As I stare out my office window at the rapidly disappearing snow piles and listen to the songs of numerous birds I cannot help but be reminded that spring is well underway here in Talkeetna. Of course the fact that’s its once again sunny (it has been so for almost three continuous weeks, now..!) and 58.9 F at 10:54 AKDT reinforces this realization as did yesterday’s far too warm high of 69.5 F. With the advent of spring I realize I’ve now experienced the tail end of an Alaskan summer, fall, winter and a piece of spring as of this writing. Indeed, it was August 6, 2013 when I pulled my Escape into my new home’s driveway followed soon thereafter by my buddy Sarge driving the 26′ U-Haul van. So much has happened since that time and I am coming up on having spent a full year in my new albeit amazing Alaskan home. I’ve started the process of truly putting down roots for the first time since college; that in itself says something as I will be 61 years of age come October. It also speaks to the rather harried life I made for myself by a number of basic choices; many of these did not seem to carry their ultimate import when i was considering them and a few just seemed more like ‘normal’ decisions. However, they all played a large part in molding and refining the current ‘me’ for better or for worse.
Without question the single biggest decision I made with respect to having sweeping effects upon my life was to pursue a traditional form of employment within the business structure of America. This was a direct extension of having ‘played by the rules’ I was raised within which said one graduates high school, goes on to college, gets a degree and then goes to work most probably within the area of one’s major. In this sense, after a rocky start thanks to the dysfunctional economy of the final Carter years, I followed this plan without really questioning its validity or even imagining there was something different. In my mind I always saw myself as working until I was 62, then retiring and living ‘the good life’. Although the world’s economy in general and the US economy in particular had other ideas regarding the length of my employment I did work until I was 53. At that point the job market began to contract, the bottom fell out of the IT job market thanks to outsourcing and after seeking work for almost 2 years I was finally forced to take an early retirement. Because I’d listened to many much wiser than me and because in the course of pursuing ever more lofty employment goals I never found the time to foster either a long-lasting relationship let alone a family I was able to effect this early retirement and live off a SEPP (Substantially Equalized Periodic Payment) until 59 1/2 years of age when I shut this down and worked on some fund reallocation with my dear friend and awesome financial adviser (Kev). Thanks to his wisdom and expertise along with earlier lifestyle choices I was able to retire and live comfortably. In this sense I did receive the expected reward for almost 30 years of continuous employment: I was able to retire comfortably albeit earlier than expected and I did have options regarding where I could retire. From 2007 through the end of 2011 I had all but given up on my dream to retire to Alaska but thanks again to Kev’s wizardry I was finally able to make it happen. And I turned my 16 year dream into my reality when I pulled out of the driveway of the rental dump I’d inhabited in Northville (MI) and started the 4,224 mile drive to Talkeetna.
And so it might seem that I did live the American dream born in the 50’s and early 60’s; I graduated college, worked most of my life, saved money, retired and was able to fulfill a late in life dream as to the location and lifestyle. To most this would seem kinda the end of the story but I’ve always had a deeply reflective side – sometimes to my detriment – and hence of late I’ve been looking back over the amazing and sometimes tortuous path that brought me to my current situation. It’s of interest to me that I only realized once I started volunteering with elderly dementia victims in 2010 I experienced real job satisfaction; it was almost intoxicating to recognize that even if I could just make a few seconds of some senior’s dementia ridden existence a bit brighter – even though I often knew it would be forgotten within a few seconds – I’d made a positive difference in another human being’s life! The feeling of fulfillment and joy was unlike anything I experienced while initially working in food manufacturing (QC, QA and R&D) and later in IT Field Support. In reflection this is sad as it tells me of the lack of real reward in the human sense inherent to all the positions I held for almost three decades. I also noticed that within three months of ‘retiring’ in 2006 my sleep habits went from being lucky to get six and a half hours of shut-eye to regularly getting eight to nine hours a night. With this came much better health and a much more optimistic outlook on my life and my future. In hindsight this is a reflection of the stress and angst I felt while working; regardless of whether it was ‘real’ or I induced it myself it did have a very tangible and negative effect. Yet I was totally unaware of this negative throughout my employment career. This offers up a glimpse of some of the ‘bargains’ I made with myself regarding what I would endure to live that ‘American Dream’.
As I progressed through my working life I aspired to continue to take positions with more responsibility – mainly for the increased pay – and this often required relocation. Initially it didn’t seem so bad but as I aged a feeling of a definite loss began to manifest itself. I finally came to recognize in my late forties that I had made yet another ‘unconscious’ deal with myself; I’d forgo having any real roots as well as no family so I could continue to pursue more money. It pains me to re-read that last line as it’s the personification of a shallow, materialistic outlook on life. I never consciously recall making this decision; I suspect on a deeper level I did so but then shoved it into the realm of denial and ‘the past’ and continued forward. In so doing I never really considered the potential effects of such a choice nor their far-reaching ramifications. During my employment with four companies and the state of Ohio which spanned almost three decades I moved eleven times which figures down to a move every 2 years and 8.7 months. In calculating this number it’s no surprise I was unable to establish any roots as I was never in one place long enough to do so! This was exacerbated by the fact that the last ten years of my almost 19 year ‘service’ with The Clorox Company I was traveling anywhere from 30% to 80% of the time. When I now look back on that time in my life I see it as a kind of societal blessed ‘madness’ which while paying well exhausted me emotionally and spiritually. However I was so hooked on ‘the dream’ that I remember being concerned how I could survive without making $80k to $100 every year! Of course this was utter nonsense; I live on a tiny fraction of that now and do so very comfortably so I suspect it was just another coping mechanism.
