A Conversation about Travel, Aging, and Happiness

12 November 2014 · 11 comments

Last night, we had our neighbors over for drinks. For three hours, we sat around sipping wine while chatting about life with Jan and Sheila. (Jan is pronounced “yawn”.)

Jan and Sheila are both in their early seventies, about thirty years older than Kim and I are. But whereas some folks their age seem to have resigned themselves to silently fading away, our neighbors are still active and engaged with life.

The couple met about fifteen years ago, soon after Jan’s first wife died. Sheila was recently divorced and happy to find a man who, for once, was a kindred spirit. For a few years, they traveled the world, teaching English in China, exploring Costa Rica, and so on. They still travel regularly. Last summer, for instance, they spent several months in eastern Europe, including a lot of time in rural Poland.

A couple of years ago, Jan and Sheila towed a pop-up camper across the United States, from Oregon to Montana to New Mexico to Texas to Arkansas to North Carolina. They visited seventeen states in three months. In each state, they stopped at a nursing home to interview the residents.

“We asked people to tell us their stories,” Sheila said. “At first, our recordings weren’t very good. In time, we figured out what we were doing. We got better with the equipment and we learned what questions to ask.”

“Interesting,” I said. “Kim and I want to do something similar. In fact, we’re shopping for a used RV right now. We want to use it to make forays across the U.S. and Canada. We plan to interview the folks we meet along the way. But we’re not sure what we’ll talk about.”

“You should have a plan,” Sheila said. “Otherwise the conversations will just wander. We found that the StoryCorps method was a fantastic way to spark discussion. Their website has a list of great interview questions. You should check it out.”

Jan recommended that we try to keep an open mind when we travel, to not set a fixed agenda. “You should eavesdrop,” he said. “You learn a lot about a place when you eavesdrop. You learn what’s important to the people there. You learn about the things going on in the town.”

By eavesdropping in Taos, New Mexico, Jan and Sheila found out about a jam session at a local bar. Because they’re both musicians, they stopped in. They got to hear some amazing performers that they might have otherwise missed. “You haven’t heard of the best musicians in this country,” Jan explained. “Often the best musicians don’t have recording contracts. They’re not pretty enough for the stage. Or they never wanted to be famous. You find them in out-of-the-way places like Taos.”

“I’m happy that you two are traveling now while you’re young,” Sheila said. “Travel isn’t as easy as it used to be. For whatever reason, this last trip to Poland was especially hard. The language barrier was hard. Airport transfers were hard. It’s the first time I’ve really felt old while traveling.”

Note: Sheila’s advice echoes something I’ve heard time and again. Most people wait to travel. They wait until they’ve quit work, the kids have moved out, and they’ve saved everything they need for retirement. At 60 or 65 or 70, they begin exploring the world around them — but find it’s tougher than anticipated. Without exception, the older travelers I’ve met wish they had started in their thirties and forties.

We spent a long time talking about aging, about intergenerational connections. Kim noted that although she’s in her mid-forties, she loves learning from both people who are younger and people who are older than she is. “I feel like there’s something to learn from everyone if we’re willing to listen,” she said.

“That’s true,” Jan said. “I wish more people felt the same way. Mostly folks seem too busy to connect with anyone else. That’s one of the reasons we did our nursing-home trip.”

“Tomorrow night at our wisdom circle, we’re going to talk about stuff like this,” Sheila said. “We’re going to talk about the things you lose as you get older.”

“You mean like family and friends?” asked Kim.

“Like family and friends, but other things too,” Sheila said, motioning to Jan, who wears a hearing aid. “Like hearing. Like flexibility and mobility. Like health, in general.”

“What about connection to culture?” I asked. “It seems to me that as you get older, you might become more and more disconnected from popular culture. The movies and music you loved as a child get buried under a flood of changing taste and fashion.”

“It’s not as bad as you might think,” Jan said. “You don’t care as much anymore. Plus, the things you love are always there. You just have to know where to look for them.”

The conversation moved to money and happiness. Sheila asked me something she’s brought up before: “Why do you think so many people believe money will bring them happiness? Is it what the money represents? Is it something else?”

We talked about people we know and how they handle money. Jan mentioned a friend who’s afraid to spend anything at all. He has plenty of money but can’t bring himself to buy even things that might make him happier. “He could easily afford a new car, but he won’t let himself have it. I think that’s too bad. His money won’t do him any good once he’s gone.”

I noted that some people have the opposite problem: “In my line of work, I’ve heard plenty of stories about folks who have squandered windfalls. Inheritances, the lottery, that sort of thing. A person can be broke, win $100,000 in the lottery, and then be broke again a year later. I think people like this mistakenly believe that money will solve all their problems. But money can’t solve problems. You have to solve them. Happiness comes from inside.”

