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.