Dusted off the podcast for this one. Disturbing to see so many missing the mark on this topic. This is actually an excerpt from a Patreon meetup last night, that entire convo audio is up on Patreon. Was very disappointed in the responses from the gun and self defense communities on this, but sadly not surprised either. If you don’t know, the truth is there’s a face for every hand, and a hand for every face, if we live in that world.
Hard skills are generally referred to as specialized, technical skills. I tend to think of them as the type of skills that matter most during hard times, such as mechanics, farming, welding, construction, etc. If we expand those hard times to include the current events in Ukraine, important hard skills could even include the use of weaponry and small unit/guerrilla tactics.
After more than a decade in the firearms and training industry, I grew tired of the obsession with the weaponry and fighting and annoyed with the willful ignorance of all of the more widely useful skills one could obtain. That obsession combined with and fueled by social media leads people to be very one dimensional. It’s as if every single problem will be solved by a plate carrier, a gun or a submission choke.
But what happens if the grid is damaged or destroyed and you have to make a broken generator work to have power for important family needs? What will you do when the supply chain is disrupted by government fuckery and global crisis and your vehicle breaks, but parts are not available right down the street anymore? (I mean, it’s damn near there now.)
Instead of owning 12 extra AR-15’s, how about a few backup rifles, a generator, a welder, and a good set of tools? Instead of taking 4 shooting classes and your 3rd medical course this year, why not take 2, and then take a welding class, an electrician course, a carpentry framing workshop?
Hard times don’t always explode upon you as a communist invasion on a Thursday morning. Most often, hard times will slowly creep in and life will just get harder and harder, almost too slowly to even notice at first: $2 gas becomes $3 gas, you adjust and keep going. Housing prices rise a few percentage points, you adjust and keep going. $3 gas becomes $3.50 gas, you adjust and keep going. Lumber, steel and food commodities rise a few percent, you adjust and keep going. Often, the market adjusts and the inflation is nipped off before it becomes unbearable.
But eventually, they can’t stop it. The pandemics, panics, wars and failed economic policies of corrupt governments and the global corporations that influence them eventually cause too much damage. Then, you are paying $4+ for a gallon of gasoline, housing prices in many places go up by 20%, lumber and steel prices make the construction of anything cost prohibitive for many people.
This is where we are now.
In 2021, since March of 2020, steel went up over 200%, lumber peaked out at a 280% increase, average rents increased over 15% nationwide with some cities seeing increases over 20% in a single year, housing prices followed suit, in 2021 alone fuel prices rose 58.7% over 2020 (according to the federal Energy Information Administration), and global food price index saw increases up to 30%. All of this happened in one 12 month period.
At the same time, Wages and salaries increased 4.5 percent for the 12-month period ending in December 2021 and increased 2.6 percent for the 12-month period ending in December 2020. You’ll notice that is nowhere near the increase needed to keep up with the aggressive inflation of fuel, commodities and housing. Those are some scary numbers. Keep in mind, we haven’t even begun to see the global implications of the Russian/Ukraine crisis (two very large producers of world commodities like oil, wheat and steel).
You can’t shoot that dangerous problem in the face, and no level of jiu jitsu game can ward off the dangers of this type of problem. Explaining it away doesn’t work either. Sure, you can point out the volatility of the housing market, or the fuel market, and that would be true. We have seen spikes and returns like that before in many of these markets. But ALL of them at the same time? No. That is not business as usual. This is that proverbial dead canary.
To talk about “preparation” in the self defense world is to typically push the ideas of weapons, ammunition, medical training, combat training and maybe resource stockpiling. But what will you do when the enemy is not a violent one, at least not at first. The attrition of a broken supply chain, a devalued dollar and rampant inflation can be a deadly yet silent and formless enemy. A recession can become a depression very easily, and it can happen while you ignore that it is even occurring. When the problem isn’t rogue bands of meth heads raiding your house, but rather is a simple broken control arm on your work truck, and the part can’t be bought anytime soon, or is cost prohibitive for you at the time, it will take a different set of skills to get by.
This is a set of skills that many of our grandparents and great grandparents had by necessity. Those skills are capabilities in industriousness, frugality, ingenuity, craftsmanship, self-sufficiency, bartering and cooperation. That is a list of skills we have largely lost in this society, our modern American culture is now built upon commercialism, throw-away products supplied by a thriving supply chain, full grocery stores and a total lack for the need to have hard skills to get by on. The problem comes when that culture is shocked by the disruption of that supply chain and the inability to continue to farm out your service needs to others.
The Way Forward
The best possible solution for us on an individual level is to be as skilled and prepared as possible. Now, follow me here. This isn’t a doom and gloom post fear mongering some Great Depression that will inevitably come. It may happen, it may not. The actions of our global governments and the morality of the global corporations will have a lot to do with which way it goes, so hold your breath according to your own beliefs about the future.
