What I Learned From 6 Years of Drifting

Moving through life’s phases

Joe Omundson
Jan 7 · 17 min read
Photo by Atlas Green on Unsplash

ey dude, where you headed?”

The scruffy man shouted at me from a bright red, graffiti-covered school bus. A skull-and-crossbones was painted on the hood.

“Portland!”

“Us too. Hop in.”

I was in Snowville, Utah, after a brutal day of hitchhiking — only 100 miles of progress in 13 hours. I had spent the previous night camped in the brush behind a Walgreens in Bountiful, a suburb of Salt Lake City; then, starting at 6am, I had waited 1–3 hours by the side of the road all day long for rides that only took me 10 minutes down the road. My skin broiled in the merciless sun. Thunderstorms sent me scrambling for the shelter of an overpass. I watched thousands of drivers pass by with empty cars.

Night was coming, but I figured I’d try my luck for a few more minutes before pitching my tent outside a truck stop, and that’s when the school bus found me. A direct lift to Portland? I don’t care who it is, I’m getting in!

The driver of the bus had left Maine a few months prior and worked his way around the country, collecting random vagabonds as part of his crew. He’d accumulated 7 humans and 3 dogs so far.

I was welcomed aboard as an equal, no questions asked. We sprawled out on dilapidated couches and blasted music as we cruised down the freeway. The plan was to drive through the night and get to Portland as soon as possible.

None of them had money. They got off the interstate at every truck stop to work their routine: they walked around with a 5-gallon container, asking truckers if they’d fill it with diesel. The more outgoing ones asked random strangers for spare change, often scoring $5 or $10, enough to buy snacks and booze. Sometimes strangers were drawn to the colorful bus and the dirty kids playing hacky sack outside of it, asked them for their story, and responded with encouragement and financial support. The bus gang relied on these donations to sustain their journey.

The fuel tank leaked perpetually. Whenever they stopped they would slide a container underneath to catch what was spilling, and then they would filter it back into the tank before they left. Diesel trickled out onto the highway as they drove.

My ride with them lasted 23 hours but it felt like 3 days. Two of the riders got drunk and had a fight. We invited a homeless guy on board for some snacks and drove him to the police station upon his request. We sold weed to a Wal-Mart employee in the parking lot of his own store. The driver decided he didn’t want 15 feet of exhaust pipe under his bus anymore for some reason, so we removed it and scrapped it. Going down a long descent in eastern Oregon, the brakes overheated and started smoking, so we pulled over and the fire department came to check on us.

As we got closer to Portland, the driver’s sanity seemed to deteriorate. He was in the habit of sleeping only one hour every other night and staying amped up on meth the rest of the time, but he had run out of drugs before I got on the bus, and he was crashing hard. He nodded off at the wheel and almost drifted off the highway several times. He became irritable and started screaming curses out the window at other drivers. Finally, we convinced him to take a nap and to let someone else drive so we didn’t all die.

Eventually, we got to our destination. The driver knew Portland was my hometown, so he asked where they could score some heroin and meth. I had no clue but I pointed them towards the shadier parts of downtown.

Then I was off, carrying my backpack 30 blocks to meet my friend, laughing to myself in bewilderment about what had just happened.

Rewind my life four years and you never would have found me in this situation.

I was an electrical engineer working at an office job that paid $70,000/year with lots of room to grow. I drove a brand new car, my wife made more money than I did at her nursing job, and we rented a house where we lived with our purebred great dane. I was on track for a comfortable and secure life.

I was in the habit of going out for food and drinks at least twice a week, spending thousands of dollars on hiking and photography gear, and generally throwing my money around whenever it entertained me to do so.

Then, I contracted endocarditis. My prosthetic heart valve got infected with bacteria and it turned my life upside down. I realized my time on Earth was not guaranteed to last long, and it led me to ask certain questions I couldn’t seem to answer while staying in my secure, comfortable position.

  • Is this job what I want to do? Does it matter to me?
  • What would I learn if I had to work hard for my survival?
  • How many norms of society have I been conditioned to accept, and how would my perceptions change if I escaped into the wilderness with unlimited time to explore my thoughts?
  • What would I learn about myself if I was single as an adult for the first time?

All my life I had safely been doing what was expected of me. I tried hard to be the good Christian kid. I got married, graduated from university, and began a career. From the perspective of anyone looking at my life from the outside, I had been successful at these things.

In the existential panic following my infection, I decided to make a change. I separated from my wife and then got divorced. I pared down my belongings, rented a room in a shared house, and bought backpacking gear. I told my boss I was quitting.

By April of 2014, I was riding a plane to San Diego, where I would be shuttled to the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail to begin a 2,650-mile hike.

