A journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step – Lao Tzu
There is no feeling that quite describes being stuck in a corporate office, worse yet, in a cubicle, when the sun is burning through a blue, cloudless sky. For seven long years I miraculously managed to not throw a phone, flog away an intruder, or hang myself in the corner of my office with ethernet cabling.
Like everyone else, I knew that there was more to life than waking up at the last minute and jockeying through traffic in a hurry to make a bunch of old men richer. However, a strange and powerful force kept me glued to my seat, sorting through corporate memos reminding me to file my TPS reports properly and that Friday was wacky-tie day.
Bills. Lots of them. Always creeping into my mailbox when I least expected it. There were all the usual suspects like electric, water, and a mortgage on a place so oversized that I hadn’t even opened some of the rooms yet.
Then there were the really bothersome credit card statements that included all my internet purchases. Among the damages, there were expenses for high-tech toys I thought would make work more bearable. My phone could play MP3s, games, movies, and open random gateways to alternate dimensions with the tap of a stylus.
Also included were new clothes that were sure to impress my dates, and restaurant tabs in overpriced places that make you feel important. Being a well-trained IT geek, I decided to do an analysis of where my money was going and constructed a simple spreadsheet to record purchases for one month.
I have the attention span of a bored cat, so actually a couple of months passed before I found the spreadsheet again hiding in a dusty corner of my hard drive.
“Oh yeah…I remember this” I said and opened it with a snappy mouse click. I nearly swallowed my tongue at the results inside.
Things needed for daily life, like groceries and Redbull, made up the lowest expenses. Not just a few, but a majority of my purchases were unnecessary and compulsive moves to keep me distracted.
I was putting at least one kid through college with my cable bill alone — all so that I could catch hot dog eating contests on ESPN 13 at 4 a.m. Woohoo!
I went into work slightly more enlightened than I was the day before, but I wanted to be sure. Was I just being too negative about my job? Was I starting into some sort of just-turned-30 midlife/depression/crisis thingie? Was I about to run out and purchase a red convertible and pierce my tongue in a desperate cry for attention from sorority girls?
As an experiment, I decided to count the number of smiles I received around the office and cafeteria for one day. Other than one nearly mad-and-shaking engineer that was watching the coffee machine fill his one-liter mug for the third time, the only smiling faces I saw on this beautiful June afternoon were the ones walking at a quickstep toward the door at closing time. Things were quickly beginning to make sense.
Like a twitchy convict who just discovered a tunnel under his bunk, I kept my findings to myself and starting building a plan. I made a conscious effort to slow the bleeding of money from my account on useless toys. When I was in private, I started researching exotic destinations on the internet.
Soon, I was quickly becoming consumed by my escape plans. For seven years I had been a rat in a never-ending race. Now I had finally discovered that someone left the door open on my cage. Quickly, my happiness and my bank account began to build up, and on one bold evening I set a date.
My date was January 1, 2006. What a better way to start a new year than to start a new life altogether? In the six months between my enlightenment and the start of my new less-paying-yet-more-satisfying career as a backpacker, I managed to save money and sell my house without hiring a Realtor. I picked up a copy of Rolf Pott’s book Vagabonding and realized that I was not alone. Many had made this walk before me. During my meetings, I was having visions of living on an organic farm, picking fruit in the sunshine, and meeting hippie girls to go surfing with. Was I heading for sure financial doom? The thought did cross my mind, especially when I started trickling news of my plan to friends and family.
Vagabonding and gap years are not really popular concepts in America, so my announcements were usually responded to with less than positive enthusiasm. I did not care. I was determined not to spend the best years of my life while I was healthy trying to save money to retire when I was too old to enjoy it.
I gave myself the ultimate Christmas gift: I bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok and turned in my letter of resignation.
When the wheels of my plane left the ground and we pointed west toward the Pacific, I breathed an enormous sigh of relief. Luckily, the 23-hour-flight provided lots of time for deep vein thrombosis and contemplation, which I took full advantage of. I still had no idea where I was going or what I was getting myself into, but it had to be more interesting than learning new acronyms at a company whose name was an acronym.
As I sit here and write this, exactly one year has passed since I left the United States for the first time. I grin when I read back through my early journal entries and blush slightly thinking of what an inexperienced newbie I was. I still do not consider myself a hardened traveler, but I do want to share my beginnings with others and inspire them to chew their way out of the maze as well.
Anyone can do this, and I never met a single person out of hundreds of backpackers who had regretted their decision to give up the cheese and escape the cubicle or Rat Race. I would not trade my adventures, experiences, and new friends for all the promotions, cable channels, or wacky-tie days in the world.
One step turned into the journey of a lifetime.
2021 Update: Over 15 years later, I’m still alive. Chronicles from years of adventure after escaping the cubicle are on my blog: Vagabonding Life. I also launched a course to help others escape the cubicle!
Meet the Author:
Greg Rodgers is the editor of Startbackpacking.com. He left Corporate America to begin traveling in 2005. He’s been happily living from a rucksack since.