September 1: Day Job

They talk about coffee in terms of waves (kind of like feminism). There’s first wave coffee, which is the approach you find in diners–they brew a pot of coffee with faint turpentine undertones and leave it on a heating pad until it evaporates. Then in the 60s you get places like Peet’s and Starbucks opening. These nationwide chains are the second wave of coffee. Third wave coffee consists of the small, artisanal shops that talk about roast flavor profiles using terms like “floral” and “peach cobbler.” I know this info thanks to “Barista,” a documentary I watched with my aunt about the national barista competition. Apparently, there are no limits to what can be made into a competitive sport.

After a google search titled “how to become a barista,” I concluded that if I was going to get a job in coffee without ever having held a job in the field, it would likely be at one of the second wave places. I got really excited when, last week, I received an email from a manager at Peet’s saying he’d like to interview me. We agreed on a time for the phone interview, 12pm last Friday. I trained for the interview. I rode my bike to the local Peet’s and sampled their offerings (on a total side note, putting condensed milk in coffee seems to be a new fad in the commercial world. I’ve been visiting coffee shops all over LA in recent weeks, and many, including Peet’s, are offering beverages with names like “Havana Cappuccino” or “Cuban Coffee” that contain a mixture of regular and sweetened condensed milk. It kinda seems like the antithesis of the almond/soy/coconut milk fad). The soy cappuccino I had at Peet’s was not too sweet. I was confident that, if asked, I’d be able to list Peet’s beverages I liked and what I liked about them. I rehearsed my answer about why I wanted to work at Peet’s, a combination of loving coffee and needing a job. Despite Urth Caffe’s rejection, I was hopeful that this would be my break. The Peet’s manager would realize that I was a levelheaded, diligent person with a sincere love of coffee, and would hire me on the spot.

Like most of my fantasies, it didn’t play out this way in real life.

12pm last Friday came and went, and the manager never called. I sent a follow up email, and we rescheduled for 12pm the following Monday. 12pm Monday came and went, and I received no call. At this point, I had to conclude it wasn’t an accident. What perplexes me is that the manager reached out to me presumably to fill a position that needed filling. Isn’t he interested in filling that position? Has he already filled it but has some social phobia that prevents him from telling me that this is the case? If not, what’s going on? I sent him an email asking if the position was still available and am waiting to hear back.

I’m not naive. Like any person who aspires to something lofty, difficult, and creative, I’ve come up with a backup plan in case my caffeine-laden dreams never come to fruition. In other words, I have a day job. Though Yale didn’t prepare me for the world of professional coffee, it turns out there’s one thing my time at that institution prepared me for exceedingly well–belaying children at birthday parties. I’ve applied to over 20 different barista jobs and one climbing gym, and it’s the climbing gym that called me back and offered me a job. The manager remembered me from eight years ago when I was last on the youth team at the gym. I was mildly flattered until my mom said it was likely the manager remembered me because I’d been dropped off the top of a climbing wall while at practice.

I showed up at the gym for training yesterday and was directed to Cameron, a bubbly dude who excelled at word play. I asked for some paper for note-taking purposes, and he handed me two sheets of yellow-orange paper, which he said were “bright like me.” I was caught by surprise and unable to come up with a suitably self-deprecating reply. My typical policy for new situations is don’t display personality until you’re confident this is a permanent thing (I don’t think my roommates in college realized how deeply weird I was until our sophomore year), so I wasn’t in a joke-making frame of mind.

The bulk of training involved going through a checklist of do’s and dont’s–do be kind and courteous to the people you are belaying, don’t let kids do anything that looks unsafe like running on concrete or whipping each other with ropes… I’m sure there’s no end to the imaginatively unsafe things kids can do for fun in a climbing gym. We briefly made sure I was comfortable with the safety procedures required of a belayer:

Cameron: “Can you tie a figure eight knot? You can tie a figure eight knot. What’s next on the checklist?”

