Blessings of an Involuntary Sabbatical

When I closed my full-time travel chapter in 2017, having lived abroad for years and then backpacked for sixteen months, I thought my long-term travel days were behind me. I knew the grind of a regular job would force me to limit future trips to short getaways, a reality that unfolded over the next five years. And so I figured it would continue until retirement.

Then came the end of 2022, and with it, an unforeseen turn of events. This is the story of how a jarring setback wound up paving the way for one of the most rewarding chapters of my life.

Wadi Rum, Jordan

Wadi Rum, Jordan, one of the most spectacular sights from this rewarding chapter

Goodbye to the Grind

Our reality began to shift this past November when my boyfriend Truman learned his company was on the verge of implementing a major round of layoffs—and it seemed as though he would be caught in the crossfire. As disappointing as this was, one thought immediately sprang to my mind: travel! For years, he had worked on several incarnations of a script about the Italian Renaissance painter Caravaggio and had dreamed of touring the artist’s life and works one day. When Truman got confirmation he would, in fact, be laid off, I was frustrated on his behalf, but I also couldn’t help but be thrilled about the prospect of him finally embarking on his Caravaggio expedition. And while I wouldn’t be able to join him in Europe because of my job, I had long raved to him about my solo travels and encouraged him to plan an extended solo trip of his own. So Truman began planning out his Italian and Maltese itinerary, and I eagerly embraced the role of a vicarious traveler.

Caravaggio home, Rome, Italy

Truman in Rome at the former home of his favorite murderous, sex-crazed Renaissance painter

The very next day, however, I was floored—and unmoored—to learn that my own company was laying me off too. Yes, layoffs had been sweeping my industry (tech), and, yes, my team’s management had been far from stable. But I had also been instrumental in building out the company’s marketing function and had been praised left and right for my work. I had zero idea this was coming, but, then again, the tech world is a weird place, especially when your company is dependent on the wild whims of VC funding.

I’d spent many a soporific Zoom meeting daydreaming about calling it quits and embarking on a new global adventure, but those were simply daydreams—or so I thought. Once the initial wave of shock about my layoff subsided, I realized I could take my own advice I’d given Truman. It was time for a little travel of my own.

Kicking Off Our Career Break

Where to? I’d come back to that later, but first, we were ready to make the most of our newfound unemployment. Fortunately, we had already planned a staycation at the Biltmore in Downtown L.A. the next day, intended to celebrate Truman’s birthday. That proved to be a lovely local getaway, in part thanks to the friends who met us nearby for drinks, and it was all the nicer without the Sunday Scaries looming over us.

Truman's birthday

The DTLA birthday crew

When Monday rolled around, we were eager to take advantage of anywhere that is typically thronged on weekends. And where better to get the funemployment party started than the inimitable Costco? We leapt at the opportunity to enjoy a $1.50 hot dog combo (or a $3.99 chicken bake in the case of fancy schmancy Truman), topped that off with all the free samples we could get our hands on, and spent hours perusing bulk items we’d never need. Who needs a job when there are big-box retailers to explore? Sadly, I must report that Costcos are not as deserted during the week as we’d expected, but it was still a much more exciting way to spend a Monday than answering inane Slack messages.

When you live in Southern California where theme parks reign supreme, they obviously must top the list of places to explore midweek. I’ve lived a short walk from Universal Studios since early 2020, a place I loved frequenting as a child, but I had yet to return as a neighbor. COVID obviously got in the way at first, and even after things started opening back up, I recoiled at the idea of braving weekend crowds. But, hey, I now had weekdays wide open, and I wasn’t going to waste any time in filling up my post-layoff schedule. So I bought myself an annual pass and marched on over to Universal Studios. And what a fantastic day I had! With hardly anyone in the park, I was able to ride just about every ride, explore everything that had changed since my last visit roughly fifteen years prior, immerse myself in Christmas decorations, and repeatedly be reminded why 9 to 5 jobs are so overrated.

