After I finished college, I gave away everything that wouldn’t fit in my Volkswagon and hit the road West, determined to see the Mississippi, the Grand Canyon and the Pacific. Thus began my love affair with the lost art of the Road Trip. Back then, gas prices were just starting to flirt with the two dollar mark and almost everybody who heard about my cross country road trip plans tried to talk me out of it.
When I left home I wasn’t sure where the road would lead me, if I would return or where I might end up if I didn’t. I never would have guessed the end of the summer would find me on an Oregon seed farm, toiling through a grueling harvest season and absolutely captivated by organic agriculture. I found the combination of ecology and genetics that lies at the heart of natural farming inspiring and the perfect milieu for putting my college book learning – I had been a self designed evolution major – to real use.
After a week of selecting seeds from the most robust plants to parent the next generation, I decided I wanted to stick around to see the seeds planted and grown, to see for myself whether selecting for color and disease resistance really produced a hardier plant in one generation. My temporary stay became a year long tutorial in plant breeding and genetics and possibly the most enjoyable and enlightening interim job I never could have planned.
I spent that year in Oregon living in an off grid cabin in the woods. The cabin’s owners had been living in Kansas for two years and a family of raccoons had moved in and made a horrendous mess. My job was to evict the animals, clean up the place and keep out the riff-raff.
Even once the raccoons were out, it was hardly luxury living; the cabin was off-grid and the only electricity came from a temperamental generator that charged four old car batteries, enough power to run one lightbulb for a few hours in the evening. It was also bone cold; the woodstove wasn’t big enough to heat the whole place and I could never keep it going overnight. It was dark, cold and lonely and I absolutely loved the place.
Four days a week, I walked to and from work at the farm. My free time was spent hiking in the woods and reading in a hammock strung between two massive live oaks. Every day I had deer in my yard and once, Bowie treed a mountain lion in one of the oaks shading my porch. I stayed, rent-free, for almost exactly a year.
One day, in the hammock, reading the Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, I had an epiphany: Pollan wasn’t a scientist. He was a writer who wrote about science! The perfect career for me! I applied to two of the top science writing programs in the country, got accepted into both, moved to Baltimore to earn my master’s degree at Johns Hopkins and have been making my living as a freelance writer ever since.
Yesterday, I took a walk down memory lane to my old cabin, which is now empty and falling into disrepair. It’s hard to see things you love come apart and when I got to the cabin and looked through the window, I found I didn’t really want to go inside, though both doors were unlocked and I would have been welcome. I peered through the windows, looking for shreds of my younger self. I spotted an IKEA lantern and smiled.
Then I walked all around the place and up and down the mile-long driveway, once my daily walk. I found I remembered all the bends in the long gravel drive and many of the storied old live oak trees I revisited looked much the same.
If I wanted to, I could probably go back, clean up the cabin and move in. I so loved this place and it hurts to see it go unloved. But I don’t want to. My wanderlust is too strong, always pulling me forward through life. Looking through the windows of this place I saw my 23-year old self. I recognized her and she recognized me and we both smiled. I have moved on from this place but I haven’t lost what I found here. Everybody should have a place that they used to know.