On August 22 I was offered a position to serve as an AmeriCorps volunteer at American Conservation Experience (ACE) in Flagstaff, Arizona. My start date would be August 31, and the welcome letter with a list of required gear came the following evening.
As soon as this arrived, my mind built it all up into a mountain: the gear I needed to get, the amount of money I’d need to spend, the things I had to get done in the next seven days. It felt as though I were leaving the next day, even though I had a full week of unscheduled time to get everything done. Bit by bit, the world conspired to get me here with ease.
It all began with the backpack. I searched Craigslist for large backpacking backpacks and found two that fit the bill. One was listed for $75 and was green, the other was $90 and beautifully blue. They were both good brands and hadn’t been used very much. I sent an email to both, explaining that I’d just been accepted to work on the conservation corps and needed a backpack in the coming days.
The woman selling the blue backpack was free to meet on Friday morning, but the woman selling the green backpack ended up being free to meet Thursday evening. Not only was she available earlier, but she suggested meeting at the public library in my town, meaning she would drive in from out of town. To boot, she texted on Thursday to say the pack also came with a rain cover and 2.5 L water bladder, which she hadn’t mentioned in the Craigslist post. As this information trickled in, my desire for the blue pack faded. I biked to an ATM to get cash, certain I’d be making several Craigslist purchases in the next few days—this green backpack being the first.
We met at 6 in the library parking lot. I had brought some full water bottles, books, and my yoga mat along so that I could try on the backpack with some weight in it, as recommended by my friend Emily.
I put in the assorted items and tried on the backpack, not a clue as to the correct way to size it. It seemed to fit just fine, the rain cover and water bladder were awesome extras, and I was anxious to check off the first item of my mountainous to-do list. “I think this’ll work well, I’ll take it!” I said.
The woman replied, “Great, because I’m giving it to you.”
I opened the car door, pulled out my wallet, and began to count out the twenties I’d gotten earlier in the day. “Twenty, forty—
“No, I mean it,” she interrupted, “I’m giving it to you. It’s a gift.”
“Noooooooo” I said, my tone dropping in confused disbelief.
“I insist,” she said.
Was this really happening? My emotions were swelling
“Thank you,” I mustered.
As the words left my mouth I could feel their gross inadequacy. I took a step towards the woman and gave her a hug, doing what felt right in the moment.
“Have fun on your adventure,” she said as she headed back to her car, leaving me in awe at the Craigslist kindness I’d just been gifted.
The following day I emailed a Craigslist seller because I was interested in his North Face sleeping bag (15 degrees). A brand new one would have cost $270, but he was selling his for $130. Once again, I briefly explained why I needed the sleeping bag. He replied to my first inquiry saying that he’s actually from Arizona!
We met the next day at a public high school and ended up knocking $10 off his asking price. Then, he gave me recommendations of where to visit and explore while I’m based in Flagstaff.
After buying the sleeping bag I drove to Farm and Fleet to see what they had available. It was a disappointing visit which didn’t help my to-do list, but Gander Mountain was on my way home so I decided to swing by, as this was their big store closing sale. I missed the turn, though, which meant I was even closer to my route home. It was getting later in the afternoon and I needed to be home within 45 minutes, so I considered going straight there. For some reason, though, I exited the highway, got back on, drove back, and made the turn.
Upon walking in I saw that the store was already 3/4 empty and was only continuing to get picked apart at each passing minute, so I didn’t expect to find anything on my list.
After a quick size-up of the remaining shelves, I made my way over to the shoes just for a glance. And there they were: leather boots, non-skid bottom, ends above the ankle, and no mesh on the tongue or ankle. They were half a size smaller than I usually wear, but they seemed to fit all right and my toe didn’t hit the edge. Plus, the closing special? 70% off! I bought $120 boots for $37.
(Update: These boots were also steel-toed, which, I later learned at ACE orientation, are absolutely not recommended. “No steel toe!” I wore the boots on my first hitch and they worked fine, but I now have a pair of non-steel-toe hiking boots to use on my second hitch. I found them in the “Commons Closet” of another ACE house here in town, meaning they were free!)