The things that I am suggesting here actually have very practical purposes and real rewards even in the best case scenario we can imagine. The development of yourself and your skills is never, ever, a bad thing. Learning skills to work with your hands, repair your essential property and equipment or to provide services to others on a small scale will enhance your life in many ways when things are good economically. Having a balance of skills and knowledge outside of what we love most, or what we do professionally, only makes us more capable.
Another thing I would love to see happen in my lifetime would be a significant increase in layman “schools”, that is, places where independent specialists in a given subject matter offer open enrollment training courses and classes to nonprofessionals to learn. In the same way that we have a wide open market of professionals in the firearms training world that offer open enrollment courses so the average non-law enforcement, non-military civilian can learn some real skills with weapons and defense, we need equivalent offerings in every other hard skill as well.
There are a growing number of these available now, and we need to see more growth. That happens when the demand for it becomes greater, so get out and learn something! I personally am writing this article at the Las Vegas airport while traveling back home from taking a few specialized TIG welding courses offered by a private company out here (The Fabrication Series). I plan on taking more courses in metal fabrication, metal shaping, welding, engine building and machinist operations for as long as I can afford to do it. I’m even on the lookout for courses in gardening, canning and food preservation, carpentry etc. because I can use all of those skills in good or bad times as well!
The two ways we create this alternative learning economy is to first be a student and add to the demand for professionals to take the time to teach others, and second to offer courses and training to others when you have mastered a skill that others could benefit from. Often the hobbyist, nonprofessional can learn, in just a few days, much of what is needed to teach themselves forward and get started with their own projects at home. In the absence of these private training opportunities, we are forced to attend a school or university with their grossly inflated tuition costs and equally fluffed curriculums.
For example, if I wanted to learn automotive TIG welding before, I would have had to either find a job with someone willing to teach on the job–near impossible to find–or I would have had to attend a full-blown course at a technical college learning more than I need for my particular goals (not to mention spending time and money that would not have a good ROI if I don’t plan on doing it for a profession. Now, I can hop on a plane and hit up a day or two of training, learn some hard skills and ways to practice them, and head back home to immediately apply that new knowledge.
No one can predict the future of our world. I seriously emphasize that point, no one can tell us what will happen in the wake of the unprecedented craziness we have experienced in the past two years. And it’s only getting worse so far. Learning how to fix things and keep things running may be a necessary skill in your lifetime. But even if it is not required to survive someday, why not use our ability to become smarter, increase our capabilities and become more self-sufficient? A huge bonus is that while we are doing all of that, we could be creating a learning economy that bypasses the stranglehold inflated schools have held for a hundred years and offers tailored learning opportunities for nonprofessionals to gain desired skills at affordable costs and time investments.
Because of the apparent inflation and obvious supply chain interruptions, I do suggest procuring any equipment that you have been thinking about getting. So get that tool set, generator or welder you’ve been pondering. It’s only getting more expensive and harder to get at this point. I am literally watching the equipment on my purchase list jump significantly in price while I budget to make the purchases.
In conclusion I am rambling on to say this: I don’t want to be one-dimensional, and I don’t want to be this reliant on the services and goods of a throw-away society. In the coming months I will share with you my personal journey of how I am implementing plans to change these things in my own life. I hope that I can inspire others to do the same. We need to change our culture. We need to reignite the traditions and industriousness of our past while embracing and using the technology of today. We need to be able to fight, defend and heal one another. We need to be strong and healthy. But we also need to be able to build, repair, create and grow what we need as well. We need balance. This is how you truly develop your power, and ultimately how we collectively take our power back.
I was invited on the Art of Manliness podcast recently. Brett McKay did a great job on this interview and the discussion was very interesting. Check it out here
This week I was interviewed by Riley over at the Concealed Carry Podcast. We discussed my latest book, Beyond OODA, and I had the chance to expand some concepts from the book during the conversation.
This was the first broadcast from my new office/work studio in Daytona Beach, which I have been working feverishly to complete so I can start creating new content after the move to the coast. Happy to be getting up and running again.
Beyond OODA is now available on Amazon in both Kindle and Paperback formats. Following a very successful first printing sale of signed copies, the book is now available on the open market. (The audiobook version, narrated by me, is in progress and will drop this fall or earlier). If you were waiting for the more affordable paperback, or the ebook version, here you go!
“Do you have any regrets?”
“No, no I don’t have many regrets. I just wish it wasn’t over. I regret that I can’t keep doing all the things I’ve loved doing. I just really wish I could keep on going forever.”
“Now he’s going to build choppers…oooh-K.”
I don’t talk about my plans openly much (at least until started blogging) but when I do, I find that I will often catch wind of responses like the one quoted above. In fact, in the last year or two I actually left a friend behind due to how he reacted to me sharing about my desire to open another custom shop, albeit a private one.
I even had my artist, Lorin Michki, do me up a straight BADASS logo for my shop, and I can’t wait to share it with everyone when it’s all properly protected and set up. I shared my logo and my plans with my friend, who I thought would be super receptive to the idea and think it was pretty cool. He wasn’t at all cool about it. In fact, he openly just pretty much doubted me and even trash talked some of my plans.
