The first day (don’t we look awk?)!

By Manisha Rattu
Stanford University
August 19, 2016

When the day finally came to make the two hour trek to UC Santa Cruz, I was overcome with fear and anxiety. I did not want to leave the comfort of my home and family and step into an experience that I was unsure of and definitely unprepared for. My mind became my enemy, reminding me of the fact that I had no camping experience, no research experience, and a fear of heights that was deep-rooted into my entire being. Nonetheless, my mother prevailed over this enemy and got me into the car and on my way to eight weeks of adventure.

And, the adventure did not wait to begin. On the first night, Eric, the one and only UCSC student in our cohort, decided to lead a night hike…to a cave!! I agreed to join the vast majority of my fellow scholars and told myself that this was the best time to break into my new hiking shoes. So, we took off into the night, with flashlights guiding the way. Eventually, we reached a point where we had to walk in a single file line with nothing but a drop to our left (in retrospect, the drop really wasn’t that bad; we had much scarier night hikes in the weeks to come). I was instantly regretting my decision to both come along on the hike, and to wear the new shoes. Somehow, we all managed to make it to the cave, despite the many times Hanan’s foot slipped (she wore sandals on the hike, which was my first hint that this girl was something else). Then, began the descent. Everyone made their way into the cave, except me. I was rooted with fear, yet also propelled by a desire to do something crazy. Eventually, Eric’s reassuring voice and smile won me over, and I let him slowly guide me into the cave. And, it was amazing, despite the fact that I was terrified. The first night had me facing my fear of heights, the dark, and closed spaces, and I was thankful it did because I learned to face my fears and to trust my peers.

Over the course of the week, we all grew closer. We went thrift-shopping, intertidal-exploring, birthday-celebrating, late-night-walking and so much more.

This time together was enough to assure me that I was not the only one with doubts and fears about the summer, and that I was not the only one to feel like an outsider in environmental studies. And, so began the journey to conquer these doubts and fears and to change the world while having fun.

Our first stop was the most magical spot, Big Creek Reserve in Big Sur, CA. We were distanced from the outside world, both geographically and technologically. Upon arriving at our campsite, we put our team building workshops to use by transporting food, firewood, luggage, and gear across a wooden bridge. Once that was done, I ran to claim a nice spot for Hanan and my tent; after many selections and moves, I finally found the perfect spot. It was only a few feet away from the creek, meaning we could fall asleep to the sound of rushing water every night. It also meant that we would freeze in the late hours of the night, when water droplets condensed on our tent. But, it was so worth it. Over the course of the week, we watched the stars dance above our heads, we jumped into the freezing cold water of the creek, we huddled around our campfire, we cooked together, and we explored the beauty of Big Creek with Feynner, Sean, and Mark (the coolest reserve stewards and directors). We also began our rapid research projects, which allowed us to fully immerse ourselves into the process of observing, questioning, and hypothesizing. We were all learning together, which allowed me to slowly shed some of the fears I had about the trip. I also appreciated the vast amount of beauty that surrounded me, because it provided a sense of peacefulness that did not have to be intentionally sought or bought (like back in civilization). We concluded the week and fourth of july with a trip to a private, beautiful beach. We caught a glimpse of the world’s fastest bird, all thanks to Abe’s quick eye. And, with the magic of the place still in our minds and hearts, we took off to our next adventure, Sagehen Creek Reserve in Truckee, CA.

Sagehen Reserve was up at 6,000 ft of elevation. While it definitely had better facilities, most of us were too elevation-sick to really reap the benefits. It was also here that we began to have one-on-one conversations with staff, allowing us to understand how complicated, yet rewarding, life paths could be. Dan Hernandez, our visiting instructor from Carleton College also joined us here, sharing his witty sense of humor and knowledge with us all. For our rapid research project, my group and I chased down the carnivorous plants that called the reserve their home. Upon finding them, we realized that they were super tiny and that there was something even cooler going on around them. The plants were in a fen, which is a type of wetland. If you walk around the fen barefoot, you can feel your feet sinking into the cool water that is collected beneath the plants. Miguel, Madori, Juanita, and I decided to study the fen and the species that were on either side of the creek that ran right down the middle of the fen. It was a fun few days until the flying monsters (okay, they were fly bugs) attacked us. Nonetheless, we enjoyed the fun we had in the fen and the time spent growing together. We also made a trip to Lake Tahoe, where Isabela taught me how to swim! Yet, the week was also filled with some tensions of a sort. Discussions around race and ethnicity were culminating, and staff decided to hold a conversation in the upcoming week. And, with anticipation of a better facility, long conversations, and warm food, we packed up our bags and headed to the White Mountains.

