By Janeece Woodson, Staff Writer
For the past several months, whenever I visited my family, all I could talk about was the greatest adventure I would ever be allowed: my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. I would leave a week after graduation, drive east with my carefully tested and packed camping equipment, and record my days and nights on the trail whenever I could find a highway McDonald’s with wifi.
I picked up the jargon for the Appalachian Trail pretty quickly. A thru-hike is the completion of the 2,190-mile hiking trail from Springer Mountain in Georgia to the top of Maine’s Mount Katahdin. The hike takes an average of six months—three if you are an insane rock-climbing marathon sprinter. It is often rainy, cold, and rocky, and requires at least ten miles of walking a day. Mostly, it is beautiful. The mountains along the trail could make a grown man cry. I have seen it happen on my favorite vlogger’s channel.
Daydreams about the hike consumed my life. Of course, I would have to take off a year of school to complete it. Yet the timing seemed perfect; when would I get another chance to be a wildwoman and only have to think about myself?
I watched day’s worth of footage from the trail. I read a dozen books. I saved up all I could so I could mail myself “drops”—packages of food and hygiene products—to await my arrival at the post offices of towns near the trail. I even dreamt about the trail, often nicknamed the “Green Tunnel,” and about sleeping under stars. Then, my dad told me the news.
“Things have changed,” he said. “You have to stay in school. No gap year. You’ll lose your health insurance.”
I can imagine that after reading this someone a couple of decades older than me would suggest that perhaps I should not care so much. There is nothing to be angry about: a gap year is the product of the narcissistic college student who is not ready to grow up. Taking a year off from life and responsibility just to become King of the Mountain is only something the so-called Me Generation could concoct in this economic climate.
But my story is not about just me. It is, in fact, about the largest demographic of Americans alive today. No matter how much one dislikes our individualistic attitudes, and whether one likes it or not, we are the future. And we are forced to deny ourselves adventure for the sake of eating and healthcare and having a place to live.
We are 1 trillion dollars in debt from student loans with degrees that cost our parents much less. (Forbes calculates that most consumer product prices have been inflated by 115 percent since the 1980s, while college degree inflation rates have risen by 500 percent.) More than a quarter of a million of us who do have college degrees are working for minimum wage. More than half of us work in a job that does not require a college degree at all—I guess it really is a participation trophy country.
Our unemployment rate is more than double that of the Silent Generation’s when they were in the same age range. Since 1973, it is estimated that the workforce has become 75 percent more productive, on average, while pay (inflation considered) has increased by only 9 percent. Since the recession, our average wages have fallen 8 percent.
When speaking with a group of professors and high school teachers in a casual setting, I asked, “What’s the biggest difference between students from 1997 and 2017?” The consensus was that there is not much difference in intelligence, pleasantness, or academic skill, but that there is a huge difference in dress, politeness, and how seriously students regarded their work. They mostly agreed that today’s students dress more professionally early on, and work hard to make themselves more marketable. College is not a playground anymore. In many ways, neither is high school.
I do think we have a lot to be grateful for. We are the most educated and the healthiest generation in America. We have so many opportunities afforded to us by technology and medicine, and though there will always be traditionalists, we are moving towards a more socially progressive and accepting society. I feel content, and I am not too worried about my future. We cannot complain about noodles and gas station pizza when some people have nothing. In fact, I think most Millennials refuse to do so. We may ache for more, sometimes, but the constant looming threat of ruin only pushes us to hold on tighter to contentment.
But I cannot accept that our economic environment discourages adventure.
I think this is the generation that should be able to travel the world, to quit their jobs and do the occasional spontaneous trip with no clear destination. We should be able to get that loan, buy that fixer-upper, and start a family—an adventure of its own. We should be able to save up enough to move across the country without help from our families. We should be able to keep our motorcycles and dirtbikes and continue rock climbing even though we won’t be able to afford healthcare for much longer (thanks, Trump). We should be able to move out of the house and away from our families for the first time in our lives, something my high school sweetheart still cannot do because he would lose his health insurance.
Yes, these things may seem extraneous and pointlessly daring and completely unnecessary, but they are crucial for our development.
Humans must be exposed to stress in order to grow. We cannot reach our full potential if we are stuck in our parents’ houses, working retail to pay for school. The resulting plateau of life experience just leads to meaninglessness. Sometimes people need to not have a plan in order to figure out what they should do. We grow the most when we throw ourselves—or are thrown—into tough, unusual situations.
Should we all become the “Into the Wild” guy? Probably not.
Should we suck it up, accept the fact that things are what they are, and attempt to balance our responsibilities and our adventurous activities? Absolutely.
I still have not stopped dreaming about the Green Tunnel. My insatiable lust for ultralight camping gear continues. The realization that I will not have my thru-hike is disappointing, but I can adjust. After consulting some experienced thru-hikers, I have decided to do a half-hike from Harper’s Ferry, W. Va., to Mt. Katahdin. I’ll have three months to complete about one thousand miles before I return home for graduate school. I will not give up seeking my adventure.