As they say,
“don’t nobody got time for that kind of negativity”
So, dovetailing off of my last blog post The One-Dimensional Dilemma, I wanted to dive deeper into the topics of craftsmanship and artistry, two things I spent a good part of my life chasing and will be returning to very soon.
Roots run deep and wide
I’ve lived many lives. It’s true. I hit the ground running and I have never stopped. I go all in. I succeed or fail, walk away or crash and burn, and then get right up the next day and go head first into the next endeavor. I’ve chased many dreams, lost many fortunes and made more mistakes than I’d care to remember (some I am still paying for). But I fucking do it, that’s for sure.
Way back into my youth my burning desire was to build custom cars and motorcycles. As a poor kid with no one to show me the ropes I just hustled my ass off, traded and bartered for blown up cars and parts, read every Hot Rod magazine or book I could get my hands on, and did the best I could. This was my small hope in between all the violence, drugs and drinking that went on in my whole world, and that I was a participant of, back then.
I didn’t grow up with a dad that had nice tools or any decent skills. I was lucky to have a garage, even though it had no door and no heat. That’s where I got my start.
I think I was 14 when I dragged home my first car, a running 1976 Camaro. Probably bartered or hustled to get the $200 I paid for it. Between then and when I went to prison at 19, I probably had over 20 cars and a few bikes, swapped a dozen motors and transmissions and had collected a respectable collection of parts. Man, I’d give anything to have those parts today, they’d be worth ten times as much as they were then.
Straight out of prison at 24, while I continued to train and workout, I attended the auto body program at Owens State in Toledo, Ohio. I graduated that program in less time than allotted by taking 20 hour weeks of coursework while I did 40 hour weeks at Larry Pahl’s Body Shop in Bowling Green, Ohio.
I also lived in an abandoned apartment that had no electricity for $150 a month. The nice landlady’s son was my cellmate in lockup, so she hooked me up. She even let me run an extension cord over, so I had that going for me. I spent 18 months there, and it was not a bad life at all.
I left there and enrolled at Northwestern University in Lima, Ohio for high performance mechanics. I didn’t even finish two semesters though because I was offered a job from one of my hero’s, Scott Guildner, at Scott’s Rod and Custom in Van Nuys, CA. I mean, at that time Scott was literally on the cover of Rod and Custom magazine like every other month, so this was a fucking dream job.
About two years out of prison, living on my own from day one, I owned about 8 cars and trucks: two 72 Torino’s, a 78 Camaro, a 70 Newport, etc. So I had to sell some off, move some around, and I took a beat up Chevy K20 with a smashed fender and slapped a brand new crate 350 4 bolt in it, and I broke that bitch in hauling my Uhaul trailer from Ohio to Van Nuys with my doberman pup, Thor.
As it turned out, I hated LA, so I wasn’t there long at all. Thor was also killed there at the young age of 9 months old, so I was over it. But I had seen what I needed to see. I got to watch and study the work of a master fabricator. I lived in an apartment over the shop so I was there 24/7. My driveway was full of Barris customs, chopped 49 Merc’s, chopped 32’s…just endless cool shit.
I high-tailed it out of LA (which I regret in some ways, I wish I would have stuck it out longer) and headed to Tennessee. I stayed with a cousin there and went straight to work for Bobby Alloway, back then the king of street rods and basically on the cover of Street Rodder magazine every month. I was the guy who slicked frames, and I slicked much of the Alston-built custom frame on the 1956 Ford Skyliner that went on the cover of Popular Hot Rodding March 2002 issue.
Can’t say I stuck around Alloway’s place for long either. As with many industries, meeting your “heroes” can be pretty disappointing, to say the least.
I worked in some production collision shops, and did a ton of insurance job painting, but eventually, I opened my own shop around the Oak Ridge, TN area. I was ahead of the curve and opened just before Fast and Furious hit the theaters. I was slicking body kits and building bagged cars and trucks like crazy very quickly.
This is where I really came into my own as a fabricator. I didn’t have any fancy tools or machinery. Luckily my exposure to both Larry Pahl and Scott Guildner gave me that old school fabricator’s eye, able to bend and shape metal using torches, hammers, dollies and whatever else is laying around the shop. I was back-halving trucks and cars, chopping frames and building completely new designs that came out of my head. I barely put any of it on paper, I just figured it out and built it.
As I mentioned in my last post, I won some shows, too. The Ford Ranger pictured below actually took 2nd Place Ford at NOPI Nationals that year. I built it for a kid named Jordan Fox. He drove that truck for 2 years that I know of with no issues after I built it. A chopped up, bagged truck that can place high at the Nats and drive for a few years with no issues? That’s winning.
I closed that business down about three years into it for personal reasons. I went on to work in a few more shops but the business had lost the luster for me. I started to hate it. 9/11 had knocked the market out, there just wasn’t the money being spent on custom cars anymore it seemed. I got swindled by some shop owners. I never even finished a car for myself enough to drive. I was done.
