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On Life’s Big Fucking Hills

Adventure starts at the place where your plans end. Sometimes, you set out with the goal of having an adventure, and so you purposefully avoid planning. Nothing more than a blank spot on the calendar, a sacked lunch, and an inkling to wander in one direction or another. Other times you’re thrust into adventure when you take a wrong turn, or the power goes out, or any of a thousand other things happen that shake you from the fragile web of your own carefully laid plans. This is more commonly known as misadventure.

Of the two, I tend to find the latter more enjoyable.

For nearly six months I had been traveling in Europe, doing work-trades in exchange for hot meals and a roof over my head. It wasn’t a bad way to live. Staying with local families felt authentic, and I’d lucked into some pretty posh digs. One house had two kitchens, and bedrooms overlooking the sea. Another had a walled garden with its own heated indoor pool. I was living like a millionaire without spending a dime.

Then, suddenly, the work dried up. As my stay at a house in the french countryside neared its end, I’d reached out to nearly a dozen other potential hosts. None returned my message. I widened my search, but still came up dry. The master plan which had kept me housed and fed for nearly half a year on foreign soil, suddenly fizzled and died. I was thousands of miles from home, in a country where I didn’t speak the language, with no intention of going backwards, and no clear route forwards. After nearly six months, I was finally on an adventure.

It’s always a little nerve-racking when you suddenly find yourself at the beginning of an unexpected adventure. Even if you’re used to living near the edge. Civilized life has a way of dulling the senses, and lulling us into softness. Your first thought is always Where will I go? What will I do?

But as the time for departure draws near, that old long-toothed dog comes back out and reminds you that it doesn’t really matter. You’ve fended for yourself before, and you can do it again. This ability to stare off into the abyss, into a world without shelter, or cars, or microwave dinners, and to be comfortable in the knowledge that you can keep yourself alive there is the biggest advantage of the venturing life. It primes you for hardship; Inoculates you against fear of going without. When you know in your soul that no matter what you can simply start walking, the world seems brighter, and filled with more opportunities. All of your resources become magnified. Little things become big advantages.

My advantage in France came in the form of an eight-speed Raceway Venise, sky-blue with a cargo rack on the back and a mirror on the left handlebar. It was one of a half-dozen beaten up old bikes that lay rusted and cobwebbed in my host’s garage, and she’d offered it to me for my travels.

I didn’t want the Raceway. I’d wanted the Giant, a black ten-speed I’d pulled out and fixed up while she was away. But she insisted that her granddaughter was coming to retrieve the Giant any day now, and wheeled the Raceway out into the sun for me to inspect instead.

“That’s a girl’s bike,” I said.
“No it’s not” she said.
“Yes it it,” I said, “That’s a girl’s bike. You can tell because of the shape of the frame.”
“Pfff,” she said, “There’s no such thing anymore.”
I looked at her incredulously.
“European men don’t care” she said.
“Oh, we know all about European men in America,” I said, “with their pointy shoes and their scarves.”
She didn’t laugh. I sought a different tactic.
“It’s just that I don’t think it’s really made for adventures. Look,” I said pointing to the words printed on the frame just below the brand name, “It says right here it’s literally from the comfort ville series.”
“It’s sturdy,” she said, bouncing it on its flat tires.
It was clear, it was either the Raceway, or the walkway. I sighed.
“I’ll take it.”
“Bon courage,” she said, “Bon chance.”

The chain and gears were orange with rust, and the walls of the tires were cracked from age. But the tubes held air, and before long I was pedaling off, cargo rack loaded down with everything I owned, and the front basket filled with a tent and my scarf. I looked very European.

I was headed for Dol, a nearby town where I’d finagled a few nights’ stay in a trailer park. Trailer park really gives the wrong impression, for Dol is everything you could want in a rural French town. It has cobbled streets and artisanal bakers that turn out warm baguette twice a day. It has bars that open at eight in the morning and sell tiny cups of coffee alongside hand-rolled cigarettes and Coca-Cola in glass bottles. It’s a place that bustles with business and tourism, but isn’t too busy for the shops to close for a few hours at lunch, or for people to take Mondays off.

