Growing up as a member of Gen Z, I’ve been surrounded by the internet since birth. Unlike my grandparents, and even my parents, I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t just type, click, and be bombarded with a stream of answers. The onset of COVID has made technology and the internet even more relevant to daily life than I could have ever imagined. As I finished my senior year of high school from home, I began to realize just how mediocre my understanding of how it all works really is.
I decided to gain a basic understanding of what goes on behind the scenes of the hundreds of websites I’ve visited throughout my life. So, this past semester I’ve been immersed in a Web Development course through my local community college. In short, I’ve learned that things are a lot more complicated than they appear to the average user.
As I began to dive into the rules that govern HTML and CSS, I began to notice many similarities to my journey learning French. Instead of learning how to communicate in a foreign language with other humans, I was learning how to communicate my content and style desires to a computer. In both cases, the process begins with having to look up every other word, but eventually you start to build up a vocabulary and a comfort level.
Page, AZ: Our drive from Springdale, UT to Page included a stop at the Coral Pink Sand Dunes near Kanab, UT. I had never seen desert sand dunes before and was blown away by them. The state park has sandboards and sand sleds for rent, and we tried one of each. Sand boarding and sledding were incredible ways to experience the dunes up close, and both the board and sled actually worked. Despite having no sort of snowboarding or skateboarding experience, we were able to ride down whole dunes successfully. The sand dunes were a unique and stunning stop on our trip. My one piece of advice for the dunes is watch the weather and avoid going on a windy day. We went on a very windy day, and the sand was brutal whipping in our faces. Wear eye protection and expect to get sand everywhere. Lake Powell, our final stop of the day, was the most unique and stunning lake I’ve ever seen with its red rock backdrop. I’d love to go back in the summer when watersports are possible. We also did the short hike to Horseshoe Bend: on a windy day the sand was brutal, but the view was stunning and totally worth it.
Tusayan, AZ: We stayed in Tusayan while visiting the Grand Canyon. The weather wasn’t ideal this time of year: it snowed heavily on us while we were there, so we weren’t able to see the canyon as much as we had hoped. However, when we did get to see it, the Grand Canyon was absolutely stunning, especially with the coat of snow over the higher regions. We hiked the rim of the canyon and ventured a couple miles into the canyon. Both trails were covered in snow, and the hike into the canyon was particularly slippery at this time of year. The Grand Canyon was definitely the coldest place we visited on our road trip: it was around 18º F when we were in the park. I wouldn’t recommend going as late in the season as we did, but the canyon is a must-see for any traveler.
San Diego, CA: San Diego gave us the perfect change in weather. Temperatures were in the 60s and 70s, and the ocean water was just warm enough to enjoy. I took my first ever surf lesson in Pacific Beach, which I highly recommend doing. Getting up on the board was doable, which made the experience really enjoyable. We also spent lots of time in the beach town of Encinitas, just 30 minutes north of downtown San Diego. Every fish taco we ate in San Diego blew us away- from Oscar’s Mexican Seafood to Fish 101.
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Three Rivers, CA: Sequoia National Park was one of the most stunning places we visited. The size of all trees in the forest made me feel equally small and empowered. General Sherman- the largest tree by volume on Earth- absolutely blew us away, but the fact that this tree was not a freak-of-nature in this forest was the most unbelievable part. Other trees were wider or taller or older than Sherman, and to be surrounded by so many monumental works of nature humbled and shocked me. For a six foot tall person, looking up at General Sherman is the equivalent of a mouse looking up at a six foot tall person. That’s exactly what looking up at those trees felt like.
San Francisco, CA: We balanced city and nature time well on our road trip, and San Francisco was a nice escape to city. We went for a waterside trail run with views of the Golden Gate Bridge one morning. We recommend visiting Chinatown- we had a delicious dim sum dinner one night- and the Castro district for its history and symbolism of LGBTQ+ pride. For ice cream, Salt & Straw was a must, and it doesn’t get better than eating it in one of San Francisco’s many parks with gorgeous city views.
