Guest writer Rachel Villaverde shares…
I always wanted to retire before I was 30, and when I was 28… I did.
I was living a very good life. I had a great career, owned a condo and had healthy relationships with my friends and family. But there is a difference between living well and being alive, and I didn’t know this difference until I left the conventional life and went into the wild; the unknown.
There is no instruction book or set of rules on how to start over, but in 2011 I ripped up the only rule book I’d known. I quit my job of five years, walked away from my condo, and bought a bicycle. Yes; a bicycle. It would be my only companion as I began a journey to ride across the United States of America. A journey that changed the course of my life forever.
I grew up in a middle-class home in a suburban town in the desert. I never knew weather, I never knew nature, and I never understood what “survival” really meant. Within the first month of my journey I would be exposed to all of these elements, these lessons. This exposure forced me to develop new life skills. When I stripped myself from all of my worldly comforts, convenience was no longer my King and I crowned patience, compassion, and trust, instead.
Initially I imagined I would bike across America and use the epic experience to shine up my CV to get back into the workforce. But once I had tasted the freedom that comes from owning your choices and facing your fears, I realized this journey was not just a sabbatical from the life I was living – this was the beginning of an entirely new way of life.
There were certainly external factors that helped motivate my decisions. The housing market had crashed, tension with my boss was rising and I was extremely overweight, but in hindsight I think the underlying catalyst for change was a building curiosity around alternative ways of living. I am a thoroughbred contrarian and strongly believe that I have always been wired to question norms and trends in the world around me.
I was living the beginnings of the “American Dream” and thought I was happy, yet I still questioned: “why do I have to work until I am 65 years old to finally do what I’ve always wanted?”. In my heart of hearts, I knew there must be another way. I had finally reached a stage in my life where I felt it was time to turn these questions into action. I would find a way to live the life I had always dreamed of. But… what was my dream? What did I want to do with my life?
For me, retirement did not mean travelling to fancy resorts, fine dining, golfing and taking all-inclusive cruises. No, it meant living completely free, doing what I want, when I want. Doing what I love. I was able to narrow ‘what I love’ to two broad things: travelling and meeting people. My initial desire was to travel overseas. In 2004 I studied abroad at a University in London. This experience opened my eyes to new countries, new cultures and a newfound passion for travel.
So, initially when I thought of retirement, I imagined seeing Europe, Africa, Asia and South America. The USA didn’t appeal to me at all. But I had a looming fear about how exactly I would finance these excursions. With no income, how would I be able to fund my travel? So, to play it safe, I decided to start where I was.
In 2003 when I was in college, I went back to my hometown and ran into a friend from High School. She told me that she had recently bicycled across America. Funnily enough, I remember thinking it was a pretty miserable idea at the time. Ironically, 8-years later, it became apparent to me that jumping on the saddle might be the most economical way to accomplish my goal of travelling and meeting new people. My only expense would be upfront; the bicycle, panniers, a tent, sleeping bag, gear, and perhaps the odd maintenance jobs. The remaining costs would primarily be securing campsites, accommodation and food.
However, even with the concern of money being relatively alleviated, this entire endeavor was such an extreme decision to make. I had not been on a regular exercise program for nearly a decade. I weighed over 260 pounds and I knew nothing about touring bicycles or bicycle maintenance. Additionally, there were things to consider like what route to take and mapping out places to stay. It was all tremendously overwhelming. It was apparent that “retiring” was becoming much more work than I had imagined, and all this planning was causing me to go down rabbit holes of research that were not amounting to any actualized decisions. So, I went back to the drawing board.
Why was I doing this? What did I want to accomplish? Answering these two questions propelled me to make new choices and would become a kind of mantra for me to revisit whenever I doubted my choices. I was doing this because I wanted to get out of the rat race and learn more about the human race. I wanted to rediscover my intuition, I wanted to test my body and sharpen my survival skills. I wanted to face my fears regarding money, my physical and mental abilities, and the world around me. And above all I wanted to know the true meaning of “trust”.
