The acid-washed van idled at the curb, its exterior mostly rust dotted with duct tape.
“Are you giving all that away?” The woman inside gestured to the junk now piled waist-high, taking up more than our fair share of “curbside pickup.”
It was all household debris: a sewing machine missing critical parts, a brass lamp now bald without a lampshade, a black houndstooth sofa bed split in two by a Dewalt sawzall; we had to destroy it to pull the damn thing out of a third floor bedroom we never used.
We’d been stacking junk over the past three days, sifting through memories we needed to keep and clutter we didn’t, as we prepared for our grand exodus from metro Detroit.
“Yeah,” I replied, turning to walk back into the house. The woman jumped from the van and began sorting through the pointless things that had littered our lives.
It wasn’t always this way. Once upon a time, when we bought this house on the cusp of America’s housing market collapse — a sprawling, crumbling 1922 Tudor in one of the old money neighborhoods surrounding Detroit — we thought we wanted antique tables, fancy wallpaper and Kate Spade bedding. We thought we’d stay in that house forever. Or at least, for longer than a handful of years — years where we progressed from newlyweds to expecting parents and then exhausted ones. Our house was enviable from the outside but left us close to bankrupt when we finally left it, the value dropping every day as we packed our coffee machine and our breakables in the green Jeep Wrangler hitched to the U-Haul truck.
Instead, that house cost us our savings — how meager they were to begin with — and our sanity.
Once we unloaded our Money Pit onto another family, we were able to make a break for the hills . . . the Green Mountains of Vermont, to be exact. And while we toiled away in the country for four years, barely scraping by as we tried to regain our financial footing, even when the dirt road that led to our house washed away completely — not once, but twice — we knew we were finally on the right path, however treacherous it sometimes seemed to be.
I won’t lie. Our first winter in Vermont took us by surprise: the amount of snow that fell — 16 inches in a single day that stuck around in muddy piles until May — the number of weekends we had to continually cut trees (often losing whole trees until spring thaw as they sank beneath the hip-deep snow drifts), splitting wood until our gloved hands, already numb from working in -20 degrees, re-warmed themselves from stacking countless armfuls of split wood in order to keep the black-bellied wood stove that was our sole source of heat filled. And I complained, especially when the heat hovered at 55 degrees inside no matter how much wood we burned. I worried about our chickens, whose water froze daily. We spent nights curled under blankets, our daughter wedged between us, and I wondered if we’d made the right choice. But when I thought back to the $800 monthly heating bills we paid back in the suburbs (when we were still going to bed wearing multiple layers under multiple blankets), feeling how tangible our heat source could be, how connected our home’s warmth was to our own sweat equity, was the first step in our new focus on self-reliance.
When we abandoned our old life of sidewalks and traffic lights, we did it consciously, even though family and friends couldn’t comprehend why. Why would we leave everything we knew and had been raised to value: the fancy house with curb appeal, the nice cars, the corporate job? But what they didn’t see was the constant stream of bills, the inability to pay them all and have much left over, especially considering our monthly daycare costs and $16,000 property tax bill. Our relationship became strained; we focused on home improvements and our daughter, but the constant pressure made maintaining this existence impossible. We felt far from privileged. Once we decided to walk away and try another path, the stress of our previous existence seemed to evaporate as city life fell away and dirt roads, general stores and the cackle of hooded mergansers replaced the cacophony of our lives.
Subconsciously, we’d been prepping for months before we escaped our suburban life, stockpiling weekends at Wolcott Mills Metro Park in Michigan, squirreling away face time with the resident chickens, ducks and goats. We visited weekly, packing sandwiches before driving the hour or so north, watching the city fall away and fields line the blacktopped highway. Our daughter was two years old then and able to appreciate the fresh air and farm animals while we could both feel the tension, the tightening from a week filled with my tedious desk job and his eight college courses to teach as an adjunct professor slowly unwinding. It became the happy reset to our lives, and, even when it grew colder, we went there as often as we could.
For several years, we had spent countless hours working on renovations to our house, chipping away at old lathe board, always a few steps and a few thousand dollars behind in our estimations. It was fun when we discovered the hidden staircase that led nowhere and the secret fireplace that was never finished with firebrick, but not when we had to patch over uneven ceilings with drywall or rework old wiring or figure out how to pump water out of the basement every time it rained. We’d planned to make money on the house, buying it from a family whose widowed father had lived alone for 40 years and turned the once-grand Tudor into 3,100 square feet of blue and white kitsch, but our timing was off. A short two years after we bought, before our renovations were even close to complete, the housing market crashed. The purchase had been a financial stretch, padded with bank loans, and once we realized that there was no way we’d get our money back, let alone make a profit, home projects became another point of contention between us. We had to finish the house to sell it, and our now-tense relationship didn’t help things at all.
The stress made us crave less stuff, less money and less work, which I didn’t think was possible. So we decided to move 14 hours away from everything we knew and start over. We filled a 26-foot U-Haul with our Michigan lives, unloading the contents of our existence in the dirt driveway of a 1,200 square foot ranch home in Vermont surrounded by miles of forest, the last house at the end of a long dirt road that puttered out into a winding path through the woods. In Michigan, we had five bedrooms and five bathrooms. Our Vermont home consisted of three closet-sized bedrooms and one full bathroom. Our daughter thought it was great: she could peek into our room across the short hallway from her twin bed. But my husband and I soon ran out of space trying to unpack even the reduced possessions we brought to our new tiny home. Eventually we gave up and stacked unopened boxes filled with books, china, wineglasses and the few items I didn’t want to part with from our old life (vases, throw pillows, an antique globe), but now had no place for, in a shed outside.
