To be free

Speeding across the Southwest in my beloved Honda Civic that I hadn’t driven in a year, I thumbed through my old CDs. I’d just returned to the U.S. after a year in Central America and wanted to hear country music. My time capsule of a car delivered: After listening to old-school Taylor Swift, from when she still had a twang, I popped in Tim McGraw.  Without warning, I was transported back to the last time I’d been racing through the reds and browns of New Mexico, in the opposite direction, listening to that very CD. I remembered exactly what headspace I was in, before a year in Costa Rica changed my life.

Before the words sunk in, I was carefree, driving west. I was by myself, taking in the sweeping landscape that I love so much, alone after a whirlwind few weeks. I had just moved back to the U.S., to Las Vegas, that week. After a few days at my new office (I was employed!), looking at rentals in my spare time, I’d flown to my parents’ house in Albuquerque to pick up my car. I was L.A.-bound, racing towards my storage unit to finish the last leg of my move.

Then I popped in that CD.

Suddenly, it was August, 2009: ten months after I’d lost my job, four months after my savings had run out, two months after I was finally able to shed my expensive L.A. rent. I was driving towards my parents’ house, visiting my closest friends along the way. And yet, I’d never felt so alone. I was single, and had debt for the first time in my life. Looking forward, I saw nothing, aside from piddly freelance assignments that I could never live off of. In my imagination, my future looked like a wasteland.

So I’d decided to meet friends in Costa Rica. You know, for a month or two; I had nothing else to do. I’d thrown everything into storage and was going to leave my car at my parents’ house. I cashed in frequent flyer points and was off to live in the tropics, where I’d worked out a cost of living that was less than a fifth of what I’d been paying. I had no idea how long I’d stay or what was next. I found the unknown terrifying.

But Tim McGraw’s song Last Dollar (Fly Away) hit home:

If I’ve ain’t got nothing, I’ve got nothing to lose… If I’ve ain’t got nothing, I’ve got nothing to hold me back.

Until then, every move I’d made since I lost my job was solely about survival. But as I drove, I started thinking about my life changing — was it actually changing for the better? Was I really taking off into the future with “nothing to hold me back”? Just knowing that I had a plan for a month or three was an enormous relief to my psyche, but I remember zeroing in on those lyrics and telling myself, “See, Abby, you’ll make it. Who knows what’s going to happen next?” The truth? It was right then that I learned something profound about myself: I would’ve never changed the course of my life if I hadn’t been absolutely forced to start over from scratch.

If I hadn’t lost my job, I would still be working at a magazine that wasn’t the right fit for me, that didn’t challenge me, that wasn’t the future I’d always dreamt for myself. I would never have quit, if only because it was a “good” job that superficially was what I’d always wanted. Without the courage to just up and quit, I would have never re-ignited my love of travel, or met a world of online friends who are just like me. My neighbors in Costa Rica and fellow travelers and expats online became my support system through some very dark months. A world without them? Impossible! What I learned during my year of having “nothing” is what gave me my confidence back, grounded me. It prepared me for what was next.

More Tim McGraw that gave me joy during a crucial turning point: I’m leaving everything behind. There’s not much that I need, ‘cause if I ain’t got nothing, I’m footloose and fancy free. Look at me so free! Nothing’s holding me down.

After I got to Costa Rica, I watched for months as future RTWers online moaned and groaned about being stuck at the office, in their cubicles, as they saved their money for their big trips. At first, I found it difficult. “Stop complaining!” I wanted to scream. Some of us were broke and would kill for work, even the kind in a cubicle.

Slowly, however, I started to admire them, because they were changing their lives under conditions I know I wouldn’t have. Saving up in order to travel? Wow! I revved up the courage to take off only when I had nothing.

Only then was I free.

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I'm a life-long travel junkie journalist who works hard to find adventure in everyday life after two years of travel and expat living.

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  1. Welcome back 🙂

    You’re right that the travel scene online is tits deep in cube haters. Rightfully so, I count myself amongst them. Anything negative like that though can get to be a bit much after awhile. Anyways, I’m looking forward to hearing about what you’re doing and where you’re doing it!

  2. Abby – I’m so happy you published this!! Truly it’s a breath of fresh air and a part of your story I can so much relate to. For me, it was my divorce that prompted serious life change (which has then led me to meet amazing people like you), yet still many of the feelings you talk of have been mine!

    Can’t wait to read more in the future as you keep writing and keep encouraging others!! AND – so good to meet the real face behind these words this week.

  3. Aye. You’re right there. There’s never a “right” time, financially or otherwise. It’s always going to be a terrifying leap into the unknown.

    Very true.

