I sat down and wrote this story on a cross country train trip during the summer of 2012. One year later, on the night of June 26th, 2013, I left Chuck in his case in the trunk of a taxi in Calama, Chile, on a trip to the driest desert in the world, the Atacama. After desperately inquiring dozens of taxi drivers, all I can do now is hope that some young girl or boy will embark on a partnership as special as mine has been with Chuck. I dedicate this to all those who have been a part of this colorful story – he carries all of your spirits with him wherever he goes.
He is a ukulele with a story that deserves to be told. I don’t think this is unique among musical instruments; I think most have special stories that should be documented in some way. So many of the instruments I have come into contact with have been given names by their adoring owners. After a few years, their skin becomes tarnished with scars and scratches. Bits and pieces may be replaced and strings grow rusty in humidity. New stickers litter their cases, covering up the old, torn ones. An instrument’s story reflects both the life of its musician as well as a life of its own. With that in mind, here is my best attempt to detail the adventures that Chuck and I have embarked on together thus far –I hope (and I know) the story continues far into the future, beyond the words on these pages.
My junior year of high school, I decided to try out the ukulele. My older brother had already taught me the basics of guitar. Somehow I felt that a ukulele and I might be friends. Upon realizing that most ukuleles are very reasonably priced, I headed over to Middle C Music in Bethesda, and promptly purchased a brown Makala ukulele. At home, I looked up chord fingerings online and quickly picked up the basics. Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Jason Mraz’s I’m Yours. Definitely one of the easier instruments, as far instruments go. Instantly my fingers felt at home and even without any skill, the sounds still emerged as joyful and carefree. I named this pretty piece of wood “Moana,” which means “ocean” in Hawaiian.
And thus began my love of the uke. So when I heard about a ukulele festival happening at the Strathmore Music and Arts Center that summer, my dad and I bought tickets. At the festival, we sat on the grass among a mostly older crowd, listening to a range of ukulele music: from a retirement home’s ensemble, to a girl scout troop, to solo ukulele masters and pop artists. I never knew how diverse the music of this four-stringed instrument could be! Excited by the sounds and the vibes, I decided to buy a couple of raffle tickets from the festival venue. After enjoying my fill of music, they began to announce the raffle winners. Next thing I knew, the number called on stage for the grand prize matched the number on my ticket, and I walked up to collect my win: a bright red ukulele with a Hawaiian flowered case. I took a picture at the stage, and returned to my seat, grinning from ear to ear. I had never won a raffle before. A brand new ukulele, with a case! In between sets, I played around with my new baby. It didn’t sound quite as good as Moana. I’m sure there were other audience members who didn’t already have a ukulele, who probably deserved it more. But no: I won a raffle, my first raffle ever, and I was going to keep the thing.
My new ukulele was about as cheap as it gets. And did I mention red? It was RED. Plastic and glossy and fire-engine-red. Overwhelmingly red. Blaringly so. Thus, when I got home, I hastily adorned its body with stickers from my mom’s closet craft collection. Cartoon characters, sea creatures, stars, horses, and other odds and ends. When I finished, I was utterly satisfied with my work. He now had character. He? When did I make the gender decision? Did I even make that decision?
Before the festival, I had been debating whether or not to take my better quality ukulele, Moana, with me to Oregon for my five-month position working on trail maintenance. I would be living in the backcountry participating in the Northwest Youth Corps’ Summer Conservation Crew program. My new red ukulele made the decision easy – why wouldn’t I bring a cheap, raffle-won piece of red plastic with me? It wouldn’t really matter if it got dirty or even ruined. So at the end of July, I packed him up in his flowered case, and we headed out on my first solo flight across the country. I bet it was his first, too. Despite the name of his manufacturer, I doubt he actually hails from Hawaii.
