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My Gap Year Plans and the PCT
My name is Ray, and this is both my first blog with the Duke Gap Year, as well as my first ever blog.
I should probably introduce myself; I live in the Bay Area (Marin County). In high school, I spent a lot of my time playing for the football (LB) and lacrosse (middie) team. I also participated in student government and Model UN. I’m in Pratt, but I have no idea what I will end up majoring in – a gap year will hopefully help with that.
I enjoy being outside. This summer, I have spent time hiking, biking, and trying to play golf. I’ve also been cooking a lot for my family; cooking is a hobby I never got the chance to explore in high school. I’m excited to watch the new season of Last Chance U, and I’ll listen to almost any song Spotify gives me.
I’m hoping to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in the spring/summer of 2021. The PCT is a pretty long trail; the goal is to average about 20 miles a day and finish within five-months. Am I trying to bite off more than I can chew??? Who knows???
The Pacific Crest Trail Association manages the trail and distributes permits through a daily quota. It’s a competitive process that’s really similar to buying hyped-up sneakers. If I’m unlucky and don’t get a permit; I still hope to backpack (maybe the Bigfoot Trail, John Muir Trail, or the Tahoe Rim Trail). Regardless of which trail I end up thru-hiking, I think it would be a good idea to do some preparing.
While I wouldn’t describe myself as a backpacker, I do have a decent background. Last summer, I spent two weeks backpacking in New Mexico. It was pretty cool.
Right now, I’m planning a short 30 mile trip at the Lost Coast. I’m hoping to finish the trail in two days. The Lost Coast is an area in the Kings Range Conservation Area in Northern California. The Lost Coast was slated to be part of California’s State Route One, but its terrain was deemed too rough to build a highway.
The Lost Coast has a rich history that’s severely under-documented. Before European settlers reached California, the Mattole People thrived on the Lost Coast. Thanks to the ocean and the coastal climate, they gathered seaweed and shellfish and hunted native marine animals. Salmon played a big role in their culture. When white settlers reached the Lost Coast around 1860, they called it New Jerusalem and began to raise cattle. Despite numerous treaties, many of the Mattole people were killed by local militias. Most who survived were sent to a prison in Humbolt county. In 1868, a measles outbreak almost eradicated the Mattole people. With such a small population, the Mattole language died in the 1930s. Besides death records written by white settlers, there’s little to no written record about the Mattole people.
I will be mindful of the Mattole people’s history on my hike, and I’ll share the knowledge I learned with my fellow hikers. I will keep the blog posted on how the trip goes.
Getting Going in the Big Apple
Packing Light and Reverse Culture Shock
The importance of packing light was apparent within the first few hours of our two-week trekk as I soon regretted bringing five pounds of trail mix. No matter how many times my instructors advised me to pack frugally, I needed to experience the hip bruises and aching muscles to truly understand what items were essential.
I did a mental inventory of my backpack in attempt to identify all the unnecessary items dragging me down: the set of ten colorful MUJI pens, a four hundred page Stephen King book I don’t even enjoy reading, a five dollar rain jacket that is most likely not waterproof, and two sets of extra batteries for my headlamp. As days passed and I got strong enough to help carry some extra items for my struggling group members, I realized the heaviness weighing me down the most was emotional baggage. I wasn’t able to sort through “good” and “bad” thoughts, leave the unwanted, burdensome behind and shove only helpful ideas into my backpack to bring along. The strain of spending the majority of the eight-hour hikes alone with my thoughts became too much. One day, I just sat in the middle of the trail and cried.
Trekk challenged me both physically and mentally. I cried a lot, coughed up blood, walked until my bloody blisters throbbed, lost feeling in my fingers at night, and contemplated giving up too many times to count. At the time, I didn’t understand the meaning of trekk. Of summiting a mountain just to go back down again. There are a lot of things you have to do in life that may be confusing at the time, but it is important to reflect on those experiences and always ask, “why?”.
