I’m elbow-deep in a Frito Lay dumpster, fishing out one-day-past-expiry bags of chips and tossing them into the backseat of my girlfriend’s Toyota Corolla. She goes in for one last dive and I hold her ankles to prevent her from falling face first into the murky depths of the rejected Cheetos, Doritos, and Sun Chips that line the bottom of the cold metal bin. Bits of unidentified dumpster grub cling to my sleeves, but I’m more concerned with the parking lot—monitoring it for the fleet of police cars that will surely come and drag us away in handcuffs. “You shouldn’t have taken the chips!” the officers would scold as we approached the holding cell, where we’d don orange jumpsuits and be kept for questioning indefinitely.
I felt a bit of disbelief at the fact that I was dumpster diving, and dumpster diving for GMO-rich chips at that. During the past few months, I had eaten almost nothing but farm-fresh produce. I hadn’t spent much money on food, save a few bottles of olive oil from the co-op and an occasional trip to my favorite Thai restaurant in Winooski. Not because I need to, necessarily, but because I wanted to see if I could do it—to eat well and for free (or very little) in the expensive farm-to-table localvore food mecca that is Burlington, Vermont.
Between my CSA share and the free food received from a job on an organic farm, I was set. I would simply use what was already in my cupboards and all the free produce I could get my hands on.
And I certainly didn’t starve. Instead, I ate like a queen. Over the course of the summer and fall, I ate vegetable pot pie, fried green tomatoes, eggplant parmesan, poutine with delicata squash gravy, raw raspberry cheesecake, apple crisp, pumpkin spice pancakes, chili, eggs benedict, and more—all made from scratch with quality ingredients that I’d mostly procured without a single cent. It was a satisfying, responsible, and fulfilling way to eat.
But back to the dumpster. This was not my usual scene. It was a seemingly unrelated series of events that led me here—an evolution of sorts. It began when I realized that I did not desire to spend my days behind the confines of a desk. I had a great job at a sustainably minded book publishing company in Vermont. I loved and respected the company and my co-workers, but couldn’t shake the daily frustration of being inside and staring at a computer from nine to five. I daydreamed of ditching the desk and learning to drive a tractor. Or at least getting some dirt under my fingernails.
So I began to take small steps toward the type of life I envisioned for myself, which felt like going back to where I came from. I disconnected my Facebook account from my iPhone, deleted Instagram, and ceased my tweeting. I traded in my smartphone for a prehistoric flip phone, unplugged and opted out. It felt good to get rid of the need to post, post, post. If I did a beautiful sunset hike and enjoyed a gourmet meal on the summit, couldn’t I just enjoy said day without tweeting about it incessantly and posting a photo for everyone to see? #hiking #bestdayever #foodporn #omgsogood #winning?? Yes, yes I could.
I began devouring books on seed saving, homesteading, living money-free, and creating sustainable communities. I found myself dumpster diving and picking up redeemables on the side of the road. And then I quit my job.
The plan started as an overzealous one. As I first dreamed it up, I would embark on a continuous journey from New Zealand to Europe, to South America. I’d spend at least a year traveling and I’d have it all planned out from beginning to end before I left. Three continents, no problem! Minimal savings? Whatever! But as I continued to think and plan, I realized I had bitten off a bit more than I could chew. I needed to start smaller.
As I write this, I am 16 days away from spending a year in New Zealand. I’ll be WWOOFing, hiking, biking, kayaking, exploring and visiting eco villages, spiritual centers, and sustainable communities. One of my goals for this trip is to gather skills and knowledge that will propel me toward the life I desire. I want to learn to build things with my hands, to grow my own food, and to live as deeply as possible in the present moment. And, I want to have fun.
Why New Zealand?
Although my initial response to this question was, “well, why not?” the decision to go to New Zealand is actually a very deliberate one. I did not just close my eyes, point to a place on the map, and say, “let’s go!” New Zealand has a thriving and vibrant farming community, legalized gay marriage this year, has seemingly high quality and affordable healthcare and education, and boasts an unparalleled nationwide commitment to sustainability and carbon neutrality. I suppose the strikingly beautiful scenery is just an added bonus.
In order to be ready to go, a few things had to happen first. I’ve traveled a bunch before, but always with the backing of a program or institution. So it was a new experience for me to plan all the little details of a trip. As soon as I crossed one thing off my to-do list, ten more would appear. Most importantly, I got a working visa and purchased my plane ticket. That was when the trip began to feel real. I saved my money, and I feel good about the ways in which I saved, but I recognize one big steaming mug of failure. My coffee budget stayed large and in charge, unmovable and persistent. But hey, can’t win ‘em all, right?
I hocked most of my stuff—my faithful Saab 9-3, Maggie; my beloved Martin and Fender guitars; furniture; a huge haul of clothes, books, and DVDs; and a pile of old sporting goods. I found a subletter for my apartment and turned down a job offer from the music venue I was working at. I scrolled through pages and pages of blogs written by people who had quit their jobs and left their lives to adventure in far away places. I told the bank about my travel plans, made packing lists, and, admittedly, felt like a crazy person.
And now I’m almost ready to go. Goodbye Vermont, hello New Zealand! A few months ago, I heard Joel Salatin speak at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania. He said he still remembers the exact day he quit his desk job and began living his dream of full-time farming. “At some point,” he said, “you just have to jump off the cliff.” So here’s to jumping, folks. I hope you stay tuned.