When my fellow Alt Breakers and I started to give each other nicknames, I knew all barriers between us had vanished. It surprised me — after less than a week together on our spring break service trip, our group skipped the polite acquaintance period that exists after introduction and went straight to familiarity. After all, you don’t call someone “Creepy Voice” or “Lost in Boys” until you feel they won’t take it the wrong way. The nicknames signaled we had become family.
I applied to the Mt. Madonna County Park, Calif., Alternative Break trip in spring 2008 for a chance to reconnect with the outdoors and experience an intentional community of service. I definitely didn’t expect the loving camaraderie that resulted. Weed-pulling doesn’t sound like your usual bonding activity, but done in the context of an Alternative Break service trip, almost any project can turn a group of 10 strangers into fast friends. It usually takes me a good while to loosen up around unfamiliar people, but something about the two weeks of intensive outdoor work, chilling temperatures, and spirited campfire conversations quickly brought us together.
As in other bona fide communities, iconic symbols began to spring up around day four. The imaginary “Dream Man” was a group favorite — a Scottish accent, casual good looks, a happy trail persona, and a habit of closing his eyes while singing and playing guitar rounded out this much discussed ideal character. He was born out of group musings and quickly became a presence in daily conversation. Needless to say, Dream Man’s existence summed up the idiosyncrasies of our group dynamics.
Even within a small community like Grinnell, meeting people outside one’s normal social circles (no matter how large they are) can be difficult, and I treasured the opportunity to connect with a different set of Grinnellians whom I might not have known otherwise. Some of my closest friendships and warmest memories resulted from this Alt Break trip.
As I write this, I can’t wait for this spring break to come around. My roommate and I are leading another trip out west, this time to the Redwood National and State Parks in northwestern California. With three weeks until spring break 2009, I can already tell my group is going to be as awesomely eclectic as the last. New nicknames and defining moments will crop up, sing-a-longs will fill our lengthy car rides, and maybe we’ll come up with our own “Dream Man” to keep us smiling long after spring break has ended.
Alisha Saville '09 is a Sociology major from Carbondale, Illinois.