The grades are in, and we can honestly say that we have earned our winter vacation. Now that we have spent a week in Maine, far away both physically and mentally from the Foreign Service Institute, the hustle and bustle of year-end testing and immersion programs seems almost like a bad dream. And yet it was only a couple of weeks ago that we were preparing presentations and sitting for the first evaluations of our French language training.
Bryce Canyon is nothing short of spectacular. From Dead Horse Point, to Needles, and the Island In The Sky, we had enjoyed plenty of spectacular vistas, but Bryce blew them all out of the water. In fact, it took us longer to walk the half-mile between Sunrise and Sunset Points along the Bryce Canyon rim, than any of the other 125 miles we hiked in the Southwest during the rest of our trip, and this despite the fact that the trail connecting them is flat and paved. We had purposefully avoided looking at photographs before seeing the canyon ourselves. Nature truly outdid herself with Bryce; we had to labor to pick our jaws up off the floor so that we could actually get on with our hike inside the canyon.
Growing up in New York City, it took D a long time to develop a love for the great outdoors. It wasn’t until he spent several years living in a tiny village high up in the Andes mountains during his Peace Corps service that he came to appreciate just how soothing life can be when one is surrounded by nature. Ever since, he has craved nature like a drug, which it turns out has a perfectly reasonable scientific explanation. Ensconced once more in the concrete jungle of a big city, which can feel downright depressing in foul weather, our minds frequently oscillate between reliving our recent hikes and planning our next outdoor adventure.
With the holidays upon us, Munchkin’s toy collection has expanded appreciably, threatening to overwhelm the already cramped play space we have carved out of our small DC apartment. The best thing about the new additions is that as Munchkin has gotten older, the toys have become progressively better. He still gets a kick out of many of his baby toys — the ones that light up and jangle incessantly; fortunately, he is also interested in the toys aimed at the age range just above his, which makes play time much more exciting for us.
We like to joke sometimes that home leave is the best part of the Foreign Service. Although the Congressional mandate amounts to an extra vacation on U.S. soil, we have also come to appreciate fully the reason for its existence. Living in another country is a constant exercise in assimilation, as the mind learns to integrate the peculiarities of a new culture into its everyday routine. After a certain point, when the odd becomes commonplace, some aspect of one’s own culture start seeming foreign. Congress was wise to require Foreign Service officers to spend some time at home in between overseas assignments to give them an opportunity to re-familiarize themselves with the United States.
Spending a couple of weeks hiking through the Southwest’s canyons brings one face to face with the awesomeness of nature, in every sense of the word. Even as the unparalleled beauty of the region at times makes the jaw drop, it is impossible not to be filled simultaneously with awe at nature’s tremendous power. Just two weeks before we arrived in Escalante, 21 people drowned in flash floods in the very canyons that had drawn us to southern Utah. The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is famous for its unique slot canyons, but in light of recent events we found it prudent to adjust our hiking plans.
We only spent one day hiking in Capitol Reef before heading further south into the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument. Of Utah’s five national parks, Capitol Reef is by far the least visited. This is likely because the scenery is less dramatic than in Zion, Bryce, Arches, and Canyonlands, though there is still plenty of great hiking to be had there, and with none of the crowds that the big-name parks draw.
The pace of instruction is not the only difference between the Foreign Service French classes and our previous language learning experiences. There are many other unique aspects of the government’s language acquisition program — some advantageous, some rather amusing, and others quite frustrating.
When we visited Death Valley a couple of years ago, we were unsurprised to see many of its sights named after the devil. Even in May, it was uncomfortably hot in Death Valley, the thermometer dial hitting 109 degrees. The association with the underworld made sense and passed without a second thought. The frequency with which Lucifer’s name and abode are invoked in Utah, on the other hand, is simply staggering — especially considering that the Latter-Day Saints call this land home.