Why You Should Forgo the American Dream and Let Travel Transform Your Life

We had “arrived.” We had made it. We were living the American Dream.

We had the model home, fully furnished, with 6 inch base boards and a home theater room. We had three cars, one of which was a Porsche. We had a large income…which also happened to equal lots of expenses, and lots of stress.

But that’s what it was about, right? Having the nice home and the fancy cars? That’s what made you a success. Feeling stressed about paying all those bills, that was just a part of it.

While expecting our fourth child, we jetted off for a last minute second honeymoon to Playa del Carmen, Mexico, never suspecting how it would forever change the rest of our lives.

Leaving Our Little Corner of the Earth

It was your typical tourist vacation – the all-inclusive hotel and tourist packages – except for one chance encounter of immersion in the local culture.

The incident was nothing special – except that we wandered off the tourist path and saw a glimpse of  the real Mexico. At first it was scary – the graffiti, the unfinished buildings, the poor houses with dirt floors.

But that’s what it was about, right? Having the nice home and the fancy cars? That’s what made you a success. Feeling stressed about paying all those bills, that was just a part of it.

We attended a local religious meeting, and I sat surrounded by the Mexican people – submerged in their language and their way of life – and something happened to me. I saw them as human beings, as people, just like me, but different.

Right then, I knew we needed to have these experiences as a family. We needed to learn another language, experience a foreign way of living, and remove the prejudices that come as a byproduct of limited boundaries.

Returning home after our week-long getaway, immediate plans were made for our move abroad.

We rented out our model home, sold our model furniture, and liquidated some other real estate. Within 8 months, in April of 2007, we loaded up our four children (our oldest 4 and our newest only 3 months old) in our fancy SUV to embark on a border crossing, reality-expanding adventure driving from the U.S. to Costa Rica, where we planned to make a new home.

On that trip we crossed not only political borders, but psychological ones as well.


Before leaving, we’d faced tremendous fear and uncertainty – Would we get robbed? Plundered? Murdered? Would we be able to buy diapers? Is there even a road that goes all the way to Costa Rica? – our world-view was so limited.

Along the way we learned that third-world countries actually had stores – normal ones like I was used to – and that not everyone living south of the border wanted to come to America. Most of them loved their country and enjoyed living there.

Five years after undertaking that voyage, as I sit in my rented home in Guatemala - a pit stop along our current expedition driving from Alaska to Argentina (now with five kids), I think about the two people who had those conversations so many years ago, and they seem like strangers to me.

Now we walk at night through the local neighborhoods to do our shopping at the local stores and markets and visit friends. There’s no fear of murder or plundering. Only greetings of Buena noche.

But it’s been a long road to get us from that prejudiced, bigoted, and narrow-minded view of men and things, to the broad, wholesome, charitable views we hold today – views that continue to expand. And they didn’t come by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all our lives.

Two roads diverge

We made it to Costa Rica, but we brought America with us. We kept up with the Jones’ (the other expats), shopped at the local HyperMas (owned by Walmart), and lived in a 6500 sq. ft. mansion.

The best of both worlds was available to us – the daily fascination of foreign living and exposure to a new language and culture, and the luxurious lifestyle. But it didn’t last.

With the economic collapse of 2007-2008, we lost our income. We held out as long as we could – we moved in with friends to save rent, we loathed the idea of going back. But ultimately, when the money ran out, we sold what belongings we had to return to the United States for a job – the only solution we could come up with at the time.

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We went back. We rented a “lowly” 1100 sq. ft. apartment. We felt like failures and still believed that in order to be successful, we needed to earn lots of money and live in luxury. Travel plans were still on some future horizon, but travel was something that happened with the extra money you had after you paid all your living expenses, right?

So we looked at buying one of the dozens of newly built homes that sat vacant after the market collapse. My husband was offered a career making six figures. The idea was to follow the formula until we were back to making lots of money, and then we would be able to travel again.

We made it to Costa Rica, but we brought America with us. The best of both worlds was available to us – the daily fascination of foreign living and exposure to a new language and culture, and the luxurious lifestyle. But it didn’t last.