Carson City, NV: We didn’t end up having time to visit Lake Tahoe, but the drive from Carson City to our destination- Park City, UT- was unique and gorgeous. We passed salt flats and drove through Salt Lake City, UT at sunset: the purple sky framing the mountains that completely surround the city was unbelievable.
I never thought I would take or enjoy a road trip: I hate long drives, I don’t like living out of a bag, and there’s nothing I love more than a home cooked meal. The road trip pushed me way out of my comfort zone in many ways, but it was the best experience of my life. I saw what I now know to be some of the most gorgeous places on Earth. I had nothing outside of the trip to stress about and was able to fully immerse myself in and enjoy the trip. I spent every drive looking out the window, taking in the rolling hills of Kansas or the Rocky Mountains or California’s coast. I couldn’t be happier that I jumped on this chance at adventure, and I spent the entire trip in awe, surrounded by some of the most beautiful places on Earth.
I just got home from a 50-day Outward Bound course, backpacking and canoeing through Big Bend Ranch State Park and Big Bend National Park. It was more complicated and exhausting and rewarding and wonderful than anything I’ve ever done before. I’ve decided that the best way to illustrate this experience for y’all is to share a series of excerpts from my journal with you–the greatest hits from my nightly debriefings and self-indulgent ramblings. This is the second of two installments–my time in the desert, from November 16 through December 6:
Today was a good day. We drifted into Mariscal Canyon and down two named rapids. It wasn’t easy, but everyone managed to stay dry–no dumps.
We made camp at a place where two canyons cross. Then a game of camouflage, and shrieking and laughing and diving headfirst behind rocks and into cacti, and our dirty tattered selves dragged our feet back to fried rice and rehydrated chocolate pudding and a roaring fire. The sun fell behind the canyon wall early, but kept glowing through her high orange curves. As afternoon faded to twilight, the haze in that twist of the canyon glowed golden, then finally crept away. We tucked each other in under tarps–it will be a very cold night.
And now I’ll read another chapter of my book and listen to the quiet sounds of camp–there’s a game of hearts going on several feet away. And the Milky Way will turn above us (or, I suppose, us below it), and tomorrow will come like every other day before and after it, and I will wake up early to help light the fire.
I woke up at 6-something to the sound of a bell ringing. It was tied around the neck of a horse–a small herd had wandered into our camp. It rang lazily for 20 minutes, or maybe 20 seconds, as I drifted in and out of sleep. Either the dewy morning started to turn blue-gray with mist and slowly rising sun, or I was just in a fog from my own half-consciousness; but for a moment, the desert was lush and the air was cool and wet, and two white horses stood over one of my friends as the bell floated in and around us.
And then the spell was broken–a headlamp was bobbing up and down, and someone was whooping and running. And the bell stopped for a second, then pounding hooves and crushing river cane, and silence again.
Two of us woke up early to the sunrise, and we made the fire and I poured chai powder into mugs and he poured boiling water and coffee into them, and people yawned and stretched and lifted their tired selves into the circle. And the morning went on, until it wasn’t new anymore.
We carried our things out of the clearing and through the river cane and down the steep muddy bank, and half of us stood waist deep in the water as the other half lowered helmets and paddles and pots and pans and buckets and ropes and clothes down to them and into the boats, and heavy things were tied to things that will float, and extra paddles were pinned in under the thwarts. And we floated down the river, and the river floated through those ancient crumbling rocks, slipped between them, slowly coaxed them out of its way.
And soon we were at camp. My sleeping mat thrown into a ditch (the best way to sleep on the riv is cradled in a ditch). The instructors joined us for our last dinner on the Rio, and we sat close together bundled up around the fire, headlamps off, quiet voices. A pack of coyotes howled upstream. Another pack started howling downstream.
We talked about what the river means. A water source, and transportation, and a livelihood. Dividing where you can camp and where you can pull over for lunch or to scout a rapid. Dividing identical desert into two arbitrary portions–when my boat flipped going down that rapid, and we were soaked up to our chins, and our things were floating down the river, and all we knew how to do was panic, we didn’t swim to shore in Mexico or the United States. We swam river right. The river was just the river, and the banks were just the banks.
