In February 2009, the nation’s unemployment rate was 8.1 percent and climbing. As an editorial assistant for two boating magazines based in Irvine, I went to work every morning grim, waiting to be let go. When the day finally arrived and I was sent to pack up my desk, one thought kept running through my mind: “I’ve become a statistic.” ¶A month later, my boyfriend Steve also was laid off, from a far more lucrative job in sales. Rather than panic, we came up with a solution, actually more of an exit plan.
We leased out our three-bedroom Laguna Hills home for a year, dispersed everything we owned among friends and family, and left the country.
For six months we traversed the crooked curve of Latin America. Time moved slower there. Traveling from country to country and city to city by long-distance bus, the journey felt perpetual. Our money lasted longer, too. We swung from a humble surfing community in Costa Rica to the indigenous plains of Peru. We passed through the world’s driest desert in Chile, got friendly with various ex-pats in Argentina’s wine country, experienced floods in Rio de Janeiro, and were robbed in Bogotá, Colombia. We met interesting people, had unexpected encounters, learned something new every day. Everything was tranquilo—anything was possible. Immersed in a new and simpler existence, we felt alive, reborn, significant. With just 35 pounds of worldly possessions on each of our backs, the Orange County lifestyle we left behind felt like some dusty dream.
Three weeks before we were due to return home, Steve and I took a funicular up Cerro de Monserrate for a panoramic view of central Bogotá. We bought coffee and found a spot where we could enjoy the scenery and people-watch. I remember Steve leaning against a stone wall, cup in hand. He looked around in a slow arc and said, almost to himself, “I don’t want this to end.” Neither did I.
We set foot back on American soil in January 2010 with a dozen different passport stamps between us. We’d visited 27 cities and seen 12 natural wonders. We were thin, tan, and exhausted. Although we spent hours planning how to incorporate what we’d learned into our Southern California lives, little could prepare us for what followed.
Leaving the plane, I took Steve’s hand, suddenly nervous. Walking through the terminal to claim our filthy, oversized backpacks, I felt an acute wave of panic. Gone was the excitement of new experiences, strange customs, idle days, and the lackadaisical approach to the life with which we’d grown accustomed. English suddenly sounded coarse and unrefined; I missed the soft lilt of Spanish, the buzz of bus terminals, that beautiful lack of responsibility that comes when one is traveling. After months of imagining what it would feel like to return, the home we remembered just felt odd.
Slowly, we began the terrible task of reconciling two selves into one functioning whole. While Steve maintained his minimalism, throwing out or giving away everything he didn’t need and refusing to spend more than $5 for a beer, I was lost in a reverie of remembering. Instead of shopping for clothes or looking for a job, I edited our travel blog and jotted random memories in my journal, trying to keep the experiences alive in my mind.
Even worse, five months remained on the lease our tenant had signed. So we moved in with my parents for the interim and continued living out of a glorified suitcase, wearing the same eight outfits we swore we’d burn as soon as we could. We took solace in one another and waited—for jobs, for life to normalize, for our house to be ours again, for Orange County to feel like home once more.
Summer came. Our tenants left and we reclaimed what was ours. It was time to put our lives back together. We retrieved our furniture and keepsakes one by one from those who’d held them while we were gone. We unpacked our possessions, exclaiming like children at Christmas as each forgotten item emerged. But instead of feeling relief or vindication, something still felt off.
One morning, I opened my travel journal and read it front to back. The last entry, dated four days after we’d come home, read: “Maybe this is what always happens after returning from a trip: You get caught up in the daily horrors of now. You forget everything you promised yourself.”
That was it—the root of the “off” feeling. There was a major disconnect between the Spanish-speaking, backpack-toting, Machu Picchu-exploring escapist I was while traveling, and the defeated, passionless woman I’d become since our return. I thought back to all the conversations we’d had about incorporating the simple pleasures we’d experienced into our daily lives. I thought about creativity, patience, wonder, and purpose. Somehow, I had forgotten everything I’d promised myself, and become homeless in the process. Before leaving Colombia for home, I’d compiled two lists: “Writing Goals” and “Getting Back Goals.” They had 22 entries between them, 22 goals I’d yet to fully accomplish.
Where had my mojo gone? How could I get it back?
During the next several months I recommitted myself to my profession, setting aside several hours a day to write, revise, and pitch. Steve and I read books, collaborated on creative projects, played Scrabble instead of watching TV, and cooked cheap-but-delicious meals—habits we’d adopted on our trip. We planted a garden, donated things we didn’t need or use, and rode our bikes to the beach instead of battling traffic on Laguna Canyon Road. I wrote long, detailed letters and sent them to friends across the country. Steve moved his guitar from the bedroom into the living room, where he started playing it every night after dinner.
One evening, after a meal we’d deemed our “hunter-gatherer dinner”—Steve had caught and cleaned the fish; I’d made a salad from our garden—I paused at the wall of framed photos from our trip. I gazed at the exotic locales, our carefree expressions, the countless stories locked within each image. But instead of feeling nostalgic or sad, I just felt grateful.
Finally, after months of wandering elsewhere and in my own country, I was home.
Illustration by Megan Berkheiser and Mike Caldwell.
This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue.