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
“I hope this old train breaks down
Then I could take a walk around
and see what there is to see”
—Jack Johnson in “Breakdown”
The inevitable backpacker van event has occurred to me: The Breakdown. It couldn’t have occurred at a much worse time than it did, late in the evening the day before I was supposed to start a long-awaited harvest gig early the next morning. But then the location was actually quite convenient. I’ve heard tales of backpacker vans melting down in the far remote outback, with no services for hundreds of kilometers. I happened to break down in the middle of suburbia.
This wasn’t the typical garden-variety breakdown either. This was what’s called the “catastrophic breakdown”. Upon inspection by a mechanic, it turns out the timing belt in the engine broke and warped the engine cylinders. Before this happened, I didn’t even know what a timing belt was, let alone its importance in an engine. It turns out, though, that the timing belt is the piece of equipment that keeps the engine’s moving parts in sync. A broken timing belt equals moving engine parts clanging against each other. It also equals a $3,000 charge for replacing the engine.
But when the timing belt snapped and Frank’s engine turned its last, we were quite fortunate to be on the busiest commercial highway along Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Using Frank’s momentum, I managed to steer off the main road into a 7-11 parking lot. There I found myself ‘stranded’. Without my own set of wheels I was limited to where I could walk on foot—or to travel with the extensive bus transit network. Though I was without a vehicle, everything I needed was within walking distance on that main street—coffee shops, grocers, convenience stores, parks, car rentals, hostels, surf shops, furniture outlets, rug stores—and much more. I was even about a kilometer away from the repair shop (though I still needed the tow).
A long-time favorite musician of mine, Jack Johnson, holds a rather romantic notion of breakdowns, singing about taking the opportunity to get out and explore the world on foot instead of in high speed transit. But I’m doubtful Jack Johnson was daydreaming about breaking down in the midst of California-style suburban sprawl. Getting stranded nearly halfway between two of the Sunshine Coast’s major beach cities, the landscape has developed into a suburban dream of strip malls and Aussie big box stores that punctuate endless tracts of brick-fenced single-family homes. Not to mention that the wide, high traffic capacity streets and discontinuous sidewalks make pedestrian touring exceedingly difficult.
Personally, rather than looking at the opportunity for adventure that a breakdown affords (as I was more inclined to do when I was younger and broken down with friends), I more often view breakdowns as a hindrance. True, I’ve been through the stranded-from-car-trouble game a few times before. This resume of mine includes getting stuck in the ditch twice (in two different vehicles), and getting stranded after mechanical failure twice more (in an additional two different vehicles). In fact, on a long road trip I usually anticipate such car trouble to occur—and I’ll feel like I missed out on something if nothing goes wrong on a long trip.
Whether seen as a hindrance or opportunity, the breakdown does have its way of (forcibly) taking you off your own well-planned schedule and creating a new experience for you. Thus, when you face the inevitable breakdowns in life, do you dwell on the costs and inconveniences of the situation? Or do you use it as a path towards something you likely wouldn’t have done otherwise?
As far as Frank breaking down goes, it’s a mixture of both. No longer able to camp in my van while it’s in the repair shop, I had to take the only affordable and available accommodation I could find in a resort community during peak season. Sure my temporary accommodation’s among the lousiest of hostels I’ve ever stayed in, but I’ve gotten to meet many more people than I would have if I stuck to my van. And sure, the section of town I’m staying in now feels like Los Angeles sprawl, but there are many unique local eateries and enterprises hidden amongst the strip malls and traffic-clogged streets. I wouldn’t have noticed these things if I had merely driven through as a passerby. In the end, I’ll get to know a new area of Australia more intimately via foot. Plus, I’ll have walking access to some beautiful surf beaches every day after work.
Listen to “Breakdown” by Jack Johnson here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4O7ufx9D_s