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My Gap Year by Amber V. '24

Part One: The good, the great, and the very, very dumb.

So one day I up and took a gap year. I may have mentioned this. Every now and then, I’d stare out the window — of my car, of a plane, of a smelly bus in Spain — with music blasting in my ears, and do that thing where you think of yourself in a movie. Or, y’know, a blog.

I know a lot of students are gapping this year, and others are considering taking spring semester off if the current situation doesn’t change. Maybe this will give you some ideas.

This blog I’m going to talk about what I did, the fun and stupid anecdotes of road tripping up the west coast, working on a farm/retreat in Santa Cruz, and backpacking around Europe. Part two will describe the mechanics of how I got those gigs, how to use HelpX01 like WWOOF but dodgier and cheaper and find cheap plane tickets and the ways I tried to not get murdered.02 these were inexhaustive and I still totally could have been, honestly. But I’m lucky. I’m no expert, but maybe you’ll learn from my mistakes.

Now take that 35-lb backpack and let’s get going!

June 2019

The Tucson sun is sweltering, and the rubber of your shoes will soften on the asphalt if you stand around. You’re three hours past a breakup, pacing in the parking lot of one of the endless plazas that make up the gridwork of Tucson. There’s a Target with an “Apply now!” sign, and the wage is above Arizona’s minimum.

July 2019.

Working at Target! Suffice to say it wasn’t glamorous. They scheduled new hires for 6am – 2pm shifts, and one day a jar of alfredo sauce cracked on the assembly line and dripped on everything below it. My jeans from that day still smell like sauce.

I earned enough money to travel, though.

September 2019.

Road trip, day one.

I drive an orange 2005 Nissan Murano, which is to say a short, squat minivan with a rounded hood. Its secret: if you fold the backseats down, there’s a perfectly flat surface from the hatchback to the front seat, just long enough for someone of my stature (footnote: read: short) to lie down.

I’d watched a number of #vanlife03 pretty much what it sounds like: living in a van, which is gutted and re-modeled on the inside to look like a chic tiny home. For further reading: Stephi Lee on youtube. videos, and I wanted to be out of Tucson but didn’t want to pay for airbnb rooms. I had an internship ahead of me, so I wanted some time where I wasn’t tied down in one place.

So I packed some plastic crates with clothes and food and running clothes, and also twenty-some books, most of which I still have not finished.04 Two -- <em>Mists of Avalon</em> by Marion Zimmer Bradley and <em>The Three Musketeers</em> by Alexandre Dumas -- are on my bookshelf in Cambridge, daring me to take them home again unread.

And went off.

The first night, in Flagstaff, I remember sitting petrified inside my car in a Walmart parking lot. I’d gone running on a hiking trail and found a gym that let me shower. I’d heard a crow call in person for the first time. I’d had a salad and canned beans and several handfuls of nuts, and it had all been wonderful, I was finally free. But I was terrified.

I wound up driving around a quiet neighborhood, taking random twists and turns to make sure no headlights were following me. Nowhere seemed “good,” but finally I decided that one cul-de-sac was no riskier than the others, so I parked, killed the lights, and crawled into the back. I kept pepper spray in the door shelf, my keys in my hand. The stars out the windshield looked beautiful.

picture of a highway

A typical day of this: I’d wake up in the back of my car, after several rounds of alarms. Drive to a park, set up my cookstove, and stretch on the grass while my water boiled. I’d make oatmeal with peanut butter and cranberries, and wolf it down and clean everything from a gallon jug I filled up at gas stations.

From there, the goal was always coffee shop (write), run, drive, but getting two of these done was a victory, three a cause for celebration. So on a day with no driving, I’d look up a coffee shop and head there to write.

After some hours — sometimes two and sometimes six — I’d walk back to my car, my head spinning with characters, magic rules, and all the plot threads I had yet to weave together.

Then, if I had time, I’d run. Then I’d look up ‘gym’ and drive from one to another, looking for free trials and showers. This usually took an hour. After that I’d head to some parking lot, where I would cook dinner on the curbside, drag it into my car and lock the doors. I’d read a bit.

Then I would drive to a gas station to brush my teeth, and drive somewhere else to sleep.

Another highway

Parts of this were really great. I remember driving down highways lined with trees or rolling prairie, singing Killers songs off-key when my data cut out. When I came to somewhere new, I’d look up a cafe and park far from it, so that I could walk and see the town. Every place I stopped, I’d spend a day or two, and by the time I left I could feel the map of the place taking shape in my mind.

