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Living Safely on a Leash, Or Running Free?

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Use your health, even to the point of wearing it out.
     That is what it is for.
Spend all you have before you die;
     do not outlive yourself.
~George Bernard Shaw


Homer and I Living Free: No Leashes

For as long as there have been people living in community, the question has been debated should we favor freedom or should we have security. For Americans, the obvious example is the American Revolution. Our forefathers were faced with the decision to be safe as second-class citizens under England or to be free men by founding a new country. The Founding Fathers made the decision that it was better to be dead than to be a slave. They were so bold they wrote it out in the Declaration of Independence and signed their names to it, thus burning their bridges. They were “All In,” succeed or die.
I faced a decision something like that for myself. When I first moved into a van, very little changed in my life; I kept working at the same job with the same health insurance. I had plenty of money and family and friends around to help me if I got in trouble. Being a vandweller had virtually no risk to it at all. But later when I retired and decided to boondock full-time on public land, it was a very different story. My pension didn’t come with health insurance and it was too small to allow me to buy it for myself. My ex-wife is a hospice nurse, and from hearing her many stories I knew that people in our country who do not have health insurance get sub-standard medical care and die earlier than people who do have it. I had every reason to believe that would be true for me. I fully expect to die younger because I took early retirement and don’t have medical insurance. I gave that a lot of thought and made a decision: I was “All In” to boondocking, whatever it cost me to be free, I would pay the price.

Let me tell you a story that helped to solidify my decision.

I love dogs, and can’t imagine living this way without one. So in January 2008 I found the perfect dog (Homer, an 80 pound Black and Tan Coonhound) for me in a Rescue Shelter in Asheville, NC. Then in March 2008 we left house-dwelling behind us forever to live fulltime in my small camper. Because our house was so small, and we were driving so much, I made a commitment to Homer to take him for long walks every morning and every night. And I have been faithful to that promise. In miserable heat, rain and snow and unbelievable winds we have gone out for walk every morning and every night for the last 4 years. When I look back at the last four years, the thing I treasure the most is those walks, they mean the world to me.
But I soon made a discovery that terrified me. Homer was born with only one “thought” in his mind, chase down and kill anything that runs. If it runs, Homer chases it. And not just for a little ways, he will chase deer or rabbits for miles. I was nearly frantic the first few times he ran off and left me. No amount of yelling or screaming at him would make him stop and come back. Then when he eventually did come back, I couldn’t punish him then because that would just teach him not to come back.
And he would go for a long time. I’ll never forget the time we were at a high alpine pass in Colorado and he took off after some deer. There were no trees so every so often I could see him way off in the distance chasing something. It was late evening so I decided to just spend the night in the parking lot of the view area and wait for him to come back. I knew there were bear, coyotes and rattlesnakes in the area, any one of which could have killed him. Even worse, we weren’t that far from a fairly busy road where he could get run over. But the greatest danger was that he would go to the road, someone would find him and rescue him by taking him home with them. The bottom line was that I probably would never see him again. Fortunately, he got cold and hungry and came back.
And this wasn’t a rare occurrence, everywhere we went there were plenty of things for him to chase and he would always chases them. His nose is absolute Lord and Master of his life. If there is a scent, he WILL follow it.
So I had to make a decision, what do I do about this dog? Do I put him on a leash to go on walks in the forest and desert, or do I let him run free and possibly (probably?) die young?
I had made that decision for myself, and decided to live free, but let’s face it, that was a strictly theoretical decision. The consequences of my decision were a long way off and didn’t seem very “real.” This was very real! Every time Homer ran off could be the last time I ever saw him. The safe, logical thing was to put him on leash. But that would be a miserable life for both of us. Hadn’t we moved to the woods to live deliberately; to live free or die?

Homer Standing Tall, Living Free, and Looking For Something to Kill!!

