Updated: Aug 19, 2022
If you had asked me ten years ago when I thought I would retire, I would have snorted. Retire? Ha! There was no plan. There was no portfolio. We were self-employed. I—we—would have to work until we dropped.
If you had asked me six years ago when I thought I would retire, I would have sighed. Retire. What a nice idea. Perhaps, with two of us working as teachers, we would finally be able to save up a little nest egg, secure little pensions, and actually retire at 65 like normal Americans.
If you had asked me three years ago when I thought I would retire, I would have squinted into the future and guessed maybe age 56 or so. Retire—early. That will be amazing if we can pull it off. By that time we had successfully learned how to ignore the Joneses, minimize our expenses, and maximize our assets. We could teach at the school a few more years, then move to Panama or some other place with a very low cost of living and survive on the rental income(s) generated from our Montana home, plus the home we were hoping to purchase in Oregon, plus the meager teaching pensions we would have earned by that time.
Then the housing market went crazy. Even though we had saved up a sizable down payment, all the offers we made on houses in Oregon were beaten out by cash. Try as we might, we couldn’t buy a house. Eventually, we realized it didn’t make any sense to keep trying.
Last July we abruptly quit our teaching jobs—a difficult decision we had not planned for, but the right one under the circumstances at the time. That very same week, I picked up a job selling appliances in Missoula, a few towns away, even though I knew nothing about appliances or sales in general. Andy devoted himself to projects around our Montana property and worked a few hours part-time as a consultant for the school district back in Oregon. Combined, we did better financially this year than we ever did with both of us teaching.
This July, I abruptly gave my notice at the appliance store. I had planned to stay longer, but I needed to be home to help Andy care for his dad, a job that had become increasingly difficult and all-encompassing.
Last week, with only one more day to go in my job selling refrigerators, his dad passed away. We had known the end was coming, but we hadn’t thought it would come that soon.
Please keep your hands and arms inside the car until the ride comes to a full and complete stop.
This marks the first week since we were teenagers that we have both found ourselves completely unemployed. Full stop. We don’t plan to seek other jobs. We are done. We will finish a few projects around the property, finish building out Walter, our expedition vehicle, and hopefully, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, hit the road to travel full time by next spring or summer. We don’t have an end date in mind at this point.
The crazy housing market, even if it continues to soften a bit, is now in our favor. In 2004, we bought a humble two bedroom, one bath home with a cockpit of a kitchen—but set on six acres with a killer view—for what would now be considered pocket change. Andy got to work on it right away and it is now a six bedroom, four bathroom house with a huge vaulted kitchen, three large decks, a finished basement, a large workshop with its own one bedroom apartment, an RV pad with full hook-ups, and a somewhat landscaped yard—on six acres with a killer view. It is worth more than pocket change now.
Negotiations have already begun with a prospective buyer. If this one falls through, there will be others. Our rural area, removed as it is from big city politics, is in high demand. And did I mention our killer view? We stand to make a tidy sum on the sale. That sum can be maximized to provide us with ample monthly income indefinitely—particularly if we continue to pursue this crazy dream of living off-grid, traveling very slowly with our home on our back, boondocking as much as possible, all in places with a very low cost of living.
People tend to think that only the wealthy or lucky get to retire early or do a lot of international travel. But we will actually be saving a significant amount of money by leaving the expensive American lifestyle for a frugal life of international travel. We have no interest in all-inclusive resorts or fancy cruises or multi-day passes to theme parks. We are not pursuing the typical American dream at all. We are not trying to keep up with the Joneses. The Joneses, tied down by possessions as they are, won’t be able to keep up with us.
