I don’t know Slim. I met him briefly, over lunch. He sat at the table next to us along the Pacific Coast Highway. PCH, as I’ve learned.
Slim is a sailor. Not the uniform-wearing, salute as you walk by sort, but a sea-faring coastal traveler. He said he was 50.
He sat down next to us to eat his sandwich and fries as we waited patiently for a taxi that would never come. Slim was kind, friendly, and talkative. His eyes danced.
Brown like a puppy’s but weathered around the edges as a good sailor’s ought to be, though with a distinct sense of something unknown about them. Slim smiled with his eyes. In between bites of basil and olive oil basted French bread filled with brie and salami, lettuce and tomato, Slim and I started talking.
Slim is a vagabond. A hobo. A traveler.
The images that have always traversed my mind at the sound of those three words – vagabond, hobo, traveler – have never been compassionate ones. I see dusty old men, with leathered skin, unshaven and uninterested in life. Lost, alone and searching for a place to never belong. I see miles worn beneath their feet, born only by the emptiness of time that seems to be ever present, yet always eludes them.
Vagabond, hobo, traveler.
Perhaps these are a spectrum of the same person – the person who lives in the present more than any other on earth, yet seems to always be out of sync with the moment in some ethereal way.
Slim was at the traveler end of the spectrum. A coastal traveler. Someone who has made a decision to pursue his dream and make his life his own. Someone we all have a tendency to read about with envy, but when it comes down to it, know in our hearts that we are happier in the safety and sanctity of our own homes, surrounded by our jobs, possessions and unrealized dreams.
Dreams that we know we will rarely, if ever, actualize. Out of fear, perhaps. Or love. Love of comfort, love of the known, love of stability.
Slim is stable. You could see it in his face. He knows who he is and where he’s going. His road map is a simple one, flexible in its actualization, but clear in its definition. He’s going to sail the coasts of the United States. Bit by bit, as he is able. His story isn’t unique. Many others have done it, I’m sure. Many others will. His dream is one he shares, even though he pursues it alone.
Slim, however, had a story to tell, and due to one taxi company’s inefficiency, I was lucky enough to hear it.
At some point in his life, Slim owned businesses. What they were, or where, is anyone’s guess. He owned them. He worked and did his best. He struggled, was successful, struggled more, but all the while he worked. He lived the way many of us live, though not all. He had that one element of instability we like to optimistically label “entrepreneurialism.”
Slim created his businesses, worked for others, worked for himself, worked and worked until he did something else. For half a decade he participated in the big apple’s daily routine of working and living amidst concrete and steel towers.
Get up, get ready, work.
Then, maybe, 12 hours later you go out and eat something with someone and fall back into the arms of your pigeon-hole nest at the top of the concrete block. To rest your body and your mind for a small semblance of time before
Get up, get ready, work.
The five years came and went, and Slim decided to move on.
Somewhere along the way Slim found himself in France for a year. As a cyclist he found it easy to live and work in the country that supported the world’s most famous cycle race. What he did there I didn’t understand. It seemed he enjoyed his time, and found his livelihood in the cycling industry enough to sustain him for 12 months before returning home.
Home is where Slim uncovered his dream and took it out of the night sky and placed it directly in the path of the sun.
For years he worked to restore a sailboat in Oregon. In order to sustain himself, he worked on other boats simultaneously. Day in and day out, Slim labored over the little details, working his well-worn fingers into the heart and soul of his craft. By his side, a loyal companion: Oscar.
Oscar was rescued. A mix of chocolate softness and German precision. Part Labrador and part Pointer, Oscar was a gregarious and outgoing friend who knew how to work the system to his benefit.
When Slim’s friend showed up, pockets always full of little treats, Oscar would wag and smile. A treat would be his reward. Very quickly, however, Oscar learned to snub the treat by placing it on the ground in front of him and begin wagging and smiling again.
After 5 or 6 treats had gathered at his feet, the kind friend would inform Oscar that there were ‘no more’ at which point Oscar would devour his nest egg of biscuits he had safely guarded on the ground.