The ride was hard, but hard work is always made easier when it’s paired with a sense of adventure. I didn’t have a map, but I’d once seen a sign in a nearby village pointing toward a place called Dol de Britagne, which I assumed was the same Dol. I also assumed that by following one sign I’d surely see more.

I was right, for the most part. Though I did climb one enormous fucking hill, only to find that the signs had disappeared. A game of charades with a local woman was enough to convince me I had to go back down to continue on the right path.

There is a line that pops into my mind whenever I find myself in a situation like that. A half-forgotten text from a girl I knew who, despite having a stable job, and a graduate degree, is probably more of an adventurer than I am. “You can’t always have a plan, and sometimes you need to be okay with that.” It’s always haunted me. Partly because I’m a planner by nature and I find it difficult to put the pencil down, and partly because I think I loved that girl, and I wonder if my need for plans is part of what drove us apart. Either way, these days, when I find myself uncomfortable at the volatility of my situation, I just remember those words, and continue on. I’m usually surprised by how well not planning works out.

Once I was back on track, the rest of the ride was comparatively smooth sailing. I peddled past corn fields and cow pastures, and through little villages where kids still play in the streets, and say bonjour monsieur when you go by, which is weird because I still think of myself as one of the kids in the street, rather than a monsieur.

I peddled into the afternoon sun, rolling along the cobblestones into Dol with a little time left before the bakers, and the tabac, and the creppiere closed down. So now I’m sitting here in the front of a bar, with the last of the day’s bread, a half-empty coke, and a cigarette I can’t light. And I’m just thinking about how some times in life we go up gigantic fucking hills that end up being detours. They don’t seem to move us any closer to our goals, but in the end they make the other hills seem small by comparison, and maybe that’s enough.

The Joy of Looking Up

But for my money, the best view on Earth – anywhere on Earth – is straight up. It’s easy to forget because the whole scene is often reduced to glittering lights sprinkled across a midnight blue dome. But to glance up at the stars is not so much to look at the night sky as it is to peer out into it. There is a vast depth to the scene which is often missed but which is far grander than even the grandest earthly vista.

On a clear day, you can see 130 miles from the top of Mt Washington in New Hampshire. The view from Everest can exceed two-hundred. The current record for line of sight stands at 334 miles, taken from a place in the Tien Shan Mountains in Kyrgyzstan.

But look up on any night from anywhere and the very closest twinkling light is somewhat further still. So far, in fact, that the distance is not measured in feet or miles but in time – the time it takes the fastest known thing to traverse the space. A lightyear works out to about six trillion miles and Alpha Centauri, the closest star visible in the night sky, is a little over four light years away.

It’s little use talking about the distance, for it is so far as to be virtually ungraspable in any practical way. You could try though. Imagine, if you will, being able to climb to the roof of your apartment building in New York, and looking out over the edge, you were able to see, far off and impossibly small, the faintest shimmer of Paris’ lights in the distance. That would be a view of about four-thousand miles. Alpha Centauri is roughly six-billion times further on.

It is, in short, a long long way.

And that is just the closest one. Polaris, the North Star, is nearly a hundred times further still. Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka, the three stars that make up Orion’s Belt, are each well over twelve-hundred lightyears away. If you’re working out the mileage on your calculator, you may well find that it’s more zeros than the device can comfortably display, but the distance is around seven quadrillion miles.

To look up into the night sky, even with the naked eye, is to look out across the most magnificent sweeping vista that mankind has ever known.

And we have always known it. Even today, as the blinding speed of development seems to have approached that of light itself, the stars above us have remained largely unchanged for the last four-thousand years.

These are the stars that Caesar saw. Socrates and Homer too. When they pushed the very last piece into place at Stonehenge, they would have toasted the occasion beneath a sky very much like the one you’ll see tonight.