“That’s true,” Kim said, “but money certainly makes things easier. For me, I feel a whole lot better knowing that I have so much money in savings. If something goes wrong, I have a safety net. Money may not buy happiness but I think that not having money can make people pretty unhappy.”

I described how my pursuit of happiness has changed over time. When I was deep in debt, I thought money was the answer. After I’d repaid my debt, I thought I’d be happy if I had more money. Eventually I realized that money wouldn’t make me happy. I made other changes to my life. Some increased my happiness but most didn’t. In time, I came to understand that in order to be happy, I had to just be myself. I had to be comfortable with who I am, warts and all. And I had to surround myself with friends who were happy with who I am too.

Sheila nodded. “That’s smart,” she said. “A lot of people never realize that. You’re lucky to have figured it out while you’re young.”

I laughed. “I don’t have it all figured out,” I said. “Sometimes I forget everything I’ve learned. Sometimes I find myself doing things to please others or buying things because I think they’ll make me happy. It’s a process.”

“You know what?” Kim said as the night came to a close. “Before our trip, we need to practice our interview skills. Can we interview you two sometime? We’d love to hear your stories.”

“Sure,” said Sheila. “We’d be happy to help.”

“You’ll want to have a good microphone,” Jan said. “Sound is at least fifty percent of the puzzle.”

“Everyone keeps telling us that,” Kim said. “That’s why J.D. bought a fancy microphone.” I went back to my office to retrieve the gear I bought after asking for advice from my friend Tess Vigeland, a long-time reporter for NPR.

“That should do the trick,” Jan said. “You want to be able to record the person you’re talking too without getting the clatter of dishes or the din of the television in the background.”

And so, Kim and I have started the next phase of our adventure together. Last Friday, we spent several hours browsing the Portland RV show. Today we took our first steps toward conducting interviews. Next up? I need to use our new gear — the camera, the lenses, the lights, the microphone — to make some test recordings. Be warned: Over the next few weeks, you might see some more silly videos around here! (If you have requests, let me know.)

1 Josh November 12, 2014 at 09:37

Hey JD — I would love to know which mic Tess Vigeland recommended. Thanks!

2 jdroth November 12, 2014 at 10:28

Tess recommended the Zoom H4N digital recorder and an omnidirectional microphone like the Electro-Voice RE50. I don’t have an omnidirectional mic yet but opted to pick up a shotgun mic from Rode. It’ll plug into the digital recorder via an XLR cord.

3 Nicole November 12, 2014 at 10:21

What an interesting conversation! I agree that lack of money can make someone unhappy.

For me personally, my biggest worry is not having enough money to retire and live comfortably. And by that I mean being able to travel and enjoy the little things without worrying that I will run out of funds before I die. I’d feel pretty good if I had about 5 million in the bank but unless I win the lottery that will never happen, so I tend to worry a lot about the future. I’m not as bad as your friend who won’t buy anything, but I do often pass up buying things that would make me happy in favor of saving the money and investing. I try to keep a balance approached but not knowing what the future brings makes that so difficult. Do I save aggressively assuming I’ll live a long time and sacrifice now or do I enjoy more of life today and possibly sacrifice financial security tomorrow? It’s not that extreme, but I think you understand what I mean. My biggest fear is living on a fixed income. I used to work for the cable company in customer service and many of the elderly people I spoke with had little more than their cable tv for entertainment. That really stuck with me.

4 Jonathon and Audrey (YarrVee.com) November 12, 2014 at 13:10

We saw the photo of your visit with Chris and Cherie. That photo + this post?
We’re SO excited for you guys, and we’re really looking forward to your silly videos. Perhaps they’ll look a bit like this?
http://yarrvee.com/the-maiden-voyage-of-the-yarrvee/

=)

5 Barb November 12, 2014 at 16:09

Hi JD!

Beware of RV’s they are a VERY VERY bad financial decision. Based on info from friends and blogs the best choice is a Casita towable trailer (preferably purchased used) and a truck or SUV large enough to tow it. RVs depreciate like mad, are VERY poorly constructed and are way too expensive. You can get a Casita for $10k or less used and it will last 10 years or likely much more. One version even has two captain’s chairs instead of the tiny bench seats and table. Sweet!

The whys and wherefores have been covered by others so let me include some links to their articles:
http://livingstingy.blogspot.com/2011/05/cost-caluclation-of-full-time-rving.html
http://livingstingy.blogspot.com/2011/09/class-b-motorhome-or-trailer-trailer.html

Another take on itravel is http://www.tosimplify.net/ a guy who started with a good sized used Class B, then upsized slightly for more room. Changed his mind and rebuilt a Vanagon from scratch to the most economical and slick self-contained home you are ever likely to find. The whole blog is worth a read to see how much work is involved in modifying and caring for these rigs. Daunting.

