Fifteen minutes before the Blue Muse editorial meeting, I have a brief panic attack because I forgot to confirm the interview with the subject of this piece. About an hour and thirty minutes later I receive a text from Hunter, telling me to meet him at Secret Lake.
Secret Lake? It’s that place in Avon, Connecticut, I was nearly killed in 2019 when a car cut me off from the road, causing my brake lines to explode. Secret Lake was no secret to me.
That afternoon, I load up into my car and drove to that infamous road.
However, when I get there, it didn’t look like a campsite. No campers. No RVs. No retirees in plastic folding chairs. Instead, it looked like a suburb with suspicious boomers giving me dirty looks as I drive slowly searching for this Secret Lake. So, I hightail it out of that neighborhood and drive down the road where I pull into a Kohls’ parking lot and text Hunter. He sends me coordinates to the middle of nowhere Norfolk off route forty-four.
I met Hunter Esberg while playing League of Legends in 2013. He went to the high school across the street from mine. Flash forward to 2018, and he appears as a trainee in the housekeeping department at the senior center where I work. He used the time to teach me about his worldview. Society sucks, we need to leave it, and the dough from the job was going to buy a van. And once he got that van, he would call it quits and make the road his new home. In the words of counterculture guru Timothy Leary, “turn on, tune in, drop out.”
Beyond the hippie rhetoric of going nomad, living off the grid is a reality for more Americans. Some by choice, most others out of necessity, because they lose their job or go bankrupt. Now the entire world knows the story. In 2020 Chloé Zhau directed the academy award-winning film Nomadland starring Frances McDormand, based on the book of the same name by Jessica Bruder. The story captures the struggle of elderly workers forced on the road after losing their jobs in the 2011 recession. The story is humbling and at times depressing, but greatly shows the reasons why someone would have to live on the road or choose to drop out of everyday life.
While the movie has some fictional storylines, many real nomads are featured in the film, including the patron saint of transient living, Bob Wells. Bob Wells is a man with a checkered past, which led him to drop out of the nine-to-five life and make the road his permanent home. If there is any official leader for nomadic people living in the United States, it’s him. He developed a philosophical framework adhered to by most transients, whether they know Wells or not. It boils down to living on as little as possible, get rid of our most expensive expense—housing— and live as freely as possible. Wells writes on his website, “Summed up in one word it is a cry for… FREEDOM!!”
I rolled down route 202, passing through sleepy New Hartford, said hello to Barkhamsted, howdy to Winchester, and found myself in Norfolk, lost again. Not lost . . . lost. I knew where I was. Next to me was a cliff that dropped down into the Mad River Dam. A dam that was built after The Flood of 1955 destroyed Winsted and Torrington, an apocalyptic event the two communities are still recovering from today.
Google Maps says I have to walk there, but where? I can’t pull off and park my car on the side of the highway. After passing the location of the alleged lake four times, I pull into a gas station parking lot and fiddle with Maps before getting frustrated and going out on my own to find this “Secret Lake”. I finally spot a dirt road behind the guard rail, leading down into a forest. I make one more pass and then drop down the dirt road as my suspension screams from the sudden jolts and jostles. I roll into a mock parking lot hidden under a canopy of tall trees where a red Ford Focus and a black Toyota Tacoma sit in front of a hill.
I leave my car and wander up the hill. After fifty yards, the tall trees around me begin to thin and I come onto a campsite that has several felled trees laying around it, two tents, and a smoking firepit. Sitting in a lawn chair with an American Spirit hanging from his lip is Hunter Esberg. He’s a tall guy with long blond hair and a goatee. He’s often mistaken for Post Malone, from the right angle, one can easily see the resemblance. After catching up briefly, I sit on a damp stump and pray that my water-damaged phone gives me a coherent recording.
“Why do you like being outside? Does it feel natural to you?”
He pauses, looking at the ground before requesting I stop the recording, because he needs to think. After some back-and-forth discussion, I turn my phone back on. “It was a way to get out of the house . . . In high school, it was a way to get out of your parents’ house. It’s more like a mental health activity, in a way.”
For Hunter, it’s like finally receiving your driver’s license: that sense of freedom you first experience when you get on wheels and the coastal lines are your only limits. But this sense of freedom transcends to something more.
I ask about our current digital age. Is it helping us? Do you feel it’s good for you?
