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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23 Responses to Death Valley teaches simplicity in the extreme

  1. becks says:

    Love this. I’m planning a transcon run next year carrying only a small hydration pack. In prep, I’m decluttering most of my stuff so I don’t have to store it. Already donated tons of clothes and plan to donate my marathon medals to medals4mettle. But I’m keeping the Comrades medal b/c it’s my inspiration. 🙂

  2. Haven’t tried the 3 bins technique – but have adopted some of the following principles and never felt more liberated…
    One year rule – ‘stuff’ which hasn’t been used in year – get rid of it
    50% rule – of the remaining ‘stuff’ cut it by 50% – never missed it
    Gave up on stuff which we take for granted – have been taking a cold shower no matter what the outside temperature since last 2+ years, sleeping on the floor mat and avoid sleeping on any kind of bed also for the past 2 years – both have worked wonders to my physical and mental well being.
    Gave up completely on something as basic as tea & coffee since Jan 2012 and don’t miss it anymore.
    Venkat Krishnan´s last blog post ..Apple of running shoes

  3. Keith Remington says:

    After years of accumulating gear, kids toys, furniture, and whatever else seemed cool at the time, I have also recently began to purge! I have sold everything from trail running shoes to end tables on EBay & Craigslist. I used the money to finance my summers racing events. I have donated toys and clothing to various groups which in turn makes one feel good. I recently opened my once crowded garage and was proud to finally see 3 walls instead of nonsense. I am still working on purging, trying to finance a ski pass! Take care.

  4. If you were a real man, and not some prissy citiot, you wouldn’t have washed your underwear. And where the heck did you get that much water? Don’t tell me: supplied by trail-lice (ATVs)? I can’t believe you let yourself be pampered like that! What happened to the spirit of the pioneers, who all bathed in the same tub once a week… maybe? Please enshrine in your consciousness the words of Dennis the Menace to Margaret: “I’m so tough I don’t take baths.” And ask yourself: How often did the REAL men of our Wild West, like Liver Eatin’ Johnson, take a bath? Look, go read CROW KILLER. Then you’ll know how to act.

    • Hey, girl! Just want to let you know that there were no ATVs involved. To yank your chain, I’d also like to lie and say that our ATV popped a tire, but the truth is we always intended to supply ourselves without a vehicle. We set out on foot and buried caches 2 months in advance just outside the national park perimeter, all so we could do the course self-supported. I’m surprised you’d jack me for washing my underwear, but then your puny 100 miles has never been long enough for you to need a bath 😉

      (For those who aren’t in the know, Gordon was the first man to “run” the Western States 100. It was originally a 100-mile horse race, but when Gordy’s horse went lame, he set out on foot. He’s done some other interesting things in ultra trail running — look him up on Wiki.)

  5. Randi says:

    For a number of summers, my husband and I spent as much time as possible, horse-packing. Just 2 people, 2 horses and 1 dog. Everything we packed had been considered and reevaluated until each thing served either one very important purpose or was a multi-purpose item. By reassessing everything (and making necessary repairs) each time we came back from a trip, we had narrowed it down to the most basic essentials. Because most of our trips were along the Continental Divide Trail, there were more clothing layers involved, than your trek in the desert. Ultimately, our time spent on the trail was determined by the size and weight of zip-lock bags of dog kibble. The longest time we spent out (no supply drops, resupplying or pack-horse) was 22 nights. There was simply nowhere to put a 23rd baggie of dog food.

    You are so right about the freedom we feel when unencumbered by stuff. Reading your article, I realize that it’s time to tackle the closet project…..thank you for the inspiration!

    • Heather and I agree this one’s the best. Of course, we’re dog people like you, but the thing is you get it. And you get the LEKI trekking poles. We’ll be in touch.

      • Randi says:

        Really appreciate this “contest” – and am so happy to have won the LEKI poles! They will be well used.

        Thanks again for reminding us of the cleansing nature of simplification. Less IS more.

  6. Marcy says:

    My husband and I got rid of a bunch of stuff and moved into a travel trailer for 3.5 years. We could only take what would fit (made for creative storage techniques). The priority was gear for running and adventure racing, including 2 bikes, paddles, packs, etc., so we cut way down on anything extraneous. Roaming around the west, living in all different places from RV parks to primitive sites, exploring and training and racing – it was an awesome time of our lives. As soon as my current 3-year work position is finished, we’ll be back. There is so much more to see and do!
    But we’ll need to get rid of a few things again first 🙂

  7. Chris Lassen says:

    I have dreamed of this simplistic lifestyle most of my adult life. It’s a never ending thought that cries for another life to be lived. A reoccurring dream of a nomadic lifestyle where Mother Nature gives me most everything I need. Strive, strive in this materialistic world, it’s the best I can do.

  8. Call it some kind of quantum entanglement but my Cupcake Mary and I have just finished the process of selling the house, giving away most of the things that will not fit in the 10×13 foot “unit” and heading for the beach. If I fail to prescribe this cleansing, this unloading, for all over the age of 60, no matter if they’re moving or staying put, then I don’t deserve to be called doctor which, incidentally, I am not.

  9. gary aronhalt says:

    aspens are turning
    my life is not found in things
    purge and find freedom

  10. Kat says:

    Working with the homeless, you quickly realize how little one needs to survive. It’s often a matter of having two (metaphorical) containers: one in which to put your hope, another in which to store your love. Physical belongings only have the value that you give them, which shouldn’t be much.

  11. Very inspirational! I’ve been trying to simplify my life through ‘stuff reduction’ and minimalistic running for the past few years. Even in exercising, just using some mass (example kettlebells) and a rope and/or pullup bar. reduction is nice!

  12. Dawn bedwell says:

    My husband and I did a 37 day bike tour on a tandem bike. We were self supported. We wore the same 2 cycling outfits for 37 days camping the whole way.we smelt like homeless people. When we got to Seattle we threw away our cycling clothes.

  13. Steve says:

    Circumstances dictate that I must look drastically at my possessions and I realise that most of what I have don’t use or need.
    I am really looking forward to a much simpler life. The ideal would be a small log cabin; (although not too many of those in the UK) but as long as I have shelter; warmth: minimum of clothes; daily food and of course my running shoes I reckon I can be happy.

  14. Keith Remington says:

    To add to my earlier post, I had a great weekend of purging! Gave away two large buckets of clothing to charity, gave some neighborhood kids my kids old bikes,skis,ski boots, and various other stuff that we are no longer using. Sold some old treasures on ebay so that ski pass is becoming more of a reality! This is not only making me a happier person watching clutter vanish and seeing the smiles on my neighbor kids faces, my garage is looking great! Purge on!

  15. empty out
    empty in

  16. Doug Combs says:

    OK I’m in.
    A few things….I’ll need some big bins.
    This brought me back to when I purchased my house and received the keys. I sat down in the living room on a camping chair, with a celebratory beer, and thought maybe a tv and radio would be nice.
    I have much more, too much, than that now.
    I’m keeping the Hoka’s I just bought. The other XX shoes will be liquidated.

  17. Ted says:

    Did anyone “win”?
    I posted on Facebook, and not here…not sure if the winners were announced

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