Oliver Rye, '17, stands on top of his car watching the Northern Lights in the Mackenzie Montain Range in the Yukon Terriroty of Canada. (Courtesy of Oliver Rye)

Mountain Man: Gap semester leads student across the country

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As Oliver Rye’s fellow engineering classmates were in the library this October preparing for their midterm exams, he was 3,700 miles away, alone on the side of a mountain in a remote region of Canada’s Yukon Territory.

Flashback to the summer of 2015, it was weeks away from the start of Rye’s junior year at Lehigh, but he was already feeling its impending stress. He was halfway through the mechanical engineering curriculum and questioned whether it was a degree he still wanted. The way Rye saw it, he had two options: push aside the internal doubts and pack his bags for Bethlehem, or take a gap semester and critically examine his future.

Rye chose the latter.

On Sept. 15, after talking to his advisor and filling out all the necessary paperwork with the school, he embarked on a 15,000-mile road trip across the U.S. and Canada. It was just him and his blue Toyota FJ Cruiser, which would double as his home for the next two months.

He set out with three goals in mind: to escape from the monotony of math and engineering classes, to exercise his creative side through his passion for photography and to discern what his next step in life would be.

“I went on Google Earth and went through every national park and everywhere in North America that I could conceivably drive to,” Rye said. “I picked out all the places I wanted to go and just connected the dots in the most efficient route I could.”

That route brought him to the wilderness of the Yukon Territory, an area 200 miles from the nearest town that offered a front row view of the Northern Lights.

He spent a week in that area of Canada, which was home to a mountain Rye had been observing since his arrival. He took pictures at its base, scoped out the terrain and planned his route up. One day, Rye woke up, and said to himself, “Today’s the day.”

Since the mountain didn’t have a trail, it was bushwhacking the whole way up. The hike took much longer than Rye expected, and by the time he reached the summit, the sun had already gone down. It is the only time on the trip that Rye ever admitted to being scared.

“I had to descend in darkness while it was snowing heavily,” Rye said. “I couldn’t take the same route that I took up because it would have been too dangerous in the dark, so I took a much longer route. Six hours later, I finally made it back to camp at 2 a.m.”

Meanwhile his friends were back in Bethlehem, hearing updates about his travels through a satellite device that Rye hooked up to his cellphone. He could communicate with his friends and family, even from the side of that mountain in Canada.

“His satellite gizmo would send his GPS coordinates with every text, so I would get a text message from Oliver and then I would be like, ‘Oh great, he’s on the side of a cliff in Alaska,’” Rye’s friend, Andrew Zdanowicz, ’17, said. “We were all in awe and living vicariously through him. We’re here in classes while he’s out there finding out about life.”

In his travels, Rye saw a side of America he had never seen before. He had never been to the West Coast, let alone Canada. He described the one-room schoolhouses in remote areas of the country and the oil fields of Alaska where men his age went to work everyday.

“It made me more aware of the opportunities I have here at school,” Rye said. “I realized that engineering is what I want to do, I’m lucky enough to be at Lehigh to be able to do it and that’s what I want to follow through on.”

Rye has already readjusted to life at Lehigh. Even after the trip of a lifetime, Rye’s friends said that they see little change in his demeanor.

“He’s still the same Oliver that I’ve always known,” Noah Saltzman, ’17, said. “He seems more relaxed, but that might be because he’s not taking classes right now. Personality wise, though, I see no difference.”

Zdanowicz guesses that the trip impacted Rye more than he’s letting on.

“The thing about Oliver is that he is so nonchalant about everything,” Zdanowicz said. “I think that he did really change a lot and he learned a lot about himself, but on the surface he’s always going to be nonchalant Oliver, just understating the whole thing.”

When asked about his next journey, Rye smiled, shaking his head.

“I’ve done enough traveling for a while,” he said. “I’ve scratched that travel itch, and now I’m just happy to be home.”

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