The summer I learned how to live

I'm not superstitious -- not even religious, really. But sometimes I'm sentimental enough to believe some things happen for a reason.

I believe this summer happened for a reason.


My phone lights up as I sit down for dinner in a crowded New York City restaurant in the middle of January. The caller ID shines brightly in the dimly-lit room: Clark, Colorado.

It takes me a second to realize why I'm receiving a phone call from so far away -- and then it hits me. Shit. I hesitate before walking out of the restaurant to answer the call from Vista Verde Ranch.

I pick up the phone and am warmly congratulated by Zach, the man in charge of human resources at Vista Verde, on being hired as a children's supervisor at the guest ranch in northwest Colorado.

I'd applied to work at the ranch on a whim in August, five months prior to my trip to NYC. I had vacationed at the ranch four times before with my mom and brother. Families from all over the world visit to enjoy a classic all-American western experience -- horseback riding, hiking, mountain biking, the whole thing. Staff members dress in cowboy boots and 10-gallon hats every day, and the guests live like cowboys for a week.

Back on the phone, I thank Zach and tell him I need some time to think about it. But I know before I even end the call that I can't take this job. I'm in the middle of my J-term class in New York with Miami's NYC Media trip. I've spent the week networking with prominent journalism-school alumni, learning how to turn my degree into careers like theirs.

Each journalist I've met emphasized the most important step in succeeding in this field: Experience. They've convinced me that I need an internship - fast. I have to be in New York this summer, building up my resume, creating a network of people.

But I got the job at Vista Verde.

I frantically call my mom. "I just got hired at the ranch," I say. "But I can't do it. I need an internship."

She tells me I can say no, but warns against it. "I would give anything to be your age and spend a summer in Colorado," she says. "I think you need this. Wouldn't you rather look back and say you had an experience like this rather than an internship you hated?"

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I find myself at a crossroads. My mom is right -- it would be such an incredible, unique experience to move out west for a summer. I probably wouldn't have an opportunity like this again.

But I've been preparing for an internship my entire college career. I've taken at least 18 credit hours every semester just to ensure I can triple-major in journalism, media and culture, and Spanish. I've stayed up into the early hours of the morning countless times to balance school and the extracurriculars I've packed my resume with. I've called my mom crying a few times a semester, worried I chose the wrong majors, stressed that I wasn't going to get a job.

I often compare myself to my friends in the Farmer School of Business, who usually have their internships locked down before October. I find myself lurking on LinkedIn, measuring my accomplishments against those of others in my major.

Working at a ranch would add nothing to my LinkedIn profile.

And I don't necessarily love the outdoors. Horses kind of freak me out, and I'm not a very athletic person. I've never been away from home for more than two months, and I would only know a few people on the staff from my visits in years past.

In my head, the answer is simple: Turn down the offer. Professionally, choosing to work on the ranch makes no sense. And, if I'm really honest with myself, moving to Colorado terrifies me.

But while it scares me, a small part of me is excited by the thrill of taking a risk and doing something completely out of the ordinary.

I sit on the offer for a day, asking for advice from friends and family amidst my busy schedule in the city. My close friends all tell me to do it, that it's the last time I'll have the chance to do something crazy, something out of the ordinary like this.


The next evening, I'm in the bathroom of a law firm in Manhattan, brushing my hair before attending an alumni networking event. I feel my phone buzz to see the ranch calling me back, waiting for my answer. The call came faster than I'd anticipated.

Without thinking, I answer the phone and tell Zach that I'll accept the position.

I wish there was more of a reason to why I did it, but there's not. Maybe a part of me knew deep down that I needed a change, an escape from the competitive world of networking and the stress of having the perfect internship.

A small part of me is happy that I'm taking a risk, following my mom's advice. But I have a knot in my stomach, convinced I'm ruining any chance I have at making it as a journalist, that I'm tainting my perfectly-manicured resume.


By the time I returned from New York for the spring semester, I was positive I made the wrong decision: I couldn't go to Vista Verde. For the entirety of second semester, I tried to slow down time, dreading the idea of moving so far away to a place where I knew so few people. All my friends looked forward to internships in cities across the country or exciting study abroad trips. I was too afraid to admit the embarrassment I felt about working on a horse ranch.

But of course, May eventually came, and before I knew it, I was stepping onto a plane headed for the Rocky Mountains, cowboy hat in hand.

I convinced myself to board that plane to Colorado because I desperately needed a change. The second semester of my sophomore year was tougher than I anticipated.

I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression the week after I returned from New York.

Back at Miami, I focused hard on "fixing" myself, curing the mental illness. To do this, I tried to perfectly balance schoolwork, multiple extracurriculars and somewhat of a social life. It was a daily battle.

