In 1996, aged 25, I was flat broke and stumped by life. I was travelling on a motorcycle, working for room and board on small organic farms in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia. No, really! I’d spent a bunch of my parents’ money on a couple years of university before dropping out, and I was trying to get off the grid entirely: I didn’t like The Man and “mainstream” society, and I didn’t want to deal with earning a living. Total drag, right?
I had a really sketchy employment history and a shit work ethic. I’d tried my hand at freelance writing off and on for years, but had never earned a dime at it. I’d been a slacker bookstore employee at Coles, a depressing Canadian chain bookstore in the lower level of a mall,1 just across the street from one of the only high-brow independent bookstores left in Canada, Munro’s — to this day it irritates me that I worked at a bloody Coles instead of Munro’s! I made a manager at a heavy equipment manufacturer deeply regret hiring me as a receptionist, and then I quit before she could even have the satisfaction of firing me.
I even tried drinking the Amway Kool-Aid for several months. I gave that weird entrepreneurial subculture a real chance before my girlfriend and I ended up in the Seattle Kingdome with about 10,000 screaming religious nutters who (this is not a joke) cheered loudest for a speaker who proposed the assassination of President Clinton. We fled in the middle of the night, just a couple liberal kids way behind enemy lines. A few days later my “upline” was sitting in his car outside our apartment building, weeping with despair at the loss of one his most promising protegés, his own Amway dreams crumbling. (You can read a more detailed version of this story.)
I had that effect on people back then: impress and then disappoint!
Somewhat more promisingly in the work ethic department, I’d taken my first stab at entrepreneurship and started a hip desktop publishing business, and spent a year zipping around Victoria on my motorcycle, going to corporate meetings in my leathers and getting huge style points — they ate it up and hired me to do brochures and primitive websites.
This came close to being a good thing, and I have some good memories of that phase, but I never pulled a profit, because I’d overspent on a way-too-nice Mac, back in the bad old days when Macs really were dramatically overpriced. I had to be bailed out by mom and dad. I tried to wring some money out of my skills by taking a job at an ad agency — they actually “head hunted” me because they thought my business card was pure genius (and it was!) — but it didn’t take the new boss long to figure out that I was all sizzle and no steak and fired me. 2 Again: impress and then disappoint.
And then I hopped on the motorcycle and went farming. Of course. As one does.
I signed up for a program that connected organic farms with people who wanted to work for room and board, “WWOOF” for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. I became a “wwoofer”!3
My for-real goal was to determine if it was possible to live without working — to live so cheaply and alternatively that income was irrelevant. This was either a brave and earnest experiment, or just fucking stupid. But I took off on my motorcycle in January to see if I could find a way to live outside the system. My journey lasted many months, and I did live extremely cheaply. But I still had a few expenses, and by September I was broker than I’d ever been, which was really an accomplishment. Other than getting really lean with a super tan, two important things happened to me on that journey:
- I discovered that I don’t like most hippies, and didn’t want to be one. (This was the earliest twinkling of my rationalism.)
- My favourite farm turned out to be by far the most expensive farm.
I met no one who was truly living outside “the system” like I hoped to, but I did meet many who aspired to that goal and were close to achieving it. Close isn’t good enough for that goal, though. By and large these people were still struggling painfully to pay the bills they couldn’t actually get away from — it seems that they all still needed electricity and telephones and trucks to be “self-sufficient.” They really liked to pretend that their jobs didn’t matter … but they still had them. Talk to any of them around a campfire and you’d get the impression they were free as the wind, but most were barely making ends meet and working ugly-hard to do it.4
My last farm was my favourite: a grand, tidy old farm house on 5 acres of pastoral beauty on charming Salt Spring Island. Charlie, my boss, was a quiet man that I admired and respected instantly. He seemed so at home on his farm — like he’d come right out of the soil, just like his potatoes — that I made the romantic notion assumption that he’d always lived and worked there. The moment I arrived I started thinking, “This is what I want.”
Well, of course it was what I wanted: the property was incredibly valuable. It was a wonderful house on a spectacular piece of real estate. And Charlie had not come out of the soil — he’d come from the city, where apparently he’d worked himself half to death earning the small fortune he needed to get started on that farm.
I resolved to get my shit together and figure out how to earn decent money, one way or another — preferably without selling my soul, but that option was on the table if it would get me a farm like Charlie’s. It took me about another 15 years to crack the code. Not that I can actually afford a farm like that, which is probably worth five million today.
Next: Revenge of the The Pig! (which has nothing to do with farming) …
The only place they are found in the wild. Wikipedia: “Coles is Indigo's brand for small-scale bookstores in locations such as shopping malls… A number of Coles locations continue to operate in Canada as of 2013, primarily in suburban shopping malls, though many have been closed in recent years, especially if located in close proximity to an Indigo or Chapters location, with others converted into IndigoSpirit stores.” ↩
Smart guy: he cynically, systematically tested my ability to cope with the pressures of an ad agency until I broke, which took about five lame days. Then I sold him the expensive Mac that had broken my business at about a 90% loss, so I don’t think he felt too badly about the whole thing. ↩
Back then, I was a Willing Worker on Organic Farms. At some point the name changed, but the acronym stayed the same. There were always two basic types of WWOOFers: idealistic kids who wanted to learn about farming, and travellers who wanted a cheap and engaging way to make their way around the world. I was (in a big way) the idealistic type. ↩
One fellow with a family and a house was trying to live off the land (and they actually did try to get by without electricity), but he still had to work as mail carrier as well, and the result was an insane amount of effort to maintain a barely viable existence on the margins of society — the worst of both worlds, I thought, though of course they tried to see it as the best of both. ↩