While the pandemic has affected the plans of many, several Godwin alumni have used this time to embark on unique adventures.
Isaac Hull, a graduate of the Godwin Class of 2020, knew from the get-go that he would be taking a gap year to travel to whitewater kayaking destinations before starting college.
“I’ve been kayaking since I was eight and there were always international trips I wanted to do that I wasn’t able to because of school. So, when I started to think about what I wanted to do after high school, I decided it would be cool to take a year off and go to all these places for as long as I wanted,” said Isaac.
Isaac’s gap year of kayaking began while he was living in Asheville, N.C., where he worked at a zipline tour company. During this time, Isaac was able to paddle other rivers and creeks in the mountains, surrounded by views of the Appalachians and waterfalls, while also training for a November kayaking race that occurred there.
Following the race in Asheville, Isaac completed a 10-day trip to Veracruz, Mexico, in an effort to kayak the waterfalls in the jungle.
“That was a trip I’ve always wanted to do since the southeastern USA – where I’ve paddled the most – does not have very many waterfalls to practice on. In Mexico, I was even able to kayak down some of the waterfalls. There were also some unreal basalt canyons, where I would paddle through 10-foot-wide canyons with 40-50 foot walls on either side,” said Isaac.
The most memorable kayaking experience of all took place in Livingston, Zambia, where Isaac kayaked the Zambezi River below Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, every day while staying at a hostel for over a month. He was also able to observe various groups of wildlife and got the opportunity to stand near and feed a group of elephants.
“This was an amazing trip, as I was able to experience some massive rapids on the Zambezi and experience the culture of a third-world country like Zambia. One day I was even able to paddle close to the base of the 400-foot, mile wide waterfall… hard to even describe that experience,” said Isaac.
During these endeavors, Isaac was able to acquire first-hand encounters of various communities and the cultures that resided within them.
“Every day leaving the river we drove through small villages and met so many people with completely different perspectives. They were all extremely happy even without so many privileges we have. Grateful doesn’t even begin to describe how good we have it in the US, and it made me realize we barely even have a concept of what poverty looks like in Richmond,” said Isaac.
Traveling around the world may become lonely, but Isaac has been surrounded by kayaking friends and new companions during his travels.
“The best part has probably been the people I’ve met along the way, so many different and unique perspectives on life and so much to learn from them,” said Isaac.
Isaac is currently living in White Salmon, Wash., near two rivers for Isaac to train on. Right outside Isaac’s new home, an 11,000 foot active volcano named Mount Hood resides.
“Here, the rivers are fed by snowmelt and aquifers, so you can count on them having water all spring. The forests are all covered in moss, and there are 20-30 waterfalls within an hour of my house. I am kayaking as much as I can before heading to California for a month to travel around the Sierras to different rivers that come in as the snow melts. Then, to Boise, ID to train the course for a competition on June 18,” said Isaac.
Isaac is still able to participate in races as well at his present home.
“There was a race a week ago on the Little White Salmon, one of the best Class v rivers in the world that I was training for. I placed fourth overall in that race, which I was super happy with,” said Isaac.
Isaac plans to return to Richmond by the end of July or the beginning of August, as he will be attending Virginia Tech upon his arrival back home.
“There have been challenges along the way but somehow it all keeps working out in my favor and I end up having another one of the best days of my life. I definitely wouldn’t be able to do all this without the things my parents taught me growing up and the support they still give me, but overall, I can’t believe all the places I’ve seen and the things I’ve done over the last eight months,” said Isaac.
Ali White, Godwin Class of 2016 and Washington University in St. Louis alumna of 2020, found herself in a forced COVID gap year so she decided to hike the Appalachian Trail.
“I am thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, which is consecutively walking 2,190 miles along the East Coast of the US on the longest path for exclusive foot travel in the world. I am hiking Northbound (or NOBO, as hikers say), which means I started at Springer Mountain in Georgia and I will finish at Mount Katahdin in Maine,” said White.
