I wrote this blog post as a present for Soleil on her 1st birthday. This is the story of how she came to live the nomad life. -Stevie
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As I begin this letter, you are four months old in Arequipa, Peru, sleeping on the couch next to me in a beautiful white-walled hostel with high ceilings and French doors. The owner says that the building has been in his family for generations, and I believe him based on the cave-like must and the black mold harbored in the hard-to-reach corners. The mold worries me—for you, not me—but I suppose the owner is proof enough that other children have survived its primordial presence.
You look like a drunken angel—limbs splayed into a starfish with milk-crust on your fat baby cheeks. A passing group of Argentine backpackers, a jingling blur of dreadlocks and scarves, prompts you to flap your arms, snuffle twice, and let out a deep sigh. Overwhelmed by your cuteness, I lean over and squeeze you. Your eyes pop open—and I think you might cry—but, alas, you flash me a big gummy smile that melts my core.
I am madly in love with you.
If you are reading this letter, it is because you are older (thank god you survived that black mold) and you have come to me with questions about the choices your father and I made regarding the unconventional way we raised you.
Surely, you’d like to know why we lived like footloose gypsies, travelling at a snail’s pace in a camper van from pueblo to pueblo, across countries and continents, making you the poster child for “innovative sustainability,” instead of living in a comfortable, middleclass suburb of the United States of America, where you can flush toilet paper—no, where you can get toilet paper, hot water, and movies, all on demand?
Why, you ask, were you encouraged to play in rivers, lakes and oceans; in gorges, grasslands, and forests; below glaciers and atop mountains, but never with a video game? How is it that you can trek, rock climb, kayak, surf, scuba dive, sail a boat, speak three languages, and organically grow, catch and forage your own food, but you can’t hum one commercial jingle?
And, most annoyingly, why did we insist on giving “gifts of experience,” and then telling family and friends that, “your presence is the only present she needs.”
Well, my sweet pea, I will tell you:
We did it for the wild.
If we’ve done right by you, the wild is something you know intimately—something within and something without—that has been a guiding force in your life for as long as you can remember. In a Venn diagram, it would be where your biological drivers and the untrammeled earth overlap, indicating where you thrive. And because of the compassion you feel for the beasts and the biosphere, you make choices that honor your connection and protect the planet we all call home.
Sadly, this wasn’t always true for your mom.
When you were nothing but an orb of stardust waiting for the big bang to bring you into being, I was working as a sales consultant in Los Angeles, helping businesses connect hundreds of people in a virtual meeting via conferencing technology. It wasn’t my dream job, but my practical choice seemed to pay off, at least financially. I finished my first year at nearly 200% to plan, and even made it to Gold Club, the much-coveted recognition trip held annually in an exotic five star resort. Despite making enough money to live with your father in a beachfront apartment on the Venice boardwalk, accompanied by sushi and sake as often as we wanted, the pleasure extracted from these afforded comforts didn’t lift the frenetic fog of anxiety that was descending on my mind, weighing everything down. I craved passion, iron, blood—something right brain and raw—but what, I didn’t know.
All I knew was that I felt fettered by mounting stress, made all the more maddening by its seeming irrelevancy.
Wondering if I was alone in my malaise, I consulted friends who also worked in corporate America, some who said they loved their jobs, and others who hated theirs. When questioned about what they’d do if money didn’t matter, however, both the lovers and the haters painted very different pictures of the lives they’d lead.
My friend Dave, a VP in Sales, said that if it weren’t for the money, he would spend his time surfing with his teenage son. His son has ADD and the surfing helps him focus. But since it is about the money, he works ten hours a day, which means little attention leftover for his son.
Lunching outside with Dave at an expensive raw food restaurant in Santa Monica, I picked at a kale salad and did my best to describe my funk: “I feel boxed in, which isn’t surprising, I spend all of my time in boxes: my apartment, my car, my cubicle at work—all boxes. I sit in meetings scheduled down to the quarter hour, my time a box in Outlook. I sit in traffic. Boxes backed up for miles. At home I update Excel spreadsheets—more boxes. By bedtime, I’m exhausted but can’t sleep. I stare at the ceiling, reviewing the days’ tedium, and ask myself what any of this has to do with living life.”
“You know what your problem is? You need debt,” he says. “Without a mortgage, a car payment, or even any credit card bills, it’s no wonder you lack enthusiasm.”
“I’m pretty sure that debt will make me feel more trapped,” I say.
“Maybe, but you’d also feel more motivated. What do you really want: a BMW, a bigger apartment? For instance, last year, I bought property in Nicaragua in front of a killer surf break, but now I have to sell my ass off to develop it. I even keep a clipping of my ‘dream house’ above my desk to keep me focused on my goal. See what I mean?”