However, when we thought about actually committing to those things, we realized they were moving us further away from travel instead of closer to it. And those things in and of themselves didn’t seem as appealing as they once were. The lure of discovery, exploration, and reality expansion through travel and foreign living was becoming more and more attractive

We didn’t have the freedom and income anymore to have the luxury and the travel – we had to make a choice.

Do we take the career, buy the house, and chase the American Dream once again? Or do we pursue a lifestyle of family travel, despite having no current income to fund it?

The logical choice was to take the career. We were a family of six. We needed to be responsible, to provide a stable home and income for our young children.

We didn’t have the freedom and income anymore to have the luxury and the travel – we had to make a choice.

But doing what was logical wasn’t what was in our hearts. Instead we were dreaming of the illogical and unreasonable – the impossible – traveling the world with our children; learning together from personal experiences; studying languages and cultures; encountering history and customs first-hand.

Why couldn’t we explore jungles, discover beaches, observe wildlife, learn other tongues, try new foods, examine ruins, and traverse continents? Why couldn’t that be the dream we pursue, the plan for raising and educating our kids (not to mention ourselves)?

Scraping together what funds we could, selling any other belongings of value (including my wedding ring), we chose the less traversed road.

We packed twelve suitcases, bought five one way tickets to the Dominican Republic (a place we’d never been before), and arrived site unseen to find a house to live.

Travel and the soul

We spent six incredible months learning a new way of life – simplifying, living with less, and living without.

We washed our clothes by hand, did without hot water, and all slept in the same bedroom/loft of our 800 sq. ft. coconut-grove-nestled beach house. We had no phone, no internet, and had to walk to town to buy water and groceries.

We read lots of books, ate lots of coconut, and spent each sunset walking along the shore exploring tide pools. We called it our Walden. It was one of the best and most memorable times of our life.

Soon the money ran out, and we hadn’t yet figured out the location independent income. We went back to the States for employment once again.

Really, it wasn’t about the travel. Travel was the tool, the method to the outcome. The real addiction was to the personal transformation that travel extracts from your mind and your soul.

But travel had taught us new skills, new thought patterns, new approaches to life in general. It had also become a part of who we were, a positive addiction, and we couldn’t imagine our lives without it.

Really, it wasn’t about the travel. Travel was the tool, the method to the outcome. The real addiction was to the personal transformation that travel extracts from your mind and your soul.

It causes you to be uncomfortable, to step out of the familiar and into the unknown. It compels you to see with new eyes and to consider things you had never been aware of.

Travel, like a surgeon, opens you up – mind, heart, and soul – and removes preconceptions, biases, and small-mindedness. In its place it leaves a love for the world and all people; it also entrusts you with a larger understanding of our common humanity and the quandaries we share as a planet.

Travel is less about seeing sights than it is about searching your soul.

So on our second return to the States, traveling again wasn’t even a question. Every decision was made with the long term goal in mind – How will this help us be able to travel more? How will this give us more freedom to explore?

Asking these questions led us to India for five months, then back to the U.S., across it and Canada to Alaska (on the discovery that we were expecting our fifth child) and eventually to our current life experiment – slow traveling from Alaska to Argentina with our five kids.

It also helped us to design our financial lifestyle with freedom in mind. No, taking that career position isn’t going to work for us. Starting that location dependent business is. We focused on building income streams that gave us options.

Every decision was made with the long term goal in mind – How will this help us be able to travel more? How will this give us more freedom to explore?

To us, travel has nothing to do with cruises and vacations. It’s not about staying at fancy hotels or taking a two-week holiday.

Travel is a way of life. It’s how we learn, develop ourselves, educate our children, expand our minds, and work on solving the world’s problems.  Traveling is as much a part of our makeup as the books we read and the food we eat. To suggest that we’ll stop traveling is like suggesting that we’ll stop eating, reading, or learning.

Travel is life, and life is travel. They’ve become intertwined, as inseparable as the branch and the root.

Instead of repeating the same life experience every year for ten, twenty, or fifty years, travel can give us fifty life-changing encounters in one year.

Some people think that travel is not for everybody, but the essence of travel is experiential expansion. Instead of repeating the same life experience every year for ten, twenty, or fifty years, travel can give us fifty life-changing encounters in one year.