Universal Studios Hollywood at Christmas

Universal Studios all dolled up for Christmas

Unemployment’s First Grand Adventure

But our first week of unemployment didn’t end there! Back in 2019, Truman and I attempted a Thanksgiving trip to the Grand Canyon, only to be thwarted by road closures due to snow. (We improvised a trip to Phoenix instead, which wound up being enjoyable despite Phoenix being…Phoenix.) Fast forward to the present, on the Thursday of unemployment week one, we set off on a new Grand Canyon adventure. Like all great L.A. to Grand Canyon road trips, we began with an overnight stop in Las Vegas. There, we scored a luxurious complimentary room at the Aria thanks to some brainless MGM-sponsored apps I’ve been dabbling in. (Quick tip: download MyVEGAS Slots, myVEGAS Bingo, myVEGAS Jackblack, myKONAMI Slots, Pop! Slots, and/or MGM Slots, don’t spend a dime on any of the in-app purchases, leave them on autoplay while you go do something else, and you’ll have a few nights’ worth of free hotel rooms in Vegas before you know it.)

Aaaanyway, I’ve been to Vegas more times in my life than perhaps any other tourist destination, yet we were still able to find new things to do like check out Fremont Street (packed to the brim with cowboy hat-donned drunkards; do not recommend) and visit the Neon Museum (do recommend, especially if you’re nostalgic for the Vegas of yore). Oh, and we made a point of hitting up the Luxor for reasons that will soon become clear.

Las Vegas Luxor

Hey look, the Great Sphinx!

When I visited the Grand Canyon in 2016 with my sister (no road closures that time!), I picked up a brochure for an attraction called Bearizona, and that place loomed large in my head ever since, perhaps because I’d left that brochure sitting in my car for half a decade. Well, friends, I finally made it to Bearizona. And it was SO. DARN. COOL. Please, if you’re ever in the Williams, Arizona area, which you probably only ever will be if you’re visiting the Grand Canyon, pay Bearizona a visit! I’ve gotta say: I think I liked it even more than the Grand Canyon, and the Grand Canyon is well, just as grand as you’d think.

Bearizona is a wildlife park that has both drive-through and walk-through experiences. My family often talks fondly of the Virginia Safari Park, another drive-through park where deer, moose, llamas, and more sidle up to your car to beg for snacks. Bearizona doesn’t let you feed the animals, so you don’t get quite as up close and personal with them, but the animals you do see are incredible. The elk, mountain goats, deer, and bison were all impressive, but we also saw wolves and bears roaming freely! That’s not something you see every day. And then the walk-through portion allowed us to mingle with goats, observe bears being fed just feet away, and come face-to-face (literally just a thin glass barrier separating us!) with a jaguar.

Jaguar, Bearizona

Just look at that freaking jaguar!

Last but not least, we arrived at the pinnacle of our excursion, the Grand Canyon. This canyon is pretty, well, grand, even the second time around. The rim was blanketed by snow, which made wandering from lookout to lookout a bit challenging but also made the views even more enchanting than usual. There’s nothing I can say about the Grand Canyon, really, that hasn’t already been said, but, hey, well done on your National Parks, America.

Grand Canyon with snow

Does it even need a caption?

In My Travel Era

We had packed the first week of unemployment with enough excitement to fill a year, but what lay ahead? Here’s the thing: laying people off in December is a real jerk move, considering no companies hire right before the holidays. We knew we had zero chance of finding a job in the next few weeks, so instead of sending resumes into the ether, we kept our distance from the job boards and focused exclusively on the “life” side of “work-life balance.”

As I mentioned earlier, even after I got the news of my own layoff, I was reluctant to attach myself to Truman’s now 24-hour-old Europe plans. Not only did I not want to intrude on his chance to experience long-term solo travel firsthand, but I also wasn’t particularly eager to revisit the same Italian cities I’d been to during my stint in Spain. If I was going to have an extended break, I wanted to explore somewhere entirely new to me.

