I made it to Colorado and I owe you an update. I’ve been reflective the past week – more so than usual — so this post is long and winding. Pour a glass of wine and join me…
I arrived in Colorado on Monday, the 28th, so tomorrow will be one full week since I got here. I boondocked in a Walmart parking lot in Goodland Kansas on the 27th, which was about 17 miles from the Colorado state line. Those close to me have heard me talk longingly about returning to Colorado for years, probably since I first visited Granby, CO for two months during the summer of 2009. I would have never left here in 2009 had I not been planning to start grad school at UF that fall. My plan was to complete those two years of school and then return to the mountains after I graduated. It was just two years. I told myself it would go by fast.
But life had other plans. The day after I got back from Colorado, my dad committed suicide. I found myself mourning his loss, moving from Orlando to Gainesville, attending grad school orientation, writing a eulogy, buying books for classes, and stumbling my way onto campus for my first day of school – all within 10 days. My dad died on the 13th, and classes started on the 23rd. I cannot remember ever feeling so alone in my life. My boyfriend and I broke up (again) and I didn’t know anyone in Gainesville. I threw myself into classes and focused on making perfect grades, as that was something I could control. I had an arsenal of under-eye concealer and eye cream to keep my nightly cry fests a secret from the world. I look back on those months of my life in disbelief. It feels like a distant memory now, surreal and strange. And devastating.
I rode my bike a lot over the next few months and decided to bicycle the Transamerica the following summer. For me, my bike was like a magic carpet. No matter how chaotic life felt, the moment I got in that saddle and started pedaling, my sadness, fears, worries… they melted away. Temporarily, at least. I figured if a 50-mile ride around Gainesville seemed to help combat the heartache that swallowed me up each day, a 4,200 mile ride across the United States would help me return to normal.
So I rode the Transamerica in 2010, and it was certainly epic and lifechanging -but it hardly returned me to “normal.” Normal, as I knew it, would never be the same. When I was done with the ride, I returned to Florida, finished up grad school, moved to St. Pete, and began a 7-year journey of losing touch with myself. I couldn’t find a job in 2011, and after doing a few odd jobs (online tutoring, teaching myself Photoshop and landing some online marketing gigs), I ended up selling gym memberships for a lunatic gym owner, making $9 an hour. Shitty as that was, you wouldn’t catch me complaining – I was thankful just to have a job. I submersed myself in work, because, well, that’s what we do in this society. I was living hand to mouth – an incessant stress that I’m sure many of you are all too familiar with.
In June, 2012, I got a marketing job with an online travel insurance company in St. Pete, really believing that job was my ticket out of the struggle. I was so excited about the opportunity and determined to make the most of it. My salary was less than I made as a high school teacher before I went to grad school, but I had learned to stretch the dollar far, and I knew there would be opportunity for growth with the company. I eagerly worked weekends and constantly thought about how to improve my position and value within the company. I quickly found that reporting to an office every day wasn’t for me. It was a gorgeous office, as gorgeous as a glass cage can be, but every day I felt like a pacing lion, biding my time, knowing there was more to life, but not having a clue about how to get there. On November 13, six months after getting the job, I walked into the office and the CEO informed me that I was fired. He told me I wasn’t a “personality fit.”
He told me I would receive one last paycheck as severance. I remember feeling my head spinning as I took the elevator back down to the bottom floor of that St. Pete high rise. How had this happened? The CEO informed me that I “had accomplished more in 6 months than any other marketing person had accomplished in 6 years,” but everyone else in the office agreed that I just didn’t fit with the company culture. Apparently, everyone knew I was getting fired but me. People who I had grown to consider my friends – had voted me out.
I remember driving over to my [then] boyfriend’s house, curling up in bed with him and crying. What had I done wrong? And more importantly, what was I going to do now? I had no job, and just enough money in savings to get me through the next month. I had worked so hard to try to position myself to climb out of the pit of financial stress, and where had that landed me? Right back in the pit.
The next day, I got up and went on a bike ride around the St. Pete beaches. It was a cool November morning and I needed to come up with a new plan of action. I had planned to go back to the drawing board when I got home from the ride, sending out resumes, responding to job ads, begging for someone, anyone, to give me a chance. The job market in 2011 and 2012 was cruel, and the thought of returning to it made my stomach turn. My mom always used to tell me, “it’s easier to find a job when you have a job,” and she’s absolutely right. When you’re desperate for a paycheck, you’ll take anything you can get, and you’re sending desperate energy out to every prospective employer you contact. I didn’t want to ever feel that way again, to beg for a job, to take whatever I could get, to be forced to play nice. That state of being was so disempowering, but I didn’t know any way around it. I needed a job.
