The LAST Quest of the Year!

by Andrea Wackerle

Written by Olivia Carlisle, Glen Frank, and Nicole Gerber

Day 1

After CWC and completing our final credit for the semester we took off toward Colorado, pushing us one day closer to our Texas Thanksgiving! I think we were all thankful to go for a van ride, tune out the stress of the exam and breath deeply as we prepared for the adventure ahead.

Day 2

We passed by many small towns on our long day drive through Texas. The houses in these towns were beat up and wounded, their faces revealing the scars of battles lost from memory, but the houses remembered. Their bodies remained the paper on which the histories of their past were written. Their bodies continue to keep the score.

How do people live in those houses? Why do they live in those small towns? Besides the beat-up look of the houses, the town seemed devoid of fascination and intrigue. The colors of the landscape were decaying shades of yellow and brown with highlights of sickly green to tie it all together. Fields bleeding with these dreary colors were all that the eye could see. Besides the company of fellow beat-down houses, civilization seemed so far away. If I lived in one of those towns, it would be boredom, not death, that would be my doom.

But this is just my perspective. I don’t really know the stories of these small towns and their people. I don’t know who sought to build a life amidst those walls; I don’t know the battles their people have fought, or the dreams and passions that made it all worth it. I don’t know the lives that were birthed and cultivated there, or those that passed into Hades’ hands with the quick kiss of night. There’s a lot I don’t know. All I know is my interpretation of their stories.

That’s okay, though. Not all stories are meant to be known.


Day 3

After squatting in the van for hours the day before, we decided to go on a long hike to stir our sleeping muscles. Throughout the rest of the sunlit day, we hiked a 8.5 mile trail through the Guadalupe Mountains. Needless to say, our muscles were jolted awake by the climb.

The journey up through the mountains was entirely uphill, meaning that we had to push the pedal to the metal to make any headway. Despite the discomfort of clamoring uphill, the view from the trail was breathtaking. The mountains were gigantuan and seemingly never-ending, yet with an effortless elegance that softened their imposing stature. They had a pleated look to them, like an infinite piece of cloth draped across the desert landscape. Perhaps Mother Earth is sleeping dreamlessly underneath the heavy rock cloak, I thought. Maybe, after sleeping for an eternity or two, she will wake from her slumber and achingly raise her colossal limbs from the earth, desecrating all the life that had once thrived there. Maybe, after ridding her Pelt of Wonders from its wandering pests, she will raise herself off our now-barren home and warp herself back into the eternity of space and time, determined to return to an unknown cause. I mean, if the world eventually ended, I think it would be funny if it was because some broad woke up from her nap.


“Let the world end not with a bang, but with a yawn.” -Olivia Carlisle, 2018


The way down was wonderfully effortless compared to the first part of the trail. We got to take our time examining the scenery and letting our thoughts wander, instead of having to put the mental energy into pushing upwards.

The end of our hike is celebrated with a Thanksgiving meal, complete with rotisserie chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes, and, my favorite, stuffing. Nothing tops off a day better than eating the breaded filling that is placed in a turkey’s anus. Delicious.


Day 4

Carlsbad Caverns called us to it with its low, murmuring siren’s call. Like flies captivated by a light (perhaps an ironic metaphor in this instance), we slowly descended into its darkeded abode. We crept deeper and deeper into the belly of the magnificent beast until the faint shimmer of natural daylight was replaced by the false lighting of the cavern’s walkways. Instead of devouring us alive, though, the beast chose to instead show us kindness by allowing us to explore its’ treasure chest of naturally made gems, cool looking stalagmites and stalactites. In each room that we explored, we found uniquely fascinating formations. Some looked like giant, malformed brains while others looked like a toddler threw spaghetti at the cavern ceilings.

