Wild Places, Wild People: Unlocking the Possibilities to Create a Life on Your Own Terms
Updated: Oct 23, 2019
This post originally aired as an episode of my podcast, The Fearless Creative.
Make sure you subscribe to get your weekly dose of inspiration, motivation, and my very best tips for succeeding as a creative entrepreneur! If you’d rather read instead of listen, I’ve included the abridged transcript below.
Welcome, welcome, welcome to the show everybody. I am so happy to be here with you again this week. An extra warm welcome to my Reader Army — those who read my fiction who might be joining us here for the very first time. I finally came clean to my fiction readers about what I’ve been doing under the Tarah Thornburg brand with the podcast and the nonfiction book, and I am very happy to have them here joining us.
This week I am back from Arizona. My husband and I took an impromptu road trip last Sunday…And when I say it was impromptu, I truly mean it was not planned. He just got the itch to go back to Flagstaff… He told me about it on Saturday, and on Sunday morning we were in the car driving to Arizona.
And this little adventure deserves its own story, I think. We wanted to get out into the wilderness and away from people, and we also wanted to keep it cheap since this was an unplanned mini-vacation.
It’s getting to the time of year where it’s a little bit cold to camp and sleep comfortably in a tent. We’ve done it… I’ve camped in zero-degree temperatures before, and the two of us have camped in much colder weather, but I think we wanted just a little bit more comfort. So we decided that we would put a memory foam mattress in the back of the 4Runner and take off for National Forest. Ben lived out in Flagstaff for years. He’s very familiar with the area, and so we knew we would have no trouble finding a good place to park and camp — or should I say “glamp” — for a few nights.
That part of Arizona is about a 9 and 1/2 hour drive for us. On Sunday night we pulled into Winslow, Arizona near the Meteor Crater National Landmark. This is the massive crater where NASA astronauts trained for the Apollo missions in the 60s and 70s.
We got there around sundown, and it was my turn to drive us down this dusty dirt road. And around dusk in the desert, sometimes your eyes like to play tricks on you. Little animals would scamper across the road. At one point, a rabbit ran across the road, and I was like, “That’s a chicken!” In mind it looked like a chicken, but we had been driving for about 10 hours at this point, so who knows what I saw…
We drove on this dirt road for probably about 15 miles, and if you’ve ever driven on a bumpy dirt road, you know that’s a pretty long haul. And right as it was getting completely dark, I went through this gate, and all my left, I see this massive animal just about five feet from the car. I freaked out and slammed on the brakes before realizing that it was a cow.
There were no fences, mind you. The Bureau of Land Management leases federal lands to cattle farmers, and they let their cows just free-range graze on public lands. As someone who regularly enjoys the National Forest, this is something that really irritates me, but it’s just kind of a reality of the world we’re living in. And as someone who eats grass-fed beef, I guess I have no right to complain.
So we find ourselves a spot deep in Coconino National Forest, and we pull off. It’s after sundown, but it’s a full moon so it’s actually pretty bright for the nighttime. It’s important to mention that we have our dogs, Luna and Nelson with us.
Luna is my sweet little Australian Shepherd, and Nelson is my mutt who’s half Alaskan Malamute and half Keeshond. He sort of looks like a small German Shepherd, but it’s important for the story here to note that Keeshonds are the Dutch national dogs. They were bred to be watchdogs on ships and barges. Watchdogs are different than guard dogs in that they are bred to merely alert you to a threat — not attack.
And as we are changing into our warm clothes and getting ready to eat dinner, Nelson’s little hackles go up and he starts growling. Now before we got here, Ben and I had been talking about why it’s a little bit easier to walk around the woods in Missouri unafraid because you know that there aren’t any animals that will hurt you as a human. It can be spooky at night if you’re out in the woods by yourself, but at the end of the day, you know that the worst thing out there is a coyote.
In Colorado, we do have bears and mountain lions. And in Arizona, you have bears and you have mountain lions. So when Nelson starts growling, I am instantly on high alert. It’s too dark to see very far, my flashlight is out of batteries, and then to my horror, he starts barking his high-alert bark. And the thing about Nelson is that he doesn’t bark for no reason. Luna will bark just because she’s scared, but if Nelson barks, you know that there’s actually something there.
Ben starts walking over to where Nelson’s barking. (He does have a working flashlight.) And he tells me to get the dogs back into the 4Runner. This totally freaks me out, and so I proceed to try to pile the dogs back into the car. Nelson is fighting me. He is on high alert, and he looks like he might just kill anything that comes near us.
Ben told me later that he saw a pair of eyes reflecting back the light from his flashlight, but then a second later, he noticed that the eyes were actually really far apart.
It wasn’t a bear or a mountain lion. It was a damn demon cow. We had pulled off the road and parked on a cattle trail, so this should have come as no surprise to us. It was a cow — one of hundreds that we would see in the next twenty-four hours.
Then Ben had the bright idea to go show Nelson the cow. Luna for one has seen cows up close when we were hiking in New Mexico…Nelson has never been this close to a cow. So we take him up on a leash, and I am telling you…You have never seen a dog so intent on killing a creature that’s probably 40 times his body weight.
We took him back to the car. We ate our dinner of cold chicken and sweet potato. I had a beer, and then we all piled into the back of the 4Runner to go to sleep. It was very crowded in there, even with Luna sleeping in the passenger seat. Nobody was very comfy except for Nelson, who was curled at the foot of the tailgate keeping watch. Luckily, thanks to Nelson’s psychotic break, the cows stayed off our trail for the rest of the night.
Unfortunately, this is the night that Ben came down with the flu. Ughhh! I tell you what…It is so incredibly rare that either of us is sick, but when we do get sick, it is a doozy. He came down with this gnarly fever…He had the chills…couldn’t eat anything. It was awful. That night in the 4Runner was downright miserable for him, but the next day he was determined to power through.
We got up. He made us coffee and oatmeal on our little camp stove. (I should have known he was feeling awful because he did not want to make a fire.) After breakfast, we set out on a little hike up to the ruins of an old ancestral Hopi pueblo that was occupied from 1050 to 1425 AD. It was up on this mesa overlooking a vast stretch of forest and rocky cliffs. It’s just amazing because the ground is literally covered with shards of broken pottery. Ben even found some pictographs near there, so I got to see those. It was really just amazing.
Unfortunately, it was on this little adventure that Luna decided to cool herself off in the only body of water within a 30-mile radius. It was a cow tank about the size of a small swimming pool.
If you don’t know what a cow tank is, it’s a man-made watering hole for cattle that’s 10 percent muddy water and 90 percent cow shit. This stuff was caked all over her paws and her undercarriage. It was literally the nastiest stuff I have ever cleaned off this dog, and that is saying something because dogs get into all kinds of things.
After our hike, we drove an extremely rough and rugged road up to Happy Jack. I swear, Arizona has the best names for cities and towns. There’s a town called Happy Jack…a town called Twin Arrows, and a town called Two Guns. I just love the town names.
This road we drove in on was so bad that we only saw one other soul on it, who stopped to warn us that it was really bad. Keep in mind, we were driving a lifted 4Runner, and this guy still felt compelled to warn us. It was probably a good call on his part since we had Colorado plates and since the road was less of a road and more just a path of huge rocks. Luna and Nelson are sitting on garbage bags in the back, because remember: Luna is still covered in cow shit.
We ended up needing to make a stop at Lake Mary on our way to Flagstaff to wash the cow sludge off of Luna, and we finally made it to Flagstaff proper later that afternoon. We ended up getting a motel room the following night at a very accommodating Quality Inn since Ben’s fever and chills were only getting worse. I knew he couldn’t take another night in the 4Runner.