I began brainstorming: what was a country I’d never been to, where traveling in the Northern Hemisphere’s winter wouldn’t be miserable, and where I wouldn’t otherwise visit on a typical one-week PTO vacation? I listed out every country I hadn’t traveled to and eliminated the ones that were obvious no-gos due to political situations (ehh, no thank you, North Korea and Syria) or weather (see you another time, Iceland and Kyrgyzstan). But what about the Middle East? January would be the perfect time to go, since it can get boiling hot there in the summer, and I’d casually been taking Arabic classes for the past few years.

Sphinx, Giza, Egypt

Hey look, the Great Sphinx!

I knew this was a region that would be difficult to travel solo, especially as a woman, and I was in the mood for a true vacation—meaning no complicated planning involved. Back in 2016, I had the most fabulous experience doing a guided tour through Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, and I’d been dying to replicate that trip ever since. Unfortunately, that tour company, Dragoman Overland, remains on an indefinite pause post-COVID. However, I’d booked that trip through Intrepid Travel and had otherwise heard great things about that company, so I jumped into scouring their website for the perfect tour.

Before long, I had a spreadsheet comparing the pros and cons of their various Middle East trips, spent several days toiling with the costs and advantages of each, and finally booked my trip. I was heading on a three-week guided tour of Egypt and Jordan! After that, I would hop on over to Italy to meet Truman for the end of his trip, and we’d continue on to Malta together.

My trip didn’t begin until mid-January (and Truman’s a week later), but in the meanwhile, we stayed busy. We spent a few days in Portland visiting Truman’s family, I got COVID and spent Christmas and New Year’s in isolation (at least my mom, who also got COVID, and I were able to isolate together on Christmas Day), we took a weekday trip to the L.A. Zoo, I returned to both Costco and Universal Studios, and then I was off to Cairo!

Giraffe at the L.A. Zoo

The L.A. Zoo. Yes, I realize that half the photos in this post are us pointing at things with our mouths agape.

Egypt, Jordan, Italy, and Malta deserve their own posts, so that’s all I’ll say about my Middle Eastern and European journeys for now. But the trip was incredible in just about every way, and I couldn’t be happier to return to the world of adventure travel.

Finding Silver Linings in Pink Slips

I completely stole that heading from ChatGPT, and, honestly, if AI wants to steal my next job from me, it’s earned it.

I started this post intending a sappy reflection on how much of a blessing in disguise our layoffs turned out to be. Instead, I got giddy about all of the fun we squeezed into the first few months of unemployment and turned this into more of a day-to-day recap than a heartfelt meditation. So let me get back to that. Kind of.

After Egypt, Jordan, Italy, and Malta (plus a detour to San Jose, California for a wedding), I dove head-first into the job search. I knew I had a strong resume, and I’d been headhunted for my past two jobs, so I was confident that finding work would be easy peasy. But it very quickly became apparent that my expectations could not be further off. While overall U.S. unemployment rates have been at encouraging lows this year, the professional market is an absolute mess, especially in the tech industry. Every new LinkedIn job posting I saw would amass hundreds of applicants within the first hour. It didn’t matter how impressive my experience was; recruiters simply were not likely to read my resume when they had mile-high stacks of applications to sort through. I somehow managed to get a decent number of interview requests, but those repeatedly amounted to nothing.

UCLA March Madness, 2023

It didn’t matter how many times I made it to the Sweet Sixteen or even the Final Four of a hiring process. I just couldn’t be crowned champion. (Okay, okay, that’s an extremely forced metaphor, but it’s not like I have pictures of me submitting resumes! So here’s my mom and me in Las Vegas this year watching our UCLA Bruins compete in March Madness.)

