Sarah Reijonen is a country girl born to see the world. She’s been living the gypsy life with her husband since they sold their house on 80 acres and quit their jobs to travel the globe for seven months. The small-town girl from Washington shares their life-changing experiences in her debut travel memoir Country Girl: Letting Love & Wanderlust Take The Reins. She shares about panning for gold abroad, skydiving in New Zealand, cross-language miscommunication, jungle tours in Costa Rica, the woes of eating gallo pinto for days and many other adventurous, often comical tales.
The journey has only just started for Reijonen and her husband. The couple has visited 29 countries and counting and are living and learning about the world and themselves along the way. To keep up with Reijonen visit her website sarahreijonen.com and her Facebook page (facebook.com/spankyandsarah.com).
SR: The same way I tackle every project, I suppose—go feet first and hope for the best. When I returned from that first seven-month trip around the world, I came back to a storage unit and little else. Within a few months, my husband and I were on the road again and wound up in South Dakota. In the small town of Aberdeen, I began to transcribe my journal and piece it together with blogs I had written throughout our travels. I also did a lot of reminiscing by flipping through pictures from the trip and having long talks over many-a-bottle of wine with my husband.
SH: In your memoir you are completely transparent. Was it easy or difficult to write such an honest story?
SR: I have always felt like one of those “open book” people, no pun intended. I try to live my life that way because I feel like we can all learn from each other. No, I’m not perfect, but I can use my mistakes to help someone else get through tough times.
SH: I had visions of the film “Just Married” while reading about the fiascoes you had on your Europe travels. Were those crazy moments comical then or only when looking back?
SR: Believe me, when my husband put gas in our diesel car right off the bat, I was not a happy camper. Yes, I was irritated at the time, but it didn’t take long to shake it off. This was another valuable lesson on our trip: You can’t hold grudges against your only ally. He was my only friend in Europe, the only person I knew. What good would it have done for me to stay mad? You have got to laugh it off.
SH: Is there a meal you had abroad that you still think about years later?
SR: There are many I still think about, which is funny because I don’t really consider myself a foodie. I remember eating out of a pineapple for the first time in Thailand. I remember eating pastries and gelato for breakfast, lunch and dinner in Italy. I remember delicately picking the scarce meat off of a guinea pig in Peru. All of these food experiences have been pretty momentous considering I lived off of plain cheeseburgers as a child. Before traveling, my most adventurous ethnic meal was Mexican, and even then I ordered a bean and cheese burrito, hold the hot sauce.
SH: By now you have more than mastered the art of packing. What are items you don’t dare leave behind?
SR: My passport and clean underwear. OK, there’s a lot more than that. A camera and journal are also necessary and when it comes to clothing, a little black dress and a couple colorful scarves so I don’t get bored.
SH: On your travels what did you learn about yourself? Your husband? And what did you learn about yourselves as a couple?
SR: I learned that I have a gypsy soul and that living an easy life isn’t living your best life. I need to be challenged, stretched. Another lesson I learned revolves around stuff. As Americans we are encouraged to collect stuff. Heck, we have a show called “Hoarders.” But, I learned that all that stuff is just a burden; it holds us back from living a life of freedom. As soon as I shoved all that stuff into a storage unit and strapped a backpack on my back, I felt this weight simultaneously lift off of my shoulders.
As for my husband, I learned that he isn’t just some dumb redneck. No, I knew that, but I did learn a lot about what he is capable and who he truly is. So often we get married then follow the natural progression: house, dog, kids. Getting off the beaten path allowed my husband and me to connect on levels we never knew even existed. We had deep, intellectual conversations and we also shared goofy, belly-laugh moments. We took the opportunity to really get to know each other.
Ultimately, our travels only solidified our marriage. From the beginning we were told, “This trip is going to make you or break you.” We knew both options. Shoot, Eat, Pray, Love is all about a woman leaving her husband to travel. I was fully aware of how often these things don’t wind up with happy endings. Thankfully, we got ours. We left on our round-the-world journey as husband and wife and returned best friends.
SH: What happened when you returned “home” after your trip?