We talked about paddling through Santa Elena, the layers of sediment forming wrinkles and age lines in the rock, the canyon walls shooting up above us–way up above us is where the water used to be, an incomprehensibly long time ago. And incomprehensibly far in the future, if whatever comes after humans happens to paddle down the Rio Grande, maybe they will be able to look up, up, up, and see how high up we once were. The river is a giant calendar, a clock, on a scale that we aren’t built to wrap our heads around.
Up at 5:30, and we packed our bags and tied them into the trailer and loaded ourselves onto the van. I’m one of the leaders for the day. We set off down a broad wash as the sun gradually made her appearance over the canyon walls.
Lunch was right before a narrow part of the canyon–high dark walls, and twists and turns, and soon after there was clear flowing water and trees and plants and all lush green as we picked our way through the pools–the most beautiful place I’ve seen out here yet–and the trees were so tall, and leaves crunching under our feet, and the pebbles in the streams kaleidoscopic blue and green and red.
Then we left the narrow bit and trekked on through washes lined with smooth slabs of mint green rock, filled with bright orange gravel. Just as we started to lose the sun, we found Oso Spring–fresh, clean water. And by “clean,” I mean not too much decaying matter to purify using iodine, and the beetles living in it looked happy and healthy. We filled our droms, and I switched sunglasses out for normal glasses and grabbed my headlamp.
After the spring came a complex network of washes, dividing and going every which way. By the time we got to the first fork, we had already lost the light. Not all washes are marked on the map, so usually–in the light of day–we use landmarks to make sure we’re going the right way. That’s not an option in the dark. We wove through the washes, not quite sure if we knew where we were. The terrain looked almost like the shutups from week one–narrow, and bouldery, and every 20 feet (or less) we had to stop to either scale some formidable rock formation or bushwhack through.
We blindly groped our way through the dark. Packs on, packs off, passing them up through the crags, hands sliced open on cacti. I distracted myself by making sure everyone was okay, and looking at the map, and smiling and saying how close we are to a theoretical campsite that I had no idea of the location or existence of. And “everything’s going to be okay,” and “soon we’ll have the best dinner and the best night’s sleep of our lives,” and “thank you all for your patience; you’re doing amazing,” trying to convince myself of those things more than I was trying to convince them.
Then one last push, up one last narrow pass, and either side of us began to flatten out. Packs off. We’re scouting ahead. And we stepped up onto a flat but shrubby spot, and we wandered, and finally (finally) we came to a clearing. It was the most beautiful campsite we’d ever seen–overrun by cacti, barely any room for our sleeping bags, but the most beautiful campsite ever. We rolled in at around 9:00. The chefs started cooking–it was the most delicious dinner I’ve ever eaten. And now, somehow, it is 12:03. Tomorrow, we walk 12 miles–for real this time.
Enjoy it–the hardest days are, invariably, the best.
We woke up, and made pancakes with margarine and honey, and turned off our alarms and handed in our watches, and turned in all of our books, and made a pile of our bowls and mugs and group gear.
And then we walked for a moment, and now I am here, alone, on solo, for two nights. There is the wind, and the mountains, and the sun on my back. I hear a bird somewhere, and maybe a cricket. No–two crickets. I set up a shade structure, which is currently fighting the wind. And now, I sit.
It must be midday by now–a while ago, an instructor dropped off my food for until tomorrow night. It’s not much–one smallish bag of gorp. I’ll save it for dinner tonight and breakfast tomorrow.
I found some rocks that I like, but I’m not done looking.
I just moved my tarp and set it up as a tent in a flat spot.
The sun is behind the mountains now. Her last moments really were something. Green and gold on the mountains, a meadow of prickly pear and sotol and creosote and ocotillo transforming the desert, however briefly, into a lush and beautiful and perhaps even forgiving place. If I hold my breath, there is absolute and perfect and beautiful silence. It’s just me out here–just me, and the mountains, and the knowledge that in 24 hours, someone kind will be here with a hot dinner.
