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It's Not Over!!!! Well, Okay. It is.

Mon Valley
Okay. I'll admit it. I refused to admit that the most glorious adventure of my life would be ending in approximately six hours. Call it denial. Call it self-delusion. Call it what you like -- I was guilty of it.

So when our alarm clock went off at 6:30 this morning, I tried to play it cool. I acted as though it were just another Odyssey morning in which I had to take down the tent, roll up the sleeping bags, stuff them in the car and dash out of the RV park before anyone noticed we were there. Then it was just a quick trip to the nearest gas station to wash up (it's amazing how clean you can get out of a sink!) before finding our requisite funky cafe for breakfast and setting out for yet another fun-filled adventure.

In other words, if I pretended the Odyssey wasn't ending, maybe it wouldn't.

Alas, that breakfast was the downfall of my deception. As Becky and I dined on artichoke omelets, we noticed everyone was scribbling their names on the cafe walls before they left. Naturally, we too wanted to leave our mark on Truckee, California. So Becky jotted down our web address along with the date -- 4/28/01. Then, as an afterthought, she noted: "Stephanie and Rebecca's last day trekking."

There was no use in denying it any longer. We could see the writing on the wall. In just a few hours, we would be meeting our fellow Trekkers at a hostel in Marin for our good-bye retreat. The Trek was over.

So rather than face that cruel reality, we escaped to Lake Tahoe to soak in the sun, sand and surf instead! Before continuing on to Marin, we vowed to bury each other in the sand, Jet Ski across the lake, construct a Zen garden, build a bonfire and roast some marshmallows. After all, that is what the Odyssey is all about: living each and every moment to its maximum capacity. Only after we had sufficiently basked in Tahoe's glory did we pile into Turkey (the Toyota Tercel) and head back to the place where it all began nine months ago: Marin's Youth Hostel.

It's amazing, really. Back in August, I didn't even know how to drive a car (much less a stick shift)!. Now I've traveled more than 45,000 miles across 40 states. Before the Trek, I'd never really sat down and talked with a Native American. Now I've visited a dozen reservations, danced at powwows, dined with tribal chiefs, and developed a close friendship with Trekker Nick. I used to have only a superficial understanding of my own people's history. I now feel well-versed in the Alamo, the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, the United Farm Workers, the Chicano Movement, the Border Patrol, bilingual education, and what it means to be a Tejano. The Odyssey has introduced me to so many things: alternative lifestyles, inspiring non-profit organizations, revolutionary heroes, events of historical significance, immense natural beauty, Krispy Kreme donuts. I've learned how to arrive late at night in a city where I don't know a soul and promptly find the best place to have a cup of coffee, land the perfect interview and scrounge a warm bed for the night -- all for under fifteen dollars.

I've also learned how to be adjoined at the hip to another human being for twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for a month at a stretch. In many ways, this has been the greatest aspect of the journey. Daphne, for instance, is a living, breathing superlative. I have never met anyone who listens more intently, feels more passionately, laughs more infectiously, and works, plays or scams harder than she. Then there's Neda, who radiates twice the warmth, love and energy of the sun. Jennifer has become my trusted confidante who sings my woes away with her soothing lullabies and gentle reassurance. Every time Stephen opens his mouth, I am either moved by his poignancy or delighted by his humor. Becky, my fellow Longhorn, has shot up my respect for teachers and Hawaiian Icies a billion-fold. I have no doubt she'll make great strides in the field of public education. Irene is the feisty one who keeps me well informed of the outside world and all the interesting voices within it; my sole regret on this Trek is never having had the chance to travel with her. And then there's Nick. At eighteen, he is the youngest member of the Odyssey. But I've come to realize that it's not the age that counts in this life. It's the mileage. I've learned more about life from him than anyone I've ever encountered. You'll go far, my friend.

Last but never least is Jeff Golden, our Jefe Maximo, and Genesis (G!). These are the cats who sent two teams to 35 countries and 48 states in three years' time to capture the voices of those who have long been silenced. The product: two websites filled with more than a thousand dispatches, tens of thousands of photographs and dozens of video documentaries. Jefe, the ripples you have made in this world are immeasurable. Here's to the army of warriors you have created in all of us.