Phase 1: The Trail

Photo courtesy of the author

Quitting your job to hike the Pacific Crest Trail is an uncommon choice, but it’s relatively popular with people in my demographic. The trail is full of 26-year-old west-coast white men with college degrees. Nobody ever discouraged me from doing it.

I had always been fascinated by the idea of living minimally, even though it was a skill I had neglected to develop thus far. Now that I carried all my belongings on my back — my bed, shelter, warm clothes, food and water; literally everything I needed for survival — I had no choice but to make do with less.

The very fact that these vital necessities weighed less than 20 pounds flipped a switch in my mind. What had I ever needed a house for? It suddenly seemed ridiculous. Sleeping in a tent, my quality of life had improved because I was getting good exercise, walking 10–20 miles through gorgeous landscapes every day, meeting interesting people, and enjoying the freedom to let my brain wander wherever it pleased.

The community surrounding the trail showed me how people can organically come together to support each other when they share a common purpose. It helps when they’re not obsessed with accumulating as much as possible. When you’re carrying everything you own up a mountain, you start to resent every unnecessary ounce. If you have something you don’t need, and someone else wants it, it’s a no-brainer to simply give it to them for free. It lightens your load, too.

It took me seven months of hiking over two summers, but I made it all the way from Mexico to Canada. It changed everything for me. This was my rebirth, my initiation into a life that could never go back to “normal”. I learned to confidently take charge of myself and to forge my own path, even if most of society thinks I’m crazy.

Why should I go back to work just to afford living in a house, when I don’t enjoy work or living in a house?

Phase 2: The Car

Photo courtesy of the author

Halfway through my hike, I fell in love with a woman I met at a festival. I bought a 1981 VW Rabbit, she got a minivan, and we went on a 4-month road trip around the country. After our trip and our relationship ended, I went back to complete the 2nd half of my hike, and then I moved into the Rabbit as my full-time home for two more years.

As physically and mentally demanding as hiking the PCT can be, it’s an easy introduction to extreme lifestyles in some ways.

As a thru-hiker my path and objective were well-defined. I had the support of the hikers around me and the trail angels who went out of their way to assist me — there’s a whole subculture built around it. Many people had heard stories about the trail I was walking, so I had some amount of clout and credibility. I was on a proper adventure.

What happens when you’re done with the trail, and you don’t have any new direction to guide you in particular — but you also refuse to return to the life you lived before?

It was both overwhelming and freeing to be done with the literal footpath and have a wide-open choice of what to do next. Nothing ever felt as immersive and life-changing as hiking the PCT, but without pre-set goals I could get more creative.

Now that I was used to living out of a backpack, even my small car felt like a nice upgrade. It was a steel tent that did the hiking for me and played music too. I had a full-length bed to stretch out on. It was easy by comparison.

I spent a few months in Portland recording a solo album in a music rehearsal room I rented. I slept in my car on the street a couple of blocks away.

Then I moved to Moab, Utah, on a whim, with an openness to new experience and no particular agenda.

Up to this point I hadn’t worried much about money. I had burned through the cash I’d allocated for the PCT, but whenever my bank account ran low I cashed out more of the wealth I’d stashed away as an engineer. I sold my new car when I bought the Rabbit. I cashed out my 401k.

Now, I was legitimately starting to run low on funds, so I began to ration my money more carefully, turning the downward curve into an asymptote as it drew closer to zero.

I made some connections in Moab and gained permission to camp in a field along with two motorcycle drifters who were on a similar life path. We constructed a simple kitchen and camped in the scraggly trees on the edge of the clearing. It was a simple, joyous time, with many shared meals and adventures.

Photos courtesy of the author

For three months, I spent a total of $100. Most days I spent nothing at all. I ate ripe apricots, bulk bargain foods, free bread heels from the cafe, and whatever I could get from the food bank.

Sometimes, I drove out to the desert to camp alone and trip on mushrooms or LSD, pushing my brain to see ever more new perspectives. Sometimes I went on hitchhiking trips for the hell of it — a method of travel I’d become familiar with on the PCT and quickly fell in love with. It was in this period that I rode on the school bus to Portland.

I let myself live precariously, swimming out past the deep end many times, just because it was fascinating to me. I’d had those unanswerable questions before I quit my job, and now I was having the kind of experiences necessary to answer them.

