“It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.” – a quote attributed to Muhammad Ali (adapted from an early 20thcentury printing which referenced a grain of sand)
The mountain before me is one-million dollars high. Unfortunately, there is no established trail to the top of this abstract peak. From where I stand, obstacles ahead remain a mystery. But I have committed to, and already begun, my route to the top. All the while, there has been a pebble in my shoe.
Eleven months ago I finished the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and immediately started my ascent of the Million Dollar Mountain. When I reference this Mountain I am speaking of the challenge to earn a net worth of one-million dollars, assets minus liabilities. When people ask me what my next adventure is, I tell them “I’m in it as we speak.”
My route to the top will be through what I can build and ultimately sell. Because dates drive decisions, I’ve given myself until my 30th birthday to complete this challenge.
While I can’t discuss specifics at this time because of the public nature of this site, I can say the van I’ve been building has a specific purpose to support my pursuit of this route.
Progressing slowly over the last year, I am still very much in love with this pursuit. Life as I described it back when I left my engineering job on April Fool’s Day 2016, was predictable. I could see how each year would unfold before I lived it. What has happened since, I could not have predicted.
Part of the unpredictability has been the attempt to balance building something in spite of my expenses. Having spent all I had to complete the PCT, my decisions have been driven by what I could bring in, what I needed to buy, and what was left over. Ultimately what will get me to the top of this mountain will be built in my free time, not earned on an average day’s wage.
I did not return to engineering a year ago in fear that I may fall into a predictably comfortable groove. Nine months ago I walked into a Mercedes-Benz dealership and became a car salesman. I paid the bills but felt like I was burning both ends of the rope, spending more time than the pay check was worth. Four months ago I quit that job with my Mountain in mind and eventually earned a business development role with and mechanical engineering company.
So far I’ve been flexible and made some creative decisions. There has certainly been disappointment. But I can say nothing has worn me out more than this pebble in my shoe.
When I was maybe 9 years old, my mother took me and brother who is six years my junior to the airport. This was not a vacation. We had been straight uplifted during the school week in February to beautiful Orange County, California.
With no concept of what was happening at the time, I can see now that we were kidnapped. Over a period of days we went from living in a hotel to spending a couple nights in a foster home when my mother was taken into hospital care. My father came to the rescue.
Though once a fun, charismatic, intelligent woman, fluent in French, an excellent pianist, and a religion teacher at an all-girl's school, my mom was, and still is, mentally ill.
After that defining trip, my youth was never the same. There was a stretch between age 14 and 18 I did not see her once.
My parents are still married. My dad is her legal guardian as she barely has the ability to care for herself, much less live on her own.
You know those vows, for better or worse? My dad is living out his commitment to worse.
When I went away to college, I absolutely never considered the possibility of returning home, or returning to Cleveland for that matter.
But life has a funny way of leading you to those decisions you said you’d never make.
Before the PCT ended I knew where I had to start if I wanted to climb the Mountain. The only way I could conceivably build a tiny home inside a van was to return home, not just to visit, but to live there.
I had no money, no tools, and no job.
Immediately there was conflict. Within the first week or two I found my functioning lap top in a garbage can in the garage. She had put it there.
The noise never stops. By no exaggeration, regardless of time of day or night, there is not a continuous hour of silence in this house. I wear ear plugs to bed (an almost long enough couch in the family room). This is quite the change of pace from the PCT where I could go more than a day without seeing a person.
Imagine having a conversation with a mildly aggressive homeless person outside of a sports stadium. Every few fragments of unrecognizable, flat out crazy thought, they ask you for cigarettes or soda. And then after a few moments you decide to take them home with you to be your roommate.
That’s my pebble. Unfortunately, it’s my dad’s cross.
The choice to move out may seem obvious at this point. But it’s not.
I had to live at home. My van payment is $700 a month. I pay back an additional $600 a month on debt. In order to make headway on the van I had to eliminate a rent payment.
It’s been a slog, but still the van is coming together. When this propane tank is fully installed any day now I’d say the van is 75% complete.
The months leading up to this have been make a little buy a little (for the van). Make a little, buy a little.
And because I would classify the attempt to make a million dollars in three years as an art instead of a science, I have also spent money as a 27-year-old American Millennial would.
I believe very much in inspiration through osmosis of a social environment. In fact the job I have now all started with my telling of this story to a stranger at a bar.
I also continue to pursue unrelated creative outlets. I still make time to take pictures all over the place and I even write a page a day towards my own screen play (not related to this story at all).
My current position grosses $73,000 per year before commission.
To be safe, let’s assume I don’t earn any commission for a year. After taxes my take home pay is a little over $4,200 a month. With all my general expenses before rent, I’m able to set aside around $1,750 per month, contributing nothing towards retirement (that’s what the million dollars is for).
Things happen, like a spending $600 on a radiator and heater fix for my Jeep last week. Within a few weeks I may feel compelled to buy a hardtop to make my old Jeep climate controlled on those long drives around the state for work. And I still have a couple tanks to buy for the van, and a bathroom to build.
What might start out at $1,750 per month could easily dwindle down to $1,250 a month when accounting for all things unseen.
That $1,250 a month doesn’t leave much, if anything, when rent becomes part of the equation.
Money I’m able to set aside these days will be critical in about a year.
A choice to take on a rent payment is a measurable loss in the neighborhood of $8,000.
The difference between say $4,000 and $12,000 is tremendous for what I’m attempting. Whatever my burn rate winds up being when I start the clock on what I’m working on, the money I’ve set aside determines how long I have to make my plan viable.
But there’s this frickin’ pebble in my shoe.
And I have to solve that problem. I can’t walk another step like this.
So what do I do?
I get lucky (a recurring theme).
By some miracle I found a one-bedroom apartment in Ohio City, one of Cleveland’s young neighborhoods for $600 a month. These days you’d be hard-pressed to find a one-bedroom place anywhere for less than $500 a month. My new place is a quarter mile from the authentically historic West Side Market and all those bars that have popped up over the last few years. And it is actually clean. Oh, and, its on the top floor (which means I’m closer to God, annnd I won’t be hearing footsteps overhead).
With rent at $600 month and figure another $100 for utilities, I’ll be out $8,400 compared to staying at home.
I justify this decision by looking at that pebble in my shoe. It is not the mountain ahead that will wear me out. I have to keep going. And I can’t keep going like this.
To end with a line I love from the band Jamestown Revival’s song “Wandering Man”:
“This wandering man has a hell of a plan but he’s running out of time.”