As someone who’s always prided myself on overachieving, who’s passionate about my career and proud of my skillset, this experience was disheartening, to say the least. There were certainly times where I felt utterly discouraged and cynical about the entire concept of work and careers. Even on my more optimistic days, job hunting was a lot of work. Between applications, resume rewrites, interviews, and teaching myself new skills to add to my resume, I was putting in a full-time work week most week. That can be exhausting when you’re a) not getting paid, and b) constantly being ignored or rejected. Especially when the search drags on for more than four months.

However, it was also one of the most charmed periods of my life. We were incredibly fortunate to have financial savings we could count on, unemployment payments went a long way because we’re thrifty, and, as poorly as my layoff was handled, I was lucky to get a good severance package. That meant that, in addition to Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Portland, Egypt, Jordan, Italy, Malta, and San Jose, I also traveled to Kauai, Las Vegas again (for March Madness!), Dallas, Portland twice more, the Bay Area twice more, Puerto Vallarta, and Paso Robles. I saw more places in the first half of 2023 than the past three years combined, none of which would have been possible with a job and limited PTO. And when I wasn’t traveling, though we were “working” the full-time “jobs” of job hunting, having flexibility during the workweek was a pure delight—even if that just meant being able to take an impromptu trip to Target. Plus, we made the most of spending time with friends and family here in L.A., finally being able to worry a little less about COVID than we had since 2020.

Kauai bike

Biking around Kauai

Overall, it was also a wonderful opportunity to reevaluate and recalibrate my priorities. I think the pandemic already did that for a lot of us, because we realized that selling our souls to a job makes little sense when this world is such a fragile place. But it wasn’t until I had no choice but to leave the daily grind altogether that I could fully escape it. When I got laid off, I was terrified about what I would do with all that free time. Would I suddenly realize I’d been using my career as a crutch, a façade for fulfillment and inspiration? Turns out, my life is pretty full with or without work. There is no shortage of things I love to do and people I love to do those things with, and I have an endless supply of things to be grateful for.

VH1’s Where Are They Now?

As you may have guessed, our job hunts did finally come to an end. The company that laid Truman off in December invited him back in June (with a raise and a promotion, too!), and I received a job offer a few weeks later. I’ve been back in the working world (and this time, truly in Corporate America) for about a month now, and it’s going surprisingly well so far. As beautiful as nearly eight months of involuntary unemployment ended up being, I’m relieved to be getting a paycheck again—and even more relieved to have a break from soul-sucking job interviews. I had been worried that this terrible job market would force me to settle for a job I didn’t really want, but everything ended up working out wonderfully, and I genuinely love my job so far.

Bouquet for my new job

The sweetest gift from my friends Jessica and Nichole when I told them I’d (finally) received a job offer

This year has certainly had its ups and downs so far, but I think that when I look back at the end of my life, 2023 will be one of the years I look back on most fondly. It’s been an excellent reminder that sometimes a major setback isn’t actually a setback but the impetus for some of the best things in life. If I’ve learned one thing since December, it’s that you can never predict what will happen next. But you know what? I’m just happy to be along for the ride.

6 Responses

  1. Rebecca R Collins says:

    Mercy, darling girl, you are such a fabulous writer! I smiled seeing that you discovered there is no such thing as a deserted Costco. I go on weekdays, and I am there as soon as the doors open, which I discovered is often an hour or more earlier than what the website indicates. Even then, it can be pandemonium by checkout time!!!

    Thank you for a wonderful “read”! Love you.

    • Aww, you are so sweet! Hahaha, it was definitely disappointing to learn Costcos are always crowded. I guess I’ll keep my expectations low next time I go!

      Love you! Really looking forward to seeing you next week!

  2. Lynette Beck says:

    Really enjoyed reading it! Seems like you had a great time! I also would love to go there some day!

  3. Seems like you had a great time! I also would love to go there some day!

  4. Seems like you had a great time! I also would love to go there some day!

  5. I also would love to go there some day!

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