If we’re friends on Facebook or you follow me on Instagram, you know that, after an incredible year living and studying in New Zealand — one of the most adventurous, beautiful countries on the planet — I did not settle right into the working life of most young adults.
Since I returned to the States in the middle of the school year and needed to jump through a lot of bureaucratic hoops to be certified to teach in South Carolina, I devoted the spring to re-grounding myself in American culture (I love this country more than ever), spending time with dearly missed family and friends, obtaining my teacher licensure, and finding a job before August. I realized any leftover time was an opportune window of, as Mariah has coined, funemployment. For the last two months, I have continued to travel and enjoy some of nature’s most precious gems — first hiking among the towering glacial mountains and gale-force winds of Patagonia, then on to swimming in Havasupai’s crystal blue waters and camping in Joshua Tree’s dinosaur rock desert.
Instead of the normal early-morning cup o’ Joe, I’ve gotten my caffeine kick in camping bowls via Starbucks Instant Via packs or sipping cappuccinos in coffee shops just for a quick wifi checkin. Rather than a 9-5 rush hour commute, I’ve bee-bopped from grueling 2-day plane flights to charter bus rides across country borders to spontaneous hitchhikes. Balanced, home-cooked dinners, have been replaced with tuna wraps and dehydrated Mountain House Meals. Along the way, I have posted pictures of these places, attempting to record and share some of the memorable, transformative moments I have experienced so far.
But even a week into Patagonia, if I were you and I saw yet another picture of a care-free, smiley Jessica on top of another ridiculous mountain as I scroll through my friends’ most recent Insta posts, two thoughts would cross my mind
1). HOW is she affording this?
2). I’m jealous
Both of which are completely valid and justified responses. I am an unemployed 24 year-old, and — I don’t deny it — my life IS really, really awesome right now. When I returned back home from Patagonia for a hot second in early March, though, I had enough people joke about vicariously traveling through me (“No, but really”) that I started to be more conscious of the way I portray myself on social media, and the effect that can have as people often inevitably play the “my life is so dull” comparison game.
Money & Budget Backpacking
Money is such a taboo, touchy topic that people (often rightfully so) skittishly dance around, especially when talking with others about their money. But most everything in life has expenses, Venmo and bank transfers and checkouts happen millions of times a day; everyone has to learn how to prioritize and spend or give their money as they see fit. So, more than justifying myself, I want to acknowledge that I know I’m lucky, and I know that for a lot of people, it’s not possible to travel long-term. By the same token, if you are interested in budget backpacking, I’ve done it enough now to share a few tips. As straightforward as I can, I want to disclose my financial circumstances and backpacking practices so you know how I’m making it happen, and perhaps how you may be able to as well. There are a lot of things that play into how I’m swinging this income-absent period of my life, but it ultimately boils down to the following factors:
I am a Compton.
I did not choose to be born into the Compton Clan, and for that, I’m plain old lucky. Though I am paying for a lot of my travels, let me go ahead and recognize the benevolence and support of my family. My grandparents were especially generous this past Christmas, and there is no stronger advocate of travel than my father. Mama and Hoffa backpacked around the world for four months as newlyweds, and the annual #ComptonsConquer family trip* is a priority for my parents. For each of those trips, I am deeply grateful for the way travel has exposed my siblings and me to other cultures and places since childhood.
Also, as a small business owner, Hoffa has a lot of credit card points, which is the only way we feasibly afford to fly six people anywhere every year. I had already bought about half my flights, but when I booked the flights for our trip this-coming summer, Hoffa told me to go ahead and start using extra points for any other flights. Yeehaw! He is a generous gift-giver, and I am a thankful recipient.
I am a worker and a saver.
Another benefit of being a Compton is that my job in high school and college was to be a student. I babysat a lot as a teenager and had some minimal part-time work in college. Throughout my growing up years and on into college, I didn’t have a lot of the expenses that many other teenagers have; I didn’t have to buy a car or pay for insurance or even gas. The padres covered living expenses, and I didn’t squander what I earned, which eventually became a substantial savings sum. I don’t really know how to budget yet; my lifelong financial strategy has just been Act like it’s not there! Spend as little as possible!
When I got back from New Zealand, I returned to living at home and ultimately working more-or-less full-time through a patchwork set of flexible jobs organizing the house, babysitting, and substitute teaching. I didn’t have to pay for rent or food costs, so most everything I earned, I was able to set aside for these trips.
I am a nerd.
Since being a student was my job, I did it as best I could. I was that annoying overachiever that made you feel guilty about doing anything fun just by nature of the fact that I was always studying. Yeah, that straight A perfectionist that freaked out about pop quizzes. I still love learning, but now that I don’t have to, I have chillaxed substantially. That high-strung work ethic got me places, though. Like full ride scholarships for undergrad and graduate school. I have no student debt, so what I earn isn’t headed straight to a university or federal loan agency. It goes to Southwest instead.
I am ridiculously frugal.
