Student blogs: 3 “gap semester” tales from high school students who graduated early
These travelogues were originally published in Steamboat Living magazine.
Brooke Buchanan: Yoga certification in Costa Rica
My dad and mom are awesome. They raised my sister and I in the outdoors: backcountry skiing, mountain biking, running rivers. They encouraged us to take “calculated” risks to honor those things that fed our souls.
For some reason—many reasons actually—high school wasn’t doing that as much anymore. I loved my classmates and teachers, and my soccer team, but something deeper was tugging at me. That’s why I decided to take a “gap” semester before college. I’d earn my yoga teaching credential, and take a six-week sea kayaking and backpacking course in Patagonia with the National Outdoor Leadership School.
For the first part, I found a great, month-long yoga program in Costa Rica: the School Yoga Institute’s 200-hour course near Santa Teresa on the Nicoya Peninsula. It’d blend sadhana yoga and shamanism with something else I’ve always wanted to learn that requires equal balance: surfing.
So I pitched it to my parents, kept my grades up, graduated early, saved some money and, next thing you know, said goodbye to friends and family and stepped onto the airplane. All I knew was that I had fallen in love with yoga mentally, physically and spiritually and wanted to teach it to others. This was my plan to get to there.
As my departure date neared, my nervousness grew. Excitement mixed with fear and dread. I thought of everything that could go wrong while traveling alone internationally: getting kidnapped, robbed, sunburned, sick from local food, bullied, you name it. Then, like ripping off a Band-aid, I started my journey.
At first, traveling alone was scary. I felt like everyone was watching me, like I was under a spotlight. But as I got into traveling—with all the waiting, lines, connections, taxis— I became less sensitive to people’s perceived judgments. I realized that I’m not that big of a deal; everyone was paying attention to their own lives while I was wrapped up by own insecurities. I had passed my first test.
Two days later, I reached my base camp and home for the next 25 days along with 18 other women from all over the world with their own stories (one runs a surf camp in Alaska). Together, we toured the classrooms, dorms, yoga studio and beach. There was great waves, monkey-filled palms and a fiery sunset. I was pretty excited.
After the opening ceremony it felt like I’d known my new classmates for years; we had an instant, deep connection. By 8 p.m. we were fast asleep, readying for our first 5 a.m. class.
The course was split into four, four-day blocks, each centered around a different theme. Then we’d have a day off to surf or explore before the next block began, bringing new lessons and ideas.
Block one revolved around the serpent cycle, teaching you to feel through your emotions. We were guided to understand why we feel the way we do. Each practice centered around understanding your own emotional setbacks. What did I need to let go of? What was I attached to?
We practiced holding space for one another to open up and share our darker sides. I was like an onion, slowly peeling away layers that no longer benefited my character to find the light underneath. I also learned how to nurture and support my classmates while they did the same. On the last night we threw symbols of our burdens into a bonfire and with tears pooling, we watched them burn away, closing the space with a harmonious “Om.”
The next block revolved around the jaguar, which fears nothing, not even death. We were taught how to become free from the jungle of fear in our minds. I confronted my fears of failure, being alone, and not having control. Freshly liberated, I was able to step outside my boundaries and gain confidence.
Next came the hummingbird cycle and embracing our creative sides. We practiced singing, playing guitar, drawing and writing poems. Yoga teachers, I learned, need to channel creativity. Instead of using words like “stand up” or “move,” make the flow imaginative with phrases like “float your arms up to the sky” or “extend your energy.” This cycle helped me embrace my own creativity.
The course closed with the eagle cycle, a totem representing universal understanding and the all-knowing. The eagle sees things for what they are, without any preconceived notions or judgment. I was guided to release my perception of what is “good” and “bad” and instead see the object for what it truly is. While teaching, I should view my students as equal to one another. It helped me let go of my judgments toward other things as well.
The course wasn’t easy or always fun. Some of the poses were painful, and we’d have to rely on others to help us get through—people we didn’t know before. It was a complete reset of everything I knew before.
