The last time I saw Isaiah Berg was as my classmate three years ago on a hill outside Hanover, New Hampshire, struggling to keep up to his bike on a ride just a few days before we graduated college. When a message from Isaiah flicked up on my phone the other week, "hey, are you still in Sydney?", I knew I was in for a treat.
Isaiah hails from a farm in Starkweather, North Dakota, population 100. If you want a good time in Starkweather, you drive 30 miles to the nearest city lights (or nearest traffic lights, for that matter) of Devils Lake, population 7,141. The Berg family farm is big on barley. If you've ever had a Budweiser, chances are some of those hops came from Starkweather, picked by a Berg. Growing up, Isaiah's family hosted exchange students from all over the world. We laughed to think what the teenage student from Sao Paolo, Brazil, must have thought when he pulled up to a North Dakota farm in the dead of winter, -20 degrees.
We hadn't spoke much since graduation, but that would have been tricky: soon after our ride, Isiaah stayed on his bike and along with his two brothers, began pedaling south from Anchorage, Alaska. Down the western side of Canada, all of US Highway 1 from the Pacific Northwest and California, through the baja peninsula of Mexico and the rest of coastal Central America, and alongside the west coast of South America and the mountains of Patagonia, ending twelve months and 16,000 miles later in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost point of the continent.
After that, the real adventure began- Isaiah accepted his commission as an officer in the United States Marine Corps. Two years later on a beach in Sydney, I had the good luck of meeting up for burritos with Second Lieutenant Isaiah Berg, 1st Platoon Commander, Cherokee Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, US Marine Corps.
We reveled in our new paths since our ride a few years ago. Isaiah is now a rifle platoon commander, leading a group of thirty Marines on an eight month assignment in the rural dirt and dust of the northern Australia bush, training daily in ninety degree heat, fifty percent humidity, preparing at all times for the call for combat. For his next tour in January, Isaiah could be sent anywhere in case of war - the Middle East, Ukraine - where he would serve as a rifle company executive officer, the second-in-command, for a unit of one hundred and thirty Marines. One hundred and thirty lives under his watch.
Isaiah told me the key to the Marines' successful training is getting comfortable oscillating between low fidelity and high fidelity situations- teaching yourself how to go from 0 to 60 (both physically and mentally) in just seconds, and then back down to 0. One must deal with uncertainty and chaos while looking to win- how to be calm and lead when everything imaginable goes wrong.
I asked Isaiah how he could ever go to a desk job after his experience in the operating forces. "I've been in some tricky situations out here. If I end up in a corporate job, and being in a climate controlled, air conditioned office for a few hours a day is the most terrible thing I have to deal with...well I guess I've found myself in worse situations, and it definitely beats being shot at."
His life sounded both incredibly admirable and really hard to relate to or even imagine. It felt bizarre to go from stories of life and death to stories of...winning or losing a sporting match.
Isaiah asked me what I've taken away from my tour so far. I told him it's given me the ability to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Arriving alone in a foreign place with nothing familiar and with no plan or instructions to follow but my own best guess, starting from scratch. Then slowly moving through the transition from unknown to known, from uncomfortable to comfortable, before repeating it all again. The repetition makes me feel I can tackle any new unknowns.
Isaiah paused from his burrito, "you know, what we're each doing may have more in common than you think."