So one day I made the decision, Homer would live free, and he would die whenever it was his time. But he would die having lived a glorious and joyous life full of fun and adventure. I have held that decision close to my heart many times since then when he would disappear for hours. When I would start to worry and fret about him I would remind myself that when the day came to put him in the ground I could say to myself with a very clear conscience that I had given him the very best life I possibly could. Sometimes I look him in the eye and tell him that if in the next life I come back as his dog, and he comes back as my master, I hope that he gives me the exact same life I have given him.
In all of life there is a balance and I do everything I can to keep Homer safe. I’ve tried to train him to stay closer to home. Every month he gets Frontline Plus to protect him from ticks and heartworm pills to prevent heartworms. I give him better quality food and treats to keep him healthy. If he cuts his paw I put booties on them so they will heal. BUT I WILL NEVER TAKE HIM FOR A WALK IN THE DESERT OR WOODS WITH A LEASH ON BECAUSE OF FEAR (bear in mind that I am not around other people or dogs, then I would put him on a leash).
That decision settled forever any lingering doubts I may have had about security versus freedom. I will not live on a leash because it makes me safer. I will run like a wild thing through the woods and desert being fully human, fully alive. And if that means I die young, then it will have been well worth it.


  1. Steve

    Well said brother, well said… Got me a little choked up… We both know the word freedom, and so do our best friends and life partners also…

    • Bob

      Steve, you know how much I love Homer, BUT, I’m not ready to call him my life partner. I think of 2 legged critters when I think of that! Bob

      • Steve

        Gotta admit it, Zeke is gonna have to fill that gap for me… As you know my life partner took her early retirement and went home…

  2. Mike McCrary

    Found your site last week and also just finished your book. Have enjoyed reading both very much. You are living my dream. I really want to be able to one day move from my home with nothing more than what is in my car. I got a dog this year and your blog post reminded me so much of my walks with my dog. He is pretty good on a leash but I know he yearns to take off where his nose “knows”. In the city its a little hard to do. I have a 12 year old son and 14 year old daughter that are the most important thing in my life. I wouldn’t want to leave them. I even have thought about the possibility of bringing my son with me and home school him on the road. He has struggled in the regular school setting. I hate that I’m tied to my job because of insurance. Its the fear that I will not be able to provide for my kids if I didn’t have the job that provides insurance. Its these things that keep me where I am for now. What you say about living free is very true. I have always been on the conservative side – living as risk free as possible. But when you do that are you really living?

    • Bob

      Mike, I relate to your story very much. I was forced into vandwelling by a divorce. Like you, my kids were the most important thing in my life so I had to stay right where i was and spend as much time as possible with them. But as soon as my youngest turned 18 I took early retirement and hit the road to live on public land.
      The bottom line is that for most of us when you have kids you give up much of your freedom. BUT it is well worth it. Bob

  3. Frank James

    Right on Bob, living the dream and walking the walk instead of talking the talk. Better to be the Wolf then the Sheeple.

    • Bob

      Thanks for your kind words Frank! I have to admit that for most of my life I was a sheeple just like everyone else. You start out as young buck out to live free and wild like a wolf but then life happens, you have kids and suddenly you are fully invested in the rat race. I consider myself lucky to have been forced into vandwelling. My transition from sheep to wolf just followed logically one step to the next. All I had to do was get out of the way and let it happen. Today I am living the dream! Bob

  4. MichaelinOK

    Thank you for sharing your personal encounters with the question of security vs. freedom.
    And the way you treat Homer, among other clues, makes me think you have great fatherly instincts (though I know that the other parent has a great influence on whether and how one’s own best parenting is allowed to manifest).
    Given my comment on your previous post, in which I presented the argument for those who are cautious, and avoid nature and dirt, etc., you may be surprised to know that only several months ago I wrote an essay consistent with my truer inclination–against conventional living and caution. I think you’d enjoy it. I’ll try to email it to you.
    May you live long, in vigorous health and joy. The world needs people like you.

    • Bob

      Michael, I’m looking forward to reading your essay. Bob

  5. Mark Freeman

    I heard a motivational speaker once say, “There are two doors in life. Freedom and Security. If you choose Security, you get neither”.