The result is that instead of reading only one page out of the world book, we’re given the opportunity of perusing a greater proportion of it, and exercising our human-ness, rather than suffering from soul atrophy.

Travel can and will transform your life, anyone’s life, if you let it.

To read more inspirational stories to help you live out your dreams, check out the following articles:

Photo credits: vallartavelas, all others belong to the author and may not be used without permission.

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Leave a Comment

  • Lynne Nieman said at 2013-09-17T19:11:37+0000: What an incredible piece of writing! Brought tears to my eyes. You captured all that is so incredible about travel. These reasons are why I travel and why I am seeking to be location independent so I can travel indefinitely. Roll on Denning Family! (and you are giving your children an education they would never have received in the States)
  • Anita Oliver said at 2013-09-17T21:24:23+0000: I can so understand what you have written about in this post. My husband and I changed our life path, retired early and dropped out of the American dream. We sold everything and began travelling in September 2012. We started in Mexico and are currently in Honduras working our way slowly towards Ecuador. It has been, by far, the best decision we have ever made! Our only regret is that we didn’t figure out that a successful life isn’t about what you have and begin travelling years earlier. What you are teaching your children is invaluable and will equip them to face the world as thoughtful and contributing people. Anita @ No Particular Place To Go
  • Clelia Mattana said at 2013-09-18T13:55:37+0000: This is why i left my perfect life behind. With no return in mind.
  • Kiran Chaturvedi said at 2013-02-10T09:52:31+0000: Inspiring, affirming. Thanks.
  • Eva A Kowalewicz said at 2012-09-10T22:35:33+0000: This is exactly how I feel...
  • Cathleen Crawford Pa-c said at 2012-04-17T00:07:47+0000: It is entirely possible to live as we dream. I vagabonded for years when young. There comes a time when one longs for the familiar and the routine and then there are the inevitable changes of age & life. Yogakarta and Rangoon have their appeal, but get hit by a car there and see what the society does for you without a safety net. There is no reason why one cannot integrate the best of what the US has to offer with either a travel career or independent travel as desired. I see this article as a more of a comment on how to not live a life "keeping up the the Jones". There is no reason why Ms Denning could not live that simple life any where including here in the US. No one needs a Porsche or a smart phone. The fact that she cannot live a sustainable life in another country means that they are not living at the same level as a local. She must have noticed that the folks living the simpler life do not buy throw away one time use diapers. One can have a 6 figure income and choose to not live a stress and debt filled life. The human experience is available just around the corner if you open up your mind & your eyes and so much the sweeter when done with a world perspective.
  • Wandering Still said at 2012-04-16T16:04:48+0000: Yes! Yes! Yes! This is a struggle I am right in the middle of now and could scream every time someone implies I will just wake up one day never wanting to travel again, but instead be madly in love with suburban life! Thanks for the example.
  • Cathleen Howard said at 2012-04-16T14:25:56+0000: Beautiful story. I will share this with friends and relatives who don't understand why I would forsake the American Way to vagabond. Thank you.
  • Heather Moody Boylan said at 2012-04-16T14:51:21+0000: I couldn't agree more. As a career teacher who has chosen to live in Indonesia, doing much of what I COULD do for much more in the US for free, I have so much more freedom to choose my own path. I would not trade that for anything.I am hoping I don't have to go back to the US to a higher paying job to support myself (I'm solo) but if that's what happens, so be it. Traveling and living abroad for the greater part of the last two years has so changed my outlook on everything that I feel I could make things work in the US if I had to.Thanks for an inspiring article - and good luck!
  • Karen Flanagan said at 2012-08-22T15:33:18+0000: I found your articles while searching for tips on driving through Mexico. You are hitting me where I live! I spent a week at a mission in a small mountian village in Honduras this summer, and it has rocked my world! I want nothing more than to take my husband and kids there next summer. The next step? Who knows? The door is wide open, and I will never be the same, never see life the same way again. Thanks for a wonderful and well-written article.
