Saturday, December 31, 2016

Joe Omundson

Small town connection

It's the end of 2016! When I started this project in February I wasn't sure how long it would last, but 73 posts later I'm excited to keep writing. I have a long way to go to become a good writer; it's trickier than I thought. I'm glad I got started and stuck with it because now that this page is established it feels great to have an outlet for whatever I want to write. Special thanks go to my mom and my dearly departed step-mom for pushing me to keep writing.

I have a few halfway-written drafts in my queue and I decided to pick one of them to finish for my final post of 2016. I'd like to share this description of a day in the Moab life. I've written some posts recently outlining the difficulties I face with my lifestyle, but I also want to highlight the beautiful parts that make it worthwhile for me. This is the story of Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016.


I woke up at about 9:30 in the morning. It was 40 degrees in my car, parked underneath the cottonwood trees. My friend Eric had been visiting from California for a week, and he was leaving this morning so I said goodbye and wished him a good return trip.

I skipped breakfast and drove six blocks to the donation-based gentle yoga class. Eleanor is a 73 year old woman who has lived in Moab for 40 years, and she leads the class twice a week with light and laughter. There were three other students this morning and as usual I was the only male, and the youngest person by 30 years. The class was peaceful and we left feeling refreshed and happy. I usually attend 3-4 times per month and am always grateful for that joyful group of people.

From there, I drove a couple blocks to the food bank. I was eligible for my monthly haul. I was planning to hitchhike that weekend and needed some food to take with me. I ran into Cameron and his dog Juno and I chatted with him while we waited. There were still several people in line ahead of me when a semi-truck arrived with some pallets of food to drop off. I helped unload the food. Jason, another guy who lives similarly to the way I do and helps out at the food bank, was coordinating the food distribution and instead of filling my cart with the "standard" items he gave me an empty cart and said to take whatever I wanted. So I chose all the healthiest options and left with a good pile of food. I went home and made lunch, spaghetti with fresh tomatoes and about a pound of ground turkey that needed to be consumed that day.

I went to the shop to work on painting some cabinet doors. Brooke came over to clean out an adjascent room and we talked sometimes. Then Mathieu showed up, my French-Canadian motorcycle-vagabond friend, and he taught me how to ride a motorcycle, which was something I'd always wanted to learn.

Adrian had invited me to the locals showcase, a free concert to kick off the folk music festival that weekend. I went there that evening with Dennis, my van-dwelling friend from New York, and we met up with Adrian and Ben and some of their friends. The last act was the Fiery Furnace marching band, which had people up and dancing, and everyone followed them as they marched outside to finish their performance in the street. I ran into a different Ben, a thru-hiker who I met in Stehekin this summer as I was finishing my PCT hike, and said hi to him.

When the marching band was done, a couple I didn't know approached me and asked which bar I thought would be a good one to walk to. I gave them a couple ideas, including the Rio, where I was heading next because it was karaoke night and my friends wanted to do that. So I walked to the bar, found Dennis, but sat at a table with this couple (Justin and Rebecca), who bought me a beer. They were living out of their trucks and staying in Moab for a few weeks. Adrian came and the four of us talked. Her roommate was also there for karaoke with some other friends, and I was excited to be invited to join their weekly writing club.

At the end of the night I walked back to the cottonwoods to show my new friends and invited them to camp there with me, which they ended up doing for a couple weeks.


What I love about small town community is how easy it is to see people you know, and to meet new people. Without creating any schedule these interactions flowed effortlessly. Without spending a dime, I was able to participate in yoga, get groceries, see a concert, go to a bar, and learn to ride a motorcycle in one day; all within a 3-block radius. Other days, I've participated in bike parties, met awesome people at Fresh Moab Coffee (where it's donation-only and you make it yourself), eaten at community dinners, shared the library as a communal living room, seen local parades and festivals, gone dancing in the desert, and enjoyed campfires on the edge of a huge canyon.

Portland might be a progressive place with a lot of cool people, but I never had days like this when I lived there. It's so busy and anonymous that if you want to see a familiar face it has to be carefully arranged. My personality seems to do a lot better in the more intimate setting of an interconnected little town. Here, community interaction is built in to daily life, and everything you need is just a few minutes away. Less chaos, more rest. As much as I miss my friends in the big city I can't forsee myself going back to live in a place like that anytime soon. Moab's community is too strong of a vortex.

I was thinking about leaving on a journey to South America this spring, but I think I'm going to stay in town through the summer, sink my roots in a little deeper, earn some money, enjoy the nice weather, and be more prepared to leave town when it starts getting cold here around October. 2016 was pretty good to me but I'm excited to see what changes 2017 will bring.

