Gap Life

Learning to grow by feeling small

"Do you have a job yet?"

It's my senior year of college. My friends are agonizing over med school interviews, case competitions, and the GRE. I tell my parents I'm taking a gap year. "To find myself!" I tell my advisor as she pushes stacks of research internship applications across her desk. I throw the applications in the recycling on my way out of Cupples Hall and walk home to my off-campus apartment. I set aside my resume of campus involvement, nonprofit work, and internships, and compile a sparse list of my customer service experience. I email in job applications at Yosemite, Glacier, Sequoia, Grand Teton.

"So what are you doing after graduation?"

I duck to avoid the square caps raining down on me. "Do you think anyone's ever been decapitated at their own graduation?" A week later, I'm in my car, alone, driving from St. Louis, Missouri, to Moose, Wyoming.

"Ring ring hello, yes this is the mountains calling."

The closer I got to graduation, the further I was from being able to see myself in an office, or a hospital, or, for that matter, a city. I loved the outdoors; hiking, climbing, and camping had become a major part of my life, and I couldn't imagine giving that up for the long days in a cold, fluorescent laboratory that an internship in my field promised. I wanted punishing climbs up steep slopes; early morning campfires on the side of a mountain; long, slow days floating down a river. I decided to set aside what was expected of me.

I accepted a job working at a bike shop in Grand Teton National Park, 5 hours from anything you could feasibly call a major city. I began working 4 days a week for minimum wage, living in dorm housing that made my college dorms look like 5 star hotels, and spending my days and afternoons off hiking, camping, and swimming in freezing mountain lakes.

"Does anyone actually know how to say cairn?"

My first night there, I called my mom in tears, feeling utterly alone and convinced I could never make friends with these new people.

And somehow... I just never got around to leaving.

My first summer in these mountains (MY mountains, as I not-so-secretly think of them), I accomplished things I never could have imagined myself doing, not only physically, but in terms of personal growth. I summitted my first (and second, and third) real mountain. I led my first pitch on trad gear. I learned when to push forward, and when to turn back, and to always bring a headlamp and twice as much water as you think you'll need. 

"When the going gets tough, the tough channel a beached whale."

After that summer, I gained a new feeling that I could make anything happen for myself that I could imagine. When I signed up to stay for the winter, I was warned the cold nights and short days would trap me inside and drive me crazy. Instead, I taught myself to snowboard, and became addicted to the freezing wind burning my eyes and the soft snow burrowing into my thrift-store boots. 

In between seasons, I traveled alone for the first time, then the second time, to magical and inspiring places like Tonsai, Ubud, Sevilla, Noordwijk, and Edinburgh, where I met stunningly beautiful humans and learned how not to plan. 

"Where you go?" "The moon!"

That's not to say that every day is a perfect flurry of exhilaration and self-reflection; there are days when work sucks, or when I get in a fight with a friend, or I just want to stay in bed and not talk to anyone. But those days are a part of any life, and those days pass, if you let them. When you put it aside and take yourself for a hike, it's amazing what can disappear into the smell of wet pine trees.

As much as I can't imagine a life without my mountains, my time here will pass. And maybe I'll move to a city and plant myself in an office chair. Or maybe I'll spend my last paycheck on a one-way plane ticket.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Marilla Havens

Wash U grad putting my liberal arts degree to good use in Jackson Hole/Grand Teton.