Life Lessons from a Wanderer: From Lost Boy, to Carnie, to U.S. Marine

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” ~Rumi

How did this happen?

I remember the wind tearing at the walls of my tent, bending the humble, graphite rods almost double. I was burrowed down in my sleeping bag, which was one of my sole possessions in life, along with that tent, a pack of books, some canned food, $200, and clothes.

I dug even lower and thought—what the hell am I going to do?

It was sometime in October of 1994. I was camped by a dry creek bed amidst some old, twisted mesquite trees and the fall winds of the Mojave were starting to muster.

And by starting to muster, I mean they began to violently gust fifty to sixty miles an hour.

All I could hear was the flapping of that pitifully thin material. It wasn’t even full dark outside yet. I could barely hear myself think the sound was so close to my head. I hunkered down miserably and hoped I would have an intact tent come morning.

It was starting to get cold.

I was twenty-one.

Now how I got to that desert creek bed, in that tent, on that cold October night, was a study in the term “failure to launch.”

Big time.

After I graduated high school, neither my family nor I saw how I could afford to go to college despite my grades and aptitude. So I semi-decided that I should just get out there in life and see what happened. I was certain I was fairly educated, college or no college, about people and life and the way things worked.

And I was also quite certain I wasn’t going down either the roads my father and mother had taken. Apparently, it was time to blaze some new trails.

I was probably on a “spiritual path,” I told myself.

No doubt, in great part, because no one could actually tell what sort of other path it might be.

I was a little cocky, a little rebellious, and a lot upset that the world hadn’t offered me up anything better than this despite my hard work in school, but no worries, I thought—I would make my own destiny. No one was going to keep me from the fine, successful, strong person I envisioned myself quickly becoming.

I took off with a lopsided grin and all the bravado of youth and inexperience. I knocked around in my home state of Oregon a little bit, did some landscaping, worked as a box boy, chased some women, and tried out some different towns, which all proved to be a lot like the one I came from.

And then, after a couple of slow years that went fast, more on a whim than anything, I joined up with a carnival company touring through Eugene, Oregon.

Yeah, I became a carnie.

For three months I traveled down the west coast of America, blowing into town, setting up stands and rides, asking people all weekend to give me a dollar for three throws of a dart in the balloon booth.

I met a crazy Aussie, worked beside a man with track marks on his forearms so bad I asked him if he had been burned, got offered drugs of all kinds, sex of even more kinds, and generally had a rollicking, somewhat desperate, entirely surreal time.

As we rolled into Phoenix, Arizona at summer’s end—the last major stop and a good moneymaker—I got off that wild ride. Life on the road is rough, no matter how glamourous it might look in movies. Rougher when you’re with tough folks.

I wasn’t quite carnie-tough, if I’m being honest.

And then, with no better options, I caught myself a ride a few hours upstate to a town called Quartzsite. During summers it’s not much, but it blossoms by tens of thousands during winter. Retirees from all over drive down in RV’s to enjoy resting their cold bones for a while.

It had a scrappy feeling, like a big, desert flea market. My kinda place, I figured. I looked around, bought a handful of paperbacks, and hiked several miles north to set up my tent by that creek bed.

And a few weeks later, in the quiet of late summer, living in my tent, I started really thinking and I realized, to my dismay, I didn’t know what to do next. I thought I should probably make my next move, but somehow I just couldn’t.

Day by day, it got harder to get through an afternoon. But still I sat there, growing more and more hollowed-out, besides the shore of that long-dead stream.

I imagine now I must have gone into some kind of mystic survival-mode. I was contemplating my navel, but so deeply, so close to myself, I could no longer understand how or why the outside world moved. I had no plan, and had you asked me even to just fake one for eating’s sake, I wouldn’t have been able to.

And it was no terribly enlightened, uber-in-the-now thing (though there are certainly gifts I still carry from the experience.) I could just no longer conceive of how to move myself physically.

I didn’t have enough resources for any false move. I didn’t have enough inspiration to march out and preach to the masses, spiritual journey or not. I had completely wandered off any beaten track and had apparently found the end of the road.

I think the technical term is “stuck.”

And I’m sure a part of me just wanted a cup of coffee and to sleep in a real bed for a few nights.

I had been swimming through life for years, just fast enough not to go under. I hadn’t thought much about what direction I was swimming or that I might be going twice as far as needed in the wrong direction. I didn’t consider the fact I might get tired and sincerely assumed if I just kept going I would be okay.

But now I had stopped, awkwardly and seemingly by chance, but it was a very, solid stop nonetheless.

And then, the wind began to howl.

Out in my beloved desert, where it had been just me and the earth and the sun for a quiet moment of weeks, suddenly, there was this other insistent, aggressive element. One I couldn’t avoid or outrun.

Tearing, shoving, and grasping at my poor, little world…

And it didn’t end that night. It didn’t end the next day or the next night either. Those winds tore at my tent for three whole days.


I crawled out from my tent the morning of the fourth day like some primal, man-child, almost disbelieving the sky god had let the world and its creatures live after all.