I was obsessed with being cheap, cooking dry rice and couscous with my limited supply of water, and I was always somewhat hungry. I brushed my teeth in gas stations, and every time I went running meant an hour-long search for free showers. I wound up running five-to-seven miles every time because of this, and skipping days in between, instead of the 5k-per-day routine I’d stagnated in for years.

I’d been alone before, but never for long. I had told myself (and my family and friends, many times) that if school didn’t eat 60 hours from my week, I would write so fucking much, run far and read fat books and do the things I wanted.

To some extent, I did.

I was disappointed in myself at the time, because I hadn’t realized how much effort living in a car required. Vanlife isn’t glamorous unless you spend thousands of dollars, as much or more than the day-to-day cost of living in a house. Every simple thing takes a lot of time.

But the scenes were beautiful. I am from the desert and I fucking love trees.

I met a man in Paonia, this tiny Colorado town, who told me about his chocolate company and Buddhist practices, and gave me some of the best chocolate I’ve ever tasted.

I was on a mountain in western Colorado (I’d tried using paper maps instead of Google, and drove 100 miles in the wrong direction) and followed a sign that said “B——— Ranch,” which led me to a homestead where there were twenty-odd men in decommissioned army fatigues, whose job was to herd and shoot cattle. The ancient owner hospitably gave me coffee, asked what race I was, and showed me a skinned bull hanging by its feet in the garage.

I ran my first half-marathon, alone, on a 20-mile loop trail on a mountain in Oregon. I miscalculated slightly how fast I could hike, and dusk was setting in by the time I made it back. My legs were exhausted.

I lived on the shitty stale coffee you only find in gas stations and waiting rooms,05 and, apparently, ranching-hunting homesteads and I always drank it black.

I wrote a lot. Something like 60,000 words. I was working on an epic fantasy book I’d been planning and dreaming about for a long time. I’d started it in January and hadn’t gotten far. This trip, the plot came together, advancing in leaps and bounds past what I’d planned. The words I wrote on the road would be the best ones of the book.

Tucson, AZ → Flagstaff, AZ → Navajo Nation → Four Corners (in the Navajo Nation) → Cortez, CO → Paonia, CO → Grand Junction, CO → Salt Lake City, UT → Idaho → Portland, OR → Mt Shasta City, CA → Santa Cruz, CA

picture of a landscape: dry grass and mountains

October 2019.

Wow, holy shit, that was long. Felt like forever to me, too, even thought it was only twenty-some days.

Ok so after that road trip I came to this cool internship on a writing retreat in Santa Cruz.

The place looked like an Airbnb, the kind that goes for hundreds of dollars per night. Writers came for weeklong stays, and my job was to take care of the place and the garden, milk the goats, and do random crafts to keep up the charm: make goat cheese and whey lemonade, goat’s milk soap, and goat’s milk lotion, little pretty things I never used to let myself have time for. It was very much cottagecore,06 if I understand what this means correctly very not real farm life. I really liked the goats.

I lived in a barn from Home Depot. As a kid I had always wanted to do that.

I met a lot of people here: a TV writer who dominated every dinner conversation with stories about famous people he’d run into; a former kickboxer who made mushroom tea and ran rewilding retreats as her day job; a young MG07 middle grade author who was intelligent and nice, but never did the dishes;08 for context, everyone was supposed to help clean up after dinner this writer couple, she published but not famous, he working on a debut, who were every inch what I want to be.

After eating less-than-wholesome — I think the worst was these disgusting soggy noodles that I made by getting boiling water from Starbucks and just putting the noodles in the cup while I drove, and then I didn’t have tomato sauce so I used Tapatio09 hot sauce, which is not in grocery stores in the east apparently?? instead — food on the road, the lifestyle at this place was strange to me. We ate three-course dinners every night; the writers took turns cooking. Everything was tranquil and sophisticated. In the day, everyone was writing, and it was so quiet you could hear the floorboards creak.

I loved the goats. There was a white one, Buttercup, and her daughter, Henrietta. Goats are kind of like dogs, it seems, except that they have vertical Satanic pupils, and very long ears. Henrietta was a few months old, excited and new to the world, and she would always nibble my clothes.10 and when I wore shorts, my legs.

The owner of the place, a political writer, would look at my work for one hour each week. I actually learned more about editing in those hours than I had while editing an entire novel my junior year. He taught me to cut all the unnecessary words — murder your darlings. It’s still a struggle for me, but a worthy one.

You could go down to the beach and watch the California surfers. I went with a girl from Germany who worked there too. One time we got asked out by a guy with a Bible quote tattooed on his chest, something like Christ is you’re savior.

