Death Valley teaches simplicity in the extreme

My garage is a mess. There’s so much stuff out there that although I need to get it straightened up, I’ve been putting it off for a long time. As in years, while I accumulated the good (like untouched trekking poles and technical clothing that I’ll never wear), and the bad (like expired nutritional supplements), and a bit of ugly (um, what is that thing?).

Most of us Americans have closets and cupboards and garages and basements full of items we’ve acquired and don’t need, stuff that gave us a temporary high and then quickly faded into uselessness. I’m as guilty of this as the next person, yet one of the primary insights I gained from our recent circumnavigation of Death Valley National Park was how little we really need to exist and how much accumulation can distract us and even interfere with getting our basic needs met.

trekking in Death Valley National ParkBack to Basics: Only What You Really Need

Stripped down to the essentials, Dave and I were content with the little we had. Water and food were at the top of the list, of course. And we carried the sat phone and the maps and the GPS, all crucial. Otherwise, we were strictly utilitarian with clothing and gear. We weren’t packing smart phones or tablets or even crossword puzzles. It was just us and the desert.

Forget for a moment that we were trekking during the hottest month in U.S. history. Imagine how liberating it was to carry all we had on our backs and to know that the desert sand would yield up everything else we needed, to look up at night and see that the only ceiling overhead was the stars punching through a seemingly infinite blackness.

We experienced an extended serenity that seems fleeting in everyday life, the kind that comes from an undistracted mind, the silencing of constant email and phone calls and what we erroneously call “connectedness,” the absence of our own busyness and compulsion to always do, be, and have more. Whether we were moving forward or resting, that was enough.

Because of how lightly we traveled, we didn’t waste a bunch of time ditzing around, looking for stuff we wanted, like something special to wear, because it was either on our backs or hanging on a tree branch drying in the sun. (Trivia: it takes wet clothes 5 to 10 minutes to dry in the desert heat.) We used every piece of equipment or clothing we’d brought. It was a true back-to-basics kind of experience — back to nature in the most literal sense, as I stripped off my clothes once a day to wash them, walked around naked for a while, then put them back on to go to sleep at night. I kept my treasured straw hat and sunglasses nearby, along with my bedroll and just a few other supplies in my backpack, the only other absolute essential during this effort.

An old sign post serves as a frame for MarshallAside from not being able to spend time with Heather and enjoy a few luxuries (like ice and a bed), I have to tell you that, for me, this is the life.

So you can understand why I don’t even want to look in the garage. Like most people, I’m not enthusiastic about tackling a pile of crap, and I suppose I have more than the natural attraction to simplicity. Besides, I’m still partly in desert mode, and because the expedition was the first of its kind, I’m often interviewed about it these days, so that keeps it fresh in my mind. Heck, about a week ago, I gave a keynote speech wearing the exact same pants and short-sleeved shirt I’d worn throughout the circumnav. Maybe TMI, but today I’m also wearing the same pair of underwear I had on out there. Sure, the elastic waistband melted a little in the over-100F temps, but they’re my favorites.

Get Rid of the Rest

Not everyone needs to narrow their wardrobe to one change of clothes, although that might be kind of cool. But getting rid of stuff you don’t need and, just as important, spending your money mostly on experiences instead of material possessions can yield a serious payoff. Namely, happiness.

When I was talking with a friend of mine about all this, she mentioned that she’s doing a one-year challenge to get rid of stuff she has accumulated and doesn’t need. Maybe never needed. It goes like this:

  • Get yourself two big bins, one you label “donate” and one you label “sell.” (The third bin you already have: trash.)
  • Put an item in one of the three bins every single day for the next 365 days — an entire year. Be sure about the thing you put in there, because you shouldn’t be taking anything out of the bin once it’s in.
  • Then, of course, you can cart off the donate bin to a worthy cause when it’s full, and sell the other stuff on Craigslist or in a yard sale or whatever. For my garage, I think I’ll need to assign corners, or rent dumpsters, but the principle is the same.

We all make our lives more complicated by gathering extras, whether it’s junk in the garage, excess fat around the middle, more gadgets to keep track of and keep track of us, even carrying certain emotions, like worrying about things that are unlikely to happen. Seems that the more of these extras we collect, the less happy we are.

What can you live without?

Are you up for something like this 365-day challenge? Have you ever tried anything like it before? Has getting rid of something ever made you feel liberated or happy? (No comments about ex-spouses, please.) Does simple living sound fantastic or awful to you? Have you ever experienced life without all our usual encumbrances?

Leave me your thoughts but use only as many words as you need — no excess here. Let’s say no more than 50 words. Heather and I will put our heads together and choose the top 4, and then send the winners something … you guessed it … from the garage! But only the best, never-been-used stuff:

  • First place gets a pair of LEKI trekking poles (value about $140). These are the same kind Dave and I used during the circumnav, and they are fantastic, one of the best things I’ve got in “storage.”
  • Second place gets a GoLite technical shirt (value >$50) with our Dreams in Action logo on it. Nice!
  • Third place gets a pair of Injinji toe socks (value >$9) — a personal favorite.
  • Fourth place gets some gaiters (value $20ish?). No, not the kind with teeth — those are gators. These are the ones that protect your pants and shoes in the wet.

Looking forward to knowing what you think … and if you win, please don’t put your prize in the garage. If you don’t think you can use it, let me know, and we’ll put it up for grabs on our Facebook page.

9/19/12 Update: And the winners are … Randi gets the LEKI trekking poles, Gary gets the GoLite shirt, Clay gets the Injinji socks, and Kat gets the gaiters. Thanks for playing!

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