Monthly Archives: March 2016

A 25 Year-Old’s Retirement

Travelling around Australia in a van, I inevitably run into a different demographic of traveler doing basically the same things I’m doing. This demographic can be described as the older, retired lot who also live out of vans or motor homes and spend their time driving around and living like tourists. For some people, this is their dream lifestyle. They’ve worked hard all their lives to afford a retirement full of travel and leisure. Retirement is their final treat where they can enjoy the fruits of their labours free from the burden of work and outside obligation.

Perhaps retirement is wasted on the old. Wouldn’t it be better to travel when you’re still young and have the energy to see things? Wouldn’t travelling prove more fruitful if you still have the bulk of life ahead of you to be influenced by what you learn whilst travelling? For these reasons, I decided to take my retirement early. But instead of taking a retirement of pleasure and leisure, I am taking a retirement of travelling and learning. I wanted to ‘retire’ while I am still young and flexible, while my identity is still malleable enough to shape the person who I am becoming. If a great deal can be learned by travel, then why hold off those lessons until most of one’s life has passed?

But, another reason why I decided to retire early and to travel now is that I have a gut instinct that I will not be as inclined to travel later on in my life. Instead of always being ready to move on, I have a tendency to linger at a place that’s become familiar to me. Eventually, in the years to come, I sense that I will settle down into a place and a community where I can let my roots grow. Once I’ve settled into such a community, I won’t have the desire to journey as extensively as I am doing now. Of course travel will always remain a way to re-invigorate myself in day-to-day matters, but, I strongly suspect, my future will not be one where I continue to live out of a vehicle on a long ambling sojourn. Consequently, I feel I ought to be travelling now in my youth, while the wanderlust still churns strong inside me. In my old age, though, I project I’d like to live in one place. Life as a continual transient on the road will not be the life for me. Some people may also chose to retire in a different location from where they’ve worked their careers. Again, not for me. Once I find my community, I won’t leave it for a leisurely retirement elsewhere.

Yet another reason why I’ve taken an early retirement is that I’m not sure if I’ll be the type of person who will even want to retire. Inevitably, I feel very impassioned about the work that I do, and right now I’m on an extended quest searching for my life’s vocation. When I do ultimately engage in a line of work that I am passionate about, I doubt I’ll have the desire to leave it just because I reach a mandatory age. Instead, I will follow my vocation and continue to work towards the betterment of society and my community through my career. Life takes a lifelong commitment—and I’m not one to bow out for an early retirement. When thinking about the idea of old-age retirement, I am greatly motivated by stories of people who have lived their passions to the fullest extent of their lives. One story I find particularly inspiring is that of Carl Sharsmith, who had a 60-year long career as an interpretive ranger in Yosemite National Park, becoming the oldest active NPS ranger upon his eventual retirement at age 90, one year before his death. Some passionate people like Sharsmith just can’t be stopped, and I hope to be one of them.

These are a few of the reasons why I decided to take my retirement early. My gap year in Australia is not just a period of leisure and an attempt to postpone a career—it is an investment in the person I will be in the future. Soon enough, necessity will dictate an end to my early retirement and will see my entering of the workforce. But I look forward to this as well, like a person who just can’t stay away from a vocation which he loves.

Featured Image credit goes to the documentary This is Nowhere, which provides a perspective on the lives of nearly 3 million Americans who permanently live in motorhomes and camp in Wal*Mart parking lots
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To Catch a Sunrise

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I have a friend who grew up in Colorado. I listened with indignation one time as he described climbing mountains at midnight.

“But you can’t see anything!” I managed to sputter, expressing my contempt at the idea of hiking in the dark.

But, are all our experiences based upon sight alone? What else could be ‘seen’ in the dark when the ambient light grows dim?

