Thursday, April 14, 2011


In exactly one month, I will graduate. Soon after, I will leave North Carolina.

I am eager and ready to move onto the next stage of my life—whatever that is—though I must confess that I feel a nagging and overwhelming sense of anxiety about what the future beholds.

A large part of this anxiety results from my precarious financial situation. I have $330 in the bank and—thank god—a $692 tax return coming. That gives me a little over $1,000, plus whatever I get for the van if and when I sell it.

I could care less about having money. Apart from health insurance, I can’t think of one thing I want. What I do care about, though, is my freedom. And an empty bank account will severely curb my freedom, as I’ll either have to depend on others for help or—gasp—get a job.

I am obsessed with freedom. I am a freedom extremist. I’m not trying to sound grandiloquent; I have issues. I can sense the slightest abridgment of my freedom like a princess feeling the impression of a pea under 40 featherbeds and mattresses. I feel it when I’m in romantic relationships. I feel it when I’m given a gift. I feel it when someone holds even the faintest influence over me. And when I feel it, it comes in the form of rage—a heart-thumping roiling rage in the pit of my chest that feels so overpowering I have to talk myself out of rashly fleeing and separating myself from that which controls me.

I’m not in any way bragging about any of this. Frankly, I think of it as a curse—a curse that, for one, inhibits me from maintaining relationships that might otherwise prove beneficial. But this is just the way it is.

Perhaps I feel this way because I'd once felt enslaved by my debt. And if I were to go back into debt or the workforce or reduce my freedom in any way, I would feel like a freed slave who must seek succor from an old master.

This is where my idealism clashes with reality. Without money, I will no longer be able to enjoy the degree of freedom to which I’ve become accustomed these past couple years.

What am I going to do? In all likelihood, I will not get the book deal. I’ve tried freelance writing before, and I've never gotten paid more than $150 for a week’s worth of work—so making a living with the pen is simply out of the question.

I could go back into rangering or try teaching—jobs that I find necessary and honorable. Yet I know that—despite the useful social service I’d be providing—I’d feel like, as biographer Alfred Lansing described Ernest Shackleton when he wasn't in the Antarctic, “a Percheron draft horse harnessed to a child’s wagon cart.”

I feel a terrible need to do grand things—what those “grand things” are, I’m not sure. But I am beset, cursed, plagued by an unreasonable amount of ambition. I’ve been this way since my undergraduate years and I used to think that it would go away after a big trip or adventure; that a road trip or a mountain climb or hitchhike might somehow scratch my itch, calm my nerves, lull my wanderlust, granting me, finally, a peace of mind that would permit me to settle down and enjoy the simple life like any normal person. Yet, this has never been the case. I’m like a soldier who—upon completing his tour of duty—wants nothing more than to go back to the frontlines. In two months, I’ll be 28. When will it stop?

Where can one put these ambitions in this anomalous age—an age where there are no frontiers to settle, no honorable wars to fight, no continents to discover… Many—in my situation—resort to wild, extreme sports, like bungee jumping or sky diving or ice climbing. Yet those seem so sterilized to me—fleeting “rushes” that seem to function like an addict’s “hit.” What I wish for is some purpose or task or crusade to which I can dedicate my life—not just some cheap thrill.

What happens to someone when they have nowhere to put their ambition—does it just go away? Does it dwindle? Does it rot them from the inside out?


kenavo said...

Don't worry to much about the futur, time will show.
And if all your ambitions will not be met immediately, you will survive!
Good luck with graduating!

Meve said...

Just because you're not getting a book deal, doesn't mean you can't publish an e-book. I'm sure quite a few of your followers would gladly buy such a book. The future is yours!

Anonymous said...

Ken, you have lots of followers of your Blog, because you write well and have lead, at least so far, an interesting life.

If you could adjust your antennae so that you could focus less on yourself and more on your observations of others, you might find a voice that would enable you to make a living with the pen.

You can write well enough, perhaps it's the material that needs broadening.