Me: “Uhh…”

I was toured around the birthday cake distribution area, which also doubles as a yoga studio for all the yoga classes the gym offers, the supply closet, the dumpster out back, and the area behind the desk. Cameron then took me through the typical schedule for a party at the gym. Parties run two hours. The first hour consists of climbing. There’s then a break for food. It’s easiest if the pizza and cake are served at the same time for hand washing purposes, but if the parents insist, there can be a second break for cake. If the kids are tired, the second 30-45 minute climbing session can consists of games like simon says. The max ratio of kids to belayers is 5:1, so at any given party, there’re at least two belayers. One belayer is the “party lead” and is responsible for communicating with the “party parent” about all things party.

We had just gotten to the part of training where Cameron was describing what to do if an accident report needed to be filed–turn over responsibility to the people who work the desk (this was the answer for most complicated issues)–when we heard someone cry out. Cameron rushed over to a woman who appeared to have collapsed at the base of the wall. It turned out she’d fallen with too much slack in the system, so she’d hit the ground, rolling forward onto her foot. She was in enough pain that Aric, a coach for the youth team, ended up carrying her to her car. They looked like bride and groom as they crossed the gym’s air conditioned threshold and emerged into the parking lot beyond.

Training ended soon after, and I signed up for my first shift, an after hours birthday party on Saturday. I asked what age the birthday partiers would be but whoever had booked the event hadn’t noted it. Personally, I’m hoping for an event populated by attractive, single men roughly my age. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to hope for this. If it turns out the laws of professionalism preclude this hope, then I take it back.

August 23: Fat Lizards and Free Soloing

My next climbing partner was my aunt’s personal trainer’s longtime boyfriend, David. Heading into this experience, all I knew about him was that he’d been climbing for a long time and was super into it. I think he had even less info about me and was worried that he had someone who might prove a total liability on his hands, at least this is what I surmised from the slow, careful way he explained everything on the phone. He asked me if I was comfortable leading sport. I felt bad for him because he was probably doing this as a favor to Kirschen, my aunt’s trainer, being kind to her employer’s niece.

We met at the agreed upon time and location, and hiked to a secluded pink and gold sandstone spire overlooking Malibu Canyon and the ocean beyond. It turns out David is 57 and has been climbing since he was something like 10. He played a big role in the development of the LA outdoor climbing scene (the place we went climbing was a crag that he had found and almost singlehandedly bolted) and knows most of the famous climbers who’ve come out of Southern California over the past 4 decades (because I am a climbing history ignoramus, of the many names he listed, the only one I can recite for you here is Lynn Hill).

There was a wooden bench at the base of the crag which David himself had carried in and constructed. He toured me around (the crag had climbs ranging from 5.4 to 5.11), and asked me what I wanted to warm up on. I selected a 5.9 and offered to lead it, hoping to set the record straight about my climbing abilities. The 5.9 didn’t start from the ground, so David suggested we see if I was capable of completing a boulder problem that led up to the ledge where the 5.9 started. The problem involved one kind of reachy move that I completed with ease. I think this was the moment David began to trust me.

He suggested we continue to the top of the spire following a 5.4 route. We weren’t roped. I thought about what my mom would say, but then I remembered that I was 22 years old and allegedly capable of making my own decisions. I looked at the route. It looked like the kind of thing I would have scrambled up as a kid without a second thought. It was a ladder of ledges; there was no way I would pump out on it, and I knew I could complete every move, so I said yes. Perhaps, I was being foolish. I can’t really call it peer pressure because of the disparity in our age and experience, but I was definitely guided by a desire to prove myself. For those who are concerned, though I felt secure at every point on the route, it will not be the launching point for my career as a female Alex Honnold. I prefer climbing with the knowledge that if I fall, the worst injury I’m likely to sustain is a broken bone.

David was relieved to learn that I could belay (he must be a very kind/trusting person to take me out for the day without this knowledge). In between climbs, he told me stories about LA climbing history. At one point, he pulled out a bong and asked if I minded. I was amused more than anything. At the end of the day, David gave me some life advice. Unlike many of the people he grew up climbing with, he’d gone to college and gotten a day job (as a real estate agent). The people he knows who are his age and have been climbing bums their whole lives are miserable; they didn’t make plans for a future where their joints were stiff and their recovery time was slower and they couldn’t climb as hard as they had in their youth. He described 60-year-old men who’d lost most of their teeth and lived in vans parked on the side of the highway. I was ready to get on the career train then and there.