Not spending money, especially while backpacking, is a game for me. I think abstaining from normal purchases is an impressive and fun challenge. But there are moments, like when I asked for a dining couple’s leftover pizza because I was hangry – and then went back for the crust – that onlookers, understandably, find mildly horrifying. I don’t shop for clothes often, and when I do, it’s usually at thrift or consignment stores. I’m happy to use public transportation or stay in hostels (heaven forbid I opted for a car rental or an actual hotel). But if I can hitchhike, couchsurf, or camp, I’ll choose those options every time. In my six weeks of travel thus far, I have spent a total of $126 on accommodation – basically the cost of one night at a standard hotel.
I own all the outdoors gear.
And if I don’t, any disposable income I have is in grave danger the moment I step through REI’s doors. Before Havasupai, we swung by that outdoor gear wonderland so Tracey could get a pillow. She chose not to, and I walked out $120 poorer. But now I have a backpacking chair and solar lamp and all kinds of fun, superfluous knickknacks. The three essentials, though – a backpack, tent, and sleeping bag – can easily rack up to $800. Then there’s a sleeping pad, rain gear, boots, socks, stove and stove set, headlamp, first aid kit, water treatment, and towel, just to list a few other pretty necessary items. If you’re interested in backpacking but haven’t committed yet, borrow or rent some gear for your first trip. If you love it, take the plunge and get what you need. It will pay for itself quickly and exponentially.
I have a lot of friends, and I love making new ones. A lot of the time, they’re all really generous.
People are so awesome. Case in point: I wanted to go to San Diego simply because I had never been before. I typed in “friends who live in San Diego” on Facebook, and reached out to some old family friends who had moved from Charleston. They not only hosted me, but picked me up from the train station and helped with all my transportation needs. Meanwhile, I’m currently staying with some San Francisco folks I met on my very first solo trip in New Zealand. They’re joining me tomorrow as we embark on the next backpacking trip on Northern California’s Lost Coast.
I am loving all my adventures; traveling is a lot of fun, and it’s something that makes me feel most alive. I also like capturing incredible moments and sharing those pictures on Instagram. I like the adventurer I’ve become, and I’m well aware that is how I portray myself on social media. If I could go back in time and show middle school Jessica @jcomp15’s account, she would be so impressed. She would be stoked to become the woman who summits all those mountains. As you’re writing a dumb paper or stuck late at the office or in the seemingly never-ending season of diapers and day-school pickup, it’s easy to let a little innocent envy set in. But social media has this way of making us scroll through all of our friends’ great lives and getting really down on ourselves. We let that pang of jealousy set in and fester, and before we know it, we sink into a slippery “woe is me” depression.
However, social media is wrong. Everybody shows the best parts of their lives to the virtual world. We certainly don’t post pictures of the ish in our lives, the divorces and anxiety and grief and tears and post-breakdown puffy eyes. That makes sense to me, because we often cover up our struggles in “real” life too. What I find more problematic is the well-crafted image of utter awesomeness that we aim, often unconsciously, to display on our profiles. Not everyday is an adventure on a mountain in another hemisphere, but there is so much goodness in the everyday.
As much as I love this period of travel, I’ve been pining away for routine and deep community for years now. I have no normal, no familiar. I have bopped in and out of different clubs and lifegroups and commitments; I have flirted with set schedules and have developed good friendships over the last few years, but I have never stuck around long enough to cultivate them into something really rich. If you have that, don’t take it for granted. Oh, how I long to be a part of a church to serve in, a community to love and be loved by, a town I’ve lived in long enough to run into someone every time I shop at the local farmer’s market or Trader Joe’s!
I’ve also developed some fierce puppy fever, a side-symptom, I think, of my desire to settle down and have a home and stability. I befriended just about every stray dog I encountered in Patagonia, and then I met Su in Havasupai. She was my soul dog. She camped by me the first night and I might have let her come into my tent (…and snuggle with me in my bag) because she was shivering. She walked into the canyon with us, and it took no more than a few hours for me to start contemplating how expensive it would be to fly a dog across the country, and how I could possibly make that work. I was so serious I asked the woman at the ticket office if she recognized Su. She did not and voluntarily said I could take her with me. I was so tempted.
All this to say, there is so much goodness in what our culture defines as the mundane, but it is beautiful. Those daily regularities could be the best of all, and I want to experience it just as badly as you may want to leave it and travel. I suppose that is human nature, though, so often unsatisfied and searching elsewhere, even in the best of circumstances. So I encourage you, and I remind myself, to fend off the lies of social media, and to celebrate our respective lives, however stationary or transient they may be.
*We’ve been #ComptonsConquer-ing for a nearly a decade. Here’s the rundown:
2007: Ireland & England
2008: San Francisco & Yosemite, California
2009: Back to Ireland
2011: Cross Country Skiing in Oregon
2012: Vancouver & Whistler, Canada
2013: Nosara, Costa Rica
2014: Durango, Colorado
2015: Banos, Ecuador
2016: Big Island, Hawaii
P.S. It kills me that I haven’t written anything since my first few days in Chile. I fear my memory may not offer up the same crisp details it would’ve had I had the time and energy to post right away. I didn’t write Calitalia until a year after the trip, though, so I promise I’ll catchup eventually. It just may be a while.