In a world of division — left, right, black, white, Abraham, Jesus, or Mohammed — it is at least some comfort to know that when all three pondered the meaning of a life well-lived, they did so beneath the very same stars.

It was Emerson who said that if the stars came out just one night in a thousand years, all mankind would believe and adore and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown.

Instead, they are ours for the taking every night.

Except in the cities, of course, where the glare of a million headlights and streetlights and billboards has chased all but the brightest celestial bodies from the sky, and the only constellations to be found are the ones made of lit-up office windows. There a person can go a whole lifetime and never know what the night sky is supposed to look like.

I remember the first time I saw it. I had flown to Colorado and caught a ride to a dusty camp on the outskirts of a town called Cañon City. Back then, there were only two reasons to go to Cañon City – either you were going whitewater rafting, or you were going to jail. In a town of less than twenty-thousand, there were thirteen penitentiaries. It was even home to the Museum of Colorado Prisons, lest the people’s dedication to the science of confinement be called into question.

I had cast my lot with the water, having signed up to learn to guide on the nearby Arkansaas River. It was my first time camping in the wide open spaces of the American west.

There are many places in this country that claim to be home to fickle forecasts, and I’ve had locals from Seattle to San Antonio tell me “If you don’t like the weather here, just wait a few minutes.” But only there, on the high-plains desert of one of the world’s great mountain chains, have I found the expression to be true.

Sun and heat, then rain, then snow, then heat again, all in the same afternoon. We would watch the weather coming over the distant back range, swept along by the relentless wind which pressed my tent flat to the ground and sent many others cartwheeling along the desert floor.

In the evenings, the darkness seemed to suck the heat from every corner of the world and that first night, even wrapped in my sleeping bag, I was frozen through.

I climbed from my bag to try and stomp some heat back into my limbs and stepping from my tent I was met with a view so spectacular as to make me forget everything else. An onyx black sky reaching from horizon to horizon, filled from edge to edge with the most magnificent display of glittering lights. They seemed to reach down from the heavens, at once close enough to touch and yet grand beyond belief, and snaking a course through the middle of it all, the great white river of the Milky Way.

I had not known the stars could ever shine that bright.

Later, when I’d seen the river take its first victim of that summer, I remember looking up at those stars and feeling small and safe. Safe in the feeling of being small. The stars have long been a reminder of our place in the grand scheme of things. Seems a shame to trade that for the billboards.

No matter. A sense of place is among the first things to return when you decide to crane your neck and look upward. Not just a sense for your place in the cosmos, but more literally a sense of where you are.

It’s a novel thing the first time you get the lay of the land by looking at the sky. The world no longer feels quite so big. To glance at the stars and say for certain that that way is west or that it is about 2AM is enough to make you feel master of the universe. It’s as though the entire hemisphere, at a stroke, has become your neighborhood, and while you may not know exactly what lies over the next hill, you feel certain that you could find your way out of the desert given enough time and a backpack full of snacks.

Of course, one need not go to the desert to see the night sky through new eyes. For it is not really the sky that changes, but the eyes themselves, the way of looking. All that is required is curiosity. To look once more with the eyes of your younger self, and to wonder about what it is you’re really seeing – that is all that’s needed.

I like the winters for this. I’ve heard it said before that you can either curse the blustery snows of winter or you can decide to learn to ski. I’d say the same goes for winter’s long nights. I used to dread them. But these days, I enjoy the chance to grab my copy of Regas’ 100 Things, slip out into the crisp night air, and spend a little extra time looking up.

My Favorite Notebook

What movie had the biggest impact on your life?

If you’d asked me yesterday I probably would have told you something like Poltergeist. I watched that movie with my dad when I was seven and hardly slept again until I could legally drink. The last four places I’ve lived were completely without bedroom closets, and I’d be lying if I said there was no connection.

