The following piece is by Andrew Vietze and is an excerpt from Get Satisfied: How Twenty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough, one of MSN Money's top personal finance books that can change your life. It's from Simple Living America, the first national, nonprofit membership organization for the general public centered on simplicity. Posting your own story or joining the organization (and even holding a house party to spread the word) is one path to the satisfaction of enough.
Was this osprey a sign? As I sat and watched it trace circles in the sky above my office, its wings wide and floating, I began to think so. This fish hawk has always been my favorite bird, instantly transporting me to my grandmother's big old saltwater farm where we've camped every summer for more than thirty years. The property is a long, fifty-acre peninsula, and as many as six ospreys at a time can be seen fishing in the tidal river that surrounds us as we gather at the Fourth of July. As a boy, I learned to mimic their high-pitched whistle while I ran around with my cousins. Because it's a family property far from any road, we could range at will, the kind of freedom adults rarely get to feel.
I couldn’t help but look up from my desk and watch this particular bird, flying in graceful arcs above our building. For much of the year he'd be there, crying his raptor cry, as if imploring me outside. I'd sit bound to my chair and stare longingly through the glass, remembering what it was like to run around without any walls, without anything overhead but the sky. The osprey did this for years, and eventually it forced my hand.
The decision wasn’t an easy one. Was I being too selfish? Perhaps even irresponsible? Here I was, a married adult with a baby on the way and a mortgage to pay. But a miserable mortgage-bound soon-to-be father. I had a good job at a highly regarded magazine; in fact I'd recently been made managing editor, so the money was fine for small-town Maine, and I had a benefits package that would care for me and my new kid. It just wasn't enough, wasn't ever quite right. I'd done everything I could at the magazine after almost ten years, and I couldn't enter the building without my head dropping a bit.
The whole reason I wanted to become a writer in the first place was to live life as an adventure, to live outside the boxes—office buildings, societal requirements. To avoid the nine-to-five, the computer, the phone, the necktie (a colleague and I called it the Daily Noose). Each morning, though, I'd trudge upstairs to my desk and go through the paces while staring out the window. I didn't care about the money. Life was always more important than that.
So I quit.
I had done everything right since college, placing my Edward Abbey and Jack Kerouac fantasies to the rear in favor of paying off student loans. (There's no way Kerouac was an indentured servant to Columbia the way I was to Clark University.) I had a respectable, indeed, sought-after job. I had a nice old white clapboard house in a sweet river valley town and two cars in the driveway. And I'd finally paid off those loans.
So I quit.
As a child there were five things I wanted to be when I grew up, each equal to the others, each a certainty. I wanted to write. Fight fires. Play pro soccer. Be a rock star. And I'd done them all in some fashion. I'd written for a wide variety of magazines. I joined my local fire department and literally bled for it. I played men's league soccer and we were champs four years running at the Maine Sports Complex (O-30 league). I'd put out three records on which I sang or contributed guitar. There was only one thing I had yet to do.
So I quit.
And I became a park ranger. I traded my necktie for a badge, my office for a ranger station, my telephone for a two-way radio, my nine-to-five for a "ten-eight" at seven a.m. Now I not only watch birds—more often than not the loon, another personal favorite—but I live among them in a 200,000-acre park. Every morning I see the sun come up over Maine's highest mountain—some say the first rays to hit the entire country—and watch as it turns the face of my pond into blinding crystal. I see the woods shake off the night and come awake and the fish begin to jump in their great basin. I see campers rise and greet the day with the kind of excitement that only a day away from work in a beautiful setting brings.
The governor who gave these spectacular, storied lands to the State of Maine did so with the proviso that they must be kept forever wild. So not only do I not have to answer phones, there isn't one for miles. No computers, of course, because there's no electricity for miles either.
And I love it. I love my badge. I love my truck. I love my duty station. I love hiking the trails. I love being outside every day no matter the weather. Sharing porch time with the regulars among my campers. Paddling my canoe on the pond at dusk. Working with my hands. Learning to build cabins, reading the landscape and the seasons, joking with Unit 67. Having stand–offs with bobcats, which screech like a horror movie. Chasing down evildoers like Dudley Do-Right. Responding to emergencies. Being part of a grand Maine tradition—and a singular park that's a national treasure. Showing people how important and necessary wild places are.
I distinctly remember telling my sister when I was about five years old—my boy's age now—that I wanted to be a park ranger. And now a friend calls me Ranger Danger. I love it.
It isn't all easy, though, sacrifice and compromise being defining conditions of adulthood. I typically, in the words of a fellow ranger, play nine holes every day. Which is to say I dutifully scrub as many outhouses. (My mom laughs that I went to a fine college and got a degree in English and history only to clean toilets; she jests, though, and completely understands the appeal of park life.) When you do it every day, fighting the forces of feces isn't as onerous as it may sound, and it's a very small price to pay for the privilege of living here.
Park rangers certainly aren't in it for the money—I had jobs that paid more fifteen years ago in college—but I've been able to augment my monthly income with all the writing I can get done at night when I'm off duty. The salary is a lot different than the one I gave up to take this job, and I bought my house when I was making that kind of money. There are months when simply paying the mortgage is a challenge. I have to work every day of the week in the summer in order to sustain the lifestyle. Both cars in our household have over 200,000 miles on them now. Property taxes are a killer.
I occasionally have to deal with difficult people, which isn't exactly a favorite—rangers spend a fair amount of time telling people what they're not allowed to do. (I'm constantly bemused at being looked at by park visitors as some sort of authority figure—I got into this because I'm a nature lover, a punk-rock kid, because of Desert Solitaire and The Dharma Bums, not because of some innate desire to be a lawman. I think that's true of most park rangers.)
The hours are long. The bugs in the North Woods of June are so ferocious it's almost comical, and I've become a weary soldier in a dragged-out war against the mice in my cabin. Appalachian Trail hikers smell. I have to do more paperwork than you might imagine. I missed most of the last World Cup.
And without a doubt, the worst aspect is that each summer I spend a couple days a week away from my wife and son. Being a freelance writer allows me to be home all the time when I am home, but for twenty-something weeks, I'm not. Which is hard on all of us, perhaps most of all my little boy, known to my fellow rangers as "Unit Point Five." (He got this name when I was Unit 5.) He and my wife both love the park, though, and they understand its importance to me.
We make it work. If nothing else, it's an adventure. My son gets to spend his formative years in one of the most beautiful places in the country, and to learn a self-sufficiency and resourcefulness that is so often lost in our culture. He gets to see that happiness is not made from the things you buy and bring with you but rather from life and love and the adventure they bring.
Despite all of these challenges, it's far and away the best job I've ever had. At this point, I'd even rather be a ranger than a rock star. I don't regret in the slightest saying goodbye to my old job, its ways and its wages, its fancy title and prestige, though I do miss the people. I don't miss the phone, the television, the Internet. It was the right choice, at the right time in my life.
Because I make my own schedule for much of the year, and have a lot of free time due to the quietude of the park, my creativity has exploded. I've written a novel about these same woods 150 years earlier, and am halfway through a screenplay (about a park ranger, natch). I have a nonfiction book under way, and I've written many new songs for my band's next record. I read and exercise more than I ever do in the off-season.
If I have my druthers, I'll be in these woods for years. A park ranger until I retire—and beyond. I've found the color of my parachute and it's forest green.
You might say I've gone to the birds.