Stuff comes with stress attached. The more stuff, the more stress. It’s an unfortunate by-product of the American Dream. Our garages and basements are full of stress, the overflow of our lives of excess.
But the antidote is fairly simple: Downsize. Reduce stress by reducing stuff.
When I was young and newly married and just starting my career, I didn’t even think about whether I might like my life to be any different than my friends. I just automatically started in on the dream, buying a large property and starting on a house that was way too big for two newlyweds. I struggled to keep up with it for most of my adult life while raising a family and starting several businesses.
Fortunately, Kaye and I were able to reverse the process later and achieve the freedom to travel and relax.
A few years ago, Denmark was named the happiest country in the world. Somebody asked why, and the researcher pointed to “low expectations” as the main reason. So when the American said, “maybe I should move to Denmark,” the Dane replied, “You probably wouldn’t like it.”
And there it is. Low expectations.
But that’s not how most Americans think. We are programmed by life and the ad agencies to believe that more happiness comes with more stuff. “Go Big or Go Home!”
I think a life of balance is the best. I don’t tell people to downsize to a point of feeling starved for comfort or convenience. The ideal is to get rid of the unnecessary – and the stress that goes with it – and be left with the basic essentials for a measured life that is fun and relatively hassle-free. In all things, moderation.
It may not be the American Way, but it could deliver greater contentment.
Just ask the Danes.
Anyway, you are never going to hit the road with all that stuff holding you back.
When I was 16 years old and expected to choose a direction for my life, I was a bit nervous about making a bad choice and ruining my life. By high school graduation day everyone is supposed to have made up their minds and be heading off to college, the military, or “entering the workforce” – which meant going and getting a job right away.
Young people are expected to make most of their epic life-directing decisions between 16 and 21 years old: Picking a career, choosing a life-mate, finding the right home, etc. It’s down-right frightening. No wonder many choose to put off those decisions as long as possible.
I chose to get a four-year education degree and headed off for college. Four years later, right on schedule, I married my college sweetheart and we both applied for teaching positions in her home town and were both hired on the spot.
I went into teaching not even knowing if I liked kids. Fortunately, my long-term worries – about going the wrong direction and ruining my life – were resolved: I loved my new career (Kaye says I am just a big kid anyway, so working with students was a lot like playing with my friends) and stuck with it for 27 years until I could take an early buy-out and switch careers.
That was when I started a log home construction company, hired a crew of carpenters, and started building log homes all around the state of Michigan. I was now self-employed and working with my hands as opposed to sitting in a classroom every weekday.
And the change was wonderful. I found that I loved the flexible schedule and working outdoors much of the time. I was the boss.
My approach to the journey of life has relaxed over time. Looking back, I realize that if during my first teaching assignment I had discovered that I hated working with children, my life would not have been ruined. I would have changed directions and tried something else.
And as a youth mentor for most of my adult life, I have often shared this sage advice: How will you really know who you are and what you like to do unless you try stuff out? If something doesn’t work for you, you simply chalk it up to experience, make a shift and head somewhere else.
Really, the biggest hindrance to this philosophy is when you become embedded in a job and a routine that you grow to hate and you are so much in debt that you can’t afford to make a change.
Okay, maybe your life is miserable for now, but you are not really stuck there. It may seem like it takes forever, but you can dig yourself out and move on.
When Kaye and I got the travel bug, we owned too much property and owed too much money to even consider a change. Debt is like a ball-and-chain that anchors you to one spot. But with careful and determined effort we were able to shed our burdens and free ourselves. We sold some acreage, put renters in the house and hit the road. Two years later we sold the place and went full time in the RV. Our former fetters shrank and vanished in the rearview mirror.
Then we applied the same principles to our gypsy life: How to decide where to go? Try stuff out. Don’t like the big cities? Take the backroads. Don’t like driving? Take the plane. Don’t like air travel? Take the train. Don’t like the over-populated RV parks? Try the state and national forest campgrounds. And so on and so on.
And finally, don’t like being away from the grandkids for so long? Head back home and park in their backyard!
And what’s the end product? In the middle of a lifetime of trying things out, you end up knowing what you like and mostly doing what you want. And that’s the best way to live.
One nice thing about the late summer and early fall is that summer vacation has ended and the kids are back in school so the parks are virtually empty and it’s easier to find a campsite. Traffic is thinning out at the popular attractions and the pace is relaxed.
The second blessing is that the lakes are still warm enough for a refreshing dip. The water of the Great Lakes cools down more slowly than the air temperature in the fall, so though the days are cool and comfortable and nights are getting chilly, the water is still enjoyable.