It took me a while, but I believe the “why” of trekk was to learn a little bit more about yourself, show up for your group and help redistribute the weight when life gets to be too heavy, and forge deeper connections with the sacred Himalayas. Humbled by the immensity and beauty of Nepal, during trekk we came together as a family and made life a little lighter for one another.
When returning from Nepal, the most strikingly obvious difference was my physical surroundings. Nepal was lively and colorful; I would spend ten-hour bus rides mesmerized by the views. The vibrant cities gave way to lush hills which turned into the breathtaking Himalayas, whereas December in New Jersey was gloomier than I remembered and everything seemed to be washed over with a pale, cold grayness.
I missed the noises, too. I missed turning off my futile 7 A.M. alarm after waking to the sound of scrappy stray dogs and the monastery bells. I missed the shopkeepers shouting across the street to one another over the background of Nepali moped horns. I missed the extensive bargaining that preluded each and every purchase. I missed debating with my friends how to best spend our two dollars at the grocery store. The jarring silence of the suburbs was eerie.
In an attempt to assimilate back to life at home, I offered to run errands for my mom. Upon walking into ShopRite, I was immediately overwhelmed with the surplus of food. My eyes darted all over the store, trying to absorb everything at once. In Nepal, fresh daal bhat is a daily ritual eaten for lunch and dinner. Now, there was too much going on. Too many options. I walked down each aisle slowly, so that I could focus on small sections at a time.
An hour later, I realized my cart still only contained ten items. I looked around at the carts filled with mounds of food and thought about how Nepal grocery stores didn’t have shopping carts, nor was there a need for them. As I paid, the cashier made a comment about my refusal to put my produce items in individualized plastic bags. And for the first time in my life, I thought about where my trash ends up. Once I bring the bins to the end of my driveway every Tuesday night, I never think about where it all disappears to. In Nepal, I didn’t have to wonder. When the trash piles would grow too high, they were set on fire to free up space. Acrid smoke from burning plastic fille dour nostrils, quite literally forcing us to choke on our own trash.
I rushed to my car and cried in the parking lot. I cried because no one in the grocery store had talked to me besides the cashier. I cried because I missed all of the honking annoyed motorcyclists, inviting street vendors, and human interaction involved when making a trip to the local ten by twenty grocery store in Nepal. I cried because I was dumbfounded as to why I wanted strangers at the grocery store to smile at me, something I probably would’ve considered creepy in the past. I cried because I knew my homestay family, living in a small village in the outskirts of our consumer-driven society, was more influenced by climate change than anyone at the store. I cried because I felt misplaced and lost in a town that I had lived in my entire life. I cried because I was confused about who I was. I cried because I knew a piece of myself was still in, and always will be, Nepal.
Take a NOLS Trip, if You Can
If you are taking a gap year and enjoy the outdoors, you should definitely go on a NOLS trip. I went on the NOLS Patagonia cultural expedition which was probably the highlight of my gap year. Having spent the previous 4 months in Spain, not only was I able to enjoy the wilderness, I was able to form deeper connections with the community along the way. These people included Chilean border patrol stationed on a lake that crossed over into Argentina, gauchos (Chilean cowboys), and pobladores (people who settled Patagonia). Not only did I learn about the current culture of Patagonia, but I also learned about the history, and the parallels between the Chilean/Argentinian settlement of Patagonia and the settlement of the American west.
This may sound a bit cliché, but the trip was a reset for me. I was with completely new people in a completely different place without my phone, which usually ties me to the world I know. Going into the trip I reasoned that anyone who wanted to spend 30 days in the Patagonian wilderness was someone I wanted to know, and I could have not been more right. I made friends from all over the country and world, some who I would have certainly seen more of if it weren’t for the pandemic.
