Minimalism on a Bicycle
Nearly fifteen months ago, we turned the lamp off in our apartment for the last time, left the keys on the counter, and pedaled away. We had slept in the living room on that last night because the apartment was empty and it was kind of spooky to sleep all the way back in the bedroom. After many months of dreaming about this trip and an extremely harried six weeks of moving everything out as quickly as possible, we were finally on our way. A long time has passed since we left our previous lives, enough time to forget what it was truly like, but we haven’t forgotten the experience of making that intentional change to living the way we are now.
Over these past many months, we have been extremely fortunate to be able to stay with dozens of generous and kind people across the US. All sorts of folks with different backgrounds and different living situations. And each time we step into a home, we find ourselves comparing this place where we will stay the night to some nebulous idea of a future home-of-our-own. ‘Could we live in this type of place?’ we wonder. After all the effort to get rid of everything many months ago, it is strange to even wonder about settling into an apartment again. We shudder at the idea of again accumulating all the accoutrements: lease, utilities, pots and pans, towels, furniture. It all feels so unbelievably foreign and burdensome.
Yet, we have also discovered that the urge to “have” does not go away. I do not want to buy more things and haul them around with me on my bicycle. But I also have a love of reading that can easily manifest itself into three paperback books at a time, each of them tumbling around in my pannier. And I cannot express how much I truly and deeply miss having a refrigerator and an oven and sleeping on an actual mattress. We ride through towns with a a great bike culture and we long for lighter-weight bicycles of our own, perfect for bombing through city streets. We laugh about how we did not reach that level of minimalist nirvana, of rising completely above the desire for stuff. Rather, like other cycle tourists we know, we have become mildly obsessed with our stuff, knowing that we have to carry each individual thing, so it all needs to work really well and serve an extremely useful function.
There are a lot of ideas milling around on the internet about how to achieve minimalism. Many of them fall into the “count your things” category. I recently stumbled onto the 333 Fashion Project, in which you cull your wardrobe down to just 33 items and wear only those pieces for 3 entire months. It’s a fascinating idea, and I love to see folks rally behind a project that will help them think more critically and live more mindfully. I also chuckle a little bit because I’ve been living my own 15-15 Project:15 items of clothing for 15 months. Of course, it’s not a contest, but it does give me pause. Do we need something bigger than ourselves to tell us when enough is enough?
Ironically, neither of us were self-defined minimalists before this trip. We had so much stuff spread all over our way-too-big apartment. Every attempt to cull a few things just ended up in frustration and resignation. Now, though, as we begin to think about slowing our momentum and staying in one place for the winter, we realize how nervous we are about the possibility of collecting stuff again. I think about the things that we might find ourselves wanting and needing over the winter – sheets, towels, blankets, u-locks, a better rain jacket – and I cringe at the idea of purchasing and owning all these items, finding a place to put them when “at home,” and getting rid of them all again when we hop back on the bikes. All of this has made us realize that minimalism isn’t about the actual stuff you own (how much or how little), but about your relationship to that stuff (your thought process upon purchase and awareness of its impact on your life-at-large). And it’s also not something we can just check off a to-do list, it’s something that we have to continually think about and work on, even when everything you own has to fit on a bicycle.
April October 14, 2010 at 8:15 am
I wonder how much of that stuff you could just borrow…
Plus, there’s always thrift stores for stuff like sheets and towels and blankets. Goodwill always seems to have lots of acrylic hand-crocheted blankets. They’re in eye-bleeding colors sometimes, though.
Skip the furniture except for a mattress on the floor.
Renting a room in a house means that there’s already furniture in most rooms and a kitchen with dishes in it.
In other words, live like a broke college student!