Or did I? In a moment of clarity, as I pedaled along the water on that beautiful November morning, I thought about how nice it felt to be able to ride my bike in the middle of the day. If I had still been at work for the travel insurance company, I would be sitting at a desk at that moment, fielding customer calls, taking flak from the CEO for whatever crap he came up with that morning.
I remember this moment with such clarity, as I looked up at the cloudless sky, felt the cool breeze on my face, and decided I would never be an employee again.
I immediately began thinking about the skills I had, how I could use them to make money, and how I could market myself. I could write, and I knew that lots of people made a livable income as freelance writers – I could too. And so, for the next year, I did all sorts of freelance writing – from producing web content for clothing retailers, writing health and fitness articles, resume writing, drafting technical manuals, creating press releases – you name it, I did it. Ironically, the very first gig I landed was with my former employer, the travel insurance company. A week after I decided I would never be an employee again, I wrote an email to my former boss and thanked him for firing me. That’s right, I thanked him. As much as it hurt, I knew I would probably never have had the guts to quit a job with no source of security, and figure out a way to work for myself. Ultimately, self-employment was what I needed to be happy and feel the freedom I craved so much. Had I not been fired that November morning, I would probably still be sitting in an office cubicle somewhere.
Thanking him for firing me was the furthest thing from my mind, and the idea was definitely not my own (a prompting from the universe?). But I did, and he replied within an hour, asking if I would be interested in writing press releases for the company on a contract basis. And just like that, I had my first client. The money I made writing press releases floated me for the first couple months while I acquired some other projects. Not too long after that, I began doing academic research and writing, as well, with an emphasis on dissertations. Fast forward 5 years, and I am still working as a dissertation consultant for wonderful clients all over the world.
Over the last two years, I became very consumed with work. There was always this underlying fear of ending up broke again, without work, and I never wanted to experience that struggle again. My work ethic can be intense, and I found myself losing balance. All I did was work or go to the gym. I wasn’t even riding my bike anymore. Over time, I became an isolated workaholic. A depressed, isolated, workaholic.
And that takes me to today. I had never forgotten what it felt like to be alive, full of adventure, hungry for each day. I remembered that feeling, and perhaps that’s why I was never quite happy being stuck in a home office, working away each day. I had also never forgotten that desire I’d had, eight years ago, to return out west, to live a life of excitement. After my dad’s death, I didn’t want to be far from my family, and I had to finish school. Then I found myself broke and jobless. I bought the domain for this blog, thehighwayandi, about four years ago. I knew I wanted to travel and I never lost sight of that. It took some time, but here I am.
And so, driving back out to Colorado last Monday was emotional for me, for many reasons. The last time I drove here, I was a completely different person. I reflected on the journey over the past eight years, from losing my dad, to bicycling the Transamerica, to struggling for years to make ends meet, and eventually, going to work for myself. I thought about the loves I’ve had, and the loves I’ve lost. I remembered crying as I left Colorado in August, 2009, because I didn’t want to leave, and then losing my dad the day after I returned to Florida. I remembered the catharsis I experienced the following year as I pedaled out of Pueblo, Colorado, up into the wild Rocky Mountains, in a desperate search for peace and healing. I thought about all the time I spent over the last seven years, longing to return to the mountains, but not knowing how to get here.
As I exited I-70 West from Denver and got onto highway 40, I was nervous about the drive up to, and down from, Berthoud pass. The last time I had done that drive, I was in a tiny Hyundai Tiburon… and it scared the crap out of me then. Now I was in a full-size pickup, towing a trailer. I set up my dashcam and recorded the drive, which I will integrate into a vlog to share with you all in the next few days. Last night, I was going back through the footage and could hear myself break into quiet, grateful sobs, and whisper “thank you,” on the way up the mountain. The last few years have presented some challenges for me, but through it all, I’ve tried to practice gratitude. And I cannot express how grateful I am to have gotten to the place where I am, right now, in this very moment. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, much less next month, or next year. But I am here, listening to my heart and following it. It has never led me astray.
Here are a few pics I took at sunset the other night from my camp.