Imagine K-12 education as a series of train journeys. "All aboard for kindergarten," the conductor cries, kicking things off, and the kids troop on board. Another year brings another train, and another set of educational challenges.
At high school graduation, the scene is a grand central station, a plethora of students, parents, tracks and trains, including some that are very selective as to who gets on the trains to college.
Many students have either boarded the college trains or are in the process of doing so, but some are looking for the door. Included in that group of mavericks for 2017 is Peter Hilton of Menlo-Atherton High School. A year earlier, Nathaniel Verbeck of Woodside High was numbered among them.
For his gap year, Nathaniel, who lives in Redwood City, backpacked the length of Appalachian Trail, a 2,180-mile hike between Maine and Georgia. His takeaway: a unique experience in being motivated to complete something over a long term. His college plans are taking him to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Backpacking also seems in the cards for Peter, who lives in Menlo Park. In September, he said, he may be headed abroad, possibly for environment-related volunteer work. Among his goals: immersing himself in a Spanish speaking culture, including a short-term job, perhaps in food service, to get a sense of earning his daily bread the hard way. Peter has been accepted at Colby College in Maine.
A social conscience
Outdoor living in the wilderness will not be unfamiliar to Peter Hilton, who has the distinction of having been an Eagle Scout. Living outside in an international setting will be new.
His older brother was the first in the Hilton family to take a gap year, spending three or four months in Cuzco, Peru, where he taught English. "I admire him for having the gumption to do that and invest in himself," Peter said.
He has applied to volunteer programs involved in conservation and environmental service. The opportunities he's looking at include the possibility of getting involved in an initiative in Chile where, he said, private land owners are buying tracts of land and donating them to the government in a bid to establish national parks.
Asked about being self conscious as an American abroad, Peter sounded a note of humility. "I would never want to assert myself or do anything self-centered (or act to advance) a goal of mine that is self-centered," he said. "My willingness and interest in using Spanish kind of stems from that respect."
That humility is also embodied in his search for a steady menial job for a month or so, something "that isn't necessarily an internship," he said. "I can really get to know what it's like to get up and go to work every day."
There are plenty of people for whom that is not a choice, he said. "Having that empathy for people who do have these jobs ... is very important. Forgetting about these people, forgetting about people who live like that, is detrimental to my social conscience."
Nathaniel Verbeck said he spent 126 days on the Appalachian Trail. His pack weighed around 28 pounds for the first 48 days, including 18 pounds of gear, 2 pounds of water and 8 pounds of food. After a two-month respite in Reno, Nevada, to allow a stress fracture in his foot to heal, he returned to the trail with gear weighing just 8 1/2 pounds -- he saved up in Reno to buy lighter stuff -- and less food.
It is somewhat easier to travel light when you don't carry cooking equipment and your diet consists of granola bars, tortillas, peanut butter and Pop Tarts. "Tons of people do it and they're fine," Nathaniel said. "It just sucks when it's cold out."
Thoughts of giving up came on regularly, he said. "It's like a common passing thought. Giving up is just part of the trail," he said. "It's really just about telling yourself to just give it one more day. Then something happens that reminds you why you're out there. It reminds me that I want to be out here, that I need to finish this trail, that I want to finish this trail."
Asked what he missed, he said the time to "do whatever I wanted," ironically a reason he chose the hike in the first place. "It's like a full-time job where you get no breaks whatsoever," he said.
"I would say it was very enlightening," he said of the hike. "When you're out in the woods every day, you have nothing to think about but yourself." One insight: "You can kind of wing it if you really put your mind to something. As long as you put your effort into (it) you can achieve some pretty awesome things," he said. "This is a pretty awesome thing, at least for me. It was something I didn't think I could do."
• Related story: Who takes a gap year?