On Thursday morning, I woke up at 5:45am and rode the bus in a daze to meet the rest of The Nature Conservancy’s delegation. Our caravan pulled out of the parking lot at 7:30, and, as excited as I was about my first field trip in years, I couldn’t keep my eyes open as the seven of us made the two-hour drive to Tillamook, Oregon. As we pulled up to a huge barn, we were met by TNC employee Catherine Dunn and a group of high school students interested in environmental issues that are part of a TNC program called Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF).
Catherine explained that the area used to be a swampy wetland covered in willow and alder trees but was converted into farmland through dykes and other methods to drain the land. Since TNC acquired land around the Kilchis River, it has focused on removing these artificial barriers and expanding the river and channels to restore the original marsh habitat. In particular, the estuary serves a critical role in the life cycle of salmon. While a few centuries ago, they numbered in the millions, salmon populations are struggling to return to historic numbers due to overfishing, climate change, the timber industry, and the construction of dozens of dams throughout their habitat in the Columbia River Basin.
After eating lunch on the riverbank, we drove a few minutes to the Tillamook Bay. With the educational portion of the day finished, we were ready to take on the rail bikes, which were a new and delightful concept to me. Imagine a four-person cart mounted on railroad tracks that is equipped with seats, bike pedals, and a hand brake. Pedaling together, you can move along at a brisk seven miles per hour (maybe eight or nine if you really go all-out). Now THAT is an ideal commute.
We went on a two-hour round-trip through dairy farms and forest, which we decided to call the “Olfactory Tour of Oregon” due to the variety of cow-related scents that we experienced along the way. I was grateful to be visiting with Oregon natives — this isn’t the type of thing to make it onto must-try lists for tourists, but it was a fantastic way to spend a cloudy afternoon. Afterward, we decided to reward ourselves for our quad workout by getting ice cream. Tillamook is home to a large dairy industry, and their visitor center is famous enough to attract customers from Washington and even Canada. Inside, half the building is taken up by a food court, while the other section is dedicated to educational exhibits about dairy farming. The ice cream was delicious, and I was able to witness someone (I won’t say who, but know that they are much older than you would think) realize that milk is NOT cow pee. Talk about a life-changing experience.
And while this portion of the day may not have served any purpose from TNC’s perspective, it meant everything to me on a personal level because it was finally a place for me to talk to my coworkers without feeling out of my comfort zone and out of the loop. A few days prior, when I joked to my supervisor that I barely knew anyone’s names, he was shocked. “I knew everyone in my first week! All you have do is go talk to people!” Good advice, although easier said than done. I still felt like a kid here; a teenager in a building full of grown-ups. I can’t bond with my coworkers over anecdotes about my children or commiserating about the latest round of staff training. I’ve been searching for a middle ground, where I feel like I can be a person, not just a child pretending to be an adult for the summer.
It turns out, such a place can be discovered in a slow-moving human-powered vehicle in the middle of bovine-scented woods, or alternatively, a sugary-smelling barn filled with animatronic, mooing cows. I felt like I was finally on the same page as everyone else; they could make fun of me, I could joke back, and I felt neither stiffly formal nor awkwardly familiar. We were all just admiring the milk infographics and enjoying being on the rails, “accidentally” bumping the cart in front of us and seeing if we could pedal fast enough to make my hat fly off my head. Rail bikes and ice cream cones: the great equalizers. What a time to be alive.