Alumni Feature- Eric Wagner (’12) | DETOURS ON LIFE’S ROAD

Detours On Life’s Road

R.E. Wagner

I once read a few lines from writer Matthew E. Fryer who wrote that, “With every ending, a new beginning is defined.”


It’s a quote that I’ve found pretty applicable to my life since graduating from James Madison back in 2012. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned since getting my diploma, it’s that life is not the straightforward road we might believe it to be.

Since leaving Harrisonburg over five years ago, I’ve moved across three different states, lived in five different apartments, and gone on a few adventures. I rode my bicycle across the United States, wrote a book about the experience called Leaving It On the Road, and ran a fitness website of the same title for over four years.  I’ve worked more than half a dozen different careers in North Carolina, California, Virginia and New Jersey. I’ve been a free-lance journalist, personal trainer, spinning instructor and spent time in corporate America as a Junior Business Analyst and a Copywriter.

Even in this day and age when it’s common for people to migrate from job-to-job and state-to-state, I feel like my numbers are pretty high compared to your average post-college graduate. My life hasn’t exactly run in a straight line. The experiences have been varied and don’t quite fit into your typical route of a post-college life. I have tried many different paths and traveled down many different roads.

There have been beginnings, endings unexpected opportunities and sudden 180 degree shifts. Some careers have been rewarding and fulfilling and some have helped me better understand what I don’t want to do with the rest of my life. And all along the way, I’ve tried to be mindful of the lessons I’ve learned along the way about life’s detours. Because while it may appear to the outsider (especially my parents) that there has been no consistency, rhyme or reason to my life and my choices, I believe that everything that has happened since leaving college has helped me get closer to the answers I’ve been looking for.

Questions like: “What is my purpose in life? What kind of person am I? What makes me happy?” And the biggest question of all, “how can I take those qualities, those traits, that I love best about myself, and turn them into a career that gives me fulfillment and happiness?”

Now, some people know right off the bat exactly what they want to do with their lives from the time they are kids. Whether it’s becoming a police officer, doctor or a teacher, I’ve always admired those kinds of folks. I once had a friend from high school who told me that she knew since she was a little girl that she wanted to be a veterinarian. In fact, she was so convinced, that after her Guinea pig passed away, she stuck it in the freezer and dissected it a few days later.

And after a long journey through college and veterinary school, she’ll be accepting her diploma from Ohio State and working in a field that she’s passionate about.

But for me, and most likely a lot of you out there reading this, those questions weren’t so easy to answer like they were for my friend. Even before I had been accepted into James Madison in 2008, I found myself asking myself all the time in the hallways of my high school, “how do I fit my passion for writing into a sustainable career?” Since I was young, I simply figured that those answers would be forthcoming during my time in college as I continued my education.

Surely those best four years of my life would be when I discovered myself!

Instead, rather than having a sudden epiphany during my four years at James Madison, instead I found those questions growing increasingly intense and laced with an underlying sense of panic. Eventually I became so obsessed with finding my place in the world that it got me into some really tough spots mentally. There was anxiety, depression and plenty of late nights where I never stopped questioning my place. By the time I had my diploma, I was more uncertain than ever.

Eric's Headshot
Eric (Left) and his Dad (Right), who joined him on the cross country bicycle ride.

In the spring of 2013, I was so eager to discover myself that I rode across the entirety of the United States on my bicycle, hoping that it would shed some light on the topic. I thought that perhaps I could find the solution out on the plains and mountains of America. It was an incredibly difficult and challenging experience, both mentally and physically, and even though I still had questions about life and it’s meaning, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. There are so many things that the bike ride taught me that I am still learning to this day.

I can still remember my first day on the road with my dad. Riding out from the California Coast to our first stop in Palm Springs over a 100 miles away. It was the furthest I had ever ridden in my life at that point, and with only ten miles left on our route we were riding through the desert on a gentle downhill slope. The wind was at our backs and I was more tired than I had felt in a very long time.

Suddenly, my dad realized that we had gone down the wrong road and that we needed to turn around the way we had just came. Instead of the wind at my back and an easy ride downhill, we had to fight our way back to the main road inch by painful inch to get back on the right course. It was the first big detour on our bike ride, and it wouldn’t be our last by any means. Each time that we made a wrong turn, my dad would jokingly call them “bonus miles,” and even though I never felt like something in the realm of a bonus, those wrong turns taught me a lot about life off the bike.

You see, since I’ve been out of school, it seemed that no matter how hard I worked or what kind of career path I went down, nothing has quite seemed to fit. But if life were simple, and straightforward, where all the answers to our questions were simply handed to us with no effort on our part, then there would be no growth or appreciation for how we’ve gotten to where we are now.

