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Originally published Wednesday, June 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

Adventures in self-reliance from an edgier American era

June brings thoughts of youth and of setting out on one's own. A century ago, it had a sharper edge than today. I once researched the life...

June brings thoughts of youth and of setting out on one's own. A century ago, it had a sharper edge than today. I once researched the life of a man who had left the family farm in his midteens by hopping a freight train for Chicago.

"It was a hard, unfriendly city," he wrote. But he found a way to earn a meal, and felt the triumph of overcoming hunger. Years later, he wrote of the experience: "I wouldn't have missed it for anything I can imagine."

Stories like that are less common today, but they do happen. Jim Nobles, 46, the night supervisor at the Dutch Shisler Sobering Center in Seattle and one-time member of the late Seattle Monorail Board, told me his story.

Nobles grew up in Southern California. His father ran a construction company and, Nobles recalled, "He worked all the time." Nobles worked for his dad, but also was "a spoiled Orange County punk" who got into alcohol, drugs and trouble.

"At first, my parents would bail me out," he said, "but finally, at 26, they cut me off." In July 1988, their parting gift was a bus ticket to the destination of his choice: Fairbanks, Alaska.

Nobles made it as far as Blaine, Wash. He had $20 to his name, and with that amount, Canada Customs would not let him across the border. The next morning he was in Bellingham, with a backpack and bedroll. He began knocking on doors of businesses, looking for work.

"I had to be humble," he said. "I had to be willing to take any job."

After many rejections, he found work at a seafood plant cutting up crab with a band saw. It paid minimum wage — and the pay didn't start the day he was hired.

"A couple of days I went without eating," he said, until he found a mission that offered free food. He could have had food stamps, but he said, "I didn't know how to apply for them."

He slept in a field until he found an ex-Californian to rent him a room.

Three months later, he put in a call to his parents to tell them he had work, a place to live, and had quit alcohol and drugs. His dad said he was proud of him.

The episode was one of his life's most meaningful. "It made me self-reliant," he said.

Most of us want that. If we take longer to reach self-reliance than our great-grandparents did, it is because we can. We have a safety net underneath us, held by our parents. Starting out is still an adventure, though, if not usually the story-of-my-life it was to Nobles.

A few make it tougher on purpose. Adam Shepard did. At graduation from a small college in Massachusetts, he chose a city at random — Charleston, S.C. — and arrived there with about the same assets Nobles had on that first day in Bellingham: a backpack and $25. Shepard's goal was to see if he could have a job, a car, a furnished apartment and $2,500 in the bank by the end of one year — without using his degree.

He did it, and wrote about it in a book, "Scratch Beginnings," self-published earlier this year.

Of course, Shepard had the advantage of being literate, numerate, child-free, 24 and in good health. Still, he did something that few such people ever do — he started at the bottom, sleeping on the floor at a homeless shelter, doing day labor and looking for steady work. One of the lessons he learned was how to talk an employer into hiring him — a lesson in assertiveness that would have been familiar to the young men of a century ago.

We live in such a comfortable time that some of us set up our own hurdles, proving ourselves by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail or spending a year bumming across Asia. Shepard did it by spending most of the year after his graduation as a mover, lugging Sony Trinitrons up and down stairs.

"I wouldn't wish my experience — especially the first 70 days — on anyone," he wrote. But he wished it on himself, and got a story out of it.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to www.seattletimes.com/edcetera

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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