Friday, October 30, 2009

Chris McCandless from Another Alaska Park Ranger's Perspective

[Years after this was entry was published, I adapted and developed it into a tiny book, The McCandless Mecca, which is available on Amazon for $3.]

Several years ago, Pete Christian—a park ranger and my former boss at the Gates of the Arctic National Park—wrote the popular essay, “Chris McCandless from an Alaska Park Ranger’s Perspective,” about the wandering youth whose death in the Alaskan wild was chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s book, Into the Wild, and Sean Penn's film adaptation of the same name.

Pete enjoyed the book, but had little respect for McCandless, calling him suicidal, mentally ill, and his journey, “stupid, tragic, and inconsiderate.”

Because Pete's position as an Alaskan park ranger required him to routinely deal with headlong McCandless types, and because he, too, as a young man, wanted to "live a free life in the Alaska wild," he's been regarded as a credible authority on, what he calls, the "McCandless Phenomenon"—when "[p]eople, nearly always young men, come to Alaska to challenge themselves against an unforgiving wilderness landscape where convenience of access and possibility of rescue are practically nonexistent.”

Whether Pete wanted it to be or not, his denunciation has become the quintessential anti-McCandless essay. It's been cited hundreds of times by those who are offended with McCandless' motivations and who consider McCandless' apologists to be wrongheaded hero-worshippers. In an interview in which Pete’s views are mentioned, Sean Penn had this to say:

No, I don’t object to a person who wears a brown shirt and a patch on their shoulder and follows instructions all day either. I'm not all that interested in what the park rangers have to say. I accept that there's an automatic instinct to judge those you envy and who have more courage than you do, and I think that while he (the ranger) rides around in his four-wheeler on a CB radio getting fat, Chris McCandless has spent 113 days fucking alone in the most unforgiving wilderness that God ever created.


Penn’s a bit harsh. Because I know Pete, I can attest that Pete is neither fat nor does he ride around on a four-wheeler with a CB all day. Pete was a backcountry ranger for years, going on the sort of patrols I've been embarking on for the past two summers. Now, he’s a ranger-pilot.

Before I go any further, I should say that Pete is a really good guy. He and his family were my only neighbors at the ranger station in Coldfoot, and—if it wasn’t for him—I never would have gotten such an amazing job that allowed me to explore the Gates or pay off my student debt.

But with that said, I think Pete is very, very wrong.

It should come as no surprise that I am a fan of the book and movie. I think it’s even fair to say that McCandless and I are, in some sense, kindred spirits. So naturally I can’t help but take Pete’s views personally because, when he calls McCandless stupid, insane, and suicidal, he's inadvertently calling me these things, too.

But it’s not just Pete’s views. It’s all the people—and there are a lot of them—who agree with Pete. And whenever I speak to one of them, I think to myself, "they just don’t get it.”

Because I am in the unique position as both an Alaskan park ranger and a person who is, in many ways, like Chris McCandless, I feel I can speak with some authority on the subject.

Pete diagnoses McCandless as a suicidal lunatic

When asserting that McCandless was suicidal and “suffering from mental illness,” Pete seems to have disregarded some essential facts.

McCandless, of course, did not commit suicide. He starved to death, accidentally poisoned himself, or a combination of the two. It’s obvious, though, that Pete is not suggesting that McCandless literally killed himself. Rather, Pete implies that McCandless’ decision to come to Alaska “unprepared” and “unskilled” was a suicidal act in itself.

I am not arguing that McCandless was prepared and skilled. McCandless's inability to preserve the moose meat or properly scout the river makes it very clear that he was unprepared. But unpreparedness does not make someone suicidal. The fact that McCandless tried to cross the Teklanika River and leave the wild in July after three months in the bush should dispel any such notion that he wanted to die in the bus.

Moreover, Pete seems to wrongly associate reckless behavior with suicidal behavior. And this is, I believe, the central defect of his argument. McCandless was, without question, reckless. But shall we presume that all reckless people are suicidal? McCandless, like his adventuring forbears, beheld characteristics unique to explorers, not suicides. Was Heyerdahl suicidal for wanting to cross the Pacific in a wooden raft? Were Hilary and Norgay suicidal for climbing Everest when every capillary and muscle pleaded that they descend? Was Robert Falcon Scott, who died en route to the South Pole, and the millions of adventurers before and after him—who died in pursuit of a dream—just crazy and suicidal?

“Alaska wild”

Pete begins his essay by juxtaposing his Alaskan experiences with McCandless’, insisting that they both wished to “live a free life in the Alaska wild,” but differed because “I wanted to live and Chris McCandless wanted to die.”

It's true that they both wished to live in Alaska, but this is where the similarities end. McCandless and Pete wanted very different things. McCandless wanted a brief, raw, primeval experience in the Alaska wild. He wanted a challenge that would push his limits. I can’t say exactly what Pete wanted, but by no means, did he—at least in comparison to McCandless—“live a free life in the Alaska wild.”

What does it mean to “live a free life in the Alaska wild”? A “free life” can mean a lot of things. Most people—with Alaska in mind—think of a free life as one spent in a remote cabin off the grid, where a man can hunt, fish, and grow his own food—a place where there’s no clock to punch, no forms to fill out, and no one to answer to.

