Baltimore has always been my home. You’d imagine having lived in the same house my entire life, the walls of my room not having changed since I was 16, that Baltimore would be a comfort. And it is, in a way. I love sitting and reading a book with a cat on my lap. I am in constant awe at how easy cooking is with endless appliances and a well-stocked fridge. Family dinners make me smile as we all settle in to our prescribed seats around the table. My seat has not budged since I was probably 6 and Andy won our nightly fights over who got the best view of dad pulling in to the driveway. This summer I spent a few consecutive weeks at home, re-met Baltimore, and learned what it’s like to be an adult with my parents. We cooked some incredible meals together and Dad and I even went swing dancing one night!
Despite the fun, it was still a strange concept to re-negotiate my sense of place in Baltimore. And no, it was not only because my room will soon be turned in to a guest bedroom. Here I was as a 21 year old trying to stock up on my sleep like a teenager but feeling old as I fell asleep reading a book for pleasure every night. There is no easy way to embrace a space without reverting back to the person you last knew yourself as there. As depressing as it was to deconstruct my room and clear off the walls, it was therapeutic to lose the comfort of my childhood room. I am not often one for comfort zones. If I spend too long without a change of scenery or a little adventure I get stir crazy. It’s like cabin fever without a cabin and not necessarily in the winter. But I learned this past week that I love the comfort I feel when adventuring in a place where I feel at home.
After a solid two weeks in Baltimore I boarded my favorite bus to NYC. It was an almost doubly long trip thanks to a bridge that was out by the Lincoln tunnel. Luckily, I made friends with a young computer science engineer and the 5 plus hours passed quickly. More quickly for us as I’m sure we were the annoying talkative people on the bus that everyone else wants to shut up, but I enjoyed it! I have been going to New York at least twice a year since I was 16, and in a lot of ways these trips were how I learned to be a flexible traveler and that I thrive on the energy of new places. I will forever be grateful that my parents trusted me enough at 16 to head to the Big Apple on my own because now it too is a place where I feel at ease. Stepping off the Bolt Bus as far west in mid-town as you can get, I knew exactly where I was and which direction I needed to walk.
I went to join Andie (my best friend from Mountain School who was the cause for my first many years of NYC exploration) at her graduation party. Her city friends were properly perplexed when I arrived on the roof of her building donning a large backpack, but I’ve become far too accustomed to the odd looks my travel style receives to care. So many different people from all walks of Andie’s life joined together to celebrate. I got to meet several infamous family members and hang out with her parents (two health conscious vegans who taught me how to make sushi) who are some of my favorite people to visit. After recovering from the long ride with a few beers, some delicious potato salad, and good conversation I headed up town to find one of my best friends from UNC, Hannah. Both of our next adventures are in different parts of the world, so it was important to see her after our graduation goodbyes and know that we really only ever need to say see you soon.
For dinner I got to meet up with one of my best friends from HOPE Gardens. Jason was a co-chair with me and graduated a year ago. As an analyst for an investment bank he hasn’t gotten to explore the dining scene as much as he would like, so we hit up a cute little Greek restaurant he’d been wanting to try. It was incredible…and so much food! We started with a roasted red pepper spread and some decadent melted cheese (which is never a bad thing). Then I had a great veggie kabob with halloumi, a cheese alternative to tofu I’ve been wanting to learn to cook. Jason’s roasted chicken was decorated with fiddle heads. I had never seen the beautiful tasty treat before, but a few days later learned about their ferns on a hike! I love when things like that surprise you and connect. It’s always fun to catch up with him as someone on a drastically different path than my own, but with ideas and reasons which I deeply respect. Having spent three years working with him on the project at UNC that became my baby, I know that his social conscious is one that I can get behind and helps me remember that all big business is not created equal. These are the kinds of discussions that help me feel at home when travelling. If I am with someone that I care about and talking about things that challenge me, I’m comfortable and happy.