Logan October 14, 2010 at 10:05 am
Great reflection. Its amazing how relationships matter not only with other people but also with the stuff we carry with us daily. Being mindful of these relationships is indeed a continual moment by moment process. We have noticed that with more things creeping into our life we have to continually take more and more time to make little choices. For example when you are cooking and you go to reach for a knife you stop and consider which knife; then you reach for a pan and stop to think, “which pan?”. After you have “enough” life gets much more complicated with more stuff. Barry Schwartz has a great TED talk on this phenomena called “the paradox of choice”. 🙂
Tucker October 14, 2010 at 11:07 am
Speaking as someone who is thoroughly bogged down with all the typical American stuff, I have to say your minimalism sounds wonderful. I relish the idea of having to face into the ‘issue’ of what to do if we ended up with a bit more stuff than we have right now. Someday, maybe.
Elise October 14, 2010 at 2:12 pm
Several years ago we took a (relatively) short and easy B&B type bike tour in Italy, and I remember having a bit of the same thoughts after that. We really realized how little “stuff” you really need, and it was nice to feel light an not burdened by taking care of all that stuff we own.
I’ve recently been on a binge of trying to downsize our belongings because it’s too much. My 3-year old twins scatter their stuff everywhere and I’m constantly picking it up. Kind of makes me want to get a big dumpster and chuck it all in – but then I feel guilty about throwing out useable stuff. Ah, the delima of it all. I agree that it does make me think more when I go to buy something new – do I really need this? do I want to take care of/keep track of this? I might buy it anyway, but at least it is consciously.
Richard Díaz-Cataldo October 14, 2010 at 2:15 pm
Very thoughtful post! We are children of an excessively consumerist society. How much can we “detoxify” ourselves from it, I don’t know, but we certainly have much more than what is needed to live.
Have you considered traveling outside a Western country?
Richard October 14, 2010 at 3:09 pm
This is amongst my favorite of ya´ll´s posts so far, and reminds me that the happiest I have been in my relationship with my stuff was when, at 19, I got rid of most everything I had with the exception of what could fit in one box and one backpack. I left the box at mys sister´s house and took my backpack with me on my first trip alone abroad. When I came back, I didn´t even get the box back from my sister, but I did start to accumulate again. I think I move every few years for a similar reason: it helps me to get rid of the excess.
yet i did buy a new (old) bike last night…
Simple Living News Update October 15, 2010 at 7:01 am
[…] Minimalism on a Bicycle “Nearly fifteen months ago, we turned the lamp off in our apartment for the last time, left the keys on the counter, and pedaled away. We had slept in the living room on that last night because the apartment was empty and it was kind of spooky to sleep all the way back in the bedroom. After many months of dreaming about this trip and an extremely harried six weeks of moving everything out as quickly as possible, we were finally on our way. A long time has passed since we left our previous lives, enough time to forget what it was truly like, but we haven’t forgotten the experience of making that intentional change to living the way we are now.” […]
rob perks October 15, 2010 at 8:31 am
If you are worried about having to hole up for the winter, do what millions of NE folk have done for a century….
….head to Florida, you will do anything but freeze even in the coldest of cold by their standards. Just get past the midle hlf and you ae home free, you could pass a whole winter in the Keys, just an idea to keep the blood moving.
Weekly Roundup: Back To The Future Edition | Part Time Vagabond October 15, 2010 at 9:18 am
[…] you around $65,000. Ok, maybe that’s too rich for your blood. Russ & Laura talk about the trials and tribulations of scrapping just about everything to ride their bikes around the […]
World Spinner October 15, 2010 at 9:44 am
Minimalism on a Bicycle | The Path Less Pedaled…
Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……
marty October 15, 2010 at 9:57 am
rent everything you need for the winter buy what you can’t rent and donate it to a thrift store when you leave
Sue October 15, 2010 at 11:57 am
At the age of 60 and the end of a 35 year marriage, I have come to enjoy the rewards of simplicity purely by accident and now it is directing me in a way that purports to define my future. I have occupied our single room ‘pied a terre’ in the city while he has stayed in the big country house for the past 3.5 years. With a settlement, I could expand my space but I so appreciate the lack of stuff and the time now spent out and about that I expect I will employ a designer to make this the most beautiful and efficient bachelor pad ever! Then I will have travel adventures, having turned the key on this minimalist space that will always be a welcome, efficient “home” to return to.