    • Bob

      Hi Mark, that was a wise motivational speaker! Bob

  6. dave

    Great piece.
    As a UK citizen I have to take (mild) exception to the idea the colonists were slaves.Great Britains 13 North American colonies were probably too vast and too far away to ever be effectively governed, especially in an era of no internet or telegraph or telephones. When the crown attempted to get the colonies to pay their fair share of tax for the French and Indian War, they got armed revolt, which any government on earth would have tried to crush. People also forget that the colonists were pretty much split evenly down the middle, rebel or loyalist. The Revolutionary war could also just have easily been called the First American Civil War.
    And what would America look like if they had stayed apart of the British Empire? Umm, well, it would look like Canada. Oh, the humanity. You wouldn’t be able to keep a small arsenal in your house but hey, you’d have health insurance.

    • MichaelinOK

      You’re correct that far from all colonists were for revolution at the time. Indeed, I was under the impression that only about a third of them were.
      And, of course, each side in nearly any debate on social or political systmes can make its case that “things were not that bad.” The same has been said about everything from actual slavery (“Many slaves prefer not having the burdens of independence,” etc.) to life in the USSR (free healthcare, guaranteed employment, etc.) or fascist Italy (“Hey, at least the crime rate was down, and the trains ran on time”) or Nazi Germany (“The economy boomed, inflation was under control, and we also finally had pride in our country again after the humiliatons following WWI,” etc.) And, at times, though not in my view in the cases above, each side has something of a legitimate argument.
      But I think it highly questionable to look at current political and social realities and assume that they would be the same without the historical thunderclap that was the American Revolution.
      If we are to be honest, we have no idea even whether there would have been any country in the world with anything that could be characterized as individual freedoms in 1945 without American military power having defeated Hitler, much less how the previous close to two centuries would have developed in various parts of the world–including Europe–without the American example of standing up for government founded on individual rights and liberties.
      Social and political developments arise from complex and unpredictable combinations of factors, so we are wise to limit our confident predictions on what would have been. And so I don’t think it legitimate to conclude that without the American Revolution, we Americans–or anyone else, for that matter, including the British or even the Canadians–would be living like the Canadians.
      But on the issue of whether England was justified in attempting to suppress the rebellion… I do think nearly any government would have. I’ve always found it astonishingly inconsistent that perhaps our most admired president–Lincoln–so insisted on not allowing some states to declare their independence that he went to war over it, a war that cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and many more wounds and disfigurements. Somehow, “preserving the Union” was seen as a sacred ideal worth innumerable lives. But when another government attempts to prevent one of its territories from breaking off, why that’s seen as tyranny. Even today, when periodically someone raises the idea of Texas or another state becoming independent, it’s discussed as a humorous and/or alarming curiosity, and evidence of likely violent and extremist ideology of those afflicted with questionable mental health and likely ridden with various forms of bigotry. And, of course, though “unjust taxation” was the battle cry of the Revolutionary War, when contemporary citizens get worked up about what they see as unjust taxation they’re seen as quacks or extremists or secret racists…or, at the very least, greedy and cold-hearted.
      To be clear, I believe the American Revolution was a good thing, both for America and for the world…because it was the breaking forth (imperfect, of course, but a wonderful beginning) of individual dignity from out of eons of group conformity and/or elitist rule from royalty, dictatorships, and the like. But unless shaken up periodically, the inertia of humanity tends toward the build-up of attempts at security, and this greater focus on security/safety discourages boldness, encourages sloth, and leads to the decay of individual character and independence. And all, usually, in the name of goodness and compassion.
      But because I don’t want to contribute to this thread (on a blog about cheap RV living) turning into ongoing political debate, I’ll limit my thoughts on the matter to what I’ve just written.
      I am glad to give you the last word.

    • Bob

      Hi Dave, you won’t get any argument from me. I’ve given a lot of thought and done some reading on why Americans are so obsessed with freedom and guns. I’ve reached the conclusion that it is genetic. Think back to the people who came here and you will see some common personality characteristics. They were rebels–many were running away from religious persecution because they were willing to believe totally differently than everybody else even if they were persecuted for it. They were risk-takers, getting on that ship and going somewhere totally foreign is inconceivably risky. They were non-conformist–they would rather die than live just like they were told.
      The bottom line is that Americans have been bred to be rebels, non-conformists, and extremely independent. What King George considered reasonable was the worst tyranny to the Founding Fathers. It’s all a matter of perspective.
      Like Homers need to hunt and kill has been bred into him, the need for freedom has been bred into me. And I suspect it is equally in many people who are reading this! Bob

