Gypsy Living: A Few Thoughts on Minimalism and Place

» Posted by on Aug 4, 2011 in Blog | 28 comments

“It is good to collect things, but it is better to go on walks.” Anatole France

About ten years ago, I had a bunch of friends come over to my house and told them, “take whatever you want, I’m done with all this stuff.” I had just gotten back from a trip hitchhiking and greyhounding around the Northeastern US and Canada and had come to the conclusion that a) what I own does not define me and b) the less I have with me the easier it is to travel. I adhered to this philosophy pretty strictly through college, wearing the same pair of blue jeans every day and rotating through a couple plain white t-shirts and would pride myself in being able to stuff essentially everything that I owned into a 40L backpack.
Last month, just before Hardrock, I was reminded of those years of simple living while struggling to fit a week’s worth of camping gear and food into the very same pack. I used to be able to pull the draw string and loosely click the bag shut with my whole life tucked away in the nylon sack. Now, with one knee pressed hard into its side, tugging forcefully on the lid, I can’t even get enough in there to survive for one week. Where had I gone wrong? The pad’s gotten a little cushier, the sleeping bag a little warmer, the camera fancier and dry couscous doesn’t sound so good anymore, I need a bit of sauce. I’ll just blame it on dog though…it’s really her food and blanket that take up all the space.
I had bought the pack for it’s functional design and durability. It had come with me trekking around Nepal, sat on while sipping chai in India, tossed on the roof of buses in Africa, lugged around the world without ever giving me the slightest issue, yet now it seemed inadequate, too heavy and old fashioned, not really minimal enough. Minimalism has come to be defined in ounces and types of material rather than a state of mind and being. Sitting on the floor looking at the bulging pack, all I can think of is how it’s probably time to retire this old piece of junk and upgrade to the latest and the greatest, spiffy, 3oz hyperlight fastpacking wonder sack. Ultimately though, I already own a pack and a good one at that and having two certainly wouldn’t make me tread on this earth any more lightly although my review, full of praise, of the newly acquired item would make myself and others believe so.  
Following this reasoning, I fall into this skewered pattern of thinking that I am continuously downsizing and refining what I own to be more and more in line with a minimalist philosophy when in fact I’m simply accumulating more things – something that has become painfully apparent each time Deanne and I move, shifting in less than a half a decade from carry-on luggage to the U-Haul. I mean this pen must have a cap somewhere, this shoe is for the road, that one for hardpack, that one for mud, these plates for sushi, those for pasta, these glasses for wine and others for water, winter sheets, summer sheets, car camping gear, light camping gear, never wear this shirt but it has sentimental value, etc. – these are all things I need and are so easy to justify.
Where are we always going anyway? Similar to the eternal dissatisfaction with the things I own, is the constant lack of contentment with the place in which I live. So, when I get bored with the local coffee shop or brewery, with my job or with running that trail one too many times, I pull out the map and head elsewhere. Moving this time feels a little different though. While everything Deanne and I need doesn’t squeeze into my backpack, it does fit into our car and while my gaze still rests on the horizon longing for far away voyages, I’m also eager to find place. Jared Campbell reminded me of this last night on our run as he moved elegantly, intimately up the ridge to the Pfeifferhorn, in the Wasatch – a range in which he has spent his entire life. He knows every nook and cranny, the patterns of the seasons, the way the light hits the mountain at different times of day – knowledge, wisdom, that only comes from spending hours, days, years roaming the same hills. I scratched the surface of this sentiment with daily ascents of Bear outside of Boulder but am ready to understand it more deeply.The photos of our outing color this post with the feelings I encountered marking my journey onwards. I shall carry little with me and soon enough Deanne and I will find a place to call our own.

Photo: Jared Campbell

Photo: Jared Campbell

Photo: Jared Campbell



  1. Thanks so much for those insights Joe. It is great to hear someone else discuss minimalism and not simply be talking about running. My wife and I have fought the materialistic bug as long as I can remember. Thankfully we have found our "place" and enjoy the benefits that accompany putting down some roots. As I get older though, I have begun to wish for more adventure. Unfortunately I did not travel near as much as you when I was younger so now I begin to long to see certain things while I am still able to really enjoy them – top of my list is the Rocky Mountains!

  2. Brilliant post Joe, thank you. I really needed to read this right now, your timing is exquisite. I wish you best of luck on your journey and looking forward to connecting after UTMB so I can start one of my own.

  3. I share your thoughts here is many ways.  Especially the part about thinking I'm refining things to be more minimal and yet ending up just accumulating more "minimal" stuff.  It gets even harder with kids too.  I can count on one hand the toys that we have personally bought for our boy Zach and yet because of the nature of our culture, he has more than any kid needs because of the gifting from family and friends who are just sincerely trying to be generous.  
    I have contemplated this a lot and we really don't won't the fact that we have a family to be a reason for storing up a bunch of stuff in our house and lives, yet it continues.  Finding a sense of place, yet not becoming attached or dependent on a bunch of stuff in the process takes wisdom, courage, and contentment.  One think I love about spending time running in the mountains is that it is really the process of accumulating experiences. Ones that you keep in some ways, but never get back again in others.  Tons of time spent and many things gained, but non of them material possessions (unless you win races 😉 ).