    *goes away to have a think about stuff* 😉

  4. What an amazing post. I am glad you’ve had time to reflect on your journey and feel as though it was positive and the best thing for you. I agree with you about not knowing if I would have been able to move abroad had I not also lost my job. Part of me doesn’t want to believe it, but if I hadn’t done it by then, I probably wasn’t going to do it if external forces didn’t pave the way.

    Good luck getting back to US life.

  5. An inspiration to scores of future world-wide princesses! Glad you are back writing. I look forward to seeing a LOT more posts from you, now that you are getting back into the groove. Love this confessional.

  6. You’ve come a long way baby.. from the dirt roads of Costa Rica to red carpets in Vegas. Missing you always in Costa Rica… Besos!

  7. OMG, I LOVE LOVE LOVE this post. Beautiful. So proud of you, my friend. xx

  8. Thank you so much, everybody! It feels so good to be back. I missed you guys! Really, one of my favorite parts about living abroad was getting to know the online travel community. I love how we all support each other. Every comment means so much to me!

  9. I love this post! It sounds like you had an incredible journey and learned a lot about yourself. It’s probably quite an adjustment, but it sounds like you’re ready to be back. Cheers to your next adventure!

  10. Thou rockest, woman. This kind of post is why I love reading blogs (and why I love you 🙂

  11. So glad to see you are writing again. Love how this post may inspire someone else in a similar position to just go for it.

    I see big things in your future!

  12. It’s that old saying…everything happens for a reason. And if it doesn’t, I like vicariously through you. Miss you xo

  13. Welcome Back!

    I fully agree with you – sometimes the only way to change your life is to start by scratch.


  14. awww! some really well said things in here. welcome back 🙂

  15. Isn’t it funny where our paths in life take us? Welcome back to Las Vegas!

  16. You know: this is an awesome, awesome post! I bet many peeps really should need something like that happening to them, to get going, to stop running in the “hamster wheel” and really stop to smell the roses.

    For me the stop & turnpoint came when I damaged my back badly. Then I had the time to really think about my life and what I really wanted with it. After that followed a divorce, a move, meeting a new man, marriage – and a wonderful world of travel :-)))

    (BTW: I came here from where your blog is mentioned and I had to check you out. Which I’m glad I did!)

  17. So good to meet you! Honestly, the best thing that came out of all of this was the traveling I got to do and the travel people I met. I will never feel alone again! So happy to hear from people with similar stories. Yay!

  18. Welcome back Abby! Great to know you ‘re writing again. For me, after my 6 days in Borneo, I need a long break from writing too…. so tiring when you hit the big 4-0…

    Love the pics by the way and keep up the excellent work!


  19. Wow, great post. All of so true and so well said. First post I’ve ever read on your site and love it. Can’t wait to read more.

  20. Thanks, Mike!! So good to meet you!

  21. Great insight, and I think it was probably good for you that your life changed so drastically. This really spoke to me because I have a good job and I’m cutting the cord on it – my last day is Friday. 7.5 years at the same place and I’m quitting to pursue a dream, perhaps shot through with starry-eyed naivete, to travel and write about it in the hope that others will want to read about it.

    Not only am I leaving a really solid job, I’m leaving my wife and home for a month at a time. Right now, two weeks from heading to Argentina, it’s a lot to take in. Very difficult to process everything I’m feeling.

    Yours is story that others will be written from. Thanks Abby.

  22. Aww thanks, Keith! You were one of my original travel friends online, the ones whose support really helped me during those crazy times when I had no idea what was going on. Now I get to watch you while you take off! I’m thrilled. I honestly thought that my career was OVER, that you had to choose one or the other. But I’m still the same me, just … different. When I was ready to come back, the universe did that for me. Good luck! So excited for you!!

  23. OMG, look at the outpouring of love you got on this post! I’m so happy you’re posting again and I think your writing is even better than ever. XOXO

  24. Great post Abby, and welcome back. It is all to0 often said that being fired from a company ends up being the best thing that could have happened, particulalrly when you are single or at least have no kids that depend on you. Now it’s your turn to conquer the world!

  25. It is so awesome that you gained so much insight through your experiences. Beautiful post!

    Into the unknown!

  26. Wow! I have to say, I think I’m the opposite of you. I hated my job and saved up so I could get out of there and travel. Had I been broke and in debt, I think I would have been way to scared to plunge in to something new or to try the travel thing. I’m extremely impressed at the risk you took in doing so. It obviously worked out for you and sounds like you’re in a much better situation now.

  27. @Laura Yes, it did seem I was the opposite of a lot of people! I admire the other side so much now!

  28. Beautiful post! What a difference a year makes! I wish that you didn’t have to go through such lows, but I’m happy that the ride this time around found you in a much different place — in all ways except for geography!

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