Forks in the Road

A beautiful sunset in the San Juan Islands

I’ve been feeling more and more as though I may be in the middle of a mid-life crisis. The crisis part is pretty evident, but is thirty mid-life? …Oh well, I’ve always been an early bloomer. What I know for sure is that I am increasingly rejecting the axioms of modern society that I have tried hard to adopt over the last decade and instead reaching back to the wisdom I had as a child.

From about the age of eight, I spent the vast majority of my time in the woods behind our house. I was a freak when it came to wilderness survival. I believe I read every book that Tom Brown Jr. ever wrote; about how to live in the wilderness, track animals, and forage food. I drank up the stories about his Apache teacher, Stalking Wolf.

Even at that early age, I strongly rejected the rules of society. That we must go to school, get jobs, and raise families. That everyone must be dictated to and accept a life of limited control. A synthetic world separate from the natural one. That man’s place is not in the woods but in the cities.

Is this my proper place?

I remember clearly one night, sitting around with my two older brothers. We were making plans to all live together, move away from modern society, and live in the woods. Screw money and conventional life. We didn’t want any part of it. We’d live off the land and take care of one another.

My father had been casually listening to our discussion and felt compelled to break in with some of his own wisdom. I remember this discussion not because of the logic of his argument, but because of the sincerity of his voice. He told us that life doesn’t work the way we want it. That we can’t live without money. That people simply can’t do what we wanted to do anymore. I could tell from the way he talked that this was truly what he believed and that he had our best interest at heart in telling us these things.

I didn’t know it then, but I think that conversation was a major fork in the road of my life. It was the first time that I really considered that my ideas of living close to nature may be childish. That a subsistence culture in America was simply not possible.

...Or is this my proper place?

Although this fork in the road – to pursue a subsistence lifestyle or one of modern life – was revealed at an early age, I wouldn’t have to seriously confront it until age 20. I continued to pursue my personal education into nature skills as I got older, but I also honed my technical skills with computers and electronics. This continued all the way into my sophomore year of college.

It wasn’t until that time that I really looked around at the types of jobs that engineers have. Most engineers spend their work life in a cubical, crunching numbers for middle managers. This data is then passed up the chain of command where it is ultimately misinterpret and poor choices are made. I was afraid of my life becoming a running Dilbert comic strip or becoming the main character in Office Space.

This was the type of lifestyle I could look forward to after college. Was that really what I was working so hard for? Of course it wasn’t. I love electronics as a personal passion, a hobby. But the reality of making a living means living in a cube for my profession.

As a lethargy of inaction crept over me, my grades began to drop. I decided to take some time off school and do some soul searching. I worked on a cruise ship for six months, saved some money, and seriously contemplated how I wanted to spend my 20’s. I could embrace the lifestyle of an engineer – make good money, but probably be very unsatisfied with my life or…. What was the alternative? Living in the woods? That’s just crazy. At least, I knew everyone else would tell me that.

Finally, on New Years Eve of my 20th year, I committed to embracing a conventional life. To quote first Corinthians, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” I would finish college, make as much money as I could, and retire as early as I could. If modern life is inescapable, best to get it over as quickly as possible; like pulling off a band-aid… only this would be a pain that would last for ten to twenty years. Still, if I could retire early, I could use the money to live a quiet retirement somewhere in the San Juan Islands.

Now, as I look back and wonder where my twenties have gone, I am embittered. I bought into an American dream, a dream that was not mine. I have squandered my twenties in the pursuit of money in order to scratch an itch that money can’t reach. If someone had just come to me at 20 and said, “Buy a boat. Take care of that boat and that boat will take care of you. It will give you a place to live, it will be a vehicle for travel and exploration, and a means to feed yourself on all the bounty of the sea”, I think I would have taken the advice. But no such voice of inspiration existed for me at the time. I had to discover it for myself.

The wisdom I had as a child was an insecure wisdom. I felt it in my heart, but did not have the words to identify it or the experience to justify it. Now though, I can feel confident in telling those ghosts of past authority that they are wrong. That I can and will live my life on my own terms. That the wisdom of my childhood is the wisdom of permaculture, of sustainability, of living close to the earth. I seek not to live better, but to live well.

Share Your Thoughts

Where are you at in your life right now? Does my story resonate with your? Please share your thoughts below.

Related posts:

New Year’s Resolutions
Ice Box Upgrade
Summer Adventures
7 Responses to “Forks in the Road”
  1. Marcus says:

    This a great post. I’m certainly still in my 30 year mid-life crisis. Lots of questions. Some answers. This is something I know. We’re all destined to be great. We just have a different path to get there. Good luck on your journey!

  2. kari says:

    definitely resonates with me. incidentally, i am contemplating the san juan islands as my next adventure. would love to meet some friends there!

  3. kari says:

    oops. contemplating san juan, PR as my next adventure. i’ve already kicked around the san juan islands and have to say did not like. liking your blog though!

  4. Melissa White says:

    I figure people get to choose how they ‘spend’ the currency of their time on earth. Whatever makes them happy is beneficial to all around them. Certainly there is no moral superiority in living a life of office cubicles if one is miserable. Why bother to be born, in that case? The soul speaks more loudly for some in childhood, before we learn to ignore those longings. That being said, I don’t believe in the concepts of ‘wasted time’, (especially when I’m looking at other people’s lives :)) I figure that since you experienced things in your 20’s that made you decide for sure to live the life you have, that was time well spent. You won’t question your decision now because of your experience then. Believe me when I say that it’s much harder to make the choice to cut ties with a land-based life when you are in your ’50s and have a family home where kids have grown up (not to mention the financial aspects of that investment), and where retirement is just close enough that it seems silly to walk away now, not knowing if you will be hireable when you return. Getting a job in your 60’s is not like getting one in your 30’s. It’s harder. And because our really good earning years are behind us, we have to think about being able to live in our really old age, because we both plan to be around for a long time. We cannot count on others to pay for that life. We must do it ourselves.
    You literally have decades in front of you to live the life you want to live. That is a wonderful gift. We have absolutely no regrets about our choices because we have two wonderful children we adore and so we must have done something right. Our decision has been made about how we’ll move on from here, but it will take us some precious time to make it happen. Maybe we’ll meet at an anchorage one day!

    • Ken says:

      Thank you Melissa. Chris is younger than some of my children. I (Ken) am 59, Sherrie is 53. Like you, we struggle with the tensions between home, jobs, children & grandchildren, retirement planning and responsibility vs being less reliant and tied to those things. We are endeavoring to become more independent and self sufficient. We share a dream with Chris and are trying to work our way towards it, though I have no doubt that he will achieve his much sooner than we ours.

      Follow along! If we can do it, so can you. Only time (and a lot of work & planning) will tell!


  5. David Veale says:

    Just came accross your blog as I’m researching a move to Lopez. My dad was an engineer — sat his whole life in a cube, which I was determined not to do. So I became a forester (commercial forester), which had its moments, but was basically running a money making operation for stockholders, which left much to be desired. I gave in and became a programmer, but sold my house and moved with my wife to our sailboat (we were in B’ham) for 3 years.

    Eventually scared my wife so bad while sailing that it ceased to be an option, so we moved to plan B, a farm in Michigan. Reading a lot about peak oil helped push us along in this endeavor, as did food/health, and environmental concerns.

    I’m still scraping along with IT work, running the farm with horses, and generally doing alright, but still long for the islands. I’m not sure sailing ever really left my blood. Miss the Cascades as well. There’s no such thing as wilderness anywhere near us here, though it’s probably one of the best places in the country to farm, especially if using horses (the Amish communities are a huge benefit!).

    I gave up on the idea of retirement long ago — deciding that it was a transient symptom of fossil fuel use, and will disappear along with them.

    So I don’t really have any good advice, but do think you’re on the right path. Few things in life are as much fun as cruising the SJs!

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