Trading Parties for Planes

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

– Lao Tzu

A single step. One split-second decision can change everything in your future, everything that your outlook of life depends on. My life changed three years ago, when I decided that I wanted to make my memories actually memorable. This step was my decision to take a gap year.

For those who don’t know exactly what a gap year consists of, it’s essentially a year off of school or work. Some people take a gap year after college, while others take it after high school, like me. In fact, some major universities in the United States are promoting taking gap years; schools like Harvard encourage students to take time off. I could ramble on and on about the benefits (I wrote an entire essay on it once), but I’ll cut to the chase – gap years are so beneficial. They teach you more about yourself and life than anything else, whether you end up working or traveling or doing whatever else interests you.

Many people ask me why I decided to take a gap year instead of going to college like most of my classmates. They wonder why would anyone want to work nearly every day, save most of their money and then blow it all on a single backpacking trip. For some, that seems daunting and a little too reckless for comfort. For my financial advisor mother, that seems really reckless. But for me, it seems like the greatest adventure. Trust me, it’s been a bit challenging not spending my hard-earned savings on fast food or new wardrobe options or other spontaneous purchases. I just keep telling myself how awesome it’s going to be when I spend that money on a concert in London or on a tour of the Northern Lights in Iceland instead.

I started this game plan for myself over two years ago, when I traveled to Germany with a student exchange group. I was in awe of the incredible world that stood beyond the American borders I was so used to. I saw places that I had only learned about through photos in history textbooks. I walked next to the original line of the past-but-all-too-recent Berlin Wall, gazed up at the commemorated Brandenburg Gate, and felt the chill of permanent bleakness while in the remains of the Bergen-Belsen work camp. Although these significant places had many negative connotations and memories attached to them, I was still interested in being there. It was more educational than any school history lesson could have given me.

Everything else I participated in over there was so thrilling and raw — something I longed for from then on. I was making great friendships and learning admirable lessons about myself and others. I loved seeing the unique skylines and hearing thick German language wherever I went. I was constantly lost within the new realms of the world, but I was also found within my own wandering soul.

After returning home after those three weeks, I felt changed. Not in the sense that I had undergone a serious spiritual cleansing or I became a completely new person, but my eyes were opened. I realized that there was so much more to this world than what I had been acquainted with throughout my younger years. I began to crave adventure and would share my stories or photos with anyone who was willing to listen. I wanted to collect memories of travels as if they were the most expensive gifts in the world.

That’s when the idea of a gap year came along. As the conversations about life after high school started kicking in from almost every family member and adult I would talk to, I started to think of other options. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy school or that I didn’t get good enough grades to continue on to college. I just didn’t want to immediately start that next step of my life when I had such big aspirations and plans for myself. I wanted to be using a one-way ticket on a plane rather than partying on a college campus. I guess that’s why they say that there’s a time for everything.

I have been taking several online courses to use scholarships, but I still live at home and work is my main priority. I have still been counting down the days until I leave because the anticipation is just so high. This trip will be a time for me to experience the real world in its flesh before being tied down to more major responsibilities, like a full-time job or mortgage payments or a family of my own. My gap year is not an excuse for me to push off school for another year, but it’s a necessity for me to find who I am beyond the culture that I’ve been accustomed to.

My best friend, Brooke, and I are headed to Europe in just one month. It’s hard to believe that this thing I have been saving up for, this concept that I have been devoted to for months, is finally here. This trip has had extensive planning behind it; every day is accounted for within the 5-month span that we’ll be overseas. Brooke and I sat down in her Billings, Montana home one day and we made our route through almost all of Western Europe. We reconvened a few weeks later and edited it, ensuring our plan was going to run smoothly and work well with our budget.

I think that’s one of the biggest joys of this trip. Brooke and I have the freedom to change our itinerary to see what we want to see and experience what matters most to us. We have the flexibility of providing ourselves with the most genuine opportunities, all while venturing through these unknown lands. The other biggest perk is getting to see everything with her by my side. She is just as adventurous as I am, and I truly can’t wait to see what kind of stories and inside jokes we come home with.

This journey all began with a single step. It started with my decision to see the world and experience it with people that mean the world to me. It’s fueled by enormous amounts of wanderlust, and the pressing urges to live freely and boldly while I still can. It’s definitely going to be a learning experience; every day will present new obstacles and interesting trials. But here we are, throwing our 50 pound backpacks over our shoulders and booking cheap hostel rooms. And we aren’t looking back.

Here’s to curiosity. Here’s to amazement. Here’s to the journey.

Thank you for following along with us.

Ashly


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