“My parents never traveled, and I didn’t grow up traveling. But we were hard-core campers.” It’s not quite what you’d expect to hear, given how readily her name is associated with travel today, yet that’s the way things were for Kiersten Rich in her youth. The Volkswagen camper van, tent adventures on the west coast and a father who, until recently, was perfectly content without a passport. She may not be able to relive those times, the blissful naivety that comes with only knowing your own backyard, but she can get tied up in their nostalgic sweep. No detail is buried too deep for her to resurrect.
Rich is better known as the ebullient face behind her travel blog, The Blonde Abroad. She grew up on three acres of land in rural Temecula, a smallish inland burg sixty miles north of San Diego. She was raised alongside chickens, dirt bikes and a horse. There were no neighbors within walking distance, and young Kiersten shared a room with her brother until the age of seven. Today, she’s rarely seen not smiling and calls herself “bikini-obsessed.” Her friends, of which she has many scattered across the world, describe her as quirky, fun-loving and difficult to keep up with. Like all Californian-at-heart twenty-somethings, she attends Coachella and Burning Man.
Rich studied financial planning at San Diego State University, and worked for several firms from the age of eighteen. Her career progressed beyond her finishing school, pushing her to an increased level of immersion in her work. Leaving for the office at 5am and returning after dark was not abnormal. It wasn’t until the Australian couple, from whom she was renting her apartment, showed concern for her that Rich had a true wake-up call. “You’re missing the best years of your life,” they told her. Perhaps taking some time to discover her true calling wasn’t such a bad idea. “In Australia, we do a gap year,” they said, referring to the year of travel wedged before or after college that’s common outside of North America. After all, she was just twenty-one.
At first, Rich was downright opposed to the notion of leaving her blossoming career, then hesitant, then curious. The couple had, unknowingly, planted a seed that could not be unsown. Was she moving in the direction she wanted, or was it all a big charade? As she gained greater clarity into those unfulfilling pieces of her life, Rich couldn’t hide from her own ignorance anymore. “Nobody loves their job,” the people around her assured her. Is that true? And if so, does it need to be? She had to try something new, and a small shift would not suffice. She quit her job with the firm and set out on her first big trip, leaving just weeks after her twenty-second birthday.
Six years later, Rich is one of the most prominent travel personalities on the Internet. She interacts constantly with her 400,000 Instagram followers, and has developed a wildly loyal readership through her blog, which she leverages to make travel more accessible to women. “I don’t want to be idolized—I want to inspire people,” she says without pretense. Yet she’s far from immune from the swings that come with being a public-facing personality. Especially in the early days, those three years between her first blog post and the time when she was running a thriving business, a particularly nosy question surfaced regularly: Am I denying reality?
Given that what she was chasing—a life of perpetual travel—was so high-risk, and given that it sat wrapped in a business model—blogging—where success had yet to be proven, let alone formulated, was her pursuit of it simply a pipe dream? The inner voice Rich entertained was the exact voice every entrepreneur and creator faces, the voice who gaslights you so vigorously that you begin to gaslight yourself. Am I crazy for chasing this? Will I pull my head out of the clouds one day and scold myself for acting so rashly? In a way, though, her self-doubt was no different from the uncertainty Rich was facing out in the world every day, uncertainty she regularly tackled with ease. It just presented itself in a different package.