Memories in focus: stories about why we are how we are

More stories from Lauren French



UW-Eau Claire senior Joseph Melheim was cold and soaked to the bone.

It was late September on the Oregon coast, and the weather was dreary — a heavy, constant mist drifted down from the clouds, and the air was chilly. A neat row of tents lined the Pacific ocean shore.


Melheim wasn’t raised in an especially outdoorsy family, yet there he was on a camping trip with Pacific Lutheran University’s outdoor recreation club.

Rewind a couple months, and the Minnesota native was just starting out as a freshman at PLU in Parkland, Washington. Melheim chose PLU for its music program, but found he liked the state of Washington much more than the university itself.

Melheim started looking for ways to make his experience at PLU better, and a few friends from the percussion ensemble he was in offered to take him to the next outdoor recreation club meeting. The club met to discuss their next outdoor excursion – the Oregon coast – and Melheim decided to join.

Despite the grim weather, Melheim’s trip to the Oregon coast set his love for the outdoors in motion.

“It was cold, and it was rainy, and it was pretty darn miserable,” Melheim said. “And I absolutely had a blast the whole time I was there.”

Melheim joined in on the next seven or eight trips – the club explored lava tubes in Mount St. Helens, hiked in the Redwood National Forest, and backpacked through the Trinity Alps.

Despite his discovery of PLU’s outdoor recreation club, Melheim transferred to Eau Claire his sophomore year.

Melheim said his experiences as a freshman at PLU inspired him to continue with outdoor recreation, and he brought that with him as a student at Eau Claire.

When the opportunity presented itself, Melheim traveled back to Oregon for the fall of his junior year as part of The Oregon Extension – a semester program in which students live in mountain cabins, read books and discuss them with professors.

Melheim said one book in particular stood out to him, and eventually influenced his ideal career path. The book, called Walden on Wheels, follows the author’s five-year effort to pay off student debt. The author eventually finds himself working as a park ranger in Alaska’s Arctic National Park.

In addition to talking with a professor who once worked at the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, Melheim discovered his own desire to become a park ranger.

Although Melheim realized his park ranger aspiration with The Oregon Extension, he said he wouldn’t have gotten that far if he had started out at Eau Claire instead of PLU.

“My dream job… is to be a park ranger,” Melheim said, “and I definitely don’t think that would’ve been in my cards had I not gone to PLU.”