The air was slightly shimmery and fantastic feeling, as it will be in desert mornings, and the rocks were hard under my bare feet, though I scarcely noticed. Slowly, faintly, I could hear myself begin thinking small, tentative thoughts again.

I was cold, but nothing like the last few nights.

Damn was I hungry.

But then, suddenly, in that strange air, I just got it. I understood completely, peacefully even, I didn’t have the ability to tell myself what to do with my days anymore. And what’s more, I understood I was not going to get that ability back soon or without help.

Right then, I just accepted it as fact. Not a judgment to be found anywhere.

Maybe it was acceptance?

I remembered how often I had left jobs and places and people behind the past few years because I didn’t want to be told what to do. Or because I was surely doing something mysterious and noble—wandering the earth like a soul-nomad, convinced mere survival activities had far less value than my greater journey (nose up in the air here).

It was all very romantic in one sense surely, and I recommend it in measured doses. It was also cold, hard, hungry work.

And I realized, that strange, cold morning, perhaps it was time now to consider being “bossed” by someone.

Preferably someone who knew what they were doing.

So I did what any sane person would do.

I joined the Marines.

Six weeks later, even hungrier, perhaps a little worse for wear, I stepped off the bus at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, and into the most decision-less, disciplined, bossed around few months of my life.

The beds weren’t good and the coffee wasn’t either. But there was food.

And most of all, I relished my twelve weeks in boot camp, my four weeks combat training, and three more weeks of specialty schooling before I shipped off to Camp Fuji, Japan. And yes, I was a little unique in this perspective among my fellow recruits. I just honestly enjoyed having made a decision that took away all my other decisions and gave me time to re-learn the shape of a day.

Slowly, very respectfully, I drifted back into the fuller stream of life.

Of course, there were moments over the ensuing years when I worried I had exchanged no boss for approximately 230,000 aggressive, semi-socially challenged ones. Until I realized no one questions the Marine working twice as hard as everyone else—they promote him and then follow his orders.

And moments when I questioned why the lost boy from Oregon who packed books instead of more food into the desert would be carrying a gun for a living. Until I realized so much of civilization still relies, unfortunately or not, on walls and the men who stand on them. And I loved so much of the world—those snowbirds, my fellow wanderers, my mom, the green of Oregon, the bright blue and sand of a desert day.

And even times when I worried there was some sort of “loss of innocence,” that I had rushed too much perhaps. Until I realized the world will take us all in its time—fast or slow, makes no difference. What we can aspire to is an understanding of our mortality and purpose on the trip—some sense of value beyond ourselves and shaping of our own ends.

I learned that wandering can be done with purpose. And sometimes it is done without purpose—for the sake of being a wanderer. Both have their place. Both will end.

I learned that a “spiritual path” doesn’t preclude a job or pride or a family or a home or a business or a new book. The wandering simply goes on through other incarnations—new costumes for the old player if you will. It is the powerful essence of the questions that drive us forward, not the solace of a particular answer.

I learned that the mind is full of doubts, and like our ancestors before us, we often fear the night. But I also learned that the heart has its own wisdom and can find us a path if we are still, if we listen even when we are afraid to hear.

I learned that the sun comes up again, every single day—a new day always dawns. Make it your touchstone. It is only our insistence and fear and driving urgency in darkness that keeps us from the peace of new light.

I learned that the world will love bossing you around—be it managers, Marines, loved ones, or society in general. And the only antidote is to “boss” yourself better than they can. No one messes with the person working twice as hard as everyone else.

I learned that a person must own themselves completely and “be the boss” of their living each day. And I learned that there are times, sometimes, when we absolutely won’t know how to do that. When we will fail in the endeavor and must find some trusted help until we slowly remember how to again.

I learned that the best boss for me is ultimately me. But I also had some very, very good “bossing” teachers along the way.

And when I do forget myself (as we all may, when wandering) and how to be my own boss—when I find I am scared or running up against another’s will or losing momentum or lost in a desert of dying, summer days…

I still myself and remember the howling wind. I remember the wild, reaching shadow-fingers across my tent walls under the rising of a bright, cold moon.

I burrow deeply, arranging my blankets, my books, and all the things I love best closer to me as I prepare for the storm.

And I let the wind howl and bear down on the thin walls of life. I let it reach for me, as it will always seek to, and I find stillness in my heart. I know answers might not come soon and the night may be long.

And I grow calmer yet, understanding the question I have now is much more than I have asked before, knowing I might need to find help or let another show me a new way forward.

And I smile a little, maybe, remembering the promise of that fourth day sun and what I must have looked like emerging from my fraught, little shelter and how bright the morning was and how many amazing new questions it brought.

And then, then I listen some more.

Here is wishing you happy wandering, happy bossing, and happy listening, always.

About Tath Ashcraft

Tath Ashcraft is an author, entrepreneur, world-traveler, and yoga enthusiast. He is a coffee drinking, music loving man who believes in the life-changing power of listening, living adventurously, forming unlikely friendships, and learning to give. He is the author of Fearless GIVING: Leave Want Behind. Live Congruently. Discover Your Legacy. 

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