At a very early age, Nicholas Chandler took the adventures of Louis L'Amour to heart and followed it down a path that led him--at 16--onto a freight train heading for Chicago.
"You were brave," I said.
"Yeah, sometimes it's just a mistake," he laughs. “Not so brave.”
Nicholas Chandler has spent most of his life traveling and homeless. After that trip to Chicago, he kept his feet firmly planted on his home turf of Bremerton, Washington for his mom’s sake, but when he turned 18 he struck out again for parts unknown.
By train, bus, bike and on foot, Nicholas experienced many places across the country. Among his favorites are Elkhart, Indiana, where odd jobs were plentiful, and the Big Thicket in Texas, where his dogs ran free through the woods along his 1,100-mile bike ride to Limon, Colorado. But he lost his heart to the historic port city, Savannah, Georgia.
Nicholas lovingly describes the old ballast stone buildings and walkways, and the eerie maze of underground tunnels rumored to be linked to pirates and secreted transports during the Civil War.
There amid the eagles, hawks and alligators of the Savannah swamps, Nicholas crafted himself a house on stilts.
"There's a lot of people who live in swamp homes down there. It's not really that major a story, except for maybe you have to have a little bit of guts to live back there where the gators are," he laughs.
Nicholas cut and planed the timber using skills he acquired on the road and "tricks" he gathered from others who hunt gators there in the wilderness.
“I learned to use wood to make a house that I didn’t have to get out of a dumpster. It wasn’t cardboard,” he said.
The roof he styled from a discarded piece of scrap rubber he found in the forest.
“I learned all this by traveling around and being open to listen,” Nicholas explained. “And I wasn’t the best listener all the time when I was younger. A lot of time when you’re young you make a lot of blatant mistakes, but then when you get older, you learn that there’s more to life than messing up. There’s ways to touch others and help others, and I learned it the most by living in the swamp because I saw people that really did need help.”
From Savannah to a host of other towns and cities, Nicholas drifted while picking up day jobs here and there in order to get by, and picking up skills job by job. As a window washer he learned to repel off 14-story buildings. It's one of those things that will stay with him forever as he recalls his life on the road.
"I met a lot of people-some very good people," he said. "I met a little bit of the bad people. I've had my experience with that."
During those wandering years, Nicholas often returned to the Pacific Northwest to visit his mother and grandmother. His family was concerned about him, knowing Nicholas had a drinking problem and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
“I learned to spend a lot of time by myself, just me and my dog,” Nicholas said. “I had to study up personally about how I felt about people and things and how to spread the good out. Bremerton was a tough place in the 80s. I learned to be tough, and I tried to extend that sometimes when I was younger. How I would react to something then is totally different from the way I would do things now. Now I look to settle things with words…or sometimes outsmarting the person who does want to start trouble.”
Finally, after a lifetime of roaming, Nicholas decided to make Vancouver his permanent home. It’s where his grandmother lived her entire life, and where he visited for a week at a time when he was a boy.
"I'm planted here. This is my place. This is my home," Nicholas says.
He has settled in with a couple he met while homeless. They had experienced some tough times, too. And when things were settled, they invited Nicholas to live with them. Through the help of Nicholas’ counselor, Liz Bell became licensed and certified to provide assistance to Nicholas. Her husband has become his mentor. He creates math problems to challenge Nicholas and teach him practical applications. With the Bell's help, Nicholas has learned to efficiently manage his own budget.
"I think people don't realize that a lot of homeless just need a chance--and not just for three days," Liz said.
She encouraged Nicholas to get busy doing something productive. Together they found the Clark County Habitat for Humanity Store where Nicholas has been volunteering for three to six days each week for the past two years. He puts his store of experience and knowledge to work sorting ReStore donations, shelving merchandise, building shelves and lending a hand wherever it’s needed.
Nicholas said when he learned that Habitat was building homes for low-income families it struck him as something he is for, especially since he lived most of his life without a home.
"I'm not the footloose and fancy free guy I used to be," Nicholas jokes. "I still remember it all, but I'm happy with a roof over my head. I overly drank and I quit four years and two months ago, and I'm much better off. I try to see how I've been blessed and I like to bring it out to others to show them it can be done. That it's possible."
Liz says volunteering at The ReStore has done more for Nicholas than his therapist.
“All the people here have the right attitude,” Nicholas says. “The people at the store like to talk and help one another. And we learn things from one another. I take it home with me every night. Every night I learn something.”
“Like what?” I prompt.
His response comes quickly. “Like how big peoples’ hearts are. There’s a lot of heart here at work, and I like it a lot!”
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