By Lee Noles
MONROE – Simon Barnes was at a crossroads when he started his senior year of high school in 2018. College wasn’t right for him then, and he really didn’t have any long-term goals.
It was then Barnes made a life-changing decision. Instead of packing for college after graduation, he’d backpack more than 500 miles through Europe along the world-famous Camino De Santiago. The trail traverses France and Spain across the picturesque Pyrenees mountain range before plunging into the sweltering heat of central Meseta. It all culminates when the trail ends at the historic Cathedral in Santiago De Compostela.
“I realized I can do something like this. I can take a challenge and complete it,” said Barnes, who started the journey in August. “It was like I was graduating all over again. I even had a piece of paper showing what I had done.”
Barnes’ year away from a formal education is part of a growing trend among graduates who prolong college or a career so they can find out what they want to do for their future.
Volunteering, internships and dedicating time for a cause are avenues some have explored in the movement known as a gap year. The idea first started in the late 1960s, but became more popular recently as young adults search for experiences they may not necessarily find in college.
Former President Barack Obama’s daughter Malia and England’s Prince William each took a gap year before starting their education or careers. There’s even a website from a nonprofit that helps students and parents navigate the process.
Barnes didn’t go that route. Instead, the 18-year-old relied on help from his former teacher, Shawnna Sanzo, to find out what he wanted to do. Sanzo taught English at Charlotte Secondary, where Barnes was a student. She also completed the Camino De Santiago and thought it was what he needed to do.
“She really educated me about the hike, and I can really say she is the reason why I did the hike,” Barnes said. “It was kind of her fault … I really appreciate what she did for me.”
He planned for the journey by reading books on people who finished the trail and watched videos on the essentials he would need. He made travel arrangements and got supplies before heading with his father, Blake, to France to begin the hike. Blake walked with his son the first three days before leaving Barnes in the Pyrenees to return to Union County.
“It was rough,” Blake said. “It was like watching a 5-year-old walk off. I admit I was crying, and I am not a crier.”
Barnes kept in contact with his family by posting his daily experiences on Facebook. He talked about the cities he stopped in, the people he met and the scenery he saw during his hike, which averaged around 15 miles a day. His mom, Chress, said his posts became so popular that customers at the East Frank Superette and Kitchen, which she owns with Blake, came in daily to ask where Barnes was that day.
“It was very touching to see people care that much about what he was doing,” Chress said.
The post also calmed Chress’ nerves when Barnes started the Meseta portion of the trail. The Meseta is a large plain known for its open spaces and dry, hot temperatures in the summertime. Barnes said he learned the day before he began the more than 130-mile hike through the Meseta a man died from heatstroke.
“I was freaking out,” Chress said. “I am usually level-headed but not at that time.”
Barnes said he met people from China and Germany and even had a chance to talk with a man from Charlotte. The trail is set up where large cities or small villages are available at the end of each day’s hike. It was at the small towns where Barnes said local people were the most kind by supplying lodging and necessities.
The trip through Spain didn’t help Barnes make up his mind about college, but it did give him a chance to reflect on what he wants to do in the future. He is considering a hike through the German and Austrian Alps. Whatever Barnes wants, he has learned it’s up to him to accomplish.
“You can change your life at any moment,” Barnes said. “You can meet someone who could change your life. If you are worried that you are stuck, you can go and change it. It’s up to you.”