Upon leaving the car world, I went and opened up a guitar shop. I had to have a place for my creativity to go, so I struck a deal to clean up a shitty old storefront on the main drag in Girard, Ohio for two free months rent. I had very little money, so I spent one month cleaning it up and the second month earning that first rent coming up.
I’ll spare you the business details and save that for another story someday, but the fabrication work I did was next level at this spot. I took a course in Michigan under Bryan Galloup for luthiery, and began repairing guitars. It wasn’t long before I had the busiest shop around and hired a few techs to work under me.
I quickly became known as the guy who could fix stuff other shops would turn away. I didn’t care about the value of the guitar, I cared about how much the customer valued it and that they were willing to pay. Check out one of the crazy repairs I did:
It wasn’t long before I was hand-carving and custom building guitars myself. I was already a finishing pro, and shaping wood was a lot like shaping bondo and metal. It was easy, honestly. I also understood the wood really well. I could look at a neck and tell how it would bend and react to tension. Being a player myself I loved the guitars and I loved making them from scratch.
I built six total customs. They sold for $1800 to $2500 a piece. I kept one for myself, my Douglas fir topped tele. They were all beautiful and visually flawless. In the end, my bolt-on neck design wasn’t great, but my neck-thru and set necks were rock solid.
One thing I will say about that adventure is that I owned about 175 guitars at the peak of my inventory. I literally had 2 floors of guitars and they were all paid for. I can remember years before, sitting in prison where I learned how to play guitar on a piece of shit $60 Hondo, and being super pissed because I couldn’t play a real guitar. I swore, “Someday, I’ll own a building full of guitars.”
Motherfucker, I did it.
I’ve told the story several times about growing up around the biker lifestyle, and how prison probably saved me from going too far down that path (or maybe it would’ve been better, who knows?) I wish I had pictures from my youth, the bikes were so fucking cool. I idolized those guys, my uncles and their friends, living the club life and riding built shovels and pans. I remember one in particular had a 56 panhead chopper with a springer front end and an open belt driven primary, it was my dream bike as a kid.
Yeah, there were a lot of problems about the way I grew up. But there were a few amazing parts of it, too. The bikes, the fun, the way they treated me as a kid–as one of their own coming up–it was great. I will miss that for the rest of my life. I’m going to fulfill a few of those other visions soon, though. And I definitely have the skills to do it just the way I want it.
So, 30 years after I first started wrenching, chopping and fabricating cars, bikes and guitars, I want to build stuff again, badass stuff, and I want to do it for myself. Fuuuucckk a customer build. I will have a shop, probably off of the side of my gym, and I’m going to build the old school choppers I grew up around as a kid and have wanted my whole life.
Back then when I was learning and working all those jobs, I mistakenly thought that being in that business would lead to me owning all that cool stuff. It didn’t really work out that way. Add in trying to play by the rules, a few marriages and two daughters and all my cool cars and bikes disappeared. Now, it’s time for them to come home.
It’s time for me to come home, too. Not “home” in the sense of where I came from, because honestly that would be my personal Journey to Ixtlan, that home doesn’t exist anymore. My home now is on the coast of Florida where I am working to open a small hardcore gym, hang out on the beach a lot, and build cool fucking bikes that I will ride up and down A1A until I can’t ride anymore.
And let me say, none of this comes fast or easy for a poor kid. Even today, at 45, when I speak of opening my gym and having a small hobby chop shop, I have literally been buying and storing gym equipment for 6 years now (from when I opened my first gym), and I have started slowly buying equipment to work on my bikes here and there. It’ll take ten or fifteen years to accumulate what I want, but I will own it when I do. All mine, no debt. Screw the banks.
To some, this story sounds like a full life, when in reality it was just a slice of my life. There is a similar story about my life-long pursuit of strength and fitness knowledge and business, much of which happened parallel to and in-between all of this. And of course, everyone knows my story about violence and training. Maybe it sounds outlandish because so many just live inside the safety of the common rules: don’t take risks, save your money, work really hard at one job…all that jazz.
I lived in abandoned apartments, trailers with no interior walls, traveled on way less money than was ever safe to do and repeatedly gambled everything to get these experiences.
I probably went as far as I could each time until it broke me, and perhaps shouldn’t have tried to do things I didn’t have the money or support to achieve fully. It has taken a toll on my life, on my financial and physical health as I age, and on my spirit.
But I wouldn’t change it for anything. I had zero guidance or positive examples or support in my life. Zero. I did my absolute best with what I had to work with, which in most cases started with nothing but myself.
It’s not for the weak. I can work on my own stuff, and fix just about anything that breaks.
Go ahead, live that multidimensional life.
“Don’t try to compete with a zealot. They are one-dimensional, and you’ll never win.”