We were also interested in the history of the caverns. They have been forming for millions of years using only water, air, and pressure to sculpt its unique landscape. So much has happened throughout those millions of years: the dinosaurs reigned the earth and then catastrophically vanished, the human race evolved from rock-banging neanderthals to tool-using neanderthals, entire nations were built and destroyed through vanity and warfare, etc. And through all that, the cavern kept steadily blossoming. In a weird way, the cavern’s evolution is a perfect example of nature’s deeply-embedded philosophy: focus not on the virtues and vanities that consume consciousness; focus instead on steadily growing oneself at one’s own pace. I think everybody could use that way of thinking to develop a richer inner life and sense of being.

After exploring the caverns for a couple of hours, we went food buying. We started off buying food at the worst Walmart, which had very little selection and no produce section. Since it sucked so hard, we pulled out of it early and went to a Hispanic grocery store of higher quality. In addition to actually having a produce section, they had some pretty rad piñatas looming over you while you bought said produce. I could imagine some health nut parents buying a piñata and stuffing it with apples, boxes of raisins, and cheap, sugar-free mints for their poor child’s birthday. Maybe I’ll do that to my future kid if they tick me off too much.


Day 5

Not a whole lot happened, other than driving to Big Bend in preparation for our next backpacking trip.

We all felt anxious about the upcoming trip. Our mentors told us that it’d be harder than our previous trips: we would have to hike roughly 11.5 miles each day, meaning that we’d be walking from dawn ‘till dusk. We worried about how we would handle the stress, given that we’d never had to deal with such long hikes before. At the very least, we figured that there was a very high probability that we’d survive the trip. That helped a little.


Day 6

We woke up at 5:30, our bodies aching and moaning at having to remove themselves from the warmth of sleep so soon. We summoned up what little energy we could muster and heaved ourselves into action. It was rough, but it needed to be done.

After we finished breakfast and packed the trailer, we were ready to start. Right as the sun began to rise, we began marching on the trail that would take us three days to complete.

Usually, this kind of hike would be relatively ok. Usually, I could muster up enough motivation to continue on without too much pushback (I’ve got grit, darnit). But the trail seemed impossibly long. Each hour was filled with the persistent ache of boredom and exasperation. I understood that from an aesthetic point of view, the landscape surrounding the trail was beautiful, but my mind seemed disconnected from that. All I could think about was wanting the hike to be over with, and feeling crestfallen upon remembering that it was only the first day; there was so much more to overcome before the end.

I knew, deep down, that those were the kind of experiences that really built strength. When you’re in a situation where you really have to push your mind to the limit to maintain agency, you know you’re going somewhere good. And one day, after all of this has passed, I knew that the experience would be viewed as a good struggle, despite all the crap that came with it in the moment. But throughout that day, all I could think was God, this day friggin’ sucks.


Day 7

After an extremely restful sleep, I woke up feeling energized. We had already gotten through the first third of the trip and gotten a feel for the path. I flung my backpack on, motivated to move on.

We kept on steadily proceeding through the trail. The boredom and aching were still present, but their effects were mitigated by our growing determination. With each step, we grew closer to the finish line.

We started to grow more antsy towards the end of the day. After spending hours upon hours marching on, the exasperation at the length of the trail crept back in. By the time we reached our campsite, exhaustion had infected every inch of our minds and bodies.  

We shimmied into our sleeping bags as the stars peeked through the hazy navy sky, and let the tiredness drip away from our bodies as the glow of heat lulled us to sleep.


Day 8

Unlike the previous two days, we were blessed with a breezy 8 miles on our to-do list. We felt excitement coarse through our veins: we were so close, and we had already gotten through the most physically and emotionally taxing parts of the journey. We could practically feel the calming sensation that would wash over us upon finishing.

We rushed through the last miles and let out a whoop and holler when we saw our starting point. A mixture of pride and exhaustion swept across our crew: we had done it, difficulties and all. We spent the rest of the day repacking our trailer and chilling while eating snacks. A reward for a job well done.


Day 9

After a long 31 miles, a long soak was in order. Fortunately, the Langford Hot Springs, remnants of an old resort, was not far away. After a short hike, we reached the natural hot springs on the Rio Grande, fifty feet from the border of Mexico. We all luxuriated in the hot water, letting our tired muscles relax. We left reluctantly but needing to get on the road to Las Cruces. The night was capped off by the quickest food buy (unofficial) in GAP Year history, coming in just under 48 minutes car-to-car, racing against time to make sure we reached our campground before it’s gates were shut for the night.


