Take This Job and Shove It

What does it take to get a person to give up a lucrative corporate career and risk it all to move to a rural area to pursue his or her passion? Thousands of people visit the beautiful countryside around and near the Blue Ridge, either to enjoy the unspoiled natural beauty of rural Virginia or to pursue a hobby they can’t do in the city or suburbs. Perhaps they daydream during the week, stuck in our infamous traffic on the way to or from a job that provides the money to pursue that hobby but little else in the way of personal fulfillment.

Some decide early, after a brief taste of the corporate world, that they just aren’t cut out for it. Some pour their heart and soul into their careers, and add a family and financial responsibility that makes it that much harder to jettison responsibility to go sell shells on an island or, in the case of our area, ride horses for a living. And some prove that with hard work and sacrifice, it’s always possible to pursue a dream.

A little over a year ago, Bobby Baldwin, 46, was a school principal. A psychology major in college, he entered the field of counseling, found he enjoyed working with children and got a masters degree in special education from George Mason and began teaching emotionally disturbed children. “I loved it but it’s a physically and emotionally demanding job; a young person’s job,” he said. “Not one you can do for 30 years.”

So Baldwin added a second Masters degree, this one in education leadership and administration and rose through the ranks from assistant principal to principal, putting in more and longer hours as he worked and raised a family. A country boy who grew up in rural Southern Maryland, he found he had less and less time to pursue his hobbies of waterfowl hunting and training retrievers. “I figured I’d put in my 30 years and retire and then play with the dogs,” he said. But increasingly he began to hate city life and couldn’t see himself continuing along the same path for another dozen years. So last year, after contemplating several promising job offers, he declined them all and decided to train dogs full time.

“It was kind of scary, going from a nice salary and health insurance, to not knowing where or how much my income would be,” Baldwin said. But he added that the risk was lessened because he was able to move to the family farm and spend more time with his aging parents, although it did mean uprooting his two daughters from their friends and schools and going from their spacious city home to a little farmhouse where they all four share a single bathroom. “But we all pulled together and made it work.” He doesn’t mind the hard work nor the fact that like any job with animals, the hours are long and the dogs have to be fed, watered and aired seven days a week. “No more running off to the beach on weekends,” he said. But he doesn’t regret his career change.

Meghan Taylor Look and Rachel Kline, both 23, didn’t waste as much time before deciding that they preferred barn boots to high heels and both gave up the corporate lifestyle for an equestrian lifestyle. Look, who was living in Reston, worked several years in the finance industry and had a lucrative job that allowed her to have a horse that she boarded in Middleburg. She daydreamed about working with horses full time and surfed internet equestrian sites that listed jobs until she found the right fit—and quit her job in the collections department to become a stable manager at a large training facility outside Warrenton. “I did the reverse commute from Reston for awhile,” she said. Look has now started her own digital PR and marketing firm for equestrian professionals. “Most of them are too busy or not digitally savvy enough,” she explained. And she now lives in Fauquier so the commute isn’t a problem.

Kline, who grew up in the Middleburg area and rode at Foxcroft and at Southern Methodist Univ. in Texas, accepted a high paying position right after graduation as vice president of client relations with a start-up digital media company in Texas. The chaotic hours left her little time to ride and after a year, a visit back home to Virginia reminded her of just how much she missed it. So she quit her job, moved back and took a lower paying job where she could work remotely from home and pursue her dream of riding jumpers. But the pay cut took some getting used to. “I ride in the evenings,” she said. “To make it work, I muck stalls, I farm sit, I do whatever it takes.”

Melissa Glover Gerlach, 40, ditched a 6-figure government contracting job dealing with risk assessment and continuity planning so she could work with dressage horses full time. While living in Ashburn, she had a horse she boarded in Western Loudoun County but she had to endure a daily commute to Crystal City that seemed to get worse after the birth of her son. It helped that her husband was already vested in the horse business; he is a German-born top level dressage rider and instructor. While she was working, he’d often be away traveling to shows, and shortly after their son was born, the baby ended up spending 10 to 12 hours a day in daycare. “It was hard,” Gerlach admitted. Three years ago, her employer was going to move her position to Southeast D.C., a move that would double time spent on an already hellish commute. She had to accept it or a layoff. She took the layoff, and the Gerlachs leased a farm in Middleburg for his business and Gerlach took over the bookkeeping and the marketing, as well as helping out. Their barn filled immediately and they’ve now moved to a larger facility and live onsite. “I can’t imagine a better family life,” she said, although she did have to take a part time job bartending to help with finances. The Gerlachs’ son, who will be 5 shortly, already has his own pony. “Where else could you watch your son go feed his pony after breakfast?” she said.

And it’s not just the women who give up the corporate world for their horses. Aldie resident Nate Dailey, 45, recently gave up a position as a senior executive Department of Defense consultant/IT enterprises architect to play and teach polo instead. “Best idea I’ve ever had. And I foxhunt in the off season.” While he admits giving up the big bucks has been scary, he said it’s been the best summer of his life so far. To make ends meet, “I’ve groomed for a large polo string; I’ve taken on three students that have never played polo before, I developed the new Great Meadow polo club website and worked for [polo manager] John Gobin to promote Great Meadow polo, been asked to play in certain teams to anchor. Started trimming my own horses’ hooves, bush hogging fields…basically scraping to get by. In the past I’ve developed composite polo mallet shafts, used drones to record polo matches and record polo matches and technology to capture equine physiological telemetry….sort of pulling in my techie-ness to try to start a new career centered on equine sports.”

In Loudoun County, Mark Schroeter feels very fortunate to make a living doing something he’s passionate about: gardening. Schroeter is the head gardener at Oatlands Plantation south of Leesburg, world-famous for its 4.5-acre formal gardens and surrounding native plantings. But he started out sitting at a desk wearing a headset, as a customer service representative at the Home Shopping Network in Florida. “I hated it, hated being inside,” he said. As a boy growing up in the Midwest, he’d always liked gardening and loved being in Florida for the beautiful and exotic tropical plants and the estates with their magnificent gardens and swans. When he finally quit his hated desk job, he marched outside and asked the head of the landscaping crew that took care of the grounds how he could get a job like that and was hired the same day.

While Schroeter preferred mowing lawns to a desk job, he wisely decided to go back to school and study landscape design, botany and tried to learn everything he could about the plants he loved. This led to a job with the Architect of the U.S. Capitol where he became the head gardener for the U.S. Capitol (including the Capitol itself, the ancillary buildings and the Supreme Court). “I love to be outside, to have my hands in the dirt. But I also love to learn and in this field you never stop learning,” he said. But eventually the commute, which had lengthened to over 2 hours coming home, began to wear him down; Schroeter lived in Manassas at the time.

One rainy Halloween, the drive home took six hours, so he reluctantly resigned, and took a job as head gardener at the Inn at Little Washington. But even that commute, although less rigorous, was about 100 miles a day. These days Schroeter’s drive to work is short, as he lives in Middleburg and only has to drive to Oatlands, little more than a dozen miles away. And his own garden? “I live in a townhouse,” he chuckles. “But you’re welcome to come see my garden at Oatlands.”

Written by: Julie Reardon

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