Becoming a Nomad – The First Ninety Days

Me at the summit of Springer Mountain

“The hardest thing in the world is to simplify your life. It’s so easy to make it complex. What’s important is leading an examined life.” — Yvon Chouinard, Founder of Patagonia — 180 South

Today marks ninety days since I made the decision to get rid of almost everything and embrace a nomadic lifestyle. It’s been an enlightening experience to say the least. Mostly in that–after more than two decades of intense focus on business and unchecked consumption–picking up and leaving it all behind has been a lot of work.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

Getting rid of everything is harder than it sounds.

I spent almost fifteen years in my last house in Atlanta. I launched and ran a successful business there, had friends there, loved there–the roots were deeper than I was ready to acknowledge.

So were the closets.

It’s amazing how much we tend to collect over time. This was particularly true for me–I learned early on that if you want something, you buy it. I hadn’t given much critical thought to most of the junk I was pulling out of the closet when I bought it, but it sure was weighing heavy on my mind now. Not only did I have to get rid of all of this stuff somehow, but having taken an extended hiatus from most of my professional endeavors, all I could see were dollar signs. Dollars that weren’t in my now empty bank accounts.

An old friend of mine is fond of saying, “Collecting is addict behavior”. I didn’t really understand what this meant until I spent some time studying addiction. Now, neck deep in useless shit I hadn’t laid eyes on in more than a decade, it was really starting to crystalize.

All said, it took me just over two months to get rid of everything in my nineteen-hundred square foot house. Two months. Let that sink in for a minute. This isn’t something I was doing on the weekends or after work, it was my near-full-time job. Even donating things or giving them away–the fate of three quarters of my belongings–takes considerable time. Emailing, calling, loading, unloading, no shows, rain days, missing parts. Selling them is an even bigger ordeal.

For me, this process really underlined the immense emotional toll that indiscriminate consumption takes on us. When we’re busy with “normal” daily life it’s just noise in the background, a subliminal message. You hear it and it affects you in profound ways, but you don’t realize it’s happening. But when it becomes your sole focus, the volume suddenly goes up to eleven and you can quite literally feel the chaos around you. At one point my blood pressure shot up so high, I could quite literally hear it. The sound was so loud I couldn’t sleep, which only made it worse. It was maddening.

I expected this process to be difficult, and it was. I expected it to be cathartic and empowering, and it certainly was. What I didn’t expect was the increase in stress. Hard as it was to lean into the chaos, I’m immensely grateful for it. The experience has changed my perspective on life’s purpose and I’m a better person for it.

Life is about relationships and experiences, not things. Use your time here wisely.

Most people say they understand, but they really don’t.

“Normal” life in the US–and in most of the western hemisphere, I suspect–is highly prescriptive: graduate from high school, graduate from an expensive college where you’ll rack up tons of student loan debt, get a job where you can spend forty years working your way up the corporate ladder, get married, have a couple kids, buy a house in the suburbs, then retire and try to enjoy life in between doctor visits to treat all of the lifestyle diseases caused by sitting in a cubicle and eating like shit for forty years.

Sound familiar? To me, it sounds like a recipe for misery. I tried it and my life eventually fell apart because I was trying to shoehorn myself into a life that others thought was right for me, but that I had no interest in living.

Stray too far from this “normal” life and you risk eliciting contempt–often disguised as mild curiosity–from those around you.

“He’s just going through a phase.”
“Oh, she’s just finding herself.”
“Why can’t you just live a normal life and just get a real job?”

It’s important to remember that these are people that probably care about you, and their aversions are steeped in simple lack-of-understanding (and maybe a tinge of envy). And your response has to be tempered by this if you also care about them–they have zero experience with what you’re doing and they don’t want to see you fail. But you probably can’t change their minds, so learn to smile and graciously ignore all of the bad, unsolicited advice, annoying as it may be.

Instead, be grateful to have people in your life that care about you. See the positive and stay confident in your decisions, even when it seems like the world is against you. Otherwise, you’ll be swayed from your path. Greatness–however you choose to define it–is not achieved by living in-bounds.

This has been more than a small challenge for me. I’ve lost my way more than a few times along this journey. Life over the past year in particular obliterated my self-confidence–making it incredibly difficult to take ownership of my decisions and making me dangerously susceptible to outside influence–despite knowing in my heart I was making the right choices. It’s been a long, hard, painful journey back.

Strive to be an inspiration to those that understand your message and move forward unapologetically. Don’t waste precious time on those who won’t.

The rules for making friends change.

Youngsters, I have some bad news for you: the older you get, the harder it is to make real friends. In my experience this is a universal truth, regardless of where on Earth you are. By the time you hit your forties, most people have families, mortgages, and death-march jobs to worry with (see above). They simply don’t have the bandwidth to cultivate anything new. It’s just life.

The upside here is that if, for example, I meet some people on a trail run in the middle of nowhere on a Wednesday afternoon, we probably have a lot in common. And so far, that’s been my experience. I’ve met trail runners, climbers, dirtbags, vanlifers, retirees, through-hikers, celebrities, and one fugitive–all kindred souls and amazing people (he was innocent, I’m told).

But that commonality is also a double-edged sword. Like me, those people are also transient, and so, for the most part, so are the relationships.

Ditto for the people you meet in the context of everyday “normal” life. Strike up a conversation at a bar with people about your adventuring, and they’ll hang on your every word. They’ll also keep their distance–you’re still seen as a transient, a vagabond, dangerous. People will be suspicious, simply because they don’t understand. Most people don’t realize that there’s a thriving, location-independent, digital economy out there. How can you be sitting at a bar with your laptop, drinking margaritas and eating tacos, making a living? (Sidenote: I highly recommend this work environment.) Must be up to no good…

Don’t take this the wrong way–those people are incredibly friendly and sometimes inexplicably generous. On more than a few occasions, I’ve been treated to dinner by people I’ve had little more than a quick, casual chat with, frequently without my knowledge. Just don’t expect to meet your new bestie sitting at a bar in some new, unfamiliar town (but you might, so don’t discount it either!)

