My ACE Experience — Lara Meersschaert
Quite often, I have found myself staring down the barrel of a decision that, however daunting, would have the possibility to change the course of my life. I didn’t fully grasp this at the time that I decided to commit to a summer term with American Conservation Experience, but by the time I stood, stunned at the Atlanta airport in the beginning of August, it was difficult to put into words just how full of love that summer had been.
Prior to my term with ACE, I had just come off of a freshman year at the University of Georgia that involved a major change in what I thought the rest of my life would look like. I had been committed to the idea of going to medical school since I was eleven, and the thought of changing this seemed unthinkable. For months, as I trudged through Chemistry and Biology, I told myself that it was okay— I would do what I truly loved and aligned with later in life. One of my courses was taught by my now friend and mentor, Dr. Kyle Woosnam. Titled ‘Cultural Heritage Tourism,’ we explored the complex interactions between humans and the environment. It sparked joy, simply put. I ended up meeting with Kyle, and he gave me a tour of our campus’ Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, describing the close connections that existed in this space, as well as the courses and majors offered. I was enamored.
I changed my major to Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management, and finished up with my last core classes. At the same time that this was happening, I had been looking for a position for the summer that would allow me to fully explore my passions regarding the outdoors. I came upon a Conservation Crew Member position with ACE on my school’s job board, and I applied. After an application, interview, and a few weeks of waiting, I heard back right before I left my dorm to take one of my final Chemistry exams. Not knowing what hybridized orbitals were was the last thing on my mind.
I left in the middle of a simmering May and arrived at the Phoenix airport with a suitcase and my pack, thousands of miles away from home. After a shuttle ride through an expanse of desert and alpine forest, I stood in front of a small yellow house on a narrow street across from an elementary school— where I was to live for the next three months. It was in this home that I fostered some of the closest connections I have ever experienced. Trips to the grocery store felt as fun as going to the carnival, and the dinners that followed, crafted by the hands of once-strangers and enjoyed in the living rooms of our respective homes, were full of love. It was come one, come all, and I got used to skipping across the courtyard to visit my friends in the two houses that stood across from mine.
Evenings were spent playing games on the concrete, giggling with my four roommates, and finding solace in the walk around the neighborhood that became second nature. On weekends, I enjoyed walking down the street to the church, bringing my friends in tow. Breakfasts consisted of heart-shaped pancakes and joy. Every activity had new meaning, new splendor— whether it was going cliff-jumping or walking downtown together. I had never felt such love in one place— and I surrendered to it.
My first hitch, or project, took me to Bent’s Old Fort, a historic site in Otero County, Colorado. The long ride was made better by the presence of my dear friend, Shay. We had communicated via text prior to arriving in Flagstaff, and we immediately connected. She was genuine and warm and felt like home. The fort was full of life, and the work was worthwhile. We spent the next eight days oiling wood, cooking meals together, weed whacking, and cutting firewood. My fingers and back were sore and aching, but I relished in it. Evenings were spent in the breakroom, petting the small kitten that one employee brought in daily as it was too small to be home alone. Mornings started at seven o’clock on the dot, and I looked forward to it. There was pleasure in work.
After two weeks spent in Flagstaff getting Wilderness First Aid certified as well as earning my A-Bucker certification with the Forest Service, my heart was in my throat. In a few short days, I was to leave for my next project, one that would take place in the towering San Juan Mountains near Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Our project manager had described this hitch as ‘grueling’ in passing, and I had no idea what to expect. New to outdoor recreation, I had never even pitched a tent before starting my term with ACE, and the prospect of hiking multiple miles with a 60+ pound pack and tools in hand seemed unfeasible. Despite this, I knew that the formidable task that stood before me had the potential to change my perspective.
