I first visited “Alice’s Restaurant” in 1979 during science camp. (For the musically unchurched, “Alice’s Restaurant” is the signature song of Arlo Guthrie.) I was a 17-year-old geek participating in a National Science Foundation summer program at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
The song was about Alice, and science camp was about chemistry, physics, and computer programming related to energy. There were 28 of us science campers and from the beginning, I felt out of place. The other kids just seemed to enjoy science so much more than I did.
But we all liked “Alice’s Restaurant.” One of the kids had brought along a cassette of Arlo’s best and it became the soundtrack of our summer of learning. During our free time we would gather in the front lobby lounge of our dormitory. It was our hangout because the summer college students never set foot there. We’d listen to Arlo and contemplate our future.
“You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant,” Arlo sang. That sounded good to a bunch of high school kids who were just trying to figure out what we wanted to do with our lives.
One requirement of our summer science experience was to complete an energy related project, either an experiment or a research report. Not being very experimental, I opted for the report. I spent much of that summer in the government documents collection of the university library gathering data and writing about energy use in U.S. agriculture. During the course of those six National Science Foundation weeks, I came to understand that although I liked science, what I really enjoyed was writing the report. I realized then that I could write for a living.
Just as “Alice’s Restaurant” wasn’t really about a restaurant, for me, science camp wasn’t really about science. It was about discovering who I wanted to become.