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Monday, December 26, 2016

Joe Omundson

Visionary profile: Alex Wall

There are difficulties and perks that come with writing a personal blog. It can be intimidating to publish intimate details of my life for all the world to see; vulnerability has the risk of attracting judgment or making me less employable. At the same time, it's freeing to talk about the things that matter most to me and to know that I have nothing to hide.

But my favorite thing is when someone reads my blog, relates on a deep level, and reaches out to make a connection. It doesn't happen often, but it's really exciting when it does.

I was hiking the PCT in Northern California in May of 2015 when I got to a town and checked my email. Waiting in my inbox was a message from Alex titled "Philosophical brothers?". I was instantly elated. He introduced himself, explaining that he'd previously undertaken a walking trip across the country, and was planning to do another big one. He'd read some of my PCT blog and was on the same page philosophically. He was interested in meeting me and possibly doing some joint writing about the paradigm we are both passionate about moving toward.

He's no typical blogging thru-hiker, though. Alex wanders between rural spaces, small towns, and urban centers, inventing his own route. He sets out with no money, camps rough most of the time, and relies entirely on donations from his readers. When he runs out of money he goes hungry, sometimes for days at a time. He assumes the societal risks of a homeless person and explores all the implications of how that dynamic affects his interaction with the world.

Alex often includes a map of his improvised campsites

Shortly after our initial contact, Alex embarked on a 367-day tour of the country, starting in California, working north through Oregon and Washingon, then traveling east and south across the country to Georgia, and eventually back north to Maine. Sometimes he rode a bus or a train, but he walked many of the miles on foot.

From the very first email he's been supportive of my life path and encouraged me to keep going. We've never met, but we stayed in touch, sharing many thoughts, struggles, and goals. He's about 20 years my senior and he got a later start at his ambitiously free-formed lifestyle. The age difference is an interesting complement because in a sense he can play a mentor role to me, and in return he is excited that I am starting his kind of work at a younger age, with potentially more time to develop it than he has. Interestingly, he has medical concerns with his heart, like I do. Alex is one of the few people who can fully empathize with my journey, and if you look at the comment section beneath my posts you'll often see his love and support pouring out.

Alex is one of the most prolific and vivid writers I've ever encountered. Throughout his year long journey, rain or shine, hot or cold, food or not, he maintained the insane workload of writing a photo-infused account of every day's experiences -- a "Living Magazine". A lot of people blog daily, but Alex doesn't hold back on anything, and he has a perspective that few people would ever voluntarily assume. The story of his daily experiences is interesting, but what strikes me is the clarity with which he presents the internal struggle of life in the bottom class. It's a special thing because it requires a huge amount of dedication. It's exceedingly difficult to write under the circumstances in which he places himself. He does this grueling work with no promise of financial return.

Keeping dry is a constant struggle in rainy weather.

He is deeply sensitive, highly empathetic, and cares passionately about the welfare of all human beings. And it's not an abstract concern, it's something that plays out practically in his life. His ability to communicate both the realities of daily life and his theoretical conceptions is something I aspire to emulate. He has the kind of wide-open mindset that is able to perceive the systemic whole of our reality and foresee various ways that society could evolve to provide a better future for all life on earth.

In addition to the candid descriptions of personal experience, and illustrations of his dreams and visions, Alex often gives walking tours of the places he explores, sharing dozens of photos of the most interesting things he finds. Those interested in history and geography will find his accounts of people and places fascinating.

Union Station in Portland, Oregon

Alex has written so much content that I have only read a small percentage of his work. I am horrible at following blogs and he knows that I have not kept up with his journey as closely as many of his readers. But the work I have read is always illuminating, and stunningly raw. I don't know of anyone else who has undertaken a similar life venture and laid it out so plainly for people to understand. I am writing this blog post because I really want more people to be exposed to his writing. It deserves more attention than it gets, more attention than I can give it. Please take some time to check out his story, and send some money his way if you can!

This is this start of his most recent journey, a good place to start reading, as he left San Francisco on June 21, 2015.
Follow his Facebook page for regular updates.

(All photos courtesy of Alex Wall)
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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Joe Omundson

The difference between homeless and houseless

(Photo by Garry Knight, cropped to fit)

One of the side effects of living in my car is gaining a little bit of perspective on what it's like to be homeless.

There's a huge difference between being homeless and houseless. Some people, like me, choose to live in a vehicle or a tent for the fun of it. We have the option of returning to housed life at any time. We are houseless on purpose. Overall, it's fun; it saves a lot of money and we can tolerate the discomforts.

Homelessness is living outside because you lack the ability, resources, or social status to pay rent and live inside, even though you'd prefer it. There's nothing fun about that.

I remember reading about how homeless people will often spend their monthly welfare check to get a motel room for a few days. I used to think: well, that's silly. Why would they do that? They could be buying food, or saving it up for other things they really need. Why blow it all on a shitty motel room?

