This is the first post in my Feral Adventures series about experiences that changed my life, made me reconsider how I thought about the world. I’ve wanted to share these stories for a long time because I hope others will be inspired by them to go out and explore, to have their own strange, uncomfortable, profound adventures.
If you visited suburban Long Island in the 90′s, driving out past the crowded boroughs to the leafy, quiet suburbs a solid, monotonous hour away from the city, you’d have found my family’s home. There, for reasons that were in no small part due to an anxious mother, I led a sheltered, safe, and isolated early life. Supervised. Secure. Wasn’t that a good thing? To be shielded from the risky, dirty, dangerous world? That sort of safety was, and is, pretty much a national obsession. And I think about it a lot.
In order to understand this story, I have to explain a few things. Specifically about growing up on an island, and this island in particular. In my early life there was no wilderness. No free-spirited weirdos. No farmer’s markets. No public art, street performance, junk shops or radical politics. We lived in New York City’s massive bagel-shaped cultural desert. Everything interesting within 50 miles was either sucked in or repelled (possibly to California). On top of that, my family was not particularly religious, or social, or adventurous, or traditional. Everything – holidays, weddings, weekends – was allowed to slump into the general American upper-middle-class stew of “meh”.
When the time for college came I escaped. But only as far as Pittsburgh. Why that city? No particular reason except it held the college that accepted me, so there I went. Straight from my parent’s house to my freshman dorm. I found myself learning about design and computers and quietly (despairingly) assuming that everyone lived in sheetrock boxes and shopped at malls. I didn’t know it, but I was starving.
By mainly chance and happenstance, I had joined a student housing co-op based on a idea that living with people might be fun. One of our main principles was sustainability, but most of us were just beginning to understand why one might want to recycle. Mostly we tried to survive our classes.
At the end of each school year, the co-op went on a retreat to meet new members. That particular year, I had volunteered to find a good spot for us. I was searching state park cabins, trying to figure out if we could afford to rent a few. It so happened that I was also chatting with my friend Andrea, and by the way… did I know that her Uncle Teddy lived in the woods on his own homestead, just a few hours away? Totally off-the grid, generating his own power, growing his own food? Did he take guests? Sure, he and his wife sometimes hosted people in exchange for a few hours of work, giving them tours of his inventions and homesteading systems. I started to get excited. Could it work? Could I take the 20 of us on an adventure?
And a few weeks later, I was leading a small convoy of cars packed with co-op folks down a rutted dirt road through the bare woods of early spring in western Pennsylvania. We bumped around one last bend and saw the place for the first time.
To my young, sheltered, totally inexperienced eyes, it looked like a junkyard. With an old broken down bus. And shacks. Ax murderer shacks.
In one terrible moment of doubt, I channeled my mother.
We’re all going to die.
But I’d brought everyone here. We’d come all this way. There was no way I could back out now.
I forced myself out of the car.
We found Teddy at the main house. He was shy. He was pretty hesitant. But he started to show us around, and he warmed up. The old bus turned out to be his workshop. One shack turned out to be the outdoor kitchen and library. Another was for maple syrup. Another was his forge. The thing that looked like a rusted tractor was actually his own invention for alternative power sources; it ran off smoke from burning leaves. I felt better. He explained that their electricity was supplied by a windmill and solar panels. They had a composting toilet and pumped their own water. Two dogs, a few fluffy chickens, and various cats wandered past our little tour.
And finally he took us inside and showed us his home.
It was a hobbit home. A treasure cave. A storybook farmhouse. Beautiful homemade mosaics covered the floor, one path leading down to a sunken greenhouse with a bathtub and writing nook. I heard frogs. The other way led through the kitchen to a living room with giant potbelly woodstove, woks, steamer baskets, artwork and rugs from India and Nepal. There were no staircases. To reach the second and third stories you climbed a tree trunk in the middle of the living room. A trap door led down to a cellar kept cool by the earth, their only refrigeration. I … I was in heaven. I had never seen anything like this in my life. It was like the places I read about in books.
Everywhere I looked was a mix of art, functionality, hospitality and mad invention. This was the home of two people who had traveled the world for many years and decided to come back and live exactly how they wanted. “Where did you get all this?” I asked. “The local flea market, mostly,” she said. Flea market, I thought. I wonder what that’s like.
Then they showed us the guest house. Like the main house, but in miniature. Tiny kitchen, tiny porch containing a piano and a boatload of African carvings. Peaked roof and loft with its own tree trunk ladder up to a guest mattress and tiny window. A little woodstove in the corner. An entire wall covered in shelves of carved boxes. Each one held a tiny treasure, a polished stone, a seashell. I was in love.
I didn’t know what I was delighted with more. The recycled tools and art? The permaculture systems? Or the crazy jumbled wicker-and-wood chaos of it all with not a single piece of plastic in sight?
The day and a half passed by too quickly. We cleared brush, cooked spaghetti on a wood stove by candlelight, played a manic game of 20-person Apples to Apples. Teddy regaled us with stories of bear invasions, ornery pet deer, digging the greenhouse, and repairing the windmill to get back electricity in a storm. At the end of the night we all crammed our sleeping bags head-to-toe in the little guest house. I was so excited through it all that I forgot to drink water and woke up in the middle of the night, silly me, with crippling adrenaline-induced dehydration. I was forced to climb down the tree trunk and pick my way over sleeping people. The cats kept me company as I sipped water in the moonlight.
I once read that people who know New York City could never know what it was like to move there from, say, Tennessee. To experience the utter mind-blowingness of it. So maybe you are blasé about chickens and sugar shacks and mosaic floors. Maybe you’re already quite familiar with those homesteading hippies down the road. So I’ll say this. People who know this stuff, farms, homesteads, well, you can never know the mind-blowingness of that first experience, that first moment of astonishment when you’ve grown up among highways and city, thinking that places like that didn’t exist anymore. That no one else dreamed the same dreams as you.
I think it’s quite hard to know what you want in life. People are terrible at predicting what will actually make them happy (science shows). The only way I know is to adventure, try new things, and discover your times of joy. Hold on to them. Remember what made you feel that way.
I had found a place of pure joy. It was important. I remembered. And eventually, I realized that this was what I wanted. To have a homestead of my own, to invent and build and live, in whatever way I wanted.
I realized then that this was what I wanted. I wanted a homestead of my own, to invent and build and live, however I chose.
If you liked this post, please share it: