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So I graduated from college, now what am I doing?

Updated: Jul 7, 2019

We've all had moments of accomplishment — graduations, championships, talent shows, awards banquets, job offers, etc. These moments are highly sought after because they represent achievement. They signify that we have dedicated the hours of study, practice, and preparation required for big moments of public recognition. Accomplishments should be celebrated, after all.

But when I was entering my senior year of college, preparing to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I didn't feel as proud of my accomplishment as I maybe should have. Don't get me wrong, I worked hard in college. I double majored, made the Dean's list, got involved in student organizations, started a band, worked a job, and paid off my debts. I even scored a cozy-looking job offer from a great company in downtown Chicago. I had gotten what I signed up for: a great education, an amazing time with my friends, and a career-launching job offer.

Graduation. Cannon Cooley. Siblings.
My siblings Grayson and Bryn with me on graduation day!

So what was missing? Why wasn't I ecstatic to be graduating this year?

I think there is a common feeling of disillusionment among college graduates. Many of us are sad to be leaving our best friends. Drew picks up a job in Texas, Tommy leaves for medical school in Pennsylvania, Lily gets engaged to a boy in San Francisco, etc.

I imagine many of us are scared of the career we have chosen. Maybe I should have been an economics teacher. Does my field really impact the world in a positive way? Should I have focused on my love for music?

Perhaps some of us are afraid that soon we will become just like our parents, working 9 to 5 jobs, starting a family, and getting locked into a career that just gets us by. Maybe we'll take a vacation with the kids when they get older for spring break, if we've saved enough money by then.

I think my disillusionment stemmed from these things and many more weaving their way around my brain, which always seems to be thinking at least five years ahead. I began to wonder, is there another path?

I had heard about gap years before. Some friends of mine took time off before college, and some took time off after. Maybe this was the solution for me — I had never studied abroad while in college, and I have yet to see so many beautiful places right here at home in the United States. Maybe I just needed to travel.

So I started doing some research. It wasn't very intentional, but every week or so I would find myself googling "cool gap year ideas."

Then, something happened that solidified my decision. I was in China for two weeks for an internship. During the workday, I was running excel spreadsheets and cracking jokes when I felt my coworkers needed a boost from their jet lag. But my favorite part was at night when we would explore the downtowns of beautiful Chinese cities.

Over and over again, we would run into Chinese people who would ask us where we were from (white, tall Americans tend to stand out among the locals). When we told them that we were Americans, they would get very excited and tell us all about the places they'd traveled to in America. "We loved the Grand Canyon when we visited. And Yellowstone was truly incredible. And we were so happy to see Glacier before the ice melts!"

How had these people, who live as far away from the United States as possible, seen more of my home country than me? That was it. I was taking a gap year to see my own country, and nobody could stop me.

China. The Bund. Shanghai. Cannon Cooley.
Jacob and I in front of The Bund in Shanghai, China.

Now, just because I had made my decision didn't mean I had all my ducks in a row. I didn't have much money. I didn't have a car and I hadn't told anybody about my gap year dream. I still had to finish classes, go to work, and visit my favorite bars on the weekends with my friends. It was a small idea settling into the back of my brain, nowhere near the forefront of my day-to-day activities. But soon, that idea festered and grew into something I knew I had to focus on.

The research became more intense and I told my family that I was considering turning down the job offer. Luckily for me, my family showed me their full support. I told them that I had decided that a road trip around the United States was the optimal gap year option for me. They bought me a book about "van life" to help get me started on choosing a vehicle.

While doing research and preparing for my future "van life," I came across a self-proclaimed "van lifer" named Ian Dow. He had renovated an ambulance into a miniature RV. He was using it to travel the world. That's when I became obsessed with ambulances. There was a profile about Ian in the book my family had given me, and I looked him up online (check out his instagram here). After seeing what Ian had accomplished, both in terms of vehicle renovation and travel, I knew this was something I wanted to experience for myself.

As it turns out, ambulances are great vehicles for road trips. They are well-maintained, they normally don't have too many miles on them, they have valuable electronic capabilities built-in, and the after-market demand is low, which helps drive the price down (shout out to my economics professors for teaching me that one!). The only true downfall is that the fuel mileage is less than ideal.

Ambulance. Cannon Cooley. Vintage. Craigslist.
Me and the ambulance soon after I bought it!

So I looked into how to purchase an ambulance. The best deals were found on Craigslist, so my stepdad and I called a few owners who were trying to sell and we visited the best options for me. Eventually we whittled it down to a 1988 Ford E350 Econoline Series XL Diesel with about

144,000 miles on it.

Design. Ambulance. Cannon Cooley.
My engineering friends helped me plan for the renovation with this design software (SketchUp).

The interior had been mostly stripped down by a previous owner, who used it to help transport dogs for her dog-sitting business. That meant it was primed and ready for us to remodel without much teardown required.

Luckily for me, I have some amazing friends with some amazing skills. They were willing to guide me through the renovation process. Trained electricians, construction managers, engineers, and even a few pharmacists found ways to help me. Those first few weeks in the partially renovated ambulance were full of exhaustion and learning. Step by step, the 1988 emergency automobile started to feel like home. We even started calling it by its nickname, "Ambo."

Ambulance. New Flooring. Cannon Cooley.
My friend Derek who works in construction helping me put in the new flooring.

Ambulance. Bed. Roommate. Cannon Cooley.
My college roommate, John, helped me build my bed!

There were many other helpers along the way, including: my girlfriend who helped find an affordable, easy-to-install closet; my stepdad who let me use all of his power tools; my mother who helped remove the "emergency decals" on the exterior of the ambulance; an artist who designed the replacement exterior decals; my grandma who donated her camping stove, and many others who helped me with other details of the project.

Ambulance. Cannon Cooley. Couch.
My half-built couch, a few weeks into the renovation process!

So great, now you are caught up on my adventure. I have bought and built a modified RV. However, I don't have the funds to go on a very long trip. Diesel fuel can get expensive, especially in a gas-guzzler like an ambulance. I need to regularly buy food, propane, water, campsite passes, and other miscellaneous items. How am I going to come up with the money to make my trip last a whole year?

Ambulance. Cannon Cooley. Towed.
The night I learned to NEVER let a diesel engine run out of fuel... Here's me getting towed because I made that mistake.

I started doing more research on how other "van lifers" do it. Many rely on their websites (usually travel blogs) to help drive revenue by getting clicks and sharing affiliate marketing links. Others run side businesses like clothing brands online. It got me thinking — what could I sell while I was on the road?

Music has always been a big part of my life. I have been writing songs ever since I began learning the piano in 2nd grade. I've always felt that I am good at music, but not great. It's a useful talent to pull out of my hat at parties, as well as great therapy for me when I need to be alone. Maybe I could sell my music to help pay for this trip, but how?

Cannon Cooley. Music. Songwriter. Toddler.
Me first picking up the guitar as a toddler. Not much has changed!

Today's music world is outrageously competitive. To write and produce quality music that sticks out and resonates with people is a challenge few can execute effectively. So my music would have to be different from everybody else's if it had any chance at commercial success.

Another foreseeable problem will be staying social during the trip. Without my family or friends by my side every day, I will be very lonely. To keep my sanity, I will have to find a way to connect with people.

So, I've come up with a strategy I think will satisfy my social needs while adding a twist just interesting enough to make my travel blog, and my music, stand out from the rest.

Cannon Cooley. Peanut Butter Jelly Deli. Music.