“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.” —From Henry David Thoreau’s Walden
Joe Southers abandoned cookie-cutter suburban living for a cozy, cave-like RV in Salt Lake City. One big hitch is that when something goes wrong with Southers’ home, he might just have to drive it somewhere to get it fixed.
Former Utah legislator Christine Johnson gave up a hip loft scene in Columbia, S.C. for a socially remote houseboat on a quiet lake near the capital. “Cool, but crazy,” say some of Johnson’s critics.
Either way, they’ve both done some serious downsizing. You might call them minimalists. But they’re right where they want to be—living with less when, in fact, they could have much more.
There are no trends or polls that support a widespread socioeconomic shift in thinking that has masses of people ditching the American dream just because they feel like it. These kinds of so-called crazies, these minimalists, just seem to pop up here and there.
Southers gave a bit of attitude when asked if he made the switch because, perhaps, he needed to make do with less in order to contemplate life’s big questions: Where did we come from? Why are we here? What happens after we die?
“I really don’t give a shit,” the reinvented Joe Southers replied over a few beers inside his home on wheels.
And he doesn’t care much anymore about the finely edged, manicured lawns in Bountiful where his ex-wife, her new husband and their combined five children live. He’s left behind the many uptight suburbanites who so love their landscaping that their elected city sages decided in 2010 to hire a sharpshooter to, upon a homeowner’s request, blow away any pesky deer that poop on their grass or eat their precious flowers and shrubs.
Time to move on. Minimalism. Isolation. Spiritual conflict. Major lifestyle change.
They are aspects of Southers’ and Johnson’s new lives, ones that are tempting to compare with the likes of Henry David Thoreau, whose RV park or houseboat was a cabin at Walden Pond.
Southers now lives in Salt Lake City in a home smaller than a lot of people’s bedrooms. Talk about scaled down. Southers, 35, has turned his back on consumer-obsessed suburbia, where debt rules and the kind of “stuff” you have actually matters to some people. Now he’s living in a trailer on wheels.
Is it a “box of sadness,” a genius move on his part or something in between?
Johnson’s own daughter, Olivia, equates her mother’s switch to something a poor person would do out of necessity, not something a person would do because of an actual desire to sell or give most everything away to live on what amounts to a homemade modified pontoon boat.
“She’s only 19,” Johnson says about her daughter’s opinion.
When Johnson—the former Salt Lake City Democrat state representative who served two terms before stepping down in 2010—moved back to her native South Carolina for the job of South Carolina Equality executive director, she started out living with Mom and then moved into a noisy loft community. It was too noisy.
She flirted with the idea of moving to rural Camden for a house with a pool and pond. She wanted to buy a rowboat for the pond. She wanted to start buying stuff to furnish the house. All of that wanting turned into feeling “overwhelmed.”
So, instead of a rowboat, she bought a houseboat. She was ready for a change, to own her “home” outright and to begin minimizing her impact in the world. In February 2010, Johnson haggled down the $4,500 asking price for the 12-by-36 houseboat to $2,250, which, with a $300 per month slip fee on Lake Murray, gets her back to roots.
“I grew up blocks away from waterways in Charleston,” Johnson says. “I think it’s one thing I missed most—water.” Water is the backdrop for sunsets or coffee in the morning on the deck of the boat she named My Mynrva. You can catch glimpses of Johnson’s life on Lake Murray at MyMynrva.blogspot.com.
One thing that stands out in photos of the boat is how little space there is for stuff. As late comedian George Carlin would have put it, there’s only room for the “stuff” she really, really needs. “It has curbed my desire to consume in the most unbelievable way,” she says. “The days of going to Costco to buy 48 rolls of toilet paper are over.” All of that stuff she used to own just doesn’t mean as much anymore.
For example, her energy consumption is down almost 70 percent, from about $90 per month to about $30. The soap she uses to wash dishes or her hair is biodegradable, ending up in the lake. “I’m more conscientious about spending and being a consumer and my own footprint,” she says.
