by Mark Downey -- June 3rd, 2014
After finishing grad school, people would ask what I was going to do with my degree, and I was proud to tell them just: ‘Canoe the Mississippi River.’ It’s been two years exactly since I paddled across those headwaters at Lake Itasca. I followed it up with another adventure, and another, and on and on.
I’ve spent most of that time living in a minivan named the Mark’s Rover. I’d converted it to a camper, brilliantly – yes, brilliantly! – disguised as something a suburban family might own. Thereby making it easy to camp un-harassed in neighborhoods when a satisfactory pullout couldn’t be found.
Sometimes I was traveling by myself; sometimes I was camped with the drifters and chaff who find themselves swirling around the vast corners of America. Two weeks a month I’d lead a small detachment of souls out into the desert for some guided introspection. And when I wasn’t doing all that, I was developing coastal community garden projects in Southern California. I watched the sun rise and set every day for months at a time; I followed faint wisps of love up and down the switch-backing trails of southwestern mountains; and one time I got hypothermia.
And that was good. That was all good for Mark. ‘Comfort zone’ has always been a tricky concept in my world; me being most comfortable when somewhat not. So let’s just shorten it to ‘zone’. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually, I’ve lived well in the ‘zone’ these past two years. Intellectually, though? Intellectually, intellectually….
So, at the end of June, I’ll be driving the Mark’s Rover to a garage in Michigan and boarding a plane to Kenya. I won’t make this a longer story than it is: my first year at Duke, I joined National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiative (BCI) research team advising the allocation of grants to lion conservation projects across Africa. Fast forward a few years through grad school, a stint in Madagascar, and some good clean living in the wild places of North America: I’ve decided to help manage one of those BCI-supported NGOs in Kenya.
The Anne K. Taylor Fund (AKTF) started as one woman’s side project to bolster anti-poaching efforts in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Preserve. But that little project, through Anne’s inexhaustible passion, grew into a full blown non-profit that now touches not only human-wildlife issues, but also education, nutrition, commerce, and sustainable energy for the Maasai people. Most recently, AKTF was one of the first BCI grantees due to their work fortifying corrals, or ‘bomas’, to keep lions, leopards, and hyenas from attacking livestock – as well as to protect those same predators from retaliatory attacks from humans.
I’m excited to be part of something like that. Something that takes me across the world to a beautiful landscape, to work with passionate people on challenging projects, and to support programs that are good for just about everyone and everything involved. (The exceptions, maybe, being the poor trucks.)
Excited and – as necessarily comes with the territory – a little nervous. I’ve managed an international NGO before, but working in Kenya itself is unknown to me: I’ve never even been. I’ve never met a wild lion. I don’t speak any of the indigenous languages (although in college I tried to learn Swahili with Rosetta Stone for a week before resuming College Mark’s normal activities). Moreover, I’m leaving a great job and a cushy existence in Southern California all for – who can say? I know I’ll be stationed in Maasai Mara but to what extent I’ll be moving around surveying, camping, or staying as a guest in someone else’s home, is yet to be seen. Same with the timeframe: six months, a year, forever?
It’s a giddy nervousness, though. Like tiptoeing to the edge of a cliff and thinking about jumping off into the dark pool below; or, maybe like taking a deep breath and stepping forth to introduce yourself to that attractive person across the party. They’re all essentially the same thing: an existential hope that this leap into the unknown will lead me where I want to go with minimal crashing and burning.
These volatile intentions and misgivings compose life’s most exhilarating moments, the repeated experiencing of which has become a familiar discomfort for me. Familiar to the point of preferring. And there is still much more to come. Please stay tuned.