I’d like to take a break from the regularly scheduled trip updates for what has become an increasingly important message.
When I explain to people that I am taking a solo road trip around the country, I am often met with professions of kind jealousy and awe. They think it’s amazing. What a great opportunity. They wish they could do it. After so long on the road, such sentiments are getting harder and harder to hear, culminating in one particular sentence I heard recently. I was talking with a friend of a friend, explaining the journey, and she said, “You’re so lucky to be given the opportunity.”
Normally I smile and nod, but something about this phrasing made me stop completely. “I wasn’t given the opportunity.” I told her. “I made it.”
To hear me talk now about the grand adventure and taking a hiatus from my job, it does seem like luck. It seems like good fortune. After all, it is very far from the current experience of most people. But this didn’t just fall into my lap. My boss, nice guy that he is, didn’t walk up to me one day, throw $10,000 on my desk and say, “Your work has been really top notch recently, how would you like a four month vacation?”
I began this journey more than three years ago, not long after I graduated college. The place I was working at the time was a good company and I was being paid fairly. The business was successful but small, and there were many people ahead of me in line for the only real position of advancement available. I had money and health care and it was easy to get a day or two off to celebrate my birthday or take a weekend trip up to Victoria, BC. It was a fun place to work. A comfortable place to work. But I had seen where the road of comfort-seeking leads, and I knew that if I wasn’t careful I would end up stuck in a job that was good but not great, with no realistic potential for things to magically get better.
I can’t tell you how the idea of circumnavigating the country got stuck in my mind. Just an interesting concept and a bit of wanderlust I suppose. I looked at my comfortable job. It hadn’t been easy to get to this point. For several months before I was hired I had been working four jobs at once, all of them bad. The memory of that time would stay with me, I knew it, and constantly convince me that it wasn’t worth it to change. It wasn’t worth it to take a chance. And the more time that passed, it would only get worse. It would get worse because it would get better. I would get a raise. I would get a better apartment. I would establish regular interactions with friends. I would build and build and build until what I had made was so meticulously and slowly built that I couldn’t bring myself to tear it down.
So I began to build something else instead. I built a trip. I built a grand, life-changing adventure. I opened up a new savings account in a separate bank and began funneling all excess money to it. And I do mean all. I stopped eating out almost entirely. I brought my lunch to work every day. I subscribed to frugality blogs and learned to make things at home for myself. I went for two years without buying any new clothes. When I did buy new clothes, it was because I had lost 25 pounds and none of my pants fit. Even then, I spent a month with a belt cutting into my hips trying to hold up my baggy clothes before I realized it was making me sick to my stomach.
Honestly, it wasn’t that hard. With a steady income and a goal in mind, you’d be amazed how quickly the savings can pile up. Before I knew it I had double what I was hoping to save, plus several months of expenses in case I had to quit my job. And that was the real sacrifice I was willing to make. It’s not hard to make your lunch every day. It is hard to voluntarily step into uncertainty and discomfort. But I had a plan: I would tell my work that I was leaving for four months, and if they didn’t want me back when I returned, I would simply find a new job. And I knew it might be terrible. I knew the job market was awful. But I knew the monstrous, comfortable future than lay before me if I wasn’t willing to take a chance.
When I was asked to interview for another company a year before I was set to leave, I had another chance to back down. By that point, the old comfortable job wasn’t so great anymore, and I was anxious to leave. I wanted this new job, and I knew demanding up front that I be allowed four months off a year after starting was a risk. They might decide I wasn’t worth it and not hire me. At that point, only two people knew about my plans for the trip. It wasn’t too late to back down. But I didn’t. I told the new company about my plans and that if they weren’t okay with that, they shouldn’t hire me. But they did hire me. I wasn’t given four months off. I insisted on it.
It’s important to remember the role luck plays in our lives. It’s important to know that fortune, both good and bad, is often out of our control. One of my old college professors once told me “the harder you work, the luckier you get.” I am certainly lucky. I am lucky for being white, for being a U.S. citizen, for being born into a stable and loving family. But I’m not lucky for traveling the United States. I worked for that. And the work was largely mental. All the good fortune that made this trip possible could have been used to create a very comfortable, stable, awful existence. And it would have been much easier to build.
I don’t say this to get credit. When people respond to me as though this experience magically fell into my lap, I’m not mad that they think I didn’t work for it. I mad that they think they can’t do the same. I’m mad that people think I’m special or different. I get called brave all the time. I would say about half the people I explain the trip to tell me I’m brave. And for awhile I was sure I wasn’t, because I knew that the world wasn’t as scary as we had made it out to be. I knew, as Ann Friedman put it, that it was foolish to behave “as if every national park and Sonic Drive-In were little more than clubhouses for rapists and murderers.”
Traveling around the country by myself is not inherently brave. Deciding that such an adventure means enough to me that I’m willing to risk going back to cleaning houses and holding a sign on the sidewalk outside of Discount Guns, that is brave. And it is so much harder to make that choice. It is hard to choose discomfort. It is a very deliberate and conscious decision. I made a big decision with this trip, and it never seemed so small as it did the moment I stood at my apartment door, looking back one last time to see if I forgot anything. At that moment, the moment right before departure, all true risks had already been taken. Now all I had to do was drive.
It’s the secret of the ten-year-overnight-success. Sometimes we only see the end result of hard work, and it looks like luck. It’s not. I’m not a big believer in the bootstrap idea that everyone has equal access to equal opportunity. We are all dealt a different hand, and not always a fair one. But I worry that plenty of people go through life holding on to a decent hand, waiting for a better one to appear. I worry that people live the life their parents lived just because it’s familiar. I worry that people get married and have kids just because it seems like the thing they’re supposed to do. I worry that people stay in awful jobs because they are just barely happy enough to keep going to work. I’ve seen it. And I don’t want to be it. And that means risk. That means building big, less stable things. And it means smiling while everyone tells you you’re brave, when you just want to yell back,