Tom in Orlando

Mike said...

Let me try this argument one more time.

You have quite an asset in that you need so little money to live well.

I still you think you ought to spend a few years as a ranger/teacher/whatever you can stand. Keep living like you do, bank all the money, and in a few years you'd have over $100k in the bank. - Basically creating a trust fund for yourself. It would only take reading 5 or 6 books over the course of a few weeks to be able to competently manage the funds.

You could then take about $500/month just from interest out of that for the rest of your life without it ever dwindling down. Use that as a base and throw in some dollars here and there from writing and odd jobs and you'll be free.

And if you ever decide to settle down and live like a normal person **shudder**, you'll have money to buy a house without having to get a **shudder** mortgage.

Bobbi Dunn said...

I detect a strong fear in your words - not a good motivation to do or not do anything. Spend some time discovering what you love, then brainstorming ten different ways to do that. Freedom is either a by-product of doing what you love or a means to an end. Living in the van wasn't the goal, it was a means to an end (graduation w/o debt). Then determine the cost and reward of doing what you love, which might include a commitment or being commitment free but not really involved. Let your love for an activity/work drive you, not your fear of being committed to something or someone.
Best of luck.

Anonymous said...

Though the existential predicament you describe presents practical problems in the real world, I think it's also important to remember that the predicament has much to do with meaning, and that the predicament can be represented and grappled with symbolically. Many writers and thinkers have been, symbolically, where you now find yourself, and many of them have left records of themselves.

To quote Joseph Campbell:

"This first stage of the mythological journey - which we have designated the "call to adventure" - signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown. This fateful region of both treasure and danger may be variously represented: as a distant land, a forest, a kingdom underground, beneath the waves, or above the sky, a secret island, lofty mountaintop, or profound dream state; but it is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds, and impossible delight. The hero can go forth of his own volition to accomplish the adventure, as did Theseus when he arrived in his father's city, Athens, and heard the horrible history of the Minotaur; or he may be carried or sent abroad by some benign or malignant agent as was Odysseus, driven about the Mediterranean by the winds of the angered god, Poseidon. The adventure may begin as a mere blunder ... or still again, one may be only casually strolling when some passing phenomenon catches the wandering eye and lures one away from the frequented paths of man. Examples might be multiplied, ad infinitum, from every corner of the world."

While you are thinking about your existential predicament in practical ways, I would encourage you also to find ways to grapple symbolically, perhaps by reading just the right books. There must be some excellent science fiction books (Heinlein, maybe?) in which the protagonist is in a pickle that you'd identify with. Scanning Campbell's references in "The Hero's Journey" might help identify some good literature with this theme.

I think Campbell's view was that, when we find our real-world paths blocked, or when we don't know how to choose between many possible real-world paths, confronting our predicament symbolically is as important as confronting it in the real world.

Anonymous said...

You sound like a classic entrepreneur. Why not start a business? It will certainly absorb your energy and you’ll be your own man. Choose well and it can also be your great passion. Even if you fail, it will be a great and expansive experience.

Short of this, I think Mike has the right idea.

Jim in NH

Unknown said...

I totally understand that need to do grand things. It has plagued me most of my life. I thought it had disappeared over the past year or so, seemingly allowing me to be content with a simpler, more average rest-of-my-life scenario, it has recently sprung back up, demanding nurturing and satisfaction.
So, clearly, ambition must not work in such a way that it dwindles or rots you from the inside out. Ambition lurks. Sometimes it seems like it disappears completely, but it's hiding out, hibernating, waiting for the right opportunity to jump back up and announce itself, forcing you to notice it and maybe do something about it.
Do what you have to do for now to remain the person that you are, but that ambition won't leave you. It may just recede temporarily, until the right moment arrives for it to leap out again.
I have no doubt that your ambition will stick with you, and that one day you will be able to satisfy at least some of its demands.

Slatton said...