Now I get it. Let me explain.

Earlier this month I was invited to live in an empty room at a friend's house in exchange for some work, but they quickly found a paying roommate and I had to leave. Before that, I'd been camping on a property where I could use a heater to warm my car and prepare food with an outdoor kitchen, but I couldn't return there because I'd already told the property owner that I would be moving out, and broken down camp. Now I found myself in the same situation I was in when I first moved to Moab: stealth camping on the street, using public bathrooms, not having a place to cook food, with all of my belongings in my car. No big deal -- been there done that, right?

The difference is: now it's fucking cold. That IS a big deal. It's been dipping down well below 20 degrees, even inside my car, and the lowest temperature I've seen is 14.6 F on my thermometer. I'm essentially sleeping in a freezer. Technically, it's fine because I have blankets, and down bags, and when I'm all bundled up I stay plenty warm. It's not like I'm going to freeze to death. The thing is, I can't just be in bed whenever it's nighttime. Nights are really long.

Most days, the library serves as my living room. It's usually open until 8pm, and I can hang out in the warmth until it closes, but that puts me out in my cold car at 8:05 and there aren't really any warm places where I can hang out until the library opens again at 9am. That's 13 hours, only 8 of which I can reasonably be expected to sleep. On Saturdays the library closes at 5pm, and on Sundays it's closed all day.

So I've had some days where I'm lying in bed in my tiny car for hours trying to stay warm, reading books or using my phone. I feel trapped in my bed because any part of my body that I expose to the air gets cold quickly. I don't want to drink water because it's icy and it makes me cold, so I get dehydrated. This is frustrating psychologically because all I do is wish that the weather would be warm again so I could be comfortable. Every morning frozen condensation coats the inside of my car.

There are other factors that compound the situation. Without a place to cook food, my diet went downhill a bit. I used to think this didn't affect me much, but after a few months of eating mostly real foods like potatoes, onions, and rice, convenience food definitely feels gross by comparison, and is much more expensive. On top of that, I had a couple nights of bad sleep. A few days ago I woke up at 2am and never fell back asleep. That whole day had a layer of haze that made everything feel surreal. These things add a dimension of anxious helplessness to life.

But, I went to bed very excited the next night, because in the morning my good friends were leaving town for a week and they'd asked me to house-sit for them. I only had to make it through another night of the trapping coldness and then I'd have a whole house to myself! Warmth! Privacy! Kitchen appliances! Hot water! A real bed! Space to move around! Internet! Electricity! Oh my god, what a dream! I shivered myself warm with a smile on my face.

I woke up at 4am and again had trouble falling back asleep. Never in my life have I been the kind of person to wake up in the wee hours and have trouble getting back to sleep, so this was eye-opening. I knew my friends were leaving "really early" that morning, so I waited until 6, drove to their house, found that they'd left, parked in the garage, brought in my food, took a hot bath, and passed out. I spent that day and the next one simply vegging out and enjoying the fact that life was so damn easy all of a sudden.

I'm lucky to be in the houseless class and not homeless, because I get these kinds of opportunities to regroup. While I'm here I'm going to be working on my car to make it a bit more livable. I have a Coleman stove now. I'll sleep in it for another week or so after my friends get back and then I'll probably head down to Arizona for a couple weeks where it's warm. I can get through the winter like this, subsisting on these sporadic exchanges with friends and community members.

But what if I were actually homeless? I only have a hint at what that would be like. What if on top of all the things I mentioned, I had the kind of social stigma that made people look down on me and see me as inferior? If the cold had been getting into my bones for years and not weeks? If I didn't have my secure warm bed in my car? If I was doing it not of my own agency, but because I had post traumatic stress from war, or a criminal record, or a mental illness, or a debilitating addiction, or no education, or childhood abuse or neglect -- all of which would reduce my opportunities even further? If I were anything but a white male in our society? If I was not only eating poor quality food, but actually going hungry? If I didn't have enough bedding to stay warm, and couldn't sleep well? These can be HUGE barriers to meeting even basic survival needs.

Many people who have never experienced homelessness don't understand why they don't pick themselves up by the bootstraps and start making the choices that will lead to "success". The reason is very simple: Maslow's hierarchy of needs. If someone faces extreme difficulty obtaining food, water, warmth, shelter, sleep, and safety, how are they going to focus on building loving connections and self esteem? If they can't build those things, how are they going to work on self-actualization -- the ingredient necessary for self-rescue from a very difficult situation? Planning an escape from that kind of hell requires long-term vision, yet all energy must be spent surviving today.