Since I’ve been out of school, I’ve come to learn that there is no magical roadmap that would get me from here to there with the right amount of steps. I’ve had to actively search for that kind of fulfillment and happiness through trial and error, and there have been plenty of detours along the way. One of the biggest detours that I had to follow was when I decided to become a personal trainer/spinning instructor. I’ll never forget when I made the decision to go for it and I’ll also never forget when I realized that this wasn’t the path I was supposed to be taking.

It was the Fall after my cross-country bike ride with my dad and I was working on Leaving It On the Road. To pay the rent, I was working part-time as a concierge at a retirement home and the owners were kind enough to let me work on my book when things were quiet. Because it was a retirement home, things were quiet pretty often and I was able to get a significant amount of writing done in-between answering the phones and delivering messages to the staff.

One day I was having a conversation with a woman whose father-in-law had become a resident several weeks earlier. I was working on the book and she asked me what I was working on so intently at the computer. I explained to her that I was writing a book about my cross-country bicycle ride with my father, she told me that she was the Fitness Director of several different gyms in the area and offered me a job as a fitness attendant. Less than a year later, I had earned my Spin Instructor Certification as well as my Personal Trainer Certification.

Suddenly, I saw where my life was supposed to be headed. I was going to combine my passion for writing and my passion for personal fitness to build a career within the fitness industry. Using my Leaving It On the Road blog and book, I was going to connect with people on their own journey to healthier lifestyles. In order to help those people live better lives, I would use my experiences in college and on the road to encourage and inspire them. It was an empowering and exciting feeling and I worked hard at the vision for the next two years.

Leaving It On The Road, book signing.

In fact, I was so certain that this was the direction that I was supposed to be traveling down, that my fiancé and I packed up all of our things and moved cross-country to live in San Francisco. I got worked at several different gyms and even had a job as a spinning instructor at a small boutique spin studio. During my time on the West Coast, I got to work with some amazing people, both clients and mentors, who taught me so much more about fitness and nutrition than I realized. I grew a lot, both as a trainer and as a person, and although it was challenging to be away from everything I knew, it was an experience that I am glad that I went through.

My Best Friend Scotty Philips, Myself, and my fiance Annie Marshal at the spin studio in San Francisco
Eric’s best friend, Scotty Philips (Left), Eric (Center), Eric’s fiance, Annie Marshal (right).

Unfortunately, things didn’t work out quite as I thought they would. The lifestyle of a personal trainer just wasn’t matching up with the vision that I had imagined, and after three years headed down this particular road, I began to question if this was the kind of career path that I wanted to be traveling down for the rest of my life. When I found that the answer was no, I panicked at the thought of having to start all over again.

At the time, it felt like a huge disappointment. I had just spent the past three years working towards a goal that now no longer had any place in my life. It wasn’t the first time that I’ve had to readjust my course in life, nor will it be the last. But since then, I’ve learned that with each trial and error that has passed since college, I have felt myself getting closer to the real answers to all of those questions that have been rattling around in my head all of these years.

Life can be messy and unpredictable, but sometimes it’s about what you don’t want as much as what you do want.

So as you begin to take those first few steps down your own journey in the post-graduate world, remember that things will not always work out perfectly. Your first job might be completely different from what you first expected. You might hate it at first but then realize that you love it. You might love it but realize that you don’t see yourself doing it forever and need to make a change.

And when that happens, just remember that once you leave that supported, contained campus, there is no syllabus to follow or curriculum to adhere to. There is no exact right answer or wrong solution, just choices we make and the lessons we hopefully learn when life throws us a detour.



Robert Eric Wagner ( R.E. Wagner)

Graduating from JMU in 2012, Wagner majored in Media Arts & Design, with a Journalism concentration, and minored in Creative Writing. After receiving his diploma, he silently asked himself the simple question many before him have asked once the graduation music stops playing.

“What do I do with now?”

Since then, Wagner has been on a road of self-discovery. Starting in 2009 with a 33-day cross-country bicycle ride with his father, he drew inspiration from dozens of compelling personalities both on and off the road. Compelled to share his story with those who might benefit from his experiences, Robert went on to write his first memoir. Leaving It On the Road was released in May of 2016.

Wagner continues to pursue his passion of pushing himself both physically and mentally in every pursuit. After working in the fitness industry for two years, he moved to San Francisco, CA to work as both a Personal Trainer and a Spinning Instructor. Although recently switching careers, Robert still maintains his fitness blog and runs his own online fitness consultation/adventure training business.


Enjoyed this article?

Check out his Alumni Webinar: 

Leaving It On The Road

Presented By: Robert Eric Wagner (’12)

Previously recorded on Friday, April 21, 2017. 1-2pm EST

Join Wagner for a discussion about how life can be a lot like a bicycle ride. There are ups, downs, detours and obstacles that you might never have considered at first. During his 33-day ride across the United States States, Wagner was able to identify valuable life lessons that he documented and shared with close friends and family on his blog before turning the experience into his first memoir to share with the world.

Click here to access webinar recording. You will be asked to fill out a short form first, then the recording will be emailed in your confirmation.


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