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.
In December, 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 it pointed its nose 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 U.S. 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 that 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.
2018 Update: Over 12 years later, Greg is still going strong. Chronicles from years of adventure after escaping the cubicle are on his Vagabonding Life blog.
Meet the Author:
Greg Rodgers is the editor of Startbackpacking.com and left Corporate America to begin traveling in 2005. He’s been happily living from a rucksack since.