The Value of a Grown-Up Gap Year
We assert the phrase “misspent youth” so easily, but lack an equivalent term for misspent adulthood
I was skiing my way onto a chairlift at the Crested Butte ski resort in Colorado when a fellow masked and “single” rider asked if he could join me. After unloading, we sped down to the bottom and ended up riding together a few more times, both appreciating the friendly conversations that chairlifts bring about and the beautiful outdoors.
He was also from “back East” (an expression that struck me as funny, implying it’s where we all began, or maybe it’s where we’ve all left behind). He and his wife had just moved to town permanently. He must have heard the envy in my reaction and sensed a kindred spirit because as we parted ways he handed me what looked like a business card. However, instead of having a profession listed below the name and contact information, it read “Certified Ski Bum.”
I’m not printing new business cards just yet, but I’ve certainly been test-driving the lifestyle. This winter, with our kids all out of the nest, parents are gone and no longer in need of care, and the good fortune of being able to work virtually, we decided to make the most of our newfound flexibility. On January 2, we loaded the car to make a pilgrimage west.
There’s something about going out West that signals expansiveness in our collective cultural myth, but life on the road in winter 2021 was also filled with moments of smallness. My husband did his conference calls from the car, hotels, and Airbnbs and I revised my novel-in-progress and did a lot of reading. We lived out of suitcases and crafted each rented landing pad into a well-sealed bubble.
I credit the early quarantine “turtle life” for having me well-prepared. My daily routine had become so ingrained, I carried it like a shell on my back. Emotionally, home was wherever John and I were together. We carried with us the essentials, which included our two dogs, favorite foods, a smoothie blender, yoga mat and roller, my journal, my laptop loaded with content, iPhone, Kindle, a bazillion forms of chargers, and a smattering of paperbacks.
Moms might not have time to travel but sometimes you get a chance to try out wild ideas on the back end.
Based on the number of ski racks, out-of-state license plates, and Sprinter Vans we encountered on the road, it was clear lots of folks were doing the same thing we were this winter. The relatively new phenomenon of multi-mountain ski passes added to the boom. (Are you IKON or are you EPIC? Sort of like did you get Pfizer or Moderna?)
In Utah, another chairlift conversation had a new friend explaining he’d been a ski bum “back when it was a thing.” He meant, of course, in his twenties, the kind of interlude we might refer to as a “gap- year” — except back then we hadn’t yet coined that forgiving term. No, back then it was a defiant and rebellious thing to do.
A gap year was the last thing John and I would have chosen at that age, a wild idea. You see, we were serious, extremely careful and intent on our futures: analyst training programs, business school, working around the clock, marrying young, buying a house, taking on a mortgage, saving, having three kids in four years. Life was like a race to the finish line: our futures were the prize and we were determined to get there first.
When we finally relaxed about our own futures, it was time to worry about our children’s.
Our road trip this winter got me thinking a lot about what constitutes a misspent youth. Whereas I used to think hiding in the mountains, working for a ski pass, and enough money to pay the rent more or less typified that pejorative, I’m no longer sure. For me, ski bumming would have been a more courageous move, much more daring than following the herd to a Wall Street training program. This year, I had the chance to try on that courage.
Our trip took shape as I was feeling increasingly depressed and anxious. I hoped a change of scenery and a more recreation-filled winter might help. It turned out the trip became a meditation on quiet and creativity, distilling life into the basics. Enjoying the beauty of our country’s landscape, singing away the miles, and talking on the chairlift gave us time to figure a lot of things out.
The term misspent youth holds a connotation of frivolity. Most people wouldn’t think to apply it to a routine of planning and work; I didn’t.
But looking back, it’s quite possible my twenties were misspent in corporate America. I don’t regret anything, but it took me a long time to become self-aware, to stop needing to please people, to stop living up to what others expected of me.
Maybe those peers of mine who were ski bums “back when it was a thing” knew something I didn’t about the importance of adventure and exploration in figuring those things out. Then again, in my twenties, I probably wouldn’t have been able to create a sense of home on the road, and I might not have been as appreciative of solitude and observant of nature.
Moms have a lot to worry about, but I’ll let you in on a secret: planning for the future never ends, and neither does worrying about our children’s futures. Hopefully, the pandemic has taught us all an important lesson about not trading the present moment for anything. And while I pray there won’t be another excuse to take a grown-up gap year in our lifetimes, we should all think about making the worrying a lower priority.
We assert the phrase “misspent youth” so easily, but we lack an equivalent term for misspent adulthood. Now, as I drive “back East,” I am resolved to hold on to what I’ve learned on this trip, in order not to misspend any more of my days. All time is precious, but we can’t be too precious about it.
Newsflash: being a ski bum or a nomad is a thing again. In fact, being whatever you want to be will always be the thing. Maybe that’s the future we should be busy imagining for our children.