Getting Out of Student Debt and On the Road

A post-college career detour offers a different kind of education—and the opportunity to get out of student debt.


| September/October 2013



One night a week, I got to lead an “aurora tour,” on which I’d drive Japanese guests up the road to a spot where we could get a clean view of the northern lights.

When gazing into the aurora, or standing alone on a mountaintop, or even working alongside my deranged, possibly homicidal co-workers, I’d feel the jolt of a direct, raw encounter with the world—a wild richness of being—and I was happy I wasn’t embalmed in some stuffy Ph.D. program somewhere.

Photo By Nina Matthews

I thought of student debt like I thought of death: I didn’t think of it all. As a 21-year-old college student, I had a long life and bright future ahead of me. Why should I worry myself sick over gloomy inevitabilities? Best to shove worries of my $32,000 debt to the back of my mind alongside other yet-to-be-grown-up concerns, like paying a mortgage, finding good day care, and growing skin tags.

I had little desire to leave college. As a history student, I loved the thrill of a stimulating lecture, the long, caffeinated nights writing papers and outrageous columns for my campus newspaper, the pretty girls, and, above all, the feeling that I was “growing,” which reassured me that, whether my degree was marketable or not, college was where I needed to be. I resented having to leave academe and toil in Career World while my fellow students would continue to thrive in graduate school.

Despite having been an editor at my college newspaper, all 25 of my applications to paid journalism internships were rejected. I began to feel desperate: It struck me that maybe I wasn’t going to be able to pay off my debt after all. I’d heard of students who’d spent years, decades, lifetimes (!) paying off their student loans, and I’d heard of others who couldn’t make their payments, afflicted with scary-sounding things like forbearance, deferment, and default.

 

Without a better idea, I wound up calling a friend, who hooked me up with a $9-an-hour job as a tour guide in Coldfoot, Alaska, 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 250 miles from the nearest stoplight.

Coldfoot, the world’s northernmost truck stop, has a winter population of 12 that triples during the summer, when buses drop off their cargo of tourists at Coldfoot’s 52-room motel. I would be one of three guides who’d take the tourists on daylong tours in a 14-passenger van up the Dalton Highway or in a big blue raft down the sleepy Koyukuk River.