Views from the 6ix (jk, views from the cave)

En route to the White Mountains, we stopped at Mono Lake, which was far more impressive than its name may imply. The lake was known as the “Dead Sea of the West” because of the large quantity of salt in the water. Over the years, tufa towers were created, which are huge towers of limestone. While we had plans to swim in the water, the murkiness and saltiness kept us at the edge. After a few hours of exploring, we got back into the vans and made our way up the long, windy road to the White Mountains Research Station. When we finally rolled into the “parking lot,” we were in awe: the place was like a resort! Not only that, but we got to stay in nice cabins and have an amazing cook with us there. That week, we stayed up late watching movies and talking, we went on a sunrise and star gazing hike, we played with Erika’s amazing kids, Navia and Russell, we explored a ghost town at night, we found the legendary Campito (look him up!), and we hugged the oldest living organisms in the world, Bristlecone Pine trees. My group also saw a Big Horn Sheep, which are nearly extinct from this area! The White Mountains were full of great times and great company and while our research projects challenged us in new ways (elevation is not a fun gradient), we also learned to have conversations about race and ethnicity in a group of minorities. This was also the week that it finally hit me how much my view of the world had changed. I was afraid to go back to Stanford and into a culture so different from the one created in this community, as well as a form of learning that no longer seemed to befit me. I spoke to Erika about this and was surprised to hear that she had felt the same way when she was an undergrad and had completed a field study course. This conversation left me with many thoughts and questions that I hoped to consider in the last remaining weeks. We also bid goodbye to Dan this week, but we didn’t let him go so easily. We had an amazing going-away party, courtesy of Jessica! The night of fun only added more magic to the space.

After a long day of writing papers and cleaning, we packed up the vans for our three free days in Yosemite! We were super stoked to live in huge, amazing cabins, with no thoughts of research on our minds. The first day there, we explored the valley and climbed a huge, granite rock. We stopped a few times to wade our feet in the water, catch a glimpse of a bear, and take pictures of the iconic views. The next morning was full of amazing people. We met with Shelton Johnson, whose inspiration and charisma I cannot do justice to with the words I know. He told us the story of the Buffalo Soldiers, but, not only that, he told us how to carry ourselves in this world and how to be strong people. It was a powerful moment, and for that time, I felt separated from the bustle of Yosemite Park. It was as if we were transported to a place and time that no one else but us could reach. But, alas, we had to move back to reality. We spent the day exploring; eventually, I found myself wandering alone. I spent the greater portion of the day walking around and reading, until it was time to go home. That night, we slept outside and I fell asleep counting the stars. The next day, we made our way back to the valley. We managed to find a quiet river, far from tourists and waded about. On our last day, we climbed up a waterfall, but we decided to stop at the second swimming hole and enjoy the coolness and freshness of the water. Amaya, Kirstan, and I stayed there for hours, enjoying the peacefulness and distance from the world.

Finally, we were on our way back to the Santa Cruz area for our final projects! We spent our last week in yurts at Swanton Pacific Ranch. There, we continued our late night movie watching, our conversations, our night walks, and our research! I was scared to death one night when I saw what looked like a pig (Nick confirmed that there were wild pigs in the area). For our final projects, my group and I studied organisms within pastures, so we spent a lot of time taking selfies with the cows. We also played a lot of ultimate frisbee, courtesy of Coach Deewayne. Nonetheless, around this time, we also began getting a little annoyed of one another. I think there’s only so much time you can spend around the same 20 people. But, no worries, we loved each other again once we were back on campus and had some time and space to ourselves!

Sooner than later, the day came that we finally had to wash the dirt off of the vans. Over the 6 weeks, it had captured glimpses of our many adventures. Watching the words wash away was a sad hint of the fact that our trip was almost over. We had made it back to UCSC, and now began the final countdown. But, that didn’t stop of us from having the time of our lives. We made our way downtown as much as we could, spent time on the beach, grabbed books from the bookstore, spent a night at the Boardwalk, visited the Mystery Spot, explored more magnificent Redwoods, and celebrated Ramiro’s birthday. Almost every night found us in the big room on the third floor, watching movies, eating snacks, and talking. We’d fall asleep as a big huddle on the mattresses on the ground, not wanting to get up in the morning, but knowing we had to or else Justin would be very mad. In those last two weeks, I was often overwhelmed with the final project, but I was also thankful to have had the opportunity to even be in the program and do the studies we did. I was thankful to have friends who were there when I needed them and supportive even when I got annoying. And, most of all, I was glad to have had a space where I could be myself and express my fears and doubts. Instead of being ridiculed, I received the support and strength to conquer those fears and doubts. And, even though I said I wouldn’t cry, the 2016 Doris Duke Conservation Scholars had carved their way into my heart, and left me with a face full of tears and smiles. So, I reminded myself of one thing: only five more months until we repeat these same shenanigans.

Shout out to Auntie Doris and our wonderful staff for putting this amazing program together and bringing together such an amazing group of individuals.

Big Creek Reserve

J chilling at the Salvation Army (notice we look a little less awk)

Amaya and Kirstan staring into the depths of the waterfall and enjoying a swim in the freezing water.

Late nights in the Sagehen Library!

Mono Lake and the Tufa Towers!

Dwayne and Roxy posing with our cow friends.

The van pre-wash.

Bristlecone Pine Trees!

Downtown chilling!

“I don’t know how to pose,” said Dwayne as he stole the show.

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” -Dr. Suess