Let me explain a few things about a park ranger’s life in the “Alaska wild.” We live in small Alaskan villages where we’re required to wear a uniform and work 40 hours a week. We live in newly-built, low-cost government housing that includes washers, dryers, fully-functional kitchens, heat, solar panels, and even flat-screened televisions. Backcountry rangers go on eight-day wilderness patrols, but our routes are determined largely by supervisors. We have to call the ranger station every morning on a satellite phone to tell them where we are and where we’re headed. We’re even forced to shave in the field. Before the season begins, we have 3-4 weeks of training. Permanent employees get pensions, health insurance plans, and early retirements.

One doesn't need to go all the way up to Alaska to live this sort of "free life." You can live this sort of life anywhere in the lower-48.

As for wilderness excursions in the Alaskan wild, I've learned that most anyone can survive in the wild. You can experience the Alaskan wild on a sightseeing flight. You can hire a professional guide. You can bring maps, a GPS, locator devices, and every precautionary device imaginable. You can even become an Alaskan park ranger to get a watered-down version of “a free life in the Alaska wild.” While these people may very well be in the “Alaskan wild,” their experiences are anything but “wild.”

Critics call McCandless stupid for not bringing a map, extra food, and proper gear, as if he—bewilderingly—didn’t have the foresight to think that he’d need these things. Depriving himself of these conveniences was deliberate. McCandless knew that to travel with excessive technology is—sometimes—to not travel at all. Wilderness sage, Aldo Leopold, says:

The American sportsman is puzzled... Bigger and better gadgets are good for industry, so why not for outdoor recreation? It has not dawned on him that outdoor recreations are essentially primitive, atavistic...; that excessive mechanization destroys contrasts by moving the factory to the woods or to the marsh.

McCandless hoped to peel off the soft layers of civilization, and harden himself in more austere and taxing conditions. He wanted to see the world through the eyes of the first Alaskan explorer who didn’t carry a map, GPS, or satellite phone. He didn't want have to squeeze his adventure into two weeks of paid vacation. He didn’t want to have to come back to jobs and bosses and taxes. McCandless wanted a test, a challenge, and—most of all—to immerse himself in nature, that one last refuge of the real in a paved-over, smoggy-skyed century.

The "McCandless Phenomenon"

Pete says the “McCandless Phenomenon” occurs when “[p]eople, nearly always young men, come to Alaska to challenge themselves against an unforgiving wilderness landscape where convenience of access and possibility of rescue are practically nonexistent.”

When Pete first heard about me (years before I got the job as a ranger), he was probably reminded of the "McCandless Phenomenon." That's because I was one of these young men.

In the Summer of '05, I drove up to a truck stop (near Pete's ranger station) in Coldfoot, Alaska with my friend Paul to clean motel rooms. A week after I arrived, we hiked into the Gates of the Arctic National Park to climb Blue Cloud—a 6,000-foot mountain, ten miles from the road, surrounded by nothing but untrammeled, howling wilderness.

Paul joined me for the first few miles, but turned back when his feet began to blister, leaving me in treeless rolling green hills with a cluster of stone-gray mountaintops in the distance. I was alone in the Alaskan wild. And this was the first real hike of my life. Hours later, I'd remember that Paul had left with the compass, matches, and water-filter in his backpack.

I hauled a giant sleeping bag, a three-person tent, and a cumbersome camcorder mile after miserable mile. I’d scream at large rocks, thinking they were grizzlies. On the mountain, a band of Dall Sheep walked in front of my passageway. I threw rocks and yelled at them, worried where they’d put those horns if I came any closer. They stared back at me, bewildered, as I traversed to the other side of the mountain.

After miles of swamps, tussocks, scree slopes, rain, and forest fire haze, I made it to the top. I ate the snow atop Blue Cloud and rationed my sandwiches and granola bars as best I could.

The descent was so steep I had to keep my butt and back against the mountain as I carefully lowered each foot into piles of scree that jingled down the mountain like silver dollars. I ripped a hole in the seat of my pants and the bottom of my backpack split open. I lost the map that was in my back pocket.

Once I got off the mountain, I collapsed and slept for half an hour on a pile of rocks. Upon waking up, I wasn't sure where I was. Looking across the country, I came close to tears, thinking that this might be it for me. I was only ten miles from the road, but I had no idea where the road was.

Paul felt guilty for leaving me, so he got down on his knees and—for the first time in years—prayed. He had driven back to the spot we started from eight hours after we parted ways. I wasn’t there, so he came back eight hours later, and another eight hours after that. I had been walking for over 28 hours straight.

Ranger Pete heard about me when fellow coworkers began conjecturing what carnivorous animal I was inside of. He interviewed Paul to find out what gear I had, whether I had any suicidal tendencies, and what route I may have taken. Pete planned to search for me in his plane, but forest fires prevented him from taking off.

After figuring out where I was, I finally made it back to the road, haggard, tired, and dragging feet that would be covered with blisters for the next few days.

I came back from that mountain slightly different. I didn’t know it then, but that climb would help me define who I was. It would become a precedent—a reminder that I can do anything I set my heart to. Because of that climb, I could go on two cross-country hitchhikes. I could embark on a two-month long canoe voyage. I could live in a van to afford grad school. I could resist melting into mediocrity. And while I could have wound up dead and missing on that mountain, that was no one’s business but my own.

Supposedly, having such experiences is irresponsible. Supposedly, people like McCandless and I are suicidal for taking a risk or pursuing emotional experiences—as old as mankind—that our suburban upbringings could not give us. Supposedly, it’s insane to go into the wild without the latest, greatest technology and every possible electronical gadget imaginable.

