Get paid to travel. To globetrotters young and old, this is the Holy Grail, a dream come true. Hear those four words and your head is filled with clever quotes about loving your job and never working another day in your life.
When a friend was working as an editor for a company that published travel guides, I asked him to put in several good words for me in an open display of it's-not-what-you-know-it's-who-you-know. As a result, I landed the undeserved chance to work on updating the USA guidebook, what I thought would be the best job in the world.
"Here's the old edition, here's a bag of money, here's a free flight and car rental for three weeks, and here are some business cards to flash around and get free stuff." Or so it went in my head.
After previously working crappy jobs to save money and keep travelling, getting the guidebook gig made it all worthwhile. Because I was getting paid to travel. I was heading down a highway paved with gold.
And so I eased myself into it, soaking up happy hour drinks at the Embassy Suites in St Louis on the first night and enjoying various freebies. Three weeks seemed ample time to traverse a mere seven states of the Great Plains and check a few hotels, restaurants and museums along the way.
After all, the really hard work had been done already by the people who had written the first edition of the guidebook. I was just passing through, enjoying the scenery and ensuring phone numbers, addresses and prices were correct. It would be easy and leisurely, with time to stop and see other sights.
I started at the visitors centre, where I nabbed every brochure and pamphlet on offer. Then it was a blur of museums, galleries, bars, restaurants, hotels and cafés. I also spent an hour on the phone at the Embassy Suites, chasing information and updates. I missed happy hour. I missed dinner.
By day three, it had become clear that my Holy Grail was actually a poisoned chalice. Updating the guidebook was hard, frustrating, time-consuming work, and doing what I love for money was making me hate it.
Worse, so much of the book was incorrect to start with, which meant I was rewriting some sections rather than just updating them. In each city or town, there was so much information to check, it made my head spin.
The stress of it all kept me awake at night, trying to get comfy on the dented mattresses of cheap motels, counting the ceiling stains.
It turned out that a single page of a guidebook was utterly overwhelming in terms of the amount of information I had to change, confirm or remove... What the hell had I got myself into?
I ended up doing a lot of driving, criss-crossing the massive states of the Great Plains in my rented, barely roadworthy, Chevrolet Lawnmower. My back was so sore, it was as if I'd spent those six hours a day ploughing the myriad cornfields of Iowa by hand, or maybe building a baseball field in one.
The car ended up dying near Denver and had to be replaced. All the brochures and pamphlets I had gathered from visitors centres, piled on the passenger and back seats, didn't help its already pathetic fuel economy and performance.
On day four, I had a nervous breakdown in the bathroom of my room in the Hotel Fort Des Moines. I couldn't go on. The thought of another six hours of driving and checking so many things made me weep. I called my editor-friend in London and he talked me down from the balcony ledge. His advice was to cut corners, skip things, make it up, do whatever I could to get through the remaining seventeen days and make it look like I'd done a passable job.
"Fudge as much as you can," he said. "You'll go crazy otherwise."
I yearned for the time I would be rid of the guidebook and able to travel my own way again, working construction or serving drinks even. Jittery, I drove on, but stopped going to every place. I skipped North Dakota entirely. I fudged. I enlisted the help of local tourism marketing people, getting them to do the work. I kept the anxiety demons at bay and eventually things started to improve.
As hard as it was, that whirlwind trip of the Great Plains now lives in my mind as a good memory; an experience that made me understand how I didn't want to travel and what work I didn't want to do. I also got to see some things I might otherwise have missed, like Carhenge in Nebraska and the Crazy Horse Monument in South Dakota, and fascinating cities like Deadwood and Kansas City.
When it was over, it was a relief. I spent around five hours a day, on average, behind the wheel and covered nearly 3,000 miles in total.
But would I update another guidebook? I'm not sure.
There are lots of ways to get paid to travel. You can teach English, be a tour guide, work seasonally on farms, become a travel photographer, get a job on a cruise liner, or even become a flight attendant.
But these are all jobs, as is updating a guidebook. While you may end up in some far-flung places, you're getting paid to work. You might even find that you work harder than ever, with bosses and supervisors more than happy to remind you that you're getting paid to travel. Four magic words that aren't all they're cracked up to be.
Campbell Jefferys tells this story in full in the chapter entitled "Dream Job USA", in his new book Greetings from.