My boyfriend and I quit our jobs for a 1982 Volkswagen camper van with a pop-up roof. No one quits without a reason. Maybe you’re more engaged picking blueberry muffin crumbs from between the keys of your keyboard than doing your actual job. Maybe your boss makes you feel like a eunuch. Everyone has their reasons, and ours was the van.
We would come home from work and cradle takeout containers on our laps, the red glare of Netflix on our faces.
“So where do you want to go?” Dan would ask, his laptop open to Google Maps, zoomed out all the way.
“Everywhere.” Google image search: Banff. Street view: Istanbul. Kayak flight explorer: Reykjavik.
The routine was a coping mechanism, a daydream resisting materialization. Dan worked at an Internet company from which top executives were fleeing. I worked in city government where the red tape was starting to chafe at my spirit. We were more fortunate than the vast majority of souls on the planet, but our dissatisfactions are relative to our station in life. If the secret to happiness is lower expectations, we weren’t buying it.
Dan parked the van on our Brooklyn street, and we stared out the window at her awkward rectangularity. Sandwiched between Civics and Passats, she invited passersby to a game of One of These Things Is Not Like the Others. She was the instrument to carry out the daydream, and we were compelled to use her. She didn’t come equipped with bunk beds and a kitchenette so we could take her for a pleasant jaunt up the Hudson Valley. We would take a couple of months and make a big, wiggly oval around the U.S. and Canada. And if we were going to travel around North America, we figured we’d throw in Southeast Asia, for variety’s sake. We were past the point of no return. We were going to quit.
In the movies, people quit with gusto. They clear the contents of their desks onto the floor in a single, sweeping motion. They stand on tables like prophets, make seething proclamations. For Dan and me, quitting was a symphony with movements. Not a single act of delirious exasperation, but a series of crescendos, diminuendos, and interludes. And their compositions were as different as their composers.
Dan lay face-up on the pavement. His feet stuck out from underneath the van, Wicked-Witch-of-the-West-style. I could see one square inch of his grease-stained face through a hole in the engine seal he was trying to patch. He had no experience tinkering with cars, but each time he got his hands greasy, the boost to his manhood lasted for two, maybe three days.
“Can you shine the flashlight where my hand is?” he asked. I obeyed. “I just can’t seem to get the seal snug in here.”
Dan’s foray into mechanics was a physical manifestation of the tinkering going on in his brain. His quitting required a blueprint, an inventory of parts to be assembled with care: the transition of projects; the appropriate timing for notifying colleagues. His was a logistical exercise which, if executed correctly, would allow him to turn the ignition on D-Day and coast out of the office without stalling.
While he plotted, I agonized. What stood between me and quitting was not logistics, but courage. For reasons that would require years of psychoanalysis to excavate, there was nothing worse in my mind than letting people down. My quitting would let down my boss. I had committed to staying a year, and I’d be leaving a few weeks shy. My quitting would let down my already overburdened colleagues, among whom my unfinished work would be distributed. Somehow the harder I focused on this worldview, the more I ignored the one person I was letting down by staying (hint: it was me).
If you’re beginning to gather that Dan’s path was one of reason and mine was characterized by emotion, it is with the fear of reinforcing gender stereotypes that I validate this hunch. But I beg you not to go down that path. There were several reasons for our uneven reliance on the head and the heart. First was experience. Where I was a newbie, he was a seasoned professional at picking up and leaving. He quit his job in Nashville to move to New York during the recession with no job lined up, abandoning anything that didn’t fit in his electric blue Jetta. Second was uncertainty. Where I planned to leave my government career and embark on the perhaps ill-advised path of trying to write for money, he planned to return to the same job function in the same industry. The last was that any major decision I made at the time was processed through the hazy filter of grief, my mother’s death barely one year old.
So we both went to work each day, in his words, “like a jack-in-the-box a few months away from popping out.” For him it was excitement that resided in those coils as they readied themselves to spring. For me, it was nausea.
A lot of people want to drop everything to travel the world, and many of our friends and colleagues expressed envy when we clued them into our plans.
“I’d do it if I had the money,” some would say.
I understood this reaction because I cycled through the same excuse myself. Pinning the fear on finances was a convenient way to obscure the deeper insecurities that came with abandoning my path of stability.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t been saving. My first week in New York back in 2007, I had walked down to the Bank of America on Second Avenue and Fourth Street and opened a savings account that required an automatic monthly transfer of $250 from my checking account. Over the next six years, I watched it grow like some slow-moving magic trick. I didn’t know what exactly I was saving for until the quitting became a reality. Dan was better compensated than me thanks to his private sector paychecks. His saving strategy was simply to live below his means.
For two or three months, our budget spreadsheet was the one tab we never closed. We hashed out a budget for our North America trip: lodging, food, gas, entertainment, camping gear, insurance, incidentals. We averaged out campsites versus AirBnB versus motels, meals cooked over the Coleman stove versus diner fare. For Southeast Asia, we simply allotted a daily amount based on a near academic analysis of the travel blogosphere.
Finally, we knew we had to budget for our jobless return to New York. When you have a steady income, it’s easy to forget the astronomical nature of the basics alone in a city where a box of cereal is nearing six dollars. To avoid living like shut-ins, we’d have to factor in the occasional cappuccino or glass of beer. The numbers on that spreadsheet were enough to make me question the whole endeavor. But it came down to a question of money versus experiences in the bank, a burgeoning savings account versus a depleted lust for life.