I’ve woken up–probably by magic?–just as the silhouette of the mountains in the east begins to get sharper. I dreamt that someone was saying that the sun was about to rise, and opened my eyes, and sure enough, it’ll probably happen in about 20 minutes. I will put my shoes on, and a coat and a hat, and I will drink water, and I will go sit on top of the rock and watch the day begin.
I sat and watched until finally the sun climbed over the mountain and rested on me. And now I get to spend the rest of my day watching shadows shorten, and lengthen, and melt away.
I tried to set up a shade structure, and battled with the wind for a while, and lost. It felt like I was trying to lasso a parachute. But after resting for a while, a few hours maybe, I finally decided to get it done. I may have won this time, but it doesn’t feel like a permanent victory.
I found my favorite rock. I finished my bag of gorp. This evening one of the instructors will bring dinner, and then I will go to bed (under the stars this time, I think–it’s too windy for a tarp), and tomorrow one of them will come to get me and we will all be together again. I wish I could stay out here longer. I’m glad that I have to leave while I still feel that way.
I woke up before the sun again. Convinced my limbs to carry me out of my sleeping bag, and drank some water, and packed everything really quick. So my pack was set up in the smooth gravel patch, and the sun was just about to rise, and me and my water sat up on the rock and watched the sun come up–watched the shadows materialize.
And 7:00 came, and an instructor came over the hill and told me it was time for everyone to be together again. And I made my way down the hill, down the wash. And other people began to filter in silently (we had all sworn to be silent), and one of us took drink orders by gesturing and waving bags of powders around, and soon we were huddled there quietly with warm mugs in hand, huddled together in our suddenly broken loneliness.
Woke up to good mornings, and Happy Thanksgivings, and a world that felt very cold compared to my fetal position cocoon in the bottom of my sleeping bag.
Today someone found a perfectly intact shell in the sand. Like a snail or some other ocean-dwelling creature. Perfectly smooth and white and spiralled, and maybe less than an inch long. Many, many years ago, longer ago than we can comprehend, an animal lived in that shell under the ocean. And after hundreds of millions of years of it being sifted through the sand as the landscape around it turned from seafloor to desert, it ended up between her thumb and pointer finger.
Up at 6:45 to a purple sky, and a line of gold melting over the horizon where the sun could cut through the clouds.
And piling into the van, a couple hours to the national park.
Today was our real Thanksgiving–we had cranberry sauce and turkey and mashed potatoes and stuffing and gravy in our resupply. After we finished shuffling trash and food and med kit supplies between our packs and the van, the 10 of us sat close in a circle and ate and said what we’re all thankful for.
The Chisos are on the horizon–incredibly permanent in contrast to everything else around us.
And despite their permanence, we are always surrounded by those same violent forces that rip the mountains out of the ground and crumble them back into it. And somehow we argue about bowls and food and time. And the mesa is in the distance now, neatly sliced into her two portions. The mountains would be embarrassed for us if they knew how much we fight over them.
Tomorrow, independent final begins. We’ll see a lot less of our instructors–they’re not traveling with us anymore. We’ll run into them at lunch, and we’ll meet up with them when we find camp for the night, but during the day they’ll be shadowing us from a couple miles behind, and after we meet up in the evening they’ll keep going and find a campsite out of sight.
We were technically on trail all day, but it wasn’t maintained. Guesswork weaving through a system of washes. At one point we went hours without seeing a cairn–so much relief when one finally came into sight.
By the time we made it 5 miles, it was already mid-afternoon. 6 more miles to the next spring, and no hope of navigating there after dark. So we squeezed a few more liters out of a puddle of bees and algae, then set off to find camp. We had to whip out the handline to climb up through the wash. And now we’re nestled into our sleeping bags on top of a grassy hill–there are no clearings here. But it’s comforting–it feels like being on the river, being cradled by the plants and the ground.
Up at 6:00 to all of our water frozen. But, thank goodness, a smudge of sunlight on the horizon.