Or perhaps I’d have pointed to Man of the House with Chevy Chase and Jonathan Taylor Thomas. After watching that I spent the next ten years trying to pull off Jonathan Taylor Thomas’s cool-guy attitude and his haircut.

But the truth — which I didn’t realize until I sat down to write this — is that the movie which has had the most powerful impact on my life is one that I hardly remember anymore.

I was ten the first time I saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and now, nearly two decades later I recall just two things: The fight scene where Indie throws a man out of a zeppelin and tells onlookers it was because the guy had “No ticket”, and the grail diary. Dr. Henry Jones senior’s Grail Diary was a battered leather-bound book in which he’d recorded every clue gleaned from his lifelong quest to find the Holy Grail. Its pages were filled with notes and sketches from a hundred different adventures in places all around the world.

What is it about the leather-bound notebook that’s so powerfully linked to the life of the traveler? Even now when I see one on the shelf at a book store I’m transported to places yet unseen. Gypsied away to the heat and chatter of a bustling Turkish market square, or to an Amazonian lodge when the rains are about to come and electricity is in the air. Not unlike real books, notebooks have a special power all their own. From the moment I saw that book I wanted one of my own. Perhaps more importantly, I wanted to lead the kind of life that could fill those pages.

I must have talked about it endlessly because on the morning of my eleventh birthday I unwrapped a beautiful leather-bound sketchbook.

“Dear Ethan,” a note on the very first page read, “Thought you could use a place to record all your adventures! Love, Mom & Dad”.

That simple gift changed the direction of my life forever.

It’s not easy to lead a life of adventure. Going places means you have to leave other places behind, and when those other places are filled with the people you already know and love it’s hard to make the move. It’s much easier on the heart (and the wallet) to simply dream of faraway places.

But when someone hands you an empty notebook, they are in a way telling you “go”. They’re telling you to get out of your head and into the world. They’re telling you it’s okay to leave them, so long as you bring back a story from out there. And once you have an empty notebook, you can’t very well leave it empty. An empty notebook is a constant reminder of all that you haven’t done.

Your life changes when you have an adventure journal to fill, even if you’re just a kid — especially if you’re just a kid. At least a couple of times a day you find yourself pausing to think about whatever it is you’re doing, wondering does this count as an adventure? Can this go in the book? I began looking for adventure everywhere, if only to have something to write down.

And of course the secret, that only eleven-year-olds with empty adventure notebooks and even emptier bank accounts learn, is that adventure can be found anywhere. Even the most remote jungles are home to someone. Far-off mountains lie in someone else’s backyard, and somewhere there’s a little kid who’s bored of seeing that same Turkish market square every day. They dream of a far-away place that looks just like your backyard. And so it’s not the setting, but the mindset that makes for an adventure.

Those early experiences, scrounging for excitement in the bushes around my house, shaped me as a traveler. But I don’t think it’s necessary to start young. Just that you should have an empty notebook.

And if you’re in the market for a notebook of your own, you could hardly do better in my opinion than the Canson 180 artbook. I won’t pretend to be an expert on paper. I don’t know what acid-free really means. But there’s one thing I do understand and that’s writing in awkward places. In the years since my eleventh birthday I’ve been lucky enough to scrawl notes while holed up on the floor of a frozen mountain shelter while snow piled up outside, and in the back of a truck in the jungle. I’ve made do with the desks in a hundred hotels and motels, and with the balcony of the Queen Mary II as she made her way from New York to England. I’ve written by firelight, and head-light, in the rain, and after not seeing rain for a month.

Write in enough places and you begin to appreciate the little things. The Canson 180 is the first notebook I’ve ever found that will not only open but lie perfectly flat on every single page. There’s no awkward grappling with the binding or paper in order to keep it open. Simply lay it down, and put pen to paper. They accomplish this using a unique technology called a “coptic” binding and it’s truly remarkable. I’ve been carrying one every day since September of 2015, when I left for a month on the Appalachian Trail. That notebook lasted more than six months before I finally filled it, and went with me everywhere from the southern states to posh English country estates, rural France, Mexico, and many places in between.