I have a different definition of the “McCandless Phenomenon.” I can’t speak directly of Pete, but I can speak of many Alaskans. Many Alaskans—as Pete points out—come to Alaska to reinvent themselves in a rugged landscape, yet few make it past Fairbanks and Anchorage. Despite compromised goals and sorry attempts to live the lives they imagined, these Alaskans—with an electric car starter in one hand and bag of Taco Bell takeout in the other—still proudly proclaim they’re “Alaskan,” lavishing themselves with connotations they don’t deserve—connotations like self-reliance, independence, and a fierce relationship with nature. Even the fattest and laziest among them think they’re expert outdoorsmen.

These people are your standard McCandless-haters. They call him a moron or a stupid kid or a suicide, and they may not realize it, but they hate McCandless—not because he was a foolhardy youth, but because he, unlike them, followed through with his dreams. He didn’t end his journey like they did. He lived alone, killed his moose, and almost made it out alive. The “McCandless Phenomenon” is envy.

Final Thoughts

Pete’s argument is not without value. It’s no mystery why it’s so popular. It’s well-written, most of it is well-reasoned, and Pete makes many legitimate points. For one, McCandless illegally killed a moose and was unable to preserve the meat. While McCandless may have imagined himself in a different century when there were no restrictions on taking the lives of abounding wildlife, clearly, if everyone disregarded hunting regulations—even for high-minded reasons—we’d have no moose, grizzlies, caribou, or wolves.

Plus, as Pete points out, McCandless lived in a bus, which hardly conjures the image of a wild experience in Alaska. This is a valid point, and one I reluctantly forgive McCandless for because the surrounding terrain, the raging Teklanika, and his struggle to survive makes up for the fact that he settled for a shelter that wasn’t in accord with his original idea of life in the wild.

One could also point to the incredible pain McCandless put his family through by cutting off ties with them so he could pursue his dream.

We can use many words to describe McCandless, but “stupid,” “insane” or “suicidal” shouldn’t be among them. To ridicule McCandless for pursuing his dream—however illogical you may think his was—is to ridicule all dreams. It’s to ridicule the ancient voyages, expeditions across continents, the quest for civil rights, a colony’s fight for independence, and dreams of leaping across distant planets.

There are a thousand excuses not to pursue our dreams. We may have jobs, families, bills and obligations. We have fears and insecurities. We might think: What if it doesn't turn out the way I expected? What if I find out I can’t do it? What if I die?

McCandless, I’m sure, asked these same questions. And that which distinguishes him from those who hate him is the fact that he had the courage to live a full life before a long one.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that it’s never too late to pursue our dreams. Tomorrow, the twenty-something barista who always wanted to own her own café is going to turn 40. Tomorrow, the runner who wished he’d run a marathon will become paralyzed in a car accident. Tomorrow, you’ll die. Let us not live in fear of death, but in fear of not having ever lived.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

An evening meal with the spartan student

Now that autumn has finally arrived in North Carolina it's become cool enough for me to begin cooking meals in my van again.

I don’t know precisely why, but I’m always struck by the deliciousness of my dinners, which is all the more confounding when you consider how terrible a cook I am and how simple my concoctions are.

Last semester I’d sate my enormous appetite on a mere $4.34 a day. I suspect that my food costs have risen slightly because I’ve been shopping at Whole Foods, but I’m sure I’m still well below the national average.

Here I am cooking with my MSR extra-light backpacking stove with silverware and pots that I bought from the Salvation Army.

Wary of soiling clothes with an errant splattering, I go shirtless (and oftentimes pantless, but before posing for this photo I decided not to shock readers with my blindingly pale thighs).

My concoction consisted of spaghetti, mushrooms, tomato, half an onion, one-third of a head of cabbage, a few slices of rye bread, a dollop of peanut butter and some mozzarella cheese mixed in for good measure. This was one of my more elaborate creations, though I should note that I tossed in the aforementioned items with little forethought. Any combination of boiled veggies with a little salt can go a long way.

And Voila!

In lieu of a dinner table I sit on my bed. In lieu of china I use the pot. In lieu of washing my dishes, I don’t. In lieu of decorum I eat messily and noisily and enjoyably.

For a moment—after wiping my hands on my chest and letting my runny nose (caused by the steam of my stew) drip into the meal I was eating—I thought I was in a bachelor’s paradise. Then I looked around and noted the dearth of women, alcohol, the absence of an Xbox and all that’s stereotypically male, thus deciding that this was a paradise only fitting for hermits, ascetics, and long-bearded fanatics who are looking for a place to base their mail-bombing operations out of.

I’m not sure how much the meal cost me, but it couldn’t have been more than $5. And it, to me, tasted better than anything I could spend an hour’s wage on at the finest restaurant.

Thoreau spent 27 cents a day on food and he too found something oddly satisfying about his spartan meals. Maybe it’s because we feel like we’re getting away with something. Maybe it’s because a spartan meal, generally, is a healthy meal. Or maybe it’s just a matter of perspective. Thoreau says,

In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one's self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely. It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do.

I do quite well without meat, dairy and other “staples” listed on food pyramids. And I can think of few professionally crafted meals have ever satisfied me as much as the meals I hastily throw together.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Observations from the Appalachian Trail

Two things I love more than I used to:

1. My van
2. The Appalachian Trail.

My van performed like a champ. I drove it 3.5 hours from campus in North Carolina, along roaring interstates and over rolling country hills, to southern Virginia. And there wasn’t a sputter to speak of.

I’ve wanted to name the van for some time now but I thought it ought to assert its identity to me rather than me, perhaps, applying a false appellation to it. I think “Fordy” has a nice ring to it. Gender-ambiguous, I know. But why can’t I have a van that’s potentially hermaphroditical?