The Northwest Youth Corps sends crews of teenagers into the backcountry of the Pacific Northwest to work on trail maintenance and conservation projects. I had never been to the northwest, I had never spent more than a couple of days camping, and I had never done very much physical labor. New experiences abound. I flew into Eugene, Oregon with a stopover in San Francisco, catching my first glimpse of the Bay Area from the plane – and it caught me by surprise. In Eugene, Andrea of the Northwest Youth Corps picked me (just me) up at the airport in one of their white vans. I arrived to find that activities had already begun and most kids were already there. After an orientation activity, we were given some free time. Nervous with so many new and different people around me, I sat down in the grass and played my red ukulele. Well, I sat down and played the two or three songs I knew on the thing. It soothed the nerves and helped hush the questions racing in my mind… “Why did I even come here?” “I’m going to hate this, aren’t I?” “Do I have anything in common with anyone here?” I even remember wondering whether Oregon actually had the natural beauty I imagined it did. I hadn’t done any research into the state before deciding on a whim to sign up. However, the happy-go-lucky sounds that came out of my little red man drowned out the worries, as a good uke is meant to do.
The next morning my name was listed for “Red Crew,” Nika’s crew. We would be stationed on the Timberline Trail of Mount Hood. The twelve of us embarked in a white van full of trail equipment and backpacking supplies and cases of Top Ramen. We blasted Matisyahu and Ziggy Marly, who still to this day evoke memories of my first trek through the conifer forests of the northwest. I remember my state of silent and overwhelmed awe, face pressed to the window, as I stared out upon the endless green of Oregon’s forests. I don’t think I had ever witnessed that deep, alive shade of green before.
I spent the next five weeks learning, growing, hurting, shivering, laughing. Red Crew consisted of an amazing group of young people. We all came from incredibly diverse backgrounds. I was the outsider from the east coast and everything was new to me: right down to the use of the word “gnarly.” I learned to swing a Pulaski, pull out roots, dislodge boulders, cook noodles on a backcountry stove, stretch in oddly entertaining ways. Our rhythms quickly synchronized with the patterns of the sun, waking up before dawn and falling to our sleeping bags, exhausted, just after sundown. I experienced a new and deep satisfaction in my ever-present muscle soreness and dirt tan. Long days on the trail, using my hands, straining my legs up hills while carrying water jugs and tools. And throughout, I was the one with the ukulele. When it wasn’t my turn to cook, I serenaded our Top Ramen chefs with the few songs I knew, and when I exhausted those, we all made up songs on the spot, jokingly recounting the struggles of trail life. We called these our epic “jam sessions.” Whenever we converged with the rest of the NYC crews, it became apparent that Red Crew was something special – we were the lucky ones. We formed a family.
Every two weeks we headed down to re-supply our food, shower, clean our clothes, and most importantly, stop at Joe’s Donuts in Sandy. But we always returned to the Timberline Trail, as our work never ended there. For the majority of the five weeks, we slept at the same campsite, collecting our water from the same network of glacial runoff streams. That meadow never failed to quench my thirst for water and for beauty, providing me with daily sunsets still imprinted in my memory. That summer I watched as a rainbow of Pacific Northwest wildflowers bloomed in new places, blocks of snow diminished, air grew hotter. I learned to identify huckleberry, Indian Paintbrush, hemlock, Douglas Fir, and others. We watched and felt when storms blew through, hovered, and departed to the land below our mountain. Another new sensation emerged, one I later identified as love for that specific spot on earth. That deep feeling came from a close knowledge of the land, a knowledge I never had of anywhere else. A knowledge that only comes from staying somewhere, outside, for a while. I also discovered a new kind of closeness with people, with the Red Crew, a closeness that happens only in backcountry isolation. And it was a joyous isolation, with ukulele sounds that always seemed to fit in perfectly with the natural ambiance. Music of my mountain. I still refer to Mount Hood as “my mountain” whenever it surfaces in my memory (which is often.)