Now, all of this leads into what I want to talk about today, which is unlocking the possibilities to create a life on your own terms. But first it’s time for this week’s Discovery segment…This is the part of the show where I share something useful or interesting that I discovered this week. And today I am so excited to talk about the book that I’ve chosen for this segment. This book ties in very nicely with today’s topic. It’s called “Walden on Wheels: On the Road From Debt to Freedom“ written by Ken Ilgunas.
I posted a picture of the book on my Instagram a few weeks ago…I ordered it from Amazon sort of on a whim. I was in the process of looking for another book, and I just stumbled across it, but I think it may be the best book that I’ve read this year.
“Walden on Wheels” is a travel memoir of sorts, and it’s about this guy, Ken Ilgunas, who graduated from the University of Buffalo with $32,000 in student debt. This debt to him feels like a monkey on his back, and so he sets out on a mission to get out of debt as quickly as possible. He starts out working a string of low-wage jobs with free room and board — one of which is in Coldfoot, Alaska — so that he can put nearly every penny he earns toward his debt. Throughout the book, he references Thoreau and his seminal work “Walden.” At first, he uses Thoreau’s philosophy his guiding principles, which is where the title comes from.
The marketing for this book and the cover really hinge on his decision to live in his van so he can go to Duke to get his master’s degree without taking on any more debt, but the book is about so much more than that. What really struck me was his unflinching introspection and the way he is able to so clearly articulate what is wrong with our society today and the wildness that is increasingly absent from all of our lives.
As someone who loves nature and increasingly feels disdain for development and consumerism, I found myself nodding along constantly. I’ve just never read a piece of travel writing that is so wise and that lays out some of the ideas I have about our world in ways that I haven’t been able to articulate and the points that I’d never even thought of. He is just a fabulous writer.
I’ll read you just a brief excerpt here…This is Ken’s reaction to watching the Northern Lights in Alaska:
“I felt a strange twinge of anger looking up at the stars. It was as if I’d just learned of an inheritance that had been stolen from me. If it wasn’t for Alaska, I might have gone my whole life without knowing what a real sky was supposed to look like, which made me wonder If I’d gone the first quarter of my life without seeing a real sky, what other sensations, what other glories, what other sights had the foul cloud of civilization hid from my view?“We can only miss what we once possessed. We can only feel wronged when we realize something has been stolen from us. We can’t miss the million-strong flocks of passenger pigeons that once blackened our skies. We don’t really miss the herds of bison that grazed in meadows where our suburbs stand. And few think of dark forests lit up with the bright green eyes of its mammalian lords. Soon, the glaciers will go with the clear skies and clean waters and all the feelings they once stirred. It’s the greatest heist of mankind, our inheritance being stolen like this. But how can we care or fight back when we don’t even know what has been or is being taken from us?”
Passages like this one just leave me with chills. It makes me anxious to travel and see more of the wild before it’s gone.
“Walden on Wheels” is never preachy — never self-congratulatory. Ilgunas is always honest, always thoughtful and introspective…At times he’s crass and hilarious, and at times you’ll stumble into these beautiful passages of prose. I just can’t say enough good things.
Seriously, if you read nothing else this year, read “Walden on Wheels.” Then go read one of my books.
Now let’s dive into today’s topic a little bit. I wasn’t really sure how to articulate this feeling that I had during and after our trip, but I came up with an episode title that’s something like “Wild Places, Wild People: Unlocking the Possibilities to Create a Life on Your Own Terms.”
As is often the case, my musings for this week were very much informed by what I was reading. It’s actually just a coincidence that Ben and I were having our own outdoor adventure right as I was reading about Ken Ilgunas’s adventures. But in the book he talks a lot about living within yet apart from society and not wanting to end up a career drone in a job he hated. He talks about how, when you withdraw from society and culture, you start not to care what society thinks of you. You start to lose any inklings of envy. You start to realize how simple your needs are and how much richer of a life you can live if you can avoid the siren sound of consumerism and all the creature comforts that make us fat, lazy, and complacent.