I stopped by the condo David and Kirschen are living in while they remodel their house. Kirschen’s also in her mid 50s and has the body of someone who’s been running seriously since she was 12. She was walking around their condo in small shorts and a bikini top. She greeted me warmly when I walked in and introduced me to their fat, paraplegic lizard, Miss Dinky Doinks, who they got instead of a dog. I held Miss Dinky Doinks using two hands and marveled at the way each breath rippled through her soft, enormous stomach. Dinky blinked at me and let her tongue hang out the side of her mouth. She is an utterly charming lizard.

Before I left, Kirschen insisted I take a plum and flavored Pellegrino with me for the drive, and David offered to introduce me to other climbers in the area. He mentioned a girl my age, which sounded promising. Below is me with Kirschen and Miss Dinky Doinks:

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August 21: In Which I Begin the Search for a New Climbing Partner

After almost two years of climbing with the same person, I’m having to find a new training partner, someone I get along with who has similar climbing goals and lives on this side of the country. I found a climbing partner once before, so I should be able to do it again, right? But it’s like every time you start a new school, you end up asking yourself, “how did I make friends last time?”

I began my search with what I thought was an easy target, my little sister, Remi. On the plus side, she lives near me (down the hall), we get along, and she has lots of free time. On the less positive side, she’s leaving in two weeks to go back to school and has only ever top roped. She claimed to prefer climbing outside to climbing inside, so I used this to leverage her into going with me. She beautifully summed up her reason for going as we walked out the door, “what else would I be doing today?” Her words reminded me of the woman in The Breakfast Club who attends detention out of boredom.

With our terrified mother’s blessing, we drove to Malibu Creek State Park. This was my first time climbing outside in LA. I got us lost a total of four times on our way to the crag known as “Stumbling Blocks,” so our approach ended up taking an hour and a half. The first time we got lost (when I parked at the wrong intersection in my effort to avoid paying the $12 fee for a day pass), we followed a trail through some bushes and arrived at a parking lot filled with people and suitcases. They were lining up in front of other people with clipboards. It looked like some kind of summer camp check-in except for the fact that none of these people were children, and they were all dressed in expensive, urban-looking clothing. The people with clipboards were wearing shirts that said “Camp Mars.” Other people in Camp Mars shirts were tooling around in golf carts, speaking into walkie talkies. I thought that it might be a film set for a movie where they figure out how to grow plants on Mars and use this technology to exactly replicate the biome of Southern California. Then rich people with floral-printed roller bags start going to the planet for vacation.

An internet search many hours later proved me wrong. Apparently, Camp Mars is an event hosted by the band 30 Seconds to Mars for their fans. Fans over the age of 18 can pay $1,000 for the “tree huggin’ package” aka the privilege of spending two nights and three days camping in a tent (it’s bring your own tent, FYI). For those less into roughing it (or who don’t own tents), $2,500 will get them two nights spent in a yurt with AC and shared bathrooms. Days at Camp Mars are filled with activities like yoga and rock climbing, and evenings are spent making s’mores and attending concerts. Los Angeles is a truly amazing place.

The final part of the Stumbling Blocks approach involves an easy traverse along the edge of a deep green pool. It’s really stunning to walk up the dry creek bed and arrive at this large body of water (large by LA standards. In Louisiana, I doubt it qualifies as a puddle). When Remi and I arrived, people were gathered on the banks, laughing and jumping in the water. I was sweaty and ready to join them, until I spotted a curtain of lime green algae floating off shore. I then reflected on the fact that we’d just walked up a dry creek bed to reach this mysterious pool of water, so it clearly wasn’t draining anywhere. If other people are anything like me, the water’s probably half urea by now (perhaps the reason behind its pleasing green color).

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When we arrived at the crag, I gave Remi a brief tutorial on lead belaying. Instead of taking in rope, you’re feeding it out, never take your brake hand off the rope, etc. I think she absorbed it all and displayed good belaying technique, but I could never be sure because I couldn’t watch her while I was climbing. As a result, I was never fully at ease. Remi doesn’t know how to lead climb, so I would put up a route, and she would follow on top rope. She’d clean the climb if the method for cleaning the anchor was simple. If it required rappelling, I’d go up a second time. I was pretty beat by the end of the day, but happy that I’d had the chance to go outside and climb. As we walked back to the car, Remi announced that she preferred climbing indoors because outside “takes too much time–you have to drive and hike to the wall, and then you have to set everything up!” This was the beginning and end of our short time as climbing partners.

