Imagine waking up each morning with no idea what the day will hold.
That's the premise of the Rolling Academy, a 13-day adventure and leadership program for high school students that celebrated its fifth year this week.
The team returned to Watauga High School last Thursday and shared with parents and community members the highlights of their travels, which included paddling to Thatcher Island in Maine, staying in a traditional east Asian home called a yurt and completing service projects throughout the Northeast.
Shelly Crandall, a Mountain Alliance instructor who has led the group for four years, said the trip always focuses on the same six principles: Community, environmental awareness, communication, service, craftsmanship and leadership.
"It's pretty much the same philosophy. We have the same guiding principles," she said. "The route is what's different."
This year, the students flew into Boston, Mass., where another group leader, Kate Wood, met the group with "Fran the Van," a small bus that became their traveling home for the next two weeks.
The nine students carved wooden spoons in Vermont, visited Thatcher Island bird sanctuary and lighthouse, took a dip in a quarry and visited the Maine Maritime Academy for sailing.
They traveled down the coast of Maine to take in the culture, camped on a beach and explored Shenandoah National Park on the way back through Virginia.
Even parents were left wondering about the route until the last minute.
"They didn't tell us until they got on the bus," parent David Bushman said Thursday. "This is our first time to see how it went."
Students left their cell phones and iPods behind, instead focusing on old-fashioned interaction and reflecting on their experiences each morning and evening.
"It's surprising how quickly everybody got together in two weeks," said 17-year-old Dustin Parlier, a rising senior. "Rolling Academy is an amazing experience, and everyone thinking about doing it should interview."
The students go through a selection process similar to a job interview. They must submit an application with three references and complete an interview.
Selected this year were Parlier, Sunny Mohr, Carrie Hayes, Dana Calloway, Julianna Boyd, Josiah Cazier, Will Bushman, Charles Winebarger and Jordan Stokes. A 10th student had to back out to undergo an operation.
Students spoke Thursday night about the ways they had grown and tested themselves during the trip, physically, mentally and emotionally.
The bonds they formed were evident at their return. Even though the teens had spent every waking hour together for almost two weeks, they often shared hugs and broke into spontaneous song.
Stokes, a rising junior, said one of the best moments was the group's stop by a swimming hole in which they could jump from large boulders.
Despite her initial nerves, Stokes took the plunge.
"It was really good, because you have your peers cheering you on," she said.
Each of the students attended for free, a benefit provided by key sponsors Footsloggers, Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation, Mast General Store and Grandfather Mountain, along with dozens of others.
With another successful trip under their belts, the organizers, including Mountain Alliance director Todd Nolt, are already scheming for next year's trip.
While the route is still a mystery, they will attempt to cram as many activities and beautiful locales into the trip as they had this year.
"After the third day, it already felt like it had been half a month," said Jesse Simpson, another group leader. "These guys have so much energy; it's amazing."