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Unemployed, he's selling everything to follow in steps of Dust Bowl migrants

Billy Reiser and his dog Fergie will be hitting the road soon, looking for work.
Billy Reiser and his dog Fergie will be hitting the road soon, looking for work.Bill Reiser

During the depths of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Dust Bowl migrants from the Great Plains loaded all their belongings into their cars and jammed Route 66 in hope of finding a better life in California. 

Nearly 80 years later, Billy Reiser, an unemployed 50-year-old Pennsylvanian, plans to follow their path.

Reiser lost his job managing the engineering department at an eastern Pennsylvania medical device manufacturing company in 2009, and he's hit nothing but roadblocks since. With his unemployment running out and his retirement funds raided to pay his mortgage, he's decided to take a radical step: He's selling everything he owns, including the house, and plans to load his two dogs in a used RV and drive west looking for work. 

"I know there are jobs elsewhere as I look on and every day," he said.

Reiser's plight is nowhere near as bad as those of the starving farmers who were forced west by drought and economic calamity. Still, compared to his increasingly depressing situation at home, the chance to take up the spirit of a character in a John Steinbeck novel has obvious appeal.

"I have come to feel as though I'm just sitting around looking for things to do while waiting to die.  So change is a necessity," he said.

Last month, as part of our coverage of America’s economic malaise, we chronicled the story of a young father who took a job as a firefighter in Iraq after he couldn’t find work in Miami. Then we asked readers: What crazy things are you doing to make ends meet? This is the third of three reader stories we’ll share. Last week, we wrote about a man who has turned to dumpster diving to keep food on the table for his three children.  Earlier this week, we wrote about a 30-something unemployed lawyer who's now working as a stripper to make ends meet. Now, we tell Reiser's story.

Reiser has decades of experience in what was once the high-flying field of bioengineering.  Ten years ago, he even went back to school and earned an MBA so he could step forward in his field.  He switched firms in 2003 to take a management job, and was part of several successful product launches. But when sales slipped after the 2008 recession, his job was eliminated.

Now, his lengthy resume works against him.  Reiser says his age -- too young to retire, but too old for entry level jobs -- has played a big part in his persistent unemployment.

"I have come to the realization that I am unemployable," he said. "I would take a job that pays $60,000 less than I was making, but I get no response when I apply.  I think ageism has something to do with it. … There are many of us out there like me, unemployable for what we used to do. But when we try to get jobs at less than what we used to make, no one will take us because they figure we will bolt as soon as the economy turns around."

His prospects and bank account both dwindling, Reiser was forced to take a step that's devastating for investors in their 50s.

"I had to pull money out of my IRA to subsidize my mortgage. It was really gut wrenching, because you are taxed and penalized for that," he said.

That's when Reiser started to think more drastic steps were necessary.  He'd gotten divorced in 2006, but stayed in his home because of an emotional attachment.

"I felt tied to it due to all the work my dad, a retired carpenter, and I had put into it. (We) installed all new windows and doors, installed new kitchen and bath, built a second floor deck," he said.

But now, it was time to question that attachment, and all his attachments.  With nothing tying him to his home, he’s decided roam America, looking for a new beginning.

Reiser has already begun selling all his personal belongings -- he netted $510 in a garage sale last weekend -- and has put his home on the market.  In a way, it's as if he's presiding over his own post-mortem estate sale.

"It's harder than you think. It's easy to get very philosophical," he said.  "You realize that everything you have has a story." Like the wood carvings he purchased from poor kids at the end of a hike in Zimbabwe.  Or the signed painting he purchased from an artist in the Southwest for $250 several years ago. It went for $30.

"You realize many of the things you have aren't worth what you thought they were,' he said.  "But it is just stuff.  It has been a cathartic process.  It's a unique mental process. ... It has made me realize how shackled I have become to comfort of my home and belongings."

When the house is sold, he plans to buy a cheap RV and head south before winter. His first stop will be at a friend's place in Richmond, Va. Then he's on to North Carolina and Florida, and will turn west and head for Texas and the southwest by spring -- ending up perhaps in California, where Dust Bowl migrants looked for their Promised Land. He hopes to pick up odd jobs along the way, spending perhaps one or two months in each place.

"I know a lot of RV camps need help around the place, and I'm pretty handy," he said.  "Maybe when I head out west I'll work in a dude ranch or something."

The trip represents a huge mental shift for Reiser, who felt himself slipping deeper and deeper into depression with nothing to do during the day, and began to feel his advancing age.  Now, he sees his unemployment as an opportunity, and the timing as surprisingly good. 

"When in my life would I be able to just take off and do this and be young enough to handle the rigors of this kind of travel?” he said. “Many people say they are going to travel the country like this when they retire, but they never get there. Since this is happening it has given me the opportunity to do things I always wanted to do. ... In fact, many family members, when they hear my plan, say, 'Can I go with you?’ jokingly, I think. They plan to live vicariously through me."

Meanwhile, the trip won't impact his continuing job search, he figures. 

"I'm just sitting on the computer and looking for jobs all day. I can do that on road just as easily," he said. 

The plan does hinge on sale of his home, but he believes he has enough equity in it to fund at least the start of his trip.  Still, losing most of his possessions, his home and his community has risks.

"But I cannot just sit here in Pennsylvania and wallow in misery,” Reiser said. “So off I go, to wander the country in hopes that, through serendipity or maybe just the kindness of a stranger, I will find meaningful employment. At this point, it has the potential to be an epic journey with a joyful end, or a demoralizing trip with results that could suck the soul right out of me."

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