IMG_20150829_150936Exactly one year ago on August 27, 2015, I flew into Salt Lake City and took the shuttle into Logan for my interview weekend at Utah State University. I’d never been further west than Houston before and I was extremely nervous. Over the course of that weekend I visited Logan Canyon, ate Aggie Ice Cream and a bison burger from the Beehive Grill, spoke to tons of professors, faculty, and other grad students… and by the time my returning flight landed in Pensacola, I knew that I wanted to do my PhD at Utah State.

Unfortunately, I submitted my second round of GRE scores too late and was turned down for spring admission and the fellowship I’d been aiming for, but I applied again for Fall in hopes that I might still get a chance to show my worth. I felt like so much time had gone by without word that I should start looking elsewhere. I even considered abandoning the whole dream and staying in Guatemala during my Habitat trip… until I received an email with my acceptance letter after a hard day of building stoves and mixing mud in a tiny village outside of Sololá. Those who were there can tell you how happy I was to get that email. Happy tears were spilled and celebratory margaritas were had.

Now, exactly a year after my first interview, I’m preparing for class to start doctoral classes on Monday. I feel simultaneously elated and terrified. My class load looks astoundingly light on the surface; I’m enrolled in Fundamentals of Neuroscience, Introduction to Educational and Psychological Research, and a Cognitive/Neuroscience seminar for a total of seven credits. That’s all I’ve been able to write in my planner so far, but I’ve also got 20 hours of teaching assistantship as well as a lab rotation that I can barely even begin to schedule. That’s pretty intimidating in and of itself, but I’ve got another curve ball being thrown my way. As it happens, I’m the ONLY freshly-admitted student in the brand new Neuroscience PhD program (a few have apparently transferred from other programs within USU to be a part of it, but no one could confirm that). No one, not even the neuroscience faculty, seem entirely sure what to do with me just yet. My class list was phoned into my orientation and copied down from a post-it, and the handbook for my program hasn’t been plagiarized from the Experimental and Applied handbook yet. I hear that getting in on the ground floor of a program like this is a good thing. For instance, I’ll get lots of personalized attention from advisers and I basically get to set the stage for the next few years of the program. It’s not that I don’t think that this will be a great thing- it just feels a hell of a lot like a spotlight. As if the Impostor Syndrome wasn’t already going to be bad enough…

Westward Ho!: The Last Day

I woke up in the middle of the night and grabbed the lantern from the dresser at the end of the bed. As I unzipped the tent flaps and stepped into the moonlight to head to the communal bathrooms, I realized that the lamp was unnecessary despite the hour. I could see more of the desert under the full moon than I’d been able to see in the dying light the night before. Past the next row of tents, the cliff loomed bright over the quiet freeway. It was beautiful. After taking the shortcut to the potties and the long way back, I sat outside the tent for a while watching the moon, watching an owl circle the campsite, and listening to the crickets sing. When I’d got my fill of the desert night, I stepped back through the tent flaps and crawled into bed again. As I curled up next to her, Catie rolled over and kissed my cheek.

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Our lovely tent for our last night in the road.

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Thanks to a lifetime on Central Time, we woke up before the sun. As we dressed, the first hint of purple and red light was visible through the tent’s half-unzipped window. We wandered the campsite as the sun came up looking for the best vantage point to see the sunrise. The areas between the tents teemed with wildlife; Catie counted four cottontails before we even made it to the reception tent for breakfast, then met a particularly friendly bunny under a juniper bush that engaged in a staring contest with Catie (until she was dive-bombed by an attention-seeking hummingbird).

After breakfast and spotting a few more cottontails hiding in the juniper and sagebrush, we checked out and headed back south for a moment to enter Arches National Park. We oohed and awwed over several of the rock formations, but the big excitement came when Catie spotted the Balancing Rock. She loves to balance on curbs and the concrete parking blocks so seeing this giant rock perched so high up was THE BEST THING EVER OH MY GOSH. We had to climb us as close as possible so she could be “King of the Rock”.

After the Balancing Rock (and a jackrabbit and a beetle the size of my thumb that Catie insisted on telling her life story) we drove on to the Delicate Arch viewpoint. I neglected to check the difficulty on the trailhead but noticed it pretty quickly as I helped Catie climb the slippery gravel over a half mile uphill. Both of our chests heaved as we reached the top. Catie patted my back and told me to take deep breaths- “It help you feel better, Mommy!” I barely glanced at the distant Delicate Arch before deciding that Catie and I should head back to the car and guzzle as much water as possible. About halfway down, Catie declared that she was tired and promptly sat down right in the middle of the trail.

