Whenever I tell someone that I live full-time in my little camper, their first reaction is amazement that anyone can live in such a small and basic space. The majority of the time, their next reaction is negative. Either they are baffled that anyone would do something so foolish, or express outright rejection of something bordering on insanity.
Every so often, the reaction will be positive, and I can tell that something in that individual is responding with an identification and longing for what I have. Inevitably, the person will ask me why I choose to live this way. For me the answer can be put into one word: freedom. I have found a freedom in living that brings me great joy and happiness.
I’ve often tried to put into words exactly what I mean by freedom, and more importantly freedom from what. I don’t think I have ever really done it justice. I can tell you what I don’t mean. I don’t mean any kind of political freedom in the sense of civil liberties. No, it is much deeper and more profound than that; something deeper in the nature of who I am and my relationship with society as a whole.
Recently, I found it stated perfectly in a book I was reading, and I want to share that with you. This is a quote from the book, “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” by Kent Nerburn, published by New World Library, pages 155-157 (see box below). I know it’s a long quote, but if you will take the time to read the whole thing, I believe you will be moved just as I was. I added the emphasis. The quote is from an old Indian man living on the Lakota Indian Reservation:
“This is something I have thought about for a long time. It’s about white people and why they don’t understand us…. I think it’s because the most important thing for white people is freedom. The most important thing for Indian people is honor…. But the Indian has always been free. We are free today. We have always been freer than the white man, even when he first came here….
“The white world puts all the power at the top…. When someone gets to the top, they have the power to take your freedom. When your people first came to our land, they were trying to get away from those people at the top. But they still thought the same way, and soon there were new people at the top in the new country….”In your churches there is someone at the top. In your schools, too. In your business. There is always someone at the top, and that person has the right to say whether you are good or bad. They own you. “No wonder Americans always worry about freedom. You have so damn little of it. If you don’t protect it, someone will take it away from you. You have to guard it every second, like a dog guards a bone….
“When you came among us, you couldn’t understand our way. You wanted to find the person at the top. You wanted to find the fences that bound us in–how far our land went, how far our government went. Your world was made of cages, you believed in them. They defined your world, and you needed them to define ours.
“Our old people noticed this from the beginning. They said the white man lived in a world of cages, and that if we didn’t look out, they would make us live in a world of cages, too. So we started noticing. Everything looked like cages. Your clothes fit like cages. Your houses looked like cages. You put fences around your yards so they looked like cages too. Everything was a cage. You turned the land into cages, little squares. Then after you had all these cages, you made a government to protect the cages. And that government was all cages. All laws about what you couldn’t do. The only freedom you had was inside your own cage. Then you wondered why you weren’t happy and didn’t feel free. You made all the cages, then you wondered why you didn’t feel free.”
My Review of the Book
If you have any interest in learning about Native American life, this is the first book you should buy. Instead of a white man writing about Native Americans, it is an Indian speaking about his people, and put into book-form by an outstanding white author. The result is very enlightening, readable, and extremely moving. The author, Kent Nerburn, had written several well-received books on Native American life. Dan, a Native American elder living on a Reservation in the Dakotas, had read them and invited him to come and stay with him and write his thoughts into book form. Nerburn accepted and stayed with Dan and learned from him. He recorded his thoughts and this book is the result. There are deep, life-changing truths here for anyone open to hear them. Very highly recommended. ***** 5 Stars “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” by Kent Nerburn, published by New World Library
Zoo Animals in Pretty Cages:
Everything in modern society is designed to force its citizens, you and me, into little molds. From the moment we are born, there are expectations on every aspect of what we will become. Our parents read books telling them when we should crawl, walk, talk, even get our first teeth. We are literally graded at every step of the way. If we don’t fall into the “normal” range, warning flags are sent up. Later, we are set in front of the TV where the media reinforces the molds and constantly reminds us we must conform.
Soon we’re sent to formal school where we are continually graded and judged and forced to conform to the normal American mold. If we are good little boys and girls, we are rewarded, if we aren’t, then we have problems. We are constantly graded, judged and controlled by people bigger and better than us: friends, family, school, media, all with one goal, to make us “good” citizens. After school we throw ourselves into being good little citizens. We get a job and start working our way up the ladder. We get married, have kids, buy a house and do everything we can to keep up with the Jones by obediently buying everything the media instructs us to buy.
Then suddenly, in mid-life, we realize we are miserable, that our life is meaningless, that we have no idea who we are or why we are here. That’s so common we have a name for it, a “Mid-life Crisis”
Can you relate to that? I know I can, it describes my life exactly. I followed the prescribed pattern and lived in the pretty little cage society assigned me. I felt like I was an animal in a zoo. My life was comfortable and easy, but deep down I knew I wasn’t free, I was in a cage.
I just didn’t realize that I was the zoo-keeper and I had put myself in the cage!
More than that, I had the key to the cage, and could step outside of it at any time. But the cage was mine, it was my territory, I had some freedom as long as I stayed inside my pretty little cage and conformed to the mold. I wasn’t happy, but I was safe. I knew I would have food, water, and shelter and I could have some fun as long as I stayed in my assigned habitat and played my role.
