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Apr 25, 2017

In 1974, a man disappeared somewhere in the Siskiyou Mountains, never to be heard of again. He wasn’t a tourist lost in the forests - he’s been living in the region for years. He wasn’t a rookie camper overwhelmed by wilderness - he had written several articles on camping and survivalism, based on his own experience of practising these skills. So what happened to Tom Marshall?

Letting Go Isn't Free

A basic and well-known tenet of stoicism is to stop trying to act on (and worrying about) things that aren't really in your control, or that can't at least be significantly influenced by you. Some of this is obvious and easy: the weather, traffic, the economy, chance. A lot of it is much harder: what other people think of you, bad things happening in other places, the ideas of your friends, politics.

I think everybody wants to worry less - it's a massive energy drain, and it really crushes quality of life. Following this thinking does indeed deliver a lot of tranquillity - the actual reward promised by the Stoics.  But it sure seems like you have to sacrifice a lot in the process! Depending on what your core needs are, one or both of these concerns quickly arise even when just thinking about stoicism:

  1. What about my impact on the world? I don't want to curl up in my bed and die in Stoic tranquillity, oblivious to what I've left behind.
  1. How can I provide safety to myself and my family if I choose to spend less in time on the news, withdraw from politics, stop studying the economy, and stop worrying about what others think of me? How will I know if there's some larger problem, and how will I make sure I'm not harmed in the process?

It was the first question that Shane Radliff set out to answer, but in the process, he discovered the solution to the second one.

Become Invulnerable

Shane was fed up with the political means - the Sisyphusian task of betting the fulfilment of your personal needs on the whims of millions of other people. He wanted to find ways of direct action instead: creating freedom in his own life, without the permission of others.

It was in this search that he found an obscure, out of print book collecting the works of an obscure man from the late sixties. To say that this book has had an impact on him is an understatement - he has since not only seen to it that it is transcribed and narrated but has even created a whole standalone podcast about it. The book was Tom Marshall's work, the man who was to completely disappear in the Siskiyou Mountains in a few years, written under his better-known pen name: Rayo.

Though a few decades apart, Shane and Rayo have pretty similar perspectives: both are concerned with personal freedom and autonomy and prefer private solutions to government action. Similar to Shane's Direct Action Series, Rayo's strategies were developed after disappointment with mass action - he tried to establish a libertarian island nation before moving on to van nomadism and later wilderness camping.

As the few written accounts that exist about him show, he was a very safety-conscious man, and his quest to dissociate with most of a society he didn't like, he encountered the same problem that we did at the beginning of this article: How do you stay safe without being plugged in all the time?

As an engineer, he wasn't interested in half-measures, so he developed a radical concept that turned the idea of safety on its head: invulnerability to coercion. He called his strategy Vonu (voluntary, not vulnerable). This approach is worth considering even if coercion (a favourite libertarian word) is not one's main concern - there are very few of us in personal development who aren't dissatisfied with some aspects of society and wouldn't like to be able to avoid that influence.

Vonu Tactics

A vonuan seeks to meet her need for safety not by changing what others do, but by becoming as resistant as possible herself. Rather than convince others to create social structures that would reduce crime (under which he included many government actions) Rayo decided to become immune to crime instead.

He practised what he preached - which in his case meant living a very private life in the mountains with his "free mate". Most of his communication with the outside world was secretive, he had a van for mobility and lived in polyethene tents he designed, he stored a considerable amount of food - according to an account, he would even duck when aeroplanes flew above him to maintain his location a secret.

Not only that, but he created a number of alternative strategies that may not have appealed to him directly, but were regardless valid means of achieving invulnerability to coercion: sailboating, financial independence, country shopping, intentional communities, free ports etc. Shane and I discussed these strategies in the podcast episode in more detail (which has a longer, more thorough version on his Vonu website).

Safety AND Impact?

How about impact - do you have to give up on the world if you stop worrying about it? Did Rayo stop trying in favour of complete isolationism?

Not quite. He did have a typewriter with him, and up until 1974, when all correspondence stopped, he kept publishing newsletters and contributing articles, promoting the Vonu way and comparing it with other libertarian strategies of the time. He also stayed in touch with a number of carefully selected people, whom he would educate in his tactics by organising Vonu weeks.

Did he actually manage to have an impact? He wasn't particularly popular even in the libertarian circles at the time, and though I few people remembered him, most people haven't heard of him. That said, his works had a circulation at the time and he did manage to create a book that still exists today, five decades later. And now that Shane and his associates were inspired by him, he has a people once again discussing his ideas on the Internet and even has an entire podcast dedicated to exploring and building on his thoughts.

That's no small achievement for a man who, based on the information available about him, wasn't all that interested in impact (when it came at the detriment of his safety). How many of us will have our work alive and well decades after our (presumed) death?

As a side note, there were mistakes that probably limited Rayo's reach that we can learn from. In his books and articles, he often used terms that likely alienated not only people with different political views but libertarians alike - for instance, calling them "controlled schizophrenics". He didn't seem (to me) particularly interested in understanding other viewpoints or creating a bridge of understanding at least towards ideologically close perspectives.

A Viable Alternative to the Non-Actionable

Above everything else, what impresses me most about Rayo and the reason I've decided to interview Shane about him is that he had a strong focus on the actionable in an environment that was much more interested in philosophising. He went out, learned new skills and changed himself rather than waiting for others to give him freedom.

I believe this is a powerful lesson whether you agree with Rayo's particular political outlook or not. As I've said in my previous article, my particular non-actionable addiction was politics and economics too. It may be something else in your case: anything that you pay attention to that fills you with anger and/or fear and which you can do very little about falls under this category.

Can you stay safe without following the news? Yes, if rather than trying to dodge bullets or plead with the shooter, you instead focus on becoming as invulnerable and independent as possible.

Do you have to become a hermit, sacrifice your impact on the world, on making it a better place? I don't think so - not only will your personal change inspire others, but you will be able to have a voice from a much safer position.

Focus on the actionable.