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Like the entirety of my year thus far, the past few weeks of my gap year never would have been a part of my pre-pandemic plan. When I thought about traveling on a gap year, I thought international travel in order to learn about other cultures and experience once-in-a-lifetime places on the once-in-a-lifetime experience of a gap year. However, I have had to adjust and re-evaluate. I made the most of the circumstances and decided to embark on something I never imagined I’d do: a cross-country road trip.
I am currently still on the road, and it’s overwhelming and incredible to try to process a trip of experiences that few people get to in a lifetime. I think the most valuable thing for anyone reading this post is my itinerary with the insights I have looking back on these places, which will hopefully give some useful information to anyone planning a similar trip. This post will cover the first half of the trip and my next post will cover the second half.
First, here is the full list of stops. We started in Atlanta, GA and will spend nights in all the following places: Nashville, TN à Kansas City, MO à Boulder, CO à Grand Junction, CO (Colorado National Monument) à Moab, UT (Arches National Park) à Springdale, UT (Zion National Park) à Page, AZ (Lake Powell and Horseshoe Bend) à Tusayan, AZ (Grand Canyon) à San Diego, CA à Three Rivers, CA (Sequoia National Park) à San Francisco, CA à Carson City, NV (Lake Tahoe) à Park City, UT (our final destination/where we are working there this winter).
Nashville, TN: Nashville is a uniquely charming Southern City. We only spent one night there but were still able to experience the fried chicken- we chose Prince’s Hot Chicken- and country music. We walked Broadway Street but didn’t stay long, as honky tonks were only open to people ages 21+ and didn’t look safe with coronavirus. We didn’t visit the classic Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum but would next time if we go back.
Kansas City, MO: We arrived in Kansas City late in the evening and only spent the night there. We ate dinner in the Power and Light district. The city felt a little empty, but we went back to our hotel immediately after dinner to rest up for our long drive the next day.
Boulder, CO: Boulder surprised me by being much more than a college town. We drove in at sunset, and the mountains surrounding the city created a stunning landscape. Boulder was the first place we stayed with mountains and any snow and therefore was particularly exciting. We hiked around the flatirons, but the First/Second Flatiron Trail that locals recommended to us was closed for repair work. Boulder’s main street- called Pearl Street- was worth walking around and fit the hip mountain vibe of the city.
Grand Junction, CO: We had initially planned to visit the Black Canyon of the Gunnison but switched to the Colorado National Monument because the monument seemed like it had more to do. The views of the red-rock canyons from the 23-mile scenic drive were unbelievable, but there was also lots of hiking in and around the canyons. We chose a 5-mile hike down in the canyons to give us the experience of looking up at monument from inside, while the scenic drive gave us the view of looking down from the top of the canyons. Seeing red-rock formations for the first time was unbelievable, and seeing them at the national monument first meant that we were still stunned by later, more famous red-rock stops like Arches.
Moab, UT: Everything about Arches National Park was mind-blowing. The town of Moab was lively and lined with small-town mountain dining, such as the Moab Brewery, where we ate one night, or the Moab Diner. We ate at the Jailhouse Café one morning for breakfast and absolutely recommend it. In Arches, we drove the scenic drive through the park, stopping along the way for lookout points and hikes, and spent sunset at the Delicate Arch, which glowed at that hour. One hike we didn’t have time for that I’d like to do in the future is the long and strenuous Devil’s Garden Loop Trail, as it takes hikers to some unique and hidden lookout points and arches. If the weather is nice, the town of Moab has a beautiful paved walking trail outside of the park that is framed by red rock and the Colorado River. If you are a runner or walker, you have to do this trail in the morning before heading into the park.
Springdale, UT: Zion National Park is the most beautiful place I have ever seen and my favorite stop so far. Seeing it in the fall with the bright yellow leaves of the trees made it even prettier. Zion had both breathtaking views and plenty of difficult hikes, which made it a great fit for my group. Angel’s Landing was absolutely worth it for the check on my bucket list, experience of clinging onto the guardrail with cliffs beneath me, and the view from the top. We didn’t hike The Narrows because we were worried about the water being too cold and didn’t really have time for it. We hiked in short sleeves despite it being early November, but we were still worried about wading through water this late in the season. We spent two nights in Zion but easily could’ve spent a third there. I definitely want to go back to Zion in the future, and the Narrows is definitely a hike I will hit next time.
Now for some logistics: driving and weather. The drives between locations were integral to the trip and gave us some of the prettiest scenery. Each drive was incredibly unique and added context to the places we visited and sights we saw. We avoided drives over 9-ish hours, which meant that- with three people- no one person had to drive more than a 3-ish hour shift in one day. The weather was absolutely perfect for us, but we got incredibly lucky. One risk of taking the road trip when we did, in October-November, is the weather is very hit or miss. The cooler weather in the more desert-y climates was perfect, but November weather is risky in places that get heavier snow, like Boulder or Sequoia. We came up with several backup places to visit in warmer climates, particularly southern California, in case any of our stops had poor weather conditions that we didn’t want to spend time in. I will include some of those backup places in the next post, but, for now, I hope this covers my itinerary with helpful hindsight!
Although I will not be attending classes this year I will never stop learning and nothing, not even another stay-at-home mandate will prevent me from growing intellectually. I’m learning and growing from every experience I’m having this summer. Everything from navigating social interactions, precarious backcountry situations, catering to guests’ needs and cooking food on outdoor fires (in a summer snowstorm no less) is helping me navigate the future. I am learning to appreciate the benefits of preparation and communication while attempting to resolve problems with upset guests from my job as a bellman at a local high end hotel. That alone will help me in the dorms, classrooms and labs when I get to school.
Over the past few weeks, as many of my friends leave home and settle into life as college freshmen, I have been reading, hearing and watching scores of entertaining stories about the various amazing experiences they all seem to be having. This was inevitably going to be the first gut check where I’d likely be second guessing my decision to take a gap year. As my family and friends predicted, it hit me hard. But it also forced me to review my sentiments when deciding to take this year off and remind myself what I hoped to gain from it. My anxiety hasn’t lasted too long, thankfully. I remembered that I’ll eventually get my chance to be a freshman at Duke and that I’m actually not missing out on anything. My initial intention to create time, space and experiences between high school and college to grow as a person and gain knowledge and perspective along the way to help maximize my time at Duke is still front and center as I embark on my journey.
One of the biggest keys to success in college and life that many high schools don’t effectively teach is intrinsic motivation. For students to truly make the most out of their years in college they need to know what they want to do and how to get there, but also, most importantly, why they want to do it. Knowing and being able to articulate the “why” gives students both the focus and drive to maximize their educational experience. In high school and college most students are motivated extrinsically, by grades, others aspirations, and following the status quo or society’s general idea of success, not driven by personal interests. Those motivations lead to many students losing interest in their classes and simply being unhappy. In a gap year, especially this one in 2020, there is no clearly defined path to success. The path to knowledge, self-awareness and enjoyment needs to be crafted by the individual and is largely going to be free of judgement. I am navigating the current climate by choosing to pursue areas of intrigue or curiosity, and not chasing the wishes of others. As students are able to identify and follow their inner guidance chips they will be owning their choices, chasing their moments, learning by trial and error and likely setting themselves up to truly flourish in college and life as more informed stewards of their intrinsic motivations.
I wish all my buddies a wonderful year of discovery. Right now my plans span from mountain peaks, to the far Pacific and back to Europe, with much detail still to be filled in. I look forward to seeing what I learn, how I adapt and where I might grow as a friend/son/brother/student over the coming year.