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How To Avoid the Post-Trip Rut

I like raises. Most of us do. One Friday morning in June of 2004 I had a $12,000 raise offered to me. I thought of what I could do with that money. It would be 100% discretionary, which is a big boost in lifestyle for a cubicle dweller. A year of saving that money would buy a lot of time in Asia or South America, right? The thing was, it was the morning of the day I was supposed to give my notice. I had planned for a couple of years to hit the road. Now, I was thinking that I could blow that off for one more year and then hit the road for two or three times as long! But I had to leave.

A key component of my trip was Central Asia and one of the things about travelling around that part of the world is that you don’t meet casual travellers. It’s not Thailand or Greece – there’s no blow-ins on two week beach holidays, no weekend tour groups. Everyone there is on a major journey. Most of them have simple reasons – the zest for travel became too great for short vacations. Some have a serious interest in the region and wanted time to explore it properly. A significant amount of us were crossing overland from Europe to Asia. You can see in that group certain people just had to get away. If they didn’t love travelling, they would have gone to a spiritual retreat, or camping in the woods for the summer or something like that. But one way or another, they had to escape their previous life. That’s how it was for me.

At day’s end, I had given my notice, leaving the twelve grand on the table. I spent six months on the road and saw an incredible amount of things. Had I taken the offer, I would have just left and would probably have spent 18 months on the road. There is a bit of regret, but that is only when I look at the past through fuzzy glasses. At the time, staying wasn’t an option. It wasn’t that I hated my job, but I didn’t love it either. My relationship had fizzled over the previous months and I was on my own again. As much as I loved Toronto’s vibrant neighbourhoods I realized that there was little left to accomplish there. I had a vision for my life and spending another year at a desk wasn’t part of that.

It was a big struggle in my mid-20s to come to the point where I realized that I would never be satisfied with the alleged American dream. To me careers, mortgages, and raising a family are traps. Well-ingrained traps, I might add. A combination of Protestant work ethic, Depression, world wars, and waves of immigrants looking to make the most of their second chance has given Canada and the US a hard-working, conservative culture. Conformity is a way of life and our world is structured to support it.

We’ve done some very strange things to our society. We bow down before the almighty automobile, we encourage the banal, and distract ourselves with shopping, celebrity gossip and video games. Only a small segment of our society understands the value of new ideas and bold thinking, of not being complacent and of not blindly accepting what is being given to us. Life here has its good points, no question, but I needed a break.

The key, though, was that the break had to be permanent. A spell of unemployment a few years earlier had allowed me to learn a lot about who I am and the kind of life I wanted to lead. It seems the drudgery of being part of the machine had numbed my senses and now those senses had been awakened. For others, I’m sure there is little but a gut feeling that there is more to life and that hitting the road is how they will find it.

On the road, I met a lot of people in both that situation and my own. I met people who were further along the enlightened path as well. They’d found a good place somewhere along the way and stayed there. I didn’t really have that in me.

Instead, I returned home. It didn’t take long for the old reality to sink in. I owe money, to pay for an education I don’t really use. And now, to pay for my trip as well. Debt and children are the two most powerful traps to lure you back into the stultifying world in which most North Americans live. I have no kids, but I have debt and thus I had to go back to work. I’d returned home with grand plans to start a new life. But as I’d only ever worked in one industry and had no good contacts in any others I ended up back in my old cubicle world.

It happened so fast I hardly knew what hit me. Heck, I was happy to be working and I liked some of my co-workers. My cubicle even had a spectacular view of Vancouver harbour and the Coast Mountains. Life, I thought, was good.

Fast forward a couple of months and depression had hit. I was deep in a rut. Worse yet, I had left the cubicle job behind me and moved into another industry altogether so I couldn’t use that as an excuse. I couldn’t believe I was rutted. I had worked so hard to break out of the rat race and the minute my plane landed, I got sucked back in. My break was supposed to be permanent. I knew what kind of life I wanted to live but I wasn’t living it. I felt like I’d failed.

How did I end up there? How did I lose everything I’d worked so hard for in the years leading up to my trip and the time spent on the road itself? How could I get my vibe back?

Living exactly the way you want is easy when you’re on the road. But road life doesn’t necessarily translate into a stable life. Or does it? I wondered about this.

The first thing that had to happen was I needed my own space. Being broke upon my return prevented me from getting my own apartment. But I’m the kind of guy who needs his time alone, and needs to be free to do my own thing. So this is very important. Plan to have money for a place when you return because as cool as friends and family are, they’ll cramp your style in no time.

