A roundabout route across an extended gap

Some students may take what is commonly referred to as a gap year before heading off to college after high school or before starting a career after they've earned their degree. I think many students who consider this idea find themselves drenched in the aggressive spray of passionately opposing opinion on the topic. Well, this story is about how I jumped off the deep end to find my feet land on the path less traveled; it's a tale about how my gap year turned into a gap decade.

In the back of my mind, I had this idea that I would eventually go to college — I mean, I wanted to work hard and contribute to society — I just didn't know what that something would be. Through introspection, I determined the source of this uncertainty… my lack of knowledge about the world. There I was – 18 years old – feeling the pressure of my surroundings crushing me with the force to make grand decisions about the rest of my life. I couldn't believe it. It didn't seem right! I had barely been alive long enough to get a feel for the town I lived in, let alone for the endless potential the entire world had to offer. Let me put it this way – if all the possibilities in the world were represented by a bag of Skittles, then I knew about less than half of one single Skittle. Fortunately, I was cognizant enough to realize there was more out there to see.

In retrospect, this is the question I was asking, "How could a future scientist make decisions without the appropriate data?" So, what does one do when they want to know more about the undiscovered? That's right, they have to explore the territory to learn the terrain! They have to formulate and test hypotheses; they have to do the experiment; they have to collect data! So, that is exactly what I set out to do.

What follows is one of many stories from the adventures that led me to join Georgia Tech's newly formed Ocean Science and Engineering program as an ambitious and bright-eyed, 1st year Ph.D. student. My hope in sharing this experience is that it will inspire, as well as encourage, others to believe in themselves and to attempt things they know they can do, even when no one around them thinks they can do it.

Part 1: Bernard the bus prequel

It was a few months after I had completed an 8-month nose dive into what can best be described as, "Life according to Captain Steve." You see, it was more than just a sailing internship – it was an initiation into a way of life… but that’s a story for another time.

After this initiation with Captain Steve, I had a renewed confidence in my capability to set out and take on the world. My buddy Bob and I found ourselves engaged in a deep existential conversation about how best to get a grip on what this life we found ourselves living actually was. Bob too was experiencing the same uncertainty as I – uncertainty about how best to approach the rest of our lives.

After several weeks of evening meetings to play a strategic board game known as Go, we had hashed it out, narrowing our plan to two ideas: 1) purchase a sailboat, challenge the sea, and head abroad or, 2) attempt to pull off an epic road trip of the sort our parents had only heard about in the 60's. Neither of us had experienced much of America outside of our hometown, and the prevailing thought that rang true was, "We should learn more about our own great country before pulling anchor and setting sail for foreign shores." The learning we wanted wasn't the type of learning you get from textbooks; it was the first-hand experience of knowing.

Immediately prior to these talks, I had returned from visiting my friend Janell in Boston. She graduated from college while I was busy floundering and trying to find my own head. In Boston, Janell was working her first job as a designer with a small graphic design firm. During this trip, she convinced her boss to hire me to take the cover photo for a punk rock album she was designing. The band was called Piebald, the album, Accidental Gentleman. During this process, I met the band and was invited to ride with them from Boston down to New York for the first show on their tour. This ride was a major turning point in my early life.

The band was touring in an old city transit bus they had purchased and converted to run on used vegetable oil. The concept blew my mind! Before we left, we stopped behind a Chinese restaurant to fill up the tank with used cooking oil that gets discarded in a dumpster out back. The restaurants throw out the old oil after several uses and then have to pay a service fee for disposal, so they were happy to help us save them money. Vegetable oil contains similar hydrocarbon chains to the oil we drill out of the ground for fuel, and it burns with equivalent properties. Some even say it burns cleaner than conventional fuel and is better for the engine as well as for the environment, but I am not an expert on these things... After about 30 minutes of transferring and filtering the old frying oil, we drove down to New York smelling just like we were cooking egg rolls. Total fuel costs? Near zero.

Once Bob heard about this, he knew it was what we needed to do. When you live on an island, having a boat means having freedom. When you have a sailboat you have less expensive freedom because wind power is incredibly cheaper than fuel. When you live in a town in the continental United States, having a school bus converted to a motorhome imparts this same freedom – having the ability to run on free fuel is like having sails powered by free wind! The freedom is the freedom to travel between different clusters of people. These different clusters represent new ideas and lifestyles; they portray variable ways of living life. Access to them affords the ability to expose oneself to exotic environments, granting the power to perceive the world at large with one's own senses. New clusters of people offer exposure to new experiences, and new experiences were what we were after. In essence, each new idea and experience is a new data point to collect about the possibilities achievable with a human life.

How do we want to think? How do we want to feel? Who will our role models be? Do we have to do what's already been done or do we want to cut our own path? Who do we want to become? These were just a few of the questions we were asking. Our proposal for data collection? A big yellow 65 passenger, 1992 Thomas Built school bus. Our source of funding? Ourselves. We both had working-class parents and didn't really know anyone with money to spare. So we pinched pennies and scraped together $2,550 to purchase our moon shot.

We sweet-talked our friend Nino, who owned a house, into letting us park the bus in his backyard. After some additional charismatic finesse, he even agreed to let us use his tools and his shop. He charged us $75 a month each. With the deal in place, we removed the seats from the bus, sold our excess belongings, moved out of our apartments, and started living on the school bus, bare bones camping style. Nino did give us access to his shower and bathroom, but we cooked on a camp stove outside! We saved our excess rent money to fund the rest of the project. Six months later, Bernard the bus was born. We built the interior similar to a sailboat - complete with kitchen, fresh water tanks, sleeping bunks, dinette, and bathroom. We installed extra heated fuel tanks, a fuel switch, oil filtration system, and enabled the engine to run on vegetable oil.

Nobody we knew had ever seen anything like this. Many thought we were crazy! But, with the help of friends, family, and kind strangers, a little perseverance, and a lot of hard work, we pulled it off. We honed our problem-solving skills, and we expanded our skill sets. We even got a couple write-ups in the local papers: "Two local boys with limited resources and minimal training build something from nothing larger than themselves." We had earned our freedom. It was like a rite of passage of sorts.

With our newly fashioned instrument for data collection, we set out on the first of several extended voyages across the United States. Our first trip took us to Maine and back. We went to a summer camp, visited national forests, worked on organic farms, and volunteered at music festivals. Along with our goal of learning about ourselves and the world, we also spread ideas about sustainability and mindful living at every stop we made. At this point, it felt as if anything were possible. We took on a challenge and we emerged victoriously. But, as we would learn along the way, life continuously presents obstacles, and success requires constant effort. But those are stories for another time...

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Please feel free to email me or swing by my office if you would like to know more about this project, my other adventures, or if you want to have a discussion about life, the universe, and everything.

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For More Information Contact

Conrad Roth
Graduate Student in Ocean Science and Engineering 
rotheconrad@gatech.edu