The People’s Van

I just had someone (wrongly) assume that I am “independently wealthy,” which got me to thinking about that phrase. How should we measure wealth? By whose standards? It quickly mushroomed into a vehicle for a whole slew of thoughts about my gap-year and life in general. Hence the new category: “What is wealth?” (Seems appropriate alongside a list of places as disparate as Africa and NYC, don’t you think?)

If wealth is measured by income, then I’m presently doomed (i.e., unemployed). However, I have minimal expenses and no debt, so I can afford to spend what modest savings I have on this journey, with some reserved to cushion my landing when I return. This is not just by accident. There was plenty of saving and planning, but it also involves a healthy dose of good fortune and a willingness to pass up some concrete opportunities in order to embrace others more ambiguous.

I started writing down a few reflections on how I’m came to be in this position. Or, as one friend asked about my gap-year, “How did you decide to go on this trip and why now?”

Those are pretty big questions. So is “What is wealth?” I believe they are deeply intertwined. Here begins a series of answers and inquiries. I’m curious to know what you think, too, so please share comments if you’re so inclined!

The People’s Van

My college years were paid for by a mix of public tuition and scholarships (both taxpayer supported) as well as private scholarships, personal savings, part-time jobs during semesters and a full-time gig during summers. I managed to get an undergraduate degree in just over six years this way, without student loans. Though economically poor, these were some of the richest years of my life. And importantly, I owe nothing besides a philosophical debt to the institutions which made it possible.

I lived at the beach in Jacksonville before Florida’s real estate bubble made it unaffordable. I had great roommates, fun-loving friends and a hand-me-down vehicle that we called “The People’s Van” – an old Chevy Lumina APV that was originally two-tone grey. When the air-conditioning broke, I sweated in summer. When the electric window motors broke, I opted to replace the front doors with a pair that had windows which rolled down by hand. I procured them from a junkyard for less than the price of one window motor repair. They were royal blue and worked perfectly every time. Depending on who you asked, the People’s Van looked awesome in three-tone blue and grey.

My other prized possessions included a bicycle, a couple of surfboards and an old aluminum canoe called “Rastaflage.” (More on Rastaflage another time.) Along with camping gear, a fishing pole and a spunky black labrador named “Guana,” everything I really needed fit in or on the People’s Van. (Note to Mitt: the dog goes inside, the canoe on top.)

Shunning the career-centric way of life, I may not have been upwardly mobile, but I certainly got around the state and across the country well, including road trips to Colorado and Maine and many points in between. And then there were voyages by sea! Each was a lesson unto itself, higher education of a different kind.

After graduation from UNF and the end of an internship with the City of Jacksonville, I took a job with Pinellas County’s solid waste department and moved to St. Petersburg. Though I enjoyed introducing myself as a “garbage man,” especially to people who party in shiny shoes, my duties as recycling coordinator occurred mostly indoors. One summer of commuting in office garb (as opposed to my norm of board-shorts and little else) convinced me that I needed a car with air-conditioning.

When I got another vehicle (a ten year old Chevy Blazer with 15,000 miles and working A/C), I gave the People’s Van — which had logged over 250,000 miles and was still running strong — to a local charity that supported the homeless. Among other things, they used it to transport donated furniture. Over the years, I occasionally saw it pass through the solid waste facility where I worked, hauling the stuff that wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) sell.

I mention these things to help you, Dear Reader, understand how I’m able to travel the world on a shoe-string. It boils down to simple, sage advice that I once received from a trusted mentor and friend, Captain Rick Binder: “Use what you’ve got.” It came with the implication that you don’t need a lot. Add to that the lesson my grandfathers taught me: Take good care of your equipment and it will take good care of you. And one more essential skill that I learned through music and travel: Improvisation.

Forget what others might convince you to worry about. Sometimes, you just have to go.

“The Kingfisher,” by Alfred Munroe, circa 1890 in Biscayne Bay.

PS — You might be wondering about the photo. Clearly, it’s not the People’s Van. Lacking any shots of it on my laptop (hey, it was before I went digital!) I picked something beautiful in its place. Munroe’s “The Kingfisher” fit the bill, both as composition and mode of transportation. No frills. Pure purpose. I love the boat’s elegant simplicity and the background of Biscayne Bay before Miami’s concrete jungle paved over the real thing.

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6 thoughts on “The People’s Van

  1. What is wealth? Woah, that’s vast, man. We could get very spiritual or philosophical but it’s probably cliche to us both and I’ll save it for later. I’m sure some ppl are boggled by the fact that you can travel on such a budget. To me it’s simple old-fashioned financial habits: since you’ve lived within your means leading up to this and didn’t spend what you didn’t have, you are credit card debt-free (I assume). (Also we’ll save other types of debt, which can have uses, for another conversation). It used to be the norm but now is rare in American culture, for our generation. Your trip is within the means you’ve set and you have the financial discipline to keep it there. Also you and I actually like traveling the Goat way, which not everyone would.
    Wealth can be measured in time. How much time do you have in a day/week/etc to spend on what you want to do? I read these books with big spoon fulls of salt, but Robert Kiyosaki (Rich Dad Poor Dad) said “Time is your greatest asset”. Tim Ferriss said in the Four Hour Work Week, “I don’t know what to tell someone when they ask me what I do. What I do with my time and what I do to make money are two different things”. Of course you and I don’t have Tim’s income stream, and probably disagree with some of its sources. But these are still great concepts.
    So time-wise, you are pretty much doing what some people plan on when they win the lottery. You may not be traveling in the same style and using the same toys as them but you’re going to the same places and have the same amount of time devoted to what you want to do, rather than what you have to do. Ferriss calls this the “new rich”. Again, I disagree with these guys on a lot of things, but do agree on the time-asset. Great that you are spending it well.
    Florida Bright Futures scholarships were great. Wonder if they still have those?

  2. Wealth – It’s money, it’s time, it’s health, but most of all it contentment. Not the over-hyped “happiness”, but deep, solid, unpretentious contentment. I think you’ve figured that out.

    Wing-and-wing – the only way to fly.

    Press on – you’re doing great work.

  3. Enjoyed the post! And the peoples van! I spent 5 years living out of an old chevy suburban to be able to save money while I went to school and then worked professionally. Wealth to me is not having any burdens(or smallish ones) and be able at any time to just go. I don’t feel the need to go as much as I did in my 20’s but knowing that I can at any point if I want is good. And what you said

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