When you live in a house, life is easy in so many ways that you take for granted. It's easy to forget that you exist in a very uplifted mental and physical state compared to what a homeless person experiences. Tasks that are mindless for you can be exceedingly difficult for them. They are so busy just trying to keep their heads above water that they don't have the energy to swim toward shore, never mind learn how to water ski. It is no surprise that alcoholism and drug addictions are so common. They provide an escape from this dismal reality. People just want to feel OK.

The reason homeless people spend their monthly welfare checks on a few nights in a motel room is because they desperately crave a small taste of the quality of life that you experience on a daily basis.

If we really want to help homeless people, let's help them meet their basic needs in a secure, stable way. Let's give them homes first without presenting additional barriers. Let's not withhold financial aid because they suffer from addiction. Let's not make it hard for them to find bathrooms, water, or food. Let's not stigmatize them for mental illness or substance issues.

Don't be shy about giving them money. It doesn't matter what they spend it on. You have it and they don't. It gives them more power. If you can, give them shelter for a time, or at least don't call the cops to get them to leave a public space. Think about the basic things you have that they don't, and notice what they're missing, and try to help them have those things.

There are some actions we can all do to help, but ultimately this is a system-level problem. We live in a society that worships money and creates this class of people as a waste byproduct. The reality is, we have enough resources to house and feed all humans. It's a question of distribution, it's a question of our values and what we're motivated to do with our resources. Our economy is huge. There is excess everywhere.

Please believe in a future that manages our excesses in a better way, which will provide for the needs of those who are unable to navigate this hellish system instead of providing another billionaire with another billion dollars. Take the first steps in that direction, not only with your ballot votes but with the dollar votes you cast every day. Don't listen to the people who say homeless people deserve it because they did something wrong. It's inhumane, but more than that, it's shitty logic. Our current approach to homelessness costs us a lot, both in dollars and humanity. Adopting a housing-first approach would cost a trivial percentage of our annual budget and it would give hundreds of thousands of people a realistic path to regaining their dignity, stability, health, and productivity.

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Sunday, December 18, 2016

Joe Omundson

Is death the end?

Endings and goodbyes are difficult. My brain likes to assume future continuity, so cessation in general can be disorienting. I especially can't seem to come to terms with death, the ultimate goodbye. When I was a Christian the answer to this was simple: death isn't the end, it's just a transition to a different life which lasts forever. Eternity was impossible to grasp, too, but in a more comforting way. It felt incomprehensibly wonderful instead of damningly bleak. I couldn't wait to experience it.

Now that I don't believe in any kind of spiritual afterlife, reconciling my view of death with my desire for continuity is challenging. These things may be irreconcilable because my desires are not necessarily in line with reality. But the idea of falling asleep and never waking up is disturbing, and I'd like to have more peace about it.

Maybe death is not so much the end of all awareness like I've feared, but more like a leaf falling from a tree. Yes, the individual unit has run its course but the underlying structure which birthed and sustained it remains intact.

The individual is always simply a part of a bigger unit; we don't stand alone and we never have. We depend intimately on countless environmental inputs and reactions every day of our lives. Even our bodies are not ours. We share them with a vast array of microbial organisms whose actions directly affect our experience of reality via neurochemical influences. The "person" that we feel like we are is already an abstract conglomeration of trillions of tiny little lives.

Another analogy would be to consider all of humanity as one body, and individual humans as the cells. Cells are constantly dying and regenerating, and the entire body is replaced after some time, but the spirit-idea that animates the body remains a singular, enduring, evolving entity.

In the same way, when people die, fundamental humanity-consciousness is not affected. The branch from which the leaf falls is still alive.

Perhaps the more attention we give to the underlying structures of life, and the more we shift our perspectives outward from ourselves into what is more holistic and interconnected, the more immortal we become; the individual becomes insignificant. Our lives then exist within the web which connects us all, which will continue to exist and evolve long after death.

It's like someone who uploads their consciousness-files to the cloud, instead of storing them on a personal hard drive. Their personal computer will grow obsolete, the hard drive will fail, and eventually all local information will be lost, but the files will endure if they're stored within a dispersed network.

Why do we store our lives on a hard drive instead of the cloud? The cloud requires trust. It requires letting go. A hard drive feels concrete, secure, because it is in our personal control; but it is also very finite and fragile. Trust in a broader connection is stronger even though it feels uncertain and requires dependence on others.

I think death is inevitably going to be traumatic, but if we devote our lives to transcending personal experience and merging with all of the reality we find around us, I wonder if our deaths could feel less like "the end" and more like "an end", with other parts of our spirit-idea continuing indefinitely. This seems to be what all the other animals do. They don't have anxiety about death because they've never indulged in this illusion that we are separate from what is around us. They play out their roles like the leaves on a tree and when their time is up they don't hesitate to fall. Life continues to flow around and through them.

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