An almost as major choice was included in the aforementioned; without any roots and rarely spending more than two and a half years in a physical location I had no real social life and hence the odds were stacked against me in terms of finding a truly compatible partner and establishing a relationship and a family. To be honest my luck with the opposite sex was pretty lousy and I now understand this was almost entirely based upon a series of very poor choices on my part. Relationships came and went, rarely longer than a year and always ending badly. By my middle fifties I could feel the emotional exhaustion wrought by almost forty years of failed relationships. I finally accepted the concept that I wasn’t ‘meant’ to have such a relationship; this helped me reach an understanding of my existence as a single person although I’d be lying if I didn’t also admit I suspect this was another coping mechanism of my own creation. In my middle forties I must admit to starting to look at those around me who were married often with families and being just a bit envious. As I age I’ve come to recognize more and more what I lost by not working to establish and nurture such a situation.
While it may seem that I’m lamenting my earlier choices in reality this is not the case; as I stated earlier I’m given to moments of reflection and that’s what has driven this exercise. But I also was raised to understand and accept that life is all about making choices and with any choice comes consequences. Unlike so many in the recent generation I fully accept responsibilities for my choices regardless of their consequences. In addition I recognize that my current idyllic existence would most likely have been impossible without having elected to live a solo existence and chase higher paying jobs across my life. I grant the premise that anything is possible and ultimately I’ll never know for sure but I suspect the concept of me retiring to Alaska would not have even been a consideration if I had a family. I only discovered Alaska on a three-week backpacking trip with two college buddies in September of 1996; prior to that I had no experience with the state and not a lot of interest in visiting. If married with a family its unlikely I could’ve made such a trip let alone visited at least annually the following nine years. Then there’s the entire concept of retiring to Alaska; by far most folks considering retirement to warmer places like the SE or the Sun Belt. Retirement to Alaska obviously flies in direct contradiction to this concept. In addition if I had a family my monetary situation would be much less likely to support such a dream; in fact it would probably preclude even considering such a move. So while I may have given up a lot I also inadvertently allowed myself to not only discover my dream of becoming an Alaskan but make it a reality.
And so I’ve come full circle in my reflections; no real surprise here as such free form ruminations often have a way of returning to their genesis. I’ve come to realize that I missed a lot during my employment years but in so doing I also paved the way for me to learn of a dream and then make it happen. I truly love my rural Alaskan lifestyle and I can no longer imagine living in the lower 48; the concept of living urban is completely non sequitur. I know I’ve made the best choice for myself as I’m very comfortable in my current lifestyle yet I’m also truly stretching myself in terms of efforts and activities. While there is no option for volunteering with seniors with dementia in this area I am volunteering time at the local radio station (KTNA) as a newscaster and the host of a music show and I’m also donating time to the Upper Susitna Food Pantry – it’s a volunteer organization that distributes food to local needy families and people – in the form of driving to Palmer and Anchorage to pick up donated food stuffs and providing PC support. And my lessons on rural Alaskan living continue unabated; I have so much yet to learn. Yes, life is all about making choices and then dealing with the consequences; at this point in my existence I can honestly say I have no major regrets regarding my decisions and feel I’m in the best place I can be given my situation. And I suppose that says ultimately the Universe has seen fit to take care of me; I needed only to recognize I needed to let go, go with the flow and always keep my mind open to any and all possibilities..!
Better late than never. Enjoy your freedom, don’t judge and don’t compare. That is also part of the trap of our modern society.
I have never been to Talkeetna but I hear it is a neat place, maybe the Boulder of AK?
I have lived off-the grid now for a year. It means so much more than limited utilities…
Thanks for the comment! I’d love to do more towards living off the grid; I am looking at solar cells to augment electrical but with a well I need year round electricity and with the extended darkness up here come winter solar is not feasible. Wind is also not an option as due to geography this area sees little wind; since moving in the peak wind guest I’ve recorded has been 18 mph and the daily average barely makes 2 mph. I have a sister and brother in law living in Monument (CO); all three of their kids graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder. From my impressions Boulder is more liberal than anything else; Talkeetna is very eclectic in that its a true mix of all kinds of folks with all kinds of views. The quirky sense of humor is noteworthy even for Alaska; the ‘mayor’ of the town is Stubbs the cat. Folks are typically Alaskan in being very straightforward, down to earth and friendly; they are very accepting but not tolerant of zealots of any kind. One can pretty much hold any feelings or philosophies out there as long as they are relatively low key regarding their practices. As for judging and comparing I try not to judge as I am hardly perfect and I am very much aware of my own shortcomings. Comparisons are a different matter; if I am to reflect upon my situation and my relationships to others and the environment around me then some comparisons are almost per-requisite. With this said its always dangerous to compare one’s self to other people as we can never fully appreciate another person’s situation or their essence. Sadly its an easy trap in which to fall and it is something I regularly catch myself doing.
You have done well, Mr W.
Thanks Tom! Its been a wild yet very satisfying ride to this point and I have a feeling this will be the case for some time to come. I’ve made many decisions in my life and ultimately I’ve been generally satisfied with their consequences. There’s no doubt I’ve made more than my share of mistakes but for the most part I’ve learned from them and that’s all one can hope to do. Its fascinating to me to look back upon the few dozen decisions in my past which have effected sweeping consequences; in general I was unaware at the time I made them that they were so very ‘weighty’. Yet for the most part they did work out for the best. My one real regret is that I did not learn earlier on that ‘attitude is everything’ and that I just needed to truly let go of the illusion that I was in control of my life and just allow myself to be open minded and go with the flow. If I’d learned both these truths at 30 years of age rather than in my middle fifties who knows to what heights I’d have soared by this point? Still and all, I believe there’s a reason for all things and so its entirely possible I wouldn’t have been receptive to learnings these lessons until I was approaching sixty. A true case of ‘better late than never’!