I was shooting the shit with a co-worker after work one day last week, and we ended up on the topic of travel. I told him that I wanted to go to Turkey, that I’d had enough of Western and Central Europe.
“Where have you been?” he asked.
I started listing countries: France, England, Germany, Austria, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Scotland. “I spent a month in Sweden,” I said. “I’ve been there twice.”
“I’ve been to Costa Rica twice, too,” I said. “And I’ve been to Australia three times.” I was getting carried away. I told him about the two dozen or so stamps I have in my passport, how I traveled alone for months in places like Thailand, Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia. I told him that I’d done the math and I’ve spent a year and some change outside of the US.
“Would you just work, work, work, save your money, and then take off?” He asked.
I used to keep my work history a secret from my co-workers. I figured if anyone found out that I spent most of my employed life acting as if $15/hr under the table was a good wage, they’d boot me out of my cushy job for being a fraud with no experience for my position. “Yes.” I said. “But sometimes it doesn’t take much to travel. I spent a month in Laos on $300.”
My co-worker was fascinated by me, and I was enjoying a warm bath in the attention. “That’s just abroad,” I said. “I rode my bicylce from Vancouver to Tijuana.” I waited for the usual surprise and awe. By now I knew what I was doing. Under the dim flourescent lights of a shared cubicle on the 7th floor of the downtown office building where I’ve worked as a contractor for ten months, I wanted, no I needed, to recount my entire travel resume. “I lived as a snowboard bum for a winter, too. In Jackson Hole.”
“You really had some adventures,” he said, his eyes still wide from a few of my digressive stories.
I used to love the idea that anything could happen. I had so many dreams, or shower-time fantasies as I call the hopeful, and usually outlandish, futures we imagine for ourselves while washing our hair. I imagined myself falling in love with a British girl during my first night in London or with an Ozzie at the Gay Games in Sydney. I imagined losing myself for a year surfing on the coast of Costa Rica or scuba diving in Thailand or working on a farm in New Zealand. I imagined that I might give up all my possessions and live on my bicycle, be a bicycling writer, much like my buddy from the road, the bicycling comedian. I thought that I might settle in a small ski town, live near my brother, and watch elk play in the snow until I grew old.
None of those things ever happened, but I didn’t mind. I got off on working five different odd jobs in a week, balancing my travel budget, owning so little that it was easy to store in a friend’s basement. I enjoyed living out of my backpack, never knowing or caring what came next. I thrived on the chaos, the uncertainty. The now was all I wanted and my next trip was as far as I could see. I had no idea what to do with myself, but as long as I kept busy–exploring, discovering, moving–I wouldn’t have to figure it out.
My co-worker kept firing questions about my favorite places, foods, and people, but I let my nostalgic montage fade out. “I signed the papers,” I said. I sounded like I’d committed myself to a rehab center or a mental institution. And that’s how I felt. “I’m employed here.”
I hadn’t told anyone other than my close friends that I’d accepted my first actual employment with a company in seven years. The whole idea was disturbing. It had taken me two weeks to read through the offer packet, which was full of words I rarely paid attention to, like vesting, stock units, 401k, health insurance, dental coverage. By signing on to a job whose benefits increase significantly with each year, I understood, even if it was only temporary, that there was an underlying comittment.
“You’re not signing away your life,” a different friend said to me. “You can always go on another adventure.”
I could plan a trip right now. I could go to the bookstore, collect a huge stack of Lonely Planets, envision myself in Morocco and Bolivia and South Africa, eventually chosing one place, like India. I could go there for three or four months, making sure I wasn’t too broke to start over here, again, as I’ve done so many times before. I thought of the book I’m working on, but don’t mention because it’s torturing me. I thought of building something here in San Francisco, what I don’t know, but something that requires a foundation. I thought of the weak and boring wish that I’d made and posted on my blog almost a year ago and that is no more exciting now that it has come true: “I’d like to have a job that doesn’t suck. With a boss and co-workers who aren’t lame. And it’d be nice if I made enough money to pay my rent and health insurance and school loans.”
“I know my life isn’t over,” I said to my friend. “I know I can go on a big trip.”
But the thing that surprised me the most, the thing that I’m still trying to accept, is that I don’t want to.