Friday, October 16, 2015

Chapter 12 - Lees trade their stuff for an adventure - A St. Cloud Times Article

(reprinted with permission of the St. Cloud Times)

Lees trade their stuff for an adventure
Dave DeLand, 10:02 a.m. CDT August 30, 2015

(Photo: Courtesy of Jeff and Charli Lee)
Their kids had flown the nest.

The nest was way too big, and filled with too much stuff.

So, Charli and Jeff Lee got rid of it.

All of it — the house, the furniture, the contents, almost every trapping of their 26-year marriage.

Then they left St. Cloud to go on an adventure.

“We feel like kids again,” Charli said. “Our kids laugh at us — they think we’re acting like kids.”

“Let’s shake it up a little bit,” said Jeff from their current residence — a beautiful home in scenic Port Townsend, Washington, which overlooks Puget Sound.

“He and his wife are very adventuresome to do this — sell everything and start moving around,” added Pete Nelson, Jeff’s band mate in two of his St. Cloud musical incarnations. “They’ve got a wandering spirit, apparently.”

After a quarter-century of marriage, work and raising their three kids, Charli and Jeff started a new phase in life — one that’s already taken them from coast to coast, and eventually might take them across Europe.

They’re now full-time house sitters. That’s literally been a trip — to really nice homes in really nice places, with more already on their docket.

“We decided instead of us selling and immediately re-buying, why don’t we put the money in the bank for a while, and play a little bit?” said Jeff, 54. “Let’s go do some house-sitting and see how that works out.”

“You spend 25 years focused on raising your kids,” said Charli, 51. “You just sit there and look at each other, keep going to the same restaurants, keep doing the exact same thing.

“You can get bored with each other, or you can say, ‘Let’s take an adventure.’ ”

The adventure required bravery, and flexibility, and togetherness.

It also required imagination. That’s how this got started.

Planting a seed

The Lees moved to St. Cloud in 1991, raised their kids (Brandon, 24; Austin, 23; Rosie, 19) and worked their jobs — hers in the fraud department at Capital One, his as a computer programmer.

Jeff now works as a project manager for IBM, a job he can do almost anywhere.

(Photo: Courtesy of Jeff and Charli Lee)
 “He just needs a computer, cellphone and the Internet,” Nelson said.

That was part of the genesis of the house-sitting idea. It began three years ago, when Charli and Jeff were driving to the West Coast to deliver their sons’ possessions.

“We just had so much fun,” Charli said. “He worked in the passenger’s seat. I drove all day. We figured that we could do it — we could travel, and he could still do his job.”

At about the same time, Charli read a blog written by a house sitter who had traveled all over Europe with her husband and seven kids.

“I thought it sounded good,” she said. “Jeff thought I was crazy.”

“Which she is,” Jeff added.

Just crazy enough, it turns out, to give house-sitting a test run.

Goodbye, stuff

During the summer of 2013, a friend of Jeff’s needed a house sitter at his home on the island of Hawaii. Charli and Jeff did a two-week stint that lit the fuse.

“The Hawaii thing was a good start. It gave me an idea of what it’s really like to house-sit,” Jeff said. “It becomes your own home when you’re doing it.”

And so, with Rosie entering her senior year at St. Cloud Technical High School, the Lees began downsizing their world.

“He was a horrible hoarder,” said Charli, who took an estimated 12 carloads of stuff to Catholic Charities. “We gave most of it away. It was 100 percent liberating.”

“It also was a little bit of shakes while we were doing it,” Jeff said. “As a guy, I had a whole shop that was full of amazing tools, right?

“In the end, I justified it by saying, ‘This is just stuff.’ When I settle down again and I have a place, I can get more stuff.”

The Lees hosted a couple rummage sales, and sold their house as it was staged — furniture and household items included. They stored personal mementos at Jeff’s parents’ home in Duluth.

Letting go of the music was a little harder.

“The immediate reaction from all my musician friends was ‘Oh no,’ ” said Jeff, who had played keyboards and harp with Nelson in The Receders and as Nelson/Lee since 2002. He also played in a variety of tribute shows with Justin Ploof & The Throwbacks, and with Collective Unconscious.

“I found it kind of a surprise, because Jeff had such a rich musical life,” Nelson said. “There was a little bit of disbelief when it actually happened.”

Their house sold late last fall. On Dec. 14, the Lees loaded up their car and hit the road.