And no matter how many times I go out into the wilderness, whether camping or hiking or just walking the dogs, I’m always struck by how primal my concerns become. How basic. Living in the Southwest especially, many times we’ll be hiking in the desert — or at least somewhere very dry. Even if we have our water filter with us, there’s no guarantee that we’ll find any water. Many creek beds around here are seasonal. On this trip, we brought all of our water with us. We brought our food with us. We brought the dogs’ food with us. For me, hydration is always my number-one concern.
When we drove into downtown Flagstaff, I still had lake grit between my toes. I didn’t have any makeup on, and afterward, I thought, wow. It’s weird how if I wake up in the city and go out to do city things, I much prefer to wear makeup and do something with my hair. I don’t always put on makeup to go out, but I’m always very conscious of how I look to other people if I don’t.
But when I emerge from the woods — even if I’ve just been on an hour-long hike on the outskirts of Colorado Springs — I just don’t care. It doesn’t even occur to me that I don’t have my face done or that my Chacos are dirty and that my hair is all messy and windblown. It’s just not a concern.
This sounds like such a small thing — probably a really shallow thing — but just bear with me for a moment. It’s incredible how quickly our primal brain clicks on and our only concerns become those that are crucial to our survival. In these instances, we realize that we don’t actually need all the trappings of the modern world.
One thing that immediately struck me about Flagstaff is how the place is just like this weirdo mecca. And I say that as someone who has been to a lot of places inhabited by weirdos…Taos comes to mind.
Granted, there are some of your run-of-the-mill hipsters in Flagstaff who will grudgingly sell you a six-ounce latté for five dollars in a trendy coffee shop. I’m very familiar with that demographic from living in the Springs, but there are also people who are genuinely marching to the beat of their own drum.
Flagstaff offers some of the very best people-watching opportunities that I have ever had. Ben told me — jokingly but also serious — that if you see some dusty-looking guy with a backpack and ratty clothes who hasn’t shaved in weeks wandering around, he could be a transient, or he could just be a gritty Arizona hiker who owns a half-million-dollar house around there.
Now, if you know anything about that area, this makes sense. Flagstaff is a college town. It’s artsy, and it’s also very outdoorsy. People there have much greater access to the wild than we do here in Colorado even. And part of me wonders if having greater access to wild places makes for wilder people.
I think that it does. And in the same way, I think living in an extremely sanitized, homogenized place makes us less wild. More civilized. More sanitized. Ben and I have had this conversation several times. Living in the Midwest, when your life is nothing but strip malls and suburbs and soccer practice, it makes you much more prone to comparison — and much more prone to caring what people think and “keeping up with the Joneses,” to some extent.
There’s a great quote from “Walden on Wheels” where Ilgunas writes,
“Sometimes, we can’t help but assume the nature of the landscape we inhabit. Just as the farm fosters industry; the desert, frugality; the mountains, hardiness; and a rocky coastline, a romantic restlessness; so does the suburb foster boredom, conventionality, and conformity.”
I just think that’s so true. And you notice how people’s surroundings impact how they treat you, too. We’re still living in the city right now, and people in the city are just not that friendly. People speed by and give you dirty looks. People are downright suspicious and wary of you — Heck, I’m the same way because I’ve been robbed and harassed and screamed at in parking lots.
But if you go up to the mountains, like where Ben is building our house, people are generally so, so friendly. It was this way when he renovated the other house in the mountains that we flipped. The neighbors would trip over themselves to help you out because they weren’t surrounded by people all the time. They were happy to have that human contact.
And I’m not making this point to say that you shouldn’t live in the city or that if you live in the suburbs you’re doomed to spend your life chasing a shiny SUV and being boring. No, not at all. I’m not trying to be snobby. I grew up in the Midwest.