One of the main reasons the Casita has such longevity is the design – a top and bottom plastic clamshell that eliminates all the corners where leaks occur. It is far superior to a folding travel trailer in terms of durability and comfort too. Many trailers and RVs develop leaks so that traveling in rain forces water into the gaps and deterioration occurs rapidly, and at a distance from the original leak location. Keep in mind that you want to locate a storage place to park it that is enclosed to protect it from sun and weather damage – yes they age faster if stored outdoors! Most people use their trailer only a few months of the year, and if not stored properly they age much too fast.

The best reason of all is that you can arrive at your destination, park and hook up the trailer to water, sewer, power – then unhook your vehicle from the trailer and drive around without the problems of driving an RV in town. Most people actually drive point to point and then spend lots of time at certain locations. If you want to use shore power etc you have to hook and unhook every time you want to drive somewhere nearby. Inconvenient.

Also to save money look into parking on BLM lands where possible as it is free – dispersed campsites. Especially on the west coast there are lots of free camping spots.

No matter how nice the RVs look at the trade shows be sure you look at older versions of the same thing, even just five years older. You will be amazed at how fast they age and how much they depreciate. They are so expensive to operate you are actually better off driving a car and staying in motels. I had no idea but when I looked into it there are basically four types of RVers: super rich people who are careless with their money, retirees who spent it all on the RV thinking of it as a retirement home and who end up penniless and stuck in one place when it becomes unsaleable, those who drive it for two or three vacations and then let it rot in their sideyard, and those who live outside regular society on BLM lands and who constantly tinker and fix their aging RVs. Rent one first for two weeks or so and see how you like driving it in a city.

Good luck and stay frugal!

6 JKC November 13, 2014 at 06:11

Barb,

Thanks for the detailed comment. Clearly you have given this a lot of thought. I’m sold on NOT buying an RV. I’ll go by motorcycle and stay in a hotel. Great comment. Cheers!

– JKC

7 jdroth November 13, 2014 at 06:29

Yeah, we’re well aware that purchasing an RV could be a financial fail of colossal proportions. We expect to lose some money, but we want to keep that loss to a minimum. Although we’ve been learning about RVs by viewing new units, we have no intention of buying new. We want to buy a quality used RV. Right now our challenge is to figure out what that means exactly. I’ll check out the links you shared.

We welcome all advice as we explore our options.

8 Julie November 12, 2014 at 18:57

I’ve always considered your blogs to be a friendly place to stop by to appreciate your sincere self-examination, curious exploration of the world and people in it, good stories and great writing. A breath of fresh air that greatly improves the tone of the blogosphere. Thanks for sharing your many journeys. Bearing witness to your evolution has inspired my own.

9 Bruce November 13, 2014 at 02:09

An inspirational couple. Their stories certainly resonated with me. My thoughts on a few of the topics mentioned:

Money doesn’t buy happiness but it can buy time. And time is necessary if you want to pursue your passions, develop/maintain friendships, and/or work on improving yourself.

Traveling and living abroad has certainly taught me that everyone has a story provided you give them the opportunity to tell it. (Although, I continually forget this)

I wholeheartedly agree with starting to travel when one is younger. But I’d expand on that thought a bit. One should really pursue those interests/challenges that push one farthest from their comfort zones when they are younger. For instance, there are travels I did in my 20s that would be much more difficult to do now even just in my 40s. And there are travel opportunities that I know can be done fairly comfortably in my 60s that I don’t mind waiting for.

10 Trent | On The Road Travels November 13, 2014 at 05:18

Great article, JD!

I just wrote a blog similar to the money topic you all discussed. I find it to be a very interesting topic. I, for one, have stayed far away from material purchases over the past several years and shifted most of my spending on experiential purchases (travel). Part of this reason is that, like you talked about, I wanted to travel before getting too old. The other part is that I found out early on that the experiences during my trips were much more valuable than any TV, car, or house.

In my blog, I talk about a few studies that found people are more likely to have thought an experiential purchase was a better decision than material purchases. They brought up a reason that I had never considered, and that is the fact that experiences bring us closer to people. We’ll travel with someone, or eat dinner or go to a concert with someone. Further, we use experiences to relate with others in the future. You and I could have many great conversations about the fascinating country of Ecuador. This would create a connection that a BMW or 5-bedroom house could not.

I’ve been following you since 2008 and have really enjoyed seeing your writing evolve. Keep up the great work!

Trent

11 JKC November 13, 2014 at 06:14

I’m liking the title “Foldedspace” a lot more than I thought I would. Funny how the title of the blog subtly shifts your perception of the articles. Great writing as always.

Thanks!

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