Living Life Off the Treadmill
By Will Kearney
July 2012. The world is a really big place, much bigger than most people realize. Look it up: 196,939,900 square miles. But in fact, it’s actually much bigger than that – because in all those square miles, hidden in just about every little niche and cranny you can find, there are countless people ready to share a part of their world with you. There are thousands of definitions of gap years out there; hundreds of web articles describing why gap years are important; sterile little tables and neatly formatted paragraphs written in Times New Roman 12 point font. Some of them, admittedly, are valuable, and some of them were even read by yours truly when planning my own gap year. Ultimately though, a gap year is a personal journey that can’t be summed up by Times New Roman 12 point font and perfectly centered tables. What you’re reading now isn’t designed to convince you that gap years are always good. It’s not designed to provide reasons or justifications. I’m going to share a little bit about what my personal journey was like, and maybe that will help you clarify your own reasons for wanting to explore the world.
In the fall of 2011, I took a NOLS semester in the Pacific Northwest involving mountaineering, rock climbing, coastal backpacking, and sailing. It was a beautiful time, allowing me to take my wilderness skills and leadership experience to a new level. My previous leadership training through organizations like Corner House helped me more than I can convey. Three months is a long time to spend in the wilderness with nine other people, but it was surprising to me how similar sitting around the Corner House Student Board table can feel to hanging a thousand feet in the air during a difficult multi-pitch climb. Problem solving, communication, teamwork - these are all what I like to call "brochure" words, but once you understand them from an experiential position you recognize how important and vast they truly are.
After NOLS I traveled to Totnes, Devon, a very small town in Southern England. I rented a room from a local family and enrolled at a guitar making workshop, learning under the guidance of a well-known luthier for three months. This was an experience quite different than my NOLS one. Renting a room, I was truly living independently for the first time. England was beautiful, learning to build a guitar was challenging yet rewarding, and I met many fantastic and interesting people who will remain lifelong friends.
In April I traveled to Lander, Wyoming, enrolling in a Wilderness EMT course. There was lots of classwork, combined with realistic scenarios and clinical rotations. Becoming an EMT was an invaluable skill, not only for the hard knowledge and certification but also for the experience. In the local Emergency Room I placed EKG leads on a man’s chest as a doctor looked him in the eye and told him he was having a heart attack. A normal man with a normal life, and I was involved, if even for a moment, in a point in his life that changed him forever. You could see it in his eyes, confused fear transforming into sadness and hard, sharp, realization. Brief moments like these put everything in perspective, help define and put in context everything I’ve ever experienced.
People regularly asked me what I was learning while on my gap year. There are too many lessons to count, and therefore no valid way to answer that question. That being said, the one that has stuck with me most is this: there is no substitute for simplicity. Eat simply, care for others simply, work simply, have fun simply - life has so much to offer, and it's a shame when it's covered up by the unnecessary complexities often created by modern life. I've also come to appreciate how valuable other people and nature are to me. For the first time in a long time I honestly felt like I was creating a place for myself, crafting a productive and interesting life just like I crafted my guitar. It took time and mistakes, but like many things it was about the process. This year has helped me discover my inner strength and commitment to a lifetime of discovery, and I know that I will continue learning about everything around me - and therefore myself.
Now some semantics, “Gap years” couldn’t be more inaptly named. The word “gap” implies that this is somehow not real life that a gap year is instead a time where you press pause on the remote control to do something different. Had I told people that I was leaving after high school to backpack for three months in the Pacific Northwest, some would have disregarded me as an over-idealistic youth who would undoubtedly end up flipping burgers at the local fast food joint. Instead, I told them I was embarking on a gap year and of course would be going to a four-year liberal arts college immediately after, not to worry. They would tell me to “have fun” as if I was going on an extended vacation. The term gap year isn’t wrong, just the connotations it’s begun to carry. A gap year shouldn’t be about taking a break from the treadmill. It should be about recognizing how to live life without being on the treadmill at all. While on the trail, backpackers like to joke about how nice it is to be away from the “real world.” But secretly it’s all a big joke – every one of us knows that the “real world” is the one we’re in when we’re on the trail. The same goes for gap years. The gap year is just as much real life as the life you left behind – and maybe even more so. Though a gap year may end, its influence should not. Once again: a gap year shouldn’t be about taking a break from the treadmill. It should be about recognizing how to live life without being on the treadmill at all.
The world is a really big place. Not because of the number of square miles that make up its surface (seriously, don’t take my word for it, check Wikipedia), but because of all the stories and experiences and lives that make all those miles meaningful. A gap year isn’t about where you go and what you do so much about the mentality you pack in your bags to take with you. Getting out of the bubble your town has created is just a step to getting out of the bubble you’ve created for yourself. Take risks. Talk to everyone. Challenge yourself. Consciously choose where you sleep every single night, and most importantly, prepare to let yourself be changed. The world is a big place.