[Allow me to pause here and point out something obvious to us, but perhaps not to everyone. The only reason we have been able to quit our jobs and pursue our dreams this early is because of home ownership. It is the single most important determining factor for those not born into generational wealth to achieve this type of financial flexibility. Generations of racially discriminatory “redlining” policies kept people of color—not all, but MANY—from ever reaching this stage. As a result, poverty was the most common inheritance bequeathed from one generation to the next, again and again, in these United States, the land of the supposedly free. This quiet, behind-the-scenes racial discrimination has shaped cultural mindsets from all sides with far-reaching and terribly damaging effects. If you are not educated about redlining and other related systemic forms of racism, you need to take it upon yourself to do a little research. Redlining was real; it was pervasive; and though it is no longer officially legal, it has had devastating effects on American society. Andy and I fully acknowledge that without the ability to purchase a home in a desirable location, hold onto it for decades, then sell it when the market is higher, we would not be anywhere close to where we are today.]
So here we are, quite a few years earlier than expected, retired. Between us, we barely qualify for the mid-fifties age category. Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles. We realized, though, that there was no one to throw us a retirement party. No one would be buying us a cake and wishing us well. There would be no little send-off in the break room. So, masters of improvisation as we are, we took matters into our own hands.
We went to the best grocery store bakery in Missoula and picked out a cake from the display, then requested that the bakery lady behind the counter please write on it. She asked what I wanted written. I peered at her intently and asked how good her icing penmanship is. She read the hand-written note I slid across the counter, then sized up the blank slate we had selected—a quarter sheet cake with chocolate frosting, a simple border, and no flowers. After a few quick mental calculations, she nodded confidently and asked what color we wanted for the writing. A small chortle may have escaped my throat before I told her to choose any color she thought would look good—even multiple different colors. She didn’t know, of course, that we were Andy and Sherry, the guests of honor named on the aforementioned note, and that her choice of color(s) would be the only element of surprise for our little retirement party.
We wandered the aisles of the store for a few minutes, picking up party supplies while we waited—chilled beverages, chips, a bag of glossy cherries, some paper plates and plastic forks—then we went back to the bakery to retrieve our cake.
“Happy Retirement,” was in royal blue. She had clearly started the word ‘happy’ too big and had to really work to fit ‘retirement’ in there. But that bakery lady has skills. She even remembered the comma.
“Andy & Sherry” was perfectly rendered on the next line, in lime green.
Along the bottom, in bright yellow, was our parenthetical note, “(Glad you survived)”
It was perfect. The bakery lady and I grinned at each other. She had no idea.
We marched to the car with our treasures and began to plan our party, scheduled to commence within the hour.
While we drove down Reserve Street in silence, still half an hour from home, I turned to my husband and, in all seriousness, said, “Andy, I am glad you survived almost drowning the other day. I don’t know what I would do without you. I’m so glad you called for help when you did. And I am so glad that I remembered to call for help and that the guy on the trail was a good swimmer and was willing to jump in with me. I am just so glad you survived.”
“Mmm,” he nodded thoughtfully. “Thank you for saying that. And thank you for saving me. It’s still so hard to believe I came that close to leaving you alone already.”
(See Andy’s recent post for the whole story of that near tragedy.)
We sat in silence again for a moment, both lost in our thoughts. Then he turned to me, briefly catching my eye before his focus returned to the traffic on Reserve. “And Sherry, I am glad you survived this craziness with our housemate. The stress level has been unreal. So many wrongful accusations, so much yelling, so much about you she never did understand. I am just so glad you survived.”
“Thank you,” I murmured. “It was a really hard time for both of us. How could we have known it would turn into a scene like that? I'm so glad we were able to get her moved yesterday so our home can be a peaceful place again.”
“Andy,” I continued, “I am so glad you survived caring for your dad all these years—especially the last two months. It has taken a lot out of you and you have given up so much. But you promised your mom you would do it, and you did it. You cared for him well until the very end, but it has come at a great cost. I am glad you survived.”
We went back and forth like this for most of the ride home, formally acknowledging things that have been very difficult in the other person’s life and somberly affirming our gratitude for their survival. The events we mentioned went back a good fifteen years. It was a simple exercise there in the cab of the pick-up truck, yet somehow just verbalizing it all was so cathartic. The cake in my lap said “glad you survived” in bright yellow and we were. We were each glad that the other had survived.
