In 2017, after three years and three promotions as an editor at a women’s lifestyle website, I quit my job to go hiking.
On paper, things were going well: I’d just received a 12% raise and I’d been single-handedly put in charge of one of my company’s biggest initiatives. But the truth was I was unhappy and feeling very stuck in my career. Since my mother’s death two years before, I’d been spending every free moment hiking in the Arizona desert mountains, trying to shake off a sense of personal and professional despondency.
It was July, 10 months before I put in my notice, when I decided I was going to spend the next summer hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
Immediately, I began saving $500/month toward the hike from my paycheck, which left little after paying bills. I did a few side projects for extra money, such as editing for a public speaker. In addition, I sold items I wasn’t using, like an iPad and a DSLR camera. If I’d been single, I would’ve sold my belongings and purchased temporary travel health insurance. This is what many people I hiked with had done. As it was, I’m married. So my husband obviously needed our belongings. And thankfully, he agreed to take on $2,000 in monthly expenses while I was gone. (Trust me: I know how fortunate I am that that was the case.)
This, my final paycheck, and the payout for almost three weeks of vacation time I hadn’t used, meant I left for my trip with about $9,000.
Even though I’d been planning for months, I was incredibly nervous to put in my notice. I wondered if it was bad etiquette to have accepted a raise knowing I was going to be leaving a few months later. Not to mention, I had no idea what I would do when I came back. There were also the softer questions: Should I give more than two weeks notice? Could I tell my co-workers?
Ultimately, knowing layoffs were likely, I gave the company two weeks notice in fear that they might decide to end my employment earlier. To my surprise, my supervisor was surprised but supportive. She asked if I could extend my time to three weeks, I wasn’t able to. Instead, I helped a co-worker who’d been contracting become staff and take over my job.
A week after my last day in the office, I was on the trail. Although I’d been anxious and worried I was making a mistake, that first day hiking left me too exhausted—and too focused on getting to camp—to carry many “real life” fears with me. Instead, there were blisters and sunburn, sleeping and eating, dirt mustaches and body odor. I didn’t think much about working or the “real world” at all.
But when I did find my mind traveling there, it was about how I could incorporate this—this hard but meaningful effort of hiking, this simple and physical experience into a life off-trail. My biggest fear, when I allowed myself to have it, was that I would go home and I would be as equally stuck as I’d been before I’d left. That nothing would’ve changed at all.
My plans, of course, did not go exactly as I had laid them. I planned to hike for nearly six months. I planned to hike from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail. Instead, without a group to hike through the record snow in the Sierra, I switched trails and backpacked the coast of Oregon. I wrestled with the culture of the trail, often more competitive and distant than I’d anticipated. When I reached the California border near Brookings, Oregon, I realized I was done.
After 1,000 miles and almost four months, I came home with $1,000 left. I felt sad that my trip was over, but that I’d left at the right time. With that said, I felt completely overwhelmed by the idea of jumping back into a job. My husband was patient and generous and not too concerned with me immediately finding work. I scanned job boards for marketing and editorial opportunities, but the idea of being in an office again made it hard to breathe.
Hoping I might be able to make a little money writing while I figured out my next step, I reached out to the woman who’d taken over my previous position to let her know I was available for freelance work. Luckily, she was in need of writers and started sending me assignments. Before long, I had a full calendar of freelance writing from a handful of places. I felt, for the first time in a long time, excited about work.
I’ve been fortunate and surprised that three months after I started freelancing, I made my first financial goal of $5000 a month. Four months after I started, I made more than what I’d made as a staff editor. Five months later, I made $1500 more than that. Now, I feel fortunate to be able to say that my challenge is finding the balance between taking on projects and leaving time for myself
What quitting my job to hike taught me was that it’s OK to take risks, even ones that aren’t centered around your career. It also was a great reminder that leaving a job doesn’t mean you’re leaving the friendships and professional relationships you’ve gained there, and that these could be the launching point for whatever you do next.
And also that it’s OK if our jobs are not ladders, and instead more like trail systems, with a dozen ways to climb the mountain. Or to diverge around it entirely.