 

August 18: No Reply

Sent my sister an email with the subject line “hi” and had her send me one back to make sure my email address was working. It had been days and, after applying for jobs with 7 coffee companies (if you break it down by individual stores, it was more like 10 or 11 job openings) and 1 climbing gym, I’d received nothing beyond a few automated “your application has been received” emails. I knew going into this that it probably wouldn’t be as easy as handing over my resume and getting hired on the spot. I knew that a Yale degree wouldn’t impress someone looking to hire a barista, that if anything, my degree would make it seem like I was less serious about learning the barista arts. I knew all of this intellectually, but I don’t think it prepared me for the utter radio silence that followed my applications.

After about a week of nothing which felt much, much longer to my unemployed brain, I opened my inbox Tuesday morning to find I’d received a single email calling me in for an interview with Urth Caffe, a local chain devoted to organic, responsibly sourced coffee, tea, food, etc. “Do you have any questions?” the woman on the phone, who I spoke with to set up the interview, asked. “Uh,” I said, “Is there a dress code?” She assured me that casual attire was fine.

Hair washed (yes, you read that correctly), sporting a pair of dark jeans and a respectable sweater (black because I thought it made me look slightly edgier, and because it’s never a bad idea to do a subtle homage to Steve Jobs), I made my way to Urth Caffe’s downtown headquarters. The address took me to streets lined with warehouses on the south side of downtown LA. I got to the door a few minutes before 9am, joining a small group that had gathered outside the door. Urth Caffe was doing what they termed an open house interview. You could show up anytime between 9 and 10:30 am. They said to except a 45 minute wait. I thought I could get around this by being one of the first people there. My early bird companions consisted of a boy who looked even younger than me (not helped by his skinny frame and the backpack he was wearing) and a man who looked to be in his early 30s and was wearing slacks and a button down. The boy, in his hand, held an Urth Caffe to go cup. “Suck-up,” I thought, bitterly wishing it had occurred to me to rep my love for the product.

At that moment, a large man in a large teal shirt joined our group. He addressed his remarks to the man in slacks, who had an air of authority, likely because he was wearing slacks. The man in teal wanted to know if he had parked in the correct location. The man in slacks didn’t know because, in spite of what his clothes seemed to indicate, he was not in charge. We were joined by a man with torn jeans and blue dreads of a slightly more purple blue than the man in teal’s shirt. We stood in silence until the doors for Urth Caffe were thrown open. Everyone jockeyed for position in line. I ended up near the back by the kid with the backpack. One by one, we entered the building, signed in, and were ushered to a holding area with folding chairs. It was 10am before the first person was called in for an interview, and nearly 10:30 by the time I went into the small, brightly lit room where three managers were waiting.

Two of them sat in silence during the interview, and I wasn’t entirely sure they were paying attention. The third, the man, began his line of questioning, “You went to Yale?”

“Yes.”

“What are your longterm plans?” Jeeze, it’s like this guy was peering into the depths of my soul and drawing inspiration from my insecurities.

“Uh, I don’t really know right now.”

He asked a couple more questions about my availability, and then it was over. It had been less than five minutes. On my way out, I asked when I’d know if I got the job. He said I’d receive an email by 5pm that day if they wanted to bring me back for the second round of interviews.

I did not hear from them by 5pm that day. The day after, I kind of hoped I’d get a “whoops, sorry we didn’t send this sooner, but we still want to interview you!” email. After about three days, I gave up on that fantasy.

In the days following my Urth Caffe rejection, I got an email from Peet’s saying they’d like to interview me, and an email from the climbing gym. I responded with my availability, but have yet to hear back. I’m glad La La Land didn’t win best picture, but I’m also glad it exists because the film’s given me a way to conceptualize my situation. For those who’ve seen the movie, you know the montage where Emma Stone’s going out to all those auditions, and people aren’t even looking at her? I feel like that, expect that I’m auditioning for the job Emma Stone already has when the movie begins; I’m trying to get the job she has to make ends meet while she tries to realize her dreams. What I’m trying to say is that La La Land glosses over how she got her barista job to begin with, but there’s probably another movie in that story. Maybe it’ll be the prequel.

