Austin, Texas - Like many other young couples, Aimee and Jeff Harris spent the first years of their marriage eagerly accumulating stuff: cars, furniture, clothes, appliances and, after a son and a daughter came along, toys, toys, toys.
Now they are trying to get rid of it all, down to their fancy wedding bands. Chasing a utopian vision of a self-sustaining life on the land as partisans of a movement some call voluntary simplicity, they are donating virtually all their possessions to charity and hitting the road at the end of May.
“It’s amazing the amount of things a family can acquire,” said Mrs. Harris, 28, attributing their good life to “the ridiculous amount of money” her husband earned as a computer network engineer in this early Wi-Fi mecca. The Harrises now hope to end up as organic homesteaders in Vermont.
“We’re not attached to any outcome,” said Mrs. Harris, a would-be doctor before dropping out of college, who grew up poverty-stricken in a family that traces its lineage back through the Delanos and President Franklin D. Roosevelt to a Mayflower settler, Isaac Allerton.
Mr. Harris, 30, who dropped out of high school and “rode the Internet wave,” agreed, saying they were “letting the universe take us for a ride.”
They are not alone.
Matt and Sara Janssen, who traded down from their house in Iowa to a studio apartment in Montana and finally an RV powered by vegetable oil, now crisscross the country with their 4-year-old daughter, highway nomads living on $1 500 (about R19 500) a month.
Not that simplicity need be that Spartan. Cindy Wallach and her husband, Doug Vibbert, of Annapolis, Md., moved out of their apartment with an “everything must go” party and, along with their 3-year-old son, now sail and make their home on a 44-by-24-foot catamaran.
“We never wanted four walls and beige carpet,” Ms. Wallach said. Though it may not be the stuff of the typical American dream, the voluntary simplicity movement, which traces its inception to 1980s Seattle, is drawing a great deal of renewed interest, some experts say.
“If you think about some of the shifts we’re having economically – shifts in oil and energy – it may be the right time,” said Mary E. Grigsby, associate professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri and the author of Buying Time And Getting By: The Voluntary Simplicity Movement.
“The idea in the movement was ‘everything you own owns you,”’ said Grigsby, who sees roots of the philosophy in the lives of the Puritans. “You have to care for it, store it. It becomes an appendage, I think. If it enhances your life and helps you do the things you want to do, great. If you are burdened by these things and they become the center of what you have to do to live, is that really positive?”
Juliet B. Schor, a sociology professor at Boston College and author of The Overspent American, said the modern “downshifters,” as she called them, owed debts to the hippies and the travel romance of Jack Kerouac.
“Their previous lives have become too stressful,” Schor said. “They have a lack of meaning because their jobs are too demanding.”
“We want to be in clean country with like-minded people with access to clean food,” Mrs. Harris said.
Mr. Harris does have a concern, though. He now telecommutes from his job as a Web systems administrator and is hoping to stay employed through the move. “The question is, Do I have Internet access in the woods?” he said.
New York Times