Nomads Talking: Larry Judson Butler

A career in banking, small-business operations, finance, and marketing gave Larry Judson Butler a view of business by the numbers. He shared his perspective in a modest consulting practice and in his university classroom. An early retirement provided his real education — traveling the country for more than a decade living with his wife Carol in their RV. He saw for himself the rising economic inequality around us. A growing appreciation of American history and the political science that shaped it helped illuminate the people, places, and things he explored. During this period a friend described him as a "recovering CFO." Studying the roots of economic inequality, and researching for the six books and more than fifty articles he has published led inevitably to the realization that big-money interests have tainted every institution from which they could extract an advantage with their influence. During his travels, he had met dozens of poor people and observed hundreds of others all over the country. Poverty, like economic inequality, is real, it's growing, and it's a threat to the economy. — DS


I was born on the plains of Colorado, into a fundamentalist Baptist family consisting of mom, dad, and an older sister. When I was six, my father decided to study toward his divinity degree in California, so we moved. Southern California was a pretty good place for growing up, but we moved around the area quite a bit. I pursued a career in banking, married at twenty, attended college, and worked in finance and marketing for a small manufacturing company.

A divorce in 1991 closed some doors and opened others. Several opportunities in finance, marketing, and technology heralded the advent of our current gig economy. Meantime, a mid-career MBA added to my wonder of life, if not my professional skills. Carol and I married in 1994, and maintained a conventional lifestyle — for Orange County, California — in a guard-gated community, a few friends and family, lots of stress, and way too little time to enjoy ourselves.

Our fantasies about jumping out of the squirrel cage were stoked when we rented RVs for a couple of vacation trips. We decided to buy our own weekender — a small, used, inexpensive motor home. While looking around, our heads were turned by a 40-foot Foretravel, and we just had to buy it. Before long, we realized that this big coach was much better suited for full-time travel than for weekend duty. Meantime, we had ridden our Harley on every good road within a day’s travel from our home. We were getting the itch.

So in 2004, the stars aligned. We were both at professional exit points, and the home we’d bought ten years earlier had appreciated to an incredible value. We sold the house, gave away most of our stuff, put the rest into storage, loaded the Harley on the back of the coach, entrusted the cars into the gentle custody of friends, gathered up the beagle and the parrot, and headed out.

Our initial plan — if we can call it a plan — was to travel for six months to a year. During this time we thought we might seek out and purchase that perfect RV resort to own and operate. We observed, however, that it’s a lot more fun and a lot less work to be a guest than it is to be an owner. So we began to husband our resources a little more carefully and we just kept on traveling.

And we really did achieve a degree of freedom. But a couple traveling together and living in 300 square feet must necessarily redefine what freedom means. Shared freedom is quite different than individual freedom, and the latter inevitably requires a bit of compromise. Each of us, for example, has power of veto over travel strategies, routes, destinations, and activities. Also, alone time is a necessity for most of us — and we each get ours with staggered sleeping schedules.

The most common question we hear when people learn of our lifestyle is, “What is your favorite place?” We’ve traveled through 49 states, so the answer can come from an enormous breadth of choices. If we’ve played our strategies correctly, the answer — whether winter, spring, summer, or fall — will always be, “Right here. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

What have I learned from living and traveling in an RV? Above all, a love of motorcycles and an urge to ride can override the practical aspects of not having a car. Cars can be handy, but if the weather’s good, a bike can be a lot more fun. It can also be a great substitute for sightseeing and routine errands. I’ve also learned that it’s more comfortable to ride when it’s snowing than it is when it’s raining.

I’ve learned that I can buy anything I can afford, but must be prepared to throw something out to make room for it.

I’ve learned that local history — no matter where — can help us understand the events and people that shaped the area. Every place has its local heroes, both living and dead. Some of them might even be sitting at the local coffee shop on any given morning.

I’ve learned to keep a journal to help remember people, places, and events. After years of traveling, it’s easy to conflate one place with another, and people and events from one place with a completely wrong time and place. I’ve recently learned to take a photo of our rig in each campsite we visit to jog our memory later. And a surreptitious peek at the journal can help win any little arguments that might arise.

When we first hit the road, it was clear that we would be confined to the coach from time to time. Rainy weather and extremes of heat and cold can frustrate plans to get out on a motorcycle, even for routine shopping trips. Television, even with hundreds of programming choices, gets old and it’s hard on the eyes. The solution is obvious — reading books and articles.