I had a hard time saying goodbye to everyone. We hugged long and hard. But I’m excited to share what I learned, and have a more open mind about a lot of things. All this will also hopefully help me on my upcoming NOLS trip and later in college, where I’ll be even farther away from friends, family and home.
Why I Decided to Finish Highschool Early and Take a Gap Semester to Go on a NOLS Course
So much can happen in a year. People change, move forward, grow, and accept. Looking back a year ago from today, I was completely different. Sitting in class as a junior in high school in Steamboat Springs, Colo., I was bored and anxious, dreaming to go outside and do something more meaningful.
Then a brilliant idea dawned on me: graduate a semester early to travel, a so-called “gap” semester before heading off to college. After talking with my counselors and parents we figured out a way to make it a reality. A couple of online courses over the summer and good grades would see me finish five months earlier than my fellow classmates.
So then I started researching possible adventures to do with my off time. I wanted something that would challenge and invigorate me. My good friend had just finished a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) course and he suggested for me to check it out. After looking, I knew that that was totally up my alley. I decided to embark on a NOLS expedition in Patagonia, Chile, where I would be backpacking and sea kayaking for 30 days. So now, a year later after all of my journeys, I am here to write about the importance of stepping out of your boundaries and taking chances.
March 15, I stepped onto the airplane feeling more nervous than ever. Reality sank in: I was going to live in the boondocks for over a month with no showers, cell phone, or connection to society. What the heck had I signed myself up for? After 27 hours of travel, I slept-walked my way into the NOLS base camp where I met the rest of the group that I would be living with for the upcoming month. We gathered our food, went through our gear, packed up the bus, and set off onto our expedition.
Our plan was to sea kayak five days through an ocean channel, then paddle up a stream that is only accessible at high tide to a lake that has never been seen—even by our NOLS instructors–and from there kayak three more days to the end of the lake where we would set off backpacking for nine days.
The first couple days were amazing. Clear skies, glassy water, and perfect camping beaches. While paddling we got to see dolphins and sea lions. I was connecting well with my group and having the time of my life. I felt clear minded and present, enjoying nature’s beauty and simplicity. Thinking the trip might be easier than I expected, as if Patagonia read my mind, our trip took a turn for the worst.
March 25, day 6 of our expedition, we set off from our beach into a ocean channel that no NOLS course had ever explored. The day started off with a rosy sunrise, glassy water, and dolphins jumping and playing. As we began to venture into the channel we were all singing songs and sharing stories of our lives outside of the course. I was feeling happy, excited, and comfortable.
The day was going smooth until 4 o’clock came along. Wind started picking up and rain clouds started rolling over the mountains. Within minutes, the ocean transformed from mirror-like to an angry, wavy, dangerous terrain. Paddling was exhausting and our group made the decision to start looking for camp. But both sides of the channel were cliffs. We kept paddling in search of a beach but nothing appeared. Time flew by with the wind.
By 6:30 the sun began to set and we decided we had to “combat camp.” We found a small grass patch where we were able to unload the boats and make a warm dinner in the dark. This grass patch was only there at low tide, so that meant that half of the group who wasn’t lucky enough to find a camp up in the marsh would have to sleep on the grass until 12 am and then wake up for high tide and hold their gear until the tide started going down until 4 am. Lucky for me, I found a camp in the marsh.
March 26: I was in a terrible mood. I was cold, homesick, and exhausted. I couldn’t believe that I was only a quarter of the way through the course and I regretted coming. We left camp at about 11 a.m. and started paddling. About 15 minutes after we left, while I was in the middle of throwing a pity party for myself, a pod of three orca whales started blowing air just 30 yards away from our kayaks. One of my teammates got super stoked and set my perspective straight: “Orca whales are never this far back in the channels and they only come up for air every so many miles. We could have left 30 seconds later and missed seeing them.” I realized how synchronistic life truly is. I was there for a reason, and although I was miserable, I knew that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I noticed that my problems on this course were far more drastic and real than any of my problems in normal life. I began to feel humbled and grateful.
