Nature. Country. Connections. Roots. Family.

These are words that make my heart swell. These words are likely the reason why I’m so darned happy living in a place I never, ever thought I’d come back to.

Sure, Irish Grove was a nice place and all. But as I was growing up, I found it too small town, too Midwestern, and just too ‘ho-hum’ for a girl like me. I was going to change the world, you know….and the world I was to be a’changin wasn’t Irish Grove, for Lord’s sake. I was going to change the world out there, whether that meant out West, Alaska, or some third-world country. I had big dreams. Bigger dreams than could fit in Irish Grove.

As a highschooler, I was one of those rare kids that actually knew what she wanted to do. I loved animals, I loved the rural countryside, I loved wilderness, nature, wide open spaces and the way my heart would soar when in the presence of a beautiful rural landscape. So I knew I wanted to go to college to become a Wildlife Biologist, and that as a wildlife biologist I was going to change the world. What an idea! As a wildlife biologist, I could spend every waking moment outside in a natural setting and get paid for it! Who cares if it doesn’t pay well, or if there are no National Parks close to home? Close to home wasn’t where it was at, anyways. I was going global, remember? Yeah, I was focused, determined, young. I went to UW-Madison, and I became a Wildlife Biologist. No second thoughts. Full steam ahead.

Next I joined the Peace Corps to gain experience in wildlife biology and because I wanted to help the poor in a developing nation. (OK, and maybe for the adventure of it.) But mostly I joined the Peace Corps because I had always dreamed of going to Africa to work on the great savannas, and the Peace Corps was the fastest, most effective way to get there. Africa was where its at for a wildlife biologist like myself. Africa was the the big kahuna. The be all, end all. Africa was my destiny, and I was going for it. I filled out my application, requested Africa as my first choice for location, and didn’t bother filling in my second and third choices. In my mind, there was no other choice.

But you know, those darned Peace Corps people had different ideas, and they valued my Spanish experience–which was nothing to write home about, let me tell you–over my wildlife biology degree. How dare they? How dare they derail my dreams, my life’s pursuits, my ambition to be a Wildlife Biologist and to take the continent of Africa by storm?

They plainly didn’t care. They thought it was much more important for me to be able to communicate with my host country’s people….p’shaw. And they thought it was better to send someone with an agricultural background (a very questionable agricultural background) to agricultural lands instead of vast savannas and grand deserts. The nerve!

But the biggest kicker was that they weren’t even sending me to work in wildlife biology! I was going to Panama–hardly the exciting, exotic African nation I had hoped for–and I was going to work in Environmental Education.

“Umm, excuse me but I couldn’t hear you very well. Did you say Panama? Panama, like in Noriega? And, umm, please forgive me once again, but did I hear the word Education? Education meaning like a teacher, with a classroom, stuck in a building, with a bunch of kids? Ah, yes, of course…. Environmental Education volunteer in Panama. Wonderful, yes that’s perfect. Now will you please excuse me while I go cry myself a river?”

My disappointment only added to the building anxiety (aka FEAR) I was experiencing as my departure grew closer. I literally felt like I was jumping off a cliff into the unknown. Where I would land, or how I would land, or if I would land, even, was a mystery. At this point I wasn’t only leaving behind everything and everyone I knew and loved, I was going to a place I didn’t really want to go to, and I was going to work in a position I most positively did not want to work in. Where were my open spaces? My wilderness? How could I realize my dream of being a wildlife biologist as an environmental education volunteer in Panama?

Yes, Panama is exactly where things started getting off track.