“I feel like it’s fundamentally flawed in a couple of ways. It’s just stressful on the mind . . . my mind.” The world sucks right now, we all know that. There is nothing profound about that statement, and we all know that there’s no point in trying to fix it, because it’s like rolling a rock up a hill. But how do we live with it? How do we cope with our self-inflicted exile, due to a once-in-a-century plague?
Hunter lights another cigarette and places it in his mouth before speaking. “We did evolve out of the woods . . . This is a more natural state of being for us. What we’re facing now is the turbulence of evolution. I don’t think we can adapt to it.” Hunter’s life is an attempt at not adapting. His patronage to the modern world is just to gather enough capital to finally drop out. In the summer he landscapes, but the winter is tough. He finds work where he can, whether it be graphic design or types of blue-collar work, like plowing snow.
He goes on to talk about the effects of our quarantine and our slavery to our computers, especially that of constantly dosing ourselves with unprescribed blue lights. “It’s not good for your eyes, it confuses your brain and your circadian rhythm.” The circadian rhythm is your biological clock that dictates when you rise and when you sleep. The Harvard Medical School backs up Esberg on this point.
“This is a more natural state of being for us. What we’re facing now is the turbulence of evolution.”
The topic of corporate opportunism comes up several times during the conversation, and while the overall sentiment is anti-corporate, it was not anti-capitalist. Esberg himself is a freelance artist, but one thing that bothers him about the nomadic revival movement is the unsurprising invasion of corporations to shill products like tents, water purification tablets, and of course T-shirts, which takes the pure essence of the movement and makes it superficial. If one wants to return to a simpler way of life, yet still relies on the very institutions/corporations to be able to sustain themselves, are they really free?
As we ponder the question and the serious topic of drug and alcohol abuse brought on by our current climate, a father and kids wander past to fish at the lake in front of the campsite.
After they pass through, I offer the most profound question, one that may cause philosophy PhD candidates to argue about my Socratic logic for years to come.
“Can you live without a phone?”
“Could I? Yeah . . . but it’d be hard.” He shrugged and gave me a weak smile.
While the question was basic, the response proves something to me. The self-inflicted chains that bind us to modern civilization and prevent us from eating real food, making fire, and spearfishing, affect us all. Even those who are trying to escape are still bound by a black rectangle. (We called it a scrying orb off-tape). Esberg is a part of Generation Z; he grew up with the phone and the computer and is trying to escape. The simple discomfort of having to forgo these rotting luxuries, such as instant food delivery and online shopping, is an arduous task. He simply knows nothing else, and that’s why he’s trapped. We all are. Especially those who grew up in the digital age—it’s all we know. Losing it would be like a dog seeing color for the first time: we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves.
But maybe these traps are double-edged swords. Maybe the trap itself is what will unplug the digital matrix and force humanity back into the forest.
Hunter Esberg believes it is, “at least use it as a base to work from so we can assure our mental health needs in regard to socialization are fulfilled.”
What does that mean? Does this have something to do with being surrounded by people who have the same vested interest in your survival as you do theirs?
“Yes, I think the childish part of the psyche just yearns to be seen, understood, and loved. It gets heavily validated in that situation, but it has to accept outsiders and people that don’t belong and allow them to live just as free.”
Living in small, close communities is natural, but in our contemporary times we still have to learn to accept the “stranger” and allow them to live with the same amount of freedom as we do with the “familiar.”
Whether you’re a technocrat, who thinks science and academia will save us, or a disgruntled time clock puncher who wants to throw the complexities of modernity in the trash and pitch a tent in the woods, there’s one question we should all ask ourselves: Were we meant to live like this?
Answering that question is like trying to define beauty. It is highly subjective. While occasionally destructive, modern technology and science have produced great things for the human race, such as vaccines and solar panels. In modern societies, we don’t have to watch our backs for beasts wanting to make us their next meal, yet simple living leaves simple worries. Nomads don’t have to worry about soul-sucking office jobs, making sure the grass is cut, and keeping sane during every election that is sold as an apocalypse. You can simply just live. As Wells believes, the idea of transient living can be summed in one word: “a cry for… FREEDOM!!”
Nathaniel Reynolds is a staff writer for the Blue Muse Magazine
Header Photo Credit: Hunter Esberg
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