I’ve lived in the country, I’ve lived in the suburbs, and now I live in the city. And from those experiences I can tell you that where you live does matter. It will have an impact on you for better or worse. That might be fine for you. But if it bothers you or if there’s something about your life that’s really dissatisfying in a vague sort of way, I would challenge you to go somewhere where people are different from you.
Because one thing that has really sunk in for me recently — especially following our trip — is that there are so many different ways to create a life. To quote Rosie O’Donnell from my favorite childhood movie, “Harriet the Spy,” “There are as many ways to live as there are people in this world, and each one deserves a closer look.”
There’s nothing wrong with having the white picket fence, and SUV, and 2.5 kids. That’s pretty much my life, except I have 2 dogs and a cat. I have a literal white picket fence around my front yard. But you don’t have to do anything. Remember that: You don’t HAVE to do anything.
Now, if you choose to make radical changes in your life, more radical changes will follow. You won’t be able to afford your McMansion if you quit your job to become a professional juggler, but maybe that’s okay.
For Ken Ilgunas, living in his van wasn’t easy or comfortable. It was lonely and cold and isolating. His parents did not approve. He couldn’t tell anyone his secret for fear of having to quit school if campus security found out — because for him, re-conforming and taking out a student loan so he could live in an apartment wasn’t an option.
So what does this mean for you?
Think about your life. Is there a way that you think you have to live?
Whose expectations are you trying to fulfill? Remember: When you’re busy trying to fulfill someone else’s expectations, your life isn’t really your own. So if you feel hemmed in by outer expectations, ask yourself: Whose life might you be living?
If you realize that you are trying to fulfill expectations that aren’t yours or weren’t originally yours, ask yourself if you could make a change. It doesn’t have to be a huge radical change, but even if it seems huge and radical to you, it might not be as radical as you think. It’s all relative to the people in your immediate circle. But if you can expand your world view, you’ll quickly realize that you have options.
If your dream seems impossible, why is that? What barriers are standing in your way? Are they real barriers like the laws of nature, or are they barriers that you’ve made up? (Or that someone else has made up — maybe by telling you that you *can’t* do something you want to do?)
If you find yourself getting a little annoyed or defensive right now because you think I’m living in la-la-land or that Ken Ilgunas is living in la-la-land — if you’re gritting your teeth and saying, “I can’t make changes because I have kids and bills and a mortgage” — I want you to just take some time to really think about what you would want if you could have any life at all. Don’t feel guilty about imagining this, either!
As I was reading “Walden on Wheels,” I started thinking about all the ties I’ve created for myself: having a house, building another one, owning cars, having two dogs and a cat and bonsai trees that need watering. I started to get really crazy and think, “What if someday we could just live on the road and travel all the time? We could have so many adventures and so little responsibility and it would be great!”
But then a funny thing happened.
As I sat there in the woods thinking about that and imagining that reality, I realized I wouldn’t actually enjoy that life. Yes, I love to travel and have adventures. Yes, I want fewer expenses and less responsibility and less stuff, but I also want a home.
I’m a homebody. I love having a nice place to live where I can come home to and feel settled. I love that feeling of home. What I really want is more of this past weekend. More travel. More adventures. More camping and exploring.
So don’t be afraid to let your imagination run wild, and then take a few minutes and really sit with that fantasy. You may realize you’re really thankful for some of the things you already have, and you might come up with a few really simple things that you actually want and that are actually really attainable.
For instance, maybe you’d love to quit your job and start your own business that allows you to earn a living from your art. That’s an attainable goal, but it starts with one small change. One small step forward. We talk about this all the time, but I want you to think about what changes you could make or steps you could take.
This is the work I want you to do this week.
So…That’s all I have for you today. As always, if you enjoyed this episode or any other episode of the podcast, please go leave a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts. Reviews are the lifeblood of any podcast, and it takes two seconds.
I’ll see you next time, and happy creating!