I sat there staring at my bucket list as my 50th birthday loomed before me. It was three months before my birthday and there I sat with absolutely no plans. I was not about to let my milestone birthday slip by with no exciting celebratory plans on the calendar! I started to think of crazy ideas for a birthday trip, so I had pulled out my bucket list for inspiration. Since I didn’t want to depend on having someone else join me, it needed to be something that I could do solo. What could I do that was out of the ordinary and that I was willing to take on solo?
Many people have a bucket list of things they want to accomplish before they die and I was no exception. There were several items on the list that I had already accomplished, but many more sat on the list waiting to be achieved. I scanned the list to see which ones were still waiting to be checked off.
· Get a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science - check
· Go whale watching - check
· Travel through Europe - check
· Travel to Australia
· Travel to New Zealand
· Travel to Ireland
· Travel to Scotland
· Travel to Iceland
· Get married - check
· Live on a sailboat – check
· Swim with dolphins
· Fly on a seaplane
· Take an Alaskan cruise
· Learn to ride a motorcycle – check
· Ride a motorcycle across the US - check
· Travel to all 50 states – 48 down, Hawaii and Alaska remaining
· Publish a book
· Go skydiving
· Hike the Camino de Santiago
· Fly in a helicopter
My completed bucket list items showed that I was certainly no stranger to adventure and ideas that family and friends thought were crazy. Right after graduating from college, I took four weeks off to tour through several countries in Europe. Since I was just about to start a new job and I didn’t know when I would be able to get that much time off again, it seemed like the perfect time to explore Europe. My childhood friend, Stacy, and I traveled to England to visit Cambridge and London before joining up on a bus tour through England, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and Greece.
In 2000, my husband, Blaine, and I sold our house in Willow Springs, NC and moved onto a 40’ sailboat with our two Golden Retrievers, Max and Bailey. It was extremely difficult since we were selling our dream house that included 5½ acres and a pond. We had picked out the lot and house design and had the house built to our specifications. We loved this house, along with the awesome wrap-around porch.
Not only was it our dream house, but it was also our house in which we created all of our dreams. Finishing the house and moving into it accomplished our first dream together. It was where we learned to follow our dreams and not let anything get in our way. It is also where we learned to not take “NO” for an answer. We tried to purchase a new Beneteau sailboat as our first sailboat and were turned down for the financing. That just made us work harder on our goal.
We had a goal of buying a boat and retiring on it. It had been a dream of Blaine’s for many years and I fell in love with the idea when he told me about it. When we got married, it became a goal for both of us. We weren’t going to let anything stop us from achieving that goal. Not too long afterward, we managed to purchase a used Island Packet 35. It was a boat built to cruise around the world. Not being able to purchase the Beneteau ended up being a blessing since the Island Packet was one that I liked even more than the Beneteau. We were one step closer to our goal.
An aggressive savings strategy along with Blaine’s stock options with Cisco Systems allowed us to retire earlier than originally planned. We were able to buy a brand new Island Packet 40 sailboat and outfit it for blue water cruising. It was unbelievable to be able to retire at age 35 on a brand new sailboat. We couldn’t believe that, after only five years of being married and moving into this dream house, we were able to quit our jobs and move onto our sailboat.
Our neighbors were amazing and we were going to miss living there. Since we were the first ones to move into our new subdivision, we had greeted each new neighbor as they moved in. We had a yearly pig pickin’ where we invited all of our neighbors, along with friends and family. We made our subdivision into a very friendly neighborhood. It broke our hearts to leave these wonderful friends behind, but we knew that friendships would survive the distance.
We sold or donated most of our material possessions. We kept a couple pieces of furniture that would be used by my sister, some kitchen and dining room pieces and our memories captured in photos and scrapbooks. Everything else that could not go on the boat with us was sold. It was scary to part with all these items that we had spent years collecting. What if sailing didn’t work out and we needed to move back into a house? What would it be like to start all over again?
After working many years at IBM during the business suit era and the last couple of years at an IT consulting business, I had a plethora of business suits, skirts, and dresses. I wasn’t planning to wear any of those again, so I donated all of my business clothes to a women’s charity who helped abused women escape their current situation and start over. I was grateful to be able to help these women start their new life as I started my new life as well.
We spent months clearing out the house and many weekends holding garage sales to sell everything. It was heartbreaking to see the items you loved being sold for a few dollars or less.
We had been planning this for five years. Modifications were made to the boat that allowed our two Golden Retrievers to be able to sail with us. We were fortunate to be able to quit our jobs and cruise full-time for 3½ years. While many cruisers traveled the East Coast of the US via the safety of the Intracoastal Waterway, we usually traveled via offshore routes. This allowed us to explore the east coast of the US, Nova Scotia, and the Bahamas.
