We read a lot about people trying to simplify their lives.
That’s been a common thread going back to the 1960s, when the back-to-the-earth movement first took hold.
But here’s a fact: most people talk about simplifying their lives, but few actually do it.
Once we’ve become accustomed to the comforts of life that age and a reasonable income bring -- spacious homes, dinners out, vacations -- it’s hard to give them up.
And that brings me to John Randall, who lives perhaps the simplest existence of anyone I’ve ever known.
John stepped into my life 15 years ago, showing up at my business on the Maine island where Wife Nancy and I spend time.
Looking for a job, he wasn’t exactly an overwhelming physical specimen -- maybe 5-feet-6 inches tall on his tiptoes, and startlingly thin. I’d guess 120 pounds.
The job he got required him to interact with our customers, and he was unfailingly polite, knowledgeable and efficient.
Hard-working, low maintenance. A good combination.
He showed up each morning wearing a backpack, and after about a week, I asked him what was in it.
“My stuff,” he replied.
“All my stuff.”
“In the world? Everything you own is in that backpack?”
“Yes, it’s all I need.”
A week or so later, I asked, “Where are you living, John?”
Finding seasonal accommodations in a national park gateway town isn’t always easy, and I didn’t know what he had managed to arrange.
“Oh, here and there. I move around a little bit. Camp some. Couch surf with some of the other employees. Whatever I need to.”
This was indeed a simple life, I mused.
As the summer passed, I found out more about John, partly by asking him questions and partly by listening to other staff members who’d gotten to know him.
I learned from one employee that he’d been a sickly -- that word sounds like something out of a Charles Dickens novel, eh? -- child who’d been born with a congenital heart defect.
Doctors didn’t expect him to live through his teens.
He fooled them. Well into his 30s by the time I met him, he had decided that whatever time he had on this earth was a bonus and that he would not complicate it with possessions.
Thus the backpack, and the “stuff” which allowed him to exist, happily if meagerly.
And happy he was, seemingly at perfect peace with himself and the life he’d chosen.
The season went quickly, and he worked hard. Some of the labor was difficult physically, but he never complained. He just did his work and left at the end of the day, headed to wherever it was that he was going to sleep that night.
As his contract ended -- that’s the way seasonal employment works, everyone having a contract period -- he didn’t have much packing to do but he was ready to move on.
Exactly where to, he wasn’t sure. I was reminded of another employee a couple years earlier who had said she was headed west the next day. “I don’t like to decide where I’m going until I’ve loaded up and closed the door of my pickup,” she explained.
I learned later that John made his way to Bend, Oregon -- at that time a hot spot among young people. He stayed there a couple years -- a veritable lifetime for people who choose to have shallow roots.
He eventually moved on. I’m not sure where.
I’m not even sure he’s still alive. I suspect he is, still lugging his backpack, sleeping here and there, smiling and enjoying life.
So when I hear about people simplifying, I often think of John Randall, who carried his life on his back and who indeed learned to relish the simple existence that so many crave but so few achieve.