We declined.

 

January 2020.

EUROPE TIME EUROPE TIME

Story’s almost done, y’all. You’re watching the months go by and you know what’s coming.

To preface this, let’s establish that I do love fantasy books, and forgive me but the fantasy I started on was pseudo-European, full of castles and forests and cobblestones. My family travelled when I was young, but only to see other family members, so I’d never been outside North America. I wanted to go and see these places that had roots of something ancient, feel the wonder that soaks the pages of books I read years ago.

I found a $146 plane ticket from LAX11 the Los Angeles airport, a hellish 8-hour bus ride from Tucson. to Madrid, Spain, which I’d bought months in advance. I booked a hostel for 9 euros12 something like $12, which I calculated in my head right now because I never did accurate conversions on this gap year, so why start now? per night.

I put some clothes, running shoes, and eight books in a backpack, plus my Chromebook and sixteen pairs of earrings, then said goodbye to my family (I’d come home for New Year’s) and left.

And went on a big big plane, and across the sea.

That first night was scary, because I’d messed up the time zones and had to book an extra night, and the only bed left was in a 12-bed mixed-gender room, which meant it was full of men, who came and went all hours of the night, and there was a couple who might or might not have been having sex on the bunk beside me.

I fell asleep at three, and the next day I walked groggily to an art museum which happened to be near my hostel. It was called El Prado, which I thought I had heard of, maybe.

Turns out El Prado has all the cool artwork!!! Lowkey on par with the Uffizi. I was just walking along, la-de-da, lookit that naked woman some crusty Renaissance dude painted and — hey is that Albrecht Durer’s Adam and Eve? (It was). There were a dozen prototypes of Venus of Urbino, lounging naked women that Titian would draw staring at the audience and thus shock the monks and nobles of his day. I walked around with wide staring eyes. These artists lived in Europe! Their stuff is actually here! There’s a Ruben and a Goya and a Velázquez and motherfuckre13 the sophisticated European way to say it, as in 'theatre.'

I saw every single art piece in that entire museum. My favorite, and also inarguably the best, was Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, which is this proto-Renaissance triptych14 three panel painting, usually used as an altarpiece, although this one *wasn’t* of people engaged in all sorts of debaucherous sin, and then suffering in Hell and being eaten by giant birds.

After Madrid, I went to work on a farm in the south of Spain. It was owned by this old gnarled Dutchman who read my star signs and did not cut the tails off his sheep. (Did you know that all sheep naturally have long tails? Not goats15 most goats do have horns. BUT NOT BUTTERCUP AND HENRIETTA, theirs were cut off as babies. , though). My plan was to volunteer and live there for a month, but there was no electricity or hot water, so I left a week later.

I read Citizen of the Galaxy by Heinlein in a guest house that the owner had built himself, shivering under dusty blankets because I could not keep my fire burning.

Next I went to Grenada, and stayed there for two weeks. It was really great. Food is cheap, and there was a cafe where I could get a cafe con leche (read: cappuccino, in the little cup) for 1.90 euros and write for several hours.

I wrote a story about a shepherd whose goat went missing, and a witch hunter who promised to find evil in her village and thus get the goat back. I finished it at night, in two different cafes, writing in a frenzy before closing time. The words just poured out, as they rarely do, in those moments when you are not in a restaurant where the owner wants you to buy an actual meal, not even in Grenada, but on some moor a million miles away, where a witch hunter rallies a mob into murder.

Anyway, then I went to Naples. It was full of narrow streets and fast fashion, women with red lipstick and leather jackets who rode motorcycles. There was pizza for 4 euros, and I mean the entire pizza here, wood-fired and better than anything in America. One day I was walking home, and I passed a policeman standing outside his car, in the middle of traffic, holding a machine gun.

In Italy, it seemed to me, men flirt with you as a matter of course, even if you’re just ordering coffee. Even if you’re running, sweaty and red in the face, wearing mismatched, baggy clothes and looking halfway dead.

I really liked it here.

After that was Florence. The hostel manager, a tall, soft-spoken man who was usually smiling, and yet seemed somehow sad, cooked dinner for his guests every night. I had only three days there, but I crammed in so much art.16 I also spent a solid day scrambling to get money transferred from my savings account to checking, because my checking was at flat zero and I owed the smiling landlord money and when you overdraw from savings six times, apparently, you cannot draw from it again that month, and there was an eight-hour time difference between Florence and Tucson so calling my bank was very hard.