This made no sense to me. Even though the pervasive idea in the culture in which I was raised—and in which you weren’t my tough little cookie—is that comfort plus material wealth equals happiness, I couldn’t understand the point of having a gorgeous house in Nicaragua if you can only surf there two weeks a year.
Sociologists call this adaptive reasoning a “values stretch.” When people are forced to behave in ways that contradict their ideals, like not living the life they’d lead if it weren’t for socio-economic pressure, they revise their original expectations and goals to accommodate the things they must do to get by.
My problem was that I couldn’t think of anything I wanted more than freedom. And, yet, I couldn’t quite picture what freedom looked like.
Then, as quickly as I rose to corporate success, I plummeted into failure. The economy tanked and my largest account went with it. By spring of 2009, I sank to 90%, 80%, and finally, by summer, 75%. Once the golden child, the regional rookie of the year, the exemplar of everything that is right with America, and then suddenly, I was less than human. I was a bleating, cloven-hoofed animal known as the corporate scapegoat. Whenever companies need to downsize, we appear.
By September, my anxiety, which had been steadily rising, hit a flash point. After a particularly abusive team meeting in which my boss publicly berated me, a co-worker overheard me fighting back the tears and came over to my desk. “Here,” she said, twisting the cap off of an orange prescription bottle, “Take ten, enough to hold you over until you get your own prescription.” Chomping down Xanax, America’s most popular “value-stretcher,” I white-knuckled it through each day, waiting for the axe to drop.
Meanwhile, your father was merrily rummaging through camp equipment and stuffing neoprene gear into dry bags in preparation for what he called “The Trip of a Lifetime!” Since I was looking down the barrel of being laid-off anyway, he suggested that I use my paid-time-off to join him and fourteen of his friends on a three-week, self-supported raft trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Amenable to the idea of a vacation—even if pooping in an ammo can and sleeping on the ground didn’t sound very ‘vacation-like’ —I agreed to accompany him. For months, your father and I had been tiptoeing around the empty center of our relationship—the void of shared experience. I thought this trip might at least afford us some time together to reconnect.
As it turned out, your father was wrong. The Grand Canyon river-run wasn’t the trip of a lifetime.
It was the beginning of a trip that would last a lifetime.
The sun had dipped behind the canyon, and the autumn chill was setting in. I can’t say what time it was because I left my Blackberry in Flagstaff, but I guessed that it was almost five pm. We were collectively working as fast as possible to unload the rafts, set up camp, and get the fire and dinner started before the long shadows slipped into darkness. I circled back to the rafts to pick up another load when your dad handed me two ammo cans and told me to set up the camp toilet. We’d been on the river for two weeks, and this was the one chore, by design, that I had yet to do.
“I don’t know how,” I said, hoping to be reassigned.
“It’s easy, just pick a spot with a nice view and set it up. Don’t forget the hand-washing station.”
I trudged up the sandy hill past the tent sites and into the brush that lined the shore. The ammo cans were heavy and rubbed against the blisters on my hands, forcing me stop every twenty feet to rest. From sleeping and laboring outside twenty-four hours a day, my lips were lizard skin; my cuticles were edged and cracked, and I had dreadlocks forming at the nape of my neck. I was cold and dirty—permanently—in an early hominid kind of way. Yet, strangely, I was happy.
I found the perfect spot just past where the shoreline curved, up on a tiny hill overlooking the river. I placed the ammo cans down between two mesquite bushes and opened the one that contained the toilet seat, the lye, and the toilet paper. Then I held my breath and opened the second ammo can, the one with two days worth of sixteen people’s poop inside. Under any other circumstance, I would find this task to be revolting, but in the Canyon, every job is relevant to the survival of the group, and I had grown to love my group. Therefore, this poop was different; it was familiar. I placed the toilet seat on the ammo can and sat down.
Perched on my throne overlooking the river, I stared up at the massive sheets of colored rock that looked as if a giant child ran her fingers across the canyon walls with muted green, obsidian, ochre and adobe paint. I had come to know the difference between the colors—the Vishnu Schist, Bright Angel Shale, Tapeats Sandstone and Redwall limestone—and how many hundreds of millions of years were packed in each epic stratum. Sitting in the bowels of earth, I could see her history, the epochs of creation, carefully layered atop each other like a trifle made of stardust, magic, and time. A blue heron stood as still as silence on the shore, above an osprey and an eagle fought like Blue Angels, and at my feet a small push-up lizard pumped his chest. I imagined that this was what it was like to live 12,000 years ago, as a nomadic tribe of hunters and gatherers, the way humans lived on this planet for ninety percent of their tenure. Granted, per park regulations, the only thing we hunted was cold beer at the bottom of the cooler, and the only thing we gathered was driftwood, but, still, we were an egalitarian group that moved as a unit almost daily and lived intensely aware of, and in harmony with, our natural surroundings.
