Getting away from it all? Take it all with you

Two weeks ago today I was pulling into the driveway of a tiny cabin in the little Bear Paw fishing village on Panguitch Lake in Utah. Escaping the 110° inferno of Phoenix, when dad and I arrived the local temperature was 70° and slightly overcast. There was a light, cool breeze. It was about as close to my ideal environment as I get during the course of the year.

Except for those RVs.

If you’ve been following along, lately I’ve had this kind of minimalist epiphany. Not that we really have that much stuff to begin with, but that’s been more of a financial implication than a deliberate decision. I like having big TVs and fun cars and more rooms in the house just as much as the next guy, but we just could never afford to go crazy with things.

  • The house that mere months ago I was disparaging because it was too small and we’ve probably outgrown it
  • The old car that I love but wouldn’t it be cooler if it was just a bit older and maybe be the original M5 version of the same model
  • When do the new Apple MacBook Pros come out again because this one is starting to act a little wonky and it may just be time to upgrade anyway

You get the gist.

Now, however, after just a couple of months of getting a little bit more zen about things, I feel like I’m starting to look at stuff differently, like my attitude has caught up with my paycheck. Since we weren’t hoarders or shopaholics to begin with, it’s really just a mindset shift that I’ve been experiencing: I’m able to better appreciate the simpler things in life.

I no longer have that instantaneous drive to want the things I’ve been eyeing. Suddenly, I can look at a beautiful car and appreciate it for what it is…I don’t instantly think “Wow, I wish that were our car.”

I’m obviously still progressing down this path though…as now there’s a new feeling in place of the “I want.” One I can’t put a label on. Frustration, maybe? That others haven’t made the mindset shift that it took me until now to make. It bothers me that friends and strangers aren’t jumping up and down with excitement about “I don’t need all this junk!”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Two years ago, my dad and I used to take our yearly fishing vacation on a small lake way back in the mountains outside of Durango, Colorado. Generally, it was so remote that we were the only ones in the area unless it was a long weekend. Sometimes we would see solitary kayakers on the lake in the morning, but usually, it was just dad and I. Dad and I and the bald eagles and the raccoons and chipmunks and squirrels and cattle calling out to greet the sun as it came up over the forest.

Home away from home

This is why we camp…to get away, get back to nature, and unplug.

Fast forward to July 2014, and we’ve exchanged Colorado for Utah for the second year in a row. Tents have been traded for a cabin. Sleeping bags for springy beds. A cold trip via flashlight to the outhouse 200 yards away for a short walk across a squeaky floor to a bathroom with a flushable toilet and a shower. Every meal cooked over an open fire for most meals prepared on a gas stove. A cooler full of ice for a refrigerator. Hot water. Electricity.

I could be completely okay with all of these upgrades if it weren’t for one thing: other people.

Just like last year, the tiny cabin dad rented is flanked on all sides by RVs. “Recreational” Vehicles…behemoths that take half an hour to back into a spot with generators and awnings and satellite dishes and loud televisions and ATVs and solar panels that block my view of the sunset over the lake.

I get it…most of these folks are retired. They worked their whole lives and saved up and bought these personal tour buses so they could spend their golden years driving around the country and living wherever they want and doing what they want to do.

I mean, that’s the same reason I’m at the lake too, isn’t it?

But the thing is, that they don’t seem to be doing whatever it is they want to do.

They’re spending all their time taking care of the junk they hauled up there.

After the daily afternoon storm, there’s an exodus, people shuffling outside to dry off their quads and propane barbecue grills and to realign their satellite dishes. Every night they pack up the toys and the chairs and the grills and the fishing equipment lest it gets stolen or the storms blow in again.

Every morning they come out and do it all over again.

And I think that’s what really bothers me…I feel like these folks are missing the whole point of being out here in the first place.

