In Defense of Leaving School to Live in the Woods
The first time I told someone I was dropping out of college to work and hike the Appalachian Trail, their response was a confused pause, a furrowed brow, a tilting of the head, and “but….why?”. I laughed, “Because I don’t like school”. They nodded slowly and we both went back to our English projects.
That is a very simplified version of my life as it currently stands. When I was 18, I decided to take a gap year in between high school and college. I was sick of school and conflicted about what I wanted to study. The prospect of going into years of debt for something I was so unenthusiastic about made me feel ill. So I left, precisely 8 hours after my high school graduation. I studied Spanish in Guatemala, walked across Spain, and moved to Arizona. I had days when I was miserable, homesick, unsure of myself, and scared. I saw beautiful things and met incredible people from all over the world, I surprised myself, and I learned more than I ever thought possible in one year. Then when it was over, I figured it was time to start my actual life. I started college with a backpack full of new notebooks and an enthusiasm for academia that lasted for about a month.
One morning I was on my way to class, coffee in hand, homework completed. I got to the door and stopped with my hand on the door knob, unable to bring myself to turn it. I was struck with an overwhelming desire to not spend another day in a classroom. So I turned around and kept walking until I was on the busy sidewalk outside. It was a beautiful rainy day in Chicago, the top of the buildings disappearing into a cloud. I had a wonderful day exploring the city. But I went back to school the next day, of course. After all, as had been subtly drilled into my head for 20 years of my life, the only worth I have to offer this world is obtained through a college degree.
My mind always wanders back to one particular moment that has stuck with me. I had just flown into Paris, alone, on my way to hike 500 miles across Spain with a backpack and absolutely zero hiking experience. When I stepped into the airport after a night with no sleep, surrounded by a language I didn’t understand and people who knew what they were doing, I was overwhelmed. I collapsed onto a sad metal chair. I sat there for at least an hour, watching the sun rise and desperately wanting to go home. Then, all of a sudden, I just shut off my brain. I remember that moment so clearly. My logic had been telling me, “You have no idea what you’re doing, you’ve never even ridden public transportation by yourself before, you’re not a real traveler, you aren’t qualified to walk across an entire country,” so I shut it off. I got up and somehow located the train to downtown Paris, and to an unbelievable adventure.
So that’s what I’m doing now – ignoring my own negative thoughts and doing what I need to do. I have had problems recently with feeling guilty for being directionless, but I suddenly realize that is just not true. I actually woke up at 4am this morning, realized that it was not true, jumped out of bed, turned on the light, made some tea, and wrote this down in a frenzy of inspiration that must be taken advantage of. I have a strong sense of direction, and I always have – it’s just a little different than what years of schooling has taught me is correct. I find more educational value in conquering a hill I didn’t think I was strong enough for than in academic pursuits, and that’s ok. I left school for my sanity, for my love of the world, and for my 17-year-old self with dramatic daydreams. I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail for the thrill, the music, the history, the mountains, the lessons, and the challenge. So, for those of you who thrive in a formal education setting: I truly admire you and I can’t wait to see the amazing work that you do in your life. And for those of you who don’t: you aren’t broken, irresponsible, or directionless. You know exactly what you’re doing. Follow that instinct.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.