Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Getting by with Less is Good for the Spirit

A clotted sky above the Sea of Cortez, January 2019. Free to all for as long as it lasts.

PK and I are currently road-tripping on the Baja Peninsula, about halfway through a couple-months excursion in our cushy camper van. 

Shortly before we left our Southern Oregon home in mid-December 2018, I ran across a column I wrote in April 1985 when I was a 40-year-old reporter/photographer/columnist at the Grants Pass(OR), Daily Courier. 

In 1985 PK and I lived in a house built for us four years earlier. It was still very new to us, although we'd occupied a beat-up mobile home on the same property for eight years prior.

In April 1985 we had one child, Quinn, who was 7, with another about-to-be conceived, a son, Chris, who arrived in June 1986.

Our adult children long ago fledged and we have grown old, still living in the same home. 

And now, after all those years of working and raising kids and caring for an elderly parent, we are free to travel the world. Which we do. 

My 1985 column is about how we traveled before we had jobs, kids, or a care in the world. 

Unlike the photo-loaded blog posts I usually publish, this one has just one image. During the trip described below, I did not bring a camera; I couldn't afford film or developing. I had no money. Paul and I had known one another for just a couple months. 

From the 1985 column 

I live in a nice house. It's new and pretty and has lots of oak and tile and thick carpets. It has a washer and dryer and dishwasher and a color TV. Sometimes I sit in the reclining chair in the living room and admire my house.

But other times I sit in the same chair, eyes closed, and drift back 12 years to when we lived in a three-sided thatched hut on a beach on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

We weren't there long, but the time was memorable both for what we had and what we didn't.

We rented our little stretch of perfect white sand beach for pennies a day. One morning I relaxed in my hammock tied between two palm trees and watched a long thick green serpent slither through our camp. I didn't care. It could live there too.

Iguanas sunned on rocks in front of our three-sided hut while the turquoise waters of the Caribbean lapped at their thorny claws. A coral reef was not far out and we snorkeled to it, observing the brilliant corals and tropical fishes.

Sometimes we'd get lucky and spear the tropical equivalent of lobsters and have ourselves a feast. Other times we'd eat the dried beans and lentils and canned meats we'd stocked up on.

Paul fashioned an oven out of an old peanut butter tin, and we burned dried coconut shells for heat. We made simple biscuits, cakes, and cookies.

We had no refrigeration, and except for the bottled water we bought at a not-too-distant village, we had no fresh water. We washed our clothes, our dishes, and ourselves in the turquoise sea.

Once a week or so we'd travel a couple miles to a cenote, where an underground stream surfaced from the limestone catacombs beneath the Yucatan peninsula. I remember the sweet fresh fragrance of the crystalline emerald water as we swam. Tiny silver fish flickering in the sunlight 20 feet below seemed unperturbed by our splashing.

Swimming in that small but unfathomable hidden jungle pool was a deep pleasure I will surely never forget.

Once our old 4WD Toyota Landcruiser got buried to the hubs in the sand. I'm sorry to say we pulled down a palm tree when we attached a winch to it trying to get out. There was no AAA, or anyone else, to come to our rescue.

We made do. We learned the truth of Thoreau's observation: A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can do without.

And a woman, too, I might add.

No TV, no radio, no phone, (oh joy!) no newspapers, limited fresh water, limited diet, no washer, dryer, trash masher, vacuum cleaner, refrigerator, carpets, or air conditioner.

We got as much pleasure from solving our survival problems as we did from the natural beauty of our surroundings.

These days we recapture some of that simplicity when we go backpacking or rafting. We gladly leave our conveniences behind and make do for as many days as we can get away with what we can carry.

We need to reaffirm, somehow, that we can rely on ourselves and each other without all the luxuries and trappings of society.

Things are different for people born into poverty. They have no choice, no luxury of slipping back and forth between a world rich with material goods and an impoverished one where their children die of preventable diseases and malnutrition. Or endless wars.

But with our great wealth comes the choice. It isn't an easy choice.

Choosing to live with less, learning to simplify, certainly isn't the American dream.

A simpler less materialistic way of life would wreak havoc on the gross national product because our capitalistic society depends on us to be busy little consumers. 

Choosing to live with less would throw a wrench into the speeding reckless wheels of commerce.

What it might do for the human spirit, however, is another matter.

Postscript January 2019

OK. My younger self is talking to me, reminding me that I don't need anything.

Although this very day, in Mexico, I bought a pair of earrings and a colorful woven top. 

Clearly, I'm not ready to forgo everything superfluous to survival. 

But I intend to reexamine my relationship with Amazon Prime, which makes it way too easy to surrender to consumerism—and with all the energy-using shipping and waste-producing packaging. 

I'm so sick of styrofoam padding and air-filled plastic bags. Isn't everyone?

About 15 years ago I lived an entire year without buying anything new except for food and underwear. 

It's still January. I will make a NY resolution. 

I will buy nothing new until a year from today. 

I'll let you know how it goes January 15, 2020.

However, new landscapes and experiences will not be prohibited on the long road ahead.