This column, Escape Artist, is a series about folks who have escaped. More importantly, this biweekly column is for those thinking about trading in their 9-to-5, leg-shackled-to-the-desk existences to forge their own way. The brave outliers featured in this collection of interviews are the digital nomads, online entrepreneurs and lifestyle trendsetters who decided it was time to say to hell with the humdrum and grab life by the roots.
Robert Schrader runs Leave Your Daily Hell, a travel blog that focuses on adventure travel and custom itineraries. Originally from Texas, he is looking forward to escaping 2016 and trying several new adventures.
The “escape the 9-to-5” mentality seems to be popular now. What are your impressions?
Robert Schrader A few major factors have contributed to this, including that the vast majority of work can now be done remotely. Travel bloggers like have encouraged this movement since many of us initially write as much about our decisions to set off as we do the places we go. As the world gets crazier, particularly with recent horrifying political changes, escapism becomes even more attractive, which feeds back into the first two points and results in more people breaking free. I see this shift as a good thing. More people traveling will not only lead to more happiness in the world, but also more empathy and understanding, which will hopefully lead to more peace and prosperity in time.
What was the “aha” moment that sparked this idea of travel for you?
RS It was less of an “aha” moment and more of an “oh shit” one. In the early part of 2009, I lost an non-glamorous restaurant job, and because the bottom had fallen out of the U.S. economy a few months before that, it was impossible to find new employment stateside. I moved to China in November to teach English far more out of necessity than triumph.
What inspired you to start blogging, and how did you first build a following?
RS A few weeks after arriving in China, I started contributing to Shanghaiist, which was the country’s most popular English-language blog at the time. This was an unpaid gig but important in that it was my first practical experience writing for the web in a professional capacity. Simultaneously, I published an early version of Leave Your Daily Hell. It wasn’t a travel blog at this point but a chronicle of my life in Shanghai. Social media and major blogging sites were blocked in China, so this was the easiest way to keep my friends and family updated.
During the first few months of 2010, search engines started sending me traffic, and many of my readers reached out to personally compliment my writing. With Shanghaiist on my résumé, I found gigs elsewhere, including a now-defunct regional CNN outlet. By June, I made enough money freelancing that I decided to quit my job teaching English, and made plans to take a two-week vacation to Vietnam to celebrate. A few days before leaving, however, I got approved for a long-term gig with one of the content farm operations that was polluting the internet at that time, so I said “fuck it” and missed my flight back to China. As I traveled during the next several months, first through Southeast Asia, then the Middle East and then Europe, I funded myself and began transforming Leave Your Daily Hell into a travel blog.
Why did you decide to focus on the “Leave Your Daily Hell” idea and brand?
RS The name of my blog came more from happenstance than calculation. Specifically, “leave your daily hell” is a lyric from a song I was listening to when I first decided to started a website in October 2009. The name ended up fitting, of course, and lent itself well to the brand I ended up building, but there wasn’t any premeditation. Travel blogs weren’t really a thing back then, and although I always dreamed of being able to do this, I never really thought it would happen.
How does life now compare to before?
RS I didn’t have a great childhood. In addition to growing up gay and sort-of effeminate in the suburban areas of a few very red states, my parents divorced during the most awkward part of my adolescence, which made my family’s already shaky financial situation even more dire. This motivated me to work hard from an early age, but growing up in a house where love was hard to find and where “no” was the most commonly-used word had a lasting impact. By the time I lost my job in 2009 at age 23, I felt so demoralized and like I worked a third of my life and accomplished almost nothing. I’d been gifted in school and graduated college early, but after several years in the “real world,” I feared I wasn’t cut out for it. Putting everything on the line to move to China, and having it all turn out the way it did, made me much more fearless and forced me to accept the fact that risk is commensurate with reward. This is not to say I don’t have anxiety or doubt, but I mostly live with the calm confidence that I’m going to be up to whatever challenge life hands me.
Do you have a favorite travel spot you’d like to share with Paste readers?
RS Bangkok has always been a magical city for me. Thailand was the first place I traveled after moving to China, but I hadn’t originally planned to spend any time in the city. Unfortunately, my camera broke on one of the islands and, not wanting to continue on to Angkor Wat without a means of documenting it, I built a shopping day into my schedule.
I remember falling in love with the city immediately, from how free I felt on the back of the motorbike that took me to the SkyTrain to how supernaturally beautiful all the people in the massive advertisements looked and the otherworldly energy that seemed to pump through the city nonstop. I had past-life regressions walking from Khao San Road to the train station one afternoon. I don’t even believe in that, but I knew I had been where I was, even though I hadn’t, if that makes sense. I’ve returned to Bangkok more than a dozen times since then, at least twice a year if I can. And every time, something serendipitous happens.
The “dream job” and “travel blogging” mentality is becoming more popular as well. Does the market seem saturated?
RS The market is definitely saturated, although that is not a bad thing in and of itself. The world is huge and there’s as much to write about as there is to see. The more people who can make a living doing something they love, the better. What is bad, however, is that certain new bloggers have as their primary goal not seeing the world or creating awesome content, but making money. Often, as is the case with some of my less creatively-inclined predecessors, this takes the form of a “Pay Me Money and I’ll Show You How to Make Money as a Travel Blogger” pyramid scheme. For many bloggers new and old, it’s money first, networking/ass-kissing second, travel third and creating quality content a distant last.
What’s one tip you have for readers who want to live a life like yours?
RS Don’t dwell too much on what I or any blogger says or does. The rules are always changing and we built a business model according to our strengths and weaknesses, our personalities and circumstances. The most important thing is to travel. The second-most important thing is to find stories to tell. The third-most important thing is to tell these stories as if your life depends on it. If you do all these things and can sustain yourself using other means while doing them for a year or two, the rest will come.
What are you most excited to focus on in 2017?
RS Let’s not joke — 2016 was a weird year for me, and the world. I spent a lot of the first third feeling burnt out and most of the second third in a controlling relationship that nearly cost me my blog and lifestyle. I rebounded from that, personally and professionally, before November 8. Donald Trump aside, the 2016 U.S. presidential election was a referendum on the worst elements of my country. And they all won. I truly fear for the future not only of America, but the world.
On the other hand, my recent trip to Nepal allowed me to disconnect from the rawest of my emotions and has further inspired me to continue perfecting my craft and exploring new places. I’m traveling to Russia in January (on Inauguration Day, in fact, which seems appropriate given recent revelations RE: Trump and the Kremlin), China’s Yunnan province in February, Kyushu, Japan in late March to see cherry blossoms for the second time in my life, and Iran in April to see the top item on my bucket list for years.
Carolyn Crist is a freelance journalist based in Georgia. She writes about travel, health, science and business for regional and national publications.