This is the advice a good friend recently gave to me, and I’ve thought a lot about it in the past month or so. I’m going to say that, at least in the context through which I see it, it’s definitely true. The one-dimensional person in the marketplace of a given industry will be forever stuck on that one topic. He will seek relevance in that field non-stop. In that arena, he can be a people’s champion, and he will gather all the attention he ever wanted.
But he will be denied the ability to show other sides of himself, if they even exist. The people don’t love him for that. They love him for the fast shooting, the tough talking, the whatever-it-is-that-he-does thing that brought their attention to him. That one, single, thing.
Sure, they’ll tolerate a bit of “showing your human side” as they call it. It’s good for business! They love to see the wife and the cute dog here and there. But he better make sure he’s right back in uniform doing the dance rather quickly, coming up with “new” ways to dole out old information before the audience of social media moves on to the next shiny thing, making him obsolete.
This seems to be the way of the world these days. But, I came up in a different world. Imagine this: I grew up, rode mini bikes, got in fights, built fast cars, went to prison, lifted weights, opened a couple of businesses including a custom car shop and a personal training business, rode motorcycles, and traveled the country…all before the invention of social media!
That’s right, there was no incentive to be immediately gratified by posting a picture on the internet so the world could see how cool I was. Shit, there weren’t even cell phone cameras around back then. If you wanted pictures, you had to use a camera and take the film to a little shop to get developed and pick them up later. No immediate gratification.
And guess what? I still excelled at all of those things. In my teens I built cool cars out of junk. Camaro’s, Monte Carlo’s, Mustang’s, etc. For sometimes months at a time the cars would sit in my garage while they were getting finished, and no one would be able to see it. You would work on it everyday for months on end with no social gratification. I had to finish it and drive it just to be seen with it, and that was only locally. But we still did it. And it was still rewarding as hell to mash the gas and fry some half bald-assed tires when you were done.
The most interesting part, is that we didn’t have the record of accomplishments available on a device in our pockets to show the world all we had done. In fact, it flat out sucks that some of the coolest shit I ever did was never photographed at all, and it now only lives in my memories (like the badass Buick LaSabre Sport Coupe I dropped an Olds 455 big block into and jacked it up on some used Cragar’s…). But we kept doing it anyway.
Same thing is true when I started bodybuilding and powerlifting in the early 1990’s. Shit, I have zero pictures of that since most of that was in prison in the beginning. I was 185 squatting 385 for sets and topping out at 405, but there’s no record of that. In today’s world, it may as well never have happened (except for the fact that as a coach I get people phenomenal results because I know what the fuck I’m talking about when it comes to strength training).
But even after that, I went on to have a great career as a full-time personal trainer spanning several years and a few states. What do I have to show for that? One trainer picture from 2006. Did it happen? Yes, and the experience I gained is a part of what drives my success with my clients in my remote coaching business today. But there’s no cool pictures to show you, so it’s just a story you have to read about. Boring, huh?
Or how about the time I started a custom car shop on a serious shoestring budget and operated for 3 years, going on to win some pretty big shows including second place Ford at the NOPI Nationals in ’03 ( or maybe ’04? Damn, I can’t even remember now).
Fucking MySpace didn’t even exist when I ran that shop. But I was there fabricating and building crazy bagged trucks, frame draggers, cars with hydraulics and hot rods, and getting business from as far as the next state away.
How’d we even do it back then? We just did it. We didn’t need something we didn’t have, and we don’t need it today. But the zealot, the one-dimensional and their followers can’t see that. They’ve either grown up in this social media world, or they have become so acclimated to it that they just can’t see any other way. And if you try to go head-to-head with them, you’re not just pitting skill against skill. Oh no. You’re battling it out with followers and social influence, and he who has the most money for the coolest gear and equipment, is the flashiest or most controversial, or has the coolest credentials will win that game all other things equal.
Now you have this new level of rejection to deal with, so many people who openly like people who do the things you do, which you are good at, but you’re not as cool as that other guy so they don’t pay attention to you. Literally some dude half your age with way less experience in the actual skill set, but way more money, time and social media skills will eclipse you and leave you feeling like no one even sees you.
Man, fuck all that noise. What are you people even doing? There were many of us who were out there doing awesome things way before cell phone cameras, smartphones and social media. And believe this, you had to be REAL back then, because you couldn’t fake your way into an income very easily, not one that would last anyway. The good news was you could also be a real person. You didn’t have to be a one-dimensional dancing monkey for an audience that will leave you the minute you feel stale.
I have spent ten years watching that exact thing happen in the social media realm of the tactical training industry (yet another career I excelled at). Guys who were once the literal heroes to the training world, and who held legitimate credentials, have went from being the authority on the subject to being made fun of and laughed at, and even called fat and other derogatory shit.
The one-dimensional champion has one shot at the plate, and that’s all you get. Make it last as long as you can, because when they’re done with you it’s over.
(If you’re still reading this, kudos to you. I love long-form blogging and I love the people who enjoy reading it.)