Early in the trip, I started calling my red ukulele “Chuck.” The name instantly stuck, and I couldn’t imagine calling him anything else. On our last night in the backcountry, I wrote “Chuck” with a black sharpie in block letters on the back of his red plastic body, and my fellow crew members signed their names and left messages. Some have rubbed away, but most still remain. I didn’t worry about making him too tacky – he is already a red plastic ukulele, covered in kiddy stickers, and on top of that, his name is Chuck. Tacky doesn’t even begin to describe his vibe. Chuck and I taught Jarrett, a fellow crewmember, how to play on Mount Hood. I heard later that Jarrett bought his own ukulele, and may have even named him Chuck Junior. Chuck’s son, and I suppose… my grandson?
During my five weeks on the mountain, I learned how much I love to work outside. I learned that a lack of toilets and showers and fresh food doesn’t really get to me. I learned how rewarding and rhythmic outdoor work can be. I learned that I love the forest. And so, without this experience, I highly doubt that I would have ever been drawn to the “Forestry and Natural Resources” major immediately upon arrival at UC Berkeley. It’s one of the smallest programs on campus; very few students manage to find this hidden gem.
My crew leader Nika told me at the end of our time together that she had personally picked me for her crew, red crew, because she had seen me playing Chuck on that first day. She wanted to bring music with her to the mountain. In doing so, she brought me to the mountain, and I am eternally grateful. Red Crew, the Timberline Trail, Mount Hood. It was a magical combination of things, made possible only by Chuck, or perhaps some serendipitous ukulele god, which I am fairly certain must exist.
And the story continues. Oh, does it continue.
Where else has Chuck been? Well, he traveled with me on my first trip to Yosemite, taking part in the Cal Adventures “OATS” trip for incoming Berkeley freshmen, a 5-day backpacking adventure in the spectacular park. We hiked out of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir into alpine meadows, lakes, cliffs, open vistas. I got to know a group of freshmen, new like me. It was my first experience as a UC Berkeley student, and having Chuck there just seemed fitting. Chuck has also been to Big Sur, he’s been to the San Jacinto Mountains in L.A., he’s been to bonfires and camping trips. He was with me at Fremont Peak State Park when I met my boyfriend, Steve, and ever since, he’s been part of the musical magic between us. But of all of these mountains, his home is on Mount Hood.
I received an email from a sustainability organization’s listserve at the beginning of last summer. Because of the volume of emails like this I receive, I generally just skim through. Skimming through this particular message, I saw the words “Mount Hood” and was instantly hooked. Turns out, an organization called “Focus the Nation” was hosting a retreat for “young clean energy leaders.” The retreat would be taking place on Mount Hood, and Focus the Nation was looking for students to apply to this expenses-paid experience. I mostly just noticed the “Mount Hood” part. I wasn’t really sure if was a “clean energy leader,” but I definitely wanted to be one! Plus I could hear Mount Hood’s voice telling me I simply had to apply, no matter how under-qualified I believed myself to be. So I did. When Garrett Brennan, Executive Director of Focus the Nation, called me a month or so later to inform me that I had been chosen to participate along with 19 other students, I was ecstatic. I would be traveling back to my mountain. I am convinced that Chuck had something to do with this, so when we were instructed to bring along an “object of significance,” I knew exactly what that meant for me. Although, I did feel a little bad referring to Chuck as an “object.”
Sometimes I am a shy person, but bringing a flamboyant ukulele along when meeting new people certainly acts as an icebreaker. Like on the first day with the Northwest Youth Corps, my first day at the retreat was nerve-wracking. But Chuck gave me confidence, because he gave me a convenient identity: “the girl with the ukulele.” And so when I introduced myself to the circle, I also introduced Chuck – and that made for a good laugh. Later when we explained the significance of our chosen objects, I described his serendipitous story and how he had indirectly (or maybe directly) brought me to this retreat.
