My name is Maddie Melton and I am so honored and excited to share in this Dragons adventure with you this semester as your Course Director and Instructor. I led the first ever Rio Grande Semester last fall, so I’m excited to build upon those experiences this coming spring alongside you!
I grew up near Washington D.C., but “home” has been a fluid and evolving state for many years. When I was sixteen, I left the U.S. for the first time to spend a year studying abroad in Beijing. I fell in love there. In love with the sweet potatoes I bought on my way to school each morning, roasted in hot coals in a barrel on the side of the street. In love with the guttural Beijing accent that layered itself incongruously on top of my American accent when I spoke Mandarin. In love with the vastness and anonymity of the city. At the end of my exchange year, I was determined to stay in China and finished high school in Hong Kong with classmates from down the street and around the world, sharing life-changing conversations on the beach near our school, eating cha siu fan, roasted pork over rice, and digging our feet in the sand. This was home. And I loved having a home whose familiarities were learned rather than inherited and where the limits of my comfort zone often found me rather than the other way around.
Over the next seven years, opportunities brought me to live in the Netherlands, South Africa, and back to China again. It was there that I found Dragons and worked as an instructor on two courses in southwest China in 2019.
Two years ago, though, I hiked 2,652 miles across the U.S. from the Mexican to the Canadian borders on the Pacific Crest Trail. The five months I spent hiking and the months surrounding that journey was the longest time I’d spent in the United States in ten years. Suddenly, on trail, I was introducing myself as “Maddie from Virginia” again and the points of reference that became most important had nothing to do with my years of studying and living overseas but in the summers I spent riding horses and picking huckleberries in the Bitterroot Mountains of northern Idaho with my great grandparents in the town they lived in for more than ninety years.
It was that summer, camping in the Manzanitas in southern California, dipping my water bottle into the first trickle of water I had passed in twenty miles, straining to reach a high pass in the Sierras, and pushing through weeks of endless freezing rain in Washington, that I felt called home to the United States for the first time. Called back to music and scents and food and earth that was at once completely foreign and intimately familiar. Understanding the value of seeking out learning in a place where it can be so easy to remain comfortable and complacent. This year, this curiosity has carried me 950 miles on foot across Arizona, Colorado, California, Nevada, and Wyoming. Through the desert and alpine peaks, under the same blanket of stars that has covered me and guided me across the world. Lying firmly on the ground in the place history currently calls the United States and connected to endless people and memories of nights across an ocean.
As we’ve all watched the Covid-19 pandemic evolve over the past year, we’ve seen the ways that it has become a catalyst to deepen wounds and exacerbate inequalities across the globe. As we turn homeward, or reach out to parts of our home country that may feel very close and very far away all at once, I see an opportunity never to look away from the people and connections outside of our borders, but to look more deeply within ourselves and to greater reflection on the histories we embody, the land we inhabit, and the complexity and fluidity of what those borders represent.
Maybe these will be things that become immediately apparent during the program or when you return home, maybe they will be things that will emerge many years later. Maybe you will share these stories with your classmates and instructors or here on the Yak Board, or maybe they will remain deeply private and personal. Regardless, I look forward to sharing them with you. Whatever has brought you here, whatever this course means to you in this chapter or in the larger story of your life, I feel so privileged to join you in the southwest this fall. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out at [email protected]
I’ll close with a quote from Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer:
“After hours in the penetrating rain, I am suddenly damp and chilled and the path back to the cabin is a temptation. I could so easily retreat to tea and dry clothes, but I cannot pull myself away. However alluring the thought of warmth, there is no substitute for standing in the rain to waken every sense—senses that are muted within four walls, where my attention would be on me instead of all that is more than me. Inside looking out, I could not bear the loneliness of being dry in a wet world. Here in the rainforest, I don’t want to just be a bystander to rain, passive and protected; I want to be part of the downpour, to be soaked, along with the dark humus that squishes underfoot. I wish that I could stand like a shaggy cedar with rain seeping into my bark, that water could dissolve the barrier between us. I want to feel what the cedars feel and know what they know.”
In eager anticipation to meet you in the downpour,