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Nearly one year ago, I walked into a tiny, Portuguese restaurant in Manhattan’s Chinatown — one of my favorite neighborhoods in my favorite city, and one that always makes me think and dream — and plopped down at the bar.
As I sipped a glass of wine, I looked through the window, out onto the dark, bustling streets, and my heart hurt. Minneapolis, my adopted home of eight years, had been great to me, as had the Star Tribune, from which I was taking a short break to wander New York and see old friends.
But change, I knew, was long overdue.
So over a plate of prawns and white beans, I quietly hatched a plan. I was going to flip it all upside down.
The year that followed was the longest, shortest, hardest, most stressful, emotional, fulfilling and freeing of my life, and now as I look back on 2018, I can hardly believe it all happened.
Shortly after my silent promise to myself in a tiny New York bar, I began making plans.
In April, I announced I was leaving my job as a food and travel writer (to, um, travel full-time and try to pay my bills), to the shock of most of my co-workers and bosses, and began the long task of selling almost everything I owned. I got shots. And travel insurance. I built a website. I started a Patreon page. I found freelance work. I found a new tax accountant. I found new travel gear and tech equipment. A website sponsor found me. I learned how to pack for indefinitely.
One week before leaving my job to set off on a life-changing journey, Anthony Bourdain — a role model and the man who in many ways inspired the urge — passed away, and the timing of the news almost sent me crashing.
But the next Friday, June 15, I walked out of the Star Tribune, and a few days later, out of my cozy Fulton house and into the unknown, anyway.
I was in for a rude awakening — and a handful of panic attacks. Even as I believed this would be fine, and smooth-ish, my body instinctively knew otherwise.
Feeling like an untethered astronaut floating through space without a home, reliable income, a physical support network or a definitive plan, I dealt with the worst depression and anxiety of my life early on, catching me entirely off guard. On the coast of Oaxaca, Mexico, I sat by the ocean with my laptop, sobbing from beneath my sunglasses and telling my mother, “it’s too much.”
As it turned out, leaving everything you know while simultaneously trying to start a business and stay afloat was a bit stressful.
But step-by-step, I got through that first month. I kept walking, and taking busses, and moving forward.
I discovered I need to travel slowly. I found I crave routine. I learned, somewhat, to accept the daily struggles rather than battle them.
As I did, I witnessed some of the most incredible sights of my life. I wandered through markets. I swam in lakes. I fell in love with Mexico first, then Guatemala, then Belize. I met new acquaintances and left feeling as though we were old friends. I felt the highest highs, the lowest lows, the deepest satisfaction.
Thought the journey, I gained indelible perspective — seeing up close the poverty and water sanitation crises we hear so often about, experiencing the effects of climate change in the form of severe drought, and hearing, from the other side of the border, the perspectives of Central Americans about the Caravana Migrante as they walked.
I learned to see life and money differently. I learned new skills — adding videography, and later, retail to my resume. I learned to be a new person, in many respects.
But from far away, I held on to my identity in the States, too.
In Panajachel, I watched with the rest of my fellow U.S. citizens as Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed. I mourned the news of the Pittsburgh Synagogue massacre from Cobán. From there, too, I watched my Boston Red Sox take their fourth World Series title in 15 years, on the only TV I’d yet had access to on my travels, a gaggle of Gallo beers at my side.
In November, after news that my absentee ballot had been botched, I made a last-minute trip back to my home state of North Carolina to vote, and from my family’s couch watched as the most racially diverse and most female group of representatives in history was elected to the House.
In December, after a month in Belize, I returned to the States to spend the holidays in Pittsburgh, to continue plans to grow with sophisticated things like social media strategist and SEO specialist hirings, and business cards, and to reflect on this wild year full of superlatives.
It seems like a decade ago that a restless and frustrated girl plopped down at a Chinatown bar, ordered a plate of shrimp and made plans to blow everything up.
She was reckless and crazy; she was idealistic and naive.
She had no idea what lay ahead; she still doesn’t.
Looking back, I think she had good instincts.