The next couple of days were easier. We made it to the lake, where we immediately stripped down and had our first “bath” in eight days. I felt like a sparkling diamond while getting out of the untouched, pristine water. We continued up the lake for another day, finally finding a base camp to prepare for our backpacking leg.
March 30: We stashed our kayaks in the woods and packed our backpacks. My pack felt like it weighed more than me. I was carrying food, kitchen supplies, a tent, and all of my personal gear (which I brought way too much of). The first day’s hike was tricky but super fun. It was through a dense, steep forest where you couldn’t see five feet in front of you due to the thick vegetation. I was astounded by how much life was in this forest. I saw about 20 different types of mosses that were all a vibrant green and an infinite amount of different plants, trees, and bushes. Everything seemed so healthy and untouched. It made me happy to know that there are still places on this Earth that haven’t been affected by humanity.
Unfortunately, the backpacking portion of our trip got cut a little short due to this same terrain. After day four we realized the thick underbrush wasn’t going to let us get to our target peak. I was okay with this decision because it allowed for us to have a layover day on a different lake. We got to sit out all day under the sun and play cards, cook pizzas, read, and have some much-needed solo time.
The lake was serene. Sky-scraping mountains surrounded it and the water was a clear blue. Going for a quick swim, I felt a sense of relief and tranquility wash over me. I was refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready for the trek back to our sea kayaks.
April 5: We arrived to our kayaks stashed in the bushes and began to paddle to the other end of the lake. I felt sad leaving the beautiful mountains that we hiked in, knowing I’ll likley never see them again. Once we got to camp we all sat under one of the tarps and played a deadly card game of presidents. After losing four rounds in a row I left to my tent, excited to cozy up in my sleeping bag and conk out. On my way over, however, I felt a sharp sting on my left hip. Grabbing where the burn was, I found a hungry, slimy, vicious leech. I am not good with bugs at all. Within seconds my clothes were off and I was screaming. I ran to my tent group and made them scan my entire body for leeches. After that night, I made sure to cover my entire body with clothes.
The next day, we planned to leave the lake and paddle back into the ocean channel. Our boats were all packed up and ready when all of a sudden a teammate noticed he was missing his hiking boots. Strictly following the Leave No Trace principles, we unpacked all of our boats, to no avail. Guilty and embarrassed, he then had to kayak with three others all the way back to the other side of the lake and look for them. The good news: This meant another layover day. I got time to do yoga on the beach and go for a hike alone.
The rest of the journey home was filled with all sorts of ups and downs. Some days were sunny, glassy, and easy while other days were rainy, windy, or even hailing. I was challenged emotionally and physically. In one moment I would be counting down the days until I could shower and see my family while the next I’d wish I had more time out in this spectacular wilderness.
Our last day was one of the roughest. The wind was at our faces and we had to paddle up a river to get to the dock. It took us over five hours to move two miles. My arms felt like noodles. But by the time we reached the dock I didn’t want to get out of my kayak. I realized the trip was actually over. Nostalgia washed over me as I realized I’d just had the most rewarding, challenging and life-changing trip I could imagine.
After cleaning the kayaks and loading our gear onto the bus we set back to civilization. I felt like I had accomplished more in the past month than I ever had in my entire life. Before leaving, I felt strangely attached to the illusions of society. I made my life over-complicated with social media, politics, relationships, you name it. And on that bus coming back, I was grateful for how simple life truly is. I was excited to have the privileges of using a toilet, microwave, and warm bed. I felt humbled for the opportunities I’ve been given.
—Brooke Buchanan will attend California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California, this fall.
Caitlyn Musselman: A trip of self-discovery to New Zealand
I left Steamboat on Thursday, Jan. 5. I’ll never forget it because of the anticipation leading up to it.
The weeks before were like running through molasses. I couldn’t wait to leave. I felt like I was observing myself from above.Eventually, I figured out what the feeling was: doom. I was terrified.
My final night was an emotional whirlwind. I was excited but afraid. The next morning, somewhat dazed, I grabbed my backpack and headed to the car, not letting myself change my mind. It took all of my courage to not run back into my childhood home.