The art. The perfect marble gods: powerful Athena, and young, drunken Dionysus, so familiar with the satyrs. To keep things short I’ll say that I love Cellini’s Perseus, holding Medusa’s head high, which I did not know I liked until I saw it. I love Giambologna’s Jason of the Argonauts. At his feet sits a conquered dragon that looks like a dog.

Sometimes I was lonely. You meet a lot of people, travelling: students in hostels, old people. The connections are fleeting, usually shallow. Travelling seems interesting, but travellers themselves — I guess that after the fourth or fifth conversation, the next attractive grungy person’s litany of places that they’ve been is no longer intriguing.

A woman with a Cockney accent told me that her husband was sick and she hoped that he died, though, that was wild. And a Scotsman and an Italian lady in my hostel started a love affair even though neither of them spoke the other’s language.

Then I went to Venice, on my birthday, which happened to fall on Carnivale. Venice is lovely; the crowds were immense. The lines were too long to get to the Carnivale show — think ornate masks17 the Mardi Gras kind , trapeze shows over the water, a veritable sea of tourists — but I made a morning-after display of kids in flamingo outfits rowing little gondolas.

I walked around a lot, imagining this city on the water in days when doctors wore crow masks, the beaks stuffed with flowers, because they thought that bad smells spread disease — which when you think about it isn’t too far wrong. The Carnivale, my tour guide said, was born when medieval Venetians wanted to party it up without having their identities known. For my birthday I bought myself spaghetti con nero di seppia, ‘nero’ meaning ‘ink’ and ‘seppia’ meaning ‘squid’. The noodles are black. 10/10.

After that, I worked for three weeks on a farm in the outskirts of Venice, or rather, the suburbs on the mainland. Walk off the farm and everything looked pretty normal. Squint, and you could forget you were in Italy.

It was relaxing there. They were a vegetarian farm, with twenty horses and many chickens which they did not kill. The farmhouse was filled with books on history, art and philosophy, and at least five copies of Machiavelli’s The Prince — all in Italian. It was owned by an older couple who spoke mostly Italian, and run in part by a young teacher and a lawyer-turned-farmer, who were having a secret affair (though I think the owners knew). I helped the ex-lawyer clean vegetables — read: cut off the rotten parts — and helped the wife cook the most glorious meals. I temporarily went vegetarian.

Then — end of February — Coronavirus hit Venice. I was some ten miles away, an hour by bus.

I took a bus to Rome, where I would stay for a few days, and then on to London, where a writing internship was waiting. Surely Corona wouldn’t follow me.

In Rome, there is a running path along the Tiber river that stretches for miles. I ran another half-marathon, and ate an average of 1.5 gelatos per day. I went to the Vatican on Sunday, not thinking because I am a chaotic Jew, and the Pope was giving a sermon. I didn’t understand a word except for “Dios” and “Diablo,” but I saw him from the window.

Then I went inside the Vatican, which was a very bad idea — where else are there more tourists, coming from all over the world? My thinking was different then. I justified it by saying, when will I next be in Rome?

Anyway Raphael’s frescoes are lovely. The Sistine Chapel smelled like sickness, which was probably just my imagination. The Vatican church was ornate, gold everywhere, and there was a statue of Saint George with another dragon that looked like a dog. And marble reliefs of naked angels. If you took a shot for every bared breast you saw in the Vatican, you’d leave stumbling.

When I wore a mask in the airport between Rome and London, everyone looked at me as if I were sick.

photo of the ocean in Venice

Mid-March

London!

Everything sounds like it’s from Harry Potter18 disclaimer: JK Rowling I don't love, this series I do. Most classics, I think, must leave their authors behind. : station names, street names, accents and words. Everyone spoke English, which I did not miss, but it meant my brain could think less hard. I accidentally got in a long conversation with a missionary Christian lady, and in a rage went to a science museum, where I was aggressively interested in exhibits on evolution.

After that was a slew of museums: I went to the natural history museum and uncovered years’ worth of memories of my mom reading my little sister dinosaur books. There was a museum with lots of clocks and old steam engines, the mechanisms of which I did not understand. There was one museum with a vast room of Victorian science — the complicated devices, tray on tray of things like mummy fingers and dried moss, believed to have medicinal properties. There was magic in people’s vision of the world, then, but it was beginning to be categorized, the first step toward its extinction.

I’d been leaving my books in hostels one by one, and even though a Dutch girl gave me Stiefvater’s Call Down the Hawk back in Grenada, I was nearly out of books. I went to a Waterstones and bought I think five more. My favorites would be Lud-in-the-Mist, a pre-Tolkein fantasy by Hope Mirlees, and Wolf Road, a thriller by Beth Lewis.