Finally, near the end of my gear scavenger hunt, I was still searching for women’s work pants. Emily recommended Duluth Trading Company in Mount Horeb, so I drove the 40 minutes to get there on Saturday, hopes high. In the end they didn’t have my size in the women’s work pant they were currently carrying. The woman helping me suggested altering or mending the pair to make them fit, but I didn’t want to spend $70 on a pair of pants and need to make modifications so quickly.
I drove to the west side of Madison and tried on men’s pants at Menards. Then I texted my aunt to see where she gets her work pants. “Farm and Fleet,” she responded, but sometimes she finds some at Savers or Goodwill, she added.
So I drove to the nearby St. Vinny’s and headed straight to the women’s pants rack. I started flipping down the line of size 4s, immediately moving past any regular pants or non-thick jeans. I couldn’t believe my eyes when my hands felt a pair of black pants that were super thick—nearly the same material as the work pants I’d just tried on at Duluth Trading Company.
I look at the tag:
Duluth Trading Company work pants – $7.99
I grabbed them and headed to the fitting room. They were a little short, but would definitely do for one pair. What crazy luck!
Then I stopped at Goodwill for kicks, since it was just a few minutes away and I was already out and about with mom’s car. Once again I went straight to the size 4 section of the women’s pants rack, and oh my goodness, the stars were aligned. Here I found two pairs of Duluth Trading Company work pants and jeans, both size 4 and this time they were the correct length. $7.99 each!
Although these work pants fit great everywhere else, I couldn’t get one pair buttoned but still bought them. The following day while out at my grandma’s I showed her my finds. As soon as I mentioned I couldn’t button the pants, she said, “Well just put on a button extender.”
A button what?
She went into her bedroom and came out with two cute little button extenders that go right on to the button of the pants. I could now button the pants!
I had all that I needed and still three days to go.
I reflected back on how panicked I’d felt merely four days earlier, and then marveled at all of the people, generosity, and serendipitous connections which had helped me acquire what I needed for this next adventure. I knew the frenzied feelings had only been a hindrance when I let them surface the first day, and I let this serve as a reminder to breathe and continue to take it one step at a time.
On Monday evening Emily and Liz came over for one last art night before I took off. Emily showed me how to adjust my backpack correctly and also brought along some old clothes up for grabs, which have already turned into staples for me here: yoga pants, a sun hat, a warm fleece, socks. At one point during the evening, Liz reminisced back to when she’d flown to New Zealand to study abroad in college, and how her body had manifested all of the nerves she’d been feeling on the way to the airport. I could relate; I’ll never forget the feeling of my stomach dropping as I took that first flight to Madrid in 2009.
But as I boarded the bus to Chicago early Thursday morning, there were no worries, stomach drops, or fears. My thoughts returned to amazement at how quickly my trajectory had changed. And despite the sudden shift, I felt completely at ease—thankful for the people and experiences which got me here.
All day in route I was nothing but excited to see what Flagstaff looked like from the ground and what ACE would have in store for me. Where have the butterflies gone? Have I done this so many times that I now know to my core everything will work out? Or am I so confident in my ability to adapt and find the good that there’s no room for doubt?
Or perhaps, this time I had the entire universe conspiring along to get me to Flagstaff.
Well, universe, we made it.
What It Cost
Here’s a rundown of the required gear and how much I spent to get myself to ACE here in Flagstaff:
Backpack – $0
Sleeping bag – $120
Boots – $37
Rain pants – $40
Wool socks – $18
Sleeping pad – $100
Sleeping bag liner – $40
3 pairs of work pants – $24
4L MSR Dromlite bag – $30
Headlamp – $9
Subtotal – $418
Bus to Chicago – $30
One-way flight – $150
Checked bag – $25
Shuttle to Flagstaff – $53
Subtotal – $258