One fact is overwhelming: this country is massive. As I drive for hours a day, with wide expanses constantly coming into and exiting view, I’m struck by just how massive this country is. Each change in terrain hints at ever more variation outward across landscapes unseen. Driving through farmland, rolling hills, and mountains, I wonder what life is like in the places I pass. I imagine myself growing up there, moving there. The possibilities seem endless.
I stayed with my friend Ben in Des Moines. We walked toward downtown, through a sculpture garden, and ate dinner on the sidewalk. I learned that insurance and finance are the big industries in Des Moines. We went to a public art exhibit. On the roof of a theater we met some cycling dudes who said they wished they would’ve brought more beer (for us). We found a “world food & drink” fair winding down. We walked through it as people were leaving, styrofoam plates blowing across the street like tumbleweeds, and smelled the eclectic mix of aromas.
In Rapid City I couchsurfed for the first time. Skyler was a great host. Anthony, another couchsurfer, and I played soccer and skateboarded with his two sons—bright, observant little boys with big imaginations. We ate homemade burritos. We conversed—about couchsurfing culture, about our perspectives on life and spirituality. In the morning Anthony and I drove to Mount Rushmore and per Skyler’s advice parked on the side of the road instead of going through the official tourist entrance. We found what seemed like a trail, or dried up stream, and followed it. We eventually made our way up some large rocks and found a stunning view. We were up close to the monument (even though we only had good views of Washington and Lincoln), and we could look out in all directions at the mountain scenery.
In Billings I couchsurfed again. Rob and Carey generously welcomed me into their home. I got to know Carey, her daughter and a couple of their friends, who were working on the roof. We went to the grocery store, then returned and prepared a big dinner—spaghetti with lamb sauce, salad, garlic bread, sautéed zucchini, and lemon meringue pie. Rob came home during dinner. We talked about education, couchsurfing, traveling, and Rob and Carey mentioned a school in Billings I might be interested in. Rob and Carey’s grandchildren go to ‘Zooschool,’ a preschool inside of a zoo. The next morning I met their daughter-in-law, Heidi, there. She showed me around and I spoke with some of the teachers. The kids seemed excited about being around animals.
Right now I’m in a coffee shop in Missoula. I’m staying here with my friend Derek. Last night we went to bar trivia at a VFW bar. Needless to say, we won. $20 between four of us—us and two of Derek’s friends from his fiction MFA program. This morning I saw The Clark Fork school, a parent co-op preschool/kindergarten that emphasizes place-based learning and connection with nature. They take students on “saunters” around the neighborhood and nearby nature areas (the school is located at the base of what is, at least by my Midwestern standards, a mountain). They seek to make education as hands-on, relevant, and locally-inspired as possible. In the school’s natural history room, the shelves are lined with skeletons, stuffed birds, and other animal paraphernalia. I lifted an elk horn off a shelf. It was heavier than I expected. The kids get plenty of time for unstructured play outside on the playground, and during class they learn how to garden and to respect and take care of animals, among other activities.
My next stop is Spokane, where I’ll be couchsurfing again. Couchsurfing has been an excellent experience so far. My hosts have all been generous, accepting, passionate people. When I told friends and family I was going to couchsurf, the almost inevitable question (sometimes accompanied by a raised eyebrow) was, “What’s in it for them?” Why do people open their homes to strangers without monetary compensation? Do they have some nefarious motives?
First of all, hosts get to see your profile, including your couchsurfing references, communicate with you, and decide whether or not to host you. They’re not obligated to host any surfer, nor is any surfer obligated to stay with any host. But more importantly, the reason many people host is simply to meet others and to learn about their experiences.
I’ve met really interesting people, exchanged ideas and philosophies, and learned about their backgrounds and experiences. You can learn much more about a place from people who live there than from maps, travel guides, or the internet. It’s nice that couchsurfing is free, but if hotels were free I’d still prefer couchsurfing. Every now and then I might want a hotel room for a night, but for the most part hotel-staying is a lonely affair. Some people seem to have this notion that if you’re not spending money, no value is being created or exchanged. But that’s just not true. Connections are made, and networks and worldviews are expanded. What is the monetary value of these things? It may not be easily measured.
I think back to when Anthony and I hiked near Mount Rushmore. I owe couchsurfing and Skyler for that experience. Skyler opened us to the possibility of just hiking up the mountain instead of paying to park and take pictures on the tourist platform. With a little determination and some trial and error—trying one rock until it got too steep and we couldn’t go any higher, then turning around and trying another way—we made a pretty significant ascent and stood on top of some large rocks where we got a close up view of the faces and could look out in all directions.
I think it’s easy to get stuck in a groove of thinking in which we see only a few possibilities in front of us. Park in the official entrance, pay the fee, and take some pictures, or maybe circumvent that and park elsewhere, a little farther away, and take pictures for free. But we don’t think to hike. And if we did, we might say, “I don’t see any signs for trails.” Where we see only a few possibilities, only a few paths, there are likely many more ways to go than we initially imagine. We need to look around, generate ideas with a creative mind, then act on and adjust those ideas as we go along. Climb that rock there until it gets too steep and you have to turn back and find another way up. Keep this trial and error up and eventually you will reach your goal. If the desire to get to the top (of the mountain, not of others) is strong, you will find a way. Your passion, and the clarity with which you see your goal, will be the impetus for generating creative routes.
Education should foster this creative process, not inhibit it. It should help people generate their own ideas about how to go about achieving their own goals. I believe that in order to do that we must give the reins of self-determination to the young people we seek to educate, not the adults trying to teach them. Too many children are being taught, implicitly or explicitly, that they must need and want certain things and that there are a few prescribed routes for getting those things. Rather, we should show young people the many possibilities, lifestyles, and avenues of human endeavor out there. Let them choose their goals for themselves. When they do, they will do so with passion, and when they have a clear vision of what they want, they’ll see a thousand paths where they might otherwise see none.