Oscar knew his way around people. Slim said as much as he told me about him. His smile extending all the way from his lips to his eyebrows. Oscar, it seems, was his best friend.
Together, the two friends would sail the coasts of America.
After several years of restoration and savings, the two were ready to set off on their journey. Slim had it all planned. They would sail down the coast from Oregon to California, where they would winter together, working odd jobs to make the money to sail back up, past Oregon and on to Vancouver and the Charlotte Islands, before turning around and sailing back to California for another winter.
After wintering in California and raising the requisite funds to continue on their journey, again working odd jobs, Oscar and Slim would tow their craft to Corpus Christie to set off once more together. Slim had his dream all planned out. He had planned for everything. Well, almost everything.
Last fall, the two wanderers set off together ready to take on the world, when the unthinkable happened.
In an unexpected moment off the coast of northern California, the weather turned. In the blink of an eye, the seas got rough, and Slim had to scramble to shift his sails. Unsteady and scared, Oscar clamored to go below deck. It was then that Slim made an irreversible decision. Slim removed Oscar’s harness in order to allow him to go below.
The weather continued to ramp up and Slim did his best to maintain their path and direction. He scampered all over he deck, correcting this, fixing that, as he managed to keep the boat steady through the roughest moments. At one point the boat pitched severely, and Slim rushed to correct it. After a few minutes he settled everything down, and looked for Oscar.
Oscar was gone.
In that sudden pitch, it seems, Oscar was tossed overboard. Unknowingly, and unable to do anything even if he knew, Slim’s best friend was gone. Disappeared. And Slim had to sail on.
At this point in the conversation, though Slim’s eyes were still smiling, there was a sadness behind them. I realized then that was what I had first seen when I felt there was something missing. My heart lurched forward, and I found myself choking up ever so slightly.
Oscar. Gone. Disappeared.
I imagined Oscar’s last moments, and I felt the anxiety and fear creep up in my heart. Panic.
I couldn’t help but feel the depth to which these best friends had experienced this loss. And I knew I could barely touch it. That what I had felt in the nano-second of understanding was only a fraction of what they both experienced in the moment of terror, and for Slim on many nights since.
And he sailed on.
He had to sail on.
His eyes were still smiling as he talked about his adventures and his plans. He smiled as he remembered Oscar and told me how he had known how to work the system to get as many treats as possible. He smiled as he shared with me that he cried thinking of him, even just last night.
Slim’s eyes smiled.
Because he was sailing on.
Now a dishwasher in a small French café, Slim is spending his winter in the warm climate of Southern California. Living simply aboard his boat – his home with Oscar – as he plans the routes he will take to live out his dream of sailing the coasts of America.
Once an entrepreneur running his own businesses, Slim is now an entrepreneur of his life. Designing, directing and dedicating his work and play to his dream. Slim sails on. And, as I’d like to imagine, Oscar sits beside him at night, wagging his tail, as Slim continues to plan his dream.
In the end, Slim said, he realized he didn’t have great resources for any retirement, which meant he’d have to be working for most of the rest of his life. He thought it would be better to get going on doing something he had always dreamed of while he knew he could still do it. Even without his best friend by his side, he is doing exactly what he set out to do. Moment by moment. Nautical mile, by nautical mile.
I heard him speak and I knew there was wisdom in there for many, if not all, if we were willing to listen. I also knew how rare it was to meet someone like Slim. Someone who heard his own drummer and decided to listen. Someone who tragically lost his best friend and continues to smile. Someone who has sailed through storms and plans to sail on, though he knows there are more ahead.
It was only in saying goodbye that I asked his name. He shook my hand, smiled, and said, “Slim.”
So, what do you say to a stranger who has lost his best friend, spoken of tragedy and dreams, and inspired you to live your own life differently, all in the matter of an hour while waiting for a taxi that never showed? It seems the best thing to say is “thank you.” So I did.
Thank you for sharing your story with me, Slim. Thank you.