I quickly learned that trust is a muscle. We all have it, but if it’s not exercised it weakens, even deteriorates. If we build on it and practice using it, it strengthens and can become an extremely important asset. It was the greatest skill that I developed on this journey. Trust in myself, trust in others and trust in life. The first step in finding my trust muscle was to let go of planning and controlling my trip and simply going. No itinerary, no more research, just starting and letting the journey unfold day by day, moment by moment. All I knew was I would start my journey in Chinook, Washington, but the finish line remained unmapped until I conquered 88% of the country.
I told family and friends that I would send postcards, but I would not be using my mobile phone (it was 2011 and I didn’t have a smartphone). I wanted to strip myself from as many distractions as I could and lean into the resources around me that life provided. I decided I would use a combination of paper maps and library computers to navigate my route and most importantly, I would talk to people. Everywhere I went, I would talk to locals and ask them what sites were worth seeing and what routes were most scenic.
The journey was not without peril and biking down two lane highways next to semi-trucks served as a constant reminder how quickly life can be taken away. Ironically, there were also times when I felt as though I was very willing to die. In June, there was snow in Wyoming. Are you kidding me? I nearly froze to death and was begging for the slightest rays of sunshine to break dawn and free me from the torture of cold. Nature continued to humble me by revealing its great power in many ways. When I biked through a hailstorm in Nebraska, the hail made it feel as though my skin was being shredded. I remember leaning into the wind as hard as I could, pedaling as hard as I could, and screaming as loud as I could. That was the last storm I ever biked through.
In 65 days, I cycled over 4,000 miles through 14 United States and finished my first cross country bicycle tour in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.
In those two plus months I was met with so much unsuspecting kindness from strangers that it offered me hope in humanity; and I had gained a new love for this massive, beautiful country.
I also learned how extremely resilient the body is and weighed 100 pounds less than when I started.
I started my retirement with nearly $25,000 in a checking/savings account and $33,000 in superannuation funds (IRA/401k). After my first bicycle tour I decided to donate and give away $15,000. I haven’t had a payroll job or used any government assistance since I’ve been retired and live off an average of about $5,000 a year. Nine years later at age 37, I have $4,000 to my name. So, in the laboratory of life, I think the saying “time is money” is a lie. Time is time, and money is money. While we can quantify both time and money, the only one with real value is time, because it is truly priceless.
In 2016, I finished my final bicycle tour and I am very proud to say that I have bicycled all 50 United States. In June 2019, I decided to hang my helmet and give someone else an opportunity to explore themselves and the world around them at the pace of a bicycle. Good gear is not necessary to have an epic journey, all you really need is will and trust – but a tried and true touring bike will certainly help. I gave away my 2011 Surly Long-Haul Trucker to Luiza, a first time solo female cyclist I met on CouchSurfing. I told her that in my dream of dreams this bicycle will ride over 100,000 miles and have hundreds of different riders. She’s since finished her first bicycle tour from Florida to Maine, and shares a similar sentiment.
Retirement has allowed me to visit 16 different countries, walk across Spain via the Camino de Santiago and circumnavigate four Hawaiian Islands by foot; O’ahu, Maui, Moloka’i and Big Island. I spent five months taking care of my beloved Grandmother when she was ill and have spent several months playing ‘Auntie’- being present for the births of multiple nieces and nephews, as well as serving my two sisters during pivotal life stages.
I have hitchhiked thousands of miles across the world, fallen in love at least a dozen times and have met countless wacky and wonderful people I now consider dear friends. I have served and sat several meditation retreats, volunteered at schools and retirement homes, learned the ukulele, managed a farm, written and recorded songs, produced a theatrical performance and most recently started a podcast collective called, Space Court, which explores voyaging into the unknown.
They say it’s a small world, but I don’t believe that. It’s a huge world, it’s just so intrinsically connected.
In 2020, I plan to circumnavigate the remaining two Hawaiian Islands (Lanai and Kauai) and plan to invite money and income back into my life (if anyone has any creative suggestions or ideas – send them my way!). And so, my journey continues with a heart that is full of gratitude and wonder, and I remain a humble servant to the great mystery that is this life.
Retirement is good.
Guest writer Rachel Villaverde first crossed paths with Jema (Half the Clothes’ primary writer) in 2013 in Hawaii. Since then they’ve reunited IRL a handful of times and swapped joys digitally exponentially more.