In February, David Walters and Laurel Sprague left Georgia for New Mexico in search of better employment prospects. The young couple now lives in an RV at a KOA campground in Bernalillo, where they work two days a week for a combined income of $900 a month, plus free rent. Savings have been depleted; they're starting to rely on credit cards. From an outside perspective, one might pass precipitous judgment that David and Laurel have had their lives torn asunder by the recession. But they choose to view their life as an adventure.
When the couple met three years ago in Athens, Georgia, David co-owned a thriving remodeling business and Laurel worked in retail at a high-end jewelry store. As David describes it, late last summer his remodeling business "just stopped." Heading into the Fall, Southern Style Carpentry had no projects, no prospects, and a small lump of debt, so David worked out a deal with his business partner that would allow him to walk away from the company. "I didn't really want to, but I didn't see any other option," David recalls.
In October 2008, after splitting their cache of tools, David turned over his share of the business to his partner, who thus assumed its burden of debt. Released from his business commitments, "I was just hoping to get a $10 an hour job in construction, just to get us through the recession," David says. He learned quickly that no such jobs existed in the current economic environment.
The couple had always abstractly discussed how they'd like to move somewhere else, simply to experience a different environment. With David still unemployed as 2009 arrived, the grass looked greener anywhere but Georgia, which transformed that abstract idea into a concrete plan. "We were thinking the more people in a place, the more potential business it would have," Laurel recalls. She had earned a sizeable Christmas bonus, and they had a little savings that could cushion the transition of a move. So Laurel quit the job she hadn't enjoyed for a long time anyway, they packed what they could into a pop-up camper borrowed from Laurel's parents, and pointed David's truck for Albuquerque, New Mexico.
After establishing a homebase at the KOA in Bernalillo, a northern suburb of Albuquerque, they started "big time looking for a job. Online, by foot, everywhere," Laurel recounts. None of their efforts were panning out, so when the owner of the KOA approached them with an offer of working two days a week for free rent and a small stipend, they seized it. It's only a Tuesday-Thursday commitment, which leaves them plenty of time to seek other opportunities.
Laurel landed a second job for a time, working three months in a pet store, until it declared bankruptcy and closed. When David got a job at Wal-Mart, it made him happy to have the work, though unsettled by what the new position represented: "I'd always said if all else fails, I'll go work at Wal-Mart." To accept the job offer, he had to accept that all else had failed. "But I've just learned not to worry about it," he says. "A lot of people are worse off than us."
When Laurel's parents suggested that they'd like to hire the couple for some remodeling work on their house, David did not hesitate to quit Wal-Mart for a one-month trip back to Georgia. Reinvigorated by a return to his chosen craft and buttressed by a chunk of money their efforts earned, the couple returned to New Mexico committed to starting a new remodeling business.
Laurel's parents reclaimed the pop-up camper, but helped finance the purchase of a new travel trailer after banks rejected Laurel's loan application, despite her excellent credit record. In one benefit of the recession, the couple was able to buy a 33-foot Keystone Passport travel trailer for about 40% below the MSRP.
As it has been for Michael Babins in Texas, adopting the RV lifestyle has been a kind of revelation. "We love it," Laurel says. If an opportunity materializes somewhere else, they won't have to worry about breaking a lease or selling a house--attaching the trailer to David's truck makes them packed and ready to move. "And there are environmental perks," Laurel adds. "We don't use as much electricity or water. And as consumers, we can't fill it up with a bunch of stuff we don't really need." Considering David's design and carpentry skills, they've always planned to buy a little plot of land and build their own house at some point. But until they're ready for that--in maybe five or ten years they hope--they'll be content living in their compact and transportable home.
The website for their new remodeling and carpentry business, Split River Designs, is now online, and they've spent the past couple of weeks promoting their services, spending hours walking through neighborhoods to flyer houses and introduce themselves to local business owners. Laurel still puts in applications anywhere that might be hiring, though it sometimes feels like a pointless waste of time. It's just not in her nature to give up, particularly not now.
September will be the first month the couple won't be able to pay off their credit card, which means they have to start carrying a balance with usurious interest rates. Their health insurance runs around $500 a month, so under the current circumstances, they don't feel like they have any choice but to join the ranks of many millions of uninsured Americans. If nothing improves in their situation, that $500 a month could max out their available line of credit pretty quickly. "We just have to hope Obama passes the public option. And soon," David admits.
Even though Laurel has the one small job at KOA, is actively seeking another one of any kind--hopefully including health benefits--and works to generate business for their new remodeling and design start-up, next week she will also begin school for an MA in humanities. It's an online course through Tiffin University, which minimizes the cost of an advanced degree while maximizing flexibility for her time. Still, I don't know when she will be getting any sleep.
Sitting in the KOA office while David and Laurel recount their story for me, I'm reminded of one particular comment Alexis de Tocqueville made regarding the American character--a keen insight that has animated my own thinking throughout this journey.
"Born often under another sky, placed in the middle of an always moving scene, himself driven by the irresistible torrent which draws all about him, the American has no time to tie himself to anything, he grows accustomed only to change, and ends by regarding it as the natural state of man. He feels the need of it, more he loves it; for the instability; instead of meaning disaster to him, seems to give birth only to miracles all about him."
Is that willingness, or even eagerness, to leap into the unknown embedded in the American cultural DNA? From the European seamen who arrived during the Age of Exploration, to the pilgrims, early colonists, subsequent waves of immigrants and refugees--all have left known lives behind and forged headlong into uncertainty, with ambition, ingenuity, and hope packed alongside whatever possessions they could carry.
Lacking that element of our national character, would we have had the Oregon Trail, the gold rush, or Salt Lake City? If things were otherwise, would Laurel and David still be living in Athens, Georgia? Would Pat Poole be hitchhiking across the country? Would Anthony Ellington be relentlessly roadtripping in search of employment wherever it may be found? Would Michael Babins have re-defined his American Dream?
I don't have answers to these questions, but they're the ones that occupy my mind during long hours of driving.