One Attorney’s Story of Leaving the Real World for Life in the Great Outdoors
Staring out my office window at the buildings of downtown Dallas lit up for the night, a wave of panic rolled over me.
Have I made a terrible mistake? Am I really going to leave everything behind?
I looked back at the floor covered with the boxes of legal notes and files I had been reviewing, hoping they would somehow ground my flight of panic, when someone knocked on my door.
“Heard you quit to go fly fishing. You know we all hate you, right?”
A week later I was driving north on I-25 toward the mountains with my former life quickly fading in the rear-view mirror. I had been a corporate and securities attorney at a mid-size law firm for nearly six years. And I enjoyed it for several years, despite the late nights, long weekends, and incessant out-of-the-blue fire drills.
But somewhere along the line it stopped being rewarding. As I progressed from a junior associate to senior associate sitting first chair (or only chair) on deals, the work piled up. The late nights and all-nighters piled up. The long weekends at the office piled up. Meanwhile, opportunities to see friends and family and spend time skiing or fly fishing dried up. After several years of grinding out the hours, I realized I didn’t have the energy to do it anymore—I was completely burned out. I’d stop reviewing a document to look up a question of law, but I’d soon find myself looking at sports scores on ESPN, snow depths across the Rockies, or pictures of giant fish. A vacation wasn’t going to be enough to recharge my batteries; I knew I had to get out.
But then what?
I wasn’t ready to shut the door on corporate law forever, but I also knew that I didn’t have the energy to embark on a new career yet—whether it was as a lawyer or something else entirely. So I hatched a plan: head to the mountains at the beginning of the summer and go fly fishing (with a little hiking, mountain biking, rafting, and skiing mixed in for good measure), and see where the road would take me.
When I announced my “plan” to leave my life in Dallas behind to fly fish, my friends and family weren’t really surprised. I had loved fly fishing since I was little, and that passion had grown over the years, taking me to rivers across the West, to Alaska, and eventually to Kamchatka (eastern Russia). And now that passion was taking me to the mountains for a summer of freedom.
A couple months into that incredible summer, I fell into a job as a fly fishing guide at Dan’s Fly Shop in Lake City, Colorado. I was getting paid to take people fishing and teach them the sport I loved in one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. After getting a taste of this lifestyle, there was no way I was going to be chained back down to a desk any time soon.
When I was in elementary school, I told every adult who asked that when I grew up, I was going to be a fly fishing guide in the summer and a ski instructor in the winter. “Elementary-School Ryan” seemed to be right about the fly fishing gig, so I figured I should follow through on that life-long dream and try my hand as a ski instructor too.
So what’s next?
After wrapping up my second year as a ski instructor at Deer Valley in Utah this spring, I am planning on going back next season once I finish my third summer as a fly fishing guide in Lake City.
Depending on the season, I spend each day either fly fishing, skiing, or trekking to beautiful vistas to take pictures (I sell some of my photographs in Lake City). While my alarm clock used to jar me awake from anxious dreams about impossible deadlines and legal issues, filling me with a sense of dread, I now wake up most mornings before my alarm excited to spend my day doing something I truly love. The frantic bustle of the corporate world—and the incessant noise of ringing phones, chiming calendar reminders, and buzzing email alerts—has been replaced with wilderness, tranquility, and simplicity.
What started as a short sabbatical from my life as a lawyer became a chance at a new life—a life chasing big fish and deep snow—the dream life I envisioned as a naïve elementary-school kid clumsily slinging around his first fly rod in the shadows of the mountains.
Looking out my window at snow-covered peaks, I can see it clearly now: leaving it all behind was no mistake.
Ryan Ellis is an attorney, fly fishing guide, ski instructor, and outdoor photographer. You can follow his adventures at:
Editor’s Note: This article has been edited for length; the complete version is available here.