If quitting my job, selling almost everything I owned, and setting sail for foreign ports wasn’t crazy enough, I also spent seven months in 2004 riding a motorcycle with my Golden Retriever, Bailey, in my sidecar. Blaine had an identical rig with our other Golden Retriever, Max, happily cruising along in his sidecar.
I had only been a passenger on a motorcycle a couple of times in my life and had never ridden one by myself. The preparations included taking a motorcycle riding course, starting out on a smaller motorcycle for practice, and eventually moving up to a Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic with a matching Harley-Davidson sidecar. Many experienced male motorcyclists told me they wouldn’t even attempt to ride a sidecar rig, so it was an intimidating endeavor to plan to ride 25,000 miles on that rig. It was quite the challenge, but I had fun preparing for the trip.
We created a non-profit charity called Hogs for Dogs and rode through all lower 48 states raising money and awareness for service dogs. I had learned about service dog organizations in 1990 and had contributed to one of them for many years. I was excited to be able to attract attention with our dogs in sidecars and then spread the word about the independence that service dogs can give to those with disabilities.
Through internet and email, we managed to have events planned for us along our route. We had our dogs certified as therapy dogs; therefore, we were able to stop in schools along the way to teach the students about service dogs and to allow them to meet Max and Bailey. We attended many fundraising events where the dogs attracted attention, which allowed us to talk to everyone about service dogs.
We spent 218 days on the road with just what we could carry in our two motorcycle rigs and stayed in motels or with family, friends or other volunteers. We traveled almost every day and had to navigate unknown territory on a daily basis. Since we had determined that I would always ride in front of Blaine, I became the navigator. GPSs were not that advanced back then, so I had to plan our route and download maps to the GPS every evening. It was extremely stressful making sure we made it to our destination each day without getting lost in the process.
The experience was definitely a challenge, but I thrived on the adventure. Not only was I the navigator for the trip, but I was also the treasurer. I managed the finances and kept track of every donation by the state where it was donated, calculated down to the penny. While Blaine was the big picture guy, I was the details person. Many times it was very daunting to manage the daily finances and other details. We managed to raise over $100,000 and were able to make sizable donations to several service dog organizations because of the ride. I felt this was an amazing feat since it was done before social media was popular.
With these bucket list items completed, I needed another one that would be worthy of a 50th birthday celebration. I wanted to skydive, but skydiving didn’t seem as great a challenge as I would like for my 50th birthday. I wanted something that would last longer than one day. There wasn’t enough time or money to plan a trip to Australia, so I continued down my list. I was supposed to go on an Alaskan cruise, but my plans fell through, so that would stay on my list for another day. A trip to Ireland or Scotland would be fun, but I thought that I would enjoy it more if someone accompanied me.
Since there were only three months until my birthday, I needed to plan quickly. My eyes skimmed through the list for something that would be a challenge, possibly even out of my comfort zone, but could be accomplished solo if I couldn’t find anyone to join me in my crazy adventure. I wanted it to be out of the ordinary and memorable. Then my scan stopped at the perfect 50th birthday celebration: Hike the Camino de Santiago.
My thoughts went back to the time I put this item on my bucket list. I had just finished watching a movie called The Way starring Martin Sheen. It was about a man living a somewhat stagnant life who goes to St. Jean Pied de Port, France, to identify and pick up the remains of his son who died the first day out while hiking the Camino de Santiago. While there, he decides to hike the Camino in honor of his son, sprinkling the cremated remains along the way. During his journey, he makes the acquaintance of three people who were from very different backgrounds from him and they end up hiking with him. He forges deep relationships with these new friends and discovers things about himself through those relationships.
It was an intriguing movie. Hiking through the country and stopping at little villages along the way sounded exciting. The relationships that could form during that time were something I had missed from my sailing days. I had never been hiking before, so that would be a physical challenge. Spending all that time hiking appeared like it could be a mental, soul-searching challenge as well. It definitely looked like a life-changing experience, so I had added it to my bucket list.
Like the character in the movie, I felt my life was stagnant. I reflected back on the ten years since we had finished our motorcycle ride to figure out how I had gotten this way. As the years flashed before my eyes, the pain, loneliness, fear, and insecurity came rushing back into me. After finishing our motorcycle ride across the US, we had to figure out what to do next. Since the stock market was booming when we moved onto our boat, we had foolishly kept our investments in the stock market. With the harsh downturn in the stock market in 2001 and 2002, we had watched our investments dwindle. We knew we would eventually have to go back to work since we had not paid off our boat mortgage.
We decided to go into business with Blaine’s brother out in Mississippi. He owned a very small car audio business, but it was located in one of the fastest growing towns in the US. We temporarily moved out there to expand the business from a small garage hidden behind a strip mall to a storefront in that strip mall with an installation garage behind it. We invested in the business by setting up the new store. We painted it, set up a checkout counter and bought displays for all of the equipment. We purchased a lot of inventory to put on the new displays and keep in stock.
Once we had opened the new store, organized the business processes and had a profitable business running, we moved back onto our sailboat. The plan was to sail 9 months out of the year and then run the business for three months every summer so that his brother and his wife could take the summer off to spend quality time with their two children.
While the plan worked well in theory, the reality was that his brother and his wife were not capable of properly managing a business. His brother ran up our credit card debt purchasing merchandise for the store. His brother’s wife horrendously mismanaged the finances!
After less than two months of watching their actions from afar, we decided that we needed to go back out to Mississippi to get the business back in order. We were sitting at a marina in Charleston, SC where we had stopped to visit with Blaine’s parents. Frustrated at the gross mismanagement of the business, we decided that we would move the boat back up to Oriental, NC where we had kept the boat before we went cruising. A friend of ours had offered us their boat dock to moor our boat since we didn’t know how long we would be out in Mississippi.
Unfortunately, when we got to the store in Mississippi, his brother had changed the locks; thus, he locked us out of the business we shared. We were livid and ended up hiring a lawyer to shut down the business. After a few months of battling between the lawyers, we still had no luck in shutting down the business. It continued until his brother ran out of money and couldn’t pay the rent for the store. He took everything that was still in the store and then sold it for his profit. Sitting in a pile of debt, we had to find a plan B to find new income.
Blaine decided he wanted to start a marine services and yacht delivery business. We wanted to find a town with a booming boat population so he could have plenty of boat maintenance jobs as well as a good airport to be able to fly in and out of for the yacht deliveries. We discussed different towns from Virginia to Florida and decided on Charleston, SC.
Once Blaine had his business started, it was time for me to find a new job. Since Charleston was a tourist destination, it was over-flowing with restaurants. I decided to try out bartending for a while. After two months of bartending at a chain restaurant and another month of looking for another bartending job, I stumbled across a job ad that tossed me into the car business.
After three months of crazy hours working at a Toyota dealership, my marriage started falling apart. We had been able to work through our problems in the past, but this time it just blew up out of control. After many deep discussions, we realized there was no way we could resolve our issues. I wanted to move off of the boat, but had just moved from floor sales to internet sales at the Toyota dealership and couldn’t afford to rent an apartment. Blaine and I agreed that we would amicably live together on the boat until I was in a better position financially.
After a little over a year of painfully living together while mentally being separated, I finally got promoted to be the Customer Relations manager with a steady paycheck. A month later I moved off the boat into my own apartment. I gathered the couple of pieces of furniture that were ours that my sister was using. Then I started piecing together a new life on land by myself.
I had a bed and a kitchen table. I went back to my Mom’s house to get the pottery kitchen items that I had kept. The rest of the apartment came together slowly. I was grateful that one of the salesmen I worked with let me use his credit at a furniture store so I could buy a couch, side table and chair with ottoman for my living area. It allowed me to pay him back in payments. It was extremely difficult to set up a new household by myself starting with very little, but I managed to do it. I finally got to a point where I felt settled in my new life.
Then the unimaginable happened. After almost a year in my new position, I was fired. I had been so excited to get my new position that I had agreed to have my position tied to the customer satisfaction surveys that the salesmen received from their customers. The salesmen were supposed to get me involved any time they had a dissatisfied customer. Unfortunately, I was not always involved and we ended up with a few months in a row of bad surveys. I was fired due to the rise of these bad surveys. I was devastated at losing my job. I had always excelled in all of my jobs, so I didn’t even know how to react to my job loss.
Sitting in my small one-bedroom apartment, I searched for a new job. I truly felt lost. I didn’t know where to go. I still sat in a huge puddle of debt. I was on unemployment which was unimaginable for me; I never thought in a million years that I would end up on unemployment! I could have moved back in with my Mom, but I didn’t even have the money to rent a truck to move my stuff up there. Besides, I was too stubborn to give up!
I had been out of the technology world for more than eight years, so I could not easily fit back into it. I would have to learn new technology in order to get a job back in that field. Also, Charleston did not have a big technology sector. I had worked in the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina where there were a plethora of technology jobs, but down in Charleston, there were less than a handful available in the classifieds.
After living on a boat for a few years and having all of the blue-water sailing hours under my belt, I had studied for and achieved my Near Coastal 50-Ton Master Captain’s license. I tried to find a job as staff on a large yacht, but I had no luck with that.