Then I got divorced and I was literally forced into living in a van. It was like I had been thrown out of the very pretty little cage I had always lived in and thrust into a life of freedom. At first I was miserable. This new life was very far out of my comfort zone and I was terrified by it. Everyone judged me and told me I was crazy and I felt lost without the identity society had always given me. I terribly missed my safe, cozy, pretty little cage.
But gradually I started to embrace the freedom and fall in love with it. My life was greatly less comfortable and safe, but I was free. And for the very first time, I was happy.
After 6 years of living in a van, I moved back into a house to live with a woman. Then a very strange thing happened—I hated living in a house. I felt like a tiger in a cage, constantly pacing back and forth longing to live free. Now, there was nothing wrong with the house. It was a big log cabin on a beautifully wooded acre in a beautiful river valley near Anchorage, Alaska. Having lived free, I was spoiled and couldn’t live in a cage again, no matter how comfortable and safe it was.
The tiger was out of the cage, and wasn’t going back in.
A few years later I retired and moved out of a house for the last time. I moved into a small home-built camper on my pickup and headed out to live on public land in the West of the continental United States. Three years later, I’m still living on public land 365 days a year. I take long walks in the wild every day and find peace and joy there.
My hatred of being caged keeps getting worse.
In our rich consumers’ civilization we spin cocoons around ourselves and get possessed by our possessions.
– Max Lerner
Slaves to the Consumer Society:
There is another way we give up our freedom in the modern world: greed! The economy of the modern world is primarily motivated by consumer spending. So, each of us is constantly bombarded by the media to buy the latest and greatest thing. The emptiness and meaninglessness of our lives creates a hunger and longing for happiness that is temporarily satisfied by buying the latest and greatest thing. Soon, that hunger and need controls us and we find ourselves constantly buying more stuff. We hope all that stuff will become a fortress of safety from our fears, but instead it becomes a prison, another pretty cage of our own making.
Moving into the tiny space of a car, van, or RV is like going cold-turkey from an extremely addictive drug. When you find out how little you can have in your new home, you will have to start getting rid of it. You will almost certainly find it very emotionally difficult. If you persevere through that, many people find themselves constantly craving more stuff. Chances are pretty good you will even give in and go buy more stuff and then discover there just isn’t room for it and end up getting rid of it. I can say from personal experience, it is an expensive lesson to learn. Just like any other addiction, the need to keep buying stuff is in control of your life, and you won’t be free until you break its hold over you. Vandwelling and spending time in nature will change you from the inside out. The peace and joy you find will change you at a very basic level.
Unnecessary possessions are unnecessary burdens. If you have them, you have to take care of them! There is great freedom in simplicity of living. It is those who have enough but not too much who are the happiest. – Peace Pilgrim
Freedom to Wander:
The typical American works at a job he hates, with people he doesn’t like, to buy things he doesn’t want. She or he is caught in a cycle of needing a job to get money, but the job makes him miserable so he buys more things to make him feel better, which makes him need more money, which traps her in a job that makes her even more miserable, and so on forever. Making the leap into vandwelling breaks that vicious cycle, by drastically reducing your need for money. You will no longer spend a very large percentage of your income on rent or house payments and on utilities. Plus, you are forced to stop spending money on “stuff” because there is nowhere to put it. When you think about it, by eliminating those costs, you have very little need for money. You still have to buy food, gas, maintenance on your vehicle, vehicle insurance, entertainment, and miscellaneous expenses. With your need for money so reduced, you gain the freedom to change jobs or work reduced hours. Or, you can keep working at the old job, and start saving large amounts of money.
For example, if you were making $2,000 a month, and your housing costs were $1,000 a month, when you move into your van, you have an extra $1,000 a month of disposable income. It’s crucially important that you not just blow that money by buying more worthless junk. You want to keep paying your landlord just like you were before, except now you are the landlord and you are putting that money into a savings account for yourself (or using it to pay off any debt you may be carrying). After 6 months, you will have $6,000 in savings. Since you have been living on $1,000 a month, that means you can quit your job and travel for 6 months, or until your savings run out. When the money runs out, you stop traveling and find another job. Maybe you like to ski, so you work all winter at a ski resort and then when you get laid off in the spring, you can draw unemployment and take the summer off and travel. Or you can do like I do, and work as a campground host all summer, a job I love! Because I’m given a free campsite and I am very remote, I spend very little money except on food, so at the end of the season, I have saved nearly all my wages. Then, when I am laid off in the fall, I draw unemployment and live very cheaply all winter in the desert on free BLM land. Vandwelling gives me the freedom to wander and travel. Best of all, I live 365 days a year in beautiful, wonderful, life-changing nature.
This isn’t pie-in-the-sky stuff, I know many other people just like you and me who are living a free life as vandwellers. You can do it! All that’s holding you back is you!
All I want is to stand in a field and to smell green, to taste air, to feel the earth want me, without all this concrete hating me. – Phillip Pulfrey