I stood at the trailhead, gripping at the straps of my pack. I felt as if I would fall backward at any moment, the weight of my pack pulling me backward. I was already out of breath, and we had 6 miles to go before we reached our first campsite. Not only did I have the weight of my pack bearing down on me, but I carried a 7-foot-long saw under my arm that swung back and forth comically with every step I took. My calves were on fire, my lungs even more so, but my head felt clear. Being on trail seemed to make everyday worries melt away, and the only thing you focus on is putting one foot in front of another. So that’s what I did. I played songs in my head, repeating certain sections until I couldn’t anymore, and chatted with my crewmates whenever we were able to take a breath. It was bliss.
The work was more than worthwhile — it brought me joy, connection, and a sense of confidence in my abilities. I worked with my partners to clear tree after tree, trekking miles through Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness. I knew that I had found my life’s work, and I already yearned to return to it.
The curious thing about this kind of work was not only how enjoyable it was — despite being strenuous — but it was the way in which it fostered connection. I had always known that the outdoors brought people together, but I had never realized how easy it was to connect with others when you overcome struggles together. It is all these small moments — sitting around a campfire after a long day, oiling our saws together, and stomaching backcountry meals as one — that stand out. I learned what true leadership was, as well as the depths to which I could feel love and appreciation for those who had once been strangers.
My summer had taught me that the grief was never-ending, that goodbyes were bound to happen — and that I could learn to love, fully, and then let go. I learned that I could do things I never thought I could, that I could love more deeply and more genuinely, and that at the end of the day, I was able to accept that this summer had existed in a moment in time. My last few weeks were spent with a heavy heart. I wanted nothing more than to hold on as tightly as I could, I lived every moment as deeply as possible as I knew it would never come again — not in the same way. It was the impermanence, the fleeting nature of these moments, that made them so very special. I know that no matter how far I drive, I will never be able to bring the experience that I had back. And I learned that it was okay. I still keep in touch with my closest friends. We share tidbits of our lives back at home, how school is, how we miss each other so dearly. I find peace in knowing that I can look back on these sweet memories whenever I like, and I am free to make new ones.
I know that my letter is still pinned up on the fridge. That the polaroids of my friends and I are still glanced at by the newcomers. I know my books still live on the coffee table. The rooms in that house will fill up, be emptied, and fill up again. There is comfort in that — in knowing that so many others will get to experience what it is like to start over. I hope that they are able to find the same love that I did.
After this summer, I felt more sure than I ever had that this was my life’s work. I knew I would never stop chasing the feeling that this kind of work granted me, and I yearned to be back out West. I had developed a deeper appreciation of nature’s processes and the ways in which humans were so delicately intertwined with them.
I recall the connection and deep appreciation I felt for these processes the first time I sawed through an aspen. Seeing the rings more and more with each collective stroke, I was reminded that we, too, have been a part of this tree’s journey. Its existence is not something that is separate from our lives, but rather something that is intimately connected. It was through my close experience with these trees, in the way that I breathed in the sweet smell of sawdust, the splinters that lingered in my fingers, the satisfying crack as sections fell to the ground, that I felt that I was a part of something bigger. It was through every stroke of my shovel, every breath of dust that I inhaled, every mile of trail I built, that I was able to develop a deep connection with our wild places.
Every trail I step foot on now, my mind goes to my labor. To the labor of thousands that has crafted a way in— up the sides of towering peaks, through lush forests, rushing streams, and silent snowbanks. It is this very labor that I seek to devote the rest of my life to. As I relish in what is for now only a daydream, my heart swells — for soon, I will once again be in a space where I am welcomed, wholly, where my hands and able feet are the only tools I need to craft and shape our wildernesses. Every moment I spend away from these wild places, my heart aches. I long to have my trembling hands grip the handles of a crosscut once more, to wince as I step forward with blistered and bloody feet, my calves aching as I summit peaks. I long to once again be a part of a vast collective comprised of the ways we interact with our environment. Through my labor, I was reminded that in order to sustain ourselves, we must live in harmony with the birds, with the water, and to remain in constant awe of what lies before us.