I often write about the different jobs I did, or the businesses I’ve owned. Some people may get tired of the repetitiveness. That’s OK. I personally get tired of the repetitiveness of the unending one-dimensional personalities we are all encouraged to follow now. I prefer to be the sum of my total experiences, and to live my life pursuing even more skills, hobbies, knowledge and experience. You can excel in multiple disciplines. It just takes a lifetime, but you never run out of cool things to do, and they never get old.
Be free. Free to not look just like others, or think just like others. Be free to explore new things. Go deep into all of them, spend ten years a piece on them. In the end, you’ll have lived a full life. And don’t worry about what someone on social media is doing, or how many followers they have, or how full of shit they are. Post a few pics and walk away, be busy doing cool stuff in the tangible world. It’s a lot more fulfilling out there.
This week I journeyed out for a pilgrimage that has been over 25 years in the making and covered 1300 miles. There’s quite a backstory, so here goes:
Somewhere around twenty-five years ago, I was a troubled young man sitting in the “hole”, a solitary confinement metal cell that measured about 7′ x 5′ x 8′ with a 4′ fluorescent light that stayed on twenty-four hours a day. I had been in there for a few months maybe, having attracted the wrath of the prison’s punitive system for fighting. Fighting was the biggest symptom of my problems as a youth, of course, which led to me serving five years in prison starting as a teen and into my adulthood.
While in that terrible place, the prison inside the prison, I grabbed a random book from the library cart that came to our cells once a week. That book was The Return of the Ragpicker by Og Mandino.
That book had a profound effect on me.
Although it took years to germinate and bear fruit, it’s effect was powerful enough to have me on a 1300 mile journey–a full twenty-five years later–specifically seeking something from it’s pages.
The book was set in the beautiful countryside of New Hampshire, with the story starting right at the end of fall as winter was preparing to settle in. The scenery that Og so eloquently painted with his words took my mind from the horrible place that I was in to the most beautiful place I could imagine.
It awakened in me the more subconscious attachments I had with New England. Having heard stories of how great it was when I lived there with my mother as a child. Those stories were something of a dream since her choice to move back to her hometown in Ohio led to the bleak and tragic life that we ended up living there. In my mind as a kid, New England was the place where our dreams could have came true, almost came true, if we hadn’t left…
Growing up I was just fascinated by the region. It was featured in some of my favorite TV shows, like This Old House and The Yankee Workshop. The big old houses, the quaint towns where life seemed simple; I would watch those shows and imagine having an old house there, with a wood shop and a writing studio.
It all ties in to my lifelong dream of being a writer. So many great writers came from or lived in New England during their best work, Mr. Mandino being my all-time favorite among them. It always seemed a place that just inspired words to come forth. A place to retreat and create.
And though I am not a fan of the horror genre, Stephen King was a huge inspiration to me as well. As one of the most successful writers to ever live, nearly all of his writings and subsequent movies were set in New England and vividly featured the region throughout. I was drawn in to it every time and would often watch his movies just to catch a glimpse of that beautiful place.
You have to imagine that these “dreams” and visions were at a time when the reality of my own life was colored by despair. My upbringing and family life was ransacked by the drug and alcohol addiction and the violence that surrounded me growing up. The lack of drive and absence of creativity in my environment (that seemed to occupy only my mind) left me feeling pretty lost and longing for a different way of life.
A hidden place
As part of my journey to the “secret” location described by Og in his book, I rode a vintage train through the White Mountain notch region. Og’s explanations of the landscape, with endless rolling hills and mountain views painted with the beautiful colors of the changing seasons all became real as I rode through the same mountains of New Hampshire that he wrote about.
That same scenery that my mind escaped to all those years ago, was now unfolded right before my eyes, and it was every bit as beautiful as I had imagined. To top it off, I was heading to the magical place where Simon Potter reappeared in Og’s life after 15 years away, just outside of the town of Langville, NH.
Simon was a ragpicker, a mysterious old man that never aged and had a knack for disappearing after things had been set in order. He would show up in someone’s life when they were seemingly at the end of their rope and in despair, and guide them to a better way. He first appeared in Mandino’s The Greatest Salesman in the World, and made his second appearance in the sequel Return of Ragpicker (which I read first).
Sitting at the literal bottom of despair in the inhumane solitary confinement of a prison, the concept of a Simon Potter was something I wished for in my life. Someone who cared, who offered guidance.
I guess most people get that from their parents or family members, something that just wasn’t available to me. But there is no doubt that if someone had stepped up to a young me all those years ago, things likely would have turned out quite different and better for my life.
It caused me to want to be that person for other people. To solve my own problems, find my way to a happy, “normal” life and then use that experience to be the one who steps up for the less fortunate. Too many just look down on people and never truly understand the blindness and confusion that poverty and tragic culture creates in those people. So many answers that seem so simple to average folks are just not conceivable to people from the broken parts of our society.
Too many people judge and not enough people care, and I believe that is why eventually we will fracture our society as a whole. I believe we are seeing it happen now.
