Minimalism and Nomadic Lifestyles

It is really no surprise that nomads are also usually minimalists. In fact, I cannot think of a lifestyle nomad who is not a minimalist. (There may be a few, but they would certainly be the exception to this rule.) Minimalism and nomadic lifestyles just go together naturally with each complementing the other.

This is not to say that all nomads start off as minimalists, or that all minimalists are nomads. There are plenty of minimalists who have simply embraced the lifestyle for its many benefits while continuing to maintain a stationary existence. Nomads who take to the road (or the skies or the sea) while still owning a lot of stuff (or being owned by a lot of stuff) tend to quickly find it more practical to rapidly and significantly downsize and embrace minimalism.

I had a lot less stuff than most Americans when I set out to be a nomad, but it was still far too much. My preparations for hitting the road indefinitely in 2009 were accompanied by a significant purge. Still, despite ridding myself of most of my stuff, I still ended up storing some boxes of things that I was emotionally attached to with a relative.

An interesting observation was realized only a short time after leaving some things in storage. I found that I could not even remember most of what was in the boxes. This experience is certainly not unique as I have heard many people relate similar stories – whether or not they were minimalists. It occurred to me at this point that if I could not even remember what I had put in storage than it probably was not all that important.

The other thing that occurred around this time was when I was home for a visit and decided to go through the boxes that I had stored to start downsizing more. Obviously I did not need to continue to keep stuff that I could not even remember. As I started going through boxes I found that much of what I had stored was ruined either because of a water leak or rodents. This discovery cemented my resolve to stop storing things “just in case” or because of an emotional attachment to inanimate objects.

The bottom line of my experience with storing stuff while on the road:

  1. Most of the time we forget what we even have stored, because it is not possible to keep track of that much stuff
  2. Trying to hold onto things if often a fools errand, because thieves, rodents, and nature all conspire to steal or destroy

Not all nomads find it necessary or useful to adopt one-bag minimalism though. There is a growing tribe of jet-setting minimalists who do find it useful to downsize to one bag, and for some people this is certainly the best approach. Nomads who travel by vehicle or who have a trade that requires tools, equipment or supplies necessarily carry a little more than one bag on their journeys.

Traveling around the country or world while lugging several large, heavy bags is just not a lot of fun. Consequently, nomads tend to find it desirable (or even necessary) to travel lightly in the world. The only other option to minimalism or the self-imposed misery of carrying everything around is to store extra stuff for potential use at a later date. Storage fees can become a drain on many budgets though, and there is still the question of whether the stuff will be stolen, damaged, or destroyed while in storage. There is also the matter of the psychic strain of needing to think about stuff that is in storage.

Finally, minimalism not only makes it easy to travel or migrate, but it makes it easy to do so with very little preparation. I can, and have, made the decision to move across the country, packed, and departed within 30 minutes. More than once. This may be an extreme example, but the fact is that one-bag minimalism makes it possible to pursue whatever interesting opportunities arise with very little time needed for preparation.

Henry David Thoreau described this situation perfectly in Walden:

“It is desirable that a man be clad so simply that he can lay his hands on himself in the dark, and that he live in all respects so compactly and preparedly that, if an enemy take the town, he can, like the old philosopher, walk out the gate empty-handed without anxiety.”

I think of this quote often and try to maintain the same status myself. It may be unlikely that an enemy will take the town (though certainly not impossible, depending on the location), but there are definitely opportunities available to a minimalist who can walk out the door nearly empty-handed without anxiety that are not available to most people who are burdened by possessions.

Roughlock Falls

I fell in love during a road trip across the country in 1999. This was no ordinary road-trip romance. It has remained true to this day, and is rekindled each time I pass through South Dakota. Recently I have even made several trips there on purpose. Who is this love? The Black Hills.

The Black Hills of South Dakota are renowned for their beauty. Possibly easy to overlook as they sit in the shadow of the Bighorn and Rocky Mountains only a few hours further west, the Black Hills are still well worth visiting, The region is beautiful in a way that really cannot be compared with taller mountain ranges as they are unique.

The Black Hills are quite scenic in general but, as I learned last month when I took the opportunity to visit Spearfish Canyon, the canyon has to qualify as a “must see.” Roughlock Falls, in Spearfish Canyon, is something of a hidden gem in the midst of the Black Hills.

