Giving up the American Dream to Find Joy on the Road

I never planned on being a digital nomad. Giving up my home and most of my material possessions for a life of perpetual travel was not an idea I had seriously considered.

Though my true passions were traveling, writing, and taking photographs, I was much too imprisoned by the American ideals of acquiring wealth and saving for a comfortable retirement to leave my successful but unfulfilling career and hit the road full-time.

Over the years I’d walked away from a series of jobs. Sometimes I grew bored after successfully rescuing a failing business. More often, the unrelenting stress of long hours and incessant politics ground me down until, exhausted and disenchanted, I fled, vowing that I would never again allow myself to be sucked back into the corporate morass. But despite my best intentions, someone would always make me an offer that was too good to refuse and the whole cycle would begin anew.

By the time I turned 50 I had a huge home, the newest SUV, jewelry and nice clothes but these material possessions did nothing to alleviate my feelings of hopelessness. I was like a donut, solid on the outside but empty on the inside. I hated my job; I hated getting up each morning; I hated the endlessness of it all. I knew there had to be more to life, yet I continued to create reasons why I couldn’t pursue a different path: my boss relied on me and I owed him a debt of loyalty, my family wouldn’t approve, I would never find another job that paid so handsomely, and I needed to save money in order to enjoy a comfortable retirement.

As is often the case when we refuse to be true to ourselves, the universe intervened. My health began to decline and I developed a set of symptoms that had doctors suggesting the disease was all in my head. By the time it was correctly diagnosed as late-stage Lyme disease I was severely ill and barely able to go up a flight of stairs. Diagnosis was one thing but the cure was quite another, since I was allergic to almost all the antibiotics normally used in treatment. For six weeks I took the only medicine left to me, suffering severe nausea that had me crawling between the bedroom and bathroom. From my sickbed, I took a good long look at my life and realized that I could die before doing any of the things I’d long dreamed about. I vowed that if I recovered, I would change my life, regardless of the consequences. A year later, even though my house had not sold, I started a travel blog, strapped on a backpack and headed off on a six-month round-the-world trip, determined to pursue a new career as a travel writer and photographer.

This decision did not come without sacrifice. After nearly two years of paying the mortgage on my empty house it finally sold at a loss. I sold or gave away most of my material possessions and moved into a tiny apartment in Florida, using it as a base between trips. When I could no longer make the mortgage payments on another property I owned I turned it over to the bank and they sued me rather than foreclosing, resulting in an 18-month lawsuit. Yet still I persevered, subsidizing the blog for three years with my meagre remaining savings before it finally began to earn enough to pay for my travels.

A year ago I realized that I was traveling so much that it made little sense to keep an apartment so I sold or gave away my remaining furniture and housewares, stored my personal mementos, and became a full-time digital nomad. I now travel ten or 11 months each year, returning to the States occasionally to visit family and friends. Each new journey begins with a general list of countries I would like to visit, but I generally arrive with no reservations or concrete plans and wander wherever the journey leads me.

My primary interest is in learning about other cultures, thus my travels have slowed down considerably from the early days when I scurried through 17 countries in six months. Now I rarely stay anywhere less than two weeks and often stay much longer. Currently I am traveling around Nepal, which has quickly become my favorite country in the world. Despite freezing temperatures, hotels without heat, lack of hot water, and completely unreliable Internet service, my three week stay has turned into three months and I still am not quite sure when I will leave.

Having the freedom to travel in this manner allows me to immerse in local cultures and really get to know the traditions, beliefs, and customs of each country. To my delight I have discovered that people everywhere are more alike than they are different. We all have the same hopes and dreams, sorrows and challenges, and I try to share this message in my writing, with hope that the better we get to know one another, the less likely we will want to kill one another. If my writing convinces even one person that we are all one, that we need not fear one another, then I will have lived my life well.

About the Author

After years of working 70-80 hours per week at jobs that paid the bills but brought no joy, a serious illness made Barbara Weibel realize she felt like the proverbial "hole in the donut" - solid on the outside but empty on the inside. After recovering her health, she walked away from her successful but unfulfilling career, sold or gave away most of her material possessions, donned a backpack and traveled around the world for six months to pursue the only things that had ever made her happy: travel, photography and writing. Four years later she is still on the road, more convinced than ever that we are all more alike than we are different and that travel is one of the most effective tools in the quest for world peace. Read more on her blog Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel.

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3 Comments

  • Dave and Deb said

    I love this story. Barbara is an inspiration to us all. Find what you love in life and you will be fulfilled. All the material possessions in the world can't make a person happy if they are doing something that they despise each day. And I do believe that when a person is overworked and overstressed, illnesses can and will crop up. Bravo for being brave enough to follow your dreams

  • Todd said

    great story Barbara and I love hearing it again and again ;) Definitely proof positive that there is no better time than right not to start doing what makes you happy.

  • Ann said

    Barbara did you help the older women on the right who has a serious hypo thyroid?

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