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I was pulled over at a rest area in Arizona last spring, sweaty and annoyed as I pawed through my car-camping bin. I was trying to make coffee during the final stretch of a road trip when I realized my propane canister was empty. Again.
My phone pinged with a text as I tossed the empty bottle into the bin. It was my younger sister, telling me she had run into my childhood best friend back in our hometown. They both had children around the same age, and had exchanged phone numbers—a full-circle moment that began decades earlier as kids, my sister hovering nearby, hoping for an invitation to the pool or to be included in our games. Now, the two of them had connected over a shared life, and I was eating stale pretzels next to a pit toilet thousands of miles away.
I rarely doubt the path I’ve chosen—no boss, no kids, very few commitments—but something about pulling trash from between my truck seats at a dusty boat launch while my younger sister and my childhood friend bonded over the shared experience of motherhood felt isolating. I’m 35, I thought. What the hell am I doing?
I assumed my post-college national park jobs were a brief foray into non-traditional work before I began an illustrious professional career. Instead, I became engrossed in the seasonal world, following one national park job to the next, then worked a series of service jobs that allowed me to skip town whenever I wanted. I latched onto the ability to leave at a moment’s notice and tackle a six-month thru-hike or road trip with no plans and no one telling me when I had to return.
If you’re reading this piece, chances are you see the good in my lifestyle, and maybe even consider it preferable to more standard directions. After all, that’s the audience I write for, and I’m not here to argue for or against. But just because this is the life I chose, it doesn’t mean I don’t have moments where I wonder if I should have sought out something in the middle instead. Will I regret not making more money, starting a family?
Amelia Boone wrote a poignant essay for Outside about running out of time to decide on children, how choosing to go all-in on an athletic or outdoor lifestyle can eliminate the option of starting a family. Her essay spread through my community, igniting conversations that showed many of us felt the same way, even if we’d never discussed it. Questioning what we sacrifice to live a relatively unstructured existence is almost taboo: we’re supposed to be iron-clad in our resolve about nontraditional, child-free paths.
It’s absolutely possible for people to feel like they have both, satisfied by combining elements of adventure and spontaneity with the benefits of a stable career and family. But this isn’t true across the board, and with how fiercely I guard and prioritize my freedom, a middle ground was never an option. I don’t think it’s always possible to “have it all.”
If I’d attempted to do both—held down a stable job with three weeks of PTO a year, or became a parent who took her kids backpacking—I’d do neither well or to my own satisfaction. The loss of my freedom would always ring louder than a dependable salary and family.
I know how desirable my life looks to some people, and I worry that writing about this internal conflict makes me seem ungrateful. I truly am happy with where I ended up, and no amount of looking through the window at other lifestyles will change that. But there’s a false notion that people living even a moderately nontraditional life have some enlightenment that allows us to jump off the stability wagon without complication. It’s important to remember that no lifestyle comes without some sort of sacrifice, no matter how cool it looks in photos.
I don’t regret the life I have, the flexibility of my career. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a pang of loneliness watching a traditional life become increasingly unattainable. The door is closing on the stable, family-centered existence my siblings and childhood companions chose. Were I to start at the beginning, I’d be more than a decade behind.
Sometimes I wonder what it would look like if I’d joined my original Yellowstone coworkers who decided those few months of national park work were enough, and they’d rather have a stable job and comfortable, predictable existence. I can’t imagine how robust their employer-matched 401k is now.
I couldn’t have imagined that my original horseback guiding job would lead to deeper outdoor exploration, a six-month thru-hike, a writing internship, a sustainable freelance career. That I’d become accustomed to (spoiled by?) the ability to travel on a moment’s notice and work from anywhere. That I would forsake a stable income for the ability to collect experiences like talismans to put on the shelf of my life that say I was here. I did this. And this. And this.
If we’re lucky, we have the freedom to make the best choices for ourselves, and we can’t predict where they will ultimately lead. I believe the artifacts of my adventure-filled life will be enough, and I’ll accept the choices I didn’t make while continuing to find peace and fulfillment in my experiences. Maybe you’re in the same boat, or maybe you’re one of those people who can find the balance necessary to have it all.
I sent my sister back a message saying, truthfully, how happy I was that she had connected with my friend. I told her to send pictures, and I genuinely looked forward to receiving them. Then, as my phone pinged again, I kept driving.