And then I saw it, the undeniably bright yellow bumper of a raft rounding the corner, and then another one. Oh my god, a fleet of strangers is coming! I reached for the toilet paper but it was too late, the captain of the first boat spotted me. Normally, caught sitting on the can in front of a throng of curious people staring up at me, I might opt to eat a poisonous berry immediately as to not relive the shame of that moment ever again. But this time, I did something that shocked even me. I stood up and hooted and hollered and waved my arms around in a show of exuberance, shouting, “Welcome to my bathroom!!!” Why should I be ashamed? I thought. The rules are different in the wild: natural is the new normal. Besides, not only do these people shit, they also know how spectacular it is to shit out in the open air with a breathtaking view. The captain of the first boat, as if reading my mind, stood up and hollered back “Best goddamn bathroom in the world!” We all laughed in the shared knowledge of this secret that, like a Russian doll, is encapsulated by an even bigger secret—that we are all a part of the same impossible tribe of life on this third rock from the sun, each a shimmering speck of poop and awareness, of body and soul, in the Great Cosmic Mystery.
“The most alive is the wildest,” Thoreau said, and this was the most alive I had ever felt.
With the veils of pretension metaphorically wrapped around my ankles, the walls that separated me from nature and my fellow beings also fell. Accepting the wild within was like an access key that allowed me to experience what Freud describes as the “oceanic feeling” of oneness with other.
This, my sweet child, was happiness.
I still reference this moment often: the click of authenticity—when mind, body, and spirit come together as one and connect with purpose. I felt powerful and at peace with myself, like I was mainlining to the source of creation. When in doubt, I use it as a benchmark to measure rising dissonance. At the time I didn’t know that this would be a pivotal moment; yet, I felt its prescience. I was going feral.
I could no longer go back to L.A. and sit in traffic for an hour and then in an office for nine more selling more because the economy must perpetually be growing more and think that if I recycle, eat kale, and use energy efficient light bulbs that everything is going to be okay. I had snapped out of my eco-paralysis, the complacent daze we get in when we feel overwhelmed by environmental devastation and powerless to change it. Having reconnected to the wild—within and without—I was awash in what eco-philosopher Glenn Albrecht calls soliphilia: the love of and responsibility for a place, bioregion or planet, and the unity of interrelated interests within it. Moreover, I intuitively understood that both the planet’s and my wellbeing were contingent on the strength of this union, and I feared I couldn’t sustain it off the river. In the days leading up to the take-out, I fantasized how I might redesign my life to keep this solution, this soliphilia, alive. How could I continue to stay present, feel relevant to something bigger than self, and live the wild?
After three weeks, the journey ended, and it was time to go back to work. I walked into my office and was immediately let go. Sign here, turn in your keys, leave your computer, have a nice life. Even though I’d seen it coming, and I wanted it to happen, I still cried.
Your father and I were at a crossroads. It was the end of November. Rent was due. Christmas was coming. A decision had to be made. Sitting across from each other at the kitchen table, we considered our choices. The recruiters had been calling with “career opportunities” that paid even better than the last job, which meant, if I landed one, we could continue living as we had been. Or, we could do something really radical—something so crazy that we could hardly keep from giggling at the idea: We could move into our Sprinter camper van and drive around the world, leveraging the Internet to work remotely while immersing ourselves in each new land and culture.
“It’s up to you,” your father said. “For me, things would only get better. I’d still run Outdoorplay, only we’d be traveling the world. You’re the one who would be sacrificing your career, your apartment, your car, and all your stuff. And, with one income, we’d have to cut down on our spending. No more designer jeans, manicures, Botox. Are you sure you want to do that?”
True, I would risk more by leaving our life in the States. Since he owned his own online business selling outdoor equipment, he could work from anywhere. In fact, when I met him, he had already been living in his van, traveling around the U.S., kayaking and rock climbing. He preferred the “dirt bag” lifestyle; the million-dollar question was, would I?
“Yes.” Oh my god did I just say that? “Yes!” Oh my god I said it again! And then, as if to prove my commitment, I started tearing through my closet, making an enormous give-away pile for the homeless. Three days later, we packed what little was left of our belongings into the van and started our new life as digital nomads. We traveled from Canada to Mexico and into Central America where we then shipped the van via freighter from Panama to Colombia.