I looked for administrative assistant jobs because I felt that I had the skills for them, but they continued to elude me. I began going to networking events to meet business people in Charleston, hoping to find a job. Instead, the job found me. One day an idea popped into my head. Most of the people I had met at the networking events were busy business people and they had a hard time finding the time to get everyday chores done. When your job and life are too busy, it is hard to find time to go grocery shopping and clean the house. I started polling people at the networking events to see what types of everyday tasks that they had trouble completing on their own. I decided to open a personal assistance business to do all the things that others are too busy to do.
My business, Life a la Carte, was born. I had gathered several customers before I started the business, so I knew it would be successful. I cleaned houses, ran errands, catered parties, organized clutter, and paid customers’ bills. The business steadily grew with referrals from my customers.
Even though I was getting new business coming in, I wasn’t able to keep up with paying the credit cards that had been maxed out by my ex-brother-in-law. I managed to continue to pay two of them but had to quit paying the rest of them in order to be able to keep a roof over my head. My credit scores plummeted! I was devastated!
I ended up living from one job to the next. Some days I didn’t know how I was going to pay the next bill, but then I would get another job just in time to pay it. It was frightening to be so alone and not know if you could pay your next bill. I felt like I was always on the brink of homelessness. I hated holidays because they interfered with my scheduled jobs and lost income for me. The lack of a secure steady paycheck was starting to weigh heavily on me.
I got to a point where I was able to hire a couple of people to work on some of the scheduled house cleanings for me, but after a year of that I was still barely paying my bills and the plethora of hours of work and after-hours paperwork were taking a toll on me. I was exhausted!
I had moved into a condo and had a roommate to be able to afford the lease. I had already lost one roommate when he had to move out of town quickly for a new job, leaving me scrambling to quickly find a replacement. Unfortunately, I was constantly worried about having that issue again. I also didn’t have great luck with my roommates, so I spent most of my time in my bedroom.
I spent every weekday working on my business and every evening in my room. I couldn’t afford to take a vacation or even afford to miss any days of work for fear of not being able to pay my bills. I felt so alone and afraid that there would come a day where I couldn’t pay one of my bills. I knew I couldn’t keep up this pathetic existence; I needed a change.
One of my friends owned an IT consulting business and had asked me previously to work for him. I didn’t want to go back to that business since it had been so stressful in my last IT position, so I had turned down his suggestion. I was second guessing this decision and decided to meet with him to see what I could do to get back into that field. After meeting with him, I had a promise of a new job when his new contract came in. A couple months later I was back working in my Computer Science field.
I was very happy to finally have a steady income coming in again. I slowly started paying off my bills and getting into a stable life. After three years of working in my new job, I started feeling stagnant. I was supporting IBM software day in and day out and enjoyed my job, but had nothing outside of the job. I felt empty. I needed a goal to work towards. I yearned for something that I could be passionate about again.
I had been in an emotional rut for years. After being separated for over two years, we finally had gotten a divorce in 2010. Since then, I had not had any luck in the dating field. For the first few years, I was just emotionally unavailable. I was too guarded to attract anyone. While I thought I was open to a relationship, in reality, I really wasn’t.
My recent dating history had consisted of a couple of short relationships but nothing that lasted or brought about anything close to the adventures I had with my ex-husband. I had been trying the online dating scene for several months, but that definitely was not working out. The only thing I was accomplishing with those dates was gathering stories that had the possibility of becoming a hilarious “Fifty First Dates” saga for a future book.
I was about 75% done with writing a book about the motorcycle adventure but couldn’t dredge up the discipline to actually finish it. I had fallen into a big black hole of boredom and felt stuck. Like a zombie, I was just going through my daily routine with no purpose.
After reflecting on the past ten years, I realized that I hadn’t traveled in several years. I was yearning to explore a new place. The last few times I had traveled, I had my partner-in-crime, Blaine, along with me…and usually our two Golden Retrievers in tow. The last time I had traveled without Blaine was back in my 20s. I decided it was time to jump back on the horse (or motorcycle so to speak)…only this time completely on my own. What the hell was I thinking?
I believed that hiking the Camino would give me a challenge to help me prove that I could enjoy adventurous vacations on my own. I felt drawn to this hiking experience. I wasn’t sure why I felt so driven to push myself to complete this pilgrimage, but I was. Most likely a mid-life crisis at 50. I decided that hiking the Camino de Santiago was an excellent idea for my 50th birthday!
We had been called crazy for both our sailing and our motorcycle adventures, so nobody was really surprised when I decided to take a few weeks off work to hike in northern Spain. There was one big difference between those adventures and this idea of walking 440 miles across northern Spain. I was doing this one alone, without a net, and I was petrified! I spent night after night convincing myself that I could do this. In fact, I had to do this!