By Joan Schweighardt
Bloomers Blazing is a regular feature at BLOOM, presenting interviews with (and stories about) people who found their life’s passion after the age of 40.
Who isn’t fascinated by trigger moments, moments when some “thing” or event sparks a sudden revelation that leads to unexpected, pivotal change? Blazing Bloomer Lynn Siebert Auerback’s trigger moment occurred when she was in her 20s and saw the movie Born Free on TV. Though she wouldn’t move to Africa for another 30 years, she knew from her trigger moment on that nothing would keep her from doing so. Blazing Bloomer Wally O’Conner’s life changes were triggered by a political event, which he acted on immediately. For Tony Louderbough—divorced father of two young women, grandfather of two little girls, and retired social worker and professional photographer—his trigger moment came a few years ago, when he was in his sunroom agonizing over where he could fit a new big-screen TV. And right then it hit him: he didn’t need or even want a big-screen TV; he wanted to buy an RV and adopt a nomadic lifestyle.
“I am awestruck by the many gifts I encounter on the trail. I stumble and recover. I ache, but then I’m bathed in light reflecting off a wall of quartz and chocolate marble.”
Joan Schweighardt: What was going on in your life at the time you had your epiphany?
Tony Louderbough: I was working on a photo book for the University of New Mexico, archiving photos I’d taken back in the 60s and 70s, many of them having to do with political events. I had all the photos together but I was using a lot of energy getting the writing the way I wanted it. Also, working with the photos was causing me to relive the past.
After the TV incident, I realized I was no longer interested in making sense of the past. I was interested in who I was at that moment and what I might want to do with, essentially, the decade or so I have ahead.
JS: What do you want to do with the decade ahead?
TL: I want to feel. I want to interact with the environment. I want to have an introspective journey. A lot of people have the opportunity to gain wisdom but they don’t take it. If there is some wisdom to be found, I want to find it and be able to articulate it and live it. And I want to be in beauty.
JS: Did you have to sell your house to buy an RV?
TL: I did countless spread sheets to determine if I could sell it. The numbers didn’t work because I still have a mortgage. My two kids went to private schools, which couldn’t have happened on a modest social worker salary without a second mortgage. So I rented the house for a minimum of two years. The renter has a kid in the school district, so we will talk again when he finishes middle school.
JS: What other obstacles did you have to overcome to get yourself out on the road?
TL: The obstacles were significant. It’s like society wants to pull you back in and not let you go.
I had to buy an RV (I call her Bessie) that was five-years-old, because banks won’t lend on older RVs, and new RVs are too expensive. I had to get it for just the right price to get the loan. But since an RV is a primary residence, my auto insurance agent said I would have to hold on to the truck I own too, to keep my rates from going up. On the other hand, banks want your brick and mortar residence as collateral for any big loan. But if you’re renting your house to live in an RV, your house is no longer your primary residence. Financial, insurance, and medical (prescription drug) systems are not designed for people traveling.
JS: As of this writing you’ve been on the road about eight months. How did you decide where to begin your journey?
TL: I really thought I would spend a lot of time alone at the outset, but I wound up putting solitude on hold. I visited my two daughters, one in Oregon and one in Colorado, where I was on hand to meet my newest granddaughter when she arrived. I also visited a friend in Calgary from my UC Denver days. The last time I visited her I was 23 and arrived on a motorcycle. Carol became a social worker too, and she did some really cutting-edge work. But since the age of 50 she has been suffering from a debilitating illness, a bone disease. She is literally collapsing in on herself. Still, she is living her life to the fullest, even while she is considering suicide. She has a cohesive spiritual view. It may be hard to imagine that a person in her position could be funny, but we howled with laughter while I was there.
JS: Have you spent a lot of time in campgrounds?
TL: Not at all. Sometimes the only choice is a campground, but often there are opportunities to stay on BLM—Bureau of Land Management—lands. BLM lands are vital to people like me. There are no hook ups, no water, so you have to be self-contained. But there is also no fee, and generally you can stay for two weeks. BLM visits have provided me with many opportunities to experience solitude. I don’t know what it all means yet but I’m onto something. I have forgiven myself for being an odd duck, for not achieving all the goals I had intended, for wanting to fit in. I am beginning to accept myself for who I am. It takes quietness to embrace your inner odd duck.
