And then one day the decision was made and life hasn’t been the same since. I left the beaten path and began a slow and meandering, aimless journey into the bramble of the unknown. I left my cozy security blanket behind and set out to do… who knows what. I set out to do something else. It’s brought me from the place where I existed, to where I am today. I can say whole heartedly, I love where I am today.
In the summer of 2010 I was a pretty blessed guy. I had gainful employment and financial stability. I owned my own house with a backyard for my dog; I had a corporate job, where I was well compensated, with a killer benefits package and a 401k; I was unionized and had seniority; I had a fledgling financial portfolio, with stocks, mutual funds, and an IRA. The government was even paying me to go to college and get a degree. I mean it, they were literally paying me to go to college. Not only did they pay for my tuition and books, but they gave me money every month to live off of. What more could a guy ask for, right?
One day I woke up and that life just wasn’t enough for me. I began to get restless. The day before I would have told you how great it was to have a schedule that I could count on and plan around, how nice it was to know the things that laid before me, to have the ability to not live day to day, paycheck to paycheck. Monday through Friday, from 7:00 AM until 3:30 PM you could find me in the office, occupying my cubicle. In the evenings, I was in school, and on the weekends, I partied. Hell, who am I kidding? I partied anytime the opportunity to do so deigned to smile upon me. But, when I woke up on that day, it all just seemed a bit too constricting rather than liberating, the way I had previously envisioned it. The routine had become arduous, the job monotonous. I loathed the fact that I could only take time off from work when I had enough vacation time saved up, and I could only take vacation if there was a spot available on the calendar, and I only had 2-3 weeks of vacation each year. That wasn’t nearly enough time for me to travel the world and to do all of the things that a young man such as myself should have been doing, which would necessitate having many more days off from work. I became increasingly dissatisfied with the direction that my life was heading. Was I going to become one of those “live for the weekend” guys, who slaved away at a job that no kid would ever fantasize about? Would I become the guy whose idea of a vacation was a 3-day weekend at the cabin (I do love 3-day weekends at the cabin, but the world is just too big for that to be the dream for me)? Had I already become that guy? I had become comfortable in my little life and it was finally starting to get to me. I could easily play out the next 10 years of my life: I would slowly work my way through college, getting a “blah-blah” degree in “blah-blah.” I would move up at work; take promotions and receive raises. I would collect bills and responsibilities, maybe even a girlfriend, who would eventually convince me to marry her (or who I would convince to marry me, as it were). Before I knew it, I’d have a career and a wife to go along with my dog and house. The next logical step would be for me to start reproducing. This was what it meant to become successful, and I wanted nothing to do with it.
I want to take a step back and say that I did not wake up one day, as if from a hazy dream, only to realize that everything that I thought that I wanted was complete and utter bullshit. I didn’t have an epiphany, or moment of clarity. This isn’t one of those stories where I decided to change it all, because of some paradigm shift or change in personal philosophy. The truth is that I never wanted the stereotypical “house in the hills, white-picket fence, wife, career, and 2.1 kids” type of life. I honestly never thought that I was the type of person who could pull something like that off. What happened is that I got sucked into the life. I got a job that was comfortable. I enjoyed the benefits. The pay was good. It was… convenient. The next thing I knew, I’d been there for years and I’d built this life. It snuck up on me and when I finally realized it, I felt like a caged animal who had somehow willingly wandered into his own prison. I realized how bored I was of that life and I had no idea how I had let it happen. How did I end up owning a house? How did I find myself with a corporate office job? And most importantly, where was it all leading me toward? I didn’t like the answers to those questions, and it was from that point that I began planning my escape. Like Edmond Dantes, tunneling under the walls of the Chateau Dif, I began my quest for freedom.
August 20th, 2010 was my last day working in a cubicle. I had no other job lined up and no prospects. I still had 3 semesters of college remaining before I finished my degree. What would happen after that I had no clue, but quitting that job was the first, most difficult, and most important step in the journey. This was a step out into the unknown. I had gone from the stability of being in the Army, with all of its structure and discipline, to the comfort of a unionized office job at a large national corporation, replete with a benefits package and retirement savings plan. Now I was unemployed, with no safety net and no real idea what I was doing. I had no prospects and no plan. It was exactly what I was looking for.
