Workin’ for the man ev’ry night and day,
And I never lost one minute of sleepin’,
Worryin’ ’bout the way things might have been.
From “Proud Mary”, Credence Clearwater Revival
It was the late summer of 1981, and I was feeling stuck. Stagnant. Locked in. Uninspired.
I was in my mid-twenties. For nearly five years I had been working full time on PLATO system software for Control Data Corp., a large computer company in Minneapolis. I really didn’t have much to complain about at my job. I was paid well, and I felt respected by my manager and coworkers. I didn’t have to punch a time clock and could pretty much come and go as I pleased as long as I made progress on my projects. But I was bored with it.
The thought of looking for a different job held little appeal. I still had the feeling that within the world of computer software, PLATO was the place to be. Certainly that had been true in the mid 1970s, when PLATO was miles ahead of everything else in so many ways. Whether or not that was really still the case in 1981, I still believed it. So if I was sick of my job with PLATO, as far as I was concerned I was sick of computer work altogether.
So I was stuck. But in another sense I was adrift. That spring my girlfriend and I had amicably decided to separate, and I’d moved out of the house we owned together. I’d answered a “roommate wanted” ad and moved into a large house near Lake Calhoun with four other twenty-somethings.
It was a makeshift solution to my homelessness, but it did nothing for my ennui. I was beginning to feel almost physically allergic to my workplace. I found myself going in to work later and later in the morning, and leaving earlier and earlier in the afternoon.
Often I would start my day with a run. One August morning as I was doing my lap around the lake, my mind was also going in circles. Hate my job. Need my job. Hate my job. There’s no good job. Hate my job. Need my job. Hate my job. Round and round.
And then, as if some unseen friend had whispered into my ear, I heard these words enter my mind:
You don’t have to stay here.
What a revelation! Almost immediately, the broad outline of a plan began to take shape in my head. I would take a leave of absence from my job and go vagabonding around the country. As I considered this idea, I realized I was almost perfectly situated to go through with it. I had enough money saved that I could afford to live without an income for several months, at least, maybe a year or more if I was careful. I was no longer in a committed relationship. I had a good car, a 3-year-old Honda hatchback. I could easily get out of my temporary rooming situation. I was half-owner of a house, but my ex was still living there and I could leave most of my belongings there while I traveled.
By the time I was finished with my run that morning, I knew I was going to do it.
It took me a few months to pull all the pieces together. Autumn was fast approaching and I wanted to have a long stretch of good weather ahead of me when I set out crisscrossing the continent, so I aimed to leave the following spring. Meanwhile, I began thinking about places to go, things to do, and people to visit. I wanted to camp in the desert and hike in the Superstition Mountains. I wanted to stay a while at Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti. I wanted to drive up the Pacific Coast Highway and camp among the giant redwoods at Big Sur. The magical city of San Francisco exerted a magnetic pull on me. Most of all, I wanted to work as a volunteer with John Lilly’s Human Dolphin Foundation. I also had hopeful thoughts about a certain girl I knew on the west coast, and another on the east coast. Mainly I wanted to shake things up: go new places, try new things, have new experiences, meet new people. And I never wanted to spend my days sitting in a corporate office cubicle again.
In mid-March 1982, while snow still blanketed the ground in Minnesota, I packed my Honda Accord with a tent, a sleeping bag, and a bunch of books, and headed straight south on Interstate 35 in search of warmer weather and adventure.
It changed the course of my life, and I’ve never regretted it.