From the September 2016 issue of The Rotarian
Chris Clemens would make a splendid case study in the liberating influence of decluttering. In recent years, he has gone from sharing a five-bedroom house with roommates to living out of an 80-square-foot Volkswagen van. The freelance marketing professional and web designer now has taken downsizing a step further by spending much of the year backpacking around the globe. Untethered, but rooted in Rotary (at age 29, he was elected president of the Rotary Club of Santa Barbara, Calif., its youngest ever), Clemens, 32, maintains contact with club members over the internet, typically from Wi-Fi hotspots in hostels. Checking in from Ecuador, where he had just spent a week hiking and snorkeling in the Galápagos Islands, he jokes, “I might be one of the first homeless Rotary club presidents.” But to borrow from T.S. Eliot, home is simply where one starts from.
THE ROTARIAN: Have you always had wanderlust, or was there a transformative experience that kindled your new lifestyle?
CLEMENS: I grew up in Berne, Ind. My dad did some international travel for work, and my aunt and uncle introduced me to national parks – the Grand Canyon, Yosemite. But hiking the Appalachian Trail – 2,184 miles, Georgia to Maine – with a friend in 2012 was a big change. We lived with only what we could carry for six months. Coming back to the apartment and seeing all that stuff that was unnecessary made me want to make a change. It helps that my marketing skills set me up for a more mobile lifestyle.
TR: Do you have any advice for people who want to live lighter?
CLEMENS: Start small. If people just saw, all of a sudden, Chris living out of a van, that’s a huge change and they might think something was wrong. But as people started seeing the change little by little, it made more sense. I get a lot of messages from people who follow me on social media asking for help. It’s just done in small steps. I didn’t end up living out of a backpack in Ecuador overnight.
TR: Was it difficult parting with nearly all your worldly goods?
CLEMENS: A lot of the stuff, like furniture and the things you acquire when you live in a house or apartment, was easy to get rid of. Family heirlooms were harder. I had over 100,000 baseball cards between me and my brother, and our grandpa helped us collect them over the years. That emotion was the investment. But once I started, it was easy. Once I got rid of them, I felt better. If I wasn’t using something, it would be better if someone else could use it.
TR: Have you tapped your Rotary connections on your travels?
CLEMENS: Being in Rotary is an incredible opportunity for international travel. I have a Rotary patch on my backpack. I’ve been to meetings in small towns, like Cuenca [in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador]. After the meeting, one of the members drove me around. So I saw the town from a local’s perspective and I got away from all the touristy stuff. I gave them one of our club banners; I’m carrying 10 and have given away three so far. I’ve put so much work into Rotary in California, it would be silly to not continue with that momentum, even out on the road. It’s amazing to take a bus into a new town and see a Rotary wheel on a sign or a placard. It makes the world feel smaller and makes me feel at home.