Roughlock Falls
Roughlock Falls in the Black Hills

Located between Deadwood and Spearfish, Roughlock Falls can accurately be described as being in the middle of nowhere. It is also worth the drive if you happen to be anywhere in the area – not just for the destination, but for the trip itself.

The sound of falling water, birds, and other sounds of nature are all that is to be heard at Roughlock Falls. It is surprisingly peaceful for being only a short drive from the largest city in the region. The air, even on a hot, August day, is comfortable thanks to the forest and water.

Roughlock Falls
Roughlock Falls in Spearfish Canyon

Roughlock Falls Natural Area offers views of streams and waterfalls accessible via mostly-paved walking trails, a mile-long nature trail, and very well-maintained picnic areas. The unpaved nature trail is fairly flat and easy walking. The walking trail to the falls from the upper parking lot is mostly paved, but is quite steep in places. Viewing decks above and below the falls are boardwalk and are easy to access. Visitors who have limited mobility may prefer to park in the upper parking lot and view the falls from the top as this area would be accessible to most people.

Getting to Roughlock Falls

US Highway 14-A between Sturgis and Spearfish winds through the canyon, passing through several quaint, western towns along the way. Roughlock Falls is located in Savoy, SD between Deadwood and Spearfish. US Highway 14-A passes right through Savoy.

Roughlock Falls is located just off 14-A on Forest Service Road 222. The turn for FS 222 is in a curve, but there are good signs from both directions. The road is gravel, but is well-maintained and accessible by passenger cars and motorcycles.

  • The lower parking area and trailhead for the nature trail is on the left approximately 100 yards after turning onto Forest Service Road 222.
  • The parking area for the pond (pictured below) is on the left just past the lower parking area. Access to the pond is also available from the rear off the nature trail.
  • The upper parking area is approximately one mile up Forest Service Road 222 on the left. The upper parking area provides access to the top of the falls, and offers amenities like vault toilets and nice picnic areas.
Roughlock Falls pond
Pond below Roughlock Falls

Order an art print of Roughlock Falls at Society6

Nomadic Photography

For as long as I can remember I have been haunted by the siren song that calls me over the next mountain or beyond the far horizon. Settling is intolerable since within a short time the lure of the unknown and unseen becomes too intense and the restlessness increases until a new adventure is underway. The world is too wonderfully diverse to settle in only one place. Too much remains unseen and unexperienced.

Photography provides a creative outlet that fits well with wanderlust. Traveling to new, previously unexperienced places creates wonderful photographic opportunities so that the adventure may be shared.

While nomadic photography may not exactly be new, there is a new breed of nomadic photographers, frequently armed with both iPhone and digital camera, who travel the country (or world) to create and share their art. Kevin Russ, whose work I admire, has done a lot of nomadic photography in the American West and is one example of this new breed of photographers.

Photographer Josef Koudelka said it well during an interview for the New York Times Lens Blog:

“For 40 years I have been traveling. I never stay in one country more than three months. Why? Because I was interested in seeing, and if I stay longer I become blind.”

It is easy to become complacent with routine. In fact, it is all but impossible not to become complacent, settled, and overly comfortable without novelty or adventure. We cease to truly see and experience that with which we are routinely familiar.

Some people simply need adventure or novelty in their life to keep things interesting. For some of those people it may even be partly genetic. Regardless of the cause, some of us have a deeply-rooted need to live nomadically and to see what is over the next horizon (camera in hand, of course).

Devil’s Tower at Sunset

It is not every hike at a National Monument that combines perfect, summer evening weather and a site so rich in history that it can almost be felt as surely as the breeze. My visit to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming last weekend succeeded on both counts.

The weather was a perfect 72 degrees with a gentle breeze, while the feeling that the place was sacred or mystical could not be escaped. It was one of those rare, perfect evenings for an easy hike.

Devil’s Tower is an imposing, volcanic rock formation that rises 867 feet from its base. The tower was likely formed beneath the earth’s surface as a result of volcanic activity, while the Bella Fourche River is credited with eroding softer layers of rock and leaving the current formation.

Devil's Tower
Devil’s Tower at sunset last weekend (Order a print of this photo)

The tower is significant historically, both to Native American tribes in the area and to later ranchers. Several Native American legends provide more mystical explanations for the tower that offered by geologists. (Truth be  told, the legends are more fun!)

