In a tiny town of around 200 people, nestled in the foot of a national park in northern Nevada, we sat at a bar, chatting to a barman called Dan. Originally born in London, he moved to the US as a child but, for the last three years, Dan, now in his early forties, I’d guess, hasn’t had a fixed address for any longer than eight or nine months. He’s moved from remote community to remote community, in places like Alaska and Death Valley, working in bars, living with very few other people, surrounded by sublime, unforgiving nature. We listened, stunned, in awe. I’d used the words “free” and “off the map” to describe our two-week road-trip holiday; Dan’s whole life was free and off the map.
He wasn’t the only one we encountered. In another small mountain town, I overheard a waitress from Detroit say she was actually a therapist, but she was spending the summer in Utah to “reset”. We visited so many remote cabins and we knew the staff couldn’t possibly live permanently round there. People had come for the work, packed up all their belongings, left everything they knew and were existing somewhere else, maybe even as someone else, for the season. It was a dreamy existence, an essential American one, especially in the American West, where a mythology is built on the backs of those who travelled on, finding the next place. The vastness of America means you can always keep moving; there’s always somewhere else to go.
On our return, I read about the FIRE movement, which stands for Financial Independence Retire Early. Those in the FIRE movement, having saved an obscene amount of money, are retiring in their thirties, going on a similar trip to the one I’ve just been on, but making it last for the rest of their lives. At the age of 31, Kristy Shen and her boyfriend of 10 years had saved $1m, quit their jobs and are now spending their time backpacking around Europe. Tanja Hester, a consultant on a “low-six-figure salary” in LA, quit her job aged 38 and now lives in Lake Tahoe, blogging while her husband volunteers. A couple, both engineers, from Arizona, retired at 35 with a million in the bank in 2015. The couple are now part of the popular Instagram movement #vanlife, travelling the States in an RV.
They dismiss the notion that travelling the world is just something you do aged 21, a last hurrah of pre-adult life. Instead, this is their adult life
So, how on earth does someone save that much money without a grandparent’s trust fund? Well, they live exceptionally frugally for 10 years, but they also live in America, where more towns have good employment opportunities, not just ludicrously expensive capital cities. There’s more chance of earning well and being able to keep the cost of living down. They also met their life partners and knew what they wanted to do early on. How true is this for that many people? It certainly wasn’t for me.
But logistics aside (there’s a 380,000 strong Reddit group, if you’re interested), the idea is so tempting. Like Dan the barman, packing up and moving on to the next beautiful place, responsibility-free and open to whatever might come his way, these couples and those living the #vanlife have thrown out the rule book, the one we all know word for word by some sort of social osmosis. They are not Settling Down but instead Setting Off. They dismiss the notion that travelling the world is just something you do aged 21, a last hurrah of pre-adult life. Instead, this is their adult life. As I chatted about the seduction of the dreamy open road to a friend, she said, “But what about kids?” But what about kids? Choosing to live a life that is not fixed and changeable is choosing to reject what we’ve been told we should do – and that’s thrilling in itself. And, besides, the RVs we saw on the road in America are bigger than most people's London flats – there would be room for a baby if you really insisted.
It’s a cliché – the American open road, the chance to reinvent yourself from state to state, the notion that life is yours for the making if you have enough gumption, but I saw it happening in real life as we drove on wide roads under wider skies. And those in the FIRE movement are doing the same thing – they’ve redesigned what their life will look like, how it functions, what’s important, how happy we allow ourselves to feel. A decade of never going out for dinner has meant an office-free retirement aged 31. Whether or not that makes you drool with envy or scratch your head, the magic is that they have chosen a different route to the rest of us.
“So, where are you off to next?” I asked Dan. He let out a loud, hearty Boston-twanged laugh. He didn’t know. But I guess that was precisely the point.