When most American children are asked, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” they think of careers with high paying salaries and the stability of a consistent schedule. Kids also think of jobs that bring fame and notoriety. Very few dream of happiness as the freedom of ten pounds on your back, sleeping in the dirt every night, spending everyday outside and making less than $15,000 a year. To many, this lifestyle would seem like a life of suffering and poverty. It’s not.
For the last nine years, I’ve lived and worked as a naturalist at in the Pescadero Valley about an hour south of San Francisco. Working for Exploring New Horizons Outdoor School has been a dream come true. Each week, I lead five-day programs which enrich our students’ knowledge of the natural world, increase their comfort level in the outdoors and hopefully create an experience that leads them to fall in love with the land in a way that will lead to a lifelong journey of connection with the earth.
Everyday, we go on day hikes in the redwoods, oak woodlands or to the beach. On the coast we explore tide pools and an estuary. There’s nothing better than seeing a child watch huge waves or hold a sea star for the first time. Even though these fifth and sixth graders from the East Bay don’t live that far away from the ocean, some of them have never made the hour drive with their families to see the Pacific.
Fortunately, I grew up in a family that valued outdoor exploration. I was raised in Baltimore, MD and although our family residence was urban, we always found ways to find green space. There were delightful creek walks where we caught crayfish and box turtles. There were trips to various National Parks of the east and west. I also attended a summer camp in Western Maryland where amazing counselors mentored me on my first backpacking trips on the Appalachian Trail.
I was, and still am very lucky. To this day, my parents and sister are extremely supportive of my adventures.
A few friends have asked me, “how are you so comfortable with so little? Aren’t you tempted by all the latest gadgets, fancy clothes, nice cars and a bigger house?” They say “I wish I could be comfortable living as simply as you.”
I think the roots of this lifestyle come from the very beginning. My parents have a strong belief in simplicity. Not the kind of simplicity that leads to deprivation and suffering but one that precludes excess. We bought what we needed and attempted to avoid status symbols and frivolous purchases. As high school science teachers, my parents made modest salaries and did work that they believed in. And although my life might be more extreme, the foundation is the same: live a good simple life.
The one exemption to my parents’ conservative spending program came in the form of heaps of books. This obsession with knowledge has carried over as well. If you take a look the 16-foot yurt that’s been my home for the last few years, you’ll notice that I own a few musical instruments, some hiking gear and a ton of books. I joke sometimes that they add insulation to the yurt when it gets cold.
I love living in small spaces, especially round ones. In tight living spaces you are forced to confront your possessions on a daily basis and are often inspired to downsize.
I’ve never owned a ton of things, but since my Appalachian Trail thru-hike in 2012, I’ve gone on a minimalist tirade. I’ve sold, or given or gifted away many of my possessions and downsized my life to the point where it is quite easy to throw everything I have into a few crates, put them in storage and head off to my next thru-hike.
My favorite part of owning fewer things is that there is less mind clutter. I feel more at ease and waste less energy because there are fewer things to maintain. When you live half of each year out of your backpack analyzing your hiking gear with ruthless scrutiny, it’s incredible what redundancy is revealed in your home possessions.
I day hike for work and thru-hike while I’m not. It’s been a wonderful cycle of inspiration. On my thru-hikes, I collect stories and experiences to share with my students. At the end of four months hiking solo on the long trails I’m ready to go home and surround myself with joyful loving people. Young people have a way of bringing you directly to the moment and pulling you out of yourself. There’s no room for worrying about anything else that might be going on in your life.
Thru-hiking is in some ways the opposite. Not completely the opposite because the moment is a huge part of day-to-day life on trail. But the other side of the thru-hiking mind game is dealing with your own thoughts. This is perhaps, for many, one of the most terrifying aspects hiking alone. I love it. Just like the confinement of my tiny yurt, I’m forced to confront myself in an honest and intimate way. Of course, sometimes it can be hard but for the most part, this process is immensely rewarding.
It’s also really comforting to know that there is a whole community of hikers out there that are living their dreams and going through similar experiences. These people are my heroes and friends. Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to hike Brett Tucker’s Lowest to Highest Route (Death Valley to Mt. Whitney) with Ryan “Dirtmonger” Sylva, Cam “Swami” Honan and Gregory “Malto” Gressel. These six days were some of the six best days of my life. Swami and Dirtmonger have made a life out of long distance hiking and listening to their enthusiasm and creative solutions to life’s challenges was inspiring. These are my people.
After I returned home I quickly hopped on trail for a few more days to close out my spring break. One of my closest friends and fellow naturalist at the outdoor school, Molly, is setting out on a southbound Appalachian Trail thru-hike in June. We spent four spectacular days exploring the diverse mountains of Big Sur, following jeep track, single track and navigating along disappearing trail in a sea of blow downs. Tarantulas, Horned Toads, and a California King Snake highlighted the adventure. It was a perfect training hike for our upcoming AT and CDT hikes. I thought a lot about how to convey the lightweight hiking knowledge I’d accumulated over the years. I’m fortunate to live with incredibly creative friends and colleagues who have supported me on my past thru hikes. Now, several of them are heading out on longer hikes of their own. The cycle continues.
From the land, to children, to fellow hikers, friends, family, colleagues, trail angels, trail town residents and that unexpected person who says something in passing that you think about for the next 100 miles; the cycle and flow of inspiration is endless in this life. If you’re willing to take a chance and create your own path, looking past perceived needs to the authentic, you’ll be amazed by what you find.