It’s not that uncommon for recent college graduates to spend a year or two traveling – a big adventure to get it all out of their system before settling into the monotony and responsibilities of everyday life. It’s a natural rite of passage – a well tread trail that many travel down.
Up to this point, I had graduated from the University of Maine and lived out of a converted Pontiac Montana minivan with my boyfriend Adam, while traveling around the west, climbing and working seasonal jobs. It only seemed natural that I would eventually need to work a ‘real’ job and settle down. I scoured online job boards for full time openings and sent in applications whenever a position sounded remotely interesting. Most of the time I never heard back, so when I received a message in my voicemail inquiring about setting up an interview, I didn’t think twice before calling back. In October of 2013, I officially accepted a job offer with the Pacific Crest Trail Association and joined the other 480,000 people living in Sacramento, California.
I thought I had finally done it – achieved the college graduate dream. A nine-five job with health insurance, paid sick days, and vacation time off. I thought I was finally starting my life. I could indulge in all the desires van life had withheld from me. I’d have my own apartment to decorate, I could grow the vegetable garden I’d always wanted, and could spend all my free time training harder for all those awesome rock climbing trips I’d take during my vacation time. I couldn’t have been so wrong…
As my boss pulsated her car from stoplight, to backed up traffic, to more stop lights, she tried to sell the city to Adam and I.
“There’s fabulous local restaurants, a famers’ market every weekend, and a bike path from downtown to the office!”
Her voice faded into the hustling sidewalks of downtown and was lost amongst the stale air that circulated through the ally, bouncing off the tightly fit buildings lining every street. I was trying to see the beauty in this new place, but all I saw was the pile of empty bottles and plastic bags blowing against the backside of the chain link fence. I saw the homeless man sitting under the freeway bridge, eating mayonnaise out of a jar. I saw men and women wearing suits walking swiftly across the road. It felt fast. There was a current within the city that everyone seemed to be moving with. I was the only one trying to swim against it, trapped in an eddy as I watched the world whirl by.
Yosemite was only three hours away – or so I kept telling myself. In reality it took closer to four hours, but three hours seemed more manageable. It skewed my outlook on life in Sacramento. Every time the voice in my head started whispering words of doubt and panic, I pictured myself floating up the legendary granite cracks of El Capitan. What did it matter where I lived and worked if I could spend my weekends in the Valley?
It turned out, it mattered more than I thought it would. After a couple weeks of living in downtown Sacramento, once the excitement of a new job wore off, I found myself crying in Adam’s lap in the middle of our chaotic living room. Rows of unpacked boxes lined the walls, mimicking the houses in the neighborhood. Climbing gear oozed out of our backpacks, which we didn’t bother to unpack from the last weekend’s climbing trip because there was really nowhere to put it. We sat on the only furniture we owned – two collapsible camp chairs we had salvaged from Adam’s parent’s garage. What had I gotten myself into? What was I doing here? I had never felt so lost.
Only a month after moving into our apartment downtown, we were strapping our mattress onto the roof of my car and repacking boxes back into the trunk. Adam and I moved to a small studio apartment on a family farm in Auburn. The house was perched on top of a large rolling hill, looking out over the foothills of the Sierras. The property was home to six goats, a llama, and a horse, as well as endless opportunities for gardening. Hidden Falls Regional Park, with miles and miles of beautiful trails winding between rolling hills and along humming creeks, was only five minutes down the road. But, living in Auburn meant an hour commute to work one way; that meant ten hours a week would be spent dodging the ruthless drivers of Sacramento. The only escape was every weekend when we would pack up the van and head to Yosemite for a day and a half of climbing, but at the end of the weekend, rather than feeling satisfied, I felt hungry for more.
Despite living in a house and working a job with regular hours, I never found time to start the vegetable garden I always wanted. As for spending all my free time training hard for climbing – what free time? If I went climbing after work, it meant skipping out on dinner and a good nights sleep. On weekends I seemed to spend half the time climbing and the other half behind the steering wheel. How did I sacrifice simplicity and freedom and end up gaining nothing I thought I would?
After six months of trying to make it work, I gave my boss notice that I was leaving. Deciding to quit that job was one of the hardest decisions I had to make, but it was also one of the easiest. I was afraid of letting down the people I love, but I realized I couldn’t live my life according to the expectations of others. I had to follow my own dreams. Sometimes there’s no direct path to where you’re going. You have to figure out what you don’t want before you can realize what makes you happy. I prefer mountain ranges to city skylines. I’d rather live off the grid than in a cute apartment downtown. And I value a life of freedom and adventure over security and luxury. I realized that I don’t need much to be happy, and that sometimes you had what you wanted all along.