On the surface, my journey is about traveling from place to place and collecting responses to a question. I post what people reply. But planting the question in people’s minds is often more important than their responses. And my reaction to people is often more telling than their words. I operate from the premise that everyone leads a life of personal meaning and purpose. But sometimes I meet individuals so obtuse I’m the one challenged to expand my vision. When I met Gary Palmer, I struggled to understand how this man lived. I don’t suppose my concern caused him any bother either way.
Gary Palmer is a 6’-7”, 59-year-old itinerant cyclist who rents a portion of a garage for $200 a month in Jackson, Wyoming. That is, when he wants a permanent place to stay. His space has electricity but no heat or water. When he needs the bathroom he walks outside and into Bill Blaine’s modest house on the property. Bill Blaine’s compound is a kind of middle-aged men’s fraternity directly opposite Snow King Resort in ritzy Jackson. The front door stays ajar. Bill rents a few rooms inside, the garage, a shed, and a trailer, all well below Jackson market rents. Scruffy guys troop in and out to warm food on Bill’s stove, piss in his toilet, or lather under the shower in a tub that’s never scrubbed. When they get tired of Jackson they leave. When they return, Bill may or may not have a space for them.
Gary’s never driven a car. Beyond Jackson he lives on his mountain bike. “I ride in the morning, set up camp by noon, maybe take a day hike in the afternoon. I never stay indoors. I never pay to camp. Sometimes I get a pizza, but I can live cheap.” Gary returns to Jackson when he needs to work. Right now he’s a stocker at Dollar Tree. “Work in Jackson pays higher than minimum wage.
“I can’t imagine working 11-1/2 months a year for a two week vacation. Most people are in so much debt; they are still in debt when they retire. I haven’t lived anywhere permanent since 1977. I graduated high school in 1973, went to college for a year until I realized I was just another brick on the wall. I studied art, I studied cooking, I joined the Navy. I left it all in August of 1976, taught myself how to live cheaply and hitchhiked all over.”
Gary recites his life story, a litany of travel, with great recall. Alaska, Arizona, place to place by thumb and by bike. Gary likes to talk and I am keen to listen. That was the only reason I could figure why he invited me occupy a pallet in his garage. He showed no interest in me.
Despite an inner voice telling me not to push, I asked Gary if he’d ever been married, and if he had children. “I was married for a short time in 1993. I have a daughter, 22; she lives in Riverton. My grandson will be one year old tomorrow. I’ve never seen him. My daughter won’t see me.” I thought I heard a strain of regret. Then realized I was conjuring an emotion I wanted to evoke.
“I like solitude. I like my company to be animals, not humans. Most people don’t go more than a half days’ hike from the road. Two days from the road, there is nobody.”
“I’ll be 62 in two years. The government’s going to give me $200 a month. That’s more money than I need. After that I’ll never work again.” Gary said this with amused detachment, as if Social Security was a curiosity rather than an entitlement. I must admit his attitude was refreshing. Gary Palmer has no interest in contributing to society, but he’s not asking anything from it either.
How will we live tomorrow?
“My carbon footprint is very small. I’ve never had a car, a machine at all. Tomorrow I will do what I am doing today until I keel over on the side of the road or die in my bed.”