It took me 20 years of intense, hard work and literally struggling to climb out of poverty for me to make any headway on my own. I had no inheritance, no guidance and no financial advice. There was no one to co-sign loans for me, or teach me about how to build credit and have nice things. I made so many incredibly costly mistakes and in many ways damaged my life forever along the way.
But here I am, twenty-five years later, making the pilgrimage largely paid for by my income from writing. I have one successful book out, and I get paid “OK” as a writer of articles for businesses on the internet. I am not rich but I am starting to do the things I dreamed about doing. I am writing, getting paid, and walking in the footsteps of the giants before me.
The Old Stones
According the the Langville Historical Society, the structure was built in 1817 by the town for the purpose of “pounding” cattle, a practice that is no longer in use.
After plane rides, hundreds of miles of driving and train rides, I set eyes upon the supposedly fictional place. There it was, in front of me, just how Og had described it nestled in some woods off of Blueberry Road. The fallen stones partially covered by dead oaks and leaves, the walls still nearly four feet high in some places.
Even the entrance was there, just as he described, where the townspeople would lead the animals in and stack some stones to prevent them from leaving.
How strange to be standing there, inside of an old structure placed together over 200 years ago in some quiet, tiny hidden town in the mountains of New Hampshire. It was very surreal, to see the moss covered stones where Og undoubtedly sat and wrote; where I also now have sat and wrote (part of which would become this short story).
It’s mid-October and fall is definitely underway here, with the wind loudly swooshing through the trees like a gentle but stern warning of the winter months soon to come. I sat still and listened to it as it blew the orange and golden leaves to the ground all around me.
What a beautiful day to make this pilgrimage! It was sunny and clear and although fall in New Hampshire, if I wasn’t so acclimated to my Florida home’s weather I would have been comfortable in a T-shirt like the locals.
The few locals who rode by eyed me with deep suspicion, which I tried to disarm with a friendly wave. It’s very easy to see why Og wanted to protect this place. It is a town of people who like their simple, rugged life up here in the mountains and they don’t want any “flatlanders” coming up here and messing it up.
The area is presumably much busier than when Og sat there and wrote almost 30 years ago, but the road next to the pound is still not paved and the area is still quite hidden in the edge of the woods. It would be easy to miss for anyone who wasn’t really looking for it.
Sitting there, I almost expected old Simon to appear. I imagined hearing a voice from behind me and turning around to find an old man standing there by the wall. He never did, of course, but it would have been a great time for him to show up! I could use some of his advice right now…
I did imagine Mr. Mandino’s presence there as I touched the stones, and I tried to absorb the hundreds of years of history that these stones have seen in this spot. It’s been a truly inspiring journey. I feel like I completed a circle; like some task I started decades ago has been finished and I can now begin the process of looking back at what I learned during the process.
Who is Simon?
Simon may not have shown up in the form that Og described him, but perhaps he was there after all. If I go on to do the things that I desire to do, and gain enough success to be able to offer some guidance for those who are navigating deep adversity, perhaps that is Simon living in me.
I do understand that Mr. Mandino was somewhat of a religious man and that the story of Simon Potter was very Christian at it’s core. I am not any of those things but I can still embrace the meaning and message of the book. Finding the simplest of guidance during the most complex adversities, and then passing that wisdom on to others, this is what we should be called to do.
It’s nice to come to New England as a writer–though not a very good one in comparison to Og and others. It’s nice to see that some of my dreams have came true. They came true despite the obstacles, the people who didn’t believe in me or my visions, the naysayers who said I should work menial jobs and conform to accept my lot in life. None of that stopped me, nor will it stop me going forward. They came true because I never gave up. Because I believed in goofy things like finding inspiration under the palm trees of Florida, or in the mountains of New England.
Of course, I am still struggling to make it happen. I don’t have an abundance of money, and much of what I get paid to write about is still not what I really want to write about.
But, we start out writing about what we know and unfortunately that topic for me is violence. That opened doors for me to begin exploring other topics, and this article is an expression of that. Not many writers make a living wage from their writing, so I am already successful in some very low-percentile ways.
What happened this week was a synchronicity of deep events that developed over many lives, many miles and many decades. In the next day or so I’ll leave the mountains and head to the Northeast coastline, which I will follow up to Maine for my last few days. Then back home to Florida, the other place that I am in love with.
Note: Don’t bother looking up Langville, NH. It doesn’t exist. From Og Mandino himself:
“Please waste none of your precious time searching any New Hampshire map for the town of Langville, the setting for this book, because you will seek in vain. Out of respect for the proud, stubborn, and hard-working Yankee townspeople who have a tough enough time tolerating “summer folks,” much less “curiosity seekers,” I have altered the descriptions of all easily identifiable landmarks as well as changed the name of that lovely green and granite hamlet that is the locale of my story.”