  7. Cheryl

    That is so beautiful and wonderfully written Bob. It is so true for me too. At least that is how I feel, but I think I am in a trap……brought on by my own need for security but my mind Thinks the same way as you say.
    I have a cat that I got at a no kill shelter. she was 4 yrs old and had been living in that great big room with other cats for all her life. She was not pretty really as she is black but a muddy black and had scars around her ears…they let me have her for half price. So I thought sure, I will take her let’s get her OUT of here.!
    She is the best cat. When she first came into the house and jumped on a table and bunch of stuff came down on her head she never jumped up on things again LOL
    I have a good fenced yard, course you know a cat can get out easily as it is a board fence. But she had never in her life been outside, so after she adjusted I set her out on the back step one day. She totally shivered for a long time….but you could tell it was something she wanted to do, stay there even in her fear. It took awhile but now she goes outside a lot and she has never, in a year or more, ever gone outside the fence. Cats all the time use to jump in and jump out of this yard but it is like she knows this is her home and loves the confines of the yard. It is so wonderful to watch her play in the grass, climb trees, chase bugs! To think that this cat was petrified about being outdoors the first time and now she loves it
    Yea I get the comments from cat lovers like “Oh I would NEVER let my cat outdoors. so much can happen to them!” well I think as you Bob, at least if something does she will die happy. Maybe I should do the same for me ……?
    anyway I really enjoyed your writing. It is great! Keep more coming! Homer is a lucky dog!

    • Bob

      Hi Cheryl, that is a great story about your cat. You have a wonderful heart to take her in and make her life so much better! It sounds like she knows a good thing when she sees it and is staying close to you!
      Only your heart can tell you if living on the road is right for you. It isn’t right for everyone. Most people are quite happy to live in 4 walls. The fact you are here and on the forum does imply that the open road is calling you. We are here to help you in way we can.
      The one thing I can tell for sure is that just like your cat, you deserve to be happy. Find out what will make you happy and then go get it! Bob

  8. dave

    @Michealin OK, Bob: Well, the last thing in the world I would want to do is hijack this remarkable and important blog for a history/political debate, there is far too much of that on the web as there is. I will say this though: that as a non American I note with some sadness that many Americans seem to think world history began on July 4th 1776. In fact Amereuropeans all come from different European countries and their history is also your own history. 75 Million Americans are of English descent (which is rarely claimed, unlike Irish or German or Italian) and I might be wrong but Bob “Wells” sounds like a very English name to me.
    Never forget too that our ancestors were also once “indigenous” peoples, living in touch with their environment much the same as the Native Americans, who we displaced through various appalling methods, well documented and all tragic. Search youtube for “A history of Ancient Britain” if you want to see an incredible recent BBC series on the ancient peoples of the British Isles. There is also “A history of Celtic Britain” by the same producers that explores British history from the Bronze Age to the fall of Rome.

  9. JerryG

    Well Bob, hope to head out your way soon. My wife enjoys travel, though I can’t get her to sell the house lol.
    I think there’s a balance between freedom and security which can be reached: we have both worked in careers we enjoyed and are secure enough to take early retirements. We have also had the financial means to travel when and where we would, which would not have been possible without a measure of security.
    I’ve never felt a leash.
    See you on the road.

    • Bob

      Hi Jerry, thanks for your post! You point out the importance of not pigeon-holing people. Just because you lived a fairly normal life doesn’t mean you were leashed. vandwellers are quick to point out how “normal” people look down on us, but then we call them “sheeple” implying they are just sheep.
      The important question is are you happy? It sounds like you have lived a very happy life and and have put yourself in a position that it is only going to get better and better. if that is a “sheeple,” count me in!!
      I hope to see you out here some time! Bob

  10. Cheryl

    What a beautiful post. So very true of my mindset. Your blog is awesome!