She’s training geese to visit her for food when she rings a bell, which also happens to attract a particular turtle she named George, who has developed an affinity for cheddar cheese.
One tradeoff is that she gets a little motion sick on land if she’s been on the boat for days at a time.
Johnson and Southers are kindred spirits in that way.
The meaning in Southers’ life can be found on the road as a fuel-truck driver, in the people he meets, in the tattoos on his arms and in the books he reads. He devours works by Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Joyce, Emerson and Thoreau, whom Southers, in some ways, seems to be emulating these days, only with an RV-park kind of twist to the ideas and notions Henry David Thoreau worked out at Walden Pond (on land owned by Emerson).
More than 150 years ago, Thoreau said in Walden, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” Southers just might be a rich man. First of all, he’s got a lot more time to himself these days. Time to think.
“You start with nothing and you start accumulating,” Southers says inside his home. “After I accumulated so much, I realized I was better off before.” It all made his life more complicated, after he felt like the stuff started owning him. Like a gas- sucking lawn mower, a needy old water heater, an obnoxious weed eater and things that generally just fill a house.
He’s got a few techy gadgets around, but about the only tangible things he collects are rocks (which he labels and keeps in a bowl after memorable hikes) and books (although a Kindle has changed that).
Thoreau himself wasn’t as keen about his own rock collection: “I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust.”
If you’re going to compare the likes of Joe Southers to Thoreau, it may actually require a little cherry picking of quotes and ideals. Stuart Culver, an Americanist scholar at the University of Utah, asserts that Thoreau would never have lived in an RV park if they’d existed 150 years ago. The reason, Culver says, would be Thoreau’s criticism of the Irish working class back then and the “shiftlessness” of the impoverished, who, unlike Thoreau, chose not to take control of their lives.
Southers, on the other hand, Culver says, has immersed himself in a community that is on the edges of our social order, and is not exactly withdrawing in the ways Thoreau did.
“Walden begins with a very long chapter titled ‘Economics,’ and Thoreau is clear that he wants both to understand and take responsibility for how he gets the things he needs,” Culver says. “It’s less than about reducing needs, per se, and more about perfecting relationships to people as well as things and simplifying in the first step in this process but not the end. Joe may be after this same goal as he chooses how to live with others.”
Culver made one other observation, noting that Southers’ new life reflects a “different order of mobility” in a place where the homes can move (RVs) versus “burrowing” into a place like, say, Walden Pond.
“And Joe himself is not just a truck driver, but one who earns his living by moving the fuel that enables others to move,” Culver added. “He’s more deeply entangled in the economy [than Thoreau was]—so, he’s not withdrawing as much as finding a different way of belonging.”
In what may be Southers’ search for belonging, he threw away or carved away or left behind—however you look at it—a lot to find a new version of himself. “I think ‘minimalist’ might fit,” Southers says when asked for a word to describe his new life.
Without getting at the how or why just yet, Southers’ story in particular is one about getting by with less—in both the physical and spiritual sense.
Spiritual light bulbs
The Book of Mormon is out, along with the stress, complications and conflicts that defined Southers’ relationship with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Not surprisingly, he felt out of place in Bountiful, where neighbors on all four sides are likely to be LDS. Now he thrives on—and feels more at home in—the simplicity of RV-living in a hidden nook of Salt Lake City just out of sight from people driving on North Temple.
Stephen Tatum, a University of Utah environmental humanities director and English professor, says Southers’ idea of a simpler life has a long history that dates back to Thoreau and beyond. “As one can see in the opening ‘Economy’ chapter of Walden, Thoreau’s experiment in ‘right’ living at Walden Pond certainly was fueled by a desire for the simple life. ‘Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity’ is one of the maxims uttered in that chapter,” Tatum says. “The desire for the simple life is long-standing in American culture, from the Puritan aesthetic of the plain style through Thoreau and on to the Amish, and in our consumer culture, [with] the kinds of advertising we see by the big-box stores after the holiday season carnival of consumption.