  • Emmy Heimann said at 2012-06-19T15:02:34+0000: Thanks Rachel! I am in the middle of a year-long travel sabbatical, and I was starting to panic about how hard it will be to get another "career position" in six months. Your article helped remind me there is a world full of options out there! Great writing and pictures as well.
  • Stars on the Ceiling said at 2012-05-30T15:45:25+0000: This is so incredibly inspiring. I think many travelers (myself included) are often guilty of a fear that seeing the world and having a family have to be two independent periods of your life. I often feel stressed at the prospect of squeezing as much travel in as possible before I meet the right person to "settle down" with and have kids. But I don't want to settle down and this piece really illuminates how you can have both the adventure and the family!
  • Lauren Lyons Cole said at 2012-04-18T14:20:43+0000: I'm a financial planner, and I am constantly trying to get clients to understand how travel and freedom are more important than big homes or fancy cars (or shoes or dining out for that matter). I really appreciated this honest story-thanks for sharing. And congrats to you for designing your "financial lifestyle with freedom in mind" - love it!
  • Bruce Jones said at 2012-04-16T15:07:02+0000: Great article, I left the country in 2001 for a 2 year trip around the world www.MyworldTour.org and it changed my life and provided me insight that I wanted to help others see the world as well. I'm now president of International TEFL Academy training over 1,000 people a year to teach English abroad (TEFL Certification). We make people's dreams come true every day. www.InternationalTEFLAcademy.com
  • Rupalim Sarma said at 2012-06-23T18:05:14+0000: Its a great article. In america things are become easier. Recently, we have booked a vacation rentals from www.zaranga.com and experience was great.
  • Rhiannon Crain said at 2012-06-18T17:54:54+0000: What are these "freedom-minded income streams?"I work not for a big house and porsche, but because I want to contribute to society. I want to solve problems, to give back to society, to fight for the right things. No, its not as fun as walking a beach every night, but it is isn't just about me, or me and my kids. I want to work hard.
  • Erin Grosskurth said at 2012-06-13T03:44:34+0000: Ah really enjoyed this. You basically layer out a lot of things I think very often. I get so frustrated with people-their materialistic ways about the world, and their lack of desire to adventure. Its so hard for me to understand why people don't want to explore the world, and why they simply stay in the comfort of their own homes under air conditioning and extravagance. Obviously this is biased, not everyone can afford to travel as I cannot right now at the moment, but I'm talking about those who can, who don't.and let me just say this really inspires me, because it shows me that there are a world of people out there who want the same thing I want. I don't care if I'm dirty for some time, or can't have access to technology, because all those distractions don't just occupy us, they distract us from finding ourselves. Its when we remove ourselves from those distractions where we can truly seek ourselves.nice job with the article :)
  • Laurean Danielle Robinson said at 2012-04-22T09:57:26+0000: Wonderful story and truly inspiring! I have longed to strike a balance between having a fulfilling career that can fund my travels and living a simpler life in the framework of "eat, pray,love". Luckily, I have my career and a love as well as in the process of developing my travel plans and dreams.
  • Joan McKniff said at 2012-04-17T03:55:32+0000: I think I lived the American Dream. Joined the Peace Corps in 1963 and then lived and worked most of my adult life overseas. Returned to retire in USA in 2006 living the good life, no not the big house good life, the doing good, living well and kindly good life.
  • Nicole Nejati said at 2012-04-16T16:00:41+0000: I love this article! I haven't yet found the monetary solution to fund my travel addiction, but I'll figure it out. I don't think there is a better way to spend money than getting to know the world. Everyone should travel; getting lost will help you find yourself.
  • Spanish Sabores said at 2012-04-16T18:51:33+0000: How motivational! I quit my job today to start listening to that little voice telling me that I need to keep traveling. I don't have a perfect plan but I know that I'm making the right choice!
  • Anita Burgess said at 2012-04-16T19:37:18+0000: awesome article! I need reminders like this to stop me from getting sucked into the suburban vortex...
  • Shelley Renee said at 2012-04-16T16:02:23+0000: This is one of the BEST travel manifestos I have ever read. LOVE it! Thank you Rachel...
  • Alanna Tyler said at 2012-04-16T22:36:47+0000: Thank you Rachel! Your articles always inspire me!
  • Mark Steven Zuelke said at 2012-05-25T17:06:06+0000: yes yes yes...all I lack is the courage.