The tower is popular with a variety of visitors, including photographers and climbers. The first recorded ascent of Devil’s Tower occurred in 1893 when two men successfully climbed the tower using a wooden ladder. Remnants of the ladder are still visible today with binoculars.

A visitor’s center at the base of the tower provides a good view of the tower, as do a number of spots along the paved access road. Several hiking trails are available inside the park. The Tower Trail loops around Devil’s Tower (approximately 1.2 miles) and is paved. Plan an hour or slightly more to walk the Tower Trail, depending on how often you stop to read interpretive signs, stare in wonder at the tower, or take photos.

Devil’s Tower National Park is located in northeast Wyoming to the north of Moorcroft and Sundance. The park is open year-round, with the exception of a few holidays. The vehicle entrance fee is $10 in 2015 unless the visitor has a National Park pass. Motorcycle and bicycle admission is less expensive.

Order an art print of this photo at Society6

Minimalism: My Pursuit of Simplicity

The embrace of minimalism, for me, grew out of a lifelong pursuit of simplicity. It was around 1999 when I first began to get serious about minimalism, systematically reducing and eliminating my possessions. I was a minimalist even before minimalism was cool, though I lacked the vocabulary to easily describe my philosophy; usually it ended up lumped in with simplicity.

What is minimalism?

“Minimalism is a tool to get rid of superfluous excess in favor of focusing on what’s important in life so you can find happiness, fulfillment and freedom.”
Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus in Minimalism: Essential Essays

I long understood that there was at least room for minimalism (and simplicity) in religious expression; indeed, there is perhaps even a necessity for simplicity and minimalism. It was not, however, until I read Richard Foster’s The Freedom of Simplicity that I began to appreciate just how central simplicity was to the Christian message. Later study of the Church Fathers would further reinforce the conviction that the related disciplines of simplicity and minimalism are an inescapable part of a Biblical worldview.

Thoreau is my hero – minimalism as philosophy

Minimalism does have its challenges, but it also provides opportunities and benefits not otherwise available. Some of the benefits of minimalism include saving money (not buying stuff you don’t need anyway), easier travel or relocation (I literally own less stuff than most people take on vacation, thus relocation is rather simple), and reduced stress from having fewer possessions to maintain and care for. Minimalism can also facilitate new opportunities as it becomes easier to experiment and risk failing without the excess baggage and commitments so common in our culture.

Ev Bogue, famous for his now-deprecated blog Far Beyond the Stars and several e-books on minimalism, recently described it this way:

“I like living this way. It gives me a lot of flexibility to go where I want.
“It also lets me take bigger risks, and fail harder than most people. It lets me succeed bigger, and enjoy my successes more than most people, too.”
– The Art of Being Minimalist – Ev Bogue

My own journey toward minimalism occurred as a series of steps.

The first step was my embrace of the philosophy of simplicity and simple living.

The second step occurred as I began a cross-country move in 1999. This move encouraged (almost required) downsizing and reducing possessions. There are few things as effective as moving your family more than 2,000 miles in a small station wagon to force a careful evaluation of which stuff is really important (and which is just junk).

The third step occurred as a result of frequent travel, and the desire for more frequent travel. I did not want to be burdened by a bunch of stuff back home that I needed to worry about; less stuff makes it easier to move or travel on a whim.

Finally, I learned quickly that putting extra stuff in storage is a powerful motivator to minimize. Renting storage space wastes hard-earned money. Storing stuff for any length of time also proves just how little we need the stuff as it is nearly impossible to even remember what is in storage after a little time has passed. I also learned the hard way that things left in storage tend to deteriorate, whether due to water leaks, rodents, or other factors.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
– Jesus Christ, Matthew 6.19-20 (NRSV)

Ultimately, it was not any single event or decision that prompted me to embrace minimalism, but rather a series of steps along a journey to minimalism that started with a quest for simplicity.

Pursuing minimalism is not nearly so difficult as many people would have you believe. The decision to embrace minimalism may be the hard part; the actual implementation of that decision is rather simple. If you are ready to implement minimalism in your own life all you really have to do is throw your stuff in a dumpster and not buy more.

Note: This article was originally published on my old site on 11 April, 2013.