If I boil down what really made this experience so fantastic it really comes down to the sheer number of experiences that the trip presented. I had not spent a full month without my phone since 8th grade. I learned just about everything there is to know about backpacking, and even earned a Leave No Trace Trainer certificate. I learned the proper way to make and serve maté, the unofficial official drink of Patagonia. helped a poblador named Oscar lasso a lamb, then watched him slaughter it and cook it over a fire to make the a traditional Patagonian asado. This experience was an especially fascinating one for me because it really made me think about eating meat. The way Oscar killed the lamb was the most humane way imaginable, which has made me more conscious about where the meat I eat came from and how it was raised and killed. It was also fascinating purely because of how unexpected it was. Finally, spending all that time and sharing these experiences with a group of strangers who all became friends makes me really excited for college. I grew up in a small town, so I haven’t really met anyone new since elementary school. I know almost no one going to Duke next year, but I can’t wait to share the experience of college with everyone.
It’s a bit odd that I haven’t written much about the hiking or the camping, but I think that is because those activities, while they take up the majority of your time, are really just a back drop for the rest of the experiences you have on a NOLS trip, so seriously, if you like the outdoors, there is nothing I can recommend more that you do on your gap year.
It occurs to me though, that a prospective NOLS student may be curious about the actual hiking and camping experience, so I will now share. The course lasted 31 days. Over the course of 28 days we hiked approximately 120 miles. On the first two days of the course, we looked at our route, packed up the provisions that we would eat over the next month, learned how to pack our packs, and then drove about 9 hours in a van to our starting point.
The hiking was broken up into 3 sections: 12 days, 9 days, then 7 days. We had to make our way to pre-determined re-ration points, where we would meet up with gauchos who would deliver our food and fuel for the next ration. A 12 day ration is long, so when we started out, my pack weighed about 68 pounds, the majority of it being food. Throughout the first ration, the instructors really acted as teachers. They taught us how to navigate using a map, compass, and GPS, how to choose a campsite, and most importantly how to get creative with the limited ingredients that we had brought. As the days passed, they gradually handed most of the responsibilities over to us. We would determine how far we would hike in a day and when we would start, as well as split our group of 15 into 3 self-sufficient hiking groups, which meant that if we got separated by night fall each group would have everything they needed, which happens more than you would think. In fact, the day before the first re-ration, 2 groups couldn’t find the trail, decided to bushwhack, and it took 4 days before my group of 5 met back up with them.
The rest of the expedition went much more smoothly. No one got lost and we started independent student group travel, where we would hike without the instructors. At this point we had learned so much about trail finding and map reading that it really was no problem at all. The next two re-rations were also much more cultural, as a I wrote about above. We met gauchos and pobladores, and shared many cups maté and stories. When we weren’t with the locals, the typical daily routine was wake up, make breakfast, hike for 6-10 hours, make camp and dinner, relax, then go to bed. But trust me, even though that takes up a lot of time, it goes by fast. Hiking really is one of the best times to have a conversation, and when you’re with a group of people that you just met a few weeks ago it if difficult to run out of topics. NOLS runs trips all over the world, so this experience defiantly won’t be identical to any others. So again, if you like the outdoors, a NOLS trip is one of the best ways to see a place you travel to, so I hope you will consider one during your gap year.
My First Semester with NOLS
Hello! My name is Delaney, and I am from Cleveland, OH! I recently returned home after spending three months in Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho. Now that I’m back home, and have access to a computer, a shower, and the internet, I figured it was a good time to write a blog post.
For the past three months I have been on a NOLS course in the Rockies. I had never gone camping before this trip, and I figured a three-month trip was a good way to start! I spent 17 days hiking in the Wind River Range in Wyoming, 21 days rock climbing in the City of Rocks, Idaho, 16 days tandem whitewater canoeing on the Green River in Utah, 10 days earning my Wilderness First Responder certification on Three Peaks Ranch in Wyoming, and 17 days canyoneering in Grand Gulch, Water, and Slickhorn Canyon in Utah. Here’s a quick snapshot of this course, section by section–
Wind River Range:
The Wind River Range in Wyoming is an absolutely beautiful mountain range in western Wyoming. We spent our time there learning how to backpack, camp, ration food, fly fish, use bear spray(!), and live with others for extended periods of time. We talked about how to make a positive learning environment and what good expedition behavior looks like. At night, we sang around a campfire, read poems, and got to know each other. We played games all the time; trail games like “contact” or “alphabet DJ,” campfire games like “fantasy” or “Good Day Bob,” and get-to-know-you games like “Hot seat” or “In or Out.” NOLS is a leadership school, and we spent plenty of time learning and practicing leadership skills. By the end of this section, we were confident enough in our navigation and leadership skills that we would be “Designated Leaders” of the day. We’d plan our route, hold the maps, lead on trail, and choose a campsite. These days were incredibly rewarding because we could apply all we had learned from that section.