After so long on the road, as you can imagine, the notebook had seen better days. The people at canson were nice enough to send me a brand new one so that I could photograph it. But lest you think this is just a product plug, you should know this — I was in France when my first notebook ran out. The replacement they sent me was six-thousand miles away in my home in the US. Rather than waiting a week to pick it up when I was home, I walked to the nearest art shop and spent $25 to replace it then and there. All told I’ve spent well over a hundred dollars on these notebooks, and plan to continue spending that money for as long as they continue to work, which based on my experience so far seems to be forever.

On Small Deaths and the Need for Adventure

Why do we go away? This is the question that every adventurer wrestles with at one point or another. Why can’t we be happy with a settled life, a quiet town, a loving partner, a stable job? What pushes us out the door again and again, away from home and into the punishing reality of a life “out there”? Makes us draw taught the sails, and point the bow towards the irresistible siren song of a distant horizon? What are we hoping to find?

In a word, clarity.

Clarity of mind, and of purpose. For I am never so clear as in those days just before the beginning of some new and dangerous undertaking.

There is a certain noise to civilized life, a clashing and clanging of the grand machine; Of politics, and bills, appointments, and grocery lists. The ruckus of obligation, which grows louder with time. Death alone brings silence from the noise.

Each big adventure is like a very small death. Unlike a vacation, an adventure is filled with risk and contains within it the very real possibility that you may never return. It’s this possibility that allows you to step outside the life you’re currently building, and examine it as though you were about to leave it behind forever. As a trip draws near, the volume on life’s noise goes down each day until soon you’re left with the pleasant hum of nothing but the essentials; The thing’s you’re truly passionate about; The people you want to spend time with; The things you want to say to them.

And then you go. Out to the edges of the map, the places unknown. There you live a different sort of life. It’s difficult, but not in the same way as life back home. You eat less, and sleep less. You’re colder than you want to be, hotter than you think you can bear. You come face to face with your own smallness, and realize that the world truly doesn’t care whether you live or die. And somehow, in the face of that, your own will to live is fanned to a roaring blaze.

The world you left behind no longer seems chaotic and full of noise, but colorful and set to music. Life, you realize, is full of possibilities. It’s there for the taking, and there are no rules except that you must be willing to reap whatever it is that you sow. Your eyes turn once more towards civilized life and the sweet promises of building a place for yourself, shredding endless piles of junk mail, falling in love, and watching TV talent shows.

And so in this way adventure is partly about escaping civilized life so that you can learn to love it once again. It is the winter that strips away all the excess, so that spring can usher in a new bloom. We go, not just because adventure is out there. We go so that we can come back.

A Taste of Patagonia

Patagonica is a visual love note, created by Joe “Dapp” Foster during an intense month-long trip to Patagonia in 2015.

A four-week blur of hiking, filming, and driving, the team spent more than twenty days on foot exploring the jungles, fjords, and glaciers of Patagonia, capturing hundreds of hours of footage, and navigating more than six-thousand kilometers of twisting mountain roads in a rented van they called Condorito.

With such a heavy workload, fancy meals were mostly off the menu.

“Wonderful culinary experiences? I wouldn’t say my trips lend themselves to them…” he said as we talked just a few days after the film debuted. “We had our goals, we had to get shots. So if a granola bar is what allows you to get the shot and keep moving, then, well… Cooking’s considered a luxury.”

When timing and fortune allowed, they hungrily availed themselves of piping hot empanadas, made in the local way. But for much of the trip cooking was limited to simple stir-fries done up over a camp stove, or freeze-dried meals quickly re-hydrated with boiling water.

That was fine for the team of five, all of whom were experienced adventurers used to the rigors of life off the beaten track. But it made it that much more special when they connected with Ervin, their local guide in Futaleufú, for a homemade meal and a round of Pisco Sours.