“But,” Tatum added, “as he further notes in the ‘Where I Lived and What I Lived For’ chapter that follows, the quest for the simple life is a means to spiritual illumination—and, consequently, ethical practice. The question then would seem to be if this general profile of Thoreau’s motivation fits [Southers].”
Spiritual light bulbs have gone on and off along the path to RV living, but simplicity is the key motivator for Southers.
You can reach anything in Southers’ tiny kitchen without taking a step. Almost everything he owns is now inside a kind of tiny tin box on wheels. The TV or stereo can be on inside, but it’s still somehow quiet, muffled.
The untrained scribe in him is busy these days taking notes about the paradoxically complex characters he calls neighbors—the recluse next door, the people who just enjoy drinking, laughter and a good barbeque.
In the stripped-down version of Southers’ new life, he doesn’t have to have a protracted conversation about lawn maintenance that would make him want to split his head open. Thoreau would have agreed when he wrote, “Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields.”
Talking Heads lead singer David Byrne once asked in a song, “You may ask yourself, ‘How did I get here?’ ” Like artists who take a day or two to paint a masterpiece but take a lifetime of learning to master their craft, it’s a little complicated to figure out exactly how Southers ended up a minimalist living in an RV.
Brian Southers doesn’t want people to think his brother moved into an RV park because of finances or desperation.
“Joe has always had this mentality,” one that Brian says isn’t interested in a lifestyle that harbors goals with keywords like upgrade, move up, bigger or fancier.
“The people around him now are similar … they just enjoy being around other people,” who, Brian says, are interested in a simpler life where people, not things, are the focus. “It’s definitely a different crowd than you’d find in any [typical suburb].”
“They enjoy that simple life and don’t need anything more than that,” Brian says about Southers and his new neighbors.
“Everywhere you go, people remember Joe,” added Brian, who also drives a fuel truck with some of the same stops as his brother. “You can tell that Joe, even at work, gets to know people and actually talks to people and cares.”
But do you have to live in an RV park to find yourself and care about people?
From a slightly less-biased perspective, University of Utah psychology professor Frederick Rhodewalt says it looks like Southers in particular has “retreated” to a less complicated lifestyle.
“You could think of other examples: a gay man coming out and leaving one lifestyle for another, or the midlife crisis might be another,” Rhodewalt says. “There is a construct called self-concept differentiation.
“If you ask people to list five or so roles that define their lives and then ask them to list the traits that they display in each role, highly differentiated people describe different sets of characteristics in each role. I’ve always thought of this work as identifying people whose selves didn’t work out in one situation so they develop different selves in different contexts. Self-concept differentiation is associated with poor adjustment, which doesn’t sound like Joe.”
Rhodewalt asks if Southers is seeking attention by being “different” or if there’s something oddly narcissistic about him.
“No, he’s definitely not doing it for attention,” says Joe’s father, Greg Southers. “In fact, he’s never been one to do much for attention. He does things because he either finds them interesting or engaging. … He generally does quite a bit of thinking.”
Joe, the oldest of three boys, has done a lot of thinking about how to live, from his teens in Texas and well into adulthood.
In Texas, the Southers were middle-class, but surrounded by wealth at school and in church. It was what that wealth did to people that impacted Southers.
“He kind of looked down on that,” Greg says. “He could see the ridiculousness of the wealth.”
As an adult, Southers ventured into campgrounds during rock-climbing trips and other travels. His father says that Joe liked the built-in sense of community at a particular KOA campground, which sometimes hosts longer-term residents.
“He just liked everything about it,” says Greg, an engineer who helps develop computer chips.
The seeds for a break from the LDS Church were also planted in Texas. It was there, Greg says, that Joe was an “underdog,” a minority of sorts who was sometimes in a position of defending his own LDS faith to others.
Theorizing about what happened in Utah, Greg says that sometimes like-minded people can become “caricatures” of themselves where certain characteristics are magnified—of which Greg, himself LDS, didn’t elaborate on.
You might say that somewhere along the line, though, Joe had the kind of “spiritual illumination” that Thoreau was seeking when he moved to Walden Pond.
“He doesn’t want to go along with the crowd,” Greg Southers added about Joe. “As a teen, he says, ‘I don’t want to be a cookie-cutter person.’ ”
So, is father Greg proud of his oldest child?
Greg says, for him, it’s less about pride than it is about what’s going inside Joe or others like him. “Are they moving toward things that bring them fulfillment?” Greg asks.
He believes Joe is doing just that.
“When he says, on occasion, ‘I really like it here—the RV’ ... I like hearing it,” Greg says. “He’s made it his own.”
Of thinking and ink
Once more from Thoreau: “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust.”
Southers is not exactly a philosopher, at least not on paper—rather, it comes out on his skin as tattoos. He calls it “intelligent” ink or “Americana” ink on his left arm and a Waldenesque flower montage on his right arm. Any one of the tattoos on his left arm could start a conversation about where America started and where it is now.
His daughters, on the other hand, don’t often bring up their dad’s ink. “I’m their dad—I’ve always had these things,” he says. “I think it will help them later on in life—to not judge how people should look.”
His girls don’t live with Southers. There are no children’s toys lying around in his RV. It’s quiet. The hard times, the darker thoughts, must be worked out alone. For better or worse, it’s the life Southers has chosen.
Yet, for the sake of maintaining a relationship with his daughters, Southers is not above waffling. Southers says he’s lately been considering a move to a less-gritty environment to ensure his daughters will continue to visit. The philosophy— minimalism—he noted, hasn’t changed; it’s just that he might take it to an apartment to keep them in his life.
Again, Thoreau: “I have a great deal of company in my house, especially when nobody calls.”
Maybe Thoreau was just too different—then and now.
MoneyNing.com blogger David Ning posted an article by Vered DeLeeuw, who wrote about a California couple who didn’t have many friends because they were savers, lived modestly and worked part time to spend more time with their children and to do things other than just work, work, work.
“I suspect they were too ‘different,’ ” DeLeeuw says. “They certainly weren’t in the habit of hosting dinner parties or renting a jump house for their kids’ birthdays.
“I myself was very guilty of occasionally feeling uncomfortable around them, of occasionally wondering about their choice to live in such a tiny, ‘unremodeled’ house,” DeLeeuw added.
He says the couple’s lifestyle seemed “unacceptable” to him until he realized how free they were from corporate America, free from the need to work long hours, free from excessive debt and “to keep looking like you have a lot when, in fact, you have so little.
“Above all, they were free from caring about what others thought about them,” concluded DeLeeuw.
What would Joe do?
There’s no personal downsizing trend in America that jumps out at you, no subculture of minimalists out there forming support groups. People like Southers and Johnson are the exception, even in today’s socioeconomic climate.
At the same time, no one here is holding Southers up to say he’s made better or superior choices than the rest of us.
Thoreau is still widely admired, in part, because of what he taught in his writing. But those words did not come without experiencing a way of life that, 150 years ago, many didn’t understand or relate to.
Can we call Southers or Johnson modern-day Thoreaus? Should we admire them? Is it fair to compare ourselves to them, maybe going so far as to ask when we’re about to buy one more thing that needs dusting and fills our houses, ‘What would Joe do?’ ”
People like Southers and Johnson might be alternately searching for their own Walden, living in it or at its edges—all the while (Thoreau might have added) not giving a damn if they keep pace with anyone but themselves.
And sometimes you give up stuff you wish you still had, forced to find compromise in your new minimalist, downsized life. “I miss a bathtub,” Johnson says. And the compromise? “I can skinny dip in the lake any time I want.”
Freelance writer Stephen Speckman was Joe Southers neighbor in Bountiful until he moved away. He is also family friends with Christine Johnson.