You may not have heard from me much for the past few weeks. I decided to take a vacation. It wasn’t one of those decisions that is based on the best time off work, or whether the budget worked or not. Nope. I HAD to go, and I had to go right then. I was really losing my mind, becoming irate and snapping on everyone, and as a friend put it, it appeared I was going off the deep end. It was certainly true…
Anyhow, my vacation started with what was supposed to be a “quick” project on my Harley, install a set of 14” ape hangers, new cables, new brake lines, new rear brake system, new rear shocks, and change all the fluids. Easy, should have been a few days on the side, tops.
Everything that could go wrong went wrong. I worked on that bike for 6 days straight. I didn’t do anything else other than the minimal contact with my strength and fitness clients. Every other minute awake was spent in my shed (actually a converted chicken coup) working on that damn bike. I was trying to get it done because I was leaving for a week and returning right when Daytona fall bike week starts and I did not want to miss it.
By day 6 the bike wasn’t done, but I jumped on a plane and flew to Boston because it was time to go. After spending the afternoon with a good friend in Arlington, I drove to the White Mountains in New Hampshire. I stayed with a friend of a friend in an 1850’s farmhouse with the most amazing porch views.
On day one, my first full day there, I drove up to Conway, NH and rode the vintage Conway rail through the mountains and out to the base of Mt. Washington. I sipped wine and wrote in my private booth while the train slunked its way through the notch and some of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen.
On day two I drove south to an undisclosed location in NH to see a relic that I have wanted to see for 25 years. (Read about it in my upcoming article, A Writer’s Pilgrimage.) It was amazing to make that journey after so many years.
On day three, I hung around the farmhouse with the two dogs that live there, which I inherited as companions when the owner went off to work. I wrote on the porch and took in the beautiful views.
Day four sent me on a drive out to the coast to Hampton Beach, NH. What a cool little spot. Although everything was pretty much shut down for the winter I could tell it was a fun and happening place in the summer. I found one place open on their last day and had two whole lobsters for lunch. I really caught that 80’s beach movie-boardwalk arcade-fun place vibe there, and my mind labeled it the northern counterpart to Daytona Beach in Florida (my other favorite). I’ll be back in the summer for sure.
From there, I drove up the rocky coast on 1A to Ogunquit, ME where I met another friend for a memorable dinner. I ended that night in a beautiful “cabin” (more like a mid-sized modern home) in the woods of Maine.
Day five was rainy but very comfortable temperature wise, which was great for northern New England in October. I drove back south to Portsmouth, NH. I couldn’t see much in the rain, but what an amazing little town, founded in the early 1600’s!! Like, the town was founded in 1630, and the streets for the most part still retain the original layout. I would love to go back and spend some time there in the summer, and as luck would have it, it is not far from Hampton Beach. The rain prohibited any pictures unfortunately.
I finished that day out meeting with yet another good friend for dinner in Maine, and had a great conversation about strategic planning and what is to come professionally for me next. In fact, this trip was largely for the purpose of me getting some clarity to make some tough decisions, and we ironed out the final draft of that that night.
Day 6 I boarded a plane back to Florida. I cut my trip short by one day because the bike still was not finished and I wanted to end this vacation in Daytona Beach for bike week. I drove from Maine to Boston, flew from Boston to Orlando, drove from Orlando to north of Ocala, and then went straight and worked on the bike for a little bit.
Woke up the next day and spent the whole day on it again. I literally put in the 7th full day spent on that bike and I finally had it up and running again. What a pain in the ass it was. Literally just complication after complication, but I finally got it back together, mostly.
On Day 8 I got my daughter on the back and we rode the 75 miles to Daytona Beach. The first thing I did was to make a quick stop at Ormond Beach, strip off my boots and jeans and headed straight into the ocean for a walk around in the warm water (don’t worry, I had swimming trunks on). We were privileged to watch two dolphins playing and jumping right near us. I really love the beach, it’s my place for sure.
We got suited back up and hit A1A for some cruising. The bikes were crazy. We hit Main Street a few times, cruised up and down and then parked to go walk and watch all the bikes go by. We went for another nice drive through the back streets of Daytona and stopped for wings and fries before heading out for the 75 mile ride back through the forest to home.
I have to say, riding a motorcycle through the national forest in Florida at night is quite an experience. I’ve had a bear run out on me before while I rode through there, and there were signs this week about “high bear activity” with orders to not stop on the highway. So, it made sense that I saw a bear and a deer on my side of the road on the way back. It’s pitch black out in that forest, and it’s like a 40 minute ride through that section and at 65mph+ it’s pretty exhilarating.
I’m ending my vacation with a day at home, a beautiful Central Florida day on my farm, relaxing and collecting my thoughts about the trip and my upcoming plans. I made a lot of decisions over the last few weeks, from the long nights of solitude cussing at my motorcycle in the shed, to the flying, driving and scenic sitting covering roughly 1700 miles or more, I did a lot of thinking.
I will be making some big changes in my life and businesses very soon. Make sure to keep an eye out for those announcements.