The sun rose, but the Elephant Tusk left us in its cold shadow. We filled up at the spring, droms full of mosquito larvae, and left the trail and went up a mountain. Building a trail of cairns behind us to let the instructors know which way we had gone, and leaving notes for them to pick up–games and puzzles and jokes; little things that mean a lot now that we don’t get to talk to each other much anymore.
These climbs are never easy. They’re treacherous, and exhausting. But oh, the views. And the far off mountains, and the streaks of iron across the landscape, and the looking back at where we’ve been, all shades of red and green and blue.
And then we were picking our way down, and we stopped for lunch, and the instructors found us. And as soon as everyone was done eating we kept moving, the instructors giving us a 30 minute head start in the hopes that we wouldn’t accidentally run into each other again until we made camp for the night.
Then climbing over rocks, and scooting on our butts, and stumbling (just for a moment though), and high steep walls around us. And eventually the walls fell away. An expanse of washes and small ridges was in front of us; a meadow of cacti and gravel and dust. And we picked a wash, and set off down it.
We traveled down the wash for a long time–rounding Elephant Tusk, and heading due east (or maybe a bit south, but who’s keeping track?), and we lost sight of the cairns, and then it was dusk, and we should’ve been at the road by now.
We decided to make camp, and to triangulate our location before we lost the light, and to call into base if we didn’t see the instructors soon. We found out where we are (it turns out a mile or two too far south) and started our normal evening routine. I saw in the distance what looked like it may have been a headlamp. And someone had just pulled out the sat phone to call into base camp and tell them where we were, but she put it away. We turned on our headlamps, and we waved them around, and we shouted and sang, and that far off light vanished down a hill. We hung a headlamp on an ocotillo so that they’d be able to see us the next time they got to high ground, even if we weren’t looking towards them.
The light appeared again, in a different place. And we sang and screamed until it vanished again.
And then we didn’t see the light for a while. We sat down to eat. And we passed spices around, and talked about our day, and cracked jokes, and everything else a family should do around the dinner table–or, in our case, from our sleeping mats in a circle around the two camp stoves. And we decided that if the instructors didn’t reach us soon, we’d call base to make sure they were okay.
When the light appeared again, it was close enough to see that it was two headlamps, not one. We served ourselves seconds as they disappeared into another wash.
And then the two lights were nearby again, so near we could see them bob up and down with every step. And we shouted, and we jumped up and down, and our instructors emerged through the bushes. And they told us that they’d taken the trail that we’d tried to go on, and scouted for an hour when they didn’t find us at our meetup time, then gone back to where they’d last seen us as we left the narrow walls at the top of this wash, and then seen my light and followed it here for over an hour. We offered them food and a place to sit, and they thanked us but declined (they’re not allowed to accept, now that we’re traveling independently), and they laughed and joked and moved on to their own camp.
Our last full day in the field–a final push to Glenn Spring, where we filled up then made the short walk to camp. We aired out our feet, and I handed everyone a mug of hot cocoa. The 8 of us made up a little ceremony for the end of our time in the desert–constructing one last cairn, and a few words to thank the wilderness, and now we are snuggled up in our sleeping bags.
Thank you, desert. Thank you for long days and freezing nights, for brilliant sunsets, and magical springs, and your desolate hills, for cradling us and pushing us on. Thank you for the smudge of Milky Way in the sky–just a suggestion that maybe (maybe) there is something bigger than us.
I hear a few drops of rain falling–just a few. And a chunk of snowy ice just fell in here with me. It won’t truly rain tonight. But somewhere out there, it is raining–the washes are filling with water, and the small creatures hiding in their holes. Maybe a rock that hasn’t moved in thousands of years will be pushed a fraction of a fraction of an inch closer to the Rio. Or maybe not.
I woke up in the middle of the night to quick footsteps and headlamps and a sound like someone tapping on my tarp. And someone shouting over the wind–“it’s raining; lightning and thunder are 30 seconds apart; put your tarps up!”
And I lazily pulled my tarp over me and my things like a blanket, and the hail fell, and the lightning didn’t get too much closer, and we lay like that under the dark sky as the desert screamed her final goodbye.
