Breaking Free: (Finally) Making Travel a Priority

How to Pack for a Day Hike: Essential Items & Checklist
Hiking Sedona: Climbing Cathedral Rock Trail

Breaking Free- (Finally) Making Travel a

I’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting lately. As a result, I want to deviate from my usual location or activity review. Instead, I want to talk about why I’m here in the first place.

I’ve been going back and forth about whether I should let this post go live or not. Finally, I decided to hell with it. You, as our readers, deserve to know who I am and how I got to where I am. Our stories are important, and you have every right to know mine. You deserve to understand why I’m passionate about not just traveling, but sharing my travels with others.

So, here goes.

Where I’ve Been

The other night, I watched a documentary film that was made about my hometown of Mentor, Ohio.

It doesn’t cast a good light on the town I grew up in, something I have mixed feelings about. But I believe tragedies should be talked about, not pushed under a rug and ignored — even if it makes the place I was raised look sinister.

The documentary got me thinking about my own experiences growing up. I realized that, while I lived in the same place for 18 years, I spent most of my early life trying to push myself elsewhere, whether it was applying to schools in Hawaii and Florida (I didn’t go) or packing up and moving to Texas for a job.

I don’t think I was trying to run away, but I think part of me realized there was more to the world than what I saw every day. I was trying to expand my horizons and extend my experiences.

Growing up in a white-washed world

Mentor, Ohio has never been known for its visible diversity.

With a population that was 98% white, there was never much room for cultural exposure. The one exception to this was with the refugee population that sprung up in the 1990s — a sudden influx of Croatians, Bosnians, and Serbians, all escaping the war in their homeland.

Beyond that small deviation from the norm, the majority of my peers were all part of the same homogeneous bubble.

Which is a nice way of saying that there were a lot of blondes (myself included).

What do you mean you cant tell us apart!? Sigh. Im in the purple.
What do you mean you can’t tell us apart!? Sigh. I’m in the purple.

And, yes, there was bullying. Despite all of the sameness around us, divisions were made and lines were drawn.

I was quiet, socially uncertain, and my nose was perpetually in a book. This firmly placed me out of the race for popularity (not that I really ever had any interest to begin with). I had a solid group of friends, all of varying degrees of nerdy, and we all fought our own battles with bullies. We endured spitballs and thrown textbooks. We were tripped in the halls and called vulgar names, both to our faces and behind our backs.

Often times, going to school felt like going to war.

It wasn’t all bad, of course. I also have some fantastic memories of slumber parties and movie nights, melonhead hunting (don’t ask, it’s an Ohio thing) and roleplaying (yes, I’m that kind of nerd). In my desperation to escape, my friends and my family were my salvation.

My parents have always valued experiences that pulled my brothers and I beyond our comfort zone. From an early age we traveled around the U.S. in our RV, and we saw everything from the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C. to the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. We all loved to travel, and my parents sought to nurture that love as often as they could.

My family and I at Yellowstone National Park in 2000.
My family and I at Yellowstone in 2000.

My friends shared in my love for travel, and when I wasn’t going with my family, I would tag along with them. We went to Key West and New York City and Put-in-Bay and Shenandoah. We went on cruises in the Caribbean and road trips to Indianapolis.

I was lucky — I had the money and the means to travel, and the people I surrounded myself with loved it too. I was able to find little pieces of freedom in the midst of my most awkward years.

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My high school friends and I in Central Park, NYC in 2004 (I’m in the stripes).

When I couldn’t escape through travel, I escaped through the computer.

I first logged on in 1997, when I was eleven years old, searching for a website about my favorite book series, Animorphs. Once I discovered chat rooms, I was hooked.

For hours upon hours I would stare at the screen, meeting people who lived other lives in other places, sharing our commonalities and learning about our differences. It was my first indication that the world beyond my home wasn’t just a series of tourist attractions and pretty landscapes, but that there were people out there whose day-to-day life was fundamentally different from my own.

Seventh grade Jessi! I pretty much lived at that desk.
Seventh grade Jessi! I pretty much lived at that desk.

Expanding the bubble

As a senior in high school, I had the opportunity to participate in Senior Project. It was a program where, for the last three weeks of school, seniors could shadow someone in their workplace. Many students went back to their old elementary schools, or to local shops. My friend Alana and I decided to extend our reach a little further, and we flew ourselves to Washington D.C., where we volunteered at the Tahirih Justice Center.

Somehow this is the only picture I have from that experience. There were a lot of cicadas.
Somehow this is the only picture I have from that experience. There were a lot of cicadas.

Suddenly, we found ourselves more or less alone in a city that was full of cultural diversity. We learned to navigate the public transportation, and marveled at how different it was.

The Tahirih Justice Center was a non-profit organization that focused on protecting immigrant women seeking refugee status in the United States. Specifically, they tackled issues of gender discrimination and gender-related violence (such as female genital mutilation). The work we did was primarily administrative, but it showed me an entirely different world from the one I had grown up in. We researched countries all over the world, studying the cultures and traditions, as well as the prejudices and wars.

By the end of the experience I had renewed gratitude for the safety I was granted growing up, but also a sense of incompletion. I realized that while I had learned a lot, there was still so much about the world I did not know.

Switching roles

Years later, when I graduated from college with a degree in English and no clear direction, I turned to the only practical solution: teaching. I packed my few possessions into my little two-door Toyota Echo and my mom’s minivan, and we drove down to Houston, Texas, where I would spend the next five years teaching eleventh graders.

Before my first day as a teacher. My classroom was never this clean again.
Before my first day as a teacher. My classroom was never this clean again.