Heaving doubly hard after carrying my spawn a quarter mile downhill on my shoulders, we got back to the car. We attempted the short hike to the Windows Arches and turned back to the car after about fifteen steps. It was time to get on the road to Logan… after a short detour into the visitor center for souvenirs.

We wound northward through coal country and through Spanish Fork Canyon. Honestly, I was so excited to not be on the road anymore that I hardly noticed the scenery until the landscape faded into the city. Salt Lake City, by the way, is just as scary and frustrating to drive through as Orlando is. Especially when your daughter has a foam sword that’s she’s trying to redirect your attention with…

After a surprisingly short day of driving, we turned into the canyon that leads to Cache Valley, to Logan, and to Utah State University. As we neared the end of the canyon, I pulled Catie’s attention away from her movie and said “Look, Catie! We’re going to come into Logan now!” I watched her in the rear view mirror as she looked into the valley, broke into a huge smile, and said “Mommy! That’s our new home!”

Westward Ho!: Day Five

Today has been by far the longest and most beautiful of the trip. What should have been about 6.5 hours of driving somehow turned into almost 10. 

We left Albuquerque early-ish after going back to Boca Negra Canyon at Catie’s request. She wanted to climb the mountain again, which left little time to do any other exploring in the city itself. We drive west on I-40 and immediately entered the most beautiful landscape we’d seen so far this trip. We were surrounded on all sides by mesas, buttes, canyons, and all make and model of other geological formation I don’t have the vocabulary for. I could have stopped every mile for another photo but limited myself to once every hundred or so. 

We took a small detour into El Malpais National Park on a whim at around lunchtime and took some photos from the top of Sandy Bluffs. Catie asked about the shadows of the clouds about the rivers of black rocks in the broad valley below. 

As we neared Gallup, NM, I detoured again onto historic Route 66. There was a lot to see on the roadside but as the afternoon wore on, I became conscious of the time crunch. If we dallied for too long, we’d be pulling into Moab in the dark. Just west of Gallup, we turned northward onto some backroads to head into Monument Valley. We wound through more mesas, traversed several reservations, and ended up sitting in over an hour of traffic as one community had narrowed all incoming and outgoing roads to one lane for road work. Luckily there was plenty to look nearby. 

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Rain on a butte in Arizona.

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We crossed the Utah State line and came into Monument Valley much later in the day than I expected. I couldn’t resist many photo-ops here, though Catie declined the chance to get out of the car and stretch her legs for a few of them. On one particular exit from the car at Forrest Gump Point, she asked “What maked those?”, pointing at the now-distant monuments. She listened as I explained erosion as simply as I could, nodded, and asked to get back in the car. We’ll have to come back when she’s not quite so world-weary. 

The rest of the afternoon was spent trying desperately to get to Moab before it got too dark. We advanced through gorgeous countryside I had to force myself to drive straight through unexperienced and unphotographed. My auxiliary cable gave up the ghost near Blanding, UT and I fiddled with it long enough to miss the signs of an oncoming speed trap. Sorry, Mamaw. 

Light was fading as we drove through Moab and past the arches to our lodging for the night. By the time we’d checked in and walked to our tent, night had fully fallen. Catie stayed awake long enough to scarf down a smore, then collapsed into our ridiculously comfortable (though somewhat hot) bed. Explanations and exploration will have to wait for the light of day. Tomorrow we see Arches and arrive at last in Logan. 

Westward Ho!: Day Four

Amarillo and I got off to a rough start. There was jack diddly to do, the whole city smelled like cow pies, Catie skinned her knees outside the admittedly very yummy Thai restaurant last night, and I twisted my ankle carrying my bags down the stairs this morning. We got out as soon as we could. As we passed the abrupt edge of the city into the scrublands, it became apparent that this was going to be a boring couple of hours of driving. Right outside of Amarillo though, in an unassuming field of sorghum, we found the Cadillac Ranch.

It was a spray paint covered mess, but it was an awesome mess. Even some of the sorghum along the edge of the field was spray painted. Catie had a blast poking her head into the windshield and window holes of the Cadillacs.

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Sorghum spray painted blue.

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We stopped again a few hours later in Santa Rosa to swim in the Blue Hole. It’d a sinkhole with brilliantly blue water that’s apparently quite popular with scuba divers. The water was 64° and felt freezing when I jumped from the little cliff, Catie cheering me on from the steps at the base of the sinkhole.

I jumped off the cliff twice more at Catie’s insistence, once backwards to her applause. Someone took a picture of that one, but she didn’t have cellular service when she tried to message it to me so who knows if I’ll ever see it. (Update: I got it! See 2nd Blue Hole Instagram picture below!)

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Definitely not Olympic diving.