Hannah and I spent all of Sunday wandering together. She is working at the Metropolitan Museum this summer, so I got a mini personal tour of the objects she’d been researching. Damn that museum is huge. I went back the next day on my own just to explore without a map and found so many rooms I didn’t know existed and had no idea how to get back to ones Hannah had taken me to. It momentarily made me wish my childhood favorite book “The mixed up files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankwieler” could become a reality. From there Hannah and I stumbled upon a Farmer’s market, dangerous to the lives of hungry foodies. We bought some fresh bread (not as good as Andy’s) and unloved tomatoes (they couldn’t be sold at full price because of a bruise meaning we got them for $1 a pound!) for an evening picnic. We walked downtown to a free kayaking company and found an open market on Broadway that kept distracting us. With everything from fresh pastries to pickles to jewelry we were having fun. Finally we made it down to the dock and paddled on the Hudson for a bit. I had no idea NYC hosted so many fun things to do for free…the city is growing on me more and more every time! Having not thought through the getting wet factor of our afternoon activity, the 30 block walk back to Hannah’s place was slightly less enjoyable. From there we headed down to Columbus circle to meet up with Jason and Hannah’s sister for a picnic dinner in central park. The hodge-podge of goods was delicious (we determined that yogurt is indeed the most awkward contribution to a potluck), the company fun, and the setting ideal. We stayed until the sun set.
Monday and Tuesday most of my friends were working but I filled my days with wandering, getting some work done myself, and lunch and dinner dates. Lizzie, my roommate from the first time I was in India, works on Theater Row and is always a treat to see. We spent three hours in a dingy BYOB Chinese restaurant catching up on each other’s lives and getting some tips about what it’s like to return to Shanti Bhavan (she taught two summers in a row) interspersed with me trying to convince her to come back once more while I’m there. Lizzie is a few years older than me and the perfect roommate to have had for my first international experience. We quickly became best friends and great travel companions. Both teaching English classes and investing more hours than other volunteers, we were able to support each other in ways that other people couldn’t understand. That deep friendship has continued over the past several years, despite talking infrequently and seeing each other sporadically. When we are back together we continue to ask the right questions and be the support system we know we both need. It’s the beautiful friendships like these that also make me feel at home.
After four days it was time to say goodbye to New York and hit the busses once again. This time the travel was a reasonable length, but I got to wait on the curb for an hour for the late bus to arrive. I think this is just the universe helping me adjust to Indian Standard Time. With a bus to Boston and immediately another bus to Newburyport I was on my way to Exeter, NH. Yet another place that feels happily familiar. Back in 2009 when I began my east coast adventuring, I traveled to Exeter a bunch to visit my high school boyfriend and other Mountain School friends. Being able to navigate my way across campus and recognize a few restaurants, despite it having been four years, put a smile on my face. I was returning this time to see Wallis, a good friend from TMS who I stayed with and became even close to on my multitude of Exeter excursions. Stepping foot in her house was a rush of comfort. It didn’t feel like four years had passed. I still knew where the bathroom was and how to set the dining room table. Even more comforting: her mom had made Indian food for dinner. Peg went on a three week trip to India last year and is arguably even more hooked than I am. She was wearing a Kurta when I walked in, has begun an ayruvedic practice, and Wallis and I joined her for yoga every morning. I was in heaven.
If friends’ houses can be a retreat center, this is where I would want to spend a month.
Wallis and I had been able to see each other every few months for a couple years after leaving TMS, but between her gap year, my summer excursions, and both of us doing study abroad, we hadn’t been together in over two years. We easily filled two days with long walks, cooking, and pillow talk. There’s far too much to “catch up” on when it’s been so long that we’re able to simply fall back in to a rhythm. We may have missed some important events in each other’s lives, but we stay up to date on enough that we can just settle in to typical conversations without feeling the pressure of filling in all the details. It’s a happy point to be at. Friday morning, however, we could barely carry on a conversation as we anxiously awaited the arrival of our carpool to The Mountain School.
This whole New England trip was based around my 5 year TMS reunion. It is hard to believe that I’m old enough to be attending a reunion already, but here it is. Another friend from our fall 2008 semester and two from spring ’09 drove the two hours to middle of nowhere Vershire Vermont together. I was grateful that I had recently made the trip with one of my best friends from UNC, Cora who was a spring ‘09er, otherwise I would have been a basket case. As it was, each landmark we recognized the higher pitch my voice got until we spotted the first glimpse of campus when Wallis and I began holding each other in excitement. We parked the car right next to three other girls who had just arrived from our semester, ensuring lots of screams and hugs to follow. Over the course of Friday evening more and more of my classmates trickled in, resulting in large lines to hug each other and huddles of conversation.
