I grew up in a small town in New England, not near the coast. My parents owned 100 acres of woods (still do) and still are the smallest landowner on every boundary. We were “off the grid,” no connection to a power line. The only indoor plumbing was a hand pump for water, and drains from the bathtub and kitchen sink. Obviously no TV. After my parents divorced and my mom replaced the gasoline generator with solar panels (1990), that was our only source of power. Sometimes during the winter when it was cloudy for a week straight I did my homework by candlelight.
I always had a vague sense that modern American life didn’t suit me.
I read a lot of books as a kid, and played in the woods instead of watching tv. I remember my babysitter having to teach me how to use a toilet, because I’d never used an in-house bathroom before. Putting on pants and jacket to go to the outhouse in January isn’t any fun, so I learned to go to the bathroom before bed, and after I woke up. No hardship.
I went to a high school of 1,200 students that was bigger than the town I lived in. I moved to Colorado for college, where Boulder, at roughly 100,000 people, was a big city. I’d never spent more than a few days in a place over 15,000 people.
I took a year off between high school and college, to move to California and snowboard for a season. I had already been accepted to college, and deferred for a year, no fear of me not going. My plan fell through, and the world was big and I had just turned 18, and I got scared and didn’t go. I lived with my parents for a year, worked a little, saved a little bit of money, and then went to college. I really regret not going. I REALLY regret it. But perhaps it was a good thing, because now I know that not taking a plunge into the unknown doesn’t work for me. I’ve even gone so far as to say: “I don’t regret anything I’ve done, but I regret all the things I haven’t done. Many (most?) things haven’t gone as I’d planned, but I don’t regret them.” Bold words for a guy 33.3 years old at this writing. I still have plenty of time to make an irreparable mistake.
I took a semester of in the middle of college, moved to Breckenridge, and snowboarded 70 days that year, while working a full-time job at a ski shop. Best 6 months of my life. Lots of obstacles to make it happen. I had to tell school was wasn’t going to spring semester while I still didn’t have a job or a place to live in Breck. That was scary. My father, in a move I look back on as remarkably loving and fair, said he would pay for housing and college while I was a full-time student, but not otherwise. I had to man up and take responsibility for myself, at the red and mewling age of 21. Sissy. It never occurred to me not to take that leap, because the pain of not doing it a couple years earlier was so powerful. “I don’t regret the things I’ve done, just the ones I haven’t.”
I went back to school with renewed vigor, after experiencing what life was like just barely above minimum wage. After college I had a couple of dead-end jobs, intentionally. I had a degree, but still wasn’t ready to commit to it yet. My cousin bought a sailboat in Maine (where he grew up), and planned to sail it around the world. Of course I quit my job to help him work on the boat for 3 months, and take off with 2 others. (My cousin later married one of them (female, smartypants), the other was a groomsman at my wedding, and I at his.) My mom said my cousin and I had talked about sailing around the world when we were under 10 years old. 15-20 years later, we acted on it.
A reality tv show of the prep and the sail down the east coast would have been really good tv, at least in comparison to reality tv. Hard work, setbacks, adventure, man vs. nature, interpersonal drama. I didn’t get along with her, and I lost the power struggle. In the Bahamas (we left from Maine 10/31/06 – it’s cold then!) I was asked to leave the boat. I’d poured my heart into that floating home, I thought I was the first mate. I was also, at 26, the oldest and least interested in partying. I took my things and asked a guy we’d met a week before if I could cruise with him.
I sailed for another 5 moths, through most of the islands in the eastern Caribbean, having the time of my life. My then girlfriend (now wife) was even persuaded (barely) to quit her job and spend 2 months in paradise with me. Rough life. We came back to Denver, went back to real life.
I had a new appreciation for real life, and my real life wasn’t everyone else’s real life. I remember the taste of tuna and mahi mahi, the excitement of catching it. I remember hanging upside down in the engine compartment for days troubleshooting fuel problems (finally solved by an old guy who’s payment was a bottle of cheap rum). I remember waiting for parts for 3 weeks in the Turks and Caicos, and rebuilding the same starter motor every day for a week before we figured out the problem. I remember hiking and swimming in waterfalls. Bathing in the ocean. Bathing in rainstorms. Dodging coral getting into chicken harbor, and the moron trying to follow us in not following our track. I remember pounding into headwinds and big seas the first day the girls were on the boat south of Puerto Rico. I remember being seasick, and wishing it would just stop for just a minute or two. I remember Montezuma’s Revenge in Luperon. I remember the 5-year-old girl on our boat, who taught me that kids could be cool. I remember Duncan and Elaine, and I still want their beautiful boat. I remember tons of helpful, friendly cruisers, everywhere we went. I didn’t spend enough time with the locals, but perhaps even then, in the dark ages of 2007, us rich white boat-people were a dime a dozen. I didn’t control where we went, or how long we stayed (not my boat, recall). I didn’t control whether we motored or sailed. There are many things I haven’t yet gotten to.
My mother’s father died on Christmas day, playing in the garage with my daughter. She was 4 or 5. They were having fun, not doing anything crazy. Life happens sometimes. My wife’s aunt died a couple years ago. She was in her early 60’s, healthy, happy. She fell down the stairs one day. The doctors put her in a coma to work on a blood clot, or the spinal column, or something like that, and she never woke up. Could have happened to any of us. Still could. I believe the annual fatality rate from car crashes, just in the US, is something like 35,000. Then the injury rate is above and beyond that. The point is, life is dangerous. Even if we don’t fall down the stairs, or have a car crash, what if we stay safe and in our cubicles all our lives? The danger of living a dull life seems more real, more potent, that the dangers of piracy, hitting a container in the night, or the perfect storm.
If we are frugal, and handy, and kind, and resourceful, we can use our savings and our wits to survive indefinitely. I have learned much from those who have gone much farther with much less than I, and done it already. I have much to learn (obviously, we all do). Voyaging on a small income, Cruising on a budget, VolksCruiser, the BlueWater Sailing Collective, there are many inspirations for this lifestyle.
The largest challenge is to convince my wife that the challenges are not that large! So what if the boat is ugly, or the plumbing doesn’t work, or the wiring, or the engine, or the stove, or whatever! The freedom to not live on command is worth so much more than that. Those problems are minor, they can be fixed with money or time. If you put time into it, you could also gain knowledge, and friendships, and confidence, and independence, and perhaps a source of income when someone else wants to pay money instead of time for a similar problem. Now you’re not working because you have to, but because you want to. See Mr. Money Mustache for more on that topic.
More people who live closer to nature, and who understand the systems they live with (natural as well as mechanical), is better. Those people are less likely to be bad people, and more likely to be good people. When you separate yourself, it’s easier to make a conflict into “us vs. them.” Then “they” can be de-humanized, and all sorts of atrocities become justifiable. See slavery, 1984, Animal Farm, etc. I wish to re-unite myself with nature, with people. I’m sick of driving through suburbia, seeing houses packed next to each other, with all the shades drawn and nobody knows how the neighbor is doing, or how they feel about X politician, or what their kid is like in school. I’m sick of emailing my coworker 40 feet down the hall. I’m tired of “grow or die.” We have separated ourselves from what matters, from what’s real. I’m going back to reality.