I went to UCLA where I studied Communications and Anthropology. I guess you could say I was interested in those fields, but I picked them more so because I had to make a decision. I think most 18 year olds entering college don’t know themselves well enough to pick a career from a list of options and commit to it for life.
Up until I graduated from college, I always had a specific course laid out for me my whole life. Then all of a sudden, I was thrown into the real world where no one was telling me what to do anymore or directing my steps. I didn’t have to be at class during a certain time, or show up for an exam, and my weekends weren’t centered around football games. Suddenly, I found myself floundering– completely unsure of who I was and what I really wanted out of life. The summer after graduating college was definitely the hardest time of my life. I temporarily moved back in with my parents and took a job as a server while trying to figure out my next move. To top it all off, I was completely heartbroken from a recent breakup after finding out my ex had cheated on me. Everything I once knew had changed practically overnight. I was feeling so lost, insecure, and unsure of myself.
One night, after getting home from a waitressing shift, I sat down at my computer and went on Craigslist to search for other jobs. For some reason, the first thing that popped into my mind was the word ‘nature.’ I had always loved the outdoors and felt most like myself when I was surrounded by nature. I thought maybe getting back to my roots would be the answer I was looking for. While scrolling through the search results, a non-profit organization called “Wolf” came up – I instantly knew it was a sign. It might sound weird, but I have always felt connected to wolves – I pretended to be one my whole childhood and even had paintings of them on my walls. The job description was for a “Naturalist” who would lead students on trips all around California. I made a call and landed the last possible interview slot available. A few days later, I received notice that I got the job.
It was the answer to my prayers, and then some. As a naturalist, I was one of a few dozen trip leaders who took students from 3rd to 12th grade on trips throughout California to teach them about nature and the wildlife that inhabits those areas. Our mission is to get kids out into the wilderness so they can learn to appreciate and respect their environment and everything it provides. Being a “naturalist” is basically like being a camp counselor, a wilderness guide, and a life-coach all rolled into one.
As the kids are canoeing down rivers, kayaking in sea caves, climbing across giant boulders, and navigating ropes courses, they’re unaware of the fact that they’re building character and self confidence in the process. That’s the beauty of it. They’re having fun but also learning to trust themselves, communicate better with others, and to rely on their basic skills and instincts. It’s truly a journey of physical, emotional, and spiritual growth.
It was during a canoe trip down the Russian River that I first noticed Chris Burt. He was a co-worker and he stood out to me because he was wearing neon yellow swim trunks covered in sushi graphics. Over the course of the trip, we smiled at each other a few times while canoeing and at evening campfires, but never actually spoke. It’s crazy to think about that now.
The Russian River trip also happens to be my favorite route – we spend three days on the water, paddling about ten miles a day. The kids are paired up in canoes and the adult leaders take kayaks. Each night we stay at different campgrounds somewhere along the river. We start in Santa Rosa and travel east along the river all the way until it meets the Pacific Ocean at Jenner Beach! I love this trip not only because it’s fun, but because the amount of growth you see in the kids in such a short amount of time is absolutely priceless. When they first start out on the trip, many of the kids have never canoed, some of them have never even been on a river, and some can barely cooperate with their canoe-mates. However, by the end of the trip, they evolve so much. They learn compassion, trust, patience, compromise, and gratitude. They leave with a newfound love for themselves, their friends, and nature. It’s so rewarding to be a part of creating this magical experience for them.
At the end of every trip, the staff members take vans back together filled with all the gear, equipment, kayaks, outdoor kitchen set-up, etc. It was during that 8 hour drive back to Ventura County (where most of the staff members are from) that Chris Burt and I finally spoke. We shared stories and a few laughs, and then exchanged numbers before parting ways – but I never expected to hear from him again.
Then the next morning, I received the sweetest message from him saying, “I wish I would’ve said this to your beautiful face” and he went on to tell me how grateful he was to have met me, and how amazing he thought I was with the kids. I was shocked. I guess somewhere along the way while leading all of those skill-building activities, my own self- confidence resurfaced as well. When I started this job as a Naturalist, I was so broken down and vulnerable. I felt worthless after being cheated on by my ex-boyfriend. Then Chris came along and saw right through all of my struggles straight to my soul. No one has ever made me feel so beautiful, validated, seen, heard, or loved.
Soon after, we went on our first date and the rest is history. Now every week we are teaching kids together somewhere in nature and when we’re not, we’re hiking national parks or visiting other countries. It’s been two years of bliss together and we’re both living our dream. I’m so happy I finally stopped listening to what society told me I was supposed to do and started following my heart.
When Chris and I first started dating, we would do our best to hide the fact that we were together in front of the kids in order to keep it professional. Today, we still act professional with one another, acting just like best friends, but if the kids find out (which they somehow always manage to no matter how professional we are), we don’t try to hide it and instead confirm it with pride. We’ve realized that kids in high school, especially, are curious about relationships and looking for role models not only in life but in relationships. So if we show the kiddos that it’s possible to have a relationship where two people are not only in love, but are best friends, respect each other, respect equality, and have the most adventurous fun, travel-filled life together, then it only adds to all the great things we’re teaching them.
I don’t know if you know this Chris Burt, but sometimes I write down the little, heart warming things you say to me. You’re so wonderful with words of affirmation. Then, on the days I need a little pick me up, I’ll read them just to remember that I am loved. Here are some of the ones I’ve written down:
- I love you, you smiling sunshine freak.
- I bet you there’s a bunch of animals outside waiting to tell you how amazing you are.
- The world would be a better place if everyone was like you.
- Somehow your parents combined their lightning and electricity to make one perfect ball of power that is you.
Thank you Chris for always making me feel special and showing me endless love and kindness. Thank you for reminding me that even though we’re each one person, we can and are changing the world for the better. I love you.