On the flight to San Francisco, I listened to the conversation next to me. A boy my age was heading to Australia for a six-month church retreat. His story of his last day at home sounded similar. I tracked him down after we landed as a source of comfort. He told me his life story. His dad had passed away the year before and his girlfriend six months after. We spent the next hour calming one another.
After he departed, I came up with a thousand reasons not to get on the next plane. Then I found one reason to do so: why not? That was enough.
I met other travelers on the flight to New Zealand, and it was inspiring knowing there were other people out there doing things that scared them, too.
I was always the kid who couldn’t wait to grow up, to be mature, to have freedom. I played the mom in imaginary games. I counted down the minutes until I was out of high school. I wanted something more. So I graduated a semester early.
I laugh these days because there are moments when I long for the days of AP Biology in Mrs. Gay’s classroom. I miss its innocence, seeing the same kid five times a day, the friends I made. It’s funny how life works. We want what we can’t have. I can’t have high school back.
I’m starting to figure out why I was scared about leaving. It was the fear of letting go, of coming face to face with myself. And this was terrifying.
I was good at school, but I am not so good at this. It challenges me, putting me right at the edge of a cliff. It’s going to lead me right into myself. But I guess I’ll walk right into it, for it’s leading me to the one place I am most curious about: myself.
Today, while walking in central Nelson, my mind flashed to my friends, who are also traveling solo, and to my twin brother and how he’s going to star in “Grease,” sharing his magic with people. I guess I’m spreading my own magic, too; we all are. I thought about the many people I’ve met so far, what their stories were, and those brief moments of eye contact before we’d both be on our way again; a small moment, yet so large.
Traveling alone has a way of exposing your biggest weaknesses and your greatest strengths. The solitude becomes a mirror, forcing you to look deep inside yourself. I was inspired to do and be more. I wanted to shine a light on people and let them know my life’s dance, and let it teach me some moves of its own.
Aaah, the great humor of the universe: ass-biting but equally as charming.
Yesterday, I said goodbye to the wonderful family I lived with for two weeks. My next adventure: 10 days alone in a cabin on a beach in Nelson. Feeling good, I spent my next flight flirting with three 25-year-old French boys. I felt like I could do anything. I was wise and mature now, wasn’t I? The gods were likely laughing as they foresaw the next 24 hours of my life.
I arrived at my little 10-foot by 10-foot cabin—no family to ease my mind, no golden retriever wagging its tail. Just me, a toaster, a fridge and a bed. And it was pouring outside.
Then I realized I had no food or water. I called my parents but it didn’t help, putting me deeper into my own pity party.
So I had a look around. I found a cafe. With the $10 I had left (I foolishly forgot to get cash at the airport; I blame it on the cute French boys), I bought dinner: a cheap to-go salad and a snack bar. I hungrily gobbled it up. Then I took a shower and everything seemed better. Later, I pulled up Disney’s “Frozen,” which put me more at ease. Then I drifted to sleep until I woke up to my windows and door clanking violently. It was howling outside.
I looked for hurricane warnings in Nelson, but it was only a heavy storm warning. The wind and door slamming kept me up for hours.
When I woke up, it was still pouring rain and my stomach was growling. I bought a scone, banana and another snack bar at the cafe. The rain continued all morning, so I stayed in the cabin.
Later, I went to the bus stop to go to the nearest grocery store to buy food for the next 10 days. I waited for 20 minutes, then 20 more. It never showed. I went back into the café, buying a loaf of Wholemeal bread, strawberry jam, yogurt and a small box of Raisin Bran. Eating it alone in my cabin, I started laughing. Where was I, and what was I eating? Wasn’t I gluten-, dairy- and sugar- free?
In my old life I was. But my life’s been twisted. I am again humbled by life’s many lessons. Who knew that a makeshift sandwich could have such an effect? I was taking this all too seriously. I was living and breathing and was in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Our journey through life has much to offer and teach — this time to enjoy the ride. I realize I am fortunate enough to be here at all. Cheers to Wholemeal bread and strawberry jam, and to wise humor of the universe! Xoxo
—Caitlyn Musselman will attend Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado, this fall.