Why drive way out into the woods in what could arguably be one of the least fuel-efficient land vehicles out there (at 11 miles a gallon) to spend your time tending to your stuff? We’re surrounded on three sides by forest and a big beautiful lake on the fourth. Besides the relatively little time spent fishing and the occasional evening campfire, most of our fellow campers rarely ventured out of their RVs, blue TV light flickering from the windows.

Maybe I’m projecting the point of my vacation onto them. Maybe that’s exactly why they’re up in the mountains. Who knows.

What I do know is that I’m there to get away from my TV and my phone and my email and my job and my stress. I’m there to go for walks. To hike up a mountain trail and wander across deer munching on pine cones. To read a book in the shade of the fragrant pine trees. To feed the chipmunks.

Not to listen to your satellite TV broadcast the latest episode of Jerry Springer from three spots down.

This is one of the views from our picnic table. All of this stuff is hauled out and arranged every morning and put away every night, twice if there’s a storm.

10 camping chairs, smoker, coolers, propane grill, and food prep area protected by a tarp

And by the way, there is always a storm. It is the monsoon season, after all.

For comparison, here’s what was in our back “yard”:


To be fair, out of frame (in the shade) are the two camping chairs we brought that are more comfortable than the picnic table benches. On the table is my dad’s cheap camping barbecue grill, the same one we’ve been grilling steaks and the trout we catch on for years. It’s not the biggest, or the hottest, or the fastest, but it gets the job done, it breaks down almost flat for easy transport, and best of all – it’s easy.

If a storm rolls in, guess what? It gets wet. If it gets stolen, he’s out about five bucks. We don’t stress about it. We don’t have to clean it after a cloudburst. A new sheet of aluminum foil when it’s time to cook and it’s good to go. More importantly, we get to spend that saved time a better way: talking, or hiking, enjoying a cigar and each others company, which is the real reason the two of us are there anyway.

Which makes me wonder…I wonder if the people in the RV next door felt sorry for us while we cooked on this tiny grill and had nothing to watch while we ate but the sunset?


On being way off the grid

Tuesday night, the end of day three of the annual camping and fishing trip I take with my father. This is the second year he ponied up for a small cabin, in contrast to our regular camp tents. Last year, he decreed that he was too old to be sleeping on the ground, but I suspect the real reason was that he had gotten a little tired of the daily battle with Mother Nature when it comes to meal preparation. On these trips the plan is to fish all day, or at least until we caught our limit or enough for dinner, then get back to camp and hang out and prepare dinner, only to have a monsoon storm whip up and drive us racing for cover while dousing our dinner table with cold rain.

Dad and I have taken this annual pilgrimage for about the past seven years, missing only once due to a conflicting event, which we did together. This time is important to us, so we try very hard to make it a priority, not only because we both like to fish, but mostly because it’s one thing we can do to spend time together. Prior to the “too old for this” declaration, like the swallows return to Capistrano, we always made our way back to our own favorite campground in the mountains outside of Durango, Colorado.

One of the benefits of the Colorado trip was the fact that we were so far off the grid…12 miles to be exact. That was the distance between me and one bar’s worth of service on my mobile phone. I tested it. Every year. I always said it would be good to know exactly how far I would have to travel if there was some kind of emergency, but the fact is, for a couple of days every year, I went through internet withdrawals.

I always had a good excuse, though: my clients.

More than a couple of times, back when I was doing more freelancing, I thought clients would be trying to get a hold of me, even though they knew I would be gone, or I would realize that an important email didn’t get sent out before I left. I would stress out about being out of touch, even if it was only for a couple of days. Every three days we would travel back into Durango to get ice for our cooler, and my phone was ready. Emails were in the outbox, ready to fly, text messages were queued up and waiting for that first precious cellular signal.

Of course it wasn’t all business.

Specifically-shot photos were ready to be sent to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, etc. Photos designed to let the world know just how much fun I was having while my friends and the rest of my family was back slaving away at their jobs or sweating in the Phoenix heat. Photos my uncle describes as “making it look like I live in a jeans commercial.”

Thanks to a recent change in my perspective, however, I can now see what I was doing in a different light.

Rather than just be in the moment, hanging out with my dad, I’m anxiously awaiting the opportunity to be back online, looking at the world through a three-inch digital screen, and broadcasting how much fun I was having in an effort to win approval through stars or thumbs-up or likes or whatever. To people who, for the most part, don’t care.

This year, though, in this drafty little cabin in Utah, I’m really trying to be different.

After my recent infatuation with minimalism/zen thinking, I’m striving to be more in the moment. Sure, I’m writing this on my iPad and will eventually make my way over to the nearby cafe to post this via their wifi, but the attitude behind it is different. I’m writing this now to capture it while it’s fresh. I pause when dad decides that he wants to chat, and hang it up while we sip hot chocolate and listen to the monsoon thunder rumble through the mountains.

More importantly, I’m not pulling my phone out every five minutes to see if I can get a signal, or rushing over to the previously-mentioned cafe every chance I get to touch base with clients or my office, to return email messages or catch up online content I may be “missing” while I’m out here.

Not that I haven’t wanted to…we all know that feeling of connectedness is addicting. I made an intentional decision to visit the cafe once a day, and only if there is another reason to go. Getting online can’t be the point…if we’re there for another reason it’s fine, but there won’t be any wandering over just to send out a tweet.

As such, since we’ve arrived, I’ve sent one email out with a photo of the lake to a friend who enjoys fishing, and a few text messages to my wife and to my mom. I’ve turned the email application off on my phone, and for the most part, it’s in airplane mode since there’s no service up here anyway. If it wasn’t my camera I wouldn’t even have it on me.

I’ve taken pictures of the lake, our fish, the storm clouds. I’ve tried to get a video of a peculiar bird that keeps swimming by like an underwater torpedo while we fish, but I can’t get him to show up. And in the spirit of trying to be in the moment I haven’t thought about how I’m going to post any of these pictures to Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram, or Flickr. If I do decide to post any of them it will be later, after I get home. When that’s what I want to be doing with my time.

I brought a book — an actual, physical book — to read while here, and spend the post-fishing late mornings and early afternoon reading No Impact Man in the shade while dad feeds peanuts to the chipmunks. The past two days the afternoon storms have driven us inside, where we talk about his growing up and his cars, his first job and the jokes he used to play on his older-than-himself nephew. We watch the storms roll in across the lake, then prepare dinner together while it rains outside. We go to bed when it gets dark and get up when it gets light.

It’s a simple life, and about as minimal as it gets. I just wish it lasted more than a week.


Developing a taste for minimalism

I wrote earlier about my response to a presentation I attended on the concept of minimalism. While I’d heard talks on it before, and even one by the same person, it never really stuck. I’m not sure what was different this time, but this time the message hit home, becoming more than just a nice idea. I spent that afternoon and evening reading up on the philosophy, soaking up everything I could get my hands on. I found that people I knew or have met around town were going through the same kind of process I was…simplifying, minimizing, trying to take control of their things and subsequently their life.

I even spent the weekend reading several zen lifestyle sites (example), which I would usually have just dismissed as a nice idea but not really applicable to today’s busy life. Or more specifically, me in my life.

Hadn’t worn most of these in a year…and a few items still had tags on them.

Any way, I decided to put into practice some of what I’d been reading. A big part of minimalism comes just from eliminating things that don’t add value to your life. Does clutter add anything to my life? Not if you don’t include frustration. So last Saturday I made a first pass through my closet, getting rid of the low-hanging fruit: clothes I hadn’t worn in a year…or in some cases – ever. Shoes that I had quit wearing because they hurt my feet, but never gotten rid of.

After boxing up the clothes, I looked around the house for other areas I could address. I was struck by the amount of stuff that filled many of the surfaces. Not that the house is messy, and we’re not really into tchotchkes, but the horizontal planes of our house have become a magnet for stuff. My desk in the front room is little more than a catch-all, with very little thought given to how it looks or functions as a desk. It’s a physical representation of my to-do list: stacks of receipts, invoices, home records, the business mail, books, magazines I was saving, etc. As I began to work my way through stacks, it occurred to me if I had just dealt with this stuff at the time I used it, I wouldn’t be giving up my Saturday cleaning my desk.

Same goes for the garage. Or the family room.

A plan is hatched

So was born a new two-part experiment: any time I interact with an object, be it mine or my wifes, I will make sure that when I’m done with it, it goes where it belongs — not, and this is the important part —where I got it.

The plan is taking some getting used to:

  • Mail, when brought into the house, gets sorted immediately: bills get opened and filed, junk mail goes into the recycling bin – it doesn’t get stacked on the counter
  • My briefcase goes next to the desk – not on the table, or in the hall, or on the bed, or…
  • When I’m done with any dish, glass or utensil it goes into the dishwasher – not the sink, not left in the counter
  • Clean laundry gets put away as soon as it comes out of the dryer; clothes that are worn either get put into the hamper, or back in the closet
  • Shoes get put in the closet – not by the door

While not a true minimalist everything-must-go shift, this new philosophy accomplishes a couple of things:

  1. Existing stuff, and any collections/piles thereof, will be addressed without having to spend all day cleaning – small steps are easier to accomplish
  2. I’m training myself to be less likely to end up here again

The second part of this experiment will be harder to adhere to: as our things wear out, or break, or get chewed by a dog, we won’t automatically go out and buy a replacement. We will thoughtfully weigh whether or not we need Object X, and unless it’s something that we absolutely can’t live without (like a refrigerator, say), we will not replace it.

A kind of minimalism through attrition, as opposed to elimination, kind of thing.

So far, so good

While the first couple of items were tough (the new mail being delivered meant that I had to deal with the rest of the pile), the new philosophy is working out pretty well. The kitchen has been more consistently neat, as dishes end up immediately in the dishwasher and the mail stack has been dealt with. My section of the closet is less cluttered, and I’ve eliminated any stacks of laundry that tend to accumulate there. The part of the bathroom counter that usually houses my razors and such has been emptied now that these items are now in a drawer…or are at least some of the time.


I’m finding the biggest challenge is not so much the stuff itself, because we know to put things back when we’re done with them. In my experience, it comes down to time management. We don’t put the laundry away not because we don’t know how, or that we should, it’s that we needed one clean shirt and then we’re out the door, off to work or another commitment. Shoes get left by the door because that’s where we’ll need them next, or I’ll be right back and will put them away later. Dishes end up in the sink because we’re in a hurry or in the middle of a movie or just don’t want to mess with cleaning them so they’re dishwasher-ready right then.

It’s easy enough to put a glass in the sink and come back to sit on the couch, realize what I’d done, and get up and put it away. It’s much more difficult when the couch is my car and I’m on my way to work before I realize my autopilot morning has left the kitchen a cluttered mess.

I’m getting there, but I feel like a child learning how to pick up after myself.

In a sense, I guess I am.


Considering Minimalism

While never I’ve never been one prone to gathering too much in the way of clutter, the effort to simplify my life has been a conscious challenge. Every so many years I would get tired of the way I have packed things and commitments into every available corner of my life, and I would go through a purge. Clothes, bikes, furniture, appliances, etc would all be on the chopping block, and subsequently end up in a Goodwill donation bin or on Craigslist. Social engagements weren’t safe either: the car club or the online forums and discussion boards, standing golf games, meet up groups or creative gatherings…when the time came, they all went by the wayside.

While the freedom this purge afforded always felt great at the time, I would inevitably discover that I’d gotten rid of something I needed, so it would be back to the stores for a replacement jacket or band saw or boots or car vacuum. Before long, not only would I have replaced the items I’d gotten rid of, but more than likely I’ve added more stuff on top of the original set. But hey, new stuff is great, right? And besides, I needed these things.


I recently attended a Phoenix Creative Morning session where the speaker was Joshua Becker, a somewhat renown minimalist, if that makes any sense. At any rate, during his session he spoke about the moment when he realized that he didn’t have to “own everything.” This was the first time that the idea had ever occurred to him, and the idea changed his life. Ever since, he and his family have lived a minimalist lifestyle, and has actually gone around spreading the good news of simplicity, being featured on NPR, the CBS Evening News, the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Boston Globe and authored several books on the subject.

Interestingly, I had heard him speak for five minutes at an Ignite Phoenix event a few years earlier (watch the video here), and though I remember the message resonated with me at the time, I didn’t remember the particular speaker who delivered it, and I while it made for an interesting discussion on the ride home, it really didn’t make any lasting impression on me at the time. Same as his Ignite presentation,  his message is simple: we own too much stuff, and in reality, this stuff actually owns us. Minimalism will save us all.

Now, these Creative Morning sessions are attended by photographers, art directors, designers, web developers, writers, etc. Arguably, the livelihood of many of the people in the room depended on the success of the advertising/marketing machine that Joshua named as part of the problem. Even though a lot of the blame fell at the feet of our society and culture, most of his presentation was about changing your own mindset. Just because we see ten thousand ads a day doesn’t mean we have to buy everything we’re sold.

It was fun to watch people squirm a little when confronted with the idea that they didn’t have to have the latest iPhone, or the fastest car, or the biggest and most powerful computer. During the Q&A, people asked about things that were obviously important to them: a collection of books, a bunch of new photographic equipment, a closet full of designer clothes. His response was simple, no pun intended: “Don’t start with the hard stuff.”

He said to start with the easy stuff: the things in the closet that don’t get worn any more, the boxes of stuff in the garage that haven’t been opened in years. The crap in the trunk or on the floor of the back seat of the car.

The junk drawer.

He talked about how commitments – even the good ones – have a way of contributing to a cluttered life too. It makes sense; if every minute of every day is packed from morning to night there’s no time to breathe, much less deal with our stuff, stuff that needs to be cleaned and put away and dealt with. By default our lives will become more cluttered:

No time to read the mail? Just leave it on the counter, you’ll get to it tomorrow. A week of tomorrow goes by and suddenly the stack of mail is a mess that now requires real time to deal with. Time we already didn’t have. In contrast, if we take two minutes every day to deal with the mail not only is the counter kept clean, but that half hour you might have spent looking for bills and sifting through junk mail can be spent elsewhere.

Much of what he said rang true to me this time. When I got back to my office, the one I thought was clean enough and semi-streamlined, I took stock:

Oh, don't make me get rid of my Baseman desk figures!
Not even my Baseman desk figures are safe
  • Three sets of headphones
  • Three reusable/travel coffee cups
  • Two reusable water bottles
  • Half a dozen toys and figurines, one still in the box
  • Four moleskine (or similar) notebooks
  • Three containers holding probably thirty pens and pencils
  • A drawer full of assorted condiments – the result of when your meal comes with two containers of Ranch dressing or Honey Mustard or ketchup and you only use one
  • Three calendars
  • Five Post-It pads
  • Foam boards full of funny or inspirational or thoughtful sayings or pictures
  • Boxes of framed awards that I had boxed up for a move and never bothered to unpack
  • Paperwork and memos and newsletters spread all over the desktop surface
  • An overflowing recycling bin

And this was just a first cursory pass!

Point taken.

I took some time over lunch to straighten out my workspace – emptying the physical recycling bin, getting rid of non-essential paper and memos, and took down two of the calendars, put the publications and books back where they belong.

As this idea really resonates with me, I’m sure I’ll be focusing more on this in the near future. It seemed like my life was ready for some kind of simplification anyway, but it’s exciting to see where this new idea might lead me. Even better if its a long-term change as opposed to the usual temporary fix.