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.
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.