Within a week I had found a job waiting tables at a local restaurant. I hadn’t worked in the service industry since I was 18. It was a breath of fresh air into my stale, musty lungs. My coworkers were young and exuberant. They were college students and working professionals who moonlit in the industry, career servers and flashy bartenders. It was a tight little family that worked together and played together. I needed these people in my life.
If you’ve never worked in the service industry before, it’s difficult to get a full grasp on exactly what it’s like. You work hours that none of your other friends work, so when they are out partying on the weekends, you are working your busiest and most [financially] lucrative shifts. When they are calling it quits at 2 AM, you are just wrapping up the work day and are ready to get the party started. When your friends are going to bed on a Tuesday night, you are closing down the bar as if it were Friday, because hell, Tuesday IS your Friday. The only people who are around to do it with you are the people you work with and other people in the industry, because they are the only ones with the same fucked up work schedule as you.
I picked the service industry because of the flexibility of the schedule. One of the major obstacles standing between me and my own personal freedom was the fact that I was determined to finish college. I didn’t care about the degree. Hell, no one that does care about a degree gets one in anthropology anyway. My motivation was a chip that I carried around on my shoulder. I needed to prove (mostly to myself) that I could do it, that I had what it took to see something that big through to completion. Working in a restaurant afforded me that ability. I could take days off, as long as I got someone to cover my shifts. I only worked at night, which meant that I could take classes during the day, instead of working during the day and taking classes in the evenings. Most of my important classes were only available during the daytime, so working during that time at my office job was a major hinderance to class scheduling. On top of that, the money was really good, and the job was only part-time.
Suddenly, half the monotony of my life was alleviated. I still went to school everyday, but I only knew my work schedule 2 weeks at a time and every day was different, every customer a new adventure. I was able to take as much time off as I wanted and if I needed a few extra bucks, I could pick up shifts from from my work family, who were more than happy to take a night off. I took January, 2011 off to travel Europe, even deciding along the way to extend my trip by a week, as I gallivanted through Prague, Berlin, Frankfurt, Cologne, Brussels, and Amsterdam, all without having to worry about how much vacation time I was using up in January, leaving me without the ability to take any time off for the rest of the year. By the time I left that first restaurant (or rather, was fired), I had gotten a taste for the industry. In May of 2011, I was a free agent. I picked up 2 other restaurant jobs that helped lead me to where I am today. One of them was significant, because it got me into bartending, the other because it’s where I met the girl, who would eventually flip my life upside down.
I worked at a high-volume, rooftop patio hotspot through the summer. I found a group of hard-partying coworkers, who were even more tightly knit than the last group. These guys not only worked and partied together, but they were roommates, best friends, and casual lovers. Not only that, but in the urbanized, high-traffic area that this place was located, the entire service industry was (and is) intimately intertwined, which means that seemingly everyone at every bar knows everyone else. It’s a whole community of bartenders, servers, bus-boys, and food-runners. Once you’ve been around in that area for long enough, you can hardly walk into an establishment without being greeted with a hug and a shot, not necessarily in that order.
In August, as the busy season had started to wind down, I had a chance encounter with a patron, who was passing through Minneapolis. On a whim, she left me her phone number and on a lark I used it. Nothing came of it at the time, because, like I said, she was merely passing through on her way back to Los Angeles, where she lived. We never even had the chance to meet up before she left. In September, I quit that job so that I could focus on my final semester of college. I wasn’t going to finish college giving a half-assed effort, sputtering across the finish-line like some shitty race car driver who’s fuel tank is on empty because he didn’t pace himself well enough. I wanted to be able to finish strong and be proud of that piece of paper that I had spent years of my life earning. I realized that I was almost free. I was so close to being unencumbered by the din of responsibility. Then I remembered my house. Having a mortgage didn’t exactly work within the confines of this definition of freedom. I would never be able to do all of the things I wanted to do so long as I was tethered to a 30-year contract with the bank.
I called the bank and I told them that I could no longer afford to pay my mortgage. I was using the money that the government was paying me for being in college to pay that bill. Once college was over, I would no longer receive that monthly deposit. Being that I was unwilling to jump back into the corporate world, and adding the fact that my part-time service job was not making nearly enough money to pay off a mortgage and cover the costs of living, something serious needed to be done. I looked into selling the house, but the market was so far in the tank that the best I could have hoped for was to take a $30-50,000 hit on the resale value, meaning that I would owe the bank a massive debt. I wouldn’t be free and clear to do what I wanted for several more years. This was not acceptable.