For my four-day Fall Break, I hiked 60 miles from Mount Rogers to Damascus, Virginia and back up to Mount Rogers.
The AT is one of mankind’s finest creations. When has man created a 2,000 mile trail purely to simulate the exploratory experience? Never, as far as I know.

I have few possessions, but I do have a full set of backpacking gear for occasions such as these. Let me take this opportunity to introduce you to one of the loves of my life: my girl, Eureka.

Faithful, dependable, low-maintenance, and weighing in at a slim 3 lbs, she’s provided me shelter on two cross-country hitchhikes, I lived in her for a full month in Mississippi, and she’s kept me warm during many a cold, arctic night.

Some random observations from the trail:

-There’s nothing more liberating than blowing a dollop of snot into your palm, wiping it on your pants, and not worrying or caring one bit about someone seeing you.

-Few things are as tasty for the ears as the crunch of dried leaves underfoot.

-Golden leaves occasionally spiral across the trail, twirling to the ground like helicopters gone awry.

-Caterpillars with white whiskers that reminded me of Japanese senseis crept across the trail like little bottles of toothpaste, squeezing their girth from one side of their bodies to the other.

-I can’t sing worth a damn. I can’t dance, draw, or speak a foreign language. I can’t milk a cow, install a window, or play an instrument. But fuck, can I walk. On Day-3 I walked over 20 miles uphill and could have gone more if it didn’t get dark. I heaved arms to and fro, grunted out each breath, and roared at whim while my shirt became so blotched with sweat it resembled a giant rorschach test.

-“When I rest my feet my mind also ceases to function.” - JG Hamann (Quoted in Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines)

-Serious hiking wakes my mind as if from a winter torpor. I stop less to catch my breath and more to write down the hundreds of thoughts hurling through my head. It’s not just the many thoughts that make hiking so invigorating, it’s the type of thoughts. The hiker begins to feel like he can do anything; that the world—not just this trail—can be conquered. I imagined myself as a transcontinental explorer, a revered author, a gallant lover. Oh the delightful strain.

-Atop Mount Rogers, about 5,000 feet, an armada of Hindenburg-sized clouds soar across the sky so fast that they look like giant wraiths frantically scanning the ground for missing ghost-children.

-One night, in the distance, some animal unleashed a loud, bubbly yodel. It was a sound I never heard before. I couldn’t even begin to guess what it was. I can best describe it as a “warbled howl”: part turkey gobble, part wolf howl. It sort of sounded like a trio of karate masters screaming “Waaaa!” in hand-to-hand combat.

- You’d think that four summers of wilderness experience in the arctic would have quelled my fear of bears. After my third day of hiking, I was cooking dinner under a roofed information sign where the trail crosses paths with a highway rest stop. There were torrential downpours and what seemed like 30 mph winds. A local passing by in his car pulled over and asked if I wanted a ride somewhere. I politely declined and he told me that there was “a big bear” just a 100 yards down the road. I disregarded his warning as I set up my tent in a nearby copse of trees. I had just walked 10 hours straight, almost entirely uphill. I zonked out immediately. An hour later, however, I woke with my nerves racing and my eyes wide. The ground crunched nearby and I suddenly realized how foolish it was to camp in such close proximity to a foraging bear. I determined to move my camp across the road where there was a fence that would protect me. When I opened my tent I turned my headlamp on and in the black of night I saw three sets of glowing eyes staring at me. It was horrifying. After a moment, though, I decided that I was looking at deer, not a trio of hungry bears. Still, I hurriedly packed my things and got the hell out of there.

-I want to posit that 20 miles of good trail is as physically taxing as 1 mile of difficult walking. I also think that I would have done much better on my 24 hour hike if I had been on a trail that inclined and declined like the AT because I would have been alternating the use of certain leg muscles.

-In the town of Damascus—which sees more than its fair share of AT hikers—I still was amused with all the gawkers in town. It feels good to be gawked at when traveling. It makes you feel important. And it makes you remember that you don’t have to wake up to go to work in the morning like the rest of them. Beforehand I picked up a tree limb and used it as a pole, imagining myself as Muir ambling across his beloved Sierra Nevada.

-A cow lowing pre-battle bellows approached me as I traversed over part of the trail that intersected with a farm. I wasn’t sure whether I should be afraid or amused. I bent over to get a look at its genitals. I felt slightly more at ease when I saw udders. Though, it also made me uncomfortable to realize how little I know about an animal I eat so much.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Eating trash for the first time

George: It wasn't down in, it was sort of on top.
Jerry: But it was in the cylinder.
George: Above the rim.
Jerry: Adjacent to refuse, is refuse.
George: It was on a magazine and it still had the doily on it.
Jerry: Was it eaten?
George: One little bite.
Jerry: Well, that's garbage.
George: I know who took the bite. It was her aunt.
Jerry: You my friend have crossed the line that divides MAN and BUM. You are now a BUM.

I guess that officially makes me a bum. But it was hardly trash...

I was 2 am and I was in my secret room where--after the library closes--I go to do homework, to listen to internet radio, and--if the mood strikes me--to dance my ass off. This room has a projector and surround sound, too. After a little tinkering I got it to work. Here I am watching Dark Days in my personal theater.

I had forgotten to bring snacks from the van so after five straight hours of schoolwork I got pretty hungry. Too lazy to walk the half-mile to my van, I began eyeing a stack of Panera meal boxes on top of the garbage bin. Oh, I could just have a little looksy, I thought.

