My Quarter-Life Breakthrough: Why I Decided to Hit the Road and Leave Everything Behind

Photo by Tim McCann
Photo by Tim McCann

I turned 25 this year. Something about that looming birthday made me evaluate who I was, who I am, and who I want to be. I asked myself if I was happy, if I was fulfilled and doing what I pictured for myself in my mid-twenties. It didn’t take long to realize that the answer was no. I was certain that the apocalypse would come on my birthday, or at least that my world would cave in on my quarter-life crisis.

Two years ago, I landed back in my hometown of Sarasota, Florida after spending 6 months in Jerusalem. It was such an intense experience that afterwards all I wanted to do was retreat to what I knew was safe and comfortable – home. My parents are here, I know my way around like the back of my hand, and who can turn down living 10 minutes from the #1 beach in the country? I wanted to feel grounded.

I thought one of the ways to do this would be with a stable job. No, not with horses in the Wild West, unfortunately (although I do hope something like that will be in my future), I wanted a paycheck every two weeks. I wanted an office and business cards with a title that made me sound important. I thought that was what twenty-somethings were supposed to be working towards. After four months of searching, applying, and negotiating, I accepted a job as a Jewish communal professional that I bet all of my happiness on. I moved out of my parents’ house and got my own place. My first apartment out of college, paid for by myself, all to myself! (And my cat, of course.) I had it made – an apartment AND furniture AND a job! And for a while, it was really nice. It was what I needed.

The next thing I needed was a community and some sort of social life. I found connections few and far between, but I was rarely satisfied. It was hard being a 20-something in a town for 100-somethings. (I exaggerate. But not by much.) I got called a baby and treated like I didn’t know anything because I’m young. Not only was it hard to find others within 20 years of my age, I also couldn’t help but feeling like I didn’t quite belong. Many of my friends were married, getting married, having children, but I was in a different place. I wanted to please everyone else by doing things that a typical nice Jewish-Canadian girl should do, but it seemed like such a suffocating, boring thought that I may soon (if I wasn’t already) be expected to “settle down.” I didn’t want to get too comfortable. I didn’t want to settle for anything.

The job was going pretty well, but I worked my ass off. Most weeks I worked seven days, nine to five, plus evenings and weekends. I hardly had the time or energy to work on my music, my greatest passion. I found myself trying to change who I was to fit in, move up, and get a raise. And I did. That, combined with the other aspects of my socially acceptable life, was what I thought success was.

I was miserable.

Last summer, I was sitting on a rooftop in Haifa with my dear friend, Dan. I vented about all of this, and he said, “Amber, you have two years. Two more years in Sarasota, and that’s it.” So I made myself a deadline – August 31st, 2014. (I beat it by over a month). One year seemed a lot more manageable. I had no idea what I was going to do, but I knew I had to do something.

I started searching for something that felt right. I went to Boston to visit a rabbinical program. (Oy.) I went to Orlando (although I couldn’t imagine going back to my college town, either) to check out audio recording schools. I went to San Francisco and Portland on a whim to see if either might be a place where I could see myself in a just-up-and-go sort of way. I made a huge list named “Paths” of Master’s and technical programs, which included everything from Women’s Studies to Dental Hygiene. I felt so lost. There were so many choices, too many. It was so overwhelming that I wanted to give up. But I needed to go through every possibility, entertain every idea and fantasy to see if there was any potential. What stuck?

I thought about what I loved most in the world, what I dreamed about as a child and through my life, and it became obvious (again) that music is my calling. I knew I had been afraid to really pursue it. The voice in my head along with voices of others kept saying, “It’s too hard.” “You’ll never make it.” I realized that I never really tried. But what about money? I wanted to pursue music and, of course, be able to support myself. It’s going to take time and effort to establish myself as a singer/songwriter, so there had to be something in the meantime to pay the bills. The job I had was more than just a job. You really have to have a personal investment in non-profit work, and my heart was going in a different direction. I had all these dreams, longing for adventure, and an insatiable wanderlust. And I wasn’t like I was rolling in dough or anything (remember, non-profit professional over here, getting paid mostly with the satisfaction of helping people and saving the world). I took some side jobs playing gigs, singing in a choir, and teaching Zumba. I saved those paychecks specifically for my next adventure. So, there was some money, but something was still stopping me. My brain told me there’s absolutely no way you can go alone. You should just wait, maybe one day you’ll maybe have the opportunity to maybe go with maybe some friends or maybe a partner you’ll maybe meet.

Just as I was feeling desperate, I heard about Cherie. They said she helped people figure out their purpose. Within 24 hours I had a meeting scheduled. When we first met, she said she had done an astrology reading about me. I did an internal eye roll and chuckle about the absurdity of it, then she said, “Amber, you’re a wild horse.”

I smiled bigger than I’ve ever smiled before. “You need to run free,” she said, “you’re trapped by all of these institutions.” And it just made sense. I told her this crazy dream I had – going on a road trip playing my songs in bars across the country. Going out West and being embraced by nature. Pure, real beauty. I needed to feed my soul.

In the back of my mind, I had this other crazy dream for years about going to Wyoming. When I shared this with other people, they would say, “Why do you want to go to Wyoming?? There’s nothing out there.” I said, “Exactly.” I longed to drive on an open road surrounded by mountains and sky. It was partly the nothingness – the stillness and serenity – I wanted, but also the fullness, the vastness, the majesty of the natural world, the knowing that there is so much greater. I wanted to be so inspired by the land that it would take my songwriting to the next level. It was one of those things you put on a bucket list and write off as a distant fantasy. So in my time of searching, I applied for a few jobs at national parks, thinking, “What the hell?”

By March, I was freaking out, frantically looking for an “out,” or any sort of change. Just when it seemed like a bottomless pit, I got a phone call from an unknown number. I hesitantly answered and the woman said, “We have reviewed your application and have one more question for you. Why do you want to work at Yellowstone National Park?” I smiled. “Well, I’m at a point in my life where I need to do something new. I have dreamed about going out West, especially to Wyoming, for a long time. I’m also in the process of becoming an American citizen, and with that milestone, it would be amazing to explore what it means to be American in my new frontier, in Yellowstone.”

“Thank you. We would like to offer you a job.”

I was shocked. I never thought it would actually happen. But it clicked. I knew it was right, and I knew I was going. Yes, I had doubts and second thoughts. I had to process the idea that I was going to really do this, that I was going to bring up the courage to go out on my own, leave my hometown, quit my cushy job, break my apartment lease, sell most of my stuff, and separate myself thousands of miles from my family, my cat, the few good friends I have in Sarasota, and my comfort zone.

So this, in a nutshell, brings me to where I am now. I took two weeks to explore the southeast and Midwest, and I lived and worked for two and a half months at Yellowstone National Park washing dishes and bussing tables. I turned down three jobs when my seasonal contract at Yellowstone ended and am now traveling the West freely with an indefinite “end date.” I was really, really scared. But I’m tired of living in fear. It’s nice to be comfortable, but I’m tired of that too. I want to feel alive. I want to live my dreams without letting fear hold me back. I want to do all of those seemingly crazy and unrealistic things; why wait?

My name is Amber Ikeman, I am 25 years old, and I am taking my life by the reins to create the life I want to live. My wild-horse spirit can finally run free.

Originally posted on

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