Shortly after arriving in South America, nearly two years after we moved into the van, I got pregnant with you, and we were faced with another monumental decision: where to become a family.
Before we started our journey, we had agreed that we’d return home, but that would entail going back to an American way of life: living in a city, heating and powering a house, getting a second car, commuting daily, working in corporate sales, and undoubtedly owning much more stuff. As a household, our carbon footprint and living expenses would be at least triple what they were living in Peru. To give you an idea of the difference, carbon emissions per capita in the U.S. are 17 metric tons a year as opposed to 1.5 in Peru. And even with the amount of driving we do, because we mostly use biodiesel to power the engine, solar panels for electricity in the cabin, and a negligible amount of propane for the stove, traveling in the van was still less than half of what our footprint would have been if we returned. Not only did this spike in consumption go against our ideals as minimalists and conservationists, but it also sounded like no motherlovin’ fun.
So, rather than stretching our values, we stretched our minds.
We decided that we’d give birth to you in Peru, and that we would raise you in the sui generis lifestyle that coalesced with the sustainable values that had become so important to us as we embraced the wild world.
As I end this letter, you are six months old, fatter, and more vocal and talented than before. In fact, you now rival our dog Kiki with the party tricks; you both sit, rollover, and speak nonsensically, but she still has you beat by walking on all fours.
We are in the Sacred Valley of Peru where we are van camping on the property of a local family. We met the father, Maiqui, kayaking on the Cañete River a couple of months ago. One night around the campfire, I mentioned that I wanted to learn to grow my own food, and he said that his family had a greenhouse and some farm animals in the Sacred Valley. If we wanted, we could camp on his property if we were willing to help out.
Amaranta, Maiqui’s wife, knocks on the van to offer some coca mate, which I gladly accept. She is trailed by her daughter, Yana, who quickly climbs into the van. Yana is five and wants a baby sister more than anything, but I’m fairly certain that if we were willing to strike a deal, she’d settle for keeping you.
“Donde esta Inti?” she asks. Inti, meaning sun, is your name in Quechua.
I point to the bed where your father is changing your diaper. Yana plugs her nose and frowns.
She points to our wall of pictures, wanting to know the who-what-where-and-when about our wedding in El Salvador, the trek to Angel Falls, the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal, paragliding the Andes of Venezuela, and especially about your birth in Lima, Peru.
“Inti es una Peruana?” she asks. “Si, como tu,” I say, but really she is “una ciudana del mundo,” a citizen of the world, indicating on the map posted by our photos to give Yana the global sense I mean to convey. She runs her hand across the map the same way and says, “Yo quiero ser una cuidana del mundo tambien.”
I think you already are, I say. Do you love and care for Pachamama with all your heart?
Pachamama, translated as Mother World in Quechua, is the supreme goddess in the Andean cosmology.
“Si. Quiero mucho a Pachamama,” she says.
Then you’re a global citizen! I say. Yana squeals in delight and demands that we make a challa to Pachamama right away.
Making an offering, or a challa, to Pachamama is part of the core Andean concept called Ayni, meaning reciprocity. Deeply revered and practiced often, it is a conscious acknowledgment of the interconnection between humans and the natural world that sustains them.
Outside, the morning sun sizzles dew from the tall grass, intensifying the sweet, earthy aroma of good mud. Yana scrapes moss off the rocks to show you what is usually ‘llama food’ but today will serve as a gift to Mother Earth. She adds my soggy coca leaves to our offering and begins the ceremony. As Yana leads us in prayer, I think,
This is why we did it. This is why we live the wild.
We did it for you, Soleil—and Yana, and all your brothers and sisters who will inherit the earth.
We did it for the songbirds and the honeybees and the thirty thousand species being driven to extinction every year.
We did it because we have a biological need—a wild within—to bond with our Mother. And when we don’t, we howl against Moloch and beat against the bell jar.
We did it for our fellow Americans, of whom eighty percent live in cities and twenty-five percent suffer from a mental disorder. We did it for the children–eleven percent diagnosed with ADD.
We did it to stoke our soliphilia because “We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature—for we will not fight to save what we do not love.”
We did it as an experiment in radical empathy: a way to shake off disease, rage against complacency, and re-wild our psyches, because we can’t go back to being hunters and gatherers; nor can we continue on this concrete track of limitless consumption. We must create innovative sustainability, sweet pea. We must find balance. This was our way.
We did it because the personal is political, and the private is planetary. We jettisoned society’s blueprint and designed a life that is authentic to us so that you know it’s possible to do the same.
As you set out on your own, baby, you must choose your way. Our only hope is that you, too, do it for the wild.