    • Bob

      Cheryl, thank you so much for your kind words! We really are a strange bunch of people. In today’s “be safe at all costs” world, to decide to be happy no matter the risk is very unusual. If vandwelling makes you as happy as it has made me, you are going to be very happy with your decision. I admire your courage! Bob

  11. karen

    bob, I agree dogs and humans being free and not on a leash. I am at home with nature. It is other people watch out for. do you carry a weapon? any thoughts on that? karen

    • Bob

      Hi Karen, we sound alike in that, I too feel most at home in nature and it has become increasingly difficult for me to spend time in cities.
      I do carry a 357. revolver with me in the trailer, but rarely carry it outside of the trailer. I have never felt threatened by people in all my time living on public land. I have been afraid of dogs a few times and have been afraid of black bears several times and a mountain lion once. But, few people spend as much time hiking in the back-country as I do. I often carry bear spray if in bear country and a knife for dogs. The one time I was afraid of mountain lions I carried a spear after that. I know that sounds strange but lions strike from above and behind and there is no time for a gun or any weapon. A spear carried in your hands may be able to be brought up and have the lion impale itself on it as it lands on you.
      I almost always feel totally safe on public land, much more so than while I am in cities.

  12. Rob C

    Bob, I want to thank you for your insight. I am 44 and I feel as if society is closing in on me. I too must be free. Society today is becoming very foreign to me. I relate so much to the title of this article. I do not desire to be “kept” by the State like an animal in a zoo. I want to be left to the consequences of my own decisions. I have 2 13 yr old dogs that I do my best to let them live as natural as I can. So no “leash” for me, I choose not to wear a seat belt when I drive but I don’t speed. I don’t smoke or drink and I don’t always eat healthy, but I don’t expect the Government to pay for my health care. Recently I had to renew my drivers license and could not believe all the personal info the State demanded me to produce. That felt like a noose around my neck. I wish to keep my privacy and independence. I will choose freedom over security always!
    One other thing, I saw a deer early in the morning a few days ago. The headlights of my truck illuminated the area where the deer was standing and feeding. I noticed that she was missing her right front leg. I actually felt bad for this animal. Then she got spooked by my lights and the sound of my truck and, quite capably ran off into the woods. For a brief moment a thought came to me that I should contact DNR so they might help the deer. But then I realized that the people at the DNR would have probably killed her for her own good! So I decided she would be better off testing her luck with nature instead.
    Stay well Sir

    • Bob

      Rob, it’s a hard choice for most people. I think many people would rather have someone take care of them and be comfortable instead of being free and less comfortable. And the choice becomes harder all the time as we become conditioned to being pampered and cared for by society.
      Most of all it is going to mean long term hardship. If we aren’t saving for retirement, paying into social security or buying health insurance, what will happen to us when we get older? The simple truth is, like that deer, nature is not kind to the old, sick or disabled. By choosing a natural, free life, we put ourselves into natures hands, and not the governments and the government is much more compassionate than nature!
      So factor that in to your decision to go off-grid. To me it is worth it, but I already put my 40 years in and have a pension and social security check coming. But I have still made the conscious choice to die younger and live with minimum of comforts. It’s the right choice for me.
      Thanks for you comment, very wise!

  13. Robert

    Thank you Bob, that was very well written. It will definitely give me something to think about. Its sort of made me realize that even though I pride myself on how I take care of my dog, I am being selfish by keeping her on a leash, when I myself have thrown off the leash that has kept me tied down for so many years. But! on the other hand I have totally immersed myself in this dog, to lose her would be so devastating I just don’t know if I could live with myself. I guess the best thing is to just go out there, and play it by ear, which is what I’ve been doing the last 3 months anyway, and so far its been working. I spend a lot of time now walking and hiking with her off leash, but its been in a controlled environment, an old abandoned golf course, turned in to hiking trails by the county. Also All your replies, and blogs are well written. I am going to make it a point to be at the rtr, and meet you. Thanks again.

    • Bob

      Robert, thanks for you kind and thoughtful comment. Taking care of our furry buddies is an awesome responsibility and there are no easy answers. I’m glad I could give you food for thought, but you have to follow your heart.
      I wish you two of you the very best!! I’m looking forward to meeting you both at RTR!

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