I also realized that my time working in the cubicle-with-a-view had sapped my mental energy. This had kept me from pushing forward with my goals because I came home at night and did very little. Most people do very little at night and they go nowhere as a result. It sucks, but for those of us who need day jobs to pay the bills, we must find ways to give ourselves the physical and mental energy to pursue our dreams, otherwise we’ll never leave that day job behind. Moreover, working is probably the biggest difference between being on the road and being at home. I should have spent some time working while I travelled. That might have helped. Getting a job where you control your rhythm is a good idea, but not necessarily something you can just up and do, at least if you still want to pay your bills. I’m not sure how long I’ll need to sell my hours, but for as long as I do this will be a tough obstacle to overcome. A combination of naps, well-timed exercise and dietary measures helps restore my mental energy. With a plan to translate that energy towards making money doing what I want, at least there’s hope. But I have to admit, this one is going to be tough.

Finding people who share your views on life is valuable as well. I moved back to Vancouver, where I grew up. But I don’t hang out with my old friends very often. We don’t have that much in common anymore. They don’t travel, don’t care much about food or drink and are ambivalent to music. Great guys, no doubt about that, but when I start comparing my pho’ with the stuff I had in Laos at roadside shacks their eyes glaze over. Travel people just get it. It takes some searching around, no question, but finding once you find a few people with whom you can relate, this will help keep you on the right path.

Perhaps even more important that finding people with the same passions as yourself is finding at least one person who can relate to the sorts of struggles you’ll be going through. Maybe your biggest issue will be wanderlust. But it also might be that you’re trying to break free from your old routines and not sure where to go. A lot of people end up in the places they do because they don’t know how to do anything else. That encompasses both physical skills and mental outlook. The skills you can learn. I would advise working on that before you leave. Not practical if you’re leaving to find yourself, but the reality is that waltzing into your dream job is going to be a lot tougher if you don’t have a foundation in that line of business. At the end of the day, any company will hire the best person available. If you want that to be you, you’ve got to bring them something they can’t just pluck off the street. If the job is a desirable one, the competition will be tough. So start building your skill set before you leave. Work on it while on the road. And leave no stone unturned in working on it when you get back, especially if you find yourself back in your old line of work upon return for bill-paying purposes.

As far as the outlook part, this is a little trickier. The first thing you need to know is that there are people out there living the lifestyle you want. We don’t all learn this growing up. I grew up in a conservative household with parents who work boring everyday jobs. It took my brother and I until our mid-20s to realize there was more to life than that. Things have been on the rise for both of us ever since. So if you want to work in a creative industry, for example, that will take a mental leap if you’ve been conditioned to view work as 9-to-5 life as a groundhog poking your head up in a cubicle farm. If you develop the skills, the landing will be soft. If you have someone who’s already made that leap on your side, the leap itself will be child’s play.

Setting is also a vital importance. The physical setting you are in stimulates you, so a square box apartment in a dull neighbourhood won’t cut it for me. I recently took a trip to Montreal, and I also go down to Seattle a lot. People in those cities I find more open and individualistic than people in Vancouver. So I’m giving serious thought to relocation. I know I’ll be happier in a place where conformity is not so ingrained in the culture. As beautiful as this place is, it’s not geared for odd ducks like myself. I swear, I haven’t even found a decent place to drink in Vancouver. It’s sad. If relocation is on the table, you’ve got to be serious about letting go of whatever it is that is keeping you planted, though.

The last part of my strategy to avoid falling back into the rut I left when I hit the road in the first place is indulgence. Lots of it. To hell with money. To hell with responsibility. I know that if it all collapses in on me one day I’ll be just as happy to hop a plane to China and teach English in Kunming or something. Eating, drinking, exploring the breadth and depth of the musical universe are simple pleasures that always work for me. Writing, even if nobody ever sees it, is a passion. It’s surprisingly hard to just do whatever you want. I think all it takes is to ignore the concept of expectations. Nuts to what other people think you ought to do, or ought to be. I know most of us grow up being taught this is important, but it’s not. I enjoy giving of myself to myself. I don’t feel guilty. Life is short and I don’t have time to feel like crap. So if indulgence makes me happy, so be it. If altruism works better for you, run with it. Do exactly what you want and nothing more.

Leaving my life wasn’t easy, and it’s been even harder coming back. I guess I never really thought about how things would play out upon my return. My anticipation was for the trip, the escape. But our society is tightly structured that it’s harder than it looks to return home and lead an entirely new life. Society hasn’t changed. Your friends and family haven’t either. Everything and everybody expects you to be exactly what you were before. Don’t make the mistake I did and return without a plan. I was lucky that it only took six months to crash and recover. I could have wallowed for years, pining for another escape. Don’t just think about what you want your life to look like when you return, think about what it will take to make it happen.