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Ditching the (American) Dream

Utahns choose the simple life



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Thoreau himself wasn’t as keen about his own rock collection: “I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust.”

If you’re going to compare the likes of Joe Southers to Thoreau, it may actually require a little cherry picking of quotes and ideals. Stuart Culver, an Americanist scholar at the University of Utah, asserts that Thoreau would never have lived in an RV park if they’d existed 150 years ago. The reason, Culver says, would be Thoreau’s criticism of the Irish working class back then and the “shiftlessness” of the impoverished, who, unlike Thoreau, chose not to take control of their lives.

Southers, on the other hand, Culver says, has immersed himself in a community that is on the edges of our social order, and is not exactly withdrawing in the ways Thoreau did.

“Walden begins with a very long chapter titled ‘Economics,’ and Thoreau is clear that he wants both to understand and take responsibility for how he gets the things he needs,” Culver says. “It’s less than about reducing needs, per se, and more about perfecting relationships to people as well as things and simplifying in the first step in this process but not the end. Joe may be after this same goal as he chooses how to live with others.”

Culver made one other observation, noting that Southers’ new life reflects a “different order of mobility” in a place where the homes can move (RVs) versus “burrowing” into a place like, say, Walden Pond.

“And Joe himself is not just a truck driver, but one who earns his living by moving the fuel that enables others to move,” Culver added. “He’s more deeply entangled in the economy [than Thoreau was]—so, he’s not withdrawing as much as finding a different way of belonging.”

In what may be Southers’ search for belonging, he threw away or carved away or left behind—however you look at it—a lot to find a new version of himself. “I think ‘minimalist’ might fit,” Southers says when asked for a word to describe his new life.

Without getting at the how or why just yet, Southers’ story in particular is one about getting by with less—in both the physical and spiritual sense.

Spiritual light bulbs
The Book of Mormon is out, along with the stress, complications and conflicts that defined Southers’ relationship with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Not surprisingly, he felt out of place in Bountiful, where neighbors on all four sides are likely to be LDS. Now he thrives on—and feels more at home in—the simplicity of RV-living in a hidden nook of Salt Lake City just out of sight from people driving on North Temple.


Stephen Tatum, a University of Utah environmental humanities director and English professor, says Southers’ idea of a simpler life has a long history that dates back to Thoreau and beyond. “As one can see in the opening ‘Economy’ chapter of Walden, Thoreau’s experiment in ‘right’ living at Walden Pond certainly was fueled by a desire for the simple life. ‘Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity’ is one of the maxims uttered in that chapter,” Tatum says. “The desire for the simple life is long-standing in American culture, from the Puritan aesthetic of the plain style through Thoreau and on to the Amish, and in our consumer culture, [with] the kinds of advertising we see by the big-box stores after the holiday season carnival of consumption.

“But,” Tatum added, “as he further notes in the ‘Where I Lived and What I Lived For’ chapter that follows, the quest for the simple life is a means to spiritual illumination—and, consequently, ethical practice. The question then would seem to be if this general profile of Thoreau’s motivation fits [Southers].”

Spiritual light bulbs have gone on and off along the path to RV living, but simplicity is the key motivator for Southers.

You can reach anything in Southers’ tiny kitchen without taking a step. Almost everything he owns is now inside a kind of tiny tin box on wheels. The TV or stereo can be on inside, but it’s still somehow quiet, muffled.

The untrained scribe in him is busy these days taking notes about the paradoxically complex characters he calls neighbors—the recluse next door, the people who just enjoy drinking, laughter and a good barbeque.

In the stripped-down version of Southers’ new life, he doesn’t have to have a protracted conversation about lawn maintenance that would make him want to split his head open. Thoreau would have agreed when he wrote, “Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields.”

Campground community
Talking Heads lead singer David Byrne once asked in a song, “You may ask yourself, ‘How did I get here?’ ” Like artists who take a day or two to paint a masterpiece but take a lifetime of learning to master their craft, it’s a little complicated to figure out exactly how Southers ended up a minimalist living in an RV.

Brian Southers doesn’t want people to think his brother moved into an RV park because of finances or desperation.

“Joe has always had this mentality,” one that Brian says isn’t interested in a lifestyle that harbors goals with keywords like upgrade, move up, bigger or fancier.

“The people around him now are similar … they just enjoy being around other people,” who, Brian says, are interested in a simpler life where people, not things, are the focus. “It’s definitely a different crowd than you’d find in any [typical suburb].”

“They enjoy that simple life and don’t need anything more than that,” Brian says about Southers and his new neighbors.

“Everywhere you go, people remember Joe,” added Brian, who also drives a fuel truck with some of the same stops as his brother. “You can tell that Joe, even at work, gets to know people and actually talks to people and cares.”

But do you have to live in an RV park to find yourself and care about people?

From a slightly less-biased perspective, University of Utah psychology professor Frederick Rhodewalt says it looks like Southers in particular has “retreated” to a less complicated lifestyle.

“You could think of other examples: a gay man coming out and leaving one lifestyle for another, or the midlife crisis might be another,” Rhodewalt says. “There is a construct called self-concept differentiation.

“If you ask people to list five or so roles that define their lives and then ask them to list the traits that they display in each role, highly differentiated people describe different sets of characteristics in each role. I’ve always thought of this work as identifying people whose selves didn’t work out in one situation so they develop different selves in different contexts. Self-concept differentiation is associated with poor adjustment, which doesn’t sound like Joe.”

Rhodewalt asks if Southers is seeking attention by being “different” or if there’s something oddly narcissistic about him.

“No, he’s definitely not doing it for attention,” says Joe’s father, Greg Southers. “In fact, he’s never been one to do much for attention. He does things because he either finds them interesting or engaging. … He generally does quite a bit of thinking.”

Joe, the oldest of three boys, has done a lot of thinking about how to live, from his teens in Texas and well into adulthood.