At first, I read for escape, much in the way I’d done when I actually needed the escape. Clancy, Cussler, Baldacci, Patterson had been my literary companions, and remained so for a time. Then, as we started visiting National Parks and historic sites, I began to enjoy books set in such locations by novelist Nevada Barr. Likewise, I enjoyed Michael Shaara’s, Killer Angels while visiting Gettysburg; Peter Matthiessen’s, Shadow Country while visiting the Everglades; Peka Hamalainen’s, Comanche Empire while visiting Oklahoma; William Faulkner’s, As I Lay Dying while visiting Mississippi; Dee Brown’s, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee while visiting the Dakotas; David McCullough’s, 1776 while visiting Pennsylvania.

While the preceding list is location specific, other readings of a similar ilk were more strategic. After traveling throughout the Old South, Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic illuminated my own observation that the Civil War isn’t over. James Loewen — linguist and sociologist — helped me understand the pervasive cultural myths that distort our own national identity. Lies My Teacher Told Me explains the historical narratives used to develop our nationalism, our religious fervor, and even our regional divisions. Lies Across America is an expose of the many monuments and memorials used to deify heroes and commemorate misguided movements throughout the country. We can see these historical distortions almost every day as we travel.

As I read more, I began to rediscover my own life experience in finance and business management — particularly with respect to the theory and processes of capital investment. Realizing that my experience bore directly upon economics and public policy, I studied Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society, and Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. This background, together with studying numerous economic monographs and commentaries, led me to a sharp awareness of America’s extreme and growing economic inequality. I’d seen it in our travels, noting the contrast between wealth and poverty, and I began to sit down with poor people to hear their stories.

That’s when I began to write. First, I wrote short articles on Facebook and later I published them on Internet news sites like Op Ed News. Then I wrote a book on how to save capitalism from itself. Five books later, I guess I’m an author. There’s nothing more challenging and enlightening than writing about a technical subject if you adhere to the discipline of attribution.

My favorite movies are a four-way tie between Princess Bride, Lincoln, The Post, and Free State of Jones. We also have a couple dozen videos, recorded, mixed, and produced during our own travels. Because we’re part of these productions, and they’re a part of us, we value them more than any Hollywood blockbuster.

We depend on Internet access via a hotspot to stay in touch with friends and family, to conduct routine family business, to manage investments, and to exchange information about what’s going on in the world. I once considered myself technically proficient, but when the telephone became the focal point of technological convergence, I got left behind. Most of my reading material comes from e-books and online resources, but my go-to toolbox still consists of local applications on a laptop.

We have cellphones, of course. And we subscribe to satellite TV. This is a dilemma for me because I do my very best to avoid patronizing companies that have abused their market power by influencing public policy. It’s getting harder to avoid even the worst offenders.

We don’t have solar on our rig so you will usually find us parked in campgrounds and RV parks. We’re frankly addicted to our amenities so hooking up to electricity and water is a function of the fact that we’re living in our coach — we’re not just camping in it. There’s almost no location in the country that can’t be accessed from a full-hookup campsite.

If I was to advise anyone contemplating this lifestyle it would be to get an e-reader and give away that stack of books. A Kindle takes up a lot less room and has access to millions of titles whenever you wish. If your budget is limited, check out http://www.gutenberg.org/ for public-domain literary works of all genres.

If you want to meet your neighbors, get a cute dog — perhaps a beagle or a Labrador retriever. You’ll meet your nicest neighbors — and their dogs too!

If you and your spouse or traveling companion don’t get along well, stay with a stick-and-brick house. An RV is not the solution to any issues that may be between you. Living together in a few hundred square feet can present challenges that might not arise in more spacious quarters. You may find that tight spaces aren’t necessarily intimate spaces.

Get lots of sack time and begin each day by remembering and exploring your dreams. Bendedict Carey, in How We Learn, observes that sleep states are when our daily experiences are integrated together with the values, beliefs, and attitudes we’ve formed over a lifetime. Traveling exposes us to a torrent of new experiences and observations on a daily basis, and personal growth might depend upon this process of reconciliation. Free yourself to allow new experiences to challenge the old you. Lifelong learning and personal growth go together for those who can tolerate change.

Connect with traveling friends who share your values. Your dog may have introduced you to some of them — keep in touch. You may have met others on social media — don’t hesitate to reach out. Try joining online affinity groups to see if their members are simpatico — and if they are, get involved and meet up. Facebook, with all its flaws, has given me some of the best friends I’ve never met. Yet. 

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