Our marriage wasn’t always like this, mind you. We have gone through the typical ups and down, but we also went through a very long dry spell when we were each just as happy to have our own distractions and lives and didn’t feel much affection for each other. I wasn’t sure we would make it to twenty years of marriage, to be honest. But we are back, better than ever, closer than we were as newlyweds. Back then, when we were young and in love and fairly foolish, it was all so exciting and new. We hadn’t had time to have any real struggles yet. Now, a few months shy our 30th anniversary, we can look back over all we have come through and realize that the closeness we share now means so much more than it did then. We have seen each other at our worst, and we have chosen to stay.
We have been through some things, friends.
(Glad you survived)
When we finally ran out of specific examples to acknowledge, we sat in silence again, holding hands across the cab of the truck, feeling a little spent, emotionally, as well as physically. As we pulled onto our little dirt road, though, we gathered ourselves and dug deep for some fresh energy. We had a party to attend, after all!
We changed into our swimsuits, grabbed towels and sunblock, chairs and a little table, then tossed our snacks into the cooler, grabbed the cake, and headed back out the door. The river, always a place of healing for us, was calling. Florence Bridge is our closest river access, but this was our retirement party. It called for something a little more special. We drove the other direction, toward Bell Crossing.
The informal parking area was packed, but we managed to find a little space under a little tree for my little car. Balancing the cake and all of our beach gear, we carefully slipped and skidded our way down the steep gravel bank to the wide swath of bleached white sand and river rock along the water’s edge. The river changes course frequently here, so we are never sure what to expect, but by this time in the season, the water levels are fairly low, so there is plenty of room for everyone to set up picnics and play in the cool, clear water. We noticed a dry beach had been exposed under one section of the bridge and we threaded our way between families and groups of teenagers and dogs chasing frisbees, toward the shade it provided.
Once we had set up our site, we wished each other a happy retirement, cut into our cake, and plopped down into our chairs under the bridge to eat it. We smiled in between bites, enjoying the happy scene around us—the bright glare of hot sun reflecting off the soft white sand and dancing on the rippled surface of the water, punctuated by the sounds of happy children, an occasional playful bark from a wet dog, and the echoing ker-splunk of each daredevil teenager as they jumped off the bridge into the deeper water nearby. It was a lovely way to spend a scorching hot summer afternoon.
When we had finished our own cake, it was time to move ahead with the rest of our party. We sliced the remainder of the quarter sheet and served it up onto the paper plates, then began to wander around the beach, plates in hand, to nearby groups of friends we had not yet met.
“Would you like to have some cake?”
“Oh, no thank you. That’s nice of you to offer, though.”
“No, really! We are having a little party and we would love to share it with you.”
“Seriously? Wow! That’s so cool! Kids, grab a slice of cake. What are we celebrating?”
“It’s our retirement party!”
“Retirement? Both of you? Congratulations! Good for you! What do you hope to do now? Maybe some travel?”
“Yes, that’s the plan.”
“Aw, that’s just great. Honey, come and get some cake! These folks are celebrating their retirement!”
This same basic scene was repeated several times over until we ran out of cake. We felt a little like we had gone out to the highways and byways and compelled them to come in to our banquet. In the process of bringing them joy (aka cake), we brought much joy to ourselves, as well. It was a most excellent party.
When the cake was gone and we had cleaned up our party debris, we grabbed beverages from the cooler and left our chairs to wade out into the shallows, where the rocks are smooth and the current is gentle. We gingerly lowered ourselves down into the cool water. It was not too cold to be enjoyable, but enough to elicit some small gasps and noises from each of us—at least for the first few seconds. Once adjusted, we relaxed on the river bottom, midstream, facing into the current. We let the healing water wash over our legs while the sun baked us from overhead.
We didn’t say much.
We were just so glad we survived.