In the top box (that was above the rim) was a half eaten sandwich, an unopened plastic container of salad with raspberry vinigrette dressing, a pancake-sized chocolate chip cookie, and a bag of organic potato chips. It couldn't have been older than a day. Besides, it was from Panera... I ate everything (except the sandwich) with a hearty gusto. A bum I may be.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Walden on Wheels

In my travel writing class, I read (and secretly recorded) an essay about my van. It seemed to go over pretty well. After the reading I got asked the standard questions: Where do the smells come from? Are you going to keep living in it after graduating? And the age-old: Where do you go to the bathroom at night? There are only twelve students in the class, so I'm not too worried about my secret spreading.

Feel free to listen, read, or listen and read. (I bleeped out my school's name for obvious reasons.)

“The Walden on Wheels:
One Student’s Attempt to Afford the Unaffordable—A College Education”

I was lying prone on my van’s floor where the middle pilot chairs used to be, trying to keep out of sight.

This is it, I thought. They know. I’m going to get kicked out of ____.

Moments before I had been cooking up a pot of spaghetti stew on top of a plastic, three-drawer storage container that I bought from Wal-Mart, which held all my food and my few meager possessions. I figured the campus security guard had parked next to me because he saw the blue flame from my propane stove through the van’s tinted windows and shades.

I held my breath as I listened to him shut off the engine and click open his door. I was in my boxer shorts. My arms and legs were splayed out like a scarecrow that’s toppled over in the wind. When I heard the clip-clop of his shoes, I couldn’t help but picture a pair of Gestapo jackboots tapping floorboards in search of some secret chamber in a 1940’s Warsaw ghetto.

I had made it so far, I thought to myself.

Up until this point, I had been living in my van at ____ for two months.

Vandwelling, for some, might conjure images of pop-culture losers who had to resort to desperate measures in troubled times. Losers like Uncle Rico from Napolean Dynamite or Chris Farley in Saturday Night Live skits who’d famously exclaim, “I live in a van down by the river!” before crashing through a coffee table. Or one might imagine an over-sized, multi-colored VW bus circa 1970 that welcomed strangers with complementary coke lines and invitations into writhing, hairy-bodied backseat orgies.

In my van there were no orgies, coke lines, or overweight motivational speakers. The van to me was what Walden Pond was to Thoreau; what Rocinante was to Don Quixote. The van was an adventure. It was my grand social experiment.

I wanted to see if I could—in an age of rampant consumerism and fiscal irresponsibility—afford the unaffordable: a college education. I pledged that I wouldn’t take out loans. Nor would I accept money from anybody, especially my mom who, appalled by my experiment, would offer to pay my apartment rent every time I called home. My heat would be a sleeping bag and my air conditioning would be an open window. I’d shower at the gym, eat the bare minimum and find a job to pay tuition. And—most importantly—I wouldn’t tell anybody.

More than just affording school, I had other reasons for living out of a van. I wanted to live adventurously. I wanted to test my limits. I wanted to find the line between what were my wants and what were my needs. I wanted, as Thoreau puts it, “to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life… to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

It wouldn’t be hard for me to remain frugal. After buying the van and making my first tuition payment I was only a few dollars away from having to rummage through dumpsters to find my next meal. I was—under most first-world definitions—poor. While I wasn’t plagued with the more serious travails of third-world poverty like malnutrition, death, and disease, I still didn’t own an iPod and I smelled sometimes.

My experiment began in the spring of this past year when I enrolled in the graduate Liberal Studies department. Before I moved to ___, I held an assortment of jobs to pay off $32,000 in undergraduate student loans—no easy feat for an English major.

After graduating, I moved to Coldfoot, Alaska—situated sixty miles north of the Arctic Circle and 250 from the nearest store—where I worked as a lodge cleaner, a tour guide, and a cook. Later, I worked on a trail crew in Mississippi in an AmeriCorps program. Between jobs I hitchhiked over 7,000 miles so I didn’t have to pay airfare. When I couldn’t find work, I moved in with friends. My clothes came from donation bins, I had friends cut my hair, and I’d pick up odd jobs when I could. Every dime I made went into my loans.

I finally got out of the red when I landed a well-paying job with the Park Service as a backcountry ranger. Finally, after two and a half years, my debt was gone. I had four grand in the bank that was mine. All mine. It was the first time I had actual money that wasn’t borrowed or given to me since I was a 13-year old paperboy.

I had learned a few things in those two and a half years. I learned the value of a dollar. I learned about the horrors of debt. I learned that the more money you borrow, the more freedom you give. I learned, as Ben Franklin said, “A ploughman on his legs is higher than a gentleman on his knees.” I also learned that I missed school. And—most dangerously—I learned that I could do anything.

Though I had never lived in a van before, I knew I had the personality for it. I had a penchant for adventure, a sixth sense for cheapness, and an unequaled tolerance for squalor.

My first order of business upon moving to ____ was to buy a van. After a two hour bus ride into central North Carolina, I caught sight of the ‘94 Ford Econoline that I had found advertised on Craigslist. When I first cast eyes upon it, I thought of Thoreau stumbling upon what would be his beloved Walden Pond for the first time. Googly-eyed, I sauntered up to it, lovingly trailing fingertips over dents and chipped paint along her burgundy hood. The classy cabernet sauvignon veneer from the top slowly, sensuously fades downward into a lustrous black complexion. I got behind the wheel and revved up the fuel-funneling beast. There was a grumble, then a cough, then a smooth and steady mechanical growl.