It was another experience that forced me to re-evaluate how I thought about the world. The school was so different from where I had graduated. Many of my students were immigrants, or the sons and daughters of immigrants. Others were homeless, and still others were caught up in gangs and legal troubles. Many were already parents.

There were familiar undercurrents as well. Athletes, band geeks, theater nerds – all of the familiar tropes I had experienced in my own high school, with the added cultural flavors that come with a school that was equal parts African-American and Hispanic, with just a dash of Caucasian and Asian.

Despite the diversity, one of the most shocking realizations in my tenure as a teacher was how sheltered some of my students were. Most never had the means to travel, and while their bubbles didn’t look like mine had, they were bubbles just the same. I did what I could to widen their view of the world, sharing my own experiences and encouraging them to share with one another.

I didn’t leave Texas much while I taught.

Instead, I discovered that, while my childhood and adolescence had been filled with travel, it was harder to make it happen when I had to make the plans myself.

Living on my own income, faced with student loan debt, travel suddenly seemed unattainable. The type of trips I experienced growing up, and the ones I wanted to make a part of my life moving forward, were suddenly out of reach. I didn’t know where to begin, and it was easier to just ignore the pull of wanderlust than to overwhelm myself with the process.

Still, my time in the classroom only further cemented my belief that to truly understand the world, you have to go out and experience as much of it as possible.

Where I Am

I left teaching in 2012 and turned to informal education, working within the education department at a museum in Houston. It was an awesome opportunity, and through it I’ve had the chance to learn about science and history and culture in a depth and variety I never expected.

And, finally, I began to make true travel a reality. A lingering passion my entire life, my own debt had scared me away from pursuing it. I had refused to make travel a priority, thinking it impossible to embrace travel while paying down my student loans. But, first through camping trips with Marie from Ardent Camper, and then through longer trips to Europe with Tara, I began to realize that experiencing the world was more attainable than I ever thought possible.

Up until that point I had been sitting back and letting the world dictate what experiences I had. I was talking the talk, I realized, but I was not walking the walk. While teaching, I had done everything I could to impress the importance of travel and experience upon my students, and yet I was staying home, staring longingly at images of places that were still mere fantasy.

No more.

Tara and I in the Frankfurt airport.
Tara and I in the Frankfurt airport – ready to make our dreams a reality.

I was determined to see the world, to expand and widen my own bubble until it no longer existed, or until it enveloped the entire globe. I sat down, made a spreadsheet of my finances, set up a savings account specifically for building a travel fund, and began to research the world of travel hacking. I learned how to leverage frequent flier miles to my advantage, and how to save money by traveling slow and turning to campgrounds, hostels, and apartment rentals instead of hotels.

Since making travel a priority, I’ve seen and learned about places I’ve always dreamed about, and places I didn’t even know existed.

Lake Bled, Slovenia
Lake Bled, Slovenia

A platform for sharing

Ever the teacher, it has never been enough for me to simply widen my own experiences.

When I sit in a restaurant that, twenty years prior, was in the middle of a war zone, that is something that I want to share.

When I step outside my lodge and look up to see the most spectacular blanket of stars I’ve ever experienced, I want others to feel the sense of awe that stirs in my stomach.

I want my own wanderlust to empower others to seek out their dreams and passions.

Enter Outbound Adventurer, a blank canvas through which I can share my experiences and enter into a genuine dialogue with others who want to expand their worldview. Teaming up with Tara, together we have met some amazing travelers, and we have worked hard to make sharing learning experiences a priority. In just one short year, this blog has become not just a record of our travels, but a tool that allows us to convey our passions and lessons far beyond the classroom.

Where I’m Going

Next week I turn 29, and while I’m not really a bucket list sort of person, I am a goal oriented person. Every morning I sit down and make a to-do list for the day, and diligently work to check each item off. With only one year left in my 20s, there are a few things I definitely want to cross off by this time next year.

I want to find true independence: freedom from possessions, freedom from financial burdens, freedom from preconceived expectations that hold me back from experiencing the world.

I want to maintain balance between my workaholic nature and my passion for exploration.

I want to continue making travel a priority, and to continue exposing myself to new situations, even if they are outside my comfort zone.

I want this blog to remain a place for expression and growth, where I can share my experiences and connect with others who are undergoing their own journeys. Part of that includes expanding what I write about to include my own blogging and entrepreneurial successes, failures, and lessons.

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Already, there are exciting plans for the months ahead.

Tara and I will be exploring the beaches of Florida and the glaciers of Iceland. We’ll be attending our first travel conference in Boston, WITS 2015, and we have plans to continue expanding the blog. We’re slowly but surely paring down on our belongings, removing the clutter from our lives and preparing for whatever the future may hold.

It’s going to be a wild journey, and I can’t wait.

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Thanks for sticking with me this long. Feel free to drop a comment and tell me how travel came to be a priority in your life. I love reading your stories!

Until next time, sve vas volim.

I love you all.

How to Pack for a Day Hike: Essential Items & Checklist
Hiking Sedona: Climbing Cathedral Rock Trail
  • Thank you so much for sharing your story with us! It isn’t easy being public about personal things like this, but I’m glad you did 🙂 All the best for your future travels and your future in general!! 🙂

  • Gemma

    What a wonderful story! I love the photo of you at the desk with the computer, ha. Your choice for your senior project was really interesting. Thanks for sharing! Looking forward to following your adventures 🙂

  • Great story and good on you for going after your dreams!!

  • Love ya and proud of you, Jessi. Free spirits deserve to be free, so congratulations on forward progress. Can’t wait to see what your future holds.

    • Thanks guys! I love following your adventures. You two are a constant inspiration for me. 🙂