 

August 14: The Application Process

Applying to become a barista is much like applying to college. There are the big state schools, the small liberal arts colleges; the large, international chains, and the local boutique stores. You have your top choice, the coffee shop your heart’s set on; your mom wants you to apply to at least 9 others in case “things don’t work out.” Instead of asking for a resume and a cover letter, each shop has its own highly individualized method for separating the world’s future baristas from a lower order of human existence. Some are fairly basic, asking for the online form equivalent of a cover letter and resume, and remind me of schools like Middlebury which did not require any supplemental essays. Most coffee shops, however, like most colleges, come with their own arsenal of short answer questions. These questions range from the expected, “why do you want to work at (insert name of illustrious coffee shop here)?” to the anecdotal, “describe the best tasting coffee you’ve ever had and what made it so great?” to the cerebral, “how do you define a high-end offering and why?” One place asked me to list any relevant coffee-related experiences I’d had, including “awards, training certifications or other coffee-related accolades” I’d obtained or achieved. I had to leave that section blank. Another company refused to call the people who sell and make the coffee drinks “baristas,” choosing instead to refer to them as “retail associates.”

Of all the applications I’ve gone through (I’ve applied for positions with 6 different companies so far), the application I most enjoyed completing was the one for Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf goes a step beyond the short answer questions and asks you to complete two assessments. The first took me right back to junior year of high school. It gives you ten minutes to answer as many questions as possible. Though they’re not exactly the same, many of the questions bear strong resemblance to certain sections of the SAT. I’ve included some visual supplements below for those who wish to relive their glory years:

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Sadly, it has been many years since my standardized testing heyday, and the questions on the test itself were more difficult than the practice problems seemed to promise. Still, having to take a bastardized IQ test made me feel like they really were attempting to hire an elite group of baristas, that if chosen, I (and my resume) would forever more bear the mark of an elite institution.

The second test seemed to be an attempt to understand my character. It was much longer and more difficult.

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As you can see, they were not pulling their punches. I was thrilled by the challenge, but it also made me long for the much simpler character assessment I’d had to complete for a previous application with questions such as:

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I was fairly certain I nailed these questions.

I’m now waiting to hear back from my first round of applications. Some have taken the time to let me down easy in advance:

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August 10: Always Store Ground Beef Above Poultry

After an unexceptional end to a mediocre road trip (turns out planning ahead has its merits), I returned home to a purposeless existence. On my road trip with Mico, I knew what I was supposed to do each day–rock climb. Not that this was a particularly lofty purpose, but it gave shape to each day just like college had before it. Knowing I could stomach a directionless existence for only so long and that a climbing habit requires an income source, I prioritized finding a job when I got home. It’s been my dream since I was in middle school, enjoying my first cups of coffee, to work as a barista. I picture myself working in a place filled with the bitter aroma of coffee, gracefully moving around an espresso machine, handing beautiful cups of latte art to eager customers, and watching caffeinated smiles lift their lips as they walk out the door.

Turns out I didn’t even need a job in order to find a purpose. A job search in and of itself can easily take over your life. As I searched for job openings at my favorite LA coffee shops, I came across the term “ServSafe” for the first time. The ServSafe California Food Handler Certification or equivalent is required of those who aspire to handle other people’s food in a commercial setting in the state of California. Like driver’s ed, I imagine that at one time this was a course people were required to take in a classroom setting. However, in the digital era, it’s the kind of course you take online. After watching a multicultural cast of people, united by poor acting skills and a tendency toward over-enunciation, detail the finer points of “keeping food safe” for two and a half hours, you get to take a learner’s permit style test (also online).

