Published: April 24, 2018
Susan Livingston, ’00
M.A. Human Development
Spent four years traveling the world on foot and bike
1. Realization I’ve gone down many paths in my professional life. I was an artist, a preschool teacher, then a musician. I realized I had extensive experience but zero credentials. After I found out about Pacific Oaks College, I decided to earn my degree while I still taught preschool. My experience at Pacific Oaks was phenomenal. Writing 40 pages of human development content connected to my own experience allowed me to nurture my reflective side. Plus the environment was so conducive to learning. Pacific Oaks gave me a democratic vision of education that I took with me everywhere I went.
2. Exploration At Pacific Oaks, I never felt like I was going to school. I was just taking classes and having an incredibly enduring exploration. That sense of exploration has never left me. So much so that in 2013, my husband and I decided to strip down to the basics, take a hiatus from work, and travel the world together. It was a big decision when we were in our 50s. It was time to get away from a culture that we felt was consumeristic, fear-based, and overly focused on self-gratification and comfort. We didn’t want to just hang out at a four-star hotel by the pool. The natural thing for us was to become nomads on a long-distance journey. Our mode of transportation was a combination of bikes, motorcycles, and hiking trails.
3. Knowledge Being out in the world for that long, my understanding of respect, diversity, and my own privilege completely changed. But most importantly, I learned how to check my own biases. When I toured the southern region of the U.S., I was worried about being hassled by rednecks and realized I’d become a food snob. All of my stereotypes were busted. I met friendly people in tiny towns who invited me to stay in strangers’ homes. I went to beautiful southern restaurants with fresh flowers on the table, lovely wait staff, and delicious food. Every time I had a preconceived notion about a place to stop or a place to stay, the people I encountered there changed my perspective. The only downside was constantly being chased by dogs while biking from East Texas to Mississippi. (They apparently didn’t get the memo about southern hospitality.)
4. Action My husband and I started out by biking along the Pacific Coast from Los Angeles to Banff in Canada. Then we plotted a mountain bike trip that would run from Canada to Mexico. We got as far as Whitefish, Montana when I broke my tibia while portaging my bike across Appalachian snow. So I had to ride 30 miles into Whitefish on a broken foot. With the help of a boot, crutches, and healing at a friend’s house in Oakland, I was back at it again weeks later. We walked the Camino pilgrimage across Spain and into Portugal. We housesat for friends during Christmas in London. We hiked across Italy from the Mediterranean to Switzerland, exceeding the elevation gain and loss of Mt. Everest. After I returned, I found out that I had breast cancer.
5. Actualization The diagnosis was a shock, without a doubt, and I got a double mastectomy on October 30, 2015. Believing that breast cancer was just one more mountain to climb, we continued our travels despite my procedure and recovery. After six months of recovery, we remounted bicycles to pedal from Maine to Oregon. Our last leg in 2017 was spent biking the Sierra Cascades route. These days, I’m suspending belief in what I’ll do next. A degree in human development made me look across the entire arc of a lifetime. It’s given me the wisdom to realize that life doesn’t sit around waiting for you to stockpile a bunch of goals and dreams. I not only value where I am right now but also look through lots of different lenses at my own life based on this amazing experience.
Editor’s Note: The online version of this post has been updated from the print edition.
Read articles from the Spring 2018 issue of Voices: