2008 was an awful year for so many Americans. There were an infinite number of variations, but the theme was the same. In quick order the personal balance sheet was completely upside down and beyond repair. In many cases foreclosure came along with it. All of which is to say that I fully appreciate now that I was not alone then, although it felt lonely at the time complicated as it all was by my divorce the previous year.
“The geographical solution never works” is an adage the truth of which I myself have tested. As I understand it, the point is that one cannot solve one’s problems by “running away,” as some are fond of putting it. Your problems will inevitably accompany you, they say. A contradictory adage comes to mind. “Never say never.” Adages irritate me. Who are these people? What personality type has the temerity to offer you and me pithily stated little rules that can be broken only at the peril of a life ill-lived.
Now that I have floated that misleading rationalization, let me come clean. The financial straits in which I found myself had nothing to do with the near collapse of the world financial system and everything to do with my own utter profligacy over a previous lifetime. Just as I lack the religion gene, I also lack the gene that causes people to care about money. In place of those I have the ones that cause people to believe in fate and luck. That helped me quickly to appreciate the upside of my situation.
I was single. I was not overly enamored of my profession. My children were all self-sufficient adults. My parents were still living independently and quite well. I owed no local creditors. I was not yet in arrears with any of my mega-bank creditors, and none of my obligations was secured in any way. I had few personal possessions left and no real estate. Furthermore, I was looking down the barrel of my 62nd birthday when I could collect my monthly Social Security retirement benefit, albeit in a reduced amount.
In the midst of all that, the names of men whose work I admired came to mind, Alexandre Dumas, Baudelaire, Shelley, Byron, Dostoevsky, and others. The question that arose as a result was an epiphany. Instead of subjecting myself to the humiliation of a bankruptcy proceeding, why should I not also—simply and nobly as they had done—flee my creditors and go abroad? The next question followed hard upon that. Abroad where? My irrational need to drive to my destination narrowed down the possibilities considerably. I quickly eliminated Canada. I wanted the challenge of a more alien culture that would keep my head in the moment. I had only one choice left. Los estados unidos de México.
I had never before in my life harbored any desire even to visit Mexico. Forty years earlier, that cowboy who ran the stables where a former wife boarded her horse had advised me that if I ever decided to see the real Mexico, I should drive there in a beat-up, old pickup truck wearing worn-out jeans and boots. I cannot remember how the subject came up, but I laughed at the time. It was suddenly no laughing matter in 2008. The fact that I had purchased a pickup truck on a whim three years earlier seemed like an omen.
I had a firm grasp on the profound lunacy of the whole scheme. That seemed only to make it more seductive to me. I imagined, for example, the collection people who would eventually purchase my debt from Citibank or whomever ultimately bringing suit against me. Upon discovering that I no longer had any permanent residence in the United States of America, they would have to consider sending off a process server to chase around Mexico while dodging the cartels and try to find some gringo driving around somewhere in that vast country in a black pickup truck. The absurdity of that amused me to no end, I am ashamed to say.
Working around the craziness of the idea, I undertook gradual steps in preparation for departure over the next several months: slowly shutting down my business by completing work in progress and taking on nothing new; fronting up the story that I was so well off that I had determined to retire; giving my children my desktop computer, television, and such; purchasing my first notebook computer; giving my custom-tailored suits, dress shoes, and some other clothes to the wino who accosted me beside the dumpster behind my apartment; acquiring a paper map of Mexico; and lastly, scraping together the little cash necessary to purchase a tiny, used pop-up camper trailer that my pickup could easily pull. Had some unexpected windfall befallen me at any point before I pulled out, I could have aborted the whole scheme and put everything in reverse. No windfall came, and I am now forever grateful for that.
So it is that I did pull out later that year, alone with Larry Carlton playing “Smiles and Smiles to Go” on repeat, heading south to McAllen, Texas, with the city of Reynosa in the violent state of Tamaulipas just across the river. And more to come over the next five years.
Stephen Brassawe, Iowa, Adrift on Amber Waves of Grain