While the house was small, it sat on eight acres, and the land was both exciting and overwhelming. There were mature blackberry and blueberry bushes — some wild and some planted — and fresh bear tracks along the dirt path through the woods that made me nervous. An 11-acre pond, which we shared with a seasonal neighbor, was filled with wood ducks, mallards and Canada geese. The forest cadence was loud without any automotive traffic; coyote howls rippling through the night air seemed both close by and far away at the same time.
The adjustment left me uneasy at first. I no longer had a desk job. I no longer had to put on high heels and sit pretty while sipping coffee and planning events for 40 hours a week. Instead, I woke up to spend each day with my daughter while my husband traded his adjunct professor life for a full-time assistant professor gig at a small liberal arts college. I was used to being almost a part-time parent during my mornings and evenings back in Michigan. Daycare — and occasionally my in-laws — filled in during the afternoons since I worked. In the country, I focused on establishing a freelance writing career while also figuring out how to hang out with my preschool-age daughter, whom I adored but felt like I was spending real time with for the first time since she was born. I never realized how hard it would be to go from a 9-to-5 job to being a stay-at-home parent.
But that wasn’t my only adjustment.
We figured out how to garden and had a 50 x 60 section of the yard tilled up by a local farmer. We planted corn, zucchini, snap peas, tomatoes, kale, lettuce, carrots and pumpkins, hopeful that the plants would grow. That first spring, we purchased a dozen chicks from the local Tractor Supply for about $2 a piece. Twelve lemon yellow, taupe and black and white fluffy chicks lived in a cardboard box in our living room for nine weeks under a heat lamp until it was warm enough for them to move outside. As a kid, I spent as little time as possible in the outdoors; I was raised in a suburb, our yard surrounded by chain link fence. So it was a big change for me to be outside nearly all day now, working in the garden or gathering eggs from our first flock of chickens, stacking firewood my husband split or even just walking a bit more confidently down the winding forest path with my husband and daughter each evening. By consciously taking on these self reliant tasks, we were unchaining ourselves from the financial ballast that had been weighing us down for years.
Now, six years into the country life, I can see that our move was inevitable. The only way to salvage anything was to leave it all behind: the expensive house, the shitty jobs, the concrete and traffic lights. We traded connectivity for landlines and high speed internet for slow connections. But we’d also gained something in return.
We both realized that the Michigan house had been the root of our relationship problems. Removing that from the equation eliminated our previous friction; our marriage became stronger after giving up everything that everyone told us we should want and instead carving a different path that allowed us to choose our own adventures.
It took a while for my writing career to unfold. I found myself refocusing my priorities even further. While I wanted to write, this move was about our daughter, too, and I only worked while she was in preschool and later kindergarten, and kept our afternoons free for picking blackberries or looking for frogs. Then after countless rejections, my first major story in National Geographic went viral, and I realized that I could maybe write and work for myself. Things might just work out how we’d imagined them after all.
The turquoise and white gingham pattern of my gardening gloves is hidden by the thick layer of dirt caked to each one; I’m elbow deep, digging potatoes out one by one, feeling each lump and bump deep within the ground. My daughter stands behind me, piling the uneven orbs and elongated spheres into different buckets, sorting between Adirondack Reds, Purple Majesties, and Lehigh Russets — three varieties selected for cold hardiness and color. Our garden is at peak; fall settling a bit closer each evening as my husband and I sit outside after a full day, sipping wine and watching our daughter run between the garden and the apple trees.
We’ve moved on from the dirt and mud of Vermont, swapping a house in the forest for a Northern New York Amish farmhouse complete with Amish-built red barn that is home to my cluster of 30 chickens and ducks. Maybe, one day, a flock of sheep.
Whenever someone asks me if I miss the city or the suburbs, I think about the experiences we’ve gathered over the course of only a few short years. We’ve learned how to heat our own house with wood chopped, split and stacked by hand. We’ve learned the beauty of planting seeds and harvesting food from our land. We’ve watched fluffy chicks blossom into laying hens that peck cracked corn from our hands. We’ve also reclaimed our lives for ourselves and each other, focusing on our own priorities and values rather than those we were told were important.
It’s not that I miss the proximity to great shopping or sidewalks; it’s that these other experiences override everything else. Moving away and starting fresh gave us the freedom to make other substantial life changes that have proven to be positive ones. I’m making a living writing full-time, no longer beholden to a corporation to fill a chair behind a desk all day for a minimal professional salary. Instead, I work for myself, which has given me a sense of accomplishment and achievement I didn’t have before. My articles have appeared in national magazines and major newspapers. My husband has career stability — he’s no longer juggling three different colleges and eight different courses as an adjunct professor. He recently earned tenure, chairs his department and will have his first documentary premiere later this summer at the United Nations in New York City.
Our daughter doesn’t realize quite yet what she’s gained from our move, but she will. She’s growing up in the country now with parents who not only love what they do for a living, but also each other, and who realize that material items, curb appeal and fancy clothes don’t mean as much as fresh air, family time and personal happiness. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if we’d never discovered Wolcott Mills Metropark back in Michigan, our little country sanctuary in the middle of the most stressful time of our lives. It makes me wonder if there’s another family, wandering among the turkeys, chickens and goats, slowly gaining courage to do the same thing.
I hope there is.