  • Confirmed: I had not really been passionate about my engineering job. This was more interesting.
  • When my daily objective was simply to survive, I felt a great deal more gratitude for the simple things, like a hot meal and a comfortable place to sleep. Finding a bit of water dripping from a pipe can be an ecstatic experience when you’ve just trudged through 20 miles of bone-dry desert.
  • My ideas about “normal income” and “normal spending” had been completely out of line with reality. I had once thought of myself as middle-class, but on a global scale, I was actually in the top 1% of earners (those who make more than $50k/year (page 7)). The median global income is about $3,000/year when converted to US purchasing power. Think about that — how would you survive if you could only spend $250/month? I was finally getting a taste of what it meant to live on the typical budget of most of humanity.
  • As a single person, I enjoyed having the freedom to do whatever I wanted, but I often found myself lonely. Companionship was not as easy to come by as I had hoped.

I didn’t have a word for it at the time, but looking back I can say that I shifted toward a utilitarian approach in my ethics and worldview. I came to the conclusion that what really matters is the quality of the time we spend existing as conscious beings. Time is life; the present moment is all we ever have. By and large, no matter what we’re doing in life, we’re all trying to find happiness for ourselves and our loved ones. And nobody’s happiness is more important than another’s.

The best thing to do with our lives is to make them as enjoyable as possible — to master the art of enjoying the present moment — while also taking actions that reduce harm for others and promote their well-being too.

I saw that money often clouded people’s judgment. They would sacrifice the best years of their lives to obtain far more money than they needed, without ever taking the time to truly enjoy their existence. They thought they were seeking happiness, but they were miserable; and in order to achieve this wealth, they would take part in economic activities that led to destruction and misery for many people in other parts of the world, not to mention the acceleration of global warming and its dire consequences for all life on Earth.

This line of thinking changed my perception of what things are “right” and “wrong” to do. Just because an action is commonly accepted doesn’t mean it is harmless. I came to see some of society’s notions of “good” and “bad” as either arbitrary or completely misguided.

By the standards of capitalist, Christian America, the people who picked me up in the red school bus were contemptible characters. Abstaining from economic productivity by bumming off of others; consuming illegal drugs; living with no safety net, no security, on the fringe. Irresponsible, dirty, unreliable.

That might have been my gut reaction too at one point, and I can still feel the tension of my past conditioning telling me to judge them accordingly.

If that’s how you feel about them right now, though, I invite you to look at it another way:

They were completely honest in everything they did. They only took what was willingly given to them. They used the resources of those who had excess instead of extracting profit from those who were poorer.

Hard drug use might not be a wise choice, but isn’t it a personal choice we’re all free to make — what we put in our bodies? Do we look down on people who abuse legal, prescription amphetamines and opiates in a similar way? If not, why not?

What about the environmental impact of the spilled diesel, and the exhaust from the old bus? Not ideal, but seven people sharing one engine is greener than how most Americans commute. In their lifestyle they used very little water, no natural gas, no grid electricity. They have a far lighter footprint on the planet than most Americans.

Despite their rough edges, these folks were more generous and welcoming to me than literally 99% of the “upright” citizens of Salt Lake who left me on the side of the road.

They also functioned as a family. They had the security of each other’s company. There’s actually a beautiful kind of logic behind all of it.

It’s easy to judge those who seem to break all the rules, but when I think in terms of the actual harm done to humanity at large, I can’t find much bad to say about these people. I’m too busy being disturbed by the neverending exploitation carried out by those with great wealth and power.

I want to see humanity wake up to the existential threat of environmental destruction, and to the social harm of our current economic system, and work together to take significant rational steps to counter these problems. These are my values now. I’m not especially optimistic, but this is the change I want to throw my weight behind.

Phase 3: A Bus For Me

The novelty of living in a hatchback started to wear out. The field owner didn’t want us camping there anymore. It was back to living in my car full-time.

Winter came. It was well below freezing at night, and I had no heat. I went to the library during the day but it still left me with nowhere to go for 13 hours in the cold every night. My mental health started to suffer. I wasn’t eating or sleeping well. It wasn’t fun anymore.

I realized I was tasting only the slightest flavor of what true homelessness would be like. My experience felt bad enough; I could hardly fathom how hard it would be to endure life on the streets, year after year, with no safety or security or way out, perhaps with mental illness or drug addiction or a history of trauma and abuse. It’s a living hell, and it’s a reality for millions of people.

I upgraded to an $800 minivan, which afforded me more space to sit up and move around. I also sought employment for the first time, working at a popular local burgers-and-shakes type of restaurant. This income allowed me to rent a room in the hostel for five weeks the next time winter came.

I still craved the ability to stand up in my home and to prepare food inside, so a year later I bought a shuttle bus, which I’ve now been living in for two and a half years.

In this phase, I’ve been less eager to put myself in uncomfortable situations, and more interested in providing myself as adequate of a living situation as possible while still being very frugal.