I went to Paddington Station to meet Deb, the owner of a writing retreat in Sheepwash, Devonshire where I would be interning. We took the train, then a bus, and got a lift from a friend of hers to finally reach Sheepwash, a town with four streets — East Street, South Street, West Street, and North Street — and maybe one hundred houses. Devonshire is lush, wet and green, rolling hills broken up by hedgerows and little copses of trees. This retreat was full of charming clutter, women’s fiction, a vast collection of English teacups, and there was always cake in the fridge.

I helped run a tea shop, where the guests were lovely and, in their own words, quintessentially English. I took care of the dog, an old chocolate lab who did not look like a dragon. I was working on a different book then, about witches, and I got some chapters done, long hours by the window. I read Lud-in-the-Mist. I called my friend in Tucson, who had just been barred from her university campus due to Coronavirus.

I had been there about a week before the first outbreak in London. My parents called me to come home.

I was in the middle of nowhere, I protested. I would be seeing no one except the dog and the owner. I still had to go to France. I didn’t know when I would have the money to get to Europe again.

I texted my friend frantically for two days straight. My mom kept sending headlines of Italy running out of ventilators. My dad texted ominously, “anyone could die. And you would be. Gone.”

I didn’t want to go.

But I started packing — I couldn’t afford to be hospitalized here — and the next day, the owner decided to shutter the writing retreat, take her dog and shelter in place with family.

She drove us to London, switching from news to podcasts and back again. The schools were closing. Would there be a travel ban?

She dropped me off at the airport. It was one of the smaller ones, I don’t remember which. My terminal was empty, and my plane, which hopped to Ireland, was nearly so.

I had a twelve-hour layover before my flight to Baltimore, and ten hours after that before I would be in Tucson. America. It seemed impossible that such a place existed.

My painfully heavy backpack, crammed tight with new books, was checked, so I had only a cheap London hoodie and Oliver Twist with me. I walked outside. You didn’t have to go through security to enter the airport from this exit, it seemed. I could walk to a bar, but I didn’t feel like drinking. I walked along the grass, once again in a country I’d never been to before.

It’s for the best, I told myself. It’s been so hard to focus on writing, you know. My backpack hurt my shoulders after ten minutes of walking. I’d been living on pizza and espresso and this one weird brand of yogurt, and every variety of European dessert. My body was exhausted. Maybe, I feared, I wanted to go home all along.

I knew that was a lie. Going home felt like a breakup, that moment when you’re saying, “Yes, I’m fine. In fact I’m better off.”

The night air was crisp and very cold, as I knew it would not be in Tucson. I could walk anywhere from here. Nobody knew me.

I looked up at the starry sky, wondering if the constellations looked different on this side of the world, and promised that I would be back.

When this is all over, I will be back.

photo of a saguaro cactus

Tucson again.

  1. like WWOOF but dodgier and cheaper back to text
  2. these were inexhaustive and I still totally could have been, honestly. But I’m lucky. back to text
  3. pretty much what it sounds like: living in a van, which is gutted and re-modeled on the inside to look like a chic tiny home. For further reading: Stephi Lee on youtube. back to text
  4. Two -- Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley and The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas -- are on my bookshelf in Cambridge, daring me to take them home again unread. back to text
  5. and, apparently, ranching-hunting homesteads back to text
  6. if I understand what this means correctly back to text
  7. middle grade back to text
  8. for context, everyone was supposed to help clean up after dinner back to text
  9. hot sauce, which is not in grocery stores in the east apparently?? back to text
  10. and when I wore shorts, my legs. back to text
  11. the Los Angeles airport, a hellish 8-hour bus ride from Tucson. back to text
  12. something like $12, which I calculated in my head right now because I never did accurate conversions on this gap year, so why start now? back to text
  13. the sophisticated European way to say it, as in 'theatre. back to text
  14. three panel painting, usually used as an altarpiece, although this one *wasn’t* back to text
  15. most goats do have horns. BUT NOT BUTTERCUP AND HENRIETTA, theirs were cut off as babies. back to text
  16. I also spent a solid day scrambling to get money transferred from my savings account to checking, because my checking was at flat zero and I owed the smiling landlord money and when you overdraw from savings six times, apparently, you cannot draw from it again that month, and there was an eight-hour time difference between Florence and Tucson so calling my bank was very hard. back to text
  17. the Mardi Gras kind back to text
  18. disclaimer: JK Rowling I don't love, this series I do. Most classics, I think, must leave their authors behind. back to text