With Retirement, One Boomer Becomes an Apprentice Nomad

Baby boomers? An active lifestyle? It doesn’t get much better than this: Mitchell Zetlin’s slightly premature retirement so he could relive the kind of adventure he lived as a young man. He became an apprentice nomad.

Hard to believe but after 37 years with the Federal Government, I have retired. Most of those years I was designing museum exhibitions for National Park Service visitor centers across the United States. Before the Government I was an art director in New York.

I had planned to retire this year in January as a very big birthday number; one that made 60 look young. But I ran out the door even earlier, in November 2012. Why November? Because late last Spring I received a call from a former colleague and close friend who had retired a little more then a year earlier and had spent the year with his wife first with a month in Oaxaca, Mexico, then on to Paris, Luxembourg, Africa, and finally hiking in northern Spain.

First, you eat: Mitch with Susana Trilling at her cooking school, Seasons of My Heart in Osxaca, Mexico.

First, you eat: Mitch with Susana Trilling at her cooking school, Seasons of My Heart in Osxaca, Mexico.

The phone conversation went something like this: “After all our travels last year Jane and I are planning to return to Oaxaca for most of January and February but this timeinstead of a B & B we want to rent an apartment. We could get somethingsmaller for the two of us but thought we would rent a place with multi bedrooms and baths and thought you would like to join us. We may have other friends coming down for part of the time we would have the place.” I said yes without hesitating.

Oaxaca has been my “training wheels” for hopefully a new nomadic life. Make no mistake, I love my life at home in the States but I have wanted to return to a free-spirited life like I lived in my early 20s. I have been traveling, including a great trip to Peru several years ago, but the last big open-ended travel adventure was in my mid-20s when I left my job in New York, closed up my apartment and went off to travel in Europe with my then-girlfriend for a Summer and Fall with only one-way tickets. There were many young Americans and Europeans living our lifestyle. We had a shared spirit and would meet and travel together along the way.

Mitch in the village of San Martin Tilcajete with the carver of a jaguar he bought.

Mitch in the village of San Martin Tilcajete with the carver of a jaguar he bought.

Guess what? They’re still out there, but now on average they are in their late 60s. What I found in Oaxaca were Americans and many Canadians who had long traveled to Oaxaca for a month to escape Winter and now on average were there for four to five months.

The part-time expats and some full-time expats are well organized with the Oaxaca Lending Library set up as gringo central. It is a great resource and along with books, it is a place of lectures, a meeting place for organized hikes, movies, bridge, and connecting with fellow travelers with similar interest. This is not the cruise ship or tour crowd. They are well informed and deeply interested in investing time getting to know another culture.

The apartment we rented was closer to being a duplex house and we have the entire upper floor. It has everything we need including a roof terrace with views of the Sierra Madres. I love it here. Situated in Mexico’s southern highlands halfway between Mexico City and Guatemala, Oaxaca is known for its cuisine, weaving, arts, archeological sites, early colonial architecture, Indian culture, and climate. It’s easy to see why it is a World Heritage Site.

Somewhere under there is a burro.

Somewhere under there is a burro along the foothills of the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca.

I have traveled the villages and archeological sites out of town, hiked in the Sierra Madres, gone to two cooking schools, visited the museums, sat in the zocolo (the public square) watching the world pass by and listening to music that is everywhere. There have been museum and gallery art show openings that made me think I was back in New York. I have discovered the bohemian late night club scene that on somenights play current French films and on others starting at 11:00 p.m. there’s a circus with acrobats, magician, clown, and jugglers, all to the music of Django Reinhardt, the gypsy jazz guitarist from the 1930’s, pure magic.

Mornings have been my favorite time. I sit in a coffee shop courtyard for about a half-hour, then off to the Oaxaca Institute of Graphic Arts exploring the vast art book collections. After I am inspired by what I pick off the shelf, I go outside, open my sketch book, and draw what I am attracted to.

I will be returning home to my farm in Virginia, riding my horse and taking long naps. But it feels as though I have come full circle.


  1. Mitch, you nailed it. The gringos we met in Oaxaca are open minded, gentle, and sympathetic to Mexican culture, i.e. no right winger types need apply. My only concern is that by telling it like it is, Oaxaca may experience an influx of visitors from north of the Rio Grande. Oh well, the truth should be told anyhow.

    1. How closed-minded, Ian. There tons of what you call right wingers who love Mexico and Mexican culture. And I don’t think Mexicans are looking for sympathy. What self-respecting adult wants sympathy?

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