How I Escaped the Typical American Dream

Man stuck in the typical American Dream, standing with his back to the camera in front of the blur of a subway whizzing by.

I used to wake each morning to the screeching of an evacuation siren blaring from my phone. As soon as I heard the alarm, I’d whack it to hit snooze. Minutes later, the noise would be back.

Slap! I’d hit it again.

This cycle would continue until there was barely enough time to shower before rushing off to work.

My combative relationship with the alarm clock wasn’t due to a lack of sleep. I was simply weary of the same old routine.

I didn’t hate my job, but I didn’t love what I was doing. Every morning I took the train to work only to sit, begrudgingly, in my cubicle all day in a job that allowed for very little creative freedom. When I envisioned my future in five years, I wasn’t excited about what came to mind. Sure, I had a good job, administering scholarships at a prestigious nonprofit, and I lived in a gorgeous apartment in Chicago with two of my best friends, but at 24, I knew my life could be so much more.

So I turned in my notice and set off down the road less taken, which for me was quite literal: I wanted to travel.

The biggest obstacles to seeing the world are a lack of funds and societal expectations. Traveling is expensive and, once you launch your career, quitting your job to travel may seem to others as a huge step backward.

In order to overcome both, I found a way to afford it by taking a job drastically different than the one I had before (which also paid well enough so I could eventually travel the world). I went to the oil fields in North Dakota to work for an energy services company.

Within a week of heading down my new path, I almost stopped and turned back. While on site, a spark ignited a large amount of natural gas. Three men I’d been working beside were hospitalized for severe burns to their hands and faces.

I called my dad to tell him what happened and explained that I wanted to stay even though I was scared. I had made a commitment to myself that I intended to keep — plus I didn’t want to go back to my old life. He supported my decision.

For a while I was anxious at work. Every time I heard a loud noise, my heart sped up. The only time I could relax was when I went “home” from work. (“Home” was a hotel or a trailer, as we changed work sites every few weeks.)

For seven months I worked 14 hours a day, for month-long stretches. I came home dirty each evening with little energy left to shower or cook. The summer was too hot and the winter was so cold that it threatened frostbite — but it was worth it. The company paid for housing since we moved around a lot and offered a per diem for meals, so almost all of the money I made went toward savings.

Once my bank account was large enough, I booked a ticket to my dream destination of New Zealand. The country has every type of scenery — from picturesque mountains to lush green forests to deep blue lakes to active volcanos. It’s also about as far as I could get away from home, so I would be completely on my own — which added to the adventure.

An aerial shot of Queenstown, New Zealand with snowcapped mountains in the background.

With almost no plan, I took off alone. After three flights, I landed in Christchurch, the largest city on the sparsely populated South Island of New Zealand.

I figured finding cheap accommodations would be easy. I was wrong.

Every hotel, motel, and hostel in town was booked. I walked around for hours, pleading with hotel managers and making phone calls to hostels. I had packed a tent — was I actually going to have to use it on my first night?

After almost four hours of searching, I found a place to stay. It was a double room, meant for two people, at a YMCA hostel. It cost six times more than a traditional bed, but it was better than sleeping on the street.

The chaos of my first day would be a precursor for the rest of my trip, yet I loved every second of it. With every mistake I made, I discovered more and more about myself. Because of this, I decided to extend my trip to 10 months. I never quite knew what I was doing, but I learned quickly that I was resilient enough to stay on my feet. This came in handy, because I constantly fell.

With no construction experience, I was still able to quickly find work hanging drywall and mudding houses in suburban Queenstown. Since it was a small and growing company, I was often given more responsibility and autonomy than I ever would have expected. I mean, I hadn’t used the metric system since I was 10!

But I got through it all: the occasional 6:30 a.m. hitchhike to work, the Hungarian supervisor who had little patience for me, and the countless number of times I measured something incorrectly, broke a tool, or had no general idea what I was doing. Somehow I still got paid and, every once in a while, earned a “job well done” nod.

The downside is that I came to New Zealand alone, and while it’s great to have time to yourself, being alone can be, well, lonely.

There were nights I would go out without a friend. I would stay in a hostel room without any other English speakers. Then I would move on to a new city realizing that, yet again, I would be in another place where I would know no one. But without these moments, I wouldn’t have been able to fully appreciate the friends I did make, some of whom I still talk to today.

Surprisingly, the hardest part about living abroad was leaving it. I met interesting people and made great friends while traveling. I fell in love with the mountains in Queenstown and, at one point, thought about never leaving. But the pull to go home was strong.

When I arrived back in the US, I wasn’t the same. Instead of battling my alarm clock each morning, I was excited about the challenges ahead.

I intended to remain home for six months while I got my writing career off the ground, and then return to traveling. But I met the woman I now call my wife, and together we’re committed to living exciting lives.

My time in New Zealand was more than an amazing travel experience — it gave my life direction. I see that there can be more to life than just striving for the typical American dream, and I learned it’s okay to not share that dream. I rediscovered my passion for writing, which I’m making into a career.

I now know that I can handle anything: from flash fires in the oil fields to the fear of being homeless in a foreign land to all of the other uncomfortable predicaments I found myself in while living 8,000 miles from home.

And I don’t hit snooze anymore, because I can’t wait to see what the day ahead holds. I’m ready for it.

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