The bus cost me $2,700. I’ve spent a few thousand building it out. Other than the cost of diesel, my $65/month insurance is my biggest recurring living expense. I now have a comfortable bed, a kitchen, a refrigerator, plenty of solar power, and enough space to do yoga. I can envision myself being happy with a home this size indefinitely, so I think I’ve found my sweet spot in terms of housing.

I’m still wandering around, though, and I’m still often on the verge of being completely broke. Sometimes I head out on months-long road trips with only a few hundred dollars to my name. The lack of a safety cushion in case of emergency has been part of the adventure, for better or worse. The bus has been my home base for many further psychedelic explorations and extended camping trips.

These last six years have been a wild time. I’m definitely grateful I allowed myself this opportunity because I think I’m the kind of person who needs experiential, conceptual lifestyle changes to satisfy my urge to understand the world from multiple perspectives.

I wanted to know what it was like to exist on the other side of the privileged demographics I’d always taken for granted. I tried to break down as many conceptual and ideological walls as possible — ideas about money, value, time, social expectations, religion, gender, race, and our meaning in the universe.

As a straight cisgender white male American, there are many categories of privilege I can never fully separate myself from. At least now I know what it’s like to be hungry and cold, and to exist alone in the world in a vulnerable state without a good backup plan. I know what it’s like to risk my life because I need $400.

I now have a strong grasp on exactly what it takes for me to live with comfort and efficiency. I feel that I could pull myself out of many emergency situations with the skills I’ve developed. I’ve learned how to have a productive conversation with just about anybody; I’ve learned flexibility, resilience, and patience.

However, I can feel that a new phase is coming.

The conceptual work I’ve been doing is invaluable, but it brings diminishing returns after a certain point. No matter how much I learn about the world, my understanding is not very useful unless I can harness it, focus my efforts, and bring my dreams to fruition.

Phase 4: Seize the Future

I’ve been thinking about how I can apply my energy more effectively.

It’s not so much that I’ve been lazy for the last 6 years. I faced plenty of challenges and learned many surprising things. All the questions that drove me to take this path in the first place ended up only being the tip of the iceberg, and I’m sure I will never quite get to the bottom of it all.

But at some point I need to put my feet on the ground, pick a direction, and start gaining momentum.

I already know how to do the conceptual work: one of my strengths is my willingness to endure cognitive dissonance and personal discomfort, to accept difficult truths and learn to make peace with them. I enjoy that aspect of myself, and I intend to be a lifelong learner, constantly willing to re-evaluate my worldview when I receive new information.

My weakness is that sometimes I spin my gears for long periods of time and I neglect to make sure I’m getting any traction in the direction I want to go.

The next challenge for me is not to endure difficult external situations, but rather to master myself; taking a hard look at the way I spend the hours of my day and developing the skills of discipline and diligence — ideas I have scoffed at for years.

By now I have a pretty good sense of what my true values are, what I have to offer, and what I want in life. I want to improve my physical and mental health. I want to be strong and fit. I want to find more financial security in my work so I can undertake projects I’ve been dreaming of for years.

Every day I have 100 choices between working on my goals or slacking off. I need to train myself to choose to do the work a significantly higher percentage of the time, and to enjoy doing so. Even when it doesn’t feel good in the moment, improving myself is never a waste of time.

Time is running out! I want to see as many of my dreams come true as possible before I die. I can’t be wasting time. I want to support my loved ones along their journeys with all the strength I have to offer as well.

In five years, I would like to write another article describing how I accomplished the following goals:

  • Completing the conversion of my bus into a superbly comfortable, calming space.
  • Writing content that helps people and the planet, and reaches a wider audience.
  • Buying a small piece of land and building a music recording studio.
  • Traveling the world for 1–2 years by riding on sailboats.
  • Finding an incredible life partner.

After everything I’ve experienced in the last 6 years, I’m now learning that my ideas are worthwhile, my goals are achievable, and the only person who can bring them into reality is me. Working hard is not just for suckers. It’s important to push yourself to accomplish the things that matter most to you.

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Almond Sun

Human stories from a traveler’s perspective

Joe Omundson

Written by

Religion, society, lifestyle, and travel. Nomad stories on Patreon: linktr.ee/joeomundson | Email: joe.omundson@gmail.com

Almond Sun

Surprising stories about people I have encountered on the road and on the trail

Joe Omundson

Written by

Religion, society, lifestyle, and travel. Nomad stories on Patreon: linktr.ee/joeomundson | Email: joe.omundson@gmail.com

Almond Sun

Surprising stories about people I have encountered on the road and on the trail

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