You know Ervin, he’s the guy at the 1:22 mark who’s drinking wine from a traditional bota in slow motion. The meal— chicken and vegetables roasted over a wood fire, and hand-made gnocchi — features prominently with at least three shots starting at the 0:24 mark. Three or four shots may not seem like a lot. But when you consider that the movie is just three minutes long, and how carefully each shot had to be chosen from the hundreds of hours of footage, you get a sense for how special the night really was.

“I’ve never put eating food in a film before,” Foster said, “But that was big for us. It was really a moment.”

Why Cook When You Travel?

There are few things that put you as intimately in touch with a place and its people as cooking. Every step, from deciding what to make to hunting through shops, markets, and nearby farm-stands for ingredients can be an exercise in discovery.

Take this simple lentil curry as an example.

A bag of lentils will hardly cost you a dollar or two. Combine with a few dollars worth of carrots, potatoes, and ginger, then simmer in chicken broth with a dash of garlic and curry powder and you have hearty, healthy lunches for a week. In that way, cooking is an excellent way to stretch a travel budget.

 

Make a curry in England (where I was when I first tried this one) and you’ll make new friends quickly.

Mention the word curry, or a word that sounds like it might be curry — currentcarafe, corral — and watch as the eyes of the nearest Brit light up with joy and anticipation. For more than two-hundred years the British have had a proper fascination with the stuff, ever since first encountering India, and by extension food with real flavor.

They took to it like, well, like the British took to anything back in those days (colonizing little buggers), and have been obsessed ever since. Or at least, that’s what I gathered during wine-fueled late-night conversations of my autumn stay in Wiltshire. Food (or maybe it was the wine) has a way of bringing people together.

Of course if you want to cook, you first need a kitchen, and that means you need to get creative about where you choose to stay.

AirBNB has made it easy for people to rent apartments and even houses in more than 190 countries most of which come with fully-stocked kitchens. For travelers on a more restricted budget there are affordable hostels, and options like CouchSurfing, WorkAway and WWOOF. In addition to giving you a place to cook, these accommodations put you in direct contact with the people in-country. They give you a more authentic, local experience than could ever be had holed away in a one-size-fits-all room at the Marriott.

Once you have your kitchen, the real adventure begins. Butchers must be found and consulted, farmers visited and vetted. If you’re without a car this can mean long walks through exciting city-streets. It can also mean hours spent navigating through dense forests, using old maps and dead reckoning.

 

It’s true that you have to travel a bit slower if you want to explore a place this way. But once you try it the slower speed feels right. It feels better. It tastes better. Just like home-made pasta, hand-rolled and hung to dry as garden-fresh tomatoes simmer down on the stove tastes better than microwaved Chef Boyardee.

Cooking is a transformative art. A process by which a few basic things are taken and turned into more than the sum of their parts, bolstered with pinches of this and dashes of that, irrefutably improved through the careful use of energy (in this case, heat) and time.

When you think about it, the very same can be said about travel.

Brazilian Barbecue & The Art of Simplicity

One of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had was in a little churrascaria holed in away in a downtrodden section of Connecticut’s state capital. Churrascarias are basically Brazilian steakhouses, where meat is grilled until golden brown on long metal skewers laid atop real glowing charcoal. The tradition harkens back to the South American gauchos — cowboys, basically — who would cook meat over open fires while on the range.

“This is incredible,” I said, tucking into a pile of top sirloin, “What’s on it?”
“It’s seasoned in the Brazilian way,” the owner said proudly, “Just sea salt.”
“Wow, and the pork?”
“Same thing,” he said.
“The chicken?”

He just smiled.

That meal taught me an important lesson: Simplicity can be powerful.

It’s a lesson I constantly need reminding of, for I am something of a chronic over-complicator, and not just in the kitchen.

