2014 11 12 14 08 46
January 5th, 2015

One Month in California: A Sabbatical

Ilyssa Kyu
Senior Researcher & Strategist

Just over a month ago, I returned home after taking a one-month sabbatical in a small California town called Mariposa.

At P’unk Ave, we see sabbatical’s as intentional time set aside to take a break from our regular routine to pursue other interests, explore new passions, or immerse ourselves in learning something in a focused way—all in an effort refresh our minds and recharge our creative batteries. In need of both and following a few weeks of reflection, a wildly exciting opportunity presented itself to me.

The idea of taking a sabbatical seemed crazy and a little bit irresponsible at first—picking up and leaving to ramble around in the middle of nowhere for a month, unpaid and after a pretty unlucky year for my husband and I. But, it seemed equally crazy and irresponsible to not go. While just starting to explain this opportunity to a close mentor and friend on a hike, a butterfly literally floated in front of us for a few moments and sat facing us on a rock in front of us. In case you don’t know, mariposa is the spanish word for butterfly. She turned to me and said “Yeah. Now you really have to go.”

One month is a relatively short sabbatical, however it is one that makes the financial sacrifice that much more manageable with enough time to really stretch out your creative toes. I had zero expectations but hoped to grow professionally and personally by applying my interests and skillsets in a new, different context. I guided and worked with a small team developing a new business through a short but intensive research and strategy process that involved business ideation, brand and visual identity work.

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So, at the end of October, I walked out of the San Francisco International Airport with a banjo and suitcase in hand, and hopped into a pickup truck with two ladies I’d be spending the next month with in an old California gold rush town nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Mountain range, just outside of Yosemite National park.

“So, how was your sabbatical?”

I’ve been asked this equally simple and daunting question often and each time I find myself at an absolute loss of words. Not for dramatic effect but more the inability to surmise a month into a short concise word or phrase or sentence.

Where does one begin to describe such a foreign and strange period of time—comprised of equally joyful, stressful, odd, brave, stupid and emotional moments?

For the past month, I’ve racked my heart and my brain for the perfect final reflection to my time in the Central Valley amongst the tarantulas and Manzanita trees and the bears, hoping that I could not only share the conclusion of my experience with my friends and family but perhaps share something useful for others seeking to do something similar. I was looking for that sweet, sweet ending or a profound realization of something grand. I entered this thing not knowing what I would learn in the end—what would come from it, who I would be, what impact I may make. I had zero expectations. And, here I am, one month later and I still don’t have the answers. I’m still not sure what story I want to tell. But what I’ve come to realize is that it’s okay.

The most that I will learn or take away from this experience is yet to come.

I am proud of the work I did with the Blue Oaks team but the best, most substantial moments are the small and simple ones that are my own. While I allow all of what I’ll get out of this experience wrestle and ferment inside me over time, I’d like to share my experience through a tapestry of collective moments rolling around in my brain and as illustrated in my journal, memory and photographs.

This is an honest account and reflection of one month in California.

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Tapestry of Moments

We drove three hours from San Francisco through the rolling, desolate golden hills speckled with black cows and almond tree farms to Mariposa, which is located in the foothills of Yosemite National Park. I woke up every day to a woodpecker arriving to work in the morning and ended most of my days watching the Sierras mountains glow a brilliant bright pink for only just a few moments before fading into the night. I watched the moon often and for once, I almost began to grasp space—when you can see every star in the sky, you start to see all of the constellations you see and read about in books and science museums. I taught myself how to play the banjo and I got pretty good at a song called “Down the Road” in both warm licks and hot licks. I wrote a song for my husband on my ukulele and named it simply “Mariposa.”


 I collected burrs on my pants, and went on day hikes with a cat named Sheriff. I only saw four tarantulas and successfully avoided a gigantic tarantula-eating spider wasp. I often chased Banjo the puppy – who is affectionately named after my new banjo, both adopted on the same day – through the bushes to retrieve many articles of clothing and taught him how to “touch” and give high-fives. I threw watermelons into the air above crazed and excited chickens, just to watch them explode and the chickens lose their mind over their favorite snack. 


I went on night hikes under the immense California sky and laid in the dry grass giggling endlessly at the sound of silence and the zipper of a jacket with a new friend, somebody who was a stranger just a couple of hours before. I learned and laughed at West Coast lingo like “pud” and “chronic,” and I entertained others with mine. I drank and slipped in and out of sleep until 3am on a couch with twelve new friends around a fire while taking turns baking pizzas and passing around a guitar to sing old and new country songs. I drew pictures of sticks and leaves, and I wrote every day in letters, postcards and in a journal I bound myself in an old book called The Outdoor Girls at Ocean View, which is a bit ironic given my relatively landlocked situation.


I reminded myself every day to “have a good day, that’s what it’s for”—a sentiment shared with me during an interview for a project just before I left and hasn’t left me since. I smiled at the thought of my husband and good friends back home often, and I longed to be reunited with my furry cats and sleepy dog. I visited a place on the way to the dump that was both an SPCA and a thrift store—which is, for all that know me, basically a dream come true. I hung out at the bluegrass dive bar in town where I learned the “Double Rainbow guy” is regular (yes, apparently I was in the same place where the video was created) and snapped a photo of him taking a selfie in a toga on Halloween, while I was dressed as Smokey the Bear. 


I flushed the toilet as infrequently as possible and for the first time felt the full gravity and worry one feels living in an area ravaged by a seemingly never ending drought. I watched moss spread across rocks and green grasses emerge from the thirsty ground right before my eyes just moments after the first rain in many, many months. I learned to appreciate and celebrate rain, and I also learned that fires aren’t so bad either. I ran my fingers along the edges of ancient Native American grinding holes and I ate a sandwich next to even more while basking in the white glow of El Capitan above me.


I slept in a house – twice-burned in forest fires – on one of the few private properties within Yosemite National Park and which once belonged to Theodore Solomons (explorer and early member of the Sierra Club) and more recently, Shirley Sargent – a Yosemite historian whose books proudly grace the shelves in the park’s gift shops.


I collected pine cones and cow teeth and reindeer moss. I learned about the trees and the people and that I do have a fear of heights. I drove a pickup truck to the tune of skipping compact discs that slipped and stalled on dark, leaf-covered country dirt roads and hills, and barrelled it through the mysterious dense fog that blanketed Mariposa in my final days there.

These are the things I will remember the most.

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2014 11 12 14 04 21
Ilyssa Kyu
Senior Researcher & Strategist

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