Road trip

First stop was a three-month stint in South Kent, Connecticut. Like all the ensuing stops, it was a cash-free transaction.

“We don’t receive money, and the homeowners don’t receive money,” Charli said. “They’re getting somebody who’s doing it for the excitement of living in a nice place, and exploring their town. We’re getting a nice house that we don’t have to pay anything to live in.”

Charli monitors five websites daily for postings to apply for.

“She’s our screener and our schedule-keeper,” Jeff said. “To keep it so we don’t have gaps and we’re not crisscrossing the country every other time is a challenge.”

After Connecticut, they house-sat in the Sacramento, California area for a month ... took a one-week vacation to Yosemite, Sequoia National Forest and the Grand Canyon ... and house-sat for a month in Ridgway, Colorado.

They returned to Minnesota on July 1, to house-sit in Northfield and to enable Jeff to play at the Takin’ It To The Streets Festival on Aug. 1. Two days later, they left for Washington.

“Everything has been absolutely fantastic in its way,” Charli said. “Every one has been so different.”

Pets are a commonality. Almost every home includes at least one.

“Dogs, cats, birds, rats, everything,” Jeff said. “Every house has a pet with a personality. That’s what makes it so cool. You get to experience the best of pets without actually owning one.”

Charli Lee looks over the Grand Canyon during a vacation break between house-sitting gigs.
(Photo: Courtesy of Jeff and Charli Lee)
They’ve also made a whole bunch of new buddies.

“Every single homeowner has become a dear friend,” Charli said. “There’s so much trust that’s put into you.

“By the time they come home, you feel like they’re long-lost friends.”

Advance planning

After their six-week stay in Port Townsend, the Lees have a seven-week stint in Portland, Oregon, starting Sept. 30.

Then it’s on to Phoenix for two weeks, followed by two weeks off in mid-December.

“We’re gonna go back to Minnesota, celebrate a little Christmas early, and then we’ll go back to the same house in Phoenix,” Jeff said. “We’ll be there for two more weeks.”

Santa Fe, New Mexico, is next. After that, there’s a gig in Vermont that will take them into April.

“And then we don’t know,” Charli said. “It got a little out of control, because Jeff wrote a blog the Huffington Post picked up. We started getting emails and requests from that blog. We were booked out eight months.

“We try to keep it closer to three months, because you have a little more control if something happens.”

Actually, something did.

Healthy inspiration

In late 2013, Jeff was diagnosed with a pre-cancerous condition while undergoing a routine colonoscopy.

“If he didn’t have a colonoscopy,” Charli said, “it would have been cancer.”

“The thing I’m struggling with is fortunately benign,” Jeff said, “but it’s persistent.”

The diagnosis didn’t necessarily prompt the Lees’ decision to change direction, but it certainly didn’t dissuade them.

“If you’re asking are we trying to travel because we’re healthy now, that’s part of it,” Jeff said. “But it wasn’t specifically around that.

Charli, left, daughter Rosie and Jeff Lee spent two weeks in Hawaii during their first house-sitting gig in the summer of 2013. (Photo: Courtesy of Jeff and Charli Lee)
“We hear stories every day about people that wait until they’re 65 or 70 to retire, and then a couple months later somebody is dying.”

“My mom did die, at 62, from colon cancer,” Charli said. “They had just started talking about their big retirement plans, and where they wanted to travel. Then she passed away. So it is an influence.”

It’s an inspiration, for them both, to take advantage of their relative youth and health.

“I’d rather work a simple job (when older) if I need to, to make our retirement last longer,” Charli said, “than use up all my great health to save for retirement that I may or may not even make.”

No end in sight

So, away they went.

Charli says it’s a little like dating. “We’re exploring things, and have new things to talk about.”

“Our goals are to get to some cool, exotic places,” Jeff said. “We’d love to be able to house-sit in Manhattan, in Central Park.”

After that, the Lees would like to find a long-term house-sitting job somewhere in the U.S., enabling Charli to get a job and help finance a subsequent European house-sitting junket.

“People say, ‘How long are you going to do it?’ Well, until it doesn’t make sense, or it’s not fun any more,” Jeff said. “It hasn’t been anything but amazing, so why stop, right?”

“Right now, we have no desire to settle down,” Charli said. “It’s been the greatest thing ever.”

Even better than all that ... stuff.

Contact Times columnist Dave DeLand at 255-8771 or by email at Follow him on Twitter @davedeland and on Facebook at Dave DeLand SC Times.

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