Any high school graduate who thinks that college is merely a next step should walk a mile in Gabe Acheson's shoes. When the Park School graduate arrived Thursday at Yale University, he'd walked nearly 400 miles, fulfilling a promise he'd made in his application to the Ivy League school, and to himself, to not just embark on a new adventure but create one.
Acheson set out from his Rodgers Forge home on July 29, with a 35-pound backpack, an optimistic attitude and enough packaged food to eat about 7,000 calories a day for his first 30 miles. He started his first leg toward Pennsylvania to join the Appalachian Trail, which would lead him north toward New Haven, Conn.
Last winter, Acheson applied early action to Yale, where he plans to study music, and decided to take the first of what are sure to be many risks on his college journey.
"As I was writing essays, I thought about how I'd always wanted to do something like this," Acheson said. "I figured if I put it in an essay, that would force me to follow through on my plan. I'm sure that I'll have adventures to college, but I wanted to have the journey to college to be an adventure in itself."
According to admissions counselor Lindsay Acevedo, among the 29,000 applications the university received this year, "Gabe's was just one of those that added up beautifully."
"Everyone commented on ... his mind, and how it works, and how thoughtful he was," said Acevedo, who covers the Maryland region for Yale. "Throughout the application it was clear he was concerned about the journey, not just the end goal. That definitely stood out."
Having attended the Park School in Baltimore County since he was 4, Acheson said he knew that leaving home would be a monumental undertaking, but he wanted it to be on his own terms.
"College is the next chapter, but for me, college is like the next volume," he said. "I wanted to have a transitional adventure that would represent the major change in my life and have it be more than just driving five hours on I-95."
Acheson, who ran cross-country, describes himself as "reasonably fit" and walked about 10 to 15 miles a day with weights to prepare for the trek.
According to his parents, both of whom are educators, the environmental- and budget-conscious family has never been a fan of cars and raised rather resourceful children.
"Given all of that, I was still shocked when he said he really wanted to walk to college," said his mother, Dianne Wittner. "He told me the name of the essay, 'Walking to Yale,' and I thought, 'What a cool essay,' and crossed that off my list. It was a very enlightening and worrying thing when he said, 'I really have to do this.'"
Preparing for the trip, Wittner said, was like "doing a dance" when really all you want to do is stop the music.
"How do you not say 'no' when all you really want to do is shut it down?" Wittner said. "How do you forget what it was like to be 18 and needing an adventure? It's a wonderful anecdote, a wonderful passage that has added to my gray hairs."
Acheson compromised in preparing for his journey to appease his parents' fears, they said. He took a first-aid and CPR course, agreed not to cross highways, used Google Maps to map out alternative routes where there was no safe place to walk, and kept his parents updated on his whereabouts by marking his location through the online GPS site — which earned him the trail name "Ping."
His father also met him at several points during the trip, driving him about 36 miles of the trek.
But, as he sat atop a fire tower in Culver Lake, N.J., drying from a rainstorm, Acheson said during an interview by cellphone that like college, there's no way to prepare for the unknown.
"You can't really plan that much," he chuckled. "You have to go out and see what it's like, and then you say, 'Oh, crap.'"
There were two close calls with rattlesnakes in Pennsylvania; a second of watching a bear cub in New Jersey before realizing its mother might not be too far behind; and standing in knee-deep grass of the National Wildlife Reserve in New York, realizing that he no longer had a map.
"The single hardest thing of this has been going without music," said Acheson, a jazz and classical pianist, singer and keyboardist. He was able to steal away into an old church in Delaware Water Gap, Pa., near a shelter he was staying in, however, to play piano for about two hours.
Other than that, Acheson said the journey had been filled with carbohydrates — like Snickers bars and Snyder's pretzels — and strangers who became companions, even if only for an hour.
There was the 31-year-old construction worker from San Diego, the 26-year-old who went by the trail name "Jam Session" who had served seven years in the Air Force; P.J., the 21-year-old who has been married for two years and took a semester off from college to hike the trail; and the former woodshop teacher who pulled over to give him directions to the shelter he and his friends had built with their bare hands years earlier.
"It's really kind of crazy, to see the kind of lives people have, people I would have probably never ever met — who are here today and gone tomorrow," Acheson said from the road in New York, where he got off the Appalachian Trail. "It's really hitting me over the head."
By Tuesday, Acheson's father — who camped with him, sometimes drove his routes ahead of him and treated him to a couple of hot meals — also met someone new.
"I had the observation that he wasn't asking me any questions, he was telling me things," said Jon Acheson. "It's a little bit more debriefing, than briefing.
"Wow, I hadn't really thought about that …" he said with a chuckle. "He doesn't really need us much anymore."
After a stop at the campus, the teen arrived at his hotel about 5:30 p.m., with sore feet and a heart full of pride, he said — right in time for freshman orientation on Friday (and a much-needed blood test to check for Lyme disease).
"I really hope that this encourages people to take up their own adventure, to just grab life by the whatever," he said. "Just do something crazy."