Erica Prather has been traveling the last couple of years.
She’s dipped her toes in Australians seas, taught English in South Korea, knocked on hobbit doors in New Zealand, led wildlife tours in Alaska and hiked the Andes in South America.
She stopped home in Wichita for a couple of months recently to spend time with family.
She took a job as a barista at Whole Foods and sometimes bumped into old friends from Kapaun Mount Carmel High School, who are married and raise kids in expensive homes on the east side, she said. They sometimes tell her that they are jealous of her lifestyle, although other times she interprets their expressions as “What are you doing with your life?”
She’s 30, a woman and from Kansas. It’s this combination that she thinks makes some people a little uncomfortable.
If a man were traveling the world, from one adventure to another, she said, people would praise his testosterone-fueled courage. If she was younger, just out of college, people would give her space to figure out what she wants to do with her life.
And if she was from a coastal city rather than the Midwest, her choices wouldn’t seem that unusual.
I biked in the unusual Denver rain, crying after I kissed my parents goodbye.
Erica Prather, the day before setting off with a one-way ticket to Australia
While many people spend 50 weeks a year working in order to pay for two weeks of vacation, Prather is trying to create a life for herself where something like the reverse is true.
Instead of advancing in a career, amassing wealth or pursing a family, Prather said her life is now guided by a different compass.
“This is probably the best way to gauge how I make a decision,” Prather said: “Will I regret it if I don’t do it? If the answer is yes, then I do it.”
After graduating from the University of Kansas in 2007, Prather followed her boyfriend to Colorado, where she took a job working for a tech start-up. In addition to being close to home, she liked that she could go hiking in the mountains on her breaks and didn’t have to argue with anyone about whether global warming existed.
She was hired as a temp worker, which meant that in addition to having to pay for all her own benefits, it was easy for her boss to send her an e-mail one Monday letting her know that her services would no longer be needed.
It was scary, she said, but in retrospect she realized it was exactly what she needed to be shocked out of a life that was too easy.
“I just felt I’m staring down at a tunnel: It’s a Netflix account and a boring relationship,” Prather said. “It’s easy to get comfortable when you have a steady paycheck, to not take a risk.”
I am not going to sit at a desk and try to save up vacation and a 401(k) with the most physical capable years of my life.
Instead she went back to school in Denver to become a physician’s assistant.
“It was terrifying because I took my first biology class at age 26,” Prather said. “There’s like 18-year-olds making me feel stupid because I’m like, ‘How do I light a Bunsen burner?’ and they’re like, ‘You’re dumb.’ ”
But medicine wasn’t the right fit either. She wanted to be outside, so she switched to a focus on ecology and earned a second bachelor of arts degree from Metropolitan State University of Denver.
After her second graduation, she didn’t want to go right back to school again, and she didn’t know what to do next, so she decided to travel.
“I am not going to sit at a desk and try to save up vacation and a 401(k) with the most physical capable years of my life,” Prather remembered telling herself.
This is probably the best way to gauge how I make a decision: Will I regret it if I don't do it? If the answer is yes, then I do it.
She lived out of her car to save money for a couple of months in Denver until it broke down.
On her final day before leaving for Australia, she bumped into her biology degree supervisor, who reassured her that ecology was just as awesome as medicine, and they hugged goodbye.
“I biked in the unusual Denver rain, crying after I kissed my parents goodbye,” Prather wrote later of her final day.
She set off for Australia with “a one-way ticket, no job, no plan.”
Australia and beyond
A couple of backpackers Prather met on a trip to Europe years earlier picked her up from the airport in Australia and helped her begin her journey in Melbourne. It was one of many fortuitous connections she said she has drawn on, often from a random post on Facebook.
There were so many travelers when she arrived in Byron Bay, she said not even Subway or Baskin-Robbins would consider hiring her, even with two degrees — in part, she thinks, because she sounded foreign. She was ecstatic to get a job as a cleaner, where she said she wiped toilets and picked up used condoms.
