Posted by Anja Sheppard
Some say time flies when you’re having fun. I’ve also found that, on rare occasions, it stops. Over the past year, I felt this during two distinct yet parallel moments: once while camping in Big Bend National Park, and the other while traveling home from my study abroad in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thanksgiving in 2019 was unusually late, so after a grueling start to my sophomore year, a week’s break was much needed. Patricia Mathu ‘18, Solvay Linde ‘18, and I packed up our tent, sleeping bags, journals, and food provisions into my station wagon and started on the ten-hour long drive.
As the landscape flattened and towns became sparser, I could feel the stresses of exams and future plans melt away to the tune of our trip anthems, namely “California Dreamin’,” “Country Roads,” and “A Horse with No Name.” We woke and slept with the sun, watching the sunrise over the barren desert landscape and reading Norse mythology around a fire at night. That little cocoon of light under the stars made us feel invincible—away from news, away from school, away from responsibilities.
During the day, we trekked into the expansive park, exploring rock formations and hiking through the extreme desert landscape. One day, we hiked 11 miles to Emory Peak (highest point in the park!), ate lunch, and read Ralph Waldo Emerson essays to each other.
On the drive home, all of the responsibilities of the end of the semester came flooding back as our phones got service and several days worth of messages started coming in. We only had one week before exams and two weeks before Patricia and I left UTD for our semester study abroad. The week that we spent in the stunning, raw beauty of Big Bend prepared me for the challenges ahead, allowing me time to reflect and rejuvenate whilst in the company of friends.
Fast-forward a few months: I’d been spending my 2020 spring semester researching at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory in the UK, living in the British countryside, and spending weekends traveling around Europe with Patricia. This marked another transition period for me: I was living by myself in a foreign country, displaced from everything I knew and loved. It was an experience as life-rattling as moving to a new state to go to UTD.
Monday, March 9th seemed like the start of a normal week—I went to a film and philosophy discussion at the Watershed theater in downtown Bristol and visited the Boston Tea Party coffee shop where I had started to become a regular.
On Thursday, we got the news that President Trump had placed a travel restriction on Europe due to COVID-19.
All of a sudden, the coronavirus crisis became real to me. My inbox was flooded with emails from Education Abroad and the McDermott Office calling me to come home. As I realized that I only had a day or so to pack up my house, sell my bike, and say goodbye to the city I had grown to love, time started to slow, eventually grinding to a halt.
I packed my belongings into my suitcase and began the journey to Dallas: walking through the hills of my village to the bus stop, taking the bus to the train station, then the train to London, and finally the Underground to a friend’s apartment in the city. The McDermott community rallied around us during this time: we were hosted in London by the older sister of scholar Anna Schaeffer ‘17. This all felt like an unending blur—normally I would read my book or listen to music on the train to London, but I just spent the two-hour trip sitting and taking in the landscape as it scrolled by. Our flight out of Heathrow was scheduled for the next day.
Even though it was a time of rushed goodbyes, a group of UTD study abroad students gathered in London before our flight to Dallas for a last hurrah. We spent most of our time inside, social distancing, but took a walk in the crisp spring air around Parliament Square and Westminster.
We said “cheers” to London in the early British morning sun and started on the final leg of our journey home. It was the end of the most disruptive week of my life, the longest week of my life, and somehow also the shortest week of my life. Time stood still in our London apartment that weekend.
Twenty-four hours later, we were all safely home in our respective cities. The McDermott Staff stayed awake during the entire duration of our travels, ensuring we were safe and providing emotional support—I can’t thank them enough for quickly answering the phone, buying us seats on the plane next to each other, and staying calm while our lives were turned upside down. My weekend in London offered a momentary lull from my unpredictable and ever-changing reality, just as my trip to Big Bend had put a pause on the demanding responsibilities of my sophomore year of college. The memories of these moments will be forever precious to me, for they helped prepare me to take on the challenges ahead.
We are all facing uncertainty right now in our futures. Will this crisis end in a month? By the summer? By fall? There is no way to know. The only thing that is certain is the strength of the incredible McDermott community I am surrounded with.