Karen October 18, 2010 at 12:26 pm
We’ve gotten rid of stuff and then collected and de-cluttered once again as we’ve moved from place to place. Each time we seem to collect less stuff overall (usually from thrift stores), and find it easy to part with it when the time comes.
I believe its given us a healthier relationship with stuff overall, and its always fun to bless ppl with some stuff they were wanting when its time for us to depart with it again.
Harry, WorldOnaBike.com October 18, 2010 at 4:52 pm
Wonderful, my thoughts exactly. We have been on the road now for 2.5 years and it is so great to need nothing more (and often needing less) than what we have in our bike panniers.
Oh, yes, I am carrying 3 books as well, including one of over 1 kilo, so there is always room for improvement 🙂
Keep rolling, Cheers from Bolivia, Harry & Ivana
Daniel young October 23, 2010 at 9:56 pm
I stood in front of my storage locker so filled with stuff I couldn’t step inside. What value had I given this stuff before I left and what value do I give it now?
Before my trip it was my identity. It helped create who I thought I was. But after a year on a bicycle I no longer defined myself by what owned, but by what was I’m my heart.
Was I brave enough to rid myself of all processions? The fear of loosing my identity almost swept me away, and if not for a couple of lessons learned from the back of a bike, would have easily returned to an identity of mass consumption.
I drove the unpacked boxes to The Salvation Army.
The lessons learned from the seat of a bike:
In order to receive – you must first give and what you give – you WILL receive.
All questions will be answered.
All that is needed will be provided.
And the hardest lesson of all to learn…
TRUST – that all the above is true.
The Path Less Pedaled October 27, 2010 at 7:19 am
[…] In a recent post you talked about “minimalism on a bicycle“. Can you define what a healthy or ideal relationship with stuff looks […]
Kevin September 7, 2012 at 6:57 pm
Though I am not the author, I feel comfortable replying to this question. An ideal relationship to possessions, to me, are owning things that provide keys to certain aspects of living. IE, a bicycle is an easily maintained vehicle that enables the user to travel in a very affordable fashion. A computer enables one to share ideas. A camera can capture a moment. An instrument can create music and an enjoyable soundscape. A paint brush can transfer one’s thought to a visual medium.A shovel can shape the Earth, and so on and so forth.
Mere accumulation of things is usually an empty goal. Humans gain satisfaction through using creative energy in whatever way suits their interests. Personally I think use of one’s creative force is a key to happiness. It is only natural that the guitarist love and care for co’s instrument – it is the tool of co’s art. There’s nothing wrong with possessions, but some wisdom comes to mind:
Know when you have enough.
Don’t let the things you own end up owning you.
Try to get things second-hand. Especially furniture!!
Anyway, I am replying to a post two years old. Oh well!
Julia September 25, 2013 at 2:18 pm
This is exactly how I felt after finding a new home after our house fire. We had a fresh new start and a clean slate. Almost 5 months later, I look over our house at the things we’ve accumulated since. In spite of fighting the urge to fill our new place, we have accumulated more than I wish to be kicking around. It’s time to reexamine what we have after replacing some of the things we lost.
Julia September 25, 2013 at 2:22 pm
One positive aspect of the fire was that it gave us an opportunity to more seriously challenge our attachments to stuff that we did willingly on our own.
gr8bkset July 13, 2018 at 11:51 pm
In 2014, my friend and I did the John Muir trail. My full pack weighed 32 lbs, of which 18 lbs was food and water. We were never bored because we were hiking through some of the most challenging and beautiful landscapes. We ate oatmeal and freeze-dried foods for 24 days, but anything tasted good as a reward after a strenuous day. We had two changes of clothes, but that was enough to cover us. In fact, we had all our needs met and would have preferred even less things to weigh us down. My most precious possession was my smartphone. And the only thing I wished I had brought with me were sandals for walking around camp.
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What a thoughtful piece of self examination. Thanks.