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.

12417839_10153843722427505_3858167449043384638_n My first day of school ever. Enthusiasm has not improved. 

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.

1111 First day of my hike, wearing my backpack very incorrectly (a lot to learn)

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. 


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Comments 6

  • Bushy Hartman : Oct 23rd

    OMG I am so proud of you! So much courage and wise beyond your years. Hope to see you on the trail one day. Bushy and Sparks 2017

  • Mike : Oct 23rd

    This takes courage. Most of us can’t defy what has been drilled into us even when it clearly doesn’t fit. We ignore it and just trust that others must know what’s best. You could spend a lifetime learning to trust your own inner self. You’re already there. That’s great. Happy journey.

  • Sandeep Asokan : Oct 24th

    Good luck to you! I am close to my 50s and still dreaming of the day I will have the courage and clarity of thought you have acquired so early!

    Good luck and good health on that trails!


  • Lisa Schirch : Oct 25th

    Love this post Sara and love your spirit and courage. You are on the right path…

  • Anita : Oct 25th

    Excited to hear the rest of your story! Thanks for sharing this.

  • JohnHatton : Feb 10th

    I think idea to leave school for 1 year and live in woods is strange, It is not only year of rest, but also you loose one year of studying and you will have to get used to new group of students, studying all again from scratch. But if you feel stressed and you see it as the only one way out as escaping to nature – do it.


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