I squinted into the darkness of the tiny studio apartment, lit only by the glowing green digits on the microwave clock reading 2:13 a.m. Still in bed, I strained my ears, listening for the rhythmic clicking sound that had stirred me awake.
The sound was unidentifiable, yet sufficiently alarming. I nudged my husband. “Joe,” I whispered, “Do you think someone’s trying to break in?”
“I don’t hear anyth—” Joe’s whisper was interrupted by a keyboard-like clicking sound somewhere near our heads. Joe yanked the lamp’s pull cord and we discovered a determined crab, stationed defiantly on our nightstand, its pincers swaying.
Joe used a dustpan to usher our uninvited guest back to the vast expanse of sandy Caribbean shore that lay just beyond our sliding glass door. Our toddler slept soundly on the futon.
My husband, our young son and I were nestled for six weeks on the idyllic island of Saint Martin with a budget carved meticulously from my public school teacher’s salary. The crab’s intrusion was a reminder that we had indeed distanced ourselves from the rigidity of our lives in Colorado, venturing into an unscripted narrative of simple joys and spontaneous encounters.
Previously, our days had been a collage of structured routines as Joe navigated his graduate studies at CSU, our son morphed from a cooing infant to an exuberant 3-year-old, and I led literacy efforts across 50 schools. But Joe’s graduation neared, and since I had been accepted into the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Ph.D. program, we soon planned to transition from the Rockies to the Badger State.
For months leading up to Joe’s graduation, we had discussions on the benefits of staying put versus moving early. One evening, inspired by Tim Ferriss’ message in “The 4-Hour Work Week,” a question drifted between us: “What if we thought differently about the stretch of time between Colorado and Wisconsin?”
Joe suggested that we create a list of things the three of us would want to experience over those weeks. He proposed a single rule: All ideas were welcome. We sank into the couch with a notebook and shared creative ideas without being held back by typical constraints.
We both wanted to venture to a place we hadn’t been to before. And we were aligned in our desire for warm weather to differentiate from Colorado’s and Wisconsin’s winters. “I know it might seem a little too dreamy,” I hesitated before adding, “but I’d love to be able to walk out the door directly onto the beach.”
“Put it on the list,” Joe encouraged.
Our vision became clearer when Joe shared that he’d like us to go to a French-speaking location as a tribute to his completing his graduate degree in French studies. And, of course, our 3-year-old adventurer needed a place that would cater to his curious spirit.
It was time to apply a potentially deal-breaking filter: cost of living. Dispersing my 10-month salary over 12 months, along with our other requirements, funneled the entire world down to a 34-square-mile French territory known for beautiful beaches, outdoor markets and delicious cuisine — Saint-Martin.
The cost of our flights was beyond what my salary could cover. Since we’d be downgrading to an apartment in Wisconsin, we held two yard sales and sold several pieces of furniture through Craigslist. We made enough to purchase our three flights, electing to fly out of Dulles Airport in Virginia because it was the best deal. The furnished apartment with Wi-Fi we found fit our budget, even though it made a shoebox look spacious. But a large living space hadn’t been on our wish list since we planned to spend most of our time outside.
Some people thought the idea was fantastic and immediately booked flights to visit. But many people were uncomfortable with our unconventional plan. More than once we heard, “Your son won’t even remember this. Wait until he’s older.”
Still, the day after school let out, we towed a rented U-Haul away from Colorado toward a storage unit in Wisconsin. There we unloaded our belongings, then headed to Virginia, where friends kept our vehicle at their house after dropping us at the airport with a single suitcase for bag check. Our carry-ons held our son’s beloved stuffed puppy and his favorite books, along with our laptops and passports.
Our time in Saint-Martin was filled with joyful conversations, laughter-filled dinner parties and energizing swims. We explored neighboring St. Barts and hosted Joe’s cousins and my mom. Our little one forged friendships, engaged in beach activities daily and even swam with dolphins.
To save money, we cooked spaghetti with red sauce and ate beans with rice several times a week. We discovered a pizza place that had a cheap cheese pizza that was the perfect size for a weekly meal. Since we stood out as Americans, we were constantly a target for timeshare pitches from motivated salespeople. These encounters gave us opportunities to see resorts and enjoy free meals while our son napped in my arms or rolled across the pristine resort grass.
Although we planned carefully and lived frugally, we knew we were privileged to have access to these joyful experiences. For example, knowing my upcoming tuition was paid in full thanks to my teaching assistantship allowed us to not just think outside the box but to live it. Every day was a reminder of just how fortunate we were.
When we returned to the States, our son embarked on his preschool journey, and I dove headfirst into my graduate studies while Joe embraced a new role as an academic adviser. But adjusting back to a more structured life had some unexpected bumps. Our time in Saint-Martin had been transformative; it was more of a paradigm shift than a one-off adventure.
Applying unconventional filters allowed us to break free from the traditional mold and discover a more flexible way to choose how to plan our lives. Since then, we’ve continued to approach decisions with the perspective that time will keep ticking whether we create opportunities for ourselves or not.
When our son was 9 and wanted a dog, he listed all of the attributes he desired: small enough to easily pick up, soft, likes to cuddle, smart enough to learn tricks, doesn’t need to run a lot but has energy to play, great with kids. That clarity led us to our sweet Cavachon named Blueberry. For our most recent relocation decision, the three of us listed our filters — proximity to the ocean, access to a tennis court, mild winters.
With 36 entries on what we named our “Spreadsheet of Destiny,” our compass pointed us to a charming beach town in Delaware, where we live just three blocks from the ocean. Not only can our now 12-year-old surf even in the winter, but this home is a comfortable distance from curious crabs.
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