Over Christmas break my family paddled the Rio Grande River along the border of Big Bend National Park in Texas. More than a week along, we stopped at a riverside hot springs to soak off a layer or two of grit. A man appeared, walking down the trail from a nearby road. He was short, probably in his 50s, and sported a salt-and-pepper beard that flowed onto his chest. He stripped to his undies and climbed in.
We started talking. He was clearly a character, and a fount of knowledge on area history. He said his nickname was "Peanut." But what really got our attention was his personal story. Turns out that Peanut divides his year between New England and Big Bend. Over the summer season he runs a concession stand in Maine, selling his special brand of roasted peanuts. This seasonal occupation supports his stripped-down life. Then, over the winter, he cruises south to Big Bend, where he soaks up the desert, the hot springs, the local scene.
Clearly, the flexibility to follow his passions and his allegiance to geography matter more to him than the questionable security of a retirement fund. He has built himself a mobile home on top of a flatbed truck. He can park the rig and be self-sufficient. He likes to ride motorcycles. Most important, he came across as happy, content and relaxed.
Over the next few days, Peanut kept coming up in the family conversations. Our kids are all approaching that cusp in life when they consider their occupations, their educational possibilities, where they might live after they leave home. They get a lot of advice about higher education, good grades, scholarships, career paths. They are told, repeatedly, that anything is possible, if they work hard enough.
Then they meet a guy like Peanut.
It wasn't the first alternate-lifestyle reality check on the trip. On the way to our riverside launch, at the start of the journey, our shuttle driver was a guy named Jim. He was from Pittsburgh and had spent most of his adult life running a gas station with his brother. As he approached the age of 50, however, he developed an urge to travel and do something different.
For a couple of years he roamed around, working when he had to, checking out the country. Eventually, circumstances led him to Big Bend, where he was thoroughly seduced by the land. Within several years he'd winded up his affairs back in Pittsburgh and moved down to Texas full time. He supports himself working odd jobs for the local river-guiding company. He works on a car once in a while if he's really desperate for money, but mostly he makes just enough to pay rent and buy food. He, too, seemed happy and content with his lot.
Jim provoked quite a lot of family discussion. How landscape can influence your life. How a person doesn't need a big salary or a high-toned career to be happy. How simple a person can make things if they aren't encumbered by debt, a house mortgage, professional expectations and material clutter.
These days, a great many of us confront the need for a Plan B. When we discover we've been swindled out of our retirement fund, for instance. When the job we assumed would take us through abruptly evaporates. When budget constraints force school systems to lay off all the employees who don't have tenure. When magazines aren't buying stories because they can't sell ads. When the security nets we have spent years constructing prove to be illusions.
Then it comes down to a pretty basic level: Food. Shelter. Friends. Family. Suddenly the tunes on your iPod aren't so key to your happiness, and the vision of success concocted by a culture addicted to material accumulation seems shabby and hollow.
The notion of picking up and moving to a place that resonates in your marrow, getting by with what you truly need, has genuine appeal. And counting your wealth doesn't involve a monthly portfolio summary, but the time and leisure to float the river or soak in hot springs.
Meeting people who have chosen to simplify their lives comforts me in the face of the crumbling expectations we've all been reckoning with. I like the fact that my children now have a bearded character named Peanut and a recovering gas-station owner from Pittsburgh as potential role models.
Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Bozeman, Montana.