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.
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.
These are isolated locations where lone wolf campers can be alone and most of these sites are free. All of these are legal camping sites.
First, a reminder that boondocking is rustic camping without hookups. Some of these sites don’t even have a toilet, so you have to be comfortable with alternatives. Fortunately for me, I was hauling a pickup camper which was entirely self-contained and I could store my compost in a holding tank until reaching a dump site.
Pleasant Creek National Forest Campground
The first of the rustic campsites on my recent photography trip to the American Southwest was at a deserted forest campground along highway 12 in the mountains between Capitol Reef National Park and Escalante, Utah. At about 7000 feet elevation, this spot was a cool island of pine and poplar woods surrounded by lower deserts of bare rock.
The campground had pit toilets and delicious well water. All alone for the night, my campsite cost $6 which is half the usual rate because of my senior pass which also gets me into all national parks for free.
There were two other national forest campgrounds within a half mile and there were a couple of campers there for the night. This was in September.
Hole-In-The-Rock Road, Escalante, Utah
After exploring the intriguing rock formations at Devil’s Garden off Hole-in-the-Rock Road, I found an isolated pull-off a couple of miles south and west across from the access track to the dinosaur tracks site (I didn’t cross the dry wash into dinosaur tracks because the steep sideways slope threatened to roll my camper over).
This spot was essentially nothing more than a level field where I could pull off the road. The sound of the light rain on the roof of the camper during the night lulled me to sleep.
Paria Contact Station
East of Kanab, Utah, there is a ranger station with some helpful volunteers on staff. After driving through heavy rain coming down from Escalante all day, I was leery of crossing the gully at Buckskin Wash even with four wheel drive. I figured a flashflood was coming that could prevent me from returning to the highway for several days. Their solution for me was a gravel pit on the top of the mountain behind the station. I had a free campsite with no neighbors.
The next morning I looked down on a raging Paria River rushing at 30 miles an hour. I decided to change my itinerary and stay out of the slot canyons where the water level rose from ankle deep to 30 feet deep overnight. Deadly!
Valley of the Gods
This was my favorite campsite for pure desert grandeur. I chose a spot at the foot of a huge stone butte where I could see for twenty miles toward the distant towers of Monument Valley. The camping is free for a limit of 14 days at each spot.
One word of caution here. If you approach Valley of the Gods from the south off highway 163 you can reach the campsites with a medium-sized motor home or trailer. If you come in from the west on 261 as I did, you will cross no less than 20 dry washes with steep grades that will test the fortitude of your four wheel drive rig. Don’t take your 40-foot coach in here from either direction.
Five miles west of Bluff, Utah, on highway 163, open the cattle gate and drive through, then close it behind you. You are on Butler Wash Road at the south end of a broad valley flanked by rocky cliffs on both sides. Among those cliffs there are many hidden Navajo cliff dwellings. Camping is free at any of the side tracks on this 25-mile long four wheel drive road. Yes, again, you must not take a long wheel-base vehicle in here; you’ll get hung up in a step ravine trying to climb out the other side.
You are sure to be alone with only the night wind to keep you company. (Read about my adventure at Pedestal Rock Ruin here.)
A few miles northwest of the town of Moab, Utah, on highway 191 there is a privately owned parking lot with nicely leveled gravel lots and porta-johns. There are no other perks except its strategic location near the entrances of Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. I found it almost impossible to get a campsite at the national parks so this little spot was a real blessing to me and I stayed several consecutive nights paying the measly $5 per night. What a great staging area for rafting the Colorado River, dirt biking the slick rock at Behind the Rocks, or four wheeling the epic off-road challenges around the area. Moab has provisions of all kinds. You can even rent a Jeep or ORV there.
These are a few of the great boondocking campsites of southern Utah. I passed up many others. Much of the desert southwest is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) where free – or almost free – camping is permitted with only a few restrictions.
Read about my adventure near 7-Mile Parking on the White Rim Road:
Canyonlands National Park is a vast area of bare rock cliffs, mesas, and canyons. It is trisected by the Colorado and the Green Rivers which divide it into the three districts, the Needles, the Maze, and Island in the Sky. Most tourists only visit the highest area, Island in the Sky, which is a huge flat-topped mesa surrounded on three sides by the canyons. The Needles is reached via a single rugged road, and The Maze is entirely deserted but for a few adventurers coming down the river on rubber rafts or an occasional fly-over by a sightseeing airplane.
The defining theme of Canyonlands is the grand vistas available from theedges. The road on Island in the Sky provides easy access to the edge of the cliff that offers such expansive views that they are almost incomprehensible. The hiking trails are likewise perched on edges.
I was glad to be without small children when I was at Canyonlands because there are unguarded drop-offs everywhere.
In my experience, there seems to be a psychological connection between risk and adventure: The greater the perceived risk, the greater the sense of adventure. Because of this phenomenon, I would call Canyonlands a high-adventure location. There is an abundant risk factor because of the abundance of edges. The drives and the hikes all require frequent encounters with the edge.
After exploring Island in the Sky, adventurers who can afford the time and want to multiply their sense of adventure will likely drop down off the edge via the Shafer Trail and explore the White Rim Plateau 1200 feet below.
The White Rim Road is another level of high risk and delivers correspondingly high adventure. It follows the edge of the Colorado River canyon for 100 miles of rough one-lane rocky off-roading fun. (See my scary YouTube video of a 3-mile stretch of the road at the bottom.)
My drive on a section of the White Rim Road was a bucket list experience never to be forgotten. Those with a fear of heights will be ill-advised to attempt either the Shafer Trail or the White Rim Road.
Visitors with Jeeps and high-clearance SUV’s will have the easiest time at Canyonlands National Park. Despite the huge expanses of geography, the parking lots on Island in the Sky are small, and below the rim the turns are too tight for the big rigs. If you want to get off the high mesa and explore the more challenging areas below, it’s best to leave the RV in the town of Moab and rent a Jeep.
Otherwise, there will be chaos in the chasm.
Beyond the Jeep trails, there are multiple adventures for river rafters, hikers and mountain bikers.