Hiking the entire trail can take anywhere from five to seven months. White started Feb. 20 and is on track to finish in August this summer.
Finishing a thru-hike can be extremely difficult and challenges not only the physical body, but the mind as well.
“Many people quit because they are unprepared, they get injured or sick, they run out of money or they just get bored. Making sure to stay as healthy as possible by caring for your body while you push it to extremes is difficult. However, for me personally, pushing through the mental challenge of monotony and daily pain/discomfort is the hardest part of hiking.”
In order to complete the Appalachian Trail, hikers have to make sure they are physically prepared so they will be ready to take on the trail.
“I have been working towards this goal since 2019! I started by taking day hikes and going car camping, then I began to go on weekend backpacking trips with borrowed gear and with more experienced friends so I could learn backpacking skills. I began to buy my own gear slowly, did a section hike of 250 miles in California last summer and finally felt prepared to take on a thru-hike. I also prepped my body in the months before starting the trail by taking my full pack on walks through Richmond.”
White started hiking eight to 12 miles a day for the first couple of weeks.
“Once I got my “hiker legs” I was able to start doing 15-20 per day. Most thru hikers do at least 15 per day from Virginia onward, with many doing 20-25,” said White.
“I hiked 500 miles on the Camino de Santiago in Spain in 2019, and I realized then that walking all day gives me valuable time to reflect, I get so much peace and joy from being in nature, waking up each day and working through hardship towards a goal is so rewarding, and I love to explore and meet interesting people. When I found myself in a forced COVID gap year after college graduation, I realized it was the perfect time to dive deeper into all these things on a longer and more intense trail!”
White decided to go on the trail to explore nature, challenge herself, and build her travel skills so she can feel confident taking on her next life goals.
“The trail involves a lot of pain, discomfort and suffering, but that’s what makes its best moments so rich and satisfying and wonderful. Being out here will teach you so much, a lot of it about yourself and how resilient you can be!”
While on the trail, White stops in towns once every five days and stays in hostels to resupply her food as well as shower and do laundry. The rest of the time White sleeps in her tent at campsites along the trail.
Besides having to hang all your food on a high stick at night so bears won’t get it, hikers also have to come up with some creative recipes for food.
“There is a classic AT hiker food that I love called a ramen bomb — the goal of bringing food out here is maximize calories and minimize weight and prep time, so people invented a dinner that’s two ramen packets with instant mashed potatoes mixed in, then usually some kind of protein like tuna to top it off. I like to eat my noodles separately, then use the broth to make the mashed potatoes and add dehydrated beans for protein as I am a vegetarian,” said White.
Along the trail, hikers may experience dangerous situations or hardships. White has experienced lots of slips and falls, trekking poles snapping, and even frozen socks.
“My friends and I missed a high wind warning and crossed over a mountain in 70 MPH gusts and a thunderstorm at the Roan Highlands and some of us nearly got struck by lightning… it was ok in the end though, we all made it down off the mountain and went to a hostel that night and sang karaoke to celebrate surviving,” said White.
Along the trail, White has had the opportunity to see many natural landmarks and scenic views.
“The Grayson Highlands in VA have wild ponies and great views! Every thru-hiker takes a photo at McAfee Knob because it’s so picturesque. The view from Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has also been one of my favorites so far.”
Even with hardships on the trail, White still gets to enjoy positive experiences with her friends.
“I had a wonderful sunny day at a hostel in Tennessee— My friends and I decided to take some bikes to a Mexican restaurant down the road and some of us had to double up. We were swerving pedaling these rickety old bikes for like a mile next to a highway, screaming and laughing the whole time. Sharing small, treasured moments like those are my favorite part of thru-hiking,” said White.
White’s favorite part of the trail so far has been the community.
“Not just the other hikers — though they are all such interesting and rich people with stories to tell! — but the culture of love and support in towns along the way,” White said.
