“Happiness is a state of mind,” said dad-of-four, Daisson Hickel.
“Very profound,” I thought, as we sat, sipping fresh coffee in Grayton Beach, Florida, in the morning sunshine with the warm November weather surrounding us, but I wonder if location has a little part to play, too?
“Some of the happiest times I’ve had have been in some of the most unlikely places – Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East,” said Daisson. “I’ve had immense happiness because I’ve shared those moments with some extraordinary humans, people you share a deep bond with, because you depend on the person next to you.”
“But living by the water is my happy place,” he added. “Being at the beach helps put things in perspective. You can appreciate the grandeur of it all, and it puts your personal challenges in scale. And living at this beach in Northwest Florida makes me complete. The people I meet here have a solid connection with the place, it isn’t just a slogan on a t-shirt. This is a community that is genuinely beach happy.”
Daisson deserves some happiness. He has served his country well for nearly two decades. He has completed 11 overseas deployments as a U.S. Army Green Beret and has taught combat diving to special forces soldiers in Key West. It was upon returning from one of these assignments that Daisson learned his unit had relocated from North Carolina to Eglin Air Force Base on the Gulf Coast, and that he and his young family would be moving to the Florida Panhandle.
“I’ve always had a love of the water and the open air, so this was a move – though we hadn’t planned it – that we relished,” he said. “My wife came on a trip to explore the area and fell in love with what we saw. We chose to live as close to the water as we could manage, and getting on the beach or in the Gulf has now become a part of my personal routine.”
Daisson can be spotted most mornings on Grayton Beach with his vintage Land Rover Defender, tugging, dragging, and pushing its huge spare tire across the sand for exercise, before pouring himself a cup of coffee to coincide with the rising of the sun.
And now, as his years of military service draw to a close, like many of his colleagues, Daisson is contemplating the tricky transition to civilian life, and how to create a perpetually happy state of mind.
“I’m in the thick of this now,” he said. “Something happens when you take the uniform off for the final time. What goes away with it is access to people you shared a common mission with, a common purpose.”
“In the military, you train hard and, in that environment, building trust and relationships becomes easy. But when that goes away, and your body starts to break down from all the injuries and abuse you’ve put it through,” said Daisson, “it does something to you.” Adapting to civilian life isn’t easy.
“In my military experience, you can be gone for months at a time,” explained Daisson. “You put the mission first, your family life second. But as a civilian, you are privileged to choose what your priorities are.”
“If I choose that my happiness is now my priority, my passion for happiness becomes the center of my focus. I think this is what I am being drawn towards as I start new businesses and become passionate about new things.”
So, what might these new passions be, I asked.
“I’ve always loved coffee. Wherever I have been, Central America and the Middle East, there is a culture around coffee I adore.”
Daisson founded The Java Can Company after his second deployment to Afghanistan, offering a completely portable coffee making kit – gas stove, coffee grinder, 4-cup moka pot and 4 cups for sharing – all housed in an authentic military-spec ammunition box.
“I have my Java Can with me when I am watching the sunrise on Grayton Beach and can offer a cup to others who are walking or exercising on the beach when I am there,” he said. “It is a great way to connect.”
He also wants to connect with people further afield.
“I love to travel. I am working with partners to set up a bespoke travel company, which offers people real, authentic travel experiences. We have a business opportunity in Nepal, and I have family in Colombia, so I would love to take a group of adventurers into the jungle, along the rivers, or into the mountains.”
“Americans are pretty time-poor and only have a week or two to travel,” he said. “This means they tend to only see the tourist highlights, which isn’t really traveling. I think we learn more from a more immersive experience.”
Daisson is also passionate about another bespoke way to travel. He is a vintage Land Rover aficionado.
Relaxing on Grayton Beach one day, he noticed a Land Rover pull up and, inevitably, a conversation was struck. The owner of the other Land Rover was Mike Ragsdale, founder of The 30A Company. The two men quickly bonded over coffee, a shared love of travel, and these iconic, rugged British vehicles.
Mike invited Daisson to get involved with the 30A Sand Rover Rally, an opportunity Daisson leapt at.
“My company initially provided quality coffee to the participants at the second annual event, but now, a few years later, I want to get more involved. So, this year, I am helping organize the event, inviting global travellers who have great experiences to share about their vehicles.”
Like many of us, Daisson wonders what will happen to the economy post-pandemic.
“One thing has certainly changed: people realize they can live where they want,” he said. “They too can put their priority on having fun and being with the people they love.”
From this reckoning, an idea sprung, and an experiment was launched.
Daisson founded Drive Afar, a beach vehicle rental company with a fleet of classic Land Rover Defenders and other beach vibe vehicles, including a VW Bus and a Dune Buggy.
“The experiment was a success,” said Daisson. “We rent our vehicles through Turo, the online vehicle rental app, and we quickly realized we were the only one renting what we call beach vehicles. You can rent a vehicle for a day or a couple of weeks, cruise up and down Scenic Highway 30A, go get coffee from Rosemary, Alys or Grayton Beach or drive to the Red Bar or any of your other favorite restaurants.”
Just this week, he rented a Defender to a family from Atlanta.
“The dad was totally stoked about being able to get behind the wheel of a right-hand-drive vehicle,” said Daisson. “We dropped off another one of our open-top Land Rovers for a couple from Dallas who just wanted to cruise up and down the beach in the sun with the wind blowing in their hair. These are things they can only do when they rent these vehicles, and they rent them here.”
Daisson said this is a business pursuit that truly matches his passion. “It celebrates beach-happy vehicles in the most beach-happy community in the country. And now we can make the best beach experience of all come to life. We can make you feel like a local.”
As Daisson completes his final months in military service, he is continuing to explore new ways that he can help create even more happiness.
“With everything I do, I am looking for ways in which my happiness can lead to happiness in others,” he said.
“Whether that is providing great coffee, sharing time together or looking for ways to offer experiences that create some sort of valuable exchange between people – more than just monetary – that would be my perfect recipe for happiness.”