It was $1,500 and I bought it immediately. So began what I’d call “radical living.”

I removed the two middle pilot chairs to create a living space. I installed a coat hook, and spent $5 on a sheet of black cloth to hang behind my front and passenger seats so that—between the sheet, tinted windows, and shades—no one would be able to see me inside. I neatly folded my clothes into a suitcase and I hung up my dress shirts and pants on another hook I screwed into the wall.

I at first failed to notice the TV and VCR—that I’d never use—placed between the two front seats. Nor did I know about the 12-disc CD changer hiding under the passenger seat until weeks later. Just when I thought I had uncovered all the van’s secrets, I found a mysterious button towards the back. I hesitated, wary of what wonders might unfold if pushed, but I pushed anyway. The back seat grumbled and began to vibrate, and—much to my jubilation—it began transforming into a bed. I half-expected to see a disco ball descend from the ceiling and hear 70’s porn music blare from the dash.

Fortuitously, I was assigned a parking spot at a remote area on campus next to a cluster of apartments where campus security—I hoped—would presume I lived.

Over time, my van felt less like a novelty and more like a home. At night a crescendo of cicadas from nearby trees would whirr me to sleep, and in the morning I’d wake to a medley of birds so loud and cheery you’d think my little hermitage was tucked away in a copse of trees at Walden Pond. In rainstorms, I’d doze easily into long, healthy slumbers, listening to every raindrop drum against the roof and then flow down my windows like millions of sperm wiggling earthward.

I loved cooking in the van. As an adept backcountry camper, I could easily whip up an assortment of healthy, economical and delicious meals on my backpacking stove. For breakfast, cereal with powdered milk would become a staple as well as oatmeal with peanut butter. For dinner some of my favorites included spaghetti stew with peanut butter, vegetable stew with peanut butter, and even rice and bean tacos with peanut butter. Without proper refrigeration, I cut out meat, dairy and alcohol from my diet entirely. I became leaner, more muscular, healthier.

By buying food in bulk I got my food bill down to $4.34 cents a day. I was meticulous with my expenditures. I saved every receipt and wrote everything I bought down. Not including tuition, I lived (and lived comfortably) on $103 a week, which covered my necessities: food, a parking permit, gas, car insurance, a cell phone, and visits to the laundromat.

The typical student today is not so frugal. Money, for them, comes from some magical vat of gold coins that feeds into their Flex account. They’re detached from the source of their money. That’s because there is no source. They’re getting paid by their future selves. Having never been in debt, they see little reason not to resist materialist pleasures like iPhones, costly plane tickets home, and copious amounts of alcohol. Besides, what are a few extra coins on a mountain of debt?

It’s easy for them to imagine that they’ll make all this money back when they start getting paid the big bucks. It’s easy not to think about the tough job market or how many extra years of work their profligacy has sentenced them to.

I don’t blame my fellow students. I did the same things. What’s so tragic for them is that there is—barring the purchase of a large creepy van—no alternative to going into debt. The government lets legions of its degree-toting citizens—the very citizens who wish to better themselves and contribute to society—go into soul-crippling debt. Additionally, schools don’t make it easier with ridiculous tuition rates and baffling room and board costs.

The average undergraduate student at ___ leaves with over $23,000 in debt, which is within a couple hundred dollars of the national average. The cost of education here, like most schools across the country, is ludicrously high. At ____—without scholarship—tuition costs over $37,000 a year plus books, room and board. The cheapest available meal plan charges them 3.5 times more a day than it costs to feed me. Their dorm rooms cost 18 times more than my parking permit.

____ is no anomaly. It’s a microcosm of our educational system and our country as a whole. We’re a nation in debt; a country of debtors. Going into debt today is as American as beer at a baseball game or an overstuffed turkey at Thanksgiving. An army of loan drones we’ve become, marching from one investment to the next—be it a home, a degree, or a car—in quest of some sense of fulfillment that modern life does not impart. We’re no different than the Spanish explorers who’d dedicate their lives to find the fabled El Dorado, which was always just around the next bend in the river, yet never there at all.

I refused to play by their rules anymore. I was an eccentric. An outsider. I was an ascetic in the midst of wealth; a heretic in the midst of order. I was the antithesis of what the school and country represented. I had to hide.

Because I was so paranoid about campus security finding out about the van, I cut myself off from the student body. Whenever I did talk with a fellow classmate, I found myself souring the conversation with preposterous lies—lies I’d tell to protect myself.

I worried that if students caught wind of the van, a facebook group would be created for “People who’ve had a confirmed sighting of the campus vandweller,” as if I was the elusive Yeti of the Himalayas. Then campus security would find out, deem my lodgings illegal, and promptly kick me out of the van and into some conventional and unaffordable style of living, wherein I’d have to spend ludicrous amount of money to buy a rug—among other superfluous items—to tie the room together in my new apartment.

::Ken has coughing seizure::

In lieu of human companionship, I cloistered myself in my van and in libraries where I was alone with my thoughts and my books. Time for self-reflection, study, and solitude was what I thought I wanted all along.

But of all the things that I gave up for “radical living,” I found it fitting how the one thing that I wanted most was that which couldn’t be bought. When I’d hear a trio of laughing males drunkenly stumble past my van at night, probably hoisting one another up like injured comrades after battle, I’d think of my friends back home. When my ceiling would leak during a downpour, I’d wish to have a companion to share my laughs with. Or on winter nights, when the windows would be coated with a glaze of frost, I’d wish for a woman to share the warmth of my sleeping bag with.