Prather has sought out authentic experiences during her travels. She worked on a dairy farm with hundreds of cattle and watched in horror as they threw dead animals in a trash heap. She said her hands would get cut because the mud and poop between the cows’ legs would dry up and harden.
“In the past 3 days I’ve milked 2,356 cows,” Prather wrote during her stay. “I got kicked in the arm, pissed in the face, and the last unhappy heifer gave me ‘freckles’ … spraying mud and (poop) into my hair, my ear, on my eyelids and cheeks.”
She nannied children and worked at an outdoor store in Australia. She once showed up at a vegetable canning factory called “Peace, Love and Vegetables” for two days because she figured they couldn’t turn her away immediately. They put her to work for two days, then sent her on her way.
On a more recent trip to a Buddhist monastery in South Korea, she realized that the monks there seemed to have as many issues as the Catholic priests she – and many others in her generation – had rejected from her youth. The South Korean students to whom she taught English went to school ridiculously long hours, drove their cars with reckless abandon and seemed to have some abhorrent prejudices. She loved it all.
But it was during a six-month trip to Alaska as a science guide last year that Prather became more convinced that this new life she was creating was the right one for her.
It started off poorly. Within the first couple of weeks, she said, most of the other science guides she worked with had pegged her as “difficult,” which she thinks was partly due to her being an outspoken woman. So she found herself being more introverted than ever.
During her one day off every week in Alaska, Prather worked on a video about the impact plastics have on the local wilderness. She’d never made a movie before, but a photographer offered to help.
By the end of the summer, National Geographic had published the video on its website.
On one level, the six months in Alaska had been a failure: She believed she had been a pawn of the cruise industry, which satiated its guests with ever more consumption, further contributing to Alaska’s environmental degradation.
But it had also reaffirmed her new direction: She didn’t want to be one of the tourists she served who got off the ship for just six hours. She had spent months seeing whales 10 feet away from her boat that spun out of the water; she had climbed glaciers and seen bears cross the road in front of her.
“I might not be able to climb this slippery mountain when I’m 70,” she wrote after one particularly inspiring climb. “And maybe I won’t have a retirement fund, but when I’m old … and working for bread crumbs in a bookstore, I will have so many things to replay in my mind.”
One morning when Prather was home in Wichita recently, she told her dad, who is an architect, that she would probably leave soon for South Korea.
“It’s not that they’re stoked about it,” Prather said of her parents. “But I think they’re like, this day is going to come.”
Everywhere she goes, she is amazed at how quickly she adapts to her new reality, including back in Wichita. She had borrowed her dad’s car that morning and was thinking about stopping at a thrift store before heading home, and that’s all she was thinking about.
“I only lived in Alaska for five months and when I was in Alaska, I felt like I was in Alaska and it’s the only place I’ve known,” Prather said.
But she also carries her experiences with her. As a barista at Whole Foods, she tried to reduce food waste because, she said, she had seen people in poverty with so little. Her views of foreigners have become more accepting, she said, after having been one herself.
While her friends back in Wichita may have houses and husbands and kids, Prather’s Instagram page hints at a collection of experiences and memories that her friends can only view from their phones. The more than 2,000 photos and captions from the past four years form a kind of epic tale, the end of which Prather doesn’t know.
She sometimes wonders whether traveling is a kind of addiction, which releases dopamine that her body can never quite get enough of.
“People say to me, ‘Do it now when you’re young,’ ” Prather said. “As if sucking the marrow out of life has an expiration date.”
But her money was running out in New Zealand, and she didn’t want to take more menial labor jobs, so she’s returning to Wichita again at the end of the month.
A few weeks ago a member of Prather’s parents’ church asked her mom, Angie Prather – who works for the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce – whether she thought Erica was ever going to find one spot to settle in and call home.
I think Erica views the entire planet as her home.
Angie Prather, Erica’s mother
“I thought about it for a second and then I told her,“ Angie Prather wrote in an e-mail. “I think Erica views the entire planet as her home.”