For me, the overwhelming desire for freedom stems from a need to explore, and the need to explore comes from a sense that there is something more worthwhile somewhere in the wide world that I've not yet discovered. In light of this observation (and were I in your shoes), I would seek out something you can do for a few years that pays the bills, but still grants you the time to find whatever it is you're looking for. It's entirely possible that you'll never find that elusive fulfilling something (I certainly haven't yet), but even if you don't, the exploration itself often grants some degree of contentment.

Ken said...


Misplaced—I’ve thought about that. I suppose I just have it in my mind that success equals publishing it in a conventional manner. This is probably wrongheaded thinking, though I think it would get far fewer eyes if published solely as an e-book.

Tom—That’s good advice. I’ve already submitted a pitch to a magazine, and plan on submitting a couple more.

Mike—I can’t argue with the logic of your scheme. And I suppose I will mull it over, as it makes perfect sense. Though I can’t emphasize just how poorly suited I feel for the professional life at this stage. I’d be a coyote in a cage.

Bobbi—Words of wisdom! Though I wouldn’t say I have any “fear”—just anxiety. I’d feel fear if I had no place to go or no food to feed my kids. Anxiety is a mere canker sore compared to fear.

Anon—Amazing comment. Though I’d consider any comment with a Joseph Campbell quote amazing. I’ll look up Heinlein—I’m woefully out of touch with that genre. Here’s David’s favorite Campbell passage, which has become one of mine. Superb last paragraph!

"And now each one," we are told, "went the way upon which he had decided, and they set out into the forest at one point and another, there where they saw it to be the thickest" (la ou il la voient plus espesse); so that each, entering of his own volition, leaving behind the known good company and table of Arthur's towered court, would experience the unknown pathless forest in his own heroic way.

Today the walls and towers of the culture-world that then were in the building are dissolving; and whereas heroes then could set forth of their own will from the known to the unknown, we today, willy-nilly, must enter the forest la ou nos la voions plus espesse: and, like it or not, the pathless way is the only way now before us.

But of course, on the other hand, for those who can still contrive to live within the fold of a traditional mythology of some kind, protection is still afforded against the dangers of an individual life; and for many the possibility of adhering in this way to established formulas is a birthright they rightly cherish, since it will contribute meaning and nobility to their unadventured lives, from birth to marriage and its duties and, with the gradual failure of powers, a peaceful passage of the last gate. For, as the psalmist sings, "Steadfast love surrounds him who trusts in the Lord"; and to those for whom such protection seems a prospect worthy of all sacrifice, an orthodox mythology will afford both the patterns and the sentiments of a lifetime of good repute.

However, by those to whom such living would be not life, but anticipated death, the circumvallating mountains that to others appear to be of stone are recognized as the mist of dream, and precisely between their God and Devil, heaven and hell, white and black, the man of heart walks through. Out beyond those walls, in the uncharted forest night, where the terrible wind of God blows directly on the questing undefended soul, tangled ways may lead to madness. They may also lead, however, as one of the greatest poets of the Middle Ages tells, to "all those things that go to make heaven and earth."

Jim—I’m far from a businessman, though I do have a few entrepreneurial ideas. There's always my “Forest cemetery” idea, plus I'd like to create a modern “All in the Family” in which the Archie Bunker character lives next a Muslim family.

Constant—Good call. I think it’s fair to say that a young man who doesn’t fulfill his longings is bound to wallow in a mid-life crisis.

Slatton—I think one can embrace a sense of freedom without having to travel or explore. I think feeling free comes with being perfectly in tune with your desires. If something inhibits you from satisfying such desires, you begin to feel restrained.

PS: Anyone want to start up a monkeywrench gang?

Anonymous said...

Join the Vandwellers group on Yahoo Groups. They're very like-minded and might have some great options for you. You liked the freedom of living unattached--why stop now?

Chris said...

Move to Charlotte...I'll start anything with you! I keep thinking about starting my own business. Bakery keeps popping up in my mind because you just don't see any down here like you do in the Falls. As always I'm looking forward to seeing where you go next.