I called and asked them if I could give back the house and if we could just dissolve our arrangement. They could take the deed back, and I would just walk away from the place, easy as pie. Everyone would be happy. The silence on the other end of the phone gave away the answer that I should have known I was going to receive. I was informed that that is not how things like that worked. The banker [obviously] encouraged me to continue paying the mortgage. I told him that I didn’t have the money to continue paying and that selling wasn’t a viable option. If I couldn’t give them back the house, then the only foreseeable other option was to let the house go into foreclosure. He suggested that I apply for a short-sale. If you don’t know what a short-sale is, do a quick google search and you’ll find out why that is just the worst, most frustrating thing in the world. When I was weighing out my options, considering everything, including foreclosure and short-sale, I realized that the negative effects of going into foreclosure were that it would destroy your credit and make it impossible to secure financing credit for at least 7 years (and unless you are paying your full mortgage during a short-sale, that option has nearly the same effect). To be honest, once I got over the stigma of being foreclosed on, which was merely the way that other people perceived it, then allowing foreclosure to happen was much easier than you might imagine. I had no plans on ever being a home owner again and truly felt as though I had no use for credit at all. I wanted to do the right and moral thing, but in this situation, I just couldn’t delineate what that was. At the end of our conversation, I told the banker that I wouldn’t be making anymore payments and that they could take the house back anytime they wanted to. I would just leave and they could have it. I had him note my account as such and removed my documented phone numbers so that they couldn’t call to harass me about making payments that were never going to be made. The banker was surprised, and almost relieved at my candor. He accepted the situation without even attempting to dissuade me from it. I stopped paying for my house in September of 2011.
Finally, as December rolled around, I started to sense the freedom in the air, though I still had no idea what I was going to do with it. Graduation was only a few weeks away. Once it passed, I could literally do anything in the world that I wanted to. After many conversations with friends, I came to the conclusion that what I really needed to do was to be a “yes man” for a while. It was decided that the next year, 2012 was going to be my year of adventure. I was going to take all the chances that I had missed out on previously and let fate decide my life for me (that’s just a phrase, I don’t actually believe in fate). I was going to search out experiences and make the most of every moment. I had no idea where to start. Then came Christmas eve. I was bored at home, going through old text messages, looking for people I hadn’t said hi to in a while. I came across a number that I had never bothered to save in my phone. Reading through the short conversation from way back in August, I realized that this was the girl who had left her number at my restaurant, who was passing through Minneapolis on her way back to Los Angeles. Over the next few days, we texted back and forth. I made the decision that I wanted to take her on a date; no matter what.
I had already taken 3-weeks off from the restaurant I was working at, in the beginning of January. My plan was to visit a friend who lived in San Diego. After that I would rent a car and just drive around California for a few weeks. I decided that this would be my opportunity to take Betsy out on a date. I told her that I was planning on being in Los Angeles in early January and asked if she would be interested in getting together while I was in town. Knowing full well that this type of gesture would likely end up being viewed as either incredibly romantic, or incredibly creepy, I had promised myself to take exactly these kinds of chances, so I just let it fly and held my breath. Little did I know that she had made a New Years resolution of her own, to take more chances and to seize opportunities where they presented themselves, so when I asked her to meet up with me, against her better judgment and the urging of her friends, she agreed to let me take her on a date. So, I flew into San Diego on the morning of January 6th, rented a car and immediately drove 3 hours north to Los Angeles. I booked a cheap hotel in the shittiest part of Downtown and planned my last first date. It wound up lasting 3 days… then the better parts of 3 weeks. By the time I went back to Minnesota, I was already planning my next trip to L.A. Even though we didn’t officially become an item for another month, Betsy and I celebrate our anniversary on the 6th of January, the day we truly began our adventure together. It’s pretty amazing how much freedom you have when quit your 9 to 5 and tell the bank that you aren’t going to pay your mortgage anymore.
In the end, it took the bank more than a year to complete their foreclosure proceedings. They never asked me to vacate or to hand over the keys until after the 6 month redemption period had expired, following the sheriff’s sale. I used the money that I saved by living in my house for free to fund my year of adventure. In March, along with several of my friends, I helped to raise donations for the Special Olympics and participated in the Polar Bear Plunge. In May, 3 months of hard training culminated in the domination of the Tough Mudder obstacle course, and the growing of the fiercest, most amazing mustache that has ever and probably will ever grace my face. Two days later, Betsy and I flew to Lima, Peru for 3 weeks, so that we could hike the Inca trail and climb Machu Picchu. After the 3 weeks had passed, it was decided that that just wasn’t long enough, so 3 weeks became 2 months, and instead of flying home, we backpacked from Peru all the way back to Minnesota. It was one of the most amazing adventures I have ever been a part of.
