Hiking and biking: Q&A with students who spent the summer outdoors

Donovan Fiore, ‘20, shares his experience biking through the Netherlands, Italy and Iceland this summer

Laura Calhoun and Grace Mamon

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Many Washington and Lee students use the Outing Club to to explore their love for the outdoors in Rockbridge County and beyond. The Ring-tum Phi sat down with two students who spent their summer in the great outdoors. Here’s the first part in our series: Donovan Fiore, ’20. 

Q: What did you do this summer?

Donovan Fiore: This summer, I had two major adventures. First, I worked with Apogee Adventures, an outdoor bike company. This is my second summer with them. Last summer, I led a bike tour about 200 miles round-trip from Vermont up to Montreal. I did that three times last summer, with 12 students each 12-14 [years old]. This summer, I asked for a bigger trip – Europe, coast-to-coast. I biked from Amsterdam to Venice – eight countries. We also had 12 kids; they were 15-18 [years old] this year. It was a 28 day bike tour through Europe – totally epic.

The second part of the summer, I was given a Kendrick Grant from the Outing Club. I drove a little camper van around Iceland for 5.5 days, completely by myself – so I had a very people intensive part and a solo part.

Q: Why did you want to lead a bike trip?

I loved leading with Apogee last summer – it is a very, very well-run organization. I asked them for that trip and they gave it to me. I knew deep down I definitely wanted to go biking and I had never been to Europe before, so it was a pretty easy choice when I started considering it seriously. I don’t regret it at all. I had an amazing time with incredible kids – just an absolutely epic way to see so much of a part of the world I had never been to. We almost crossed paths with Tour de France. We missed them by a few hours, but we saw all the signs and all the set-up. We rode on their route for a good bit. We rode through the Alps – that was super tough, but very rewarding. And once we got to the top, we had the longest downhill in Austria.

Q: What was it like leading a group of high school students?

Last summer, I would say, was a little tougher. There’s only so much you can get 12 and 14 kids to do. This time, our kids were amazing. On a long bike trip like that, things will go wrong, period. My bike destroyed itself halfway through the ride. I was working hours each night trying to fix it. It was limping along for awhile and finally bit the dust going up a big hill, so I missed a day or two of riding with our group while our support guy was helping me buy a new bike. We had three bikes stolen with three days remaining in the trip. Things that are pretty much out of our control go wrong, as they will on a long bike tour, but the kids were amazing and that makes all the difference in the world. They were so positive, so energetic. It was a real pleasure to get to lead such a good, cohesive group.

We had one guy [and] we called him ‘Master Chef.’ His name was Lorenzo. We knew he was good at cooking from the beginning because he was giving us pretty legit pro tips. We’re just trying to cook anything that can happen over camp stoves because we’re sleeping in tents and cooking for ourselves. Then one night, we let them totally cook for themselves. He [Lorenzo] was tossing food way up in the air from the pan… doing all kinds of tricks. He asked me for white wine so he could flambeé something. He made one of the best burgers I have ever had, period, and he did it on this little camp stove.

It really is the people you do it with, rather than the places you go. The places were epic, but I would go anywhere with that group.

Q: How did you make the most out of the trip by yourself after being in charge of and traveling with that many people?

It was very much needed. It was 28 days nonstop. The only free time you have on that trip is when you shower. I went straight from Maine, where Apogee is based, to Iceland. It was the perfect compliment to the busy-ness of everything that I had been doing. I’ve never done a trip like that ever – never been overseas before. There are challenges to traveling by yourself, but I loved setting the pace, doing exactly what I needed on my schedule. I was in total control during my time in Iceland, and that was a joy. Alone time is very underrated. 

Q: Did you decide whether biking or driving is your preferred mode of transportation?

It depends on where. I would not want to bike across Iceland – it is very windy, and I needed the little haven [of my van] to protect myself. That being said, biking across Europe was so epic. Going up the Alps, switchback after switchback – we climbed over two kilometers in elevation in one day. That is hours and hours of climbing, up up up. I would not have wanted to do that in a car. [It was] very tough, but so rewarding.

Q: Do you have any harrowing stories to share?

In Iceland, it was more me getting myself into trouble. I didn’t know how to reverse [because] it was a manual car, and I had never driven manual before. I stalled the car like right in front of the rental car place. On a manual car… you have to pull up on a ring and then shift it [to reverse], so I got stuck a few times.

I went on a hike, and this path took us through this open field, and there were wild, Icelandic miniature horses less than 15 feet away. I could’ve reached out and touched them. And it took me on this path that goes up this misty mountain – you were climbing into the fog. On my way back, there is black sand out there on beaches. In the past, it had been pretty dangerous quicksand – I did not know that. You walk through it, and your feet are kind of sticking to the ground.

Q: What did you learn about yourself through both experiences?

I learned a lot. I was talking to this guy in Belgium. He was sitting on the porch, smoking a cigarette, his kids are running, and he was being all introspective and wise to me. He says ‘ah, this is so silly. All the Americans want to come to Europe to visit. All the Europeans want to go to America to visit. It’s all the same. People are people. It’s one world.’ He was very deep and maybe a little buzzed, but it was a very interesting perspective.

Hunger is the best ingredient. When you’re making food, [hunger] is the best way to make it taste better.

In Iceland, a lot of times, I was at these really epic sites wanting to escape from people. There was one site that I was looking forward to more than almost anything else – it’s this really popular, touristy beach called Reynisfjara, the western-most point of Iceland. I had been looking forward to this place so much, and I get there and it’s just as aesthetic, if not more. There are people all over the place and climbing all over the rocks. At first, I was like, ‘Man, I wish I was here by myself.’ And you really take a step back and realize that everything about Iceland, from that beach to a waterfall I went to the next day, to everything all over the island; it’s just a big playground of cool sites for people to check out. So taking these pictures of people on these rocks – I’m glad these people are here, they’re actually enhancing the experience. The people are the best part. It’s better that people are here than if they’re not because this is people, being real, experiencing this gorgeous place for what it is. It’s a very raw expression of kids playing in this epic playground. I realized that on the first day and that helped shape how I viewed a lot of things on the rest of the trip. I was never annoyed by other tourists.

Most people don’t realize how important isolation is. It was so cool to be on a rock in the middle of the ocean – nobody else even within thousands of miles. It kind of forces you to be self-sufficient. That kind of introspection is not usually prioritized or sought after, but it’s just as important. Funnily enough, Europeans get that a lot more than Americans do. Europeans live in the moment – they’re all about enjoying it now. Shops close on Sundays and from 1:00-3:00 every day. People would stop on the road to help us, and they had all this time to kill. In America, everybody’s rushing from one spot to the other.

Q: Would you recommend that other people take a solo trip like this?

100 percent. It’s not sustainable long-term, I think. The biggest thing is, if you are going to travel, whether with a group or by yourself, you have to have a home to go back to. You need a home base. Traveling is only good because you have a home to come back to – you have a reference point. That being said, everyone should do something like that. Whether that’s actually going to another country by yourself – that’s the extreme of it. If you can, just go climb a mountain top by yourself one morning. Or go to your favorite coffee shop and turn off your phone and sit and think and just be for a little bit. People don’t ever take time to reflect and live as a human without rushing to the next thing or the next experience. Whatever that means to you, everybody should value individual time.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.