SR: Home was such a weird concept when we returned. I had grown accustomed to having nothing but a backpack and I cried when I set eyes on our storage unit that was filled to the brim with crap. Spanky and I were all out of cash when we got home so we had to go where the work led us, which ended up being South Dakota. We lived in a 26-foot camp trailer, which was a piece of cake after spending two months living in campervans. The only downside was tornado season, which brought thunderstorms and torrential downpours that made it sound like a helicopter was landing on our roof. We took two months of that before heading to California. In California Spanky continued to work on power lines as I pressed on with my book. We lived in an RV for nearly two years before we decided to put down “roots” again and buy a home. We landed in Placerville, Calif., because it’s in Gold Country and my husband has the fever.
After a year in our house, we got antsy and put her on the market once again. We are footloose, and though we enjoyed our home and all it had to offer, we felt the road had more to offer. So here we are again — on the road. No matter what we do, we will always be wanderers.
SR: As Nike would say, “Just do it!” It’s never easy, but I promise you will not regret it. Heck, I just sold my second house and that was not any easier than the first. There were days when I sat at my cozy little house along the creek and thought, “Why would I want to leave this?” But then I reminded myself that if I want to be a different person, I have to act differently. I knew that if I let myself settle in, I would be settling. It’s so easy to settle, but it takes guts to go out and make your dreams reality.
SR: Actually, this is a recent discovery thanks to a woman I met while opal mining in Nevada. During my mining excursion, the woman gave me a book by Nell Murbarger. Murbarger was a roving female reporter, who started her journalism career in 1945. In 1958 she published Sovereigns of the Sage, which chronicles Murbarger’s travels through rural and remote western America and focuses on the characters she encountered along the way. Murbarger’s voice is so clear and conversational—I just fell in love with her spirit. I wish I could have met her. I’m pretty sure we would have been besties.
SH: What makes a country girl?
SR: For me, a country girl is a whole combination of things. She isn’t a rodeo princess necessarily, because Lord knows I sure am not. I think a country girl is just who she is. She is comfortable in her own skin. She is sassy, but warm. She is fierce, but soft and compassionate. She looks out for the wellbeing of others. She nurtures her family and stands by her man. She is a wanderer at heart. That heart of hers bleeds for those who are broken, and a country girl’s knees are worn from prayer. Loving country music and owning a pair of boots is not a prerequisite, but it is preferred.
SR: That’s another novel in itself. Spanky and I downloaded Eric Church’s first album before our big trip, though we only knew one of his songs at the time. As we traveled, Church became our go-to playlist. His songs reminded us of home. Since our trip, my love affair with all things Church has only grown. I’ve seen him five times in concert and he even held up my boot while singing “These Boots” at a show in Reno last fall. That was probably the best moment of my life, after my wedding day, of course. In all seriousness, I respect him as a fellow storyteller. He writes his own music, and it isn’t predictable like most country music. Sure, he still sings about drinking beer and all that, but even in the midst of the beer drinking he is authentic and talented and real.
SH:If you could pick one song as your personal anthem, what would it be?
SR: Another tough one. During our trip, it was definitely “Carolina” by Eric Church, but my personal anthems tend to shift depending on my season in life. Right now I think it would have to be “Anywhere With You” by Jake Owen, but don’t tell E. Church that.
SH: What’s your next adventure?
SR: I’m on it! Actually, I am writing from McCloud, Calif. right now on my way up to Washington for the summer. Like I said, the hubby and I sold our house again and we are back on the road. I am currently visiting bookstores, wineries, coffee shops, salons, you name it, to promote Country Girl. In September Spanky and I are planning a return trip to New Zealand and Australia, but you know our track record with making plans. Nothing is certain until a plane ticket is purchased.
SH: What can readers expect from the future?
SR: I’m taking one step at a time right now. Most likely, it will be travel oriented, but I have quite a few ideas that go in various directions. I would also like to break into some fiction writing at some point. I remember being told in college that I have to choose a niche, but I have always rebelled against being shoved into a corner (insert “Dirty Dancing reference” here). I thought, “I want to do it all, and why can’t I?” I will continue to apply this principle in every area of my life.
Somer Breeze-Hanson is a journalist and blogger (somerbhanson.wordpress.com) in Tacoma, WA. When she’s not reporting or watching PBS’s Masterpiece Classics, she’s reading and blogging about the books she reads. She views herself as a full-time writer, part-time reader, and always with her dogs at her side.