Work & Purpose

Into the Wild: Driving to Alaska at 65 to Start a New Life

Craving adventure, a woman from upstate New York hits the road — and wins the Most Inspirational Life Story contest

In June, Next Avenue noted that the Center for Productive Longevity in Boulder, Colo., had launched the Inspirational Life Stories contest and the Later-Life Entrepreneurship Success Stories contest for people 50 and older. The nonprofit, which showcases the value of the 55-plus crowd, just announced its contest winners. Below is the Most Inspirational Life Story essay by Barbara M. Traynor of Slingerlands, N.Y.
You can read Lynn Brooks’s winning Later-Life Entrepreneurship Success Story essay at the Center for Productive Longevity’s site (ctrpl.org), which plans to post the 15 best entries for both contests in coming weeks.

She’s Got Verve!

By Barbara M. Traynor

Walking provides impetus to ponder. My 65th birthday was hovering. I was not feeling old, but 65? That’s major! Why I chose to walk the beach on a frigid winter afternoon is questionable. However, with boots crunching on the frozen sand and gloved hands balled into my pockets, I reviewed my six-odd decades. Married at 19, three children by 27, moved 18 times with a grass-is-greener spouse — instant on-the-job-training in how to deal with transition — and divorced after 17 years.

Working as an administrative assistant for over 45 years and a single mother raising three children generated an abundant desire for freedom and travel, but little savings and no pension. Life was crammed with drama and trauma. Income matched outgo. I would have to live on Social Security income alone. I screamed into the thundering surf, “How can I afford to go anywhere? When is it my turn?”

Surprise! Someone was listening. 

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Arriving home, I checked my email. A message from Alaska cajoled. How about becoming a long-distance, long-term volunteer? Hmmmm. It seemed that some organizations supplement their staff with volunteers, offering free room and board in exchange for workplace skills. WOW! That I could spend my over-65 “mystery” years this way inspired my imagination. My frozen fingers tingled. I began to rethink retirement.

ALASKA! Unlike previous random, frenzied relocations, this new opportunity would be creative and passionate. Receiving free room and board in return for working a 40-hour week was imperative. All I needed to do was get there. 

Planning was crucial:

1. To-do list, plus research on destination.

2. Resign job, arrange for Medicare and Social Security.

3. Downsize, sell condo, lease storage unit.

Equity from the sale went into the bank for a security cushion. From start to finish, preparation for my volunteer retirement lifestyle took eight months. By June, I was anxious to travel. As an afterthought, I queried local newspapers about their interest in a travel journal via email submission. One editor bought “the idea of a woman driving alone across the Continental Divide.”

Great! Writing, previously dismissed as a hobby, would generate income.

I’m now ready to drive off into the sunset, right? Yes! I slid copious sites-to-visit research and an itinerary into clear plastic sleeves. My travel binder “co-pilot” lay open on the passenger seat. A marvelous companion — never talked back!

My journey took me through Denver, north to the Rockies into Canada, turning west at Jasper, Alberta, to meet the Alaskan Marine Highway Ferry at Prince Rupert, B.C. For the first time in my life, it was my schedule on my terms. Adrenaline pulsed.

Vistas inspired passionate, random writings, which appeared with my digital pictures in my local Sunday newspaper's travel section. I drove onto the ferry for a two-night trip through some of the most dramatic scenery I’ve ever seen. Whales breeched. Glaciers loomed. On a sunny August day we docked in Sitka, Alaska! 

With my new lifestyle came a change of attitude. No expectations. I was welcomed into a multigenerational, multicultural community of like-minded colleagues, our basic necessities of housing and food provided. My assigned volunteer position as administrative assistant in the business office of a small college mandated working 40 hours per week, but evenings and weekends were free for hiking and kayaking, reading, writing and sewing Tlingit moccasins.

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All too soon it was May and my first volunteering experience was almost over. Again, planning prevailed. By visiting family, friends and connections from my volunteer network, I only paid for one hostel and one hotel during my seven-week leisurely journey back to the Northeast. Amazing!

Upon arrival, those I spoke with were amazed at my independence and courage. Independence was a given. Courage? Always figured it was my natural curiosity and zest for life!

Adventure highlight? Dropping straight down through Western Canada, to the east of Juneau, Alaska, is the almost-paved Cassiar Highway. I drive the gravelly surface on a clear August day, eyes eager for dramatic jade hued lakes, ears sensitive to the whistles of soaring eagles. Through the open passenger window, I hear scratching; see a brown lump rhythmically pawing at the bark of a downed tree. A bear having lunch! Easing the car into park, I snap one, two pictures. Ready to snap another, I realize the only sound is my idling engine. The bear has stopped scratching. Deliberately, he turns, rising to full height as only a grizzly can. My foot hits the pedal!

Back home with family and friends, I moved into an in-law arrangement with my son, a one-bedroom apartment with a separate entrance. Many kept asking, “How can I do what you do?” Since my new lifestyle was word-of-mouth, I decided to write a book detailing this budgetary option. This labor of passion took three years of writing, interviewing and editing.

Agents were impressed, but no book contract. Anxious to share my lifestyle, I decided to self-publish Second Career Volunteer. After extensive research, I choose a PR package with exposure as soft cover, hard cover and ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and local bookstores. This did take a small portion of savings.

While presenting my PowerPoint travelogue to libraries, Rotary Clubs and Senior Centers, I found this lifestyle appeals not only to retirees but to boomers, those displaced by financial unrest, and college graduates seeking jobs. By selling my books, initiating a business plan and consulting SCORE (a nonprofit dedicated to helping small businesses get off the ground), I came out about even with expense vs. income and I'm confident that future income will increase. Meanwhile, I am contributing to the greater good and having fun!

To generate additional interest, I was interviewed on NPR and local TV, participated in writing forums and, due to my self-publishing experience, was asked to facilitate workshops called The Book Inside You … How to Get It Out! These workshops provide extra income while giving confidence to those on the cusp of publishing regarding what to do when, managing social media and how to decide if your book is a hobby or a business. Social media provides submission access to blogs and online magazines.

It takes perseverance to generate book sales, but I am into my second printing with a new introduction and revised A-Z Index of volunteer destinations. This book is selling well to boomers and college career centers. Via positive word-of-mouth, I am now receiving referrals for speaking engagements with payment or honorariums.

As birthdays accumulate and I continue to enjoy excellent health, I will keep volunteering while investigating online writing venues. Networking possibilities are endless. In 2013, I will volunteer at the YMCA of the Rockies, a conference center near Boulder. I have offered a seminar, generating more sales and contact opportunities. If you have a writing buddy, think about teaming up to share costs. All you need is patience, flexibility, and compromise.

A friend said that taking a chance on an unknown lifestyle took verve. I looked it up. Verve means possessing a special ability to pull something off with panache and wild, chaotic, unpredictable passion in the reckless pursuit of pleasure, no matter how outrageous. Everyone should experience verve! Life percolates when you add the element of chance.

Get out and give back. Enjoy the pleasure of an active life.

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