A few teachers were around, and most importantly the cooks. Pam was the cook I became close with while working on cooks crew my first two weeks of TMS, and she sweetly showed me she the burned CD I’d made her to keep us singing and dancing in the kitchen. Kit, my history teacher and a fellow UNC Morehead alum, built a masterful fire which I swear never went out the whole weekend despite the rain. After a few hours of fireside chats and a couple drinks in the dining hall (that might have been the strangest part of the whole weekend! Being legal and back on campus meant the rules of “clean safe fun” were renegotiated. My class had been such a straight edge, rule abiding, make your own fun kind of group that we hadn’t even considered a change in environment. The 10 and 15 years were kind enough to share their libations) most of the 5 years retreated to the Hay barn. We had a fun slumber party reestablishing our relationships and getting to know the other semester better, and I had great night’s sleep on the hay!
Saturday felt like a true mountain school kind of day. After yogurt and homemade granola everyone introduced themselves in morning meeting and then we got to work! My work period was spent gardening: transplanting some broccoli and laying hay as row covers. Believe it or not, the work is part of TMS that everyone misses most. Fresh air and good conversation over necessary work that sustains future generations is the heart and soul of what we appreciate about the place. I got to learn about the cool new jobs my classmates will soon be starting and discover who everyone is becoming. Lunch was a tasty quiche, soup, and salad…but most importantly was that we had fudgey oat squares for dessert.
In the afternoon I went on a ramble in the woods with Alden, the school’s director and both my English teacher and dorm parent. He is the type of person who I could listen to talk about anything for hours. He took us to his favorite part of the secluded woods: a plot of land where he hunts, collects morels, takes photos of bears, and harvests trees to help other ones grow better, tries to understand the history of the land, and gets his rejuvenating solitude from. We all felt so honored that he shared it with us. We came to a small spring that Alden has cultivated in to a pure peaceful haven. The source of the stream is impossible to locate and truly just emerges from the ground. He uncovered the source and has since collected stones from up to half a mile away and built a small pool up around this spring. It is perfectly still, clear, and crisp. The water tastes better than the well water we drink on campus and the place casts a spell of calm reflection. It reminded me of the poem that began and ended my time at Mountain School: Directive by Robert Frost. Alden too. He already had there a small broken chalice “like the grail, so the wrong ones can’t find it.” In that moment, it was our “watering place,” and we drank from it, and felt “whole again beyond confusion.” If there was anything I did not know I needed from this weekend but would not have felt complete without, it was that.
The evening was filled with more bonfire time, a game of knockout, and plenty of mingling. Pam outdid us for dinner once again: pulled BBQ lamb, mac and cheese, salad with the famous maple balsamic dressing, asparagus, pull apart bread, and strawberry rhubarb shortcake. Literally all it would take to get a group of TMS alums to do anything is promise a mountain school meal and our stomachs would follow orders in a heartbeat. It’s no wonder I believe butter can make anything better! Mid conversation I saw the back of a person’s head who I had tried to encourage to encourage to come but didn’t think would, and sprinted to tackle Lukas with a long overdue hug. He was one of my few close friends that I had not seen, or kept in any sort of touch, since we left TMS five years ago. And yet once again I was proven that it didn’t matter. Our conversation was as easy as if I’d seen him yesterday, and I got to hear about his cool new start up product and brainstorm how I could help. We climbed the rafters of the hay barn together and stayed up late talking with other fall ‘08 friends.
Sunday morning I took a walk on the inner loop around Mountain School property with a few other early risers and said goodbye to our friends heading off to NYC before morning meeting. We then spent a couple hours hearing from Alden all the things that had (and intentionally hadn’t) changed on campus since our time there. Learning some of the school’s operations and feeling like our thoughts on their decisions were valued really made me feel like an adult alum. And then of course there was Sunday brunch – with ample amounts of TMS maple syrup – to send us off on the highest of high notes. Needless to say the weekend went by far too quickly.
After another view from garden hill, a bout of playing with the piglets, and many many goodbyes it was time to hit the road again. Leaving is never easy. The air is different there. Everyone is present and engaged, not only because there is no cell service, but also because that’s simply the environment we all want to cultivate. It’s like pressing the restart button. Even though the spirit of TMS cannot be recreated elsewhere, little “mountain school” moments keep us focused on being the best person we can be wherever we are. Not only will that campus always be home to me, but the people who identify with it and the lessons that I learned while there will always make me feel at home.
This past week has reminded me the importance of relationships in my life and taught me that I connect more with physical places than I thought. As much as I thrive on getting out of my comfort zone and exploring new places and meeting new people, I too can cherish the sigh of relief at being, and eating, at home.