And now, for some final thoughts:

Throughout this Trek, I have been searching for a heroine in history, someone whose philosophy I could totally embrace, someone who adhered to the highest moral standards. Yet, I've come to realize that even the staunchest revolutionaries were only human beings in the end, with all the requisite flaws. Ida Tarbell made incredible strides in the field of investigative journalism, but she was an ardent anti-feminist. John F. Kennedy instilled great hope in the nation and started the Peace Corps, but look what he did to Cuba (and Jackie)! I've since concluded that if you can't find a hero out there, strive to be your own. Become the person you look up to most.

That's easier than it sounds. It is extraordinary to think of the impact that a single person can have on this planet -- regardless of age, education, or economic background. The Little Rock Nine were barely sixteen years old when they integrated their all-white high school in Arkansas. Martin Luther King Jr. was just twenty-six when he kick-started the Civil Rights Movement. Dolores Huerta, the co-founder of United Farm Workers, started a revolution while she was single-handedly raising eleven kids! If they can do it, so can you!

Of course, there will be obstacles to overcome. The "Real World" will try to place some very shallow expectations on you. It will want you to get a full-time, corporate job with medical insurance and a dental plan, marry a member of the opposite sex, move out to the suburbs, and bear enough kids to fill up an SUV. This is not an easy path from which to stray. For starters, your friends and family will think you're crazy. (Most of mine do!). But that's okay. They'll get over it. This is your life. Go out and do exactly what your soul desires. Service, adventure and personal growth are the greatest currencies in life -- not money. We'll never see a penny for our work this past year, but we'll be living off our "paychecks" forever.

Steph and Nick
Be grateful to live in such a gorgeous nation. There is immense natural beauty out there: Canyon de Chelly, Joshua Tree, Chaco Canyon, the Grand Tetons. Let's all do our part to keep it around for generations to come. Recycle. Ride your bike. Cut down on consumption. Our nation is in serious danger of becoming an extended strip mall. The only way to stop it is to support locally owned businesses and mom 'n pop shops. Otherwise, you'll have the sad experience of traveling 1,000 miles in search of something new only to find the same bagels, coffee and bookstores that exist in your own hometown.

This dispatch wouldn't be complete without a look at our policy. There is much to be desired. Consider what we did to Viet Nam. Cambodia. Guatemala. Nicaragua. El Salvador. Panama. We removed popularly elected leaders and replaced them with military dictators who slaughtered millions of people -- all because we wanted to better our own economic opportunities. Then there are the atrocities we're committing within our own borders. Think about what we're doing to Native Americans. Migrant workers. Latinos. African Americans. The poor. Educate yourself about what your nation is doing. If something upsets you, be offended. Then do something about it.

However ugly our nation's politics, our people give me hope for the future. Over the past nine months, Americans have shared their homes and hearths with us and sent us away with a brown bag lunch and a smile. Total strangers have literally handed us the keys to their homes. The National Park Service never once made us pay to explore their lovely parks, and few museums made us pay admission. Hotels gave us discounts and, in some cases, put us up for free (including the Heartbreak Hotel, Super Eight, the Embassy Suites and Best Western). This has restored my faith in not only my country, but humanity. There truly are some beautiful people out there. Go out and meet them.

So where does all of this philosophizing leave me? At the moment, I am sitting in the living room of the Marin hostel, surrounded by seven of my very favorite people -- several of whom are making me breakfast (I've been up all night). Today we will begin writing a book about all of the magic that has transpired this past year. It's an exciting time.

I have come to terms with the fact that the Trek as I've known it is nearly through. But I take solace that its spirit, philosophy and lifestyle have forever become a part of me.

I implore each and every one of you to embark on Odysseys of your own.


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Learning about life by living it - with gusto!
Daphne - The Odyssey Trek: A cult of the BEST kind!
Irene - Baby, I was born to run (all over this country)
Jennifer - To America the beautiful and the friendly
Neda - So what exactly is a "trekker" anyway?
Nick - Taking the road less traveled
Stephen - Have a little faith and it will get you through