Ellen said...

No, it does not go away when you get older. I'm 41 and still have the same itch you are talking about. I solve it by being an entrepreneur (What, a forest cemetery?! I thought of that too!) and freelance and short term jobs. I get paid so well (or I get by on so little ;-) ) that I only have to work 6 months a year and still can easily support a family of 5.

It's not easy, always having an itch to go somewhere and/or do something wild. But it does not rule out romance. I've been married for 17 years now, although my long-suffering husband sometimes wishes he could have a more calm and relaxed lifestyle. I'm always making plans to travel, change career, live abroad (and we did it too for a couple of years, I'd love to do it again).

I agree with Tom: go for a freelance writing career. You could start by writing an article about one of your adventures in Alaska and send it to National Geographic. Who knows what might happen?

Trish said...

Go east young man! Head to Europe and meet up with Click Clack Gorilla, live in her community for a while. I know I am just blithely sending you off on this adventure, but I see the seeds of an adventure writer in you, in the mode of Bill Bryson or William Least Heat Moon. You can write, your blog is certainly captivating.

Natalie @ Scarlett Notions said...

I think it's great that even though you aren't sure what's next, you are firm on what you don't want. Have you considered doing a PhD program at another school? Fully funded programs will keep you living thrifty, but able to pay bills. And you'll have plenty of downtime to roam...

Anonymous said...


Entrepreneurs and business people are two very different animals.

The former create the grand idea, launch and find those of the latter to help as needed. Check out:


Jim in NH

Anonymous said...

you + your back pack + a class B cdl ( easy to get ) = self employed freedom.
Work as much /little as you wish.
Travel all the lower 48 and Canada if you want, I never went to Canada much. Too much of pain to cross the border and expensive in Canada.
Not a " truck driving job " but a way to make money on your never ending road trip.
I Did it for 14 years because i hate working for people and require maximum freedom and love to travel unrestricted on my schedule .
Here is link to a "drive-away " forum where you learn more and ask questions.

I think this would suit you better than you might think.
Like i said ,this nothing like getting a job driving semi trucks, that s--ks in my opinion.

You are self employed Gypsy delivering trucks all over the US.
This not delivering RV`s, they dont pay anything.

but like i said , your back pack and a class B cdl in your pocket and you can clear at least $500 a week not working very hard at all.
With your low priority on making money , 500 a week should suit you for part time work that allows to travel where ever you want to go.
Plus you learn some things , lots of things.
It will also give you an opportunity to earn money by working for yourself. It seems you have only been attracted to what i call
" government jobs " ( anything funded directly or indirectly by tax payers ) because they are safe. You just show up and do what people tell you to do, no risks , nice and safe.
If you are as bad azz and independent as you think you are . Why not try to escape the gentle shade of that umbrella and try the real world.

I will go get the link and post it.

take care


Anonymous said...

here it is, hope this link works.


Ken said...

Chris—You ought to start a pizzeria. The pizzas down south stink. Having grown up in Western New York, you have a natural taste for pizza/wings/subs/anything that will clog your heart by age 55. But of course a bakery would work too.

Ellen—I plan on giving the freelance gig a shot. I’ve submitted one pitch and have 2-3 more decent ideas for the summer. We’ll see.

Trish—I love Bryson, so your compliment is well received. I have “Blue Highways” on my shelf. I read it so long ago I’ve completely forgotten it. Click Clack Gorilla—very interesting site… I do have dreams of heading to Europe someday, hopefully someday soon. I actually do have a fascinating blog/book idea for European travels, very similar to what you’re suggesting.

Natalie—I think I’m done with school for a while. I’ve been in college for 8 years now. Each day, each year, has been well spent, and I don’t regret a thing, but I need to stop studying and start doing. Though, perhaps in coming years, I might want to focus my studies on something if one of my interests becomes a passion. I do have a weakness for environmental history..

