Graduation Speech

The Commencement Speech I Wasn’t Invited To Give

I’ve never been invited to give a commencement speech. Not like I have any tremendous life accomplishment to warrant such a grandiose invite. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling like I’d have a kick-ass speech. I mean, I would give it in my usual awkward style, probably make some joke at my expense in the beginning to lighten the mood. But then I would get to my message. And it would go a little something like this:

There are things that adults say that are well intentioned but said from a place of fear and you should not listen to those things. The item in particular I’m thinking of is taking a break from school. It’s true, if you take a break from school, you can slow the inertia it takes to complete a degree. But if you truly want a degree, if that is a long term goal of yours, a year or two year break from school will not be the limiting factor. It is your determination that is the limiting factor. School is always there, school is always an option. Even as a 34 year old, or 46 year old or 55 year old, school is always available. I have the option to re-route my career if I so choose and go back to school. Sure it would be uncomfortable and I’d be broke for a little while, but educational institutions will always be in existence. What’s not always an option is the chance to chase an adventure. Adventures are not as easily pursued the older you get. The further you get along in your life, the more established you become, the harder it is to get away. Believe me when I say that the good job, the house, the dog, they will always be waiting. But the adventures find someone else to entice if you don’t follow their temptation.

Wickenburg Arizona Sunrise
Arizona sunrise

My own adventure was a little bit of running away, a little bit of ego and bravado. I was hungry for something that I could not name and that I did not even know I wanted. But I knew enough to follow my gut. I stumbled upon www.coolworks.com and found some ranch jobs over the winter. Actually, let me back up for a second. I had a friend at the time who was volunteering in Guatemala at a children’s orphanage. My plan for the spring was to purchase a ticket to fly down and see her and spend some time traveling with her. The day before I was going to purchase my airline ticket, her mom emailed me to let me know that she was miserable and coming home early. For my own selfish reasons, I was crushed. I was desperate to have an adventure and there was no way that Guatemala was now an option without a trusted tour guide. I was a little impulsive, but I knew better than to travel as a single woman to a foreign country where I couldn’t speak the language and expect nothing bad to happen. So it was that derailment that got me thinking of getting a job somewhere outside of Oregon. That’s when I stumbled upon Coolworks.

Coolworks is a site devoted to job postings for seasonal service industry positions. The majority of the winter season places were ski resorts in the mountains. As much as the idea of working at a ski resort in some chic part of the Rockies appealed to my vanity, I am not, have never been, will never be, a skier. I have very clear memories as a child of being miserable and cold and falling down a lot while skiing. I tried again as a teenager and found I got the same result. So I went with what I knew I loved and would love doing: horseback riding. I actually applied as a wrangler to one of the guest ranches. They called me and said that I didn’t have enough experience to be a wrangler (which my ego took a real disliking to). But they asked if I would be interested in working as part of operations staff. I would be cleaning rooms and serving meals 5 ½ days per week. I said yes. I actually didn’t even wait for the other ranches to contact me or weigh the pros and cons of working there versus another ranch. I just took the first offer that came to me.

Wupatki National Monument Arizona
Wupatki National Monument outside of Flagstaff, Arizona

When I look back at this period of time in my life, sometimes I am absolutely shocked at the fact that I did this. I had bills that would not go away just because I took a job out of state, like my phone bill and credit cards and a car payment. But I took the job anyway. I had a cat that I couldn’t bring with me and who I cared enough for that I was unwilling to dump at the humane society. An angel I worked with in retail at the time agreed to take her for me for while I was in Arizona.

So I gave notice at my two jobs, moved some big things into a storage unit, and handed my cat off to the cat-angel. I packed up my Honda civic, mostly with clothes and one pair of used cowboy boots from 70’s and started down the freeway toward a life that I had no expectations for. I had never driven for longer than 2 hours by myself at this point, and here I was, driving 23 hours to Wickenburg, Arizona.

The first night I stopped in Reno at a Motel 6 right off the freeway. I promptly left my debit card in an ATM the next morning right before I rolled out of town. I don’t remember being scared to travel alone, I was so high on the adrenaline of what I was doing that I had no fear. I was aware that I was alone and I was estranged from my parents and so I didn’t have much of a safety net, but I had no fear.

