Freedom of fewer choices
We used to go for long backpack trips in the mountains, carrying too-much-stuff on our backs and slowly creeping over the landscape at human pace. It was beautiful, peaceful, and simple. When we dragged our young children along the lack of choices was a wonderful freedom. That may see contradictory but let me see if I can explain.
Many years ago when the boys were 7 or so we went to the Smokies for a week long 60 mile hike. We entered the park from Gatlinburg. Now Gatlinburg off the main strip may be a very pleasant place, but on a hot summer day with small children it was hell. Smoky National Park is the most visited National Park in the country with 9 million visits a year. Our guidebook said that for every ten people that visit the park only 1 stops. For every ten that stop, only 1 gets out of the car. For every ten that get out of the car only 1 goes more than 50 yards. That would mean that 9000 are actually getting into the back country each year, but I suspect even that number is high. So imagine the scene. We are in a hot car inching down the road to enter the park. On all sides there are things for sale, things heavily advertised and calling to my children. Dolly Parton land beckons, “official Indian tomahawks” call to them, Red Injun pizza and Black Bear Burgers tempt with salty fatty smells. On every side we are solicited, tempted, cajoled. The children beg to stop, they beg to buy, they beg to own these exciting but momentary possibilities. We feel tense and besieged by the garish displays, the hot sun, the slow pace and our seduced children. Later, out on the trail we realize that there are no people and nothing for sale. There are no big choices. We can make pasta tonight, or falafel. If we have one, the other is for tomorrow. We put one foot in front of the other or we pause and step forward in a few moments. For a week we see no one and the seduction is that of the sign of a bear having passed or a deer having slept here. A bush that might still have berries or a camping spot here that might be softer than over there. We are quiet and own our own minds again. The children walk and chatter and there is nothing for them to demand from us. We had everything we needed, and they seemed to know it as we did. The lack of choices was a freedom to get along with living.
So that freedom is one of the things I look for in cruising. I do not have the strength to carry what I need on my back for the next few years, but with Phoenix doing the carrying maybe we can still experience that simplicity we found in backpacking for years to come.
But freedom is only the first part of the self sufficiency equation. There’s also the responsibility to take care of things. First we pare down what we own, then we take responsibility for it all. We don’t send it off to be fixed, we have to fix it or do without. We can’t risk it breaking, we have to watch it closely and prevent it from wearing out.
I suppose this immediate responsibility for the things that sustain us is what money allows us to avoid. We mow our own lawn, but we don’t fix the mower, we pay for that. Or we don’t mow our own lawn, we pay for that, too. We don’t prepare our food, we pay for it. When we pay for it we lose some freedom in what we eat. Almost everything you buy pre-made has corn syrup, but how often do you use corn syrup when you prepare your own dinner? Would corn syrup really improve your spaghetti? Maybe riper tomatoes, sweeter onions would do the trick.
The movie “Off the Map” explores this idea of self-sufficiency on land. A small family lives in the middle of nowhere (somewhere must be where everyone else is). They are nearly completely self-sufficient without holding jobs. The father says something like ‘it’s too expensive to have a job. First you have to pay for transportation and new clothes, then for someone to do all the things you don’t have time to do. Then you don’t know how to do all the things these other people do for you.’ I think we become poorer in the exchange of our narrow expertise in our job for all the expertises it takes to sustain our life. If we do it, we should do it knowingly, aware of what we’re trading and remembering that it is a trade and not the only one possible.
Bill McKibben’s book Deep Economy touches on why we might want to move towards self-sufficiency (or local-sufficiency at least) even if we weren’t driven to sail around the world. I want to live with deep economy, not deep pockets. I want to know what I’m eating and have time to care. I want to live lightly and responsibly. I want to know where my trash ends up and re-use what I can. Humanure is my other favorite book this year and provides a solution to a significant part of this problem. Another is Collapse which talks about what happens when societies forget how closely tied to nature they are. Sailing on a budget will throw us into these questions naturally, but it’s where I want to be when I go back to land as well. High Energy, a film by Amory Lovins and bullfrogfilms, tells us why our fast-paced money-intensive lifestyle makes these questions hard to look at. When you’re moving fast all your solutions have to be fast, too. The slow enduring answers are just too hard to see at the speed we’re moving. Well, Phoenix goes a lot slower than our Subaru – I hope we’ll slow down, too.