Like my time spent with the Northwest Youth Corps, this week on Mount Hood filled me with new knowledge, wisdom, understanding, curiosity, passion, friendship. Prior to the retreat, I had already taken on an “environmentalist” identity, but hadn’t fully explored what that meant. Here in Oregon, I learned real, tangible facts that create our country’s energy story. We traveled to a wind farm, a hydro plant, and a coal-fired power plant that has plans to transition to biomass. I learned directly from the people whose livelihoods depend on energy jobs, and the accompanying harsh realities that society likes to ignore. I engaged in deep conversations with my fellow delegates about the state of the world and our place as change-makers in that world. I learned that I am a “storyteller.” I learned what being a storyteller means, to me and to others around me. I learned to identify the unique skills that I bring to the table, and which skills I rely on others for. I dove headfirst into stories: my story of self, my story of us, my story of now. I listened to others’ stories. I discussed the future of our planet late into the night. I hiked a receding glacier on my precious mountain. Chuck and I played music around the fire, and with the help of some group members, we came up with a song about what it means to be a storyteller in the clean energy movement. Focus the Nation gave us each a pin with the energy quadrant we fall under. Later I attached my “storyteller” pin to Chuck’s Hawaiian fabric case. I remember at our closing circle on the final day, we each withdrew our object, remarking on how that object had changed over the course of the week. I remember saying, “I don’t think Chuck quite understood everything that went on here. But I do know that wherever he goes, the sounds that he and I create will carry the depth, stories, and passion we both experienced with you all here this week.”
Although I’m not quite sure clean energy will be my professional field as I move on, what Recharge taught me about myself and storytelling set me on a path that grows more exciting every day. I think I rediscovered my love of writing this year, and began to embrace the self-reflection that we practiced at the retreat. I took a student-run class this spring called “Nature and Writing” that I will co-facilitate in the fall, with the intention of deeply exploring my relationship to the natural world, and what role creative communication plays in the impact I make with my work. I now know in my heart that whatever I spend my life doing, I’ll be writing.
So, the SparkNotes version of the story: because I happened to win a ukulele in a raffle at a festival, I ended up having a life-changing experience on Mount Hood, which led both to the choosing of my college major, and to another life-changing experience on Mount Hood, which ignited my passion for writing. So I guess any success I have in either forestry or writing I will owe to Chuck. Pretty damn incredible. And just to reaffirm: Second semester sophomore year, I involved myself in a whirlwind of environmentally-related activities, and by the end, I had discovered two simple truths about myself: I love to be outside, and I love to write. It’s funny that it took a semester of doing all these different things, stressing and burning myself out, to realize that. Chuck could have told me all along.
Since we met, only twice have I gone on outdoor adventures without Chuck: once, in Kings Canyon National Park with my brothers, and once, in Henry Coe State Park with my nature writing class. Both times, I regretted it. It felt as though there was missing from my backpacking pack. I longed for his joyful strings around the campfire when only the sound of crackling embers could attempt to entertain. I suppose I can only make up for my mistakes by taking Chuck to both of those places someday. Not a problem. Now, I am about to spend a summer in the northern Sierra mountains at UC Berkeley’s Forestry Camp, bound to be just as cathartic and self-molding as the experiences I have recounted in Chuck’s story. Needless to say, Chuck will be strapped to my backpack. I’ll bring my guitar too; I hope Chuck doesn’t get too jealous.
Whenever I am getting ready to go on a hiking or camping trip, I thank Chuck for being so light and cheap. I’m almost always the only one with an instrument, especially on backpacking trips. People often ask me, “Are you sure you want the extra weight?” or, “Aren’t you worried that it’ll get messed up?” or most often, “You better not be taking up too much space in my car!” I just smile and nod, grateful that my most trusted musical partner is an ultra-light, cheap, tacky, red raffle ukulele.
In the year since this story was written, Chuck spent a summer in the Sierra Nevada, performed on the kids stage of High Sierra Music Festival, helped Steve and I make our first dollar as a band on the streets of Santa Cruz, settled me into my new life in Santiago, Chile, backpacked 75 miles in Patagonia, jammed with Chilean mountaineers in the Andes, and joined the ruckus at the Marcha por el Orgullo (Pride March) in Santiago. I miss him already.