City of Rocks:
The City of Rocks was an amazing place to learn how to rock climb outdoors. Over the summer, I worked at my local rock-climbing gym, and knew the basics of how to climb and belay, but nothing could prepare me for what was in store. We spent every day at a new crag (rock climbing spot), learning a new skill. We learned knots, belay techniques, and anchor-building principals, and applied those skills that very day in a safe and structured manner. By the end of this section, I was able to “trad” climb (a style of rock climbing using protection you place in the rock yourself), lead a multi-pitch (“lead” is another style of rock climbing and doing multiple “pitches” or lengths of the rope ((basically I was up really, really high))), and set up a rappel (going down a rope using my own gear).
Desolation and Labyrinth Canyon:
In this section, we learned how to paddle, ferry, eddy out, scout and run a rapid, and line our canoes. This was a very challenging section because of the high-stress of running rapids. It was also super rewarding because this was a completely new skill for me. The rush of spending an hour getting out of our canoes, tying them up, finding high ground, scouting the rapid, choosing a line to run, getting back in our canoes, and hitting the line perfectly so as not to take on any water is amazing. There were plenty of times scouting rapids didn’t work like that, and I joined the “Varsity Swim Team” by (accidentally) flipping the canoe and swimming down the rapid. Worth it.
Three Peaks Ranch:
This is where I took an 80-hour course to get my Wilderness First Responder certification. This certification is just one step below a Wilderness EMT. We spent long days in the classroom learning about how to treat trauma and medical emergencies in the backcountry. This was a very different approach to medicine for me, because the first step is not to call 911 (there’s no cell service in the backcountry!) and there are no splints readily available. We learned how to treat crazy trauma injuries, like an open pneumothorax, and very mild medical problems, like a stomach ache. My favorite part of this section was when we simulated a search and rescue team with an “Incident Command Structure.” There were three “patients” involved in a severe canoeing accident, and a team of 13 people came to the rescue; equipped with one Incident Commander (me!), two Lieutenants, five rescue teams, two vacuum splints, and one litter. This was the most intense scenario we practiced, and the most interesting. At the end of this section, we took written and practical tests to be officially certified as WFR’s!
Grand Gulch, Water, and Slickhorn Canyon:
This was the most expedition-feeling section. We were so lucky the first four sections because we got almost no weather. There was no hiking in the rain or canoeing in the snow. We like to say because of our lack of weather, there was a lack of water in the canyons. The canyons were almost completely dry, which led us to change our route as we scouted for water. We would spend a whole day looking for water, only to find nothing and have to backtrack to our last known water spot. We also spent a good chunk of time trying to get out of the canyon and getting shut down by steep canyon walls and trails that led nowhere. We were much more independent on this section; we chose our own path (water permitting), traveled without instructors, and planned and led each day. This section felt very adventurous; we looked for water, scouted for a path out, found some amazing ruins, spent time sleeping under the stars, and soaked up our last time on the trail together.
At the end of this trip, our group made a list of everything we learned throughout the section. There were technical skills (like how to use mechanical advantage to get a wrapped canoe off a rock), leadership skills (like how to use non-violent communication), and some life skills (like how to “unzip” an apple). I was astonished as the list continued to grow. I’m still reflecting on how much I’ve learned and grown and changed, and I’m so excited to take these learnings with me the rest of my gap year, into Duke, and beyond.