None of this is a bad thing. In fact, these interactions are a big part of what’s so appealing about this lifestyle and why people seek it out. You’ll meet amazing people who are doing amazing things that you’ve probably never considered on an almost daily basis. It’s just different than what most of us have been conditioned to, and it takes some getting used to. It’s inspirational in ways that can’t be explained. Embrace it.

Nomadic life is incredibly freeing.

It took me a couple months to finally get to it, but the freedom a nomadic life offers truly is amazing. It’s also scary as hell and requires considerable sacrifice.

Most of what little I had left, I had to let go. Things yes, but also people and places. I had to accept the end of important relationships that I desperately wanted to save. I had to detach from the concept of “home,” something I voluntarily walked away from. And I had to redefine purpose, self, wealth, happiness, and most of my life goals. Scary? You bet.

Without the burden of the trappings of modern life–a mortgage, a yard to take care of, mountains of monthly credit card bills to pay–the way forward slowly, almost magically started to come info focus. A path to meaningful personal growth, purpose, and passion materialized. A singular path that I’ve been trying to find since, well, forever. Just like that, the pieces slowly started falling into place.

My experience has been highly transcendental out of necessity–it reflects important things that have been missing from my life for a very long time. For others it might be physical, emotional, or something completely different. And that’s okay. There’s no right answer, no map, no guidebook, no fixed route. Its really about taking that first step, something that took me half my life to do.

In the words of Chouinard: “So, it’s kind of like the quest for the holy grail. Well, you know, who gives a shit what the holy grail is. It’s the quest is what’s important.”

True freedom is in the seeking, not the destination. Define your freedom and start the fucking journey.

See you on the trails!

Finding True Purpose Through Running

Me standing on the Imagine mural in Central Park.

Pablo Picasso once observed, “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” In all fairness, there’s some debate about who actually said this, but the notion of Pablo sipping tea, hands stained with paint, waxing prophetic in Castellano feels romantic to me, so we’re going with that.

In any event, I’ve been thinking about purpose a lot lately.

Twenty eighteen was unquestionably the single most challenging orbit of my entire forty-three years. And it’s got some serious competition: emergency dental surgery when I was 2 years old; a 1985 cycling accident that nearly took my right arm and required two excruciating surgeries to fix; a massive overdose in 2007 that killed me for just over 3 minutes and left me in a coma, followed-up by a divorce in 2008 that sent me spiraling back into several more months of powdery, self-destructive depression. The list is longer than I care to admit.

The concept of bone fida true purpose didn’t exist in my universe until another round of addiction landed me back in the hospital–twice–and finally in-patient rehab in early 2018. Despite my deep affinity for learning, it’s apparently not always my strong suit.

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Eating Healthy on the Road

A dozen homemade biscuits in a box.

Crossfitters are fond of saying, “you can’t exercise your way out of a bad diet.” Regardless of what you might think about Crossfit, they’re right. Sure, you can work out enough to justify an absurd number of calories, but this still doesn’t make all those donuts you ate on the way to work healthy. In fact, all that sugar is probably wreaking havoc on your training. Not to mention your pancreas, brain, adrenals, abdominals, genitals, and wallet.

Intrepid travelers already know how tough it can be to eat healthy on the go. Air travel and hotels are like a black hole, junk food supergravity drawing you slowly into a singular abyss. Traveling light and border crossings make carrying food a logistical challenge, sometimes impossibility. Pair that with the lack of cooking options in most hotels, and it’s easy to go completely rogue. Even a cheapo butane camp stove and a styrofoam cooler are big luxuries when all you have is a motel-grade Keurig and a microwave.

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Hacking Motivation

Laz coaxes runners at the start of the 2018 Barkley Fall Classic.

A race director friend told me that the average ultra-distance trail runner stays in the sport for about four years. I’m not exactly sure where that number came from, but it seems reasonable. Injury, burn out, family commitment, work, loss of interest–we’re all at risk of losing that spark that helps push us to the finish.

For me, an injury last year spawned a cascade of events that completely destroyed my motivation, not just for running, but for life in general. It was a dark time, and it took more than a year for me to crawl back out of the hole that I’d dug for myself. I lost everything in the process, including my self-respect. I was totally defeated.

Breaking from stagnation has been one of the most difficult challenges I’ve had to tackle. That experience led me to start researching the science behind motivation. There’s quite a bit of psychology at work here, but the good news is that once you understand it, you can start stacking the deck in your favor.

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Why I Became a Nomad

A bunch of sticky notes on a wall around a sign asking about thankfullness.

About six months ago, I started renovating my house in Atlanta. Groundbreaking was the culmination of years of daydreaming about becoming a fat-cat real-estate investor, and I’d spent the previous six months or so doing legitimate research and running the numbers. I had a high level of confidence that–once up and running–my quaint new AirBNB would generate just enough revenue to allow me to finally cut the cord and hit the road nearly full-time. All I needed was about $75,000 and another six months to finish all the work.

Problem. I didn’t have $75,000, and my credit score–while not completely in the toilet–was low enough to invite more than a casual chuckle from bankers. During the ensuing six months I would most certainly die from starvation, since my recent year of “soul searching” hadn’t been paying very well and I’d blown through most of my savings. So, naturally, I did what any other rational person would do–I got out the wrecking bar and started tearing down the walls of my 100 year old kitchen. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot, it turns out.

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