Jim—I see what you’re saying. I’ll check out that guy’s blog.

Bandett—Good stuff. I’m not sure that that sort of work would put my demons to rest (I was thinking more along the lines of joining a revolution or embarking on a voyage to Mars), but it’s good advice for someone in a similar situation. I should point out that I loved my gov’t jobs and that they weren’t at all “safe.” After all, I had bear, moose, and wolf encounters when working for the Park Service. I’m not going to argue that all gov’t jobs are good and useful, though I would argue, vehemently, that the jobs I’ve taken with the gov’t have been. Also—and I don’t think you meant anything by it—but I by no means think I’ve been living in the “gentle shade of an umbrella.” I’m writing a book and doing groundskeeping work—I don’t see why we should consider unconventional and unpaid working arrangements separate from the “real world.” But thanks for the comment and link!

Nick said...

If you really want to publish a book but don't get a book deal, I suggest looking into print-on-demand publishing.

Brian said...

As Linus from the Peanuts said, "There's no heavier burden than a great potential!" I feel this burden and it sounds as if you feel this burden also.

If you can, try not to worry too much on your future, it will work out, you have the drive. If you follow your folly choose to focus on your passion, your creativity, your love then your purpose will become more clear to you and you will find internal happiness, you will find balance.

Good luck, Ken, stay focused, stay driven, remember who you are.

Anonymous said...


Less than 30 days?! Congratulations man! You really have done an amazing thing. Your writing is good enough to make me feel like I have been right there with you in that sometimes stinky van, shivering in the winter, roasting in summer, but all the while feeling a sense of accomplishment by bucking the status quo.

I agree with previous posters concerning e- publishing. I recently read an article about a young lady from Austin, MN who published her books in this manner and has become quite successful.

Perhaps you could hit the road once again and regale us all with your continued adventures and you could market your book along the way. Maybe you are suited to help people realize their potential to disconnect themselves from the burdensome weight of the system currently in place. I recently discovered a man by the name of Jacque Fresco as I was looking for info pertaining to conservation, resource allocation, etc. I listened to a couple of his interviews on Youtube and he kind of reminded me of you.

Anyway, good luck Ken! Thanks again for sharing your experiences with us!

-Duane from Kansas (near where the Pottawatomie Massacre took pace…though I’d throw that in there to entice your wandering spirit…wink)

Whitney said...

...I know how you feel.
Congrats on graduating. Hope to see you again someday.

Scott Wardle said...


I usually prefer to mind my own business, but for some reason I stumbled upon your blog.

Congrats on your, not the degree, but getting/staying out of debt. And kudos for your biggest accomplishment, living in a van.

What an awesome thing to do.

Take my advice for what it is worth. Don't ever graduate. Stay in school. No, I'm not talking about that Duke gig you got going. You can kick it to the curb and make Thoreau really proud.

I'm talking about that school inside your van. You know what I'm talking about. For the moment you give up the van, you will give up a piece of yourself as well. And you will spend the rest of your life trying to get it back.

You're on the path. Stay on it. Don't sign onto a mortgage or anyone else's mortgage. What you have is bought and paid for.

Grasp the truth in what I'm telling you. Keep the van, the pencil and paper. Stay warm, stay hungry.

I hope this message finds you and finds you well!

Spork said...

Great post Ken. I've gone the route Mike suggested, worked for a few years, lived way below my means and saved like crazy. I'm now "retired" and able to do whatever, and yet I'm still trying to figure out what to do next.

Tesaje said...

"I am obsessed with freedom. I am a freedom extremist. I’m not trying to sound grandiloquent; I have issues. I can sense the slightest abridgment of my freedom like a princess feeling the impression of a pea under 40 featherbeds and mattresses. I feel it when I’m in romantic relationships. I feel it when I’m given a gift. I feel it when someone holds even the faintest influence over me. And when I feel it, it comes in the form of rage—a heart-thumping roiling rage in the pit of my chest that feels so overpowering I have to talk myself out of rashly fleeing and separating myself from that which controls me."