It took me three tries. On a Thursday at 5:30, I rose from my swivel chair to walk the seven long steps to my boss’s office. Before I could take one step, she appeared in the doorway to say good night, a train to catch to see her toddler before bedtime. Thursday night lasted for days.
On Friday I waited, rehearsing my speech incessantly, staring at my monitor, but not looking at whatever was on it. And she never made it in that day. Saturday and Sunday were two of those impossibly beautiful June days, when it is not yet hot and the flower petals falling from the trees look like snow. I passed the weekend a ball of anxiety on the couch.
Monday, 3:30 in the afternoon, the first open block in her calendar. I took the seven steps. “Do you have a few minutes?” I knew that she knew before I even sat down. Red-faced and sweaty, I blurted it out. She was disappointed, but not all that surprised. She had known it would happen, it was just a matter of when. I gave 10 weeks notice to allow ample time to find my replacement. The government hiring process moves at the speed of a snail riding on the back of a turtle in rush-hour traffic. She accepted every last second.
I kept quiet, because Dan wouldn’t quit for eight more weeks. His day came with little fanfare, no loss of sleep. He set up a meeting, said “It’s time for me to move on,” and it was done. No need for explanation, no cause for emotion. He offered the typical two weeks but was asked to stay only as long as it took to write a transition plan.
Our only shared emotion was relief. For me, it was laced with the triumph of choosing my own happiness over the fear of disappointing others. For him, the exhale came from letting the secret out, the final crank of the jack-in-the-box. For both of us, we could finally focus on what lay ahead.
What lay ahead was South Dakota. And what the eastern part of the state lacks in scenery, it makes up for in space for reflection. It’s impossible to look at that much corn without starting to think deep thoughts. We listened to a tinny old recording of John Fahey. If there’s any music that more aptly captures the cadence of a tractor gliding across an endless cornfield, I haven’t heard it. Some 1,400 miles before, as we prayed the van would refrain from breaking down on the Brooklyn Bridge, I had kept quiet my hope that this trip might bring an epiphany. That space away from the daily grind would translate to clarity and certitude for an almost-30-year-old with no clear path. I gazed out the window at all that corn, and I thought maybe if I stared long enough, like you would a Magic Eye puzzle, that epiphany might emerge from the repeating rows of yellow-green.
I imagined these revelations as external to me, not unlike some religious experience, where a stroke of brilliance would befall me from some invisible place between atoms. And I waited for them, in a Montana ghost town at the top of a road so steep we had to drive 10 miles per hour. In the sparse, white room of a Buddhist temple overlooking the Mekong River in Laos. I beckoned them, like a pre-teen with a Ouija board. But they didn’t answer. An old colleague emailed to ask how the trip was going. “Well, I haven’t had that epiphany yet.” My tone was playful, an attempt to mask my disappointment.
Dan, meanwhile, erected a shield to keep out intrusions from the past and future alike. He was interested only in The Now. He received weekly emails from old colleagues and bosses, asking when he’d be back to discuss the new companies they’d joined. I envied the security these emails offered. But he wasn’t ready for work to creep into his psyche, and he actively deflected it. “I quit to have an experience that would bring me back to me,” he said. All that extra noise was just distracting.
On our first day back in Brooklyn, a Thursday in January, we sat at our local southern joint, the smell of fried chicken clinging to the wool of our sweaters. Dan sank into his seat, a half-smile across his now-bearded face as he breathed in our beloved borough. I sat up straight, the opposite of my usual slouch, my thoughts loud enough for him to hear: Already spending money I don’t have. Savings account moving in one direction, and not the good one. Forsaking stability for a life of uncertainty.
“Can’t you allow yourself a few days to settle in before you go full steam ahead?” he asked. “It’ll be good for you.”
“Yes,” I said. “I’ll try.” No, I thought, I won’t.
It wasn’t just my anxiety that rejected the idea of idleness, even the forgivable idleness of catching my breath. It was the energy that comes with starting something new. The travel had bridged the gap between the career I didn’t want anymore and the one I wanted now. My new routine would involve playing a near-constant game of whack-a-mole with my doubts, but with my new influx of energy I could out-whack even the best of them at Chuck E. Cheese.
Our travels behind us, Dan began accepting those invites to discuss new opportunities over coffee. He sought to match, in his return to work, the excitement that travel afforded. If there was a job that could match the adrenaline rush of river hiking in a slot canyon with a strong probability of flash flooding, it was the job for him. It’s a high standard, perhaps impossibly high, but he couldn’t go back to the way it was before.
For Dan, the quitting was a means to an end. He had to quit so he could travel, and travel so he could return to himself. I didn’t know it at the time, but for me, the quitting was the thing itself. Nothing I experienced while traveling—not the temples of Angkor Wat or the red rocks of Arizona—inspired me like the freedom of leaving. I couldn’t resign myself to just any job now; to throw away my hard-won blank canvas without even a drop of paint would be to waste the courage that went into it. A re-entry suggests a return to someplace you’ve been before. But neither of us could go back. The intention was never to go back.
When I lamented to my colleague that I hadn’t had that epiphany, he responded that he believes epiphany to be something of a myth. The wisdom we mistake for epiphany is the product of a prolonged mental process. It is a trick of the human memory, which confuses for a momentary flash of genius the insights gathered while staring at corn and big golden Buddhas. If this is true, I can let go of the disappointment that I returned from my time away without a single epiphany to recount. Turns out, it was happening all along.
Eliza Berman lives in Brooklyn, but she still has a soft spot for South Dakota. She tweets sometimes.
Photo: Beverly Goodwin