Somewhere between touring the American West in a 1976 Winnebago and freestyle rapping in an underground hip-hop competition in Shanghai, China, Gabriel Duncan ’02 turned his globetrotting lifestyle into a business and a life.
He left the confines of Mayflower Hill in spring 2002, and within months his life had become wanderlust made manifest, as he filled his passports with stamps from more than 45 countries: El Salvador, Gambia, Bolivia, China, Israel, Albania, Brazil, Cuba, Poland, Malaysia, Morocco, Australia, New Zealand, and more.
In 2005 he trekked through Patagonia with two childhood friends from Denver, Luke Mueller and Paul Laurie. Walking through the high deserts at the end of the world, the trio realized they were apostles of a common faith: the transformative power of world travel.
They launched Walking Tree Travel, and seven years later, the company has led more than 1,000 young adults and students on international language-immersion and community service trips to seven Latin American countries, Senegal, and China. Plans are underway to take groups to Cuba and Spain.
As a professional guide, Duncan says his greatest pleasures now come from sharing those joys. The most fulfilling part of his job is “watching students have that moment of awakening when they realize the world is bigger than where they grew up. You can hear their tone of voice change, see the sparkle in their eyes. You can actually see them transform.”
He has also found pride in business ownership. “To have created something with my good friends,” he said, “to know that our blood, sweat, and tears have built this organization and that we get to go through this journey together—that is incredibly fulfilling.”
From 2009 to 2012 Duncan made his home base in Brooklyn, New York, with his partner Vanessa Santiago Schwarz. But in August their feet started itching again. This fall marked the start of yet another adventure when the couple moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, and it continued when they were married in January in Puerto Rico. The traveling couple met, naturally, leading a Walking Tree program together to Costa Rica in 2007.
Duncan, who is fluent in Spanish and speaks enough Mandarin to find the best corner dumpling shop in Beijing, wants to see Walking Tree continue to grow, but not limitlessly. “I’d like to bring more students abroad and facilitate community work in more countries, but I don’t want it to get to the level where we lose Walking Tree’s personal feeling,” he said. “I don’t want it to get so big that families can’t call and get me on the phone.”
—Michael Ames ’02