Wildfires, Winding Roads, and Walmart Parking Lots: Leaning on Laurentians Across the Country | St. Lawrence University

Wildfires, Winding Roads, and Walmart Parking Lots: Leaning on Laurentians Across the Country

Friday, January 22, 2021

Last March, the longing for a semester cut short still loomed in bitterness when my plans to participate in the fall 2020 Kenya Semester Program were cancelled due to COVID-19. Suddenly, I had to decide what I wanted to do for my fall semester. After an amazing summer working remotely for Admissions, I felt confident returning to campus in the Fall with the three-semester plan.

I had made up my mind, and then my older brother shared the news that he was finally selling the Chevy van he had converted years ago for a cross-country road trip. With 204,000 miles, decent wear and tear, and the sibling discount, the van fit right within my budget. I started researching and planning how I could spend part of the fall safely traveling cross-country, abiding by various state’s COVID-19 safety protocols while still having the educational experience away from campus that I had craved for my junior fall.

Before continuing, I want to clarify that I was aware of the risks of going on a road trip during a pandemic. I took my responsibility to keep myself and others safe very seriously, did my research, and followed all necessary precautions while traveling. I lived entirely out of my van and limited visits with friends to outdoor spaces.

Prior to leaving on the trip, I had two specific destinations in mind. The first was Seattle to see Jake Ciolek ’20 and Gabby Smith ’22.

The three weeks it took to get to the West Coast from my home in New Hampshire are a blur of endless cornfields and ‘dings’ from the check engine light. I navigated the stress of finding free and safe places to park for the night, all while remaining as isolated as possible from potential exposure to others. My time at St. Lawrence has strengthened my confidence in my extroverted personality, and I found it difficult to adjust to seeking isolation while on the road as a means of safety and responsibility. In its most challenging moments, the trip evoked an intense yearning for a semester I could have had on campus.

Reaching Seattle and seeing Jake and Gabby for the first time since March felt like being back at St. Lawrence, a feeling lost in my resentment towards the pandemic for lost experiences and time. My time in Washington was a blissful couple of weeks in which I got the chance to meet up with two more St. Lawrence friends, Oscar Wilkerson ’20 and Jacqui Baker ’22, for a socially distanced hike and night of camping in the Olympic National Park.

The laughter and gratitude from being with friends revived me, and I turned my sights to Oregon. Simultaneously, wildfires that began in California started migrating north. Parked in a rest stop just north of Portland, I woke to the smell of smoke seeping through the air vent. Momentarily suspended in an acute awareness of my solitude, I hastily decided to head east towards Idaho, a state I probably wouldn’t have visited at all had my planned route worked out.

Finally settled in a Walmart parking lot for the night, the exhaustion of defeat overcame me. Feeling vulnerable, plan-less, and wishing more than anything to be home, I heard my phone ring. It was Aliya Brown ’21, calling to check in on my adventure. Aliya lives in Boise, ID, and is taking remote classes for the year. When she called, she had no idea I was a mere twenty minutes away, about to have a meltdown in a Walmart parking lot. I have no idea where my road trip would have gone if she hadn’t called at that moment, but I am grateful I didn’t have to figure it out alone.

Safely parked in Aliya’s driveway for the night, I once again felt grateful for the familiar warmth that comes from the St. Lawrence community. I was reacquainted with Dani Laird ’20, who had been staying with Aliya’s family on occasion while working in Banks, ID, and living out of her Subaru. I’d met Dani briefly only once, but she invited me to tag along with her for the weekend. During the three days in Banks, I met the kindest community of raft guides and kayakers. I also formed a new friendship with Dani thanks to our connection to SLU, even away from SLU.

When the fires eventually spread to Idaho, Dani accompanied me on the trek to Utah to visit her cousin. The simple act of following a Vermont license plate and St. Lawrence bumper sticker made the unfamiliar drive less daunting. In Utah, I made four more unexpected connections with recent SLU graduates, people I had barely gotten to know during my time with them on campus, but who graciously invited me on hikes overlooking their new home.

By this point in the trip, the van’s check engine light was unrelenting, and its roof rack required some unbudgeted repairs. I was ready to make my way to my last destination to visit my former housemate Katherine Apt ’20, in Denver, CO. I relished in a final week of relaxation, able to explore without the stress of finding a place to sleep for the night.

I started the 28-hour drive home to New Hampshire unaware of how vital this final moment of composure was. While heading east on I-70 through Indiana, my van’s oil pressure plummeted. Luckily, a tow and a high-grade oil change were the band-aid solution needed to get me through the final 15 hours of the drive. It was my longest day of driving yet, my dashboard fully lit with warnings of the van’s fragility, and only phone calls with friends to keep me company.

I know that I am immensely privileged to have been able to experience a trip like this. In processing my time off campus, I find myself overcome with gratitude for the additional privilege I have in being a part of the St. Lawrence community. 

This semester, I return to campus less daunted by the fact that familiar faces are somewhat camouflaged by masks and blurred by distance. It has been an adjustment for me, as I am sure it has been for many. However, I am inspired by the Laurentians that gave me a sense of community in my time outside of the bubble of our campus.

In my continued pursuit of intentionality in my friendships and daily interactions, I now know the importance of embracing our role as Laurentians. Laurentians look out for one another, and I look forward to the opportunities I’ll have in passing forward the graciousness I received from so many in the fall, even if in the simplest gesture of offering someone a spot to park in an unfamiliar place.