Maggie Henry: A Trip to Peru
I lean over Reed, knees folded behind the seat in front of me, and stick my head out the window — partially to avoid throwing up on the Peruvians and their chickens and partially to see the 2,000-foot drop-off we could easily tumble down. Ten hours into a 14-hour bus ride from Lima to Corongo, Peru, the reality of my decision to graduate high school early and live on a high-altitude, remote, organic farm begins to settle in. I’m excited, but the bus driver’s confidence on the mountainous road doesn’t match mine.
A few hours past nightfall, we land in a small “town” consisting of a church and three houses. We jump off of the bus and the annoyed driver throws us our bags and peels away. We’re in the most foreign place I’ve ever been.
After a while, a man driving a chicken cargo truck waves us to get in. He seems friendly enough, so we oblige. Apparently, Corongo, population 500, doesn’t see many gringos. So when they do, they know they’re headed to Eilif, the Norwegian’s, farm.
Three weeks later, Reed and I are covered head to toe in mosquito bites and well versed in cooking with four ingredients. Six others are with us, all in their 20s and mainly from Europe. We’ve bonded, purely because we’ve had to learn to survive on this wacky farm together.
It’s made me take a serious look at myself, but I can’t wait to get out of there.
I’m more stoked on our next bus ride. We’re heading to Huaraz to meet our friend Troy, also from Steamboat.
Troy mellowly wanders off a different bus and spots us. It’s a great hug. Early the next morning, we begin a three-day trek in the Cordillera Blanca, over
Quilcayhuanca Pass—some of my most magnificent days ever. We camp at 15,000 feet at the base of five glaciers, whose rivers join to cut through a lush canyon. Wild horses become our friends. We stay here for two nights, but it feels like a lifetime.
Back in civilization, we stumble upon a small hostel and are greeted by men with tattoos, English accents and rum. We make friends with Lucy, a Spanish comedian, and James, a British mechanical engineer. Over hours of card games, we laugh and talk endlessly.
Next we spend a week in Lima, wandering, playing soccer and sleeping. It’s a necessary hibernation because soon enough, our next adventure begins.
At 5:30 a.m. March 1, we pack our backpacks and drag ourselves to the hotel’s breakfast buffet. Our flight lands in Cusco later that afternoon, where we’re greeted with a sign reading, “Spiritual and UFO group.” It’s held by Jorge, our tour company’s owner. Our guide, Noah, says he’s coming on our tour with us, which is rare.
Over the next few days, we visit ancient sites throughout Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Jorge teaches us about the history of the Inca and pre-Inca civilizations, as well as their thoughts on the history of Earth and humanity. He makes us feel connected and relevant to the past.
A train takes us to Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu, where he hands us three coca leaves, the great offering to Mother Earth, or Pachamama. At the entrance he links our hands together and has us close our eyes. He leads us to a small nook overlooking the valley. “Keep your eyes closed,” he says. “Feel what is around you; acclimate yourself with this place. See it without your eyes.” When we open our eyes, the sight takes our breath away; it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.
Jorge leaves us on our second day in Aguas Calientes, handing us off to his nephew, Broz. “Yes … like bro’s,” he says. “My name is Broz.”
Broz takes us to Puno on Lake Titicaca. We visit their reed islands, and see their art and ways of life. I learn how to see everyone as an individual expression of the same, loving Creation. We then visit Bolivia, whose ruins date back so far they test established archeological notions.
Later, Broz pulls our van over at a red stone wall, called Amaru Muru. She’s the goddess etched in stone above the doorway, he says. We conduct our last ceremony together, a celebratory farewell. There’s magic around us during the sunset.
We arrive back in Steamboat a few days later. It’s a weird re-entry. The trip still doesn’t feel real. But I feel a million times better about it than I did on that first bus.
—Maggie Henry will attend Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado, this fall.
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