Here are some quiet spots where you will likely find the crowds thinning out after Labor Day.
There is a world-class Shipwreck Museum that’s part of the complex at Whitefish Point Lighthouse north of Paradise. The state forest campgrounds are still open into October, and there are abundant vacation rentals and cabins in the area.
Crisp Point Lighthouse
It’s best not to attempt the road to Crisp Point with a low-slung sedan. You’ll be bottoming out several times on the one-lane 19-mile logging road that is rough and sandy and takes an hour to drive one way.
Your reward for the tedious drive is a remote lighthouse on a mostly deserted stony beach. The site is tended by volunteers who stay in their campers next to the beach.
Au Sable Point Lighthouse
The trailhead to the isolated lighthouse is at the Hurricane River Campground that is part of the large Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The 1.5-mile hiking trail hugs the shore just above the rock ledges and stony beach. The road through the national lakeshore is nicely paved but winding, so your average speed will be about 35 mph getting there. Don’t rush.
AuTrain Bay, AuTrain
This tranquil shoreline is super easy to reach as highway 28 runs right along the lake here just a few miles west of the little village of Christmas. Pull off at one of the beautiful roadside parks where there are restrooms and running water.
The sandy beach is walkable for nearly a mile and the water is shallow enough for wading and swimming. Rocky outcroppings bookend the beach at both ends.
Scott Falls is visible from the highway, but pull into the roadside park at the east end of the bay for an easy walk across the road to this personable little falls where you can walk right up to it… or behind it. On a warm day it may seem to invite a shower, but you are in for a bit of a shock, as the water is not as warm as the lake.
This is a great time of year to explore the wilderness of northern Michigan, but the window of opportunity is short. By October 1st the lake will likely cool beyond the tolerable range and a tranquil dip in Lake Superior will be out of the question. Snow isn’t unheard of in this part of the world during the month of October, and the warm pasties will warm body and soul at the local restaurants in Munising.
The American Dream isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. A house with a two-car garage and a nice yard in the suburbs is not what everybody wants. In middle class America sometimes it is assumed that we will raise our kids to go to the right school to get the right degree to land the right job, find the right spouse, and raise the right family – who will do it all over again.
That’s fine if it is what you want, but very often middle-agers wake up one morning and discover they are tired of working the job, tired of paying the mortgage, and tired of weeding and feeding and mowing those relentless lawns.
They suddenly realize that maybe they are living somebody else’s dream.
I think the best case scenario is when young people don’t assume that life has to be lived in a certain way – before they rack up all that college debt, mortgage debt and credit card debt that seems to go with the status quo.
If you like what you are doing, it is more like play than like work. You can work 9 to 5 and love it and go home at the end of the day refreshed.
But if you have become weary of the rat race, maybe it is time to look for a change.
I loved my first 20 years of school teaching. But after that, it started to get old. I had a different roster of students every year, but the same age-appropriate behaviors. My school board offered an early buy-out for experienced (top of the pay scale) teachers, and I went for it.
It was actually too early for me to retire, and I had always wanted to work more with my hands; I took the chance to start a log home construction company that employed a mobile crew of carpenters who built new log homes all over the state of Michigan. I had a wonderful crew of workers, and I loved getting up every morning and going to work.
I had my second wind and was living my second dream for the next 8 years.
Then the housing market in Michigan collapsed and there wasn’t any more work. I had to lay off the crew.
Okay then, my next dream had been to operate a business in barn recycling and again I went for it. I rented a huge forklift and dismantled unwanted barns, hiring a couple of helpers to de-nail and sort the materials. I sold a lot of the boards, and constructed furniture from the vintage material to sell on the side. I even constructed several rustic log cabins that I sold online and shipped across the country.
I was having fun again.
Then we got the epic idea to sell our property and hit the road full-time in a 29-foot RV. Oh, the places we went! Surf this blog and you will see an amazing variety of places we experienced over several years.
But after a while, we found the downside of that too. We missed the kids and the grandkids when we were down south for those long winters.
And now we are pursuing the next wild dream. We have bought a historical house, a fixer-upper in the city and started ripping down old wallpaper and plaster.
I think we all wise up as we get older. Well, most of us do. We develop a philosophy of life as we go. And I guess this post is about ideology as much as it’s about a timeline of my life.
As much as it is possible, I think we should seek to do the things we enjoy. Somebody said to use your resources to buy experiences, not just stuff.
If the old job has become monotonous, maybe we should change directions. It is not always easy, and it doesn’t always happen right away. When I wanted to get out of teaching, I started to work toward getting my builder’s license three years before the next retirement buy-out was offered by my school district allowing me to retire and start collecting a pension.
If change is not possible, I would look for ways to adapt my lifestyle to make it more enjoyable. It’s calling living for the weekend, and millions live life this way, but it is better than hating every day of your existence.
A final word: Sometimes the things we enjoy are not obvious. We have to try things out in order to discover our passion. It can take years, it can take decades to find the fun. Shoot, it can take a lifetime of happily skipping from one thing to the next.
This too: Sometimes the passion will change. Some things just run their course. When a door closes, be a good finisher… and move on.
And then you can be off to try out the next new thing.
Life can be an amazing journey even when you are stationary for long periods of time. Some folks are happy to put down roots in one place and never be curious about the distant horizon. Adventure seems frightening and inconvenient. As Bilbo Baggins says in Lord of the Rings, “We have no use for adventures – nasty disturbing uncomfortable things; make you late for dinner.”
And that’s fine. If you don’t have a desire to see the world, don’t let me or anyone else prod you into far-flung unpleasantries.
But then there are people like me.
Though I lived for 43 years in one secluded rural retreat, my routine was punctuated by adventure. Whether heading up north to camp in the woods, down south to crawl around in the caves, out west to hike in the mountains, or over the ocean to an island hideaway, I couldn’t sit still for long.
So the last few years Kaye and I have been pioneering with an RV, living on the road, always peering around the next bend to get a glimpse of what we haven’t seen before. And it has been fun.
But right now, my travel quotient is satisfied. I am ready for a break. We have visited 49 of 50 states and are not making plans to visit Hawaii. At least not for now and maybe never.
But I think I am ready for a different kind of adventure.
While taking a breather from travel and staying in a small apartment for the past several months, we have plugged into the local scene and gone after other stuff that we like to do. We didn’t get enough of hosting foreign exchange students in our home when our kids were in high school years ago, so we have had a lingering desire to work with international students again.
We started volunteering at the local campus of the University of Michigan and helping internationals to improve their conversational English and learn more of American culture.
And we really came alive.
When we discovered that a historical house was on the market only a 10-minute walk from the campus, we jumped (carefully) at the chance to buy it, and today we signed the papers.
We are going to stay put for awhile and pursue our own brand of urban homesteading. Pioneering without wheels, as it were.
Our “new” house is 117 years old and already set up for urban homesteading in the inner city. There are rain barrels at the four corner downspouts, raspberries along the fence, an herb garden where the front lawn used to be. The climbing roses have been growing on the front fence since the 1920’s. There is a storeroom in the cellar for stockpiling canned goods and drinking water. Cool.
For a long time I have wanted to experiment with solar power; this house has a southern exposure that will accommodate my future solar panels. We might start composting too, just like my grandmother did back in the day, feeding those tomatoes that will grow in containers along the back wall.
It seems that urban homesteading is essentially a return to the way our ancestors lived a hundred years ago but updated with a lot of modern technology.
Owning property again – on a much smaller scale than before – does not mean we won’t travel anymore. We still have the fifth wheel so when the travel bug bites we can answer the call of the wild.
Stay tuned for reports on our latest pioneering adventure, a trip back in time, as it were, in the historical district of Flint, Michigan, in the center of the university neighborhood. Just around the corner is the Durant-Dort Office building where General Motors Corp (GMC) was founded in 1908!
It looks as though what’s next for us going forward, is a trip backward in time!
There are many ways to approach the journey of life and we have explored a bunch of them. This is about the different beaches where we have lived for a time.
One of Kaye’s favorite activities in the whole world is beach walking. I love sitting and soaking up the sun and synthesizing vitamin D. So beaches work for both of us.
It seems that the ultimate destination in the Caribbean is the beach and we have had the experience of enjoying many of them, mostly in the Dominican Republic, one of our favorite island winter respites.
Playa Rincón, Samana Peninsula, Dominican Republic.
Because of it’s remoteness, this beach is still largely undeveloped. It is possible to be alone and unbothered. We first visited this beach in 1990, camping in a tent in the coconut grove. Our last visit there -via a rented quad runner – was in the winter of 2016 and it was still unspoiled and beautiful.
La Playita, Las Galeras, Dominican Republic.
The Little Beach offers snorkeling on the reef just offshore, and there is a beach restaurant and masseuse on hand. It was a 15-minute walk from our last vacation rental in the little fishing village.
Las Galeras Municipal Beach, Las Galeras, Dominican Republic
A short walk from our vacation rental, the “town beach” offered beach bars and “tipico” restaurants and shuttle boats to other beaches nearby.
The Cove, Samana Peninsula, Dominican Republic
This beach is smack in front of the resort by the same name and is shared with the local fishermen who store their boats on shore every night. The local kids love to get attention from the tourists and will put on a show whenever there is a camera around. We stayed here for the winter of 2013.
West Coast Beaches
Santa Barbara Beach, California.
This large beach is nicely maintained by the city of Santa Barbara. There is a bike path, volleyball courts, an art show every Sunday, and a wharf with restaurants on stilts. We visited several times when we were doing the work-camping thing at nearby Fillmore, California, in the winter and spring of 2014.
While in California for the winter, we also explored Mugu Point Beach and had lunch at the famous beach diner, Neptune’s Net pictured in movies and TV shows.
We also enjoyed camping at the beach at the linear park at Seacliff where the beach was walkable for miles. Boon docking at its best (no hookups).
The Gulf Coast and East Coast
Dauphin Island Beach, Dauphin Island, Alabama
In the winter of 2015 we set out to spend the entire winter on island beaches. Dauphin Island was our home for January where the beaches are white sand. They are walkable for many miles.
St. Augustine Beach, St. Augustine, Florida
We spent the month of February in this historical town where driving on the beach is permitted. Bonus!
Emerald Isle Beach, Emerald Isle, North Carolina
In March, our RV site was a short dune walk from this beautiful white sand beach.
The Great Lakes
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Empire, Michigan
Being Michiganders most of our lives, this is probably one of our most frequent beach destinations. Of course, Lake Michigan is too cold for swimming except in the late summer and early fall.
Port Crescent State Park, Port Austin, Michigan.
The closest beach to our house for over 40 years, this beach and several others along the east shore of Michigan were our favorite sun-and-sand destinations in the summertime.
So this is a sampling of the many beaches where we have spent some time.
This is the first in the Life’s A Trip series featuring different ways we are approaching this journey of life.
Life’s a journey – whether you are on the road to adventure or parked in one spot for a while. There are many different stops along the way.
This is about the places we have discovered while venturing around the U.S. in a four-wheel-drive pickup truck for the last couple of years.
We had lived in the same place for over 40 years when we looked around one day and saw that our kids were grown up and moved away and exploring distant horizons. We looked at each other and decided we could do that too. Selling the 30-acre homestead, we downsized our stuff, upgraded the RV and took off. We spread a map on the kitchen table, closed our eyes and jabbed a finger at… Alaska. (It wasn’t quite that random; we had a daughter living and working in Alaska every summer and had been wanting to go there for a long time.)
Summer was months away, so I got a work-camp assignment at an old campground in Fillmore California for the winter and spring.
Michigan to California
We had family nearby at Santa Barbara and accompanied them to the beaches and eateries in the area.
California to Alaska
Summer came and leaving our work-camp assignment, we headed north up the Pacific Coast Highway toward the Canadian border.
We drove 1900 miles before reaching the beginning of the Alaska Highway at Dawson Creek, British Columbia.
After 15 days of driving we arrived at Denali Park where our daughter was working and living for the summer. We stayed through the middle of the summer.
Our trek back to Michigan in the late summer took 11 days returning over the same mountain passes and open prairie.
Michigan to the Gulf of Mexico.
After spending the late summer and fall in Michigan, we set our sights on the south, again hoping to escape the harsh northern winter. Leaving at the end of December, we arrived in Memphis on New Years Eve for dinner and a party at B.B. King’s Blues Club.
The local Mardi Gras parade marched right by our campground. We also visited New Orleans on a day trip.
Alabama to Florida
I was delighted to arrive in St. Augustine, Florida and discover that driving on the beach is a thing there, four-wheel-drive required.
At low tide the beach is 100 yards wide and allows plenty of room for drivers, bikers, and walkers.
Up the East Coast
In the spring, we wandered up the east coast through Georgia and South Carolina, staying for a month at Emerald Isle, North Carolina, then stopping for a few days in Virginia from where we made day trips to Washington D.C. visiting the major sites by means of the double-decker bus.
Arriving back in Michigan, we spent the summer at a campground with a bike trail and a small lake.
At the end of the year, we parked the rig for a while and flew to the tropics for the winter. That’s another story.
In the spring we decided to take a break from the gypsy life for a while. We moved into a small apartment in a small town in Michigan.
West again to Utah – the Pickup Camper
We were enjoying staying put for a while, but for some time I had been planning a return to the southwest for a photo shoot in the canyons of Utah. Rather than haul the RV, I switched to a pickup camper that was just big enough for one person.