The eye is truly an amazing organ, and sight is a sense unparalleled in constructing our world. Vision dominates the method of how we gain information about our world—by some estimates, over 80% of our information intake. As well, having sight is incredibly important to a hiker. Excuse the pun, but having vison helps a hiker see where they’re going. But with so much of our information intake dominated by our sense of sight, do we sometimes let other sensory input fall by the wayside?

With all my skepticism about the merits of a night hike, I recently commenced on a night hike of my own accord. My goal, of course, was still focused on vision—I was climbing the Tweed Range’s Mount Warning to catch some of the first rays of sun falling upon the Australian continent. After the initial chore of hiking a couple hours in complete darkness, I was expecting to be rewarded with a visual spectacle.

Strapping on my dim headlamp to serve as my guide, I was soon on my way. I stepped onto the trail and glanced about at the journey ahead. In the dusky glow of my headlamp, silhouettes of giant palms and tree ferns encircled me. Shadows danced about every time I swung my head. In the low levels of light, the foliage of the rainforest seemed ethereal, alive, almost magical. My standard sense of vision, I realized, was altered. Instead of seeing nothing, I was going to experience the world in a different light.

As I continued to climb in near darkness, I found my eyes drawn to any small source of light they could detect. In the absence of daylight, other sources of light make their presence known. Often I paused to gaze up at the stars, always shining, but obscured in the light of day. In the distance, I could see the twinkling glimmer of coastal towns, swaths of light in an otherwise dark world. Along trail cuts was the glow of bioluminescence—glowworms, hunting at night, producing their own light to attract unsuspecting insects. The bright light of daytime hides such treasures from us. It is the absence of daylight that draws our attention to them.

I found, too, that my other senses grew keener as my vision was reduced. I paid much more attention to sounds—the sound of the wind rustling through the leaves, the sound of a possum scurrying about. Smells were enhanced. I breathed in deeply the sultry tropical scents of the rainforest air. The humidity of the forest filled my nostrils and clung to my skin as I climbed in the night dew. Every brush of foliage against my arms came rightly to my attention. Things normally filtered out by my subconscious were now fully realized.

I summited Mount Warning in the dead of night, before any hints of lightness came over the horizon. I knew I’d have to wait for the expected visual show to arrive, but the show I experienced on my upward climb had made the whole trip already worthwhile. It turned out that a lack of sight had opened me up to many different avenues of experiencing the journey.

I stuck around to see the visual sunrise show. Waiting on the summit viewing platform for over two hours in the dark, my eyes became primed to see the subtle changes as the new day broke forth. I watched, riveted, as the sky slowly began to illuminate and go through its many moods and colors of dawn. At last the sun broke above the horizon, bathing the world in its fresh luminosity. I had successfully caught the sunrise. But that morning, I had caught so much more than just a sunrise.

Small Town Country Australia

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A view down Wynard Street, the main commercial avenue in Tumut, New South Wales

 

I’ve been passing through a lot of small Australian towns lately. Ever since leaving the tourist haunts of the coast and travelling inland, I’ve been encountering a new Australian geography. Up through the Great Dividing Range mountains and onto the western plains, Australian towns get comfortably country.

From the New England Highway to the west side of the Snowy Mountains, I’ve passed through towns more familiar with the rumble of a livestock truck than to the stamp of tourist feet. Populations in these towns may reach from a few thousand to a few ten-thousand—not necessarily tiny by Australian standards. Regardless of their size, however, these towns may be the largest settlement for an hour in any direction—and thus these small country towns serve as regional centers of commerce. Along the backroads and byways of rural Australia, a traveller will be rewarded with the very appealing character of the Australian Country town.

My experience of country towns is based on one I’ve spent a fair amount of time in recently: Tumut, New South Wales. Tumut, like other country towns, lies amidst a landscape of grazing, field crops, orchards, and timberlands. Roughly halfway between the major metropolitan centers of Sydney and Melbourne, Tumut sits 30 minutes off the main highway—and is largely bypassed by the hubbub of interstate traffic. With a population of just over 6,000, Tumut is the principle settlement in Tumut-Shire, in addition to being the largest town for at least an hour’s drive. Though Tumut may be nestled in the scenic western foothills of Australia’s highest peaks, the Snowy Mountains, tourist traffic remains light here largely due to hilly terrain and narrow town access roads.

