Giving away everything in search of something more
I tossed my backpack into the back and climbed into the passenger seat. It was a little after 10pm in South Dakota, and I was the only person waiting outside the regional airport.
“Where’s your luggage?” the driver asked.
“This is my luggage.”
My carry-on contained my laptop, a couple rolled shirts, pants, and some socks. I wore a pair of jeans, a shirt, hoodie, and tennis shoes. I had everything I needed, so it was all I had. Anything else would’ve been excessive. Anything more would be waste.
Materialism’s undergone intense cultural scrutiny in recent years. Concepts like downsizing and minimalism are migrating from the fringe and becoming — dare I say? — trendy. Trinkets and things litter our planet and pollute our self-worth. Is there validation in knickknacks? Do my Facebook friends like my latest toy? At best we have a conversation piece for the mantle. At worst we’re paying for trash before it ends up in a dumpster.
Break and Build
I had a mental breakdown in 2018, and shortly afterwards I sold or donated most of my stuff. I was 26 years old with a respectable career, low rent, plenty of excess income, and a massive library of books, music, and movies.
I also had a drinking problem, some bad memories, and a closet full of skeletons. I’d get drunk and look at the accolades, service medals, and certificates I earned in the army. It wasn’t a happy drunk.
I never enjoyed being a soldier — I fantasized about going AWOL all the time — but at least the uniform meant a sense of purpose; an intention. As infantry, I trained with the expectation of going to war. As a paratrooper, I was expected to be anywhere on the planet within 18 hours. As a combatives instructor, I had to equip my fellow soldiers with the tools necessary to survive a nightmare. It was a mean life filled with all the drama and chaos that you’d expect from the army — but at least there was purpose.
After 5 years of service and an Afghanistan deployment, I got my Honorable Discharge and was finally set free. Or rather, set adrift.
I think that’s what most people end up doing. Drifting. I don’t know how many are aware they’re drifting, or if they’re content, but it was killing me. I woke up hung-over, suffered through a shift at my new factory job, then went home and drank. Rinse and repeat. During the rare weekend off, I’d go shopping for things I didn’t need to justify my shipwrecked life. “I can’t quit. I won’t be able to afford all this crap.”
It’s no wonder I snapped.
Just like resetting a mangled limb, sometimes you gotta break before you can heal. The day I quit my job, I packed up most of my stuff so I could get rid of it later. At the time, I didn’t know why I had to get rid of everything, but it was an impulse I was happy to oblige. I wasn’t proud of anything I owned. Pride comes from purpose — intent — and my existence offered none. But with the clutter cleared, I finally found it.
I’m a writer, and I’ve always wanted to be a writer since before I could even read. Prose is power. Stories connect us — they remind us we’re human. Parables enlighten, fables offer caution; myths entertain and legends inspire. But tales don’t tell themselves, and the best come from first-hand experience, from life. My path to happiness had never been clearer: travel, experience, and write.
I had the talent; I’d been published a couple of times by then; it was just a matter of doing the damn thing. I tossed everything into my rucksack, bought a ticket to Alaska, and began a journey filled with adventure, travel, friendship, and romance, the likes of which I never even dared to dream.
After an incredible summer in Alaska, I went home to Ohio for about a month, during which I had a falling-out with my mother that was over twenty years in the making. Afterwards, I went to Colorado for the winter, working with some friends from Alaska and making many more. From there, I went on to spend nine months working just outside the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
Severing ties with a parent, no matter how toxic the relationship, is a traumatizing experience, but distance from my friends helped me get through it alright in the end. They mean more to me than every cent I’ve ever earned, and I am forever grateful for them and my decision to become a minimalist nomad.
In late 2019 I moved to Mexico to be with my girlfriend and write full time. Gigs came easy at first, then COVID happened. Work disappeared and I couldn’t contribute to the household funds — which is how I ended up bartending in South Dakota; another mistake made in pursuit of money.
I missed my girlfriend more than I can say. Managers were incompetent, I wasn’t happy, I wasn’t making enough money to justify sticking around, and I wasn’t writing. I had to get back to Mexico. With so little to pack, I decided to turn it into an adventure.
Trains passed through town several times a day, and there was usually at least one waiting in the yard. I’d never hopped a train before, but I was obsessed with hobo and travel literature; Jack London, Kerouac, Louis L’Amour; “Beggars of Life” by Jim Tully, and “You Can’t Win” by Jack Black (no relation to the film star).
I thought of those stories as I scoured the train yard for a rideable car. I found one, climbed aboard, found a hiding spot, and a few hours later the train left town. I made it about 100 miles, accidentally going in the wrong direction, then hitchhiked over 1,200 miles from Wolsey, South Dakota to Juarez, Mexico. It took exactly three weeks, and every mile was better than the last. The things I saw and the people I met changed me for the better, and I learned more about myself over the course of 21 days than I did in over five years in the military.
Afterwards — back in Mexico — cuddling in bed with Sara and our dogs, I felt a wave of love, happiness, and purpose the likes of which I’d never known.
You can’t put a price on that.
You can’t put a price on what matters.
So stop trying to buy it; you never will.