I left no time to focus on myself.

I spent countless late nights in the architecture library before heading back to MacCracken Hall to get ready to go to Brick with friends. I did this multiple nights a week, never giving myself the chance to slow down.

I convinced myself that I needed this social time, that this counted as a break, even though it was a strict part of my schedule.

During my downtime, I found myself mindlessly scrolling through Instagram. I became caught up in a toxic cycle of comparisons and self-doubt as I clicked through pictures of dozens of beautiful girls at Miami with thousands of likes. I convinced myself I wasn't pretty enough. I didn't have the right clothes, didn't go to the right parties.

But I pretended everything was fine.

I was sick with a cold for nearly three months, never allowing my body the chance to catch up.

The lifestyle I'd created for myself became overwhelming, and the only escape route I found was the end of the semester. Once May came, I dreaded moving to the ranch just a tiny bit less, if only because it would mean a change of pace, a step back from Miami for a little while.


Two days after finals week at the end of my sophomore year, after two connecting flights and three hours in the air, I clung to my cowboy hat in the airport as I met the Vista Verde staff member who would drive me to the ranch. We drove for an hour through the winding roads of northwest Colorado until we finally reached the place that would, for the next three months, be my home.

Vista Verde is tucked away in the Rocky Mountains in a town called Clark, which has a population of two people per square mile. It's an upscale, luxury guest ranch sitting on 560 acres in the Yampa Valley. Guests come from all over the world to spend a week immersing themselves in nature and disconnecting from the real world.

I checked my phone as we pulled into the property's mile-long driveway. No service -- not a single bar. After settling in and connecting to the unstable Wi-Fi, I figured I'd at least get minimal access to the internet. I tried refreshing Instagram. The gray wheel at the top of my screen spun and spun for two minutes before the first photo loaded. My impatience took over and I gave up on checking the rest of my feed, realizing I was basically disconnected for the summer.

This was quite the wake-up call from my life back at Miami, where the first thing I usually do when I wake up is check my phone. It's also the last thing I do before bed. I check my email during my walks between classes, headphones in. My first few weeks without constant access to my phone were frustrating. During my downtime, I wanted to check social media, Snapchat my friends and catch up with the outside world. I didn't know what to do with myself during moments of idleness. Simply walking from place to place on the ranch without my phone was a strange feeling. But I slowly began to let go in a way I didn't think I could before.

Each night, I sat on the porch of my cabin with friends as I looked at the mountains, reflecting on my day. It's such a simple concept, but just having the chance to think without looking down at my phone every minute was foreign territory.

Along with limited access to our phones, we had absolutely no access to parties or the drinking culture that is so ingrained into life at Miami. At Miami, many of my friendships came from going out and drinking together - especially friendships in my sorority. With these friends, I skipped the awkward small-talk stage and used alcohol as a way of easing the often-unavoidable discomfort I felt when meeting new people.

In Colorado, this wasn't an option. I spent the first few weeks in that all-too-familiar stage of not really knowing what to say to my co-workers. All the time. We often sat in silence between meetings, searching for something we could chat about.

But we spent over eight hours a day together, and slowly, with lots of time together in such a secluded place, we began to develop lasting relationships.

Every day after work, three of the other kids' supervisors, Aaron, Erinn, Max, and I stayed in our building and played Bananagrams, sometimes for up to an hour at a time. We laughed as we argued over what counted as an actual Scrabble word.

"'Xi' is totally a word," Aaron would yell.

We played games like "The 36 Questions That Lead to Love," forcing ourselves to become closer through hardto-answer questions like "What is your greatest fear?"

Within just a month, I'd told my friends on the ranch about my anxiety and depression, opening up about my insecurities. I'd never told anyone but my mom about this before. It was so relieving to have a group of people who knew even the darkest parts of me.

At night, we played in intense foosball tournaments. My co-worker Cawood and I went for walks down the driveway in the Colorado sunset and watched movies on actual DVDs as a nightly routine.

Without the distraction of social media and the outside world, I formed a genuine relationship with her. I know so much about her life outside the ranch -- we covered everything. Although we were only together for three months, she knows more about me than most of my friends back home. I doubt that would've happened if we had regular access to our phones.

One brisk Tuesday afternoon after work, Cawood and I decided to run down to the main lodge to grab coffee. We went on an evening walk to take pictures of the horses and square-danced in our weekly barn dance.

By the end of the night, when the rest of our co-workers were going to bed, we were bouncing off the walls, still so energized by our afternoon caffeine. We grabbed all the blankets from our staff housing and laid them out under the stars. We stayed up for hours talking about life on the ranch -- how it was so different, so much more special and real than anything we'd ever experienced.

