Max Harmon ’18 is already more accomplished as a first-year than many of us hope to be when we graduate. He is an experienced outdoorsman, having already hiked in rural Argentina and the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. He also is an avid potter and has handcrafted hundreds of pieces of pottery from scratch. Despite his many accomplishments, Max is not one to sit on his laurels. He has plans to hike the Pacific Crest Trail and canoe the length of the Mississippi River in the near future.
You’ve moved from California to Massachusetts – that’s a big jump.
Yeah, but I was pretty sure I was interested in a liberal arts school, and there are a lot of good ones in the northeast. I spend one month every summer in Maine at a summer camp, so that was my introduction to New England weather, and I was never quite concerned about being in a rural environment. I was very much excited to not be living in a city.
What was the camp like?
They took children on a lot of trips, the older you get the longer the trips you would take. It was an all-boys camp, and I would see the same group of guys every summer. And I now work at that camp.
What was the most difficult trip you have been on?
The most difficult trip was probably the “Long Voyage,” which is an 18-day canoe trip from river to lake, river to lake. Canoeing everyday, and sometimes you have to do a portage, which is when you get off of one body of water to the next by getting off the canoe and carrying it.
So you took a gap year? Why?
Yeah, it was an ideal situation and the question was really, why not take a gap year? Go out and do something that you think is important and then go out and do something that you have set for the next four years. An unpassable opportunity for me. I had a lot of support from my parents. I started off the year working at the summer camp, and then in the fall the program changes to what is called the leadership school, which is a program that works with middle school students in the area. The buzzwords of the program are communication, relationships, decision making and team building, but it’s really sort of about giving kids a different context to see themselves outside of the classroom, a context where some of them are actually successful, whereas in school a lot of them know they are just “losers,” so putting them in a different setting is really wonderful. I was already somewhat interested in education but that definitely made me want to do more.
What did you do after working at the camp?
That program ended in the fall, and then I traveled to Argentina. I was with a friend who had lived in my house during my sophomore year of high school as a foreign exchange student, and he was from Santa Fe. I spent a month with him backpacking between Bariloche and Ushuaia, then the next three weeks I spent in Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires was interesting, a very interesting city, but I was happy to be out of there by the end.
What was the most memorable part of that trip?
While hiking in Argentina, definitely the coolest thing I did was off up in the mountains, outside of a town called El Bolsón. We hiked up to this glacier, and we camped in these incredible natural grassy fields to meet this glacier, and there was a waterfall and wild horses grazing. The next day we hiked up alongside these rocks to the very top of the glacier, and a condor flew over, and there was this incredible view of the valley, and it was incredibly beautiful.
Would you ever go back?
Yes, I would, but I would spend more time down south and more time in just one place. It was great, but we went all the way from Bariloche and Ushuaia. So it was only a couple days in each stop along the way, and there were definitely a couple places down there where I could have spent a couple weeks.
So what are your favorite activities?
I love canoeing, I love backpacking, I really like rock climbing as well. I really enjoy what backpacking and canoeing entail: really covering distance and being in a new place everyday, changing your campsite every day. It’s a very different psychological state to be in, to not have one campsite that you are going back to each day. When you are traveling you literally can sleep anywhere, you have nowhere in particular that you are bound to. It’s kind of unsettling at first, but once you kind of get into it, it’s really liberating.
Why did you decide to hike up the Appalachian Mountains?
I had done that last 120 miles of it twice before, leading a trip for the camp, so that was my familiarity with it. It really struck me as an experience that I couldn’t walk away from without something, and what the something is I think I’m sort of still trying to figure out. It was a big deal for me; it was important.
Did you do it alone?
Yeah I did. My parents were very concerned at first but then very quickly came around to it. I don’t think I ever went more than three days without seeing other people. There are usually other hikers on the trail, or I would have to stop and resupply on food, so I would be hitchhiking or walking into towns. So there were other people around, but the first 800 miles I was hiking alone, and for the last 200 miles I was hiking alone, and in between I was hiking with this woman from Ireland who coincidentally was going at the same pace that I was, and there were very few other people on the trail at that point, so were hiked together for about 1200 miles. It took me 100 days; I did 25 miles a day for the first 70 and the average dropped to about 15 for the rest of it.
Did you meet a lot of cool strangers by taking these adventurous trips?
Yeah, I did. I met a lot of really interesting people. There was this one guy, he was a fellow from France, and I met him in Argentina. He was wanting to travel to South America but not pay for a plane ticket, and he found online some Brazilian sailboat captain, who had bought a French boat and was needing to get it back to Brazil, so he was looking for people to help him sail it across the Atlantic. So he had no sailing experience, and he was on a three-man sailboat across the Atlantic, and he just had the craziest stories about insane storms and being terrified.
What are you involved in here at the College?
WOC [Williams Outing Club], the Ceramics Club, WUFO [Williams Ultimate Frisbee Organization]. In high school we had a really great space and a really great teacher for ceramics, so I did that all four years of high school, and I got pretty good at it, and I was able to do it during the summer as well.
What fascinates you about pottery?
I think what a lot of the people are working on nowadays is sort of the metrics of success and when you’re done it’s sort of nebulous and intangible. It’s really nice to be able to sit down and turn a lump of clay into something that you can then drink out of and have pride in. The thing about ceramics is that the end result always comes down to how the glaze comes out. You can kind of build up a familiarity with the glaze and the way they interact but it’s always a little bit of dice roll, because its fire and minerals and metals mixing in this inferno and what comes out is always a little bit different, so the things I like the best are the things that are like total accidents in terms of the way the glaze looks.