Day 10

We visited New Mexico State University in the morning, meeting with the Accessibility Services director for a quick overview of her office and what students should expect in college, followed by a tour of the beautiful campus. Tier check-ins followed that afternoon in a nice little park not far from NMSU.


Day 11 

Due to a wind advisory calling for 60+mph winds on exposed ridgelines (where we would be climbing and camping), our backcountry climbing trip was unfortunately called off. Taking the change of plans in stride, we instead drove over to White Sands National Monument, where we hiked atop apocalyptic dunes, visited a gift shop, hung out at a trendy little ABQ coffee shop, and finished the night with surprise tickets to Bohemian Rhapsody, the Queen biopic.


Day 12

After warming in a coffee shop for a few hours in the AM, our crew headed out for some alpine crack climbing training at Carnuel Crag, a small climb site just outside of Albuquerque. The wind was strong and cold, but the rock protected us from it grandly. Some participants were introduced to crack climbing for the first time, a form of climbing which involves putting yourself within a crack of rock, and chimneying up much like Saint Nick after dropping packages under your tree.


Day 13

We woke up to four inches of powdery snow covering our tents. Due to the weather, we headed into town and inside, to Stone Age Climbing Gym where we bouldered for the better part of the day, and grabbed showers before leaving. I’m not sure anyone could feel their hands after the great workout.


Day 14 

We awoke again in snow, though this time not covered in it, and began the drive from Albuquerque to Pueblo, CO. The highlight of the day, if not the final portion of the trip, was the expedition pizza party at Pizza Ranch. Approximately 25-30 entire pizzas were consumed. Whole weeks of calories came and went. Ice cream flowed. All the healthy eating habits went out the window for one glorious moment of splurging, and we returned to our campsite warm, happy, and very full.


Day 15

The drive from Pueblo back to Dubois is a long one. We stopped on the way to experience the coldest lunch of our lives in a Loves outside of Laramie. We made it back to base by dark due to our short days of sun during Wyoming winters. We unloaded gear, ate a delicious meal prepared by Theresa and we all crashed early (glad to be back).


Home Sweet Home

The team returned with exactly 8 days before flying home to meet families. Transitions are difficult no matter how much celebration is anticipated on the other end. The stress of the challenges throughout the semester bubble up. Growth and change is hard. With the finish line and a break in sight much of what the team can muster looks vaguely of backsliding and old habits. Things are getting done, yet reminders are more necessary and the pace is slow. This all makes sense, so the leaders decide it is time to CELEBRATE the success!  

Over the final week the team has their final volunteer placement day with lots of praise!  They also have several meetings with individual mentors to discuss the growth and expectations they will go home with. Each conversation slowly builds pride in the participants and all the work they have put into the team and themselves. Miranda helps sooth the deep conversation with some Hanukkah celebration with a traditional Motsaball soup!

The team takes a moment to enjoy the holiday season with cookie making and ice skating in Jackson. It isn’t hard to get in the mood with all the snow and the chill in the air. The Star Sleepers celebrate two birthdays Roxy and Olivia! Pizza party, games, and movie nights help the team take a break from the preparation for home.  

The final night the team shares dinner together of Charle’s delicious chili! After dinner and logistics each team member writes their name on a piece of paper. During this silent activity the colored construction paper passes around the table as each participant writes memories, jokes, and appreciation for each other. At the end everyone stops to reflect on how they are appreciated and shares their favorite sentiments with the whole group.  

This semester was jammed packed! Full of growth and change, tears and sore muscles, laughter and inside jokes, learning and challenges, pride and building self-esteem.  Overall, I hope we can all say THANK YOU! Each member of this big beautiful team brought it! They brought their unique selves to the table and expanded! We can’t wait to see you all again soon!  Looking forward to the adventures ahead! For now…REST, and CELEBRATE!