Then it was morning, and we were in the van, clinging to each other as we drifted in and out of sleep–about 2 hours to base camp, driving through the national and state parks and into Redford and finally home.
Base camp, and a shower, and wearing my normal clothes for the first time in 50 days. We had our graduation ceremony–just the 10 of us. Eventually it was 9-something in the evening, and some people went to sleep, but a few of us students and both of the instructors sat close around the fire, and we talked about everything for a few hours.
And now the quiet conversations are over, and everyone’s gone to sleep–I can hear their breathing evening out, one last time.
One last night in a sleeping bag, all my layers on, the top plugged up to trap in the warmth. One last night with all of these stars strewn across the sky–more stars than I have names of numbers to count them with. One last night knowing what I have to do tomorrow. But that’s okay. There will be other places to go, and things to see, and people to miss.
Goodnight. Sleep warm.
I knew that 2020 was going to be different. The respite from a grueling cycle of tests, projects and competitions was something I had anticipated since the start of high school, but I never expected it to be different in the way that it has been.
I made plans– lots of them– most of which have fallen through.
There were countless instances when I couldn’t help but lament, “Why, oh why now, of all times, when I am all ready to celebrate a major milestone in life and embark on the next and most exhilarating chapter?” The disappointment was palpable, much like being rewarded with a torrential downpour after an arduous ascent.
It all seemed so unfair.
In hindsight, I am glad that things turned out the way they did.
Still languishing in the belated fatigue of preparing for “A” Levels and applying to colleges, I was in no condition to maximise my educational experience a few months ago. What a waste it would have been had I sprinted mindlessly through the gates of college in August!
Notwithstanding the ample opportunities for exploration in college, researching and interning at institutions that sit squarely at the intersection of my dual interests of engineering and medicine has refined and reaffirmed my aspirations. Through interactions with professionals from various backgrounds, I have come to discover what truly excites me and learned about the diverse career pathways down which I could eventually venture .
Taking a gap year has also gifted me with additional time to rekindle bygone relationships and strengthen present ties. During my unexpected prolonged stay in Singapore, I have forged many memories with the people I love, all meticulously preserved in my camera roll so that I feel a bit less lonely when I am 9860 miles away from home.
With 2021 looming on the horizon, I wonder what surprises the new year will bring, but if 2020 has taught me anything, it is better not to harbour any expectations. Let’s just wait and see.
1. How to scrape frost off a car
2. What it feels like to have your ears pierced
3. The best recipe for baked oats
4. How to drive through a twice-a-century fire storm
5. How to use a Cryostat to cut 5-micrometer sections of mouse tissue
6. How to cancel plane tickets to and from Vietnam
7. What a “direct deposit” is
8. That four-wheel-drive doesn’t work on a beach
9. How to buy a stock
10. That apparently I’m a Gemini rising sign, whatever that means?
11. The definition of the word “orthogonal”
12. How to survive an afternoon with 12 crazy elementary school students
13. How to fill out a ballot
14. That I can apply a tourniquet to my own leg in under 30 seconds
15. How to drive a Subaru
16. How to make crème brûlée (and properly wield a blowtorch)
17. The perfect formula for iced coffee
18. How to proofread college essays (that aren’t mine, obviously)
19. That Whole Foods makes a great Thanksgiving dinner
20. How to climb outdoors
21. Where to find the best Indian food in Portland
22. That it’s possible to read a 1500-page medical textbook in five weeks
23. To appreciate time with family when I get the chance to see them in person
24. That naming Spotify playlists is basically a hobby
25. That double stuf golden Oreos are far superior to regular ones
26. What a crag dog is (a dog that hangs out at the base of outdoor climbing routes and
provides welcome distraction from tough climbs)
27. Why setting a goal to run at 7AM every morning is an awful idea in the Pacific Northwest
28. All the words to “Betty” and “Mind Over Matter” and approximately a thousand other
29. How to cope with cancelled holiday plans
30. That I actually enjoy perpetual rain
31. That “donuts” is a scientific term
32. That I love Alaskan malamutes
33. The number of votes in the electoral college
34. That videos (rather than pictures) are the best way for me to document my gap year
35. How to present a slideshow over Webex
36. The best way to decorate Christmas cookies (hint: it requires a toothpick)
I live in South Carolina, where we have 47 state parks throughout the mountains, the midlands, and the coast, and visiting them is one of my mom’s and my favorite pastimes. During the pandemic, we have been visiting more frequently because this is one of the few ways to get out of the house, have fun, and still stay safe. Most recently, we visited Chimney Rock State Park in North Carolina and the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area in South Carolina, which includes Caesar’s Head and Jones Gap State Parks.
