By Britney Nguyen
As her friends are waking up for classes in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Claire Shu is burrowed in the bottom of her sleeping bag, trying not to freeze in her single-person tent in Flagstaff, Arizona. Sometimes, Shu is already hiking trails and scaling rocks even before her friends on the east coast are awake.
If it were a normal semester, Shu would be in Chapel Hill finishing the first semester of her senior year at the UNC-Chapel Hill. When the coronavirus pandemic forced universities to move classes online, Shu decided to take a gap semester to do something completely different.
She said the conservation and trail work she’s doing in Arizona has taught her what her economics and English classes at UNC-CH and her life in Chapel Hill could not.
When UNC-CH classes moved online after spring break, Shu felt as if a depression had settled over Chapel Hill.
“It was horrible,” Shu said. “It was not conducive to learning, and all of my friends were talking about how hard it was just to get up and go to class. Having experienced that, even just for six weeks, definitely played a role in me deciding not to go back.”
Her creative writing professors were so inspiring, and in-person and online classes did not have the same level of energy or learning.
At the beginning of June, Shu moved into the house she and her friends were excited to live in for senior year. Knowing that her friends were also miserable with online classes helped Shu think about what to do with the upcoming semester.
“We all decided as a collective not to take classes,” Shu said. “I definitely couldn’t have done it if they hadn’t also decided.”
One of Shu’s roommates, Alaina Plauche, was the first to bring up the idea of a gap semester.
“I was being dramatic then because I didn’t think all of this would actually happen,” Plauche said. “I was thinking of doing something elsewhere but then decided that I would just stay here because it was easier to find jobs that could help me pay rent.”
Over the summer, Shu’s mom, Lisa, helped her look for week-long conservation and trail work programs on the Appalachian Trail since Shu had enjoyed hiking a section of it before.
Lisa was worried that Shu would drop out of college, so she tried to get her engaged in something for the time. Shu wanted to be away for the whole semester, so she started looking into paid longer-term conservation experiences.
“It has absolutely nothing to do with what I study, but it just felt like the right thing to do at the time,” Shu said. “When else am I in my life going to be able to take this time off and do something not really related to my career?”
Hitching the trails
For eight days, Shu and her AmeriCorps cohort camp on site and work on building and maintaining nature trails. When the cohort returns from camping, they have six days off to explore.
“The eight days, we call them hitches,” Shu said. “The first hitch we did trail maintenance, so we cleaned up around the trail and flattened out the path to make it more accessible.”
Recently, Shu and her cohort sprayed herbicides on invasive species in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. Afterwards, she said they returned to their tents looking like Smurfs because of the blue dye they used to spot the invasive species.
On her days off, Shu hikes urban trails around Flagstaff, explores caves and once visited Zion National Park in Utah.
“Zion was the absolute hardest and most rewarding hike of my life,” Shu said. “We got up at 4 a.m., hit the trail around 5:30 a.m. while the stars were still out, which was absolutely insane.”
Shu and her friends hiked around 14 miles for 12 hours as the sun rose around them, highlighting the sandy trails and red rock. She said as they scaled rock faces, they looked up to see mountain goats standing above them.
“When the sun rose, I looked around and was like, ‘It does not feel like I’m on planet Earth right now’,” Shu said. “I felt like I was on Mars.”
Is this the right trail?
Shu is the only person in her cohort of 18 to 35-year olds who is still in school, which is surprising to her.
“Before I came over here, I was telling people I was taking a semester off and everyone was like, ‘Oh, that’s such a good decision’,” Shu said. “I told people I was going to Arizona and they were like, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea’.”
But she said she felt nobody else was taking the initiative.
“For a long time, I was like, ‘Is it a good idea? Literally nobody else is doing this’,” Shu said. “I definitely felt like it was right, and it’s proven to be right,” Shu said.
There are times when Shu misses being with her friends in Chapel Hill as she camps under the vast Arizona sky. One 40-degree morning on a hitch, she saw on Snapchat that her house had invited friends over the night before.
“There have definitely been a few times when I feel like I’m missing out,” Shu said. “But honestly, for the most part, I feel like I’m in the right spot.”
Within the first few weeks of being in Flagstaff, Shu and some of her new friends hiked Humphreys Peak, the highest natural point and second highest peak in Arizona.
“I was looking around and thinking that there’s absolutely nowhere else I would rather be or I should rather be,” Shu said.
Shu said part of her feels guilty for taking time off from school to travel, but she also realizes she would not have that opportunity if not for the pandemic.
“I definitely want to have four years of college, and I know that’s not for everyone which is fine,” Shu said, “but I’m definitely set up to graduate, if not in a semester, then definitely in a year.”
Shu said her mother made it very clear that she needs to graduate from UNC-CH.
“I definitely know I’m going to, but there was this weird fear in the back of my head that maybe I find I love it out here and move out here,” Shu said. “I absolutely love it out here, but do I value a degree? For sure.”
For now, Shu is preparing for colder nights in the Arizona desert with her cohort and looking forward to climbing more peaks with her friends.
“I cried when I left Chapel Hill, but at the same time, I had no doubt in my mind the entire time that I was making the right decision,” she said.
Edited by: Evan Castillo