Thoreau extolled the virtues of solitude in his timeless Walden. He called the “advantages of human neighborhood insignificant,” yet he neglected to mention just how often he had visitors over or how his friends and family were just two miles away in the town of Concord.

He extolled a lot of other things about simple living. And while I have plenty of good things to say about it too, living in a van wasn’t all adventure and high ideals. Washing dishes became so troublesome I stopped washing them altogether, letting specks of dried spaghetti sauce and globs of peanut butter season the next meal. There was no place to go to the bathroom at night. I’d never figure out exactly where to put my dirty laundry. Once when a swarm of ants overtook my storage containers I tossed and turned all night, worried about retinues of them spelunking into my orifices like cave-divers while I slept. New, strange, unidentifiable smells would greet me upon entering the van each evening. Sometimes upon opening the side door, a covey of odors would escape like spirits unleashed from a cursed ark.

But no adventure is without bouts of loneliness, discomfort, and the ubiquitous threat of food poisoning. I loved my van. And—after finding a well-paying part-time job—I could afford college.

So naturally I was nervous as I listened to the security guard’s weapons jingle as he ambled by my windshield.

But he just kept walking.

I was overcome with an odd sense of dissatisfaction. Deep down, I think I wanted him to discover me. I wanted a showdown. I wanted to wave my arms at the dean and cry “Impound my van? Over my dead body! I’ll take you straight to the Supreme Court!” Fellow students would rally behind me. We’d have car-dwelling protests and after winning back my right to remain voluntarily poor, people would begin to consider me the campus sage. I’d wear loose white clothing, grow out my beard, and begin to speak in aphorisms to the underclassmen who’d journey the mile on foot to my sacred parking space where I’d serve them tea and answer three questions.

These were just narcissistic fantasies, but I did feel compelled—like Thoreau did—to share my findings with other. If one such student did come by I’d tell him that we need so few things to live comfortably.

I’d tell him not to thoughtlessly acquiesce to parental and social expectations.

I’d tell him that you can live happily without a fridge, but not without friends.

I’d tell him that too often are dreams lost amidst closets of collected clutter; that freedom comes easier to those who don’t have to shoulder the burden of their belongings.

I’d tell him to take some clichés seriously. That money can’t buy happiness; that one should seize the day; and that if life is a journey, can’t everyday be an adventure?

Today I still live in the van. I haven’t taken out loans or borrowed money from anyone. Really, the only thing that’s different is that I’ve set up my laundry area by the passenger seat. Also, after another summer with the Park Service, I have more money than I possibly need. Now instead of being poor, I am radically frugal. Sometimes I think it would be nice to have an ironing board, plumbing, and a woodstove.

It would be nice… The middle class family might think it would be nice to have an in-ground swimming pool. The millionaire might think it would be nice to have a yacht. The billionaire, a private jet. Someone, somewhere might think it would be nice is to have food to feed to her family tonight. Someone, somewhere might think it would be nice to live in a van and go to a wonderful school. I could begin satisfying materialist desires and buying comforts, but it seems to make more sense to appreciate what little I have than to despair about what I don’t.

Admittedly, now that I have money I buy the fancy peanut butter from Whole Foods and I’ve even purchased an expensive pair of hiking boots. But most things are the same: I still cook spartan meals, I still don’t have an iPod, and I park in the very same parking spot. And I still have my secret. Well, that is until now.

Friday, October 9, 2009

So my mom knows about the blog...

Apart from campus security, there wasn’t anyone I wanted to hide this blog from more than my mother.

I had a creeping suspicion that she knew about the blog a few weeks ago when she asked me—over the phone—if I had any insects in the van.

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I do,” I told her. “I have ants.”

Not only did she ask me this right after I posted my entry, “ANTS!,” but she responded with uncharacteristic nonchalance.

“Oh, you have insects!” she exclaimed, unconvincingly.

This was not my mother talking. If I had told my real mother that I had ants, she would have reacted as if I had told her that I was letting a family of pet tarantulas run free in the van. Then I’d hear the seven words that seem to—with unwavering ubiquity—make it into every conversation: “Oh my god! What’s wrong with you?!”

Yet, I didn’t get those seven words. I knew something was up. So I called her out on it.

“You’re reading my blog, aren’t you?”

After enduring several minutes of strained denials and overacting that would have won her a Golden Razzie, she finally fessed up. Not only does she know about the blog, but she’s been reading it since last March, ever since she found it posted on someone’s facebook profile.

She told me her favorite entry was “Berries and black bears,” which I thought was average at best. (On a side note, most of my friends mention “Throwing up in the van” as their favorite. And who can blame them? It’s my favorite entry, too. And it probably won’t be eclipsed until the inevitable sequel, “Shitting in the van,” gets posted after another round of food poisoning.)

After our conversation, it hit me. She’s known all along about bear encounters, drinking shots with severed toes, pimp-buttons and almost-orgies: shit that I don’t want my mom knowing about.

But really, I could care less about my mom knowing. What I’m afraid of is self-censorship. That’s because the best, most interesting, and most valuable writing is honest writing. Without honesty, the relationship between writer and reader is a flimsy one. The best writers, I feel, are those who aren’t afraid of revealing the darkest and most intimate details of their lives. When I read I want to learn something about humanity; I want to see a reflection of myself in someone else’s writing.

Alas, I find myself censoring all the time. I’ve probably wanted to post an entry about half the people who read this blog but won’t in consideration of their feelings. Half the names I use are made-up. I still refuse to reveal my college’s name. Why can’t I just tell it how it is?