Small country Australian towns like Tumut share a distinct geographic feel. At the heart of these towns runs the main street, lined with the town’s oldest and most elaborate buildings. Wide brick sidewalks traverse either side of the main street with store-front balconies and branching European street trees providing shade from the blistering country sun. The most prominent buildings along the main street just might be the hotels—in Australia, hotels are the place you go to hang out and drink a beer. Even in the small town of Tumut, there are no fewer than six hotels along the main avenue of business: The Commercial, The Oriental, The Royal, The Star, The Woolpack, and The Wynard. Banks, shops, public buildings, and churches complete the line-up of edifices on the main street. Further out from the main street, historic brick and stucco houses speak of early city residents who had a great sense of pride and importance in the place where they lived.Though individual businesses may change through the years, the turn-of-the-century street façade remains strongly characteristic of the country town.

 

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In Australia, you go have a drink at the hotel. Being common sights in country towns, hotels have a pub on the ground floor and accommodation upstairs. Large, sweeping verandas provide much needed shade from the Australian sun.

 

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The School of Arts Building, built 1891. In small towns, the ‘School of Arts’ was established as both a repository of books and a community meeting hall–an early multi-purpose community building.

 

 

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Elaborate churches add architectural character to the town’s built environment.

 

 

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Turn-of-the-century brick and stucco house, with a characteristic tin roof.

 

 

Scattered around the business district and residential streets of the typical country town is ample parkland, which lends an appealing openness and naturalistic feeling to the rural development. These parks provide shade, recreational opportunities, and amenities to resident and visitor alike. As a visitor to a new town, I often form my quality assessment based on the town’s parkland and amenities—for example, public toilets and electric barbecues are very appreciated. Civic buildings such as libraries are another important public resource that attest to a quality of life in a town, in addition to being very helpful to the traveller.

The physical landscape—the built environment—is just one aspect that is characteristic of the Australian country town. The other aspect is the cultural landscape. Though I originally only planned to pass through Tumut on my search for employment elsewhere, I’ve ended up staying for a week now. Having found no job leads further afield, I returned to Tumut to come up with an alternative plan, and I have stayed because I enjoyed the aura of the city. I’ve found the people to be particularly friendly here, and more apt to start a conversation with the town’s new stranger. This is especially true while I’ve been sitting outside the library after hours bumming wifi for my job search. One local man came right up and joined me on the bench I was sitting on, talking to me as if we’d meet long before. He really only came to the library for some half-smoked cigarettes in the ash-tray, but he wanted to greet the stranger as well. He gave me some advice for my job search, and then informed me that in a town like this, everyone will know your business by the time you leave. I guess that’s all part of the small-town life.

My one week in Tumut has given me a good sense of the nature of the town, and may be a good indicator of the character of the other country towns I’ve passed through along the way. With little in the way of tourist traps in Tumut, I’ve been living like a local instead. Daily, downtown Tumut is a bustling locale—at the shops and bakeries by day, and at the hotels by night. I’ve nursed a beer at one of the hotels, listening to live music from a nearby bluegrass band. I’ve been shown the river float along the Tumut river where locals go to cool off on hot summer days. My van radio has been tuned to the local radio station playing golden oldies and old-time country music. I’ve eaten local produce fresh from the weekend outdoor market. I’ve even watched part of a high-school cricket match, and I’ve seen the civic pride of the Tumuters as a large group volunteered their Saturday to pick up rubbish in the riverside park. All these little things I’ve seen and done here in Tumut add to the congenial character of this small country town.

