tropical paradise.

During one of my trips to the Johnson Space Center, I was able to visit the space shuttle mock-up that the astronauts used for training (only available by appointment to NASA employees when the astronauts were at lunch). I'm by the payload bay window with the joystick that controls the robotic arm in my hand. It was definitely a highlight of my life to get to do this.

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