The road between Reno and Las Vegas is a road that seems to travel toward absolute nothingness. There is nothing but barren desert on both sides of the straight road. Not even the interesting kind of desert with Saguaro cacti and purple sunsets. It’s just sand and scrub over and over until you have highway hypnosis and almost kill yourself driving off the damn road before your adventure has even begun.

The next night I stopped in Las Vegas and stayed at the since-demolished Imperial Palace. As most things in Vegas, it aged out of relevancy and was torn down, now the site of a giant Ferris wheel. I checked in and changed out of my road trip clothes and walked the strip alone. I sat at The Carnival bar and watched people dancing and laughing, enjoying the warm night and party atmosphere. But I could not partake. I had miles left to drive.

The next day, in Kingman, Arizona, and just two hours from my destination, I stopped for gas. This gas station was attached to a tire shop and mechanic for some reason. I’ve never been anywhere like it again. The gas attendant (who apparently just watched me get gas, because he certainly didn’t pump it for me) was a mid-50s man with a pot belly and clad in overalls, asked me where I was from and where I was going. I told him. He told me Wickenburg was real green, that I’d like it down there. I guess Wickenburg could be considered green if you’re used to the dry sandy stretch of land between Reno and Las Vegas. But for an Oregonian who grew up in the grass-seed capital of the world, the lush Willamette Valley, Wickenburg did not turn out to be green. It’s brown and tan with shades of sage mixed in. Attractive and striking in its own desert way, absolutely. But green? Absolutely not.

Vulture Peak Saguaro Cacti Sunset
Sunset through saguaro cactus while hiking Vulture Peak

I filled up my car and then the man told me I needed new tires. I looked at him incredulously. I specifically had my tires checked at our local trusty tire center before I rolled out of town. He told me my tires had rubber rot or dry rot. To demonstrate he jammed a long screw driver between the tread of my tires and twisted to show me all the little lines hidden within my tires. At the time smart phones did not exist, and even if they had, I wouldn’t have had one. So I had no way to Google if what he was telling me what was right or just a way to take advantage of a young woman travelling alone. I had zero dollars to spend on a new set of tires, but I figured I’d split the difference and get two new front tires, entirely on credit. I actually had no idea until this day if that old guy was just taking me for a ride. As I was writing this I looked it up on Google, and wouldn’t you know, those tires of mine way back when did look like they had tire dry rot. So I have to think I had a tire-angel shining down me as well, who kept me from getting a blow-out and which if I had, I would have been royally screwed.

Two hours later, I safely rolled into Wickenburg and promptly buried my car in a wash, which I already told you about here. But I made it. And then, despite the ranch being actually a very stressful environment in which to work, I had my own adventures. And my restlessness settled, and I found that I had been in control the entire time of how my life could be. If I was honest and brave about what I wanted for myself. Before my husband became my husband, he used to joke with one of the other women who worked at the ranch that she should be more like me, that I had balls. That I just picked up my life and moved. At the time it stoked my ego. In retrospect, I wasn’t really all that brave, I just wanted the hell out of my hometown and the trajectory I was on. I only had to be brave for a few moments, to apply, to accept the job, to make the plans. I know I had anxiety about leaving, I was not without self-doubt. But I just had to have a little courage to set the plan in motion and not back out.

Wickenburg Arizona Apartment
The view just outside my little Arizona apartment.

And so I wish for you, that you dig deep for a little bravery at just the right moments, and take on that adventure that seems a little scary, a little intimidating, maybe a lot uncomfortable. Trust me when I say there is a whole lifetime to live in comfort. You only get a few times when adventure comes calling, whispering really, and you just have to whisper “yes” back. And you’ll get a sense of how much is out there, just beyond your own horizon. You won’t regret it. It might be stressful, it might be a terrible experience that makes you write a book and curse this random woman on a blog who told you to go for it. But I swear, at some point, you’ll be really glad you did it. And then you can get on with school, or go back to school, or keep following those whispers for more adventure down canyons, and beaches and wherever else your courage leads you.

Congratulations on your graduation. Or on your child’s graduation. Now the real fun can begin.

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Theresa Rice

Writing a modern day western and telling my daily stories of humor, sadness or inspiration. Depending on the day, it might be all three.

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