On March 11, 2016 I carried a 30lb backpack 6,594 feet up Alum Cave Trail to work and live at LeConte Lodge in the middle of Great Smoky Mountain National Park with a bunch of strangers, no electricity; no consistent cell service for eight and a half months. Our job as members of the crew was to serve meals, clean up those meals, do the dishes (so many dishes) switch out the bedding of the cabins, sell merchandise and work in the kitchen (a lot of cookies were baked), and basically answer any and all questions that the guests had while trying our best not to be jaded because we lived there and answered a lot of the questions on a daily basis. We did this everyday unless we were taking our time off of the mountain, which was eight days of the month, in any order that we chose, as long as there were not more than four people off the mountain at a time. In order to get to the lodge guests have to hike, so when they get to the top most of them feel like they really accomplished something (and they did!). It made me feel light living there, because almost everyone was happy when they arrived.
These are photos of the crew and the landscape. I figured living secluded, surrounded by nature would teach me a lot about myself, but the most important thing I realized was the value of having a community in my life. Living and working with eleven other people was really hard sometimes. Somedays I just wanted to be alone and at one point I almost quit, but getting through those times reminded me that even though relationships can be hard, they are always worth having in one way or another.
Two years ago Gayle Ayala moved 850 miles from Fairfax, Virginia to Chester,Illinois for the sake of love. Her husband, David Ayala, who she met through an inmate essay-writing program called Tamms Year 10, was a resident at Tamms Correctional Center, until he was recently transferred to Nevada. She fell in love with him in May of 2009, and became engaged to him Jan. 1, 2010. She quit her job as a legal secretary, where she was earning nearly six figures, and moved to Chester. Through the Hospitality House Gayle has come across a lot of women just like herself, who also are married to men with life sentences. Sheryl Moore, Kellie Pettye, and Jill Ushie, all share this common thread with Gayle. Although all of their situations are unique, having the support of one another has created a very special bond. Gayle describes the relationship of women married to incarcerated men as a sisterhood.