"Jules," she told me, "I honestly can't picture going back to school after this. I'm a different person now ... How am I expected to just leave all this when August comes?"

"We're not going to talk about August," I told her. The end of our time at the ranch became a forbidden subject.


My friends in Colorado were so different than my friends at Miami. Being in a sorority, I tend to surround myself with people who are similar to me. A lot of us look the same, have the same interests and are from the Midwest. When I'm at school, I've never thought about becoming friends with people who are too different from me. It's easy to stick to what I know.

But there was no one too similar to me on the ranch. My best friends came from all over -- Atlanta, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and New York City. Many of the guests traveled from countries outside the United States --Singapore, England and the United Arab Emirates.

I thought about how similar everyone at Miami is -- white, upper-class, preppy kids who don't seem to care about much except next weekend's parties.

But with time, of course, it all made sense. Miami actually is diverse -- maybe I'd simply never cared to pay attention to the people different than me before.


As a kids' supervisor, I watched the families' children during the day while the adults did their own activities. Every day was different. We taught the kids how to ride horses, played countless games of Slamwich and duck-duckgoose, hiked through the mountains and tried to help them gain an appreciation for the outdoors.

In the beginning, I struggled to establish my authority with the kids. Their ages ranged from 4 years old to 13, and it was important to me that I be both their supervisor and friend.

I was afraid to tell them no. If they asked for extra snacks or to sit out of certain activities, I always caved out of a fear that they wouldn't like me. But with a new batch of kids every week, saying no became easy, and my confidence steadily increased. The more I said no and established my authority with them, I began to see them look up to me as a role model instead of just another friend on the ranch.

Halfway through the summer, during our weekly pool party, a 7-year-old guest, Bella, motioned for me to lean down so she could whisper something in my ear. "Don't tell anyone, but you're the nicest person I've met," she told me with a giggle.

If Bella had met me in the middle of March this past year, I'm not sure that she'd feel the same way.


The Tuesday night barn dance is an integral part of the Vista Verde experience. When I came to the ranch as a guest, my brother and I avoided it every year.

I hate dancing. My lanky arms and legs don't mix well with any sort of smooth dance moves. I was petrified of the fact that I'd be required to attend the barn dances every week during the summer.

During job orientation, I learned the two-step and some pretty complicated line dances that we shared with guests. I was embarrassed and wanted to hide during every barn dance, just as I had as a guest. But as the summer went on, I focused on practicing these dances after work with my friends for weeks, and it became something we all looked forward to. I can't say that I became a better dancer as the summer went on, but I cared less what people thought about my dancing. The crippling anxiety about who was watching me disappeared by August.


Coming back to campus in August was hard. I left Colorado on Monday morning and was back in Oxford by Tuesday. I felt the same knot in my stomach when I left the ranch on my last day as I did when I left for the ranch back in May.

Readjusting to Miami culture has been a challenge, but a good one. I'm a new person after my summer in Colorado. I pay attention to myself now; when I'm tired, I let myself rest, and when I'm stressed, I find ways to relax. Before, I used to push myself to go to every social event, worried that I'd be missing out if I stayed in. This year, I cherish the nights I stay in to catch up on homework or simply allow myself to spend time alone.

I don't pressure myself professionally in the ways I used to, like stalking my peers on LinkedIn. I met so many people on the ranch who were there to work after graduating from college. They didn't have future plans and weren't sure what they wanted to do, but they were happy. That's what I want. I don't need to have a concrete plan for myself right now, or ever. The academic environment at Miami makes it really hard to accept that, but I want to do what makes me happy. Sure, Vista may not have added to my experience in the journalistic world, but it made me happy.

Our undergraduate culture stresses internships to a fault. I felt like the most rebellious, non-traditional student ever by choosing to work on a ranch rather than working Monday through Friday in an office. It took a while, but I found out there are different ways to live outside of the path that Miami culture seems to have carved out for us.


Sometimes I find myself daydreaming about the ranch, wishing I could focus not on homework but on tacking up horses. I often think back on that conversation with Cawood, laying on our pile of blankets and looking up at the stars. That night, returning to the real world seemed so distant. We thought it would never happen.

Cawood flew to Oxford to visit me last weekend. We spent three days catching up and reminiscing about our time in Clark together. On Saturday night, we made banana bread in my kitchen while I forced her to listen to "Georgia Peaches," a song we listened to probably 100 times over the summer.

We attempted to do the line dance we learned to that song, laughing as we realized how many of the steps we'd already forgotten.

"Do you ever worry that we won't ever see our friends from the ranch again?" I asked her when we were done dancing.

"Oh my god, Julia, no," she told me, almost brushing off the question. "Why do you think I'm here? I'm going to force you all to be in my life forever, whether you like it or not."