On our last trip, we had finished looking around Caesar’s Head and hiking a trail across the road, and we decided to hike a trail that was further down the mountain on the side of the road called Wildcat Wayside. It’s a quick and easy trail with beautiful waterfalls and an interesting backstory. Wildcat Wayside, originally called Greenville Wayside Park, is one of a series of six Wayside Parks built in SC in the 1930’s by the CCC and the National Park Service. They were meant to serve as rest sites for those driving motor vehicles along the roads of the state. At the turnoff, you can climb up past the first waterfall to the ruins of one of the original buildings, which is missing its walls but still has its foundation, a working fireplace, and the remnants of a few drinking fountains. If you’re ever in the Greenville, SC area, it’s definitely worth the drive.
Not only have these trips been a lot of fun, but they are also a great way for me to prepare for the program I will be doing starting at the end of February. I’ll be heading up to New Hampshire for Gap at Glen Brook, where we will be learning about and experiencing a variety of different activities, including orienteering, canoeing, and more. Over the next couple months, my mom and I will hopefully be trying out some more challenging trails and exploring more parks and wilderness areas before I head up north!
The silence of the desert was so powerful that I could hear the blood rushing through my head. Only a single fly would occasionally steal my attention away
from the awe-inspiring sunset over the canyon. Once finished with my accustomed ritual of squatting like an animal to relieve myself, I turned to walk up the hill from where I came. The purple orange sky faded behind me as I ascended, my footsteps crunching softly over the untouched soil.
Then, in the very instant that I reached the summit, the canvas shifted. The sound of a training Israeli fighter jet breaking the sound barrier above me shook the earth beneath me. I noticed that the ground was now firmer, having been compacted by hundreds of feet before mine. The sky no longer seemed so illuminating, as the artificial lights from the truck at the center of our campsite penetrated the dimming atmosphere.
The laughter of my fellow campmates echoed through the desert valley. My sense of smell returned to me as I descended the hill; the chicken stir fry was almost ready. Soon after my hunger returned as well. The remaining tents were up and I saw everyone lining up to serve themselves, so I turned my saunter into a scurry and quickly rejoined the group.
When I planned this three-night hiking trip to the Negev for my program, I hoped it would allow us all to catch our breath and to explore a new part of Israel. Yet I had no idea how impactful a transition from pandemic city life to open nature would be. Finding myself alone, with no sounds, no lights, no mask, in a vast open desert gave me the change of perspective I needed to appreciate both the wild and the civilization from which I came. Leaving my isolation in the desert, I felt a sincere loss of peace that I had not found for many months in Jerusalem. At the same time, however, I felt comfort in reentering the semi-civilization of my campsite and was reminded of how brutal and indifferent the wild can
be. I returned from my trip understanding the need for balance. The fast-pace lifestyles many of us live can be invigorating and full of purpose, but we also need to create time for ourselves to be unplugged from such chaotic routines and to appreciate the beautiful world we call home.
For the first two months of being in Israel, each week felt like a new adventure. My time in Israel wasn’t like my life back home where I had a daily routine. Instead, I spent two weeks in quarantine, one week living at a hostel near the old city in Jerusalem, and a few weeks learning remotely due to the nationwide lockdown.
