Taking The Long Way

When I was still small enough to hide behind my mom during encounters with new people and panic during school fire drills, my parents began to invite strangers to my house. Loaded with sets of panniers and powered by two wheels, gears, and their body strength, our guests would coast into our driveway on touring bicycles and arrive just in time for dinner. In the evening, we gathered around the metal table in our kitchen and listened to them, full of intrigue, as they shared their stories with us: where they are from; where they are going; why they chose to leave their life behind for days, weeks, and sometimes months at a time to go cycling. Hailing from around the world, the cyclists traversed mountains and valleys by bike before arriving at our home. They were brave, worldly, and were doing something that seemed nearly impossible to me. They were the kind of people that make you want to drop everything and travel, the kind of people who inspire you to explore.

My parents started hosting touring cyclists overnight through a hospitality exchange called Warm Showers because they wanted to teach their children that most people in the world are good people. Ten years have passed since our first guest came and I believe that it has worked. Every time a new cyclist reaches out to us, we gladly accept and share a meal and stories around the same table in our kitchen. My 17-year-old self has connected with people, young and old, from countries like Belgium and China. I played a thrilling game of hide-and-seek with a boy from Pennsylvania who was on a bike tour with his father; we became friends instantly. I tried traditional South Korean cuisine for the first time when two brothers insisted on cooking noodles to give us a taste of their culture; the food was very spicy but full of love. I was introduced to the concept of a gap year by two articulate high school graduates from Massachusetts who were pursuing a gap year themselves to bike across the country; they planted the seed that has now grown into my soon-to-be reality.

Little by little, one conversation at a time, I felt the invisible barrier between the “me” and the “them” start to crumble. What I discovered is that our guests always had more in common with me than I would first expect. They were kind, complex, and openly shared their lives with me for a night. Most of all, they taught me the value of human connection as well as the value of slowing down the pace of your life, and I promised myself that I would prioritize these values once I emerged from the rush of high school.

Now I am out. After four years of chasing ambitions and accolades and constantly increasing the rate at which I recklessly accelerated forward, I am stepping away from that trajectory in exchange for a year of meaningful experience, reflection, and growth. I got a taste of what this might feel like after pursuing a short bike tour of my own this summer. For once in four years, I wasn’t racing myself or anyone else. I pedaled my way through beautiful, sweeping fields and up steep, unfamiliar hills as the mid-July sun beat down on me. I was left alone with my thoughts during the day and was hosted by another Warm Showers family in the evening. It was simultaneously challenging and rewarding. The long way around always seems to be like that, and I’m pretty sure I like it.

In ways, my gap year is a continuation of the mission by which my parents have raised me. I believe in the goodness of people and I am excited to connect with new ones. I have felt the power of experiential learning and hospitality exchanges, and I want more. I hope to be inspired and to inspire, to learn from the stories of others and share my own as well. It surely will not be easy all of the time, but I am as ready as I’ll ever be to embrace the biggest change in my life. As I allow myself to meet and fall in love with new people and places next year, I will think of the home and people that started it all: my family on Maple Avenue and the many touring cyclists that have, through their adventures, shaped me. Here’s to taking the long way around.