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New Mexico was quite a change from Texas almost immediately. Instead of flat scrub, distant mesas rose up in the distance to the south. The road weaved slowly from left to right through the hills and mesas, and the signs for Historic Route 66 became more frequent. Kitschy roadside shops tried to lure drivers in with Mexican imports, Native American pottery, and “snake gifts”.

We could see the Sandia mountains from miles and miles away, so I knew Albuquerque was coming up soon. Catie has been asking every morning where we’re going today, and she was excited to be able to pronounce “Albuquerque” correctly, unlike Amarillo (“Ama-lee-row”). We passed through the mountains and came upon the valley in which Albuquerque lies and Catie immediately started yawning. Something about getting to our nightly host cities is exhausting.

We’re AirBnBing tonight, so we navigated to their home to find it empty, but it was still early in the day. I decided that we would visit the Petroglyph National Monument since it was so close to the house. Catie skinned her knees again in the parking lot, but climbed to the top of Mesa Point Trail in Boca Negra Canyon with no complaints. She was a trooper. It started to thunder once we got to the top and looked around, so we quickly hiked back down and hopped in the car and headed to our BnB. Catie and I will be spending the morning exploring Albuquerque and headed to Moab in the afternoon. Anyone have any suggestions for what to do here?

Westward Ho!: Day Three

West Texas is, in fact, boring to drive through. I know that this is a revelation to absolutely no one. The same field hour after hour really drags on. Luckily I’m loaded up with audio books on my phone (All the Light We Cannot See is extremely good so far!) and Catie seems content to have her stuffed kiwi bird, her baby doll, and her little penguin have very intense conversations about who-knows-what.

We left Fort Worth early. There didn’t seem like there was really much to do that was 3 year old friendly. I didn’t really look though. I’m anxious to get to Utah and Catie didn’t seem to mind. We drove for two hours towards Wichita Falls following along a railroad that was lined intermittently with wild sunflowers and low-growing cacti. About halfway to Wichita Falls, the farms gave away to ranches with iron gates and names like “Bar A” and “Crossed T”. We saw our first longhorn cow. After W.F., the ranches gave way to scrub brush and oil drills that seemed almost yard ornament sized- just a little bit taller than a person. I’ve always imagined them as the size of buildings, but maybe the giant ones aren’t in this part of Texas.

My GPS announced that we’d crossed the state line into Oklahoma as we crossed the low, nearly dry bed of the Red River. The dirt on either side of the road was all dark red. Occasionally we passed a furrowed field or one sown with sorghum or corn. It’s extremely flat and seems almost abandoned. Every house we passed for the first 30 minutes in Oklahoma hadn’t been a home for at least 10 years. Often it was just the skeleton of a home- cinder block or brick walls propped up against sky. Overall, the picture was a loneliness. I could definitely see why a teenager like my grandfather would join the Navy to get out. 

It was beautiful in its way though. The sky was bright and open in a way I thought was exclusive to Texas. Orange-red dust devils swirled through fields. Tiny towns of maybe 20 buildings dotted the highway. Out of nowhere a hill appeared, and in the distance the shadows of mountains began to show themselves.

Cooperton, OK (population 16) is settled in a little outcrop of trees that was visible a few miles away. The Baptist church is the biggest building, the most substantial landmark, and the thing that drew my family there in the 1930’s. My great-grandfather was a bricklayer during the depression and came with his family to Cooperton to build the now non-existent elementary school and the Baptist church. My Papaw was born here, and it is this fact that brought me to Cooperton today. 

The church has been abandoned for a long time. The door is boarded up, the sign is rusted and almost illegible, and several of the windows are broken. When we pulled up to the front, a colony of swallows came swooping out of the broken window low in the front of the building and continued to fly low around us the entire time we lingered there. 

I know that my Papaw was born in Cooperton and that he left when he was 17, but I know very little else except what Wikipedia has told me. As we drove off, I wondered which buildings were here when he was. Did he climb those mountains only a mile or two in the distance?  Did he run wild as a kid and explore the countryside? Which of the small towns nearby did he visit? Somehow, exactly 900 miles from home, I felt close to him. 

Soon enough we passed the Texas state line again to the announcement of my GPS. Almost immediately, a red-headed woodpecker flew up from the brush on the side of the road into a nearby tree. It’s strange how much significance I put into these little birds now… Somehow knowing that the Mayan calendar marks them as my totem makes every sighting special. The little detour into Oklahoma feels more validated after seeing them. 

Shortly after seeing the woodpecker, Catie fell asleep and droswed all the way to Amarillo. When I woke her up in the hotel parking lot, her first words are “We in Ama-lee-low now?”