The program I am on has finally landed on a steady routine that will likely last the rest of the year. I volunteer at a daycare for children from low-income backgrounds on Sunday. I spend Monday and Tuesday taking classes on ancient Jewish texts, philosophy, and US-Israeli relations. I intern at a Jerusalem-based think tank based on Wednesday. On Thursday I spend the day taking classes and wrapping up the week. Friday and Saturday are my favorite days because I get to celebrate Shabbat with the rest of my group. I now know that Monday and Tuesday are my most busy days and that Wednesday is fun but requires a lot of focus for me to be productive.
Having a routine reminds me of life in high school. Back in high school, I learned to dread Monday, love Friday, and spend my weeks looking forward to the weekend. Being so far from home, my new routine has given me stability and a sense of normalcy, but it’s also been a challenge learning to view routine as a guideline and not a restriction.
To ensure that we don’t have to keep to a restrictive routine, my program allows us to plan day trips, encourages the Americans to spend the weekend at the homes of Israeli participants, and lets us spend time in different parts of the country for a few days each month. It has been a wonderful way to understand Israeli society and come back to the program excited to learn and think more freely.
During the first weekend I spent away from the program, I traveled to my Israeli friend’s house in Ramat Hasharon, a suburb of Tel Aviv. After living in a dominantly religious city for almost two months, it was a bit shocking to experience a weekend visiting a city where people drive on Shabbat and the beach is lively with young people enjoying the sun.
The next weekend, I traveled to my roommates’ house in Kfar Adumim, a town in the West Bank. It was a wildly different experience. I decided to observe Shabbat experience it the way her family does, without using electronics and without creating anything, in order to truly rest. For one of the few times in my life, I spent a day without turning the lights on, writing, and texting my friends in the United States. After each weekend away from my apartment in Jerusalem, I felt more relaxed than I used to in high school after a weekend spent relaxing at home.
Although it’s important to have a routine in order to be productive and maintain a sense of stability, I’ve found a lot of value in switching up my routine while on my gap year. This is a year where I am striving to live each moment intentionally and understand the meaning behind how I choose to spend my time. Choosing to wake up earlier to go for a run and see Jerusalem early in the morning or even going to spend a weekend in the West Bank has allowed me to experience Israel in an authentic way. Each time I push myself outside of my routine I feel more engaged in my classes and my daily experiences. So far, my gap year has given me a balance between structure and flexibility while allowing room for spontaneity. I now know that this balance is important for me and something for which I will strive once at Duke.
Everyone said that this year would be a new chapter in life, but it feels more like an entirely new book. At home, I was always the “mom” of the group, but here in Israel, it feels like I’ve started the life cycle anew.
In the beginning of my program, I felt like a baby. I was always wide eyed, not knowing what was going on but trying to absorb my surroundings as much as possible. I needed a lot of sleep because my brain was always in overdrive coping with life in Hebrew. And similar to how people stop on the street to coo over a cute baby, Israelis gave me a lot of attention because I am the exotic American girl.
In the last three months I feel as if I’ve grown to be an eight year old; I’m like a kid sitting at the adult table. In classes and group conversations I catch a fair bit of the dialogue, but sophisticated words and cultural references go over my head. I understand enough that I want to participate but I’m incapable of articulating myself fully in Hebrew, and I feel awkward constantly sharing incoherent sentences. I typically try to set an early bedtime for myself, but I usually end up going to sleep an hour, or two, or three after said bedtime. Perhaps the way in which I most resemble a child is through the connections I have with others here. There are many people whom I enjoy hanging out with, people I can laugh and sing and even cry with, but I can’t tell you personal details or idiosyncrasies about most people nor can most about me. My Hebrew is just not at a level where I can express myself enough for people to know the real me.
The one thing that has saved me as I gradually hack at the language barrier is journaling every night. I prefer typing than writing, so I have an app on my phone where I write down what I did, feelings I had, thoughts I wish I could have conveyed that day… Even getting in bed at 2:00 a.m. after a fun night, I can end up writing for 30 minutes because my brain is just swirling with hazy thoughts and putting everything down on paper ensures I can fall asleep and wake up with a clear head.
While I am infinitely grateful that my peers here have been like parents to me, supportive and patient, I’m excited to “grow up” more and forge real friendships.