When I arrived back home, I finally got the notification of eviction from the bank. I had to be out by November 1st, 2012. This timing could not have been more perfect for me. In 2009, while I was backpacking in Rome I met 4 Australian backpackers. Two of them were brothers, and the other two were a couple. The 4 of them were on a grand adventure of their own at the time, backpacking around the world for a year, and when they crossed my path, we began an immediate friendship that is almost certain to last me for the rest of my life. After returning to Minnesota, I kept in touch with them and kept up-t0-date with their travel adventures. When they chanced to be in the US, I arranged for them to spend a week or so with me at my place. It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in Minnesota during the winter. We went to hockey and football games, chopped down and decorated a Christmas tree, went sledding, drove to Chicago, visited Medieval Times, and went to a Gallagher comedy show. That’s right folks, we got to see Gallagher, in all his fruit-smashing glory. Well, to bring this part of the story full circle, the 2 Aussies who were a then traveling as a couple decided to get married and they invited me to their wedding in Perth, Australia.
After a very short deliberation and a conversation with the 4 of them (and with Betsy), I decided not only to attend their wedding, but to move to their city, Perth. I applied for a holiday working visa, which would allow me stay and work there for up to a year. Josh and Katie had scheduled their nuptials for the end of October, which happened to fall just days before I was set to vacate my house. By the time this was all settled, Betsy had moved to Chicago to attend graduate school. So, in early October, after 3 solid days of hard-core goodbye partying, I packed up 2 bags and a backpack (leaving about 95% of my belongings behind, giving them away, selling them, or donating them) and flew to Chicago. I stayed there with Betsy for a couple of weeks, before finally making the big move to Australia.
When I arrived at Perth International Airport, Josh was there to meet me. I arranged to live with Dave (one of the two brothers, the other being Greg) and his dad. They allowed me to stay in Greg’s room, since he was away at university in Melbourne. I arrived 2 days before Josh and Katie’s wedding, which by the way was amazing and perfect in just about every way. After the wedding, Dave and Josh helped me to get settled in my new home. They helped me get a bank account, apply for my tax file number (sort of like our Social Security number here), get a job, and even buy a car. Within a month, I had set up a little life in Western Australia. I had even joined Josh’s local organized football team (they call it “gridiron” in Australia, to separate it from soccer and Australian rules football), the West Coast Wolverines. Shortly after settling in, I decided to fly Betsy out to Perth to spend Christmas and our one-year anniversary together. It was the only way I could think to make being so far apart for so long bearable. We celebrated Christmas with Josh’s family and for our anniversary we drove down to Margaret River (Western Australia’s equivalent to Napa Valley) and spent a weekend wine tasting and relaxing at a B&B.
Most of my stay in Australia was just about the relaxing. I wanted to be somewhere where I didn’t have any responsibilities, or the need to constantly be doing something. Somewhere I could just reflect on life; put it into perspective and get some idea of what I wanted to do next in it. In the meantime, I bartended at a small, family owned restaurant near the beach. When I wasn’t working, I spent most of my time at a quaint little coffee shop near Dave’s house, or hanging out at the beach. I relaxed, got into my writing, my reading, and the idea of doing nothing at all. I went to a few music festivals, spent many days at the most amazing beaches that I’ve ever seen, and discovered a love for snorkeling. I did get proper drunk on Australia Day, which is a must. By the time I was ready to leave Perth, I had a litany of fantastic memories stored up, and another great group of people who I am lucky enough to count as my friends. Then the day Betsy and I had been waiting for finally came. Betsy got accepted to medical school. Her dreams were about to come true at just the same time that I felt at peace with my mission in Australia. I was ready to go home.