  4. Hey Joe, nice post. Not sure what your childhood was like, but as someone who is equally afflicted with wanderlust and a searching for place, it sounds like you fit the bill for being a  "Third Culture Kid." It's a developmental theory about people who have spent a significant part of their developmental years abroad and/or outside their parents’ culture. The child ends up integrating elements of each of those cultures, into a third culture. Although they may have one or two passports, they have a hard time answering "Where are you from?" They have an easier time associating with people of similar backgrounds, belonging everywhere and nowhere at the same time. This worldview stays with the child through to adulthood. There are various other traits, about relationships, higher education, employment choices, linguistic skills etc…which I find quite interesting. Although I can be critical of broad/general theories, I found this one to be quite on point and I enjoyed reading about it:  Safe (and light) travels! 

  5. Joe,
    Still learning from you
    Gramps with Nans

  6. Always amazing pics Joe. Those words hit home as I try to follow a similar path. Slowly getting there…and I will. But I admit, I think that the dog's stuff is getting ridiculous and I know that when I pack him it, it amounts to more than mine. 😉
    Maybe I'll try to get in touch for a run when I am in Victoria next year.

    Hey Joe,
    Though we only briefly met once (dirty thirty), I've enjoyed your views in your writing and your photos.  I think the longest I've lived in one place since I was 18 has been a year at most.  As I get ready to leave Boulder (and Colorado) yet again for the third time since first moving here in 06, and possibly for good this time, your post crystalizes my current thoughts.   Also, your desire to settle eventually is cyclical.  I feel that way nearly every time during transition and in the fresh phase of a new place.  It passes and the wondering begins.
    Enjoy your new place.

  8. Joe,
    After newly reading several of your posts regarding both running and living, I would like to applaud you in positively utilizing a seemingly natural talent you posses in putting thoughts into words. Nothing is more credible than a person appreciating the talents bestowed upon them. It makes what that person does seem effortless, not effortful. Strong work.

  9. Nice Joe…I love reading your posts and also enjoy all the amazing photos.  
    It's funny because I just had to write an essay yesterday for grad school entrance (the same day you wrote this) about materialism in our society and I found myself writing about the notion of "less is more".
    This weekend Erica and I and some other neighbors decided to have a multi-unit yard sale in our courtyard getting rid of many useless things around the house that we accumulated and probably getting rid of some of those "sentimental attachments" as well.  Thanks for this post…I think it'll help me in finding things to let go of this weekend.  
    See you soon brother!!!    Hood is patiently waiting for us!!!!

  10. Thanks.

  11. Thank you all for the thoughtful comments. 
    Brad – I'm sure it was inspiring being in Denmark for a bit as I've read they are some of the happiest people on earth. 
    Adam – "Third Culture Kid", I like it. Definitely struggle to concisely tell people where I'm from when I first meet them…there's a sign at the entrance of the Monkey Temple in Kathmandu that lists pricing for different visitors. One is for "Third Country Tourists"..guess that was the one for me. 
    Moogy – hit me up for a run when you're in town. 

  12. Amazing Pictures, they express a lot of emotion. My best to you and your wife on your travels.

  13. Very Interesting Joe and beautiful pictures as always. I was just wondering if your "expansion" was due to more financial means or a different desired way of life? I'm really enjoying less is more now but I wonder if I had the means to have more would I still choose less.

    Got me thinking Joe… I wish I could make the trip to downsize… You have given me a kick start….  I will start the purge…Thanks for the thought..

  15. Brad – I found that settling in one place for a little longer rather than having more financial means was more of a contributing factor for me to collecting more things. Since I wasn't moving around as much and didn't need to cart things around with me, I got complacent but still convinced myself that I was living a minimal lifestyle. It's only when I moved again that I realized just how much I had. So for me it's really a lifestyle choice, being more aware and intentional with what I buy and trying to be as resourceful as I can, regardless of how much or little money I have. 

  16. Great words of wisdom I tried to live by all my life – as a military brat, and here, in US< having moved 11 times so far (ready for #12) in 18 years.
    At the same time, ready for roots, too..42 is that time, may be, finally, when I long to stay…but have to wait a bit longer.
    Best at UTMB.

  17. Hi Joe,
    I'm looking for a new pair of racing flats, what model are you wearing right now ?

  18. Roy – my favorite flats are the Adizero Rockets. Light, firm and good in the mountains as long as it's not too wet. 

  19. Thank you, im not sure but i think they are discontinued.

  20. Roy – I don't think it is going to be discontinued. If you're local running shop doesn't cary them and can't order them, you can find them online here;

  21. Thank you, that is really apreciated !

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  25. Right on, man! Sounds like the world of a touring musician. All the best.
    Rock it…

  26. My wife and I are planning to move to the area if she secures a post-doc at CU Boulder next year. We’ll see. A lot of what you wrote hit home with me. I feel like I’m constantly scanning my home: the cupboards, the closets, garage, shelves, trying to identify any items I can do without. It’s tireless how I can’t seem to find peace with what I have because part of me thinks “less is more” and another part of me is saying “upgrade this so that you’ll have a lighter, stronger, etc. one.” I suppose I just need to acknowledge those itching thoughts as a byproduct of living in the USA and move forward as best as I see fit. Also, like you mentioned, my wife and I, mostly I, have grappled with a sense of restlessness with where we live. It’s not that we don’t like it here, we do, but maybe the fact that it’s not permanent, or just the appeal of a new prospect (something better that’s just out of view) is enough to lodge in my mind like a dull ache that regularly fades on the weekends only to return with my Monday morning grind… Anyways, I just wanted to write and thank you for your blog. So far it looks like I’m really going to enjoy it, and hopefully I’ll be able to pursue similar adventures if we move up to CO next year. I started following you on Instagram. Congrats on the TD14er, Joe! Wow!

    • Thank you for the kind words, Ryan! Hope you make the move out to CO. It’s definitely the right place for us right now.


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