Thanksgiving approaches, and many of us find ourselves daydreaming of bottomless meals and endless hours of couch-sitting. However, some of your classmates associate the word “break” with more than West Wing reruns. In our new Give Me a Break feature, we’ll tell you about some of the colorful and inspirational adventures that your fellow Columbians have embarked upon during the time they’ve taken off from school. In this first installment, Alternative Education Expert Sam Schipani talked with Austin Williams who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, and Rosie Hoffman, who worked on two political campaigns.
All New Yorkers can sympathize with the desire to escape the metropolitan hustle and bustle every so often to frolic in the fresh air and wonders of nature. Austin Williams, CC ’13 (formerly CC’11), brought this urge to a whole new level when he took a semester off to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. After driving cross country for 30 straight hours from his home in Kentucky to San Bernardino, California in April 2009, Austin and his friends spent a few days bumming around in SoCal before his pals dropped him off at the Mexican border, leaving him to fend for himself. “I chugged a warm Budweiser before I started north,” Williams recalls. “Seemed like the thing to do.”
Austin reveals that there is a certain inexplicable sense of community on the trail, among hikers and non-hikers alike. While in Southern California, he stumbled upon a free hiker hostel, aptly called Hiker Town, owned by a billionaire named Richard. “When I limped out of the hills and through the Hiker Town gates, a Ferrari whipped in beside me,” Austin said. “The door opened and out stepped not Richard, but Fuzzy Monkey, a hiker I knew. This man [Richard] was letting complete strangers, filthy ones, tool around in his luxury sport cars, and in his collection of dune buggies in the desert behind the property. It was a real Twilight Zone couple of days.” There are also groups of perfect strangers, called “trail angels” by those they help, who go out of their way to drive water and food into the wilderness and offer lodging to hikers as they resupply.
After getting off the trail at Mount Whitney in Lone Pine, CA, Austin intended to hitchhike back to Kentucky. His last hitch in Death Valley was with a group of Floridians, one of which sported a large facial tattoo, who were already accompanied by a female hitchhiker who claimed clairvoyance when she smoked marijuana (Austin admits he never got to see her prove this bold claim). This ragtag bunch brought him as far as Las Vegas, where he failed miserably one night to hitch another ride and decided to sleep with his pack and pillow in a ditch by an underpass. “I was sleeping soundly until I woke to a flashlight in my eyes and a boot toe nudging my ribs. It was a sheriff’s deputy. Someone had called 911 and reported a dead body on the side of the highway. That was the only time I have ever been suspected of being dead.”
Despite the outrageousness of his adventures, Austin still values the trip as quality time for uninterrupted meditation and personal reflection. “Climbing mountains and trudging through the desert, and through feet of snow, (which they have in SoCal, who knew?), will change you,” he reflects. “I recommend that everyone go tomorrow.”
Rosie Hoffman, GS ’13, didn’t climb any mountains or get confused for a corpse while sleeping near a highway, but she did spend two separate semesters off, one in the fall of 2008 and the other in the fall of 2010, taking the idea of a college student’s political efficacy one step further and working on two political campaigns.
In the fall of 2008, Rosie worked as the office manager and volunteer coordinator for the 2008 Obama Campaign for Change in Monroe Country, PA. “I truly believed that it was my duty as a citizen, a Democrat, and a person who had spent almost half her life under George W. Bush’s presidency, to work to unite this nation around a candidate who could give us hope,” Rosie explains. “History was happening around me and I wanted to be part of the campaign for change.” Her daily tasks ranged from registering voters at East Stroudsburg University (ESU) and arranging housing for volunteers to button making, lawn sign assemblage, and office cleaning. Rosie worked with a quirky yet inspiring group of volunteers, such as Bruce, a retired actor who moved from LA to care for his aging mother, and who gave a toy cardinal to Rosie after an ESU Republican accused her of being a communist (she still keeps the bird on her desk for good luck). After months of phone calls and button making, Election Day finally arrived. “Funny enough,” Rosie admits, “Election Day was my least busy day of the entire campaign.” In the end, Obama carried Monroe County by over 60% of the votes, a very satisfying statistic for the campaign volunteers.
Rosie hit the political circuit again in the fall of 2010 as a Political Intern for NARAL Pro-Choice NY, where she had worked on and off since the age of 15. Rosie’s main jobs were organizing phone banks, attending rallies—including that of current Attorney General Eric Schneiderman—and tracking down candidates for the state assembly and senate to ask them to fill out a survey the NARAL uses to determine endorsements. In the last few weeks before the election, she was staffed out to the Craig Johnson State Senate campaign, where she made calls to local NARAL supporters, spent a lot of time making GOTV (get out the vote) schedule posters, and helped to organize local events. “Most New Yorkers take reproductive choice for granted,” Rosie asserts. “This is incredibly dangerous, as women’s reproductive rights are constantly under siege both on a state and national level. It’s important to remind voters that choice is not a given and it needs to be protected.”
Roise also worked with two political operatives from out of state, named Megan and Glenn, who she described as “two of the most politically liberal people I have ever met…and I’m a New Yorker.” Though the campaign trail involves a lot of heckling and interaction with less-than-savory individuals, Rosie fondly remembers moments where she found inspiration in the support of strangers. “I went to a campaign rally and we encountered a huge contingent of animal rights activists who spontaneously joined in with our pro-choice chants,” she said. “And at a Cuomo rally a very tall teamster took pity on me and lifted me up so that my sign would be visible to the TV cameras.” Activism indeed.