JS: Having worked as a professional photographer, is part of your journey about taking landscape photos?
TL: As a photographer, you can miss beauty because you are busy looking at the light and the composition for the shot you want to take. I got rid of all my expensive cameras and printing equipment before I left. I am taking snapshots now with my iPhone. I don’t want to miss anything. All my life my goal was to photograph beauty, and as a result I never before had a chance to be “in” it.
JS: You make it all sound very serene, but I know you’ve had some real adventures too. Please expound.
TL: On one trek northwest of Jasper BC, after encountering increasingly dense smoke from a forest fire, I retreated south and attempted to cross the mountains from east to west on Highway 24, a narrow mountain road. I got caught in a furious storm that left a half inch of hail on the ground. I would have pulled over but there were too many cars jumbled together at the turnouts and no room for Bessie, who is 28 feet long. I had no choice but to press on, which meant going up and over a steep embankment with the real risk that Bessie’s rear right tire could slip off the road into a gully. I held my breath, but she handled it well.
Another time I found myself heading towards a fire for some three miles before I was able to find a driveway big enough so I could pull in to turn around. I’ve been asthmatic since childhood; I used up most of an inhaler in just two days because of fires. Now I have an app to help me detect smoke before I get that close.
JS: What do you think about all those hours on the road?
TL: Often, logistics. The logistics of maintaining a machine like Bessie are extensive. You have to be aware of how much propane you have, how much battery power you are consuming… You want to be able to consume enough power to be comfortable, but you don’t want to run out during an emergency. I spend a lot of time calculating things like whether or not I may need to use the furnace that night. If it’s 36 degrees outside it will be about 44 inside. How many layers will I need to stay warm through the night? How many minutes will I need to run the furnace when I get up in the morning? Are the waterlines likely to freeze?
I feel I am spending too much time on logistics such as these, as well as finding out what camping options are available to me and how far I will be from each of my options when the time comes to stop driving for the night. For reasons noted above, my camping decisions, at least when I have been in the north and Pacific Northwest, sometimes came down to which destinations were likely to be warmest.
JS: Are you well-stocked electronically?
TL: Ironically, Bessie came furnished with two TVs. I had to return to NM after three months of travel for some RV repairs, and while I was there I had someone remove the televisions. It would have been poison to get into the habit of watching TV in the RV.
When my 70th birthday rolled around, I thought about buying myself a 9 x 12-inch iPad with a cellular connection so that I could collect and watch movies when I wanted to. But I got backpacking equipment and good boots instead. As a consequence, instead of watching movies, I am not only hiking during the day but also doing overnights in places outside of Joshua Tree or Yuma or other destinations. So far I am only doing one-night stays, but I hope to bump it up it to three over time.
JS: Are there organizations you can join to be able to hook up with fellow nomads?
TL: Yes, and I’ve joined one. The cost is $84 a year and it has 1300 members. In the last six months I’ve spent maybe a total of four weeks at sites inhabited by fellow members of the “Wandering Individuals Network.” Basically they send out announcements about where different groups of RVers are gathering and you can go or not go. At each particular destination there are announcements about what is available to do in that area. There may be a museum that’s worth seeing, or a tour to check out a geo-thermal plant, or a fossil hike guided by a park ranger.
Most of the people who participate in these groups are between the ages of 60 and 80. While life is everywhere, death is never far off. One older fellow felt funny and drove 150 miles to the nearest VA, where they discovered he had cancer. He returned to camp three days later to collect his things and start what was likely his last journey home. There is an older woman in the group I’ve stayed with who suffers from serious cognitive deficits. She is looked after not only by her husband but by the 15 or 20 RVers who travel with them. It’s practically wraparound care.
Most of the RVers I’ve met, however, are healthy people who love to hike and be in the wilderness. A third are single women. These are hearty outdoor women who are intensely engaged in life, in living the dream. Some RVers, like me, are looking for beauty and wisdom. Others are running away from something. What we all have in common is that we’ve taken a leap of faith. We’ve stripped down, gotten rid of old baggage and, as much as possible, regrets. We are preparing for death by getting the most out of life while we can.