When I finally left, I made my way to Melbourne to visit with Greg. He spent 2 weeks showing me around what is now my favorite city in Australia. Melbourne is a beautiful, big city with tons of character. I spent entire days exploring and discovering the hidden nooks and crannies. The architecture is stunning, and there are hidden spots everywhere. You can wander down a seemingly desolate alley and find yourself in a great underground cafe or pub. If you keep your eyes and ears open, there are countless hidden restaurants, beautiful museums, and graffiti laden alleys to discover. Greg and I spent our days getting drunk and pondering life’s mysteries, solving the world’s problems and musing about philosophical quandaries. My last weekend there, he took me to his mother’s house on Philip Island. We spied snakes, and kangaroos, and wallabies, and penguins; we climbed trees and took pictures, and I felt like a 10-year old in some sort of paradise, just exploring and having adventures. Melbourne and Philip Island were amazing places to remember, places I could easily see myself revisiting, or even living one day.
Then it was on to Sydney for a few days on my way back home. I made it back to Minnesota in May of this year, just in time for Betsy and I to embark on another adventure. By the time I had gone returned to Chicago after reconnecting with Minnesota, Betsy had been offered a place at a second med school and had accepted a spot in New York Medical School’s MD program. That meant that we would be moving to New York City. We honestly couldn’t think of a single place that we would rather have chosen as the backdrop to this part of our life together. We decided that we needed one last adventure, before embarking on what promised to be an extremely challenging 4 years for the both of us. By this time, we were both at the dwindling end of our finances. I had long since cashed out and spent my 401k, savings plan, mutual funds, stocks, and Roth IRA. I was down to what little I had saved from working in Australia, so we decided that we should take the opportunity to have an [economical] adventure, exploring our own backyard for a change. We decided that a road trip was in order.
So, with that, we rented a car, and commenced our journey to see some of the craziest and strangest roadside attractions and geographical oddities that the United States has to offer. The trip was of enormous scale and covered nearly 8,000 miles, 15 states, and more than 100 attractions, culminating in the grand daddy of all US music festivals, Bonnaroo. It was a crazy adventure that took us through mountains, deserts, and forests alike. We were perplexed by vortices, mystified by strange houses, obsessed with giant fiberglass sculptures, transfixed by massive outdoor art galleries, and even found ourselves in need of a search and rescue mission from the sweltering 120 degree desert heat. In the end, we found ourself on the farm at Bonnaroo, being serenaded by the likes of Paul McCartney and Alt-J, soaking up Tom Petty in the pouring rain, hoarding all of Jack Johnson’s good vibes, and leaving with 25-30 new amazing friends and a brand new perennial summertime obsession. Certainly not a bad way to end one of the greatest road trips in the history of US road trips.
When we finished our trip, it was time to get to work. We set ourselves to the task of finding an apartment in New York, buying a car, and strategizing our impending cross-country move. I won’t bore you with the details of the world-class headache that came along with getting an apartment in the Bronx, buying a car in Brooklyn, or moving ourselves from the Windy City to the Big Apple, but it was awful, and I nearly lost my damn mind pretty much every single day along the way. You can ask Betsy if you don’t believe me. Having survived that part of the move to New York, I can really appreciate how good I have it here.
The funny part about our move to New York is that in the chaos, we never even really considered the full magnitude of the situation we were getting ourselves into. We didn’t have long discussions about the fact that the two of us would actually be moving in together; that we would both be living with a significant other for the first time in our lives. Our entire relationship to that point had been either long-distance, living through phone calls, text messages, and Skype dates, or on trips, where we literally were together 24 hours a day. We didn’t realize that this might actually be our biggest adventure yet. Somehow we didn’t stress about it, because we never doubted that it was inevitable for us. It was truly our next adventure. It’s the adventure that we currently find ourself embroiled in, and let me tell you, we have both learned some valuable lessons in these first few months.
On the day I moved us into our apartment, I also interviewed for a job at an amazing restaurant in the West Village, Manhattan. I now bartend there 4 days a week. I do that, while my girlfriend works her ass off in med school. I get to come home to her every night and see her nearly every morning. Every day begins with the promise of adventure. I live in the biggest city in America, the self-proclaimed “center of the world” with my girlfriend, who’s own epic journey has somehow become intertwined with mine. Tonight I remembered that it all has to do with that decision to step off that well-worn path, to quit the comfortable life and live recklessly. I need to remind myself every once in a while, that I am the one who gets to decide what it means to be successful. I get to blaze my own trail. I am reminded that when you take chances and embrace risk, good things have a way of finding themselves in your path. It’s just your job to recognize those opportunities and to make the most of them.
I’m not exactly sure what the next part to this adventure will be, but it very well might involve climbing a iconic mountain, swimming in a legendary waterfall, and chasing down lions, giraffes, elephants, zebras, and maybe even lemurs. Stay tuned.