My brother Marshall turns 72 this week so I decided to repost an earlier blog I wrote about him and his wandering ways. His life has changed since I first wrote this story. He sold his truck that had 195,000 miles on it and bought a red Chevy van with 115,000 miles. This is more significant than it seems. Now, instead of living in a tent, he’ll be living in his van. “I am no longer sleeping on the ground,” he reported proudly to me.
A grin lights up my brother’s face as we drive into his remote campsite near Lake Okeechobee, Florida. It’s time for our annual visit. At least once a year, I track him down.
“Think of me as a homeless man with a pickup truck and a bank account,” Marshall likes to note when describing his lifestyle. Once upon a time he made his living as a professional photographer. Another time he ran his own business as a real estate appraiser. He had a six-figure income, owned a nice home and drove a fancy car. He was a man of means.
But he wasn’t a happy man.
Nine years ago he stopped trying to live a ‘normal’ life and became a modern-day gypsy. Like the wild geese, he chose to migrate with the seasons, moving between the mountains of North Carolina to the swamplands of southern Florida. He calls himself the Itinerant Idler.
Marshall travels with a tent, a Coleman stove, a five-gallon propane tank, two folding camp chairs and a folding table. Large plastic bins serve as cupboards and closets. Paper plates make up his dish collection. If something doesn’t fit in the back of his pickup, he doesn’t need it. He has become a minimalist.
Once he took pride in what he owned; now he takes pride in what he doesn’t.
His kitchen, dining room and living room are whatever nature provides. Instead of watching TV, he watches squirrels playing in the oaks and Osprey diving for fish. Last year when I was visiting him in Big Cypress National Preserve, two bobcats came trotting into our camp.
During inclement weather, the cab of his pickup truck provides shelter. When it gets too cold he moves south. When it gets too warm or buggy, he moves north. On rare occasions he will take a motel room.
NPR keeps him in touch with the world and he speaks knowledgeably about current events. He is particularly interested in what is happening on the economic front. We listen closely when he provides advice on what to do with our condo in Sacramento. Age and distance have not dulled his knowledge of the real estate market.
Marshall takes delight in living inexpensively. “I’ve paid $14 in campground fees over the past six months,” he brags to Peggy. Careful records are kept. There is food and gas and cigarettes and beer. “If it weren’t for the cigarettes and beer, I could live for a month on what it costs you to get through a day.” And he is right, even though we are rarely accused of squandering money.
Books and reading are his passion. He visits libraries regularly and picks through their $.25 and $.50 paperback retirees. His goal is to read 80,000 pages a year. So far he is on target for 2010. Finished books are given away to fellow wanderers. We qualify.
“The Bookmobile has arrived,” Marsh announces and goes rooting around in the back of his truck. He comes up with 93 books stored in plastic grocery bags for us to peruse. He has been saving them up. Some 22 are transferred to our RV even though I don’t have a clue where to put them. We, too, travel with a full library.
I fix teriyaki chicken and Peggy cooks up an omelet chock full of goodies as a thank you. Both are favorites of Marshall’s. He obviously enjoys the spoiling, companionship and three days of conversation. Our visits are important to him. “It always takes me two or three weeks to recover when you leave,” he admits. It can be lonely.
And yet, there is a brotherhood of wanderers out here, people who share Marshall’s love of the open road and the freedom it offers (not to mention the inexpensive life style). They often end up camping in the same places at the same time and form into transitory communities. They become friends, help each other out and share their most precious commodity: carefully guarded secrets about other free campsites.
Marshall took me around to visit his neighbors in Big Cypress last year. John and Phyllis were from Ontario, Canada. Tom had made his living as an engineer at a television station. Bob, possibly in his 80s, created interesting art pieces from pinecones. Dave was soap opera handsome and spent most of his day riding his bicycle.
“You have to meet Dumpster Diver Steve,” several of them urged with a touch of amusement. “Be prepared to stay awhile.” Dave and Marshall walked me over to Steve’s site and quickly disappeared.
Steve lives out of his car and finds most of what he needs to survive in dumpsters, thus the name. “I am 50% child, 45% crazy and 5% rational adult,” he immediately informed me. “I save the 5% rational adult for when the cops stop me,” he allowed with a wink and then waxed enthusiastically on life as a dumpster diver.
“You won’t believe what people throw away.” A few weeks earlier he had been visiting dumpsters behind a grocery store in Naples and discovered dozens of flowers the store had tossed. “I brought them back to camp, divided them up, and gave each woman a bouquet.
I found the act romantic.
“Hey, would you like to see my oven? I am cooking up a batch of spaghetti.” How could I resist? We walked over to Steve’s car. It was old, beat up and packed to the brim with treasures. His ‘oven’ was a quart jar filled with spaghetti resting on the back windowsill. Sunlight streamed through the window and provided the heat.
He had found the spaghetti that morning in the camp dumpster. Someone had left it in a Ziploc. “I only take food that is packaged,” he announced with pride. Steve is a first class dumpster diver.
Marshall, at 71, is reaching the stage where life on the road is becoming more difficult, especially living in a tent. He lusts after our van. Still, considering he smokes heavily and weighs all of 113 pounds, he is amazingly healthy. “I haven’t had a cold in five years and have only been in a hospital once during my nine years on the road.” And he is happier than I have ever known him to be.
Before leaving Okeechobee, I mention there is an inexpensive trailer court backed up to the beautiful Applegate River about five miles from our new home in Oregon. Maybe he will come out and settle down. Maybe he won’t.