Back in 2010 I’d stumbled across an article in Backpacker Magazine, claiming to list the 10 Most Dangerous Trails in America. I sent it to a couple of friends, and said I thought it’d be fun to throw some sleeping bags in the back of the car, drive around the country, and hike each one. Six months later a simple road trip had ballooned into an impossibly complicated expedition, in which we planned to travel the country, hike the trails, and raise $100K for charity while filming a documentary in the process. The car was covered with the logos of supporters and sponsors, we had media commitments, publishing deadlines, and had even created an LLC for our enterprise.

Things tend to get complicated when I’m around.

But the older I get, the more I embrace this idea that simplicity is the better path forward. It’s a concept found throughout the pages of Tim Ferriss’ ultimate cookbook The 4-Hour Chef where each recipe is kept purposefully simple. Many have just five ingredients or so.

“You can afford better ingredients if you’re buying fewer of them,” Ferriss says.

This reminds me of a conversation I’d once had with a man named Graham Hill. Graham is the founder of LifeEdited, a company that shows people how to live large, with less.

“In the US, we’ve super-sized our lives over the last fifty or sixty years,” Hill had said, “We’ve got about three times the amount of space per person that we had back then, we’ve also got a twenty-two billion dollar storage industry for all our extra stuff…Despite having more space and more stuff, we’re actually not any happier.”

The fix for all this, according to Hill, was simple: Less — less space, less stuff, less debt, less consumption, less struggle, less worry, less chaos.

In essence, a simpler life is a happier life

“I’m not saying don’t have any stuff,” he said “just have less of it, and try to have great stuff that you really love.”

Hill was not some hippy-dippy treehugger either (although he did literally found treehugger.com). He’s a dot-com millionaire, who filled his life with the trappings of success, then felt exactly that: Trapped. It wasn’t until a stint of extended traveling — living out of just two bags — that he truly began to feel happy and his quest for simplification began.

Today, he lives in a beautiful 420 Square foot apartment in Manhattan (that’s not a typo), and it’s breathtaking. Innovative design, and purposeful simplicity have come together to create a space — complete with kitchen, bathroom, living room, office, bedroom, guest bedroom, and space to throw twelve-person dinner parties — that provides without becoming a burden.

As I’ve traveled — first in the US, then in Europe, always out of a backpack — I’ve found similar refuge in a life of simple things. I have one watch, one pair of shoes, and one jacket. I’ve carried the same two pens for the last four months, and (uncharacteristically) haven’t misplaced either of them. At any given time, I know exactly where everything I own is, and because I have to carry it all, there’s very little temptation to buy more.

Of course, there are things I wish to have more of in my life. Financial stability comes immediately to mind. Love or social connection is an obvious other. There are even material things which I’d like to have. But as I flip through the pages of The 4-Hour Chef its got me pondering how I might simplify my way into them.

It’s more than just a book on food. The 4-Hour Chef is really a book on how to learn anything, disguised as a cookbook, and Ferriss’ philosophy of simplicity is extended to everything from sports to language learning.

“I’ve listed the 100 most common words in written English,” Ferriss writes, “…the first 25 words on my list make up roughly 33% of all printed material in English. The first 100 comprise 50% of all written material. If we were to expand the list to the top 300, they would make up about 65% of all written material in English”

English has more than 150,000 words, closer to a quarter-million if you include variations and colloquialisms. If you were trying to learn English, you could spend a lifetime attempting to memorize each of those words. But if you properly select a mere 100 — hardly twice as many as are in this paragraph alone — you can quickly gain access to about half of all the material currently written in English.

If your goal is to learn to read English, simplicity can get you there faster.

Some people just don’t know that simplicity can be powerful. It’s innocent, really. We live in a world that champions hard work for the sake of working hard. Things that look simple are written off as underdeveloped, or the lazy way out.

Whether it’s ninety-nine problems or eleven herbs and spices, most of us default to doing things the difficult way.

Sure, complexity can impart a certain depth of taste. But in life, as in the kitchen, it often ends up totally overpowering the inherent flavor of whatever it is you’re really trying to experience.