When I graduated university and everyone else was talking about their travel plans for their 'gap year' experiences before they entered the work force and the world of adults, there was only one place I wanted to go: the United States of America.
For the whole final year of my university life I had fantasized about life in America. I had consumed copious amounts of American TV, movies and music. Or at least more than the average Australian (which is quite a lot to begin with). I spent my nights before falling asleep reading 'great American classics' and days flipping through guide books and looking over maps before heading off to the university.
I won't pretend university life didn't have a bearing on my choice. In the final year of university, we had three or four exchange students from different parts of the US. I would prod them for stories of home, which were always forthcoming from the homesick students.
While I did all of this media consumption and prodding exchange students, I had some ideas of where I wanted to go. I would go to either New York City (because it's New York, and why wouldn't I want to go there? Everybody goes there!) Or I would go to the 'middle bit' between the two coasts. I would find a ranch somewhere and learn how to be a cowgirl.
As much as New York would be great to start my boring career in finance (a career choice that was so boring it even made me want to sleep when I spoke about it), cowboy country would be something different and exciting all together. Cowboy country would give me stories for years to come, it would be exciting and a huge adventure. Cowboy country would be something else entirely. I thought about it so much that it even entered my dreams. When I started to dream about it, that's when I knew I had to do it. I had to go start my life in cowboy country. Or at least take my 'gap year' there, and spend some time doing something entirely for me before I started a career that had been chosen for me by strict parents and pushy teachers.
Just because I was good with numbers didn't mean I wanted to work with them for my whole life.
By the time my final exams occurred, my parents had relinquished the reigns enough to be happy for me with my future plans. They said that my wanting to explore the USA was okay by them, as I had finished my university education and no matter what these exams showed, I would still be one of the top students in my class.
In Australia, your final exams are around November (the school year begins in March at the end of our summer) and you don't graduate until April. I cannot tell you why this is, as to me it would make more sense to have graduation ceremonies when you finish studying in November before the year ends, but there it is.
Between November and April I worked my buns off trying to get enough money together for the trip. I took two jobs – one in a supermarket during the week and one washing dogs on the weekend – and spent next to none of my money as I worked hard for every cent.
My friends who were not taking off to tour the world were frantically applying to every single graduate program they could. Some were even applying for graduate programs in other cities, which seemed a shame as after living in Melbourne, most Australian cities (with the exception of Sydney which is huge) feel a bit like towns. But if you're on a graduate program most reasoned, you don't have time for coffee and wine culture. You only have time for working ninety hours a week without being compensated for it properly.
I didn't want that. I never had.
The America trip was my ticket away from the stresses they would have to endure. I was happy I hadn't chosen New York as I would have to deal with the same stresses as my friends only in a country where I didn't have full citizenship rights. No thanks.
While I was working at the supermarket, I received a phone call from the company who I had booked a trip through. Initially, I had booked a six week trip around the US that would include some time on a ranch. This had been the idea of my mother, but when push came to shove, I had decided I didn't want to do this. I didn't want to be chauffeured around by someone only to spent a tiny amount of time on a ranch. I had tried to cancel but the company said they didn't take cancellations.
I had been disappointed, but wasn't sure what else to do and while I was working seven days a week, I didn't think there was too much time to work out what else I could do.
The company had called me that day to let me know they would release me from my contract and return all monies paid by me. I wouldn't discover for a long time that the reason they had done that was that working behind the scenes, my mother had contacted them with a threat to sue if they didn't return my money. Apparently it was in my contract that they should do so should I pull out within a certain notice period, which I had tried to do. When I discovered this too, all I did was smile because my mother had been so good to me without letting on that she was. She didn't want to impede my independence. I loved her for that.
When the money came back, I was still left with the one way flight to LAX from Melbourne and the travel insurance. I didn't have anything else booked or know what I was doing generally, really.
So I went to work doing some research that night when I received my refund and every night for a week on what to do, where to go. In the end, I decided to cold email as many people as I could, to join forums and groups online and to offer to volunteer if I had to. Just so long as I could get onto a ranch, I would be fine.
It took three weeks until I started receiving emails back. Mostly people said no, one or two were curious ranchers who hadn't heard of this before: Australian university students with no experience in ranching coming to the US to learn how to be a rancher just for fun. They were polite, but I could hear them sniggering through their computers. This was hard work, not a holiday camp they implied (heavily) in their emails.
I didn't care what it was, I had dreams and although they might not be conventional dreams for a soon-to-be-financier, they were still mine. I still wanted to make this happen. I had to make this happen.
Then one day at work in my supermarket, I sat down in the lunch room with some sandwiches I had made for myself at home, and I was checking my emails on my phone when one came in from a name I didn't recognise. I only had junk mail in my emails anyway, so when I opened this one, I was a little curious what it was about. A real person was emailing me. When I began to read, my curiosity turned into excitement swiftly. This was different from what I had expected.
A rancher had heard about me from one of his neighbours while he was in town getting supplies with his son. The rancher had thought my story was a curious one and wanted to know if I would be interested in coming to help him out. He didn't normally hire people this way (through the internet) but he was happy to speak to me on the phone if I could call his ranch one day and maybe we could work out some way where I could go there to help out.
I was so excited, I almost didn't know what to do. How could I make this work? I called my mother right away and told her the good news, proud of myself for getting this job offer.
My mother sounded sceptical. Who was this person and why did they want to hire someone they had never even spoken to? What sort of skills did they want and what sort of skills did they think I had? I listened to my mother's concerns and criticism and although it burst my bubble a little bit, it did bring me down to earth. I agreed to talk to her about this more when I got home and got back to work at the end of my lunch break.
Working alongside all the girls at the supermarket that day, I kept my plans to myself. They all knew what I wanted to do, but we didn't talk about it because everyone knew the boss didn't like staff to move on so quickly and I had only begun working here recently.
When I got home though I burst into the house and sat down with mum to talk this over. We decided on what I needed to know from the phone call and my mum coached me a little before we worked out the time zones, and I emailed the rancher back to let him know when I would call. I could call that Friday after work, did that time suit him? He got back to me a few hours later with a yes and that Friday I made the call.
We spoke on the phone for around an hour talking everything through. The rancher seemed happy to help with everything I needed (like transport to the ranch) and would even help me with some training around riding horses, etc. However, he told me he didn't want me to be a cow girl. He had heard I was good with numbers and he needed someone to help with his taxes and other accounts.
"The IRS are difficult." He said ominously.
I knew from my exposure to American media that the IRS were not someone anyone really messed with, and were an agency everyone took seriously, and dreaded even a little bit, even when they weren't doing anything wrong. I told the rancher I didn't know the ins and outs of the tax laws in the US but I was happy to help where I could.
When we hung up the phone my mother was still sceptical but she told me that if it all got too much, I had enough money from working two jobs that I could get myself to a capital city and start working as a waitress if I had to.
That was my mother, a woman who even as she pulled strings behind the scenes, tried to instil a sense of confidence in you and your abilities. She was great to me, and I know how lucky I was to have had her as a parent.
It was time to strike out on my own though, so I took her advice and got to work making this dream happen.
I was going to the USA now and nothing could stop me. Nothing could get between me and my dream!