I’ve determined that I’m not going to let anyone in my humble readership—mom included—deter me from writing honestly, however upsetting it may be to them. To quote Thoreau, who I, as you can tell by now, have a nasty man-crush on: “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” I promise, I will.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Travels to on-campus almost-orgies

I go to one of the wealthiest colleges in the country. Each year, legions of degree-toting graduates obliviously sign away the next forty years of their lives to sell their souls to companies like Goldman Sachs and Bank of America to both pay off their gargantuan student loans and to fulfill shallow dreams of yachts, trophy wives and spending their mere two weeks of yearly vacation on lavish cruise lines so they can be pampered to death and have their asses competently wiped by golden-tanned cabana boys.

When people ask what I'm going to school for—"Liberal Studies"—and why—"for the love of learning"—they are visibly suspicious. Must there be an ulterior motive behind wanting to learn? Is not the thirst for knowledge as old as mankind?

I don’t blame my fellow students for thinking me crazy. I feel bad for them. They’ve been taught all their lives to work hard in school so they could get paid the big bucks (as if making the big bucks was the end-all-be-all purpose of existence). Few have ever opened Walden, lived out of a van, or experienced (let alone seen) the poverty that one-fifth of the world lives in.

This is my second semester here and I’ve told less than ten people on campus about the van. I’ve decided that while I will still be discreet about my lodgings, I ought to begin sharing tales of my van more.

I bumped into Bill at the library. He’s an undergraduate senior in my travel writing class. We got to talking and I couldn’t help myself any longer. I gave him a virtual tour of the van with pictures on my computer. We laughed as I pointed out the coat hook, the laundry area, and even the fabled waste basket that I hurled in last April.

He invited me to go out to have drinks with a couple of his female friends that evening. Delighted to have the chance to spend the evening with someone other than the van (who I’m beginning to personify too much for my own good), I gleefully accepted.

Bill was trying to get with Alley—a cute blond who has a boyfriend on a different campus. Her friend Lydia came too, who also has a boyfriend.

Before we hit the bars, we went to my van so I could drop off some books and give him a tour. Not expecting company, I left the van in disarray with dirty gym clothes and cereal boxes scattered on the floor. Upon opening the side doors, a covey of smells escaped like spirits unleashed from a cursed ark.

“It doesn’t smell as bad as you’d think it would,” Bill observed.

We got kicked out of the first two bars because Lydia didn’t have her ID. We wound up in a classy-looking bar that played piano music while suit-and-tied couples ate fancy meals.

I was in my ratty Coldfoot, Alaska tee shirt and a pair of jeans whose origin is unbeknownst to me. Bill—also in disheveled attire—complained that the bar reminded him of the one in The Shining. It was true. Even the bartender was creepily amiable, politely responding to Bill’s insolent request for more “uppity music” and to lift the ban on smoking.

I didn’t care, though. Like a true traveler I took everything—the sights, smells, sounds and idiosyncrasies of my compatriots—in with a hearty gusto.

In our travel writing class we just read an essay by Tobias Smollett who traveled across Europe in the 1800's. Just imagine going on a trip with a curmudgeonly Grandpa Simpson and you’ll understand the kind of traveler Smollett was.

Upon traveling through France, Smollett notes:

“If there is no cleanliness among these people, much less shall we find decency… There are certain mortifying views of human natures, which undoubtedly ought to be concealed as much as possible, in order to prevent giving offence: and nothing can be more absurd than to plead the difference of custom in different countries, in defence of those usages which cannot fail giving disgust to the organs and senses of mankind.”

Yikes. He goes on to ridicule the French for things as trifling as hinges and locks.

I’ve determined to never become a Smollett. I wish to look upon the foreign—never with condescension—but with wide-eyed wonder. Each adversity ought to be treated as a noble challenge. New viewpoints and experiences will help me break apart the hardening clay that encrusts the idle of mind into their own little curmudgeonly worlds.

When we got to Bill’s apartment our class differences were evident. The apartment, with its 30-ft high ceilings, is located in a refurbished tobacco factory, which must cost at least $2,000 a month. Complete with a plasma screen TV, a PS3, and trendy decor, I realized I was in a home far different than the one I had to crouch into each evening.

Bill busted out some fancy wines. When I got out of his bathroom, I quickly noted how the party’s atmosphere had changed.

Bill stood in his boxers by the TV posing—like Costanza in front of a camera—while Lydia ineptly sketched his figure on a giant white sheet of canvas. Bill had his arms folded around the back of his head, and had his back arched as if he was stretching for a limbo. I was all giggles at this point but everyone else was deathly serious. Soon after, Bill got behind the canvas and with a charcoal pencil he feverishly drew Lydia who had stripped down to her bra and panties in a series of dark charcoal lines.

Lydia sprawled out on the floor and flipped off her bra unleashing a pair of jello-y, milky white breasts. Alley began stripping down and laid affectionately with her. I participated in this art scene by busting out my notebook and writing down everything I saw: empty wine bottles, ashtrays with cigarette stubs, two coeds writhing together on the floor with Tarkovsky's Solaris on in the background, a spartan student in the midst of wealth, and a celibate in the midst of what could soon be an all-out orgy.

Lydia delivered wet, (though tongue-less) kisses to Alley and I think if a few more glasses of wine were imbibed I could have watched a freak-fest unravel. Alas, things ended harmlessly with a game of Apples to Apples and me smilingly teetering back to the van, relishing in the afterglow of my open-minded travels.