JS: Do the RVers you meet talk a lot about what they did before they retired and took to the road?
TL: Campground interaction is brief, a few conversations over the span of some days. The brevity of the meetings makes the interactions count. Words count; it’s not just news, weather and sports. If you have something important to share, you share it.
But no one talks much about their careers. No one cares what you did for a living. Most of the conversation is about where you’ve traveled and what you found there. Could you get water, propane, and dump tanks there. (The people I’ve met are scrupulous and would never dump sewage. Most of them are a little embarrassed about the gas they use in their RVs, but otherwise they are earnest conservationists.) Once Maslow’s basics are covered, they want to know about costs, and then the beauty of the destination, how the hiking is, etc.
JS: You said earlier that much of your driving time is spent calculating logistics. What about hiking time?
TL: I have an aging body. I dislocated my left knee years back and seriously injured my left ankle five times, requiring a cast each time. Such injuries are cumulative. At age of 69, which is what I was when I started out, my only plan was to take short scenic flat hikes in National Parks and Monuments.
All that changed at Deception Pass, on the northern tip of Whidbey Island (in the Puget Sound, Washington) back in September. I was doing the same four-mile hike every day, and I noticed I could go farther each time with fewer rest periods.
The Wind Cave hike at Logan Pass in Utah includes some stretches with 20 percent grade elevations. Convinced I couldn’t make it to the top when I visited there, I set out thinking I’d go halfway and turn around. But every change in elevation brought more beautiful vistas, and, somehow, more stamina. I made it to top.
But it was at Chaco Canyon (New Mexico) in late October that I realized that overcoming my self-defeating thoughts would allow me to concentrate on my breathing, stride, and walking speed so that I could rest without actually having to stop. Hills, even steep rocky trails, became opportunities to practice altering the rhythm of speed, stride, respiration and heart rate. It was after that that I began backpacking.
I am awestruck by the many gifts I encounter on the trail. I stumble and recover. I ache, but then I’m bathed in light reflecting off a wall of quartz and chocolate marble. I stretch my body and mind and embrace a level of freedom previously unknown to me.
As for photos, I might stop to take one and I might not. There is a curious relationship between risk, pain and the search for beauty. As I mentioned above, I am no longer obsessed with collapsing beauty to fit into a viewfinder, making an exposure, and printing it with accurate color on archival paper. My obsessions have given way to playfulness, and the understanding that courage is following one’s path, whether it is being outdoors or taking an inner journey.
JS: Did you bring along any books?
TL: The only book I brought is The Vienna Poems 1938 by Kurt Reichert. Reading Reichert’s poems is a stark reminder that the “deafening and destructive roar“ of racial and religious intolerance in America cannot be minimized, no matter how great the vistas and beauty.
JS: Have you found wisdom?
TL: Before I left NM, I got some magic mushrooms. Although I haven’t done any recreational drugs in many years, I thought they would help me to better zone in on the things I was looking for. I never used the mushrooms; I gave them away. A level of peacefulness has come over me. I don’t see how things could get better than they are.
Recently I spent some time in isolation at the mouth of a rocky canyon east of Yuma. There was nothing around anywhere and the nights were very dark. My first night I was sitting outside when I saw a gigantic rocket in the sky. I never saw anything like it. I could see stuff falling off the back of it, sections tumbling through space. Because there was nothing to obstruct my view, I had seven to ten minutes before it passed beyond my sphere of sight. It had to be the SpaceX rocket, delivering satellites to low-Earth orbit for Iridium, a company that works on data satellite communications.
The next night I saw the shadow of something moving nearby. I turned on my flashlight. It was a desert fox, gray, with the tall ears. He must have stayed there watching me and sniffing for seven or eight seconds. I’ll take those seconds watching the fox over the minutes watching the rocket any day—though both were captivating. This is my life now. I am so glad I never bought that big screen TV for my sunroom.
As for wisdom, it is as elusive as a butterfly; you see it and revel in it and then it flies off. I haven’t found wisdom but I am peaceful, alive, and curious to see what is going to happen next. And for all of that I am grateful.
Joan Schweighardt is the author of The Last Wife of Attila the Hun, The Accidental Art Thief and other novels. Her newest novel, Before We Died, will be published later this year.