Thursday, October 24, 2013

Altered States of a Vagabond Heart



The fits had been coming on with increasing regularity for more than a year. With all the cold sweat and terror of the DT's, I would start fretting about what I could do, or should do, with my life. Like William Hurt in 'Altered States,' I was a shape-shifting, grotesque mass of pain and dissatisfaction pounding the floor and banging against the nearest wall, howling in agony – mostly in my head. I could think of a hundred things that I might rather be doing, yet could not imagine actually being happy doing any of them. The six year old project that was to be my life's work could not retain my focus. Bump. Howl. Bump. Howl.

In 2007, I had bought an old sailboat to refit and sail away, a wanderlust dream. She was a solid shippy design built of fiberglass. My boat search was reasonably methodical with a long list of what I wanted in a boat. I planned to do my own survey and fix up a neglected boat as I had a fair amount of fiberglass experience. Doing your own survey (inspection) is akin to representing yourself in court, your mileage may vary; mine did. The boat I found met nearly all of my criteria and seemed like a good investment at the time. The plan was to move to the boat, find a job for grocery/rent money and work on the boat in my free time. In South Bend, I had cashed out my 401(k) and sold all my furniture for the funds to purchase and fix up the boat. And then the economy started to crumble around the edges.

In mid-2007, Eastern Michigan, especially the Northern fringes, was already feeling the tremors of the coming economic collapse. Fresh off a nine year gig at a career-type job, I couldn't get anyone, not even Walmart or McDonalds, to call me back. I was living on funds meant for the boat and going broke at a breathtaking pace. A couple days past broke, I got sponsored to a truck driving school in Ft. Wayne, IN. Three weeks on a sun baked driving range and a month on the road with a trainer, I was a trucker. Being on the road made it difficult to get much boatwork done. When your weekend is a couple days during the week, a weekend is nothing like Friday evening to Monday morning, it is nearly precisely 48 hours. In the beginning, I was out for weeks at a time anyway. I invested in moving the boat closer to my home base, but even that was a hollow victory. An old boat is like an old house, I uncovered as many new projects as I completed.

Trucking was good money but it consumed my life. It did allow me to pay off most of my bills and cut up the credit cards. The first key to life as a vagabond is to avoid having people chase you down for money. Ever closer to, yet still frustratingly far from my elusive goals, I began to look at other options. I needed more boatwork time. I came off the road, took a community college course and became a Certified Pharmacy Technician, a specialized field with a decent wage.

Working part time, I dug into boatwork and had two relatively productive summers. There was work to be done that didn't require money – lots of sanding, followed by sanding and then more sanding. But there was work that required lots of money too. Ultimately, the part time gig wasn't working so well either. I tried two part time gigs at once for a while, but that was a drag. One scheduler would never have me work late one night and then early the next morning, but the two schedulers had no reason to coordinate.

When my Altered States began, the wind would disappear and my mental sails would go slack. Forward progress slowed to a gurgle. Frequently, I was just plain morose. Sailors will know that without any 'way' – forward motion – a boat has no steerage. Moving the rudder, even frantically, will not change the direction of the boat - you are adrift. Suddenly, I was interested in homesteading, or teaching English in China, or a months long silent retreat, or serving at a homeless shelter. Productive boatwork days dwindled as I wallowed in mindless daydreams, silently howling in agony. Something else always needed to be accomplished; things that were forgotten as soon as they were done.

Thinking money was the issue, I went back to factory work to get full time hours again. I had a few dedicated days of boat work between the wailing and the wall banging, but I was miserable. And then a strange thing happened when half of my coworkers got laid off. Our main customer stopped paying their bills on time. In response, production was suspended. Those of us that management wanted to keep a string on were sent to work for a sister company building boats. At first it seemed like a temporary problem. We all figured we'd be back in a week or so. In the first several days building boats, I hadn't even paid attention to people's names. In the confusion, a strange freedom sprouted in the dry, cracked soil of my vagabond soul. In this new department among new, vaguely known co-workers, my story was missing. I was no longer the guy working on an old sailboat. I was just a guy.

As this permanently temporary work arrangement languished for weeks, the elaborate, gordian mess of chains, rusty padlocks and knots of braided rope began to loosen around my heart. For six years, everything, literally everything in my life was on the table – except the boat. The complicated psychology of making a bold move after a second and more miserable divorce further clouded my vision. I was blindly holding on to the ever diminishing chance the boat project could succeed; all else be damned. It was a formula for emotional and financial disaster.

Flavoring the roiling stew, this was already my second attempt. In the mid-nineties, I had come back to the Midwest from Florida where I had lived on a boat for a time. My mission to gather the more lucrative Midwest wages and buy a bigger boat had been interrupted by a beautiful young woman who I married. Your mileage may vary here as well. The marriage was simply a ten year detour from my original boat plan.

The temporary work was repetitious enough that I mindlessly shoved boards through an edgebander while stewing on my options. With a glance and the run of a gloved hand along the new edge, I could mind the quality of my output without really being engaged. Old rope flopped to the floor, rusty chains rattled and clanked, my heart began to beat with a new freedom. For the first time in six years, I was considering the boat a negotiable piece in the whole game. It was soon obvious that the math wasn't working out. I had been hiding from the financial and physical requirements. Just as likely, I wasn't brave enough to think about the budget and what I had left to accomplish. It was going to take $8000 or $10,000 more, and four or five years more work to get the boat in the water. It was too much. I couldn't go on.

Late one Sunday afternoon, I placed an ad on the Cape Dory Sailboat Owners Association website that began “I'm broke, I'm exhausted . . .” and I offered the boat to a good home. In five hours, I had six emails. I found her a good home with a retired guy who seems to have ample patience and money. I wish him well, and her too. The process of selling the boat was one part bittersweet and three parts great relief. What followed was another blast of life options, but once the dust settled, I still stood right where I've been all this time.

I am out of the Rat Race – that's most primary. If the boat project was poker, I've been 'all in' on a losing hand for a long time. I'm basically broke, impoverished according to standards I no longer accept. Moreover, I could never have gotten this far without the love and support of many friends and my entire family. And while I've been drawn to some kind of service, this path I'm on could be of service to others somehow.

My plan wasn't bad and I'm sticking with it, I just bought the wrong boat. The basic outline of the plan is long term wandering adventure. The original iteration included a boat and the next likely will as well. Right now, however, I am focusing on collecting 'adventure funds.' I'm back on the road where the money is good. Two years as a trucker with a focused savings plan and in the Fall of 2015, I will decide what's next.