Saturday, October 20, 2012

Greener grasses

Since I packed up my apartment in New Hampshire and quit my newspaper job seven months ago, I've been mostly transient, living off only what I can carry on my person. I've spent two months at a remote Alaskan wilderness lodge, two-and-a-half months living out of a (wet) canoe in the Tongass National Forest, at least two months schlepping around the western United States on couches, in tents and on floors; plus a few weeks backpacking in central America and a brief foray home in New England. I've rarely slept in the same place for more than a few nights in a row. And in less than a month I'll once again try to jam six months' worth of stuff into some bags and head across the world to New Zealand. At this moment, I feel more transient than I have at any point in my life.

When I'm traveling, my lifestyle doesn't seem abnormal. Nearly everyone I meet is on a five-month backpacking trip in the Americas or has just finished several months of kayaking in Patagonia or is working as a guide to support their climbing habit. But when I return home I am treated as if I'm the walking, breathing antithesis of anyone who feels trapped by paperwork, jobs or two weeks' vacation a year. They imagine they have been inadvertently sucked into a rut from which no escape is possible, while by some stroke of luck or fortune I am able to drift from one place to the next entirely free and unencumbered.

Except it's not like that. Friends who drink beer with me know that in fact the opposite is true: my freewheelin' lifestyle is often at odds with my natural tendency to want everything planned, organized and in control. I'm constantly agonizing over decisions and worrying about the future. I find myself missing people beyond all words. It can be excruciatingly lonely. Health insurance is a bitch, and things like voter registration, car insurance and taxes (not to mention relationships) become infinitely complicated when you don't have a permanent residence. But I take the sacrifices willingly. It's a choice I make.

The men at the bar where my father spends his afternoons don't believe this. They look at my pictures and reminisce over a fishing trip they once did on the Kenai River, blaming their mortgages, jobs or wives as the reason they never went back. They wish they were fishing guides in Alaska instead of electricians or contractors in Massachusetts. They wish they could do what I do, not recognizing that the only thing holding them back is themselves.

Later, at a wedding, I chat with an Indian-American engineer I knew in college. “She just lives her own life, goes wherever she wants to go,” he tells a friend about me, slightly drunk. “I wish I could do that.”

“You can,” I interrupt. He is unmarried, college-educated; doesn't even have a dog.

“You don't understand,” he says. “When you've been somewhere for a long time and you have obligations... “

“I have obligations,” I tell him. “Student loans, family. I'm not any different than you.”

“You are, though,” he says, convinced.

Sometimes I want to shake people. If you want to do something differently with your life, don't let obligations, mortgages, or kids stop you from making changes. Similarly, if you've chosen stability, a relationship, a family or a career, don't feel like you need to make excuses because your life isn't glamorous or exciting enough.

I have another friend from high school who has a steady job, a house, two young kids and a wife he's in love with. We come from similar backgrounds, but he has taken the traditional route and I have taken a non-traditional one. He is intrigued and perhaps somewhat envious of my lifestyle, and I feel the same about his, but neither of us would trade places. He is, as he should be, proud of what he's got going on.

What I do looks glamorous and exciting, but there are times when a steady relationship, a garden or kitchen and a bed to return to most nights seems exquisite beyond words. I want to tell anyone who looks at me starry-eyed: you make your own choices in this life. Don't apologize for what you've chosen. Embrace it, or choose differently.

I've spent the last three months with someone I love, and now I'm going halfway across the world for half a year and hoping that it's not too far, for too long. My engineer friend is marrying a beautiful girl at an 800-person traditional wedding in India and is scared shitless. My dad's friend goes to work and then drinks himself to sleep at night. And my friend from high school posts pictures of his family on Facebook, smiling, content. I sit on top of my backpack and scroll through them, happy for him and happy for me.

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