 

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The Tumut River, as seen from the Old Town Bridge. The name Tumut is derived from an aboriginal word meaning ‘resting place by the river’. The river is a favourite local hangout.

 

 

 

It’s not that only small country towns have the kind of charm I’ve described—it’s that I find it easier to perceive in a small country town, where the bright lights of international corporate business and the McMansions of suburbia don’t obscure the local identity. Large towns, urban centers—these too have their unique geographies and contingent of dedicated citizens who make their homes resplendent with civic pride. These are the same people who pass the love of their city onto the wayward visitor.

 

 

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A view of Tumut from the highest point in town, showing the foothills of the Snowy Mountains

 

A Working Request

 

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Sometimes searching for employment feels like being lost in a maze

Dear Future Employer,

I know my time of long-term future employment is still a ways off, but I’ve been thinking a lot about occupations lately. That’s probably no surprise, seeing how in Australia I’m always on the lookout for the next job. And, even when I have found a job here, they’ve lasted only a few weeks—so it shouldn’t be a surprise that I’m constantly on the job search. After all, I do need some means of paying my living expenses and saving up for future travel.

Future Employer, I look forward to the day when we can form a mutually beneficial team, where you benefit from my skills and I benefit from the position. I’m growing tired of the unceasing job search in Australia, and I hope our future relationship will last a bit longer than a few weeks. How much longer our working relationship should last, I can’t say at this point—it could be months or it could be years. It just depends on how well we get along. But, my Future Employer, when I do return to the States and start working for you, here’s a few things I want you to know.

Future Employer, please know that I do not work for economic reasons alone. Though western society may be set up in a way that I need money to support myself, please note that a high income is not my employment objective. If you are offering a position that is not something I want to do, there is no way you could pay me enough to do it for long. I’d rather do something I love as my occupation, even if that means living at just a little lower economic status.

Also, Future Employer, when you do finally employ me you will find that I throw my all into my work. Some might say I’m a bit of a workaholic, though that’s not quite the way to describe it. Rather, my daily occupation forms a huge part of my identity; it was when I was a student and has been in all the various jobs I’ve worked. I find that it’s difficult to separate who I am from the work that I do. Thus, long-term employment is not a decision I take lightly—my future profession must be a reflection of the beliefs and values that I hold dear. So, Future Employer, I’m not just looking for a job. I’m looking for a calling. I’m seeking to use my occupation as a means to make a real difference in the world. In the words of my Alma mater, I’m in search of my vocation—the place where my deep passion meets the world’s needs.

So, my Future Employer, I’ve come up with a list of ‘Working Demands’. If you can’t meet these demands, I’m afraid I won’t be happy working for you:

  • Allow me to take pride in the work I do for the sake of the job. Nothing in a job cuts me down more than being explicitly told to cut corners or to do shoddy work for the sake of earning a dollar.
  • Respect my time, efforts, and contributions. I am not your commodity used to earn you a profit. I am a human worthy of dignity and respect.
  • Treat my employment as an investment, not a liability. As my employer, be my coach to improve my performance, not my overlord to punish me for mistakes.
  • Promote a good cultural environment among the workforce, such that we are not just co-workers but members of a team working towards a vision. As a bonus, I wouldn’t mind getting to know my co-workers well enough personally to even spend time outside the workplace with them recreationally.
  • Let me try out my own ideas to promote innovation, and give me the flexibility to try and fail sometimes, because making mistakes is all part of the learning process.
  • Allow me time to work on my individual ideas, but also have me work in a mutual and collaborative team environment.
  • Keep me mentally stimulated. Provide tasks that keep me learning and growing.
  • Provide me with a variety of tasks in the workplace, so daily assignments are invigorating instead of monotonous and dull.
  • Give me flexibility. The strict pattern of 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, and wearing business casual has never really appealed to me.

Someday we will find each other, Future Employer. If you offer to meet my working demands, you will find me a strong and passionate worker.

Yours Truly,

Tyler M. Bleeker