If you read the newspaper often maybe you have stumbled across, even just a couple of times, articles that described the tragic demise of recent retirees. You know, stories like how a man who worked at a factory for thirty years dropped dead of a heart attack during a fishing trip a week into his retirement, or how a woman who faithfully served her employer for twenty years perished in an auto accident within a month of retiring. Tragedies such as these are rare overall, but they still communicate something powerful: Middle-age retirement, something most of us work so hard for and look so forward to, can be lethal.
So I made sure that what happened to the two retirees above would never happen to me: I retired first, and then I began my career. This plan, which my friend dubbed the “Reverse Retirement Plan,” is brilliant (he’s done it himself). The point of the plan is that you get all your hiking, climbing, skiing, traveling, lounging, running, fishing, partying, camping, mountain biking, sleeping, and canoeing done first; during your 20s and 30s. Once you’ve had your fill of fun – perhaps when you turn 40 – then it’s time to start a career to create financial and social stability that will ease you through your middle ages and perhaps into old age. The premise is simple: If you do retirement first, and then suddenly perish before your career, your last thought could be how you loved living life to the fullest; not how you were steadily employed.
My Reverse Retirement Plan began in 1993 when I completed a two-year enlistment as a paratrooper with the U.S. Army. Just 20 years old when I became a civilian, I already had a taste of structure, accountability, and discipline, something I didn’t particularly enjoy, especially at such a young age. I knew the Reverse Retirement Plan was for me. During the following two decades my temporary jobs ranged from grueling to gratifying. The grueling ones included low-skill stints as a dishwasher, landscaper, mason, painter, and laborer. In each of these I worked long hours, often in filthy conditions alongside men who were alcoholics, petty criminals, and drifters. But if one of these jobs proved unbearable, I simply left, usually without notice. That was the advantage to not having a career: to be able to walk off the job even if it was just because I was having a bad day. Then I’d find another temporary job. Some likely thought I was a shirker, but I was displaying something perhaps they wished they possessed: freedom.
The gratifying jobs included work as a backcountry ranger, Appalachian Trail caretaker, outdoor educator, sponsored adventurer, and professional trail builder. Here I found opportunities to work with great people who were passionate about their work, valued strong relationships, and loved working alongside Mother Nature, no matter how foul her mood. Let’s face it: You couldn’t beat my office. By working for federal, state, and private agencies my work sites included White Mountain National Forest, Mount Mitchell State Park, Little Missouri State Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Adirondack Park, and the Catskill Park. No walls, no roofs, no lights.
Getting paid to build trails, hike, camp, and educate was a great way to make a living between June and October each year. In between these bouts of employment I managed to gain an associates and a bachelors degree by attending school each spring semester; January to May. During my “off” months of November and December I was a nomad, driving around the country in, and living out of, my trusty Subaru wagon. It was an era of wandering, life experience, and a lot of Ramen noodles.
But one can’t – or at least shouldn’t – eat Ramen noodles forever. By the time I turned 40, which was just two months ago, I had hiked more than 10,000 miles, climbed 1,500 peaks, slept outside 1,000 nights, and mountain biked across the United States twice. I concluded it was a good retirement while it lasted. When I turned 40 I trimmed by beard, bought some collared shirts, and looked for a real job. Despite an economy as sluggish as melting river ice, I found my career quickly: helping veterans, especially post-9/11 combat veterans, access social services and find comfort in a peer support program at a not-for-profit in New York’s capital city, Albany.
The streets surrounding my office are littered with trash, the sirens sometimes interrupt my concentration, and it’s likely that no one I see on the streets has slept in a snow cave, watched a sunrise from a summit, or designed a sustainable trail system. I’m not sure if I’ll ever really fit into the urban environment. My home is in the mountains, and on my days off you’ll find me among the hills, not the streets. But if I live through the following twenty years, no matter where this career takes me, I should have a second retirement to look forward to.
– Erik Schlimmer
Erik is the founding member of Friends of the Trans Adirondack Route and is author of Blue Line to Blue Line.