While hiking along the trail, White has met many supportive people who have helped her along the way, supplying her with food, supplies, and encouragement.
“Total strangers we call “trail angels” have given me rides, snacks, encouragement, advice, and sometimes even a room to nap in at their house! If you’re lucky you might run across “trail magic” at a road crossing, as many angels set up cars with free chips, fruit, candy, soda… there’s even a man called Fresh Ground who takes donations and drives a truck full time making hot food for hikers. I had the privilege of getting some of his banana pancakes and a quesadilla,” said White.
For those hoping to achieve a similar goal, White offers advice.
“If you’re interested in getting into backpacking, the community is so welcoming! I remember feeling super intimidated at first like I didn’t belong since I had no experience, but I’ve found that people have only tried to welcome and help me, they just want to share their love of the outdoors,” said White.
Finally, 2014 Godwin graduate Denise Hull has taken this year of COVID to experience different parts of the United States.
While studying at Virginia Tech, with a major in Chemistry and a minor in Spanish, Denise was able to take many opportunities that helped her find the love of traveling and exploring. This love began when she studied abroad in Quito, Ecuador.
When she returned from the trip, she decided to go into the Peace Corps, which is, “the combination of a desire to explore and also a call to give back to the community and the world,” said Denise. She taught high school math in a rural town in Mozambique, Africa for two years.
Denise’s plan was to take a year off before she went to graduate school and spend it traveling around South America, but with COVID-19, her plans were changed. She then decided she wanted to do a road trip around the US.
“I’ve always felt such a passion for international travel, and wanted to see all that the USA has to offer as well. It also seemed like a great way to visit and catch up with the Peace Corps, high school, and college friends and family around the country,” said Denise.
Planning to hit the road in mid-January and return in mid-May, Denise mapped out her route: starting in Richmond, along the southern border, up the west coast, then circling back to Virginia. This route focused on the friends and family she wanted to visit along with National Parks.
Denise needed a vehicle for her trip, so she decided to purchase a van. She spent a lot of time researching and remodeling her van for the perfect home on the road.
“I went for a relatively basic remodeling, putting in a bed, storage/sink combo, and getting a 12V fridge,” said Denise.
In this transition to van life, Denise said that downsizing was not too difficult, especially after being in the Peace Corps with no heat, air conditioning, or running water; she was able to bring everything she wanted.
She began her journey, traveling mostly alone, but a few friends would join her for a week at a time. Denise would visit a friend or family member about every five days, giving her a chance to shower and do her laundry.
“The hardest part of the trip has been knowing when I need to slow down and take a break,” said Denise. This is especially difficult when visiting people back to back, hiking 10 miles a day, and driving 600 miles a week.
“I still find it really tough to say no to a new experience,” said Denise.
Denise’s favorite aspect of this road trip has been meeting up with friends around the country. She has been able to visit almost 50 people, from college, the Peace Corps, and family.
“It has been so fun and eye opening to connect with all of these people from my past in their current phases of life, and to be able to explore the places they call home,” said Denise.
She also enjoys being in nature.
“I have seen the most mind blowing views, done incredible hikes, and felt so connected with the magic of this planet,” said Denise.
While traveling around, Denise’s favorite state has been Montana. She loved the calming atmosphere and said that she could drive for hours because every view was stunning.
“I’ve always gotten more pleasure out of nature and landscapes than cities, and I think this trip really solidified that for me. Being able to open the door of my van when I wake up each morning, and look out onto mountains, cliffs, lakes, wherever I am, makes it all worth it.” said Denise.
Denise said that she enjoyed traveling alone because it forced her to listen to her gut, and reflect on her thoughts, and immerse in the new environments and cultures.
“These new experiences and comparisons provide the framework for self-reflection and growth, an inward journey of self discovery. It may take a leap of faith to get out there on your own, but I can say for certain you will never regret that decision.”
Denise in Sedona, Arizona.