The course was divided into five sections, and each section began with a horror story about food service gone wrong–“boy ordered chocolate pudding for desert…” During the course, I learned things I never knew and would never have anticipated ever needing to know in my life. I learned that food should not be stored between 41 and 135 degrees fahrenheit as temperatures in this range are most friendly to bacteria growth. I learned that one should always close dumpster lids after use, that proper hand washing takes approximately 20 seconds, and that poultry requires a higher cooking temperature than steak or seafood (165, 145, and 145 degrees respectively). My favorite fact, however, the one that will stick with me even though it serves little practical use in my daily life, is the proper order to store food in order to prevent cross contamination. Ideally, you have a separate cold storage container for each type of food. The course, acknowledging that this would require many fridges, gave an alternative–storing the foods in order of how high a temperature they need to be cooked at. This results in the following order from top to bottom: ready to serve foods; whole cuts of beef, fish, pork; ground meat; and poultry. I know, good stuff. The course was almost worth $15 for entertainment value alone. Below is a screen shot of one of the friends I made during this process:

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I wonder if people on the street ever recognize him, go up to him, and say “hey, you’re that super chipper guy from the ServSafe videos who uses catch phrases like ‘yikes!'” Probably not, but one can always hope.

I passed my test with flying colors and, with ServSafe’s blessing, continued on my quest to become an LA-area barista.

August 2: Forks

Nobody wanted to plan the road trip from Seattle to Los Angeles. My mom was burnt out after all the planning she’d done for the family vacation to Italy earlier in the summer (and still a little pissed that, though her ingrate children had refused to help plan it, they’d still reserved the right to complain about it after the fact). My sister and I had this romantic idea that we’d just flip through Auto Club books as we drove and providence would guide us to all the life-changing tourists destinations on the west coast. The date arrived for us to leave Seattle, and we had no idea where we wanted to go or what we wanted to do. After googling “best tours in Washington state,” my mom and sister settled on touring the Boeing factory. I’d forgotten I lived with two airplane aficionados. To be accurate, one airplane aficionado and one factory aficionado. Whether it’s a candy factory, a shoelace factory, or an airplane factory, my mom wants to tour it. As my mom loves to remind me, I was a kid who happily toured museums and sites of cultural interest. I’ve since grown into a young adult with a short attention span and intolerance for reading plaques. I think this transition took place during the last four years (coincidentally the four years I was at Yale). “You can pick the next place we go,” my mom and sister promised. This was more of a burden than a gift since all of us were ultimately trying to get out of planning. If you plan things in this family, you run a high risk of getting blamed. “Ok,” I said grinning, “I want to go to Forks.”

Forks, WA is a small, economically depressed town on the Olympic Peninsula. It’s economic depression has been recently somewhat alleviated by the publication of the best selling series, Twilight. Forks is the setting for these page-turning novels filled with sparkly vampires and teenage longing. After my utterance, I waited for my sister and mother to call me out, to tell me that I didn’t actually want to go to Forks, but they didn’t.

“I want to go there because it’s where Twilight’s set,” I elaborated in case they were unaware. Still no pushback. They began looking for places to stay on the Olympic Peninsual. Their reaction left me disappointed. Why bother to make ridiculous pronouncements if people behave like they’re reasonable statements? Now, before you think that I only said this to start an argument with my family members or to get the burden of planning the trip lifted from my shoulders, there was some sincerity to this statement. Mid high school, I read the entire Twilight series on a dare. A friend gave me three months to read the series, thinking I wouldn’t be able to stomach it. I read the four books in a week. I waited a month before admitting I’d finished them, lest someone suspect that I’d actually enjoyed them. 

As with many things I do, I was somewhere between seriously wanting to make the pilgrimage to the Twilight promise land and wanting to go as a joke. This is probably why those close to me have such a hard time knowing when to take me seriously.

 After the Boeing factory tour (a tour I will remember thanks to this dude my age who informed our tour group he was a future Boeing employee and seemed to have memorized the Boeing book of trivia, the same one our tour guide got all his questions from. He monopolized the question asking parts of the tour, peppering our polite, midwestern tour guide with an associates degree in criminology with technical questions about engines.) we drove 4 hours in a northwestern direction to the Olympic Peninsula. We arrived in Forks. I hopped out of the car, snapped a picture in front of the “welcome to Forks” sign, texted it to a friend, and announced I was ready to leave. It was then that my mother and sister learned why I wanted to go to the Olympic Peninsula. And it was then that I learned that my mother and sister thought the whole Twilight thing was a joke, that I wanted to go to the Olympic Peninsula because of the rainforest and hiking and nature stuff. A lot of learning went on in the span of a few minutes. We then piled back in the Subaru and drove in a strictly southern direction.