It is good that you recognize this about yourself at such a young age. I have felt a lot like this my whole life without really recognizing it until middle age. At the same time, you have written about a sense of responsibility and fairness as well. Those are hard things to balance. Your story about the hitchhiking adventure with the crazy free spirit shows how hard it is to have a balance. She dragged you down in the end because her irresponsibility triggered a sense that you had to save her from her stupid risks. Instead of being a fun and adventurous companion and partner, she "made" you be the responsible one so that you would not have a tragedy on your conscience (a form of using you). It makes it hard to balance.

You don't want to become one of the many who "live lives of quiet desperation" having to stifle the urge for freedom but you have to eat. At some point the nesting instincts might kick in and then lots of responsibility will trump everything else. For a while. Unless you are very lucky and find a woman who is a good match in her desire for adventure but balanced with sense.

All the great writers did other stuff to eat before their big splash. Sometimes very mundane stuff. Unless you have a source of independent income, the need to eat becomes more important than any of us wish and we must make trade-offs.

Given the lousy economy, the shrinking middle class, frugality is probably a good way to go. Stuff does tie you down unless you are among the legion who always equate their stuff to their value. Entrepreneurial endeavors are for those who truly love whatever they are doing. They are usually consumed with the business and the statistical risks are high - half fail. Doesn't sound like you.

The van can continue to be your ticket to keeping costs tiny while amassing a nest egg. Joseph Campbell is one of my favorites - much wisdom there.

I also do not agree with the anti-gov worker comment. Some of the most idealistic and hard working people are feds. It can be a difficult trade-off to do the work needed and deal with the overall politics that poison the well. And it often is not safe at all. All those high risk rescuers who save us from every disaster are govt workers.

Best of luck in finding your way. Hope you keep the blog going as you follow your next path.

Ken said...

Nick--I'm pretty dead-set on getting it published in a conventional way. If it's not good enough, I plan to edit it and edit it until it is. But if I simply can't get it published, I'll probably resort to methods such as the one you suggested.

Brian--Nice peanuts quote. Thanks.

Duane--The Pottawatomie Massacre?! I'd love to visit that site. You grasped my desires quite well. I'd like for my "job" to be to remind people what they've forgotten they're capable of. I have some grand ideas--and nothing's stopping me except for a little money. We'll see.

Whitney--it would be nice to see you too. I might be heading back to out old stomping grounds this summer.

Scott--I may get rid of the van, but I'll never get rid of the simple life. Someday I hope to have a cabin in the mountains not hopelessly far from civilization. I have little need for civilization, except to fulfill my desire to play a role in it. Thoreau put it nicely: "It would be some advantage to live a primitive and frontier life, though in the midst of an outward civilization."

Spork--It may come to that. I just feel like I have so much momentum, and to have to dedicate the next few years of my life to moneymaking would, in some way, derail me. I'm not arguing against such a plan; it just doesn't feel right for me right now.

Tesaje--I have a friend who used to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and told me how he did nothing but watch movies on his computers all day. Other seasonal park rangers—after the season ends—pick up unemployment checks while pretending to look for work. I am certainly aware of where some of negative stigma toward government jobs comes from, but I think these cases are exceptions. I have nothing but positive things to say about my government jobs (except for all the paperwork). When I was an AmeriCorps Team Leader, I was working for what felt like 70 hours a week for pennies ($300/week plus an education award). Anyway… I plan to keep this blog going this summer and hopefully longer. The day I get a conventional job will probably be the day I write my last entry.

Anonymous said...

I can relate to your feelings about not wanting your freedom encumbered in the slightest degree. I really can. But just because you feel this way now doesn't mean you will always feel so strongly. You don't have to label yourself as this way or that way permanently. I now accept a great deal of responsibility for others (wife and children, mostly)and that is a restriction on my freedom . . . big time. But some things are worth it. I did not have that perspective in my 20's....

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