For two weeks I join an off-grid village in the Siskiyou Mountains. ..
I turn onto a road bearing a sign warning me of trespassing. The pavement ends and the Westfalia hobbles its way onto the pothole infested trail. It seems like I am bouncing down this curvy path forever waiting to hit the bottom of the grade. When I finally reach the bottom of the road I begin searching through the thicket of trees for the one marked with a yellow smiley face. Last second I see the clearing and make a quick turn to be instantly confronted with a rushing creek and have to swerve left to get onto the man-made bridge that arises some doubts in me about its ability to handle the weight of the camper van. I notice an RV broke down in the muddy pit just before it. Luckily, I make it over and up the steep, unkept, obstacle of a drive to a hand cleared pull-off where another sign instructs me to leave my vehicle.
Before I get parked I notice a man coming down the drive with an adorable pit bull running ahead of him. He introduces himself and Bodi and tells me when I get my things together I can come into the Hygee House and make some tea where him and another member are hanging out at the moment. I pack a bag and take a moment to admire the beautiful views. Across the valley is a neighboring peak with what seems to be an infinite tree line. A slight haze sets the perfect ambiance on the landscape. I climb the next incline passing by a hobbit home, a tree house and a tool shed to be met by another beautiful sight: Maitreya Mountain Village. The outskirt of the main village is dotted with a-frame structures and other tiny homes. There is a greenhouse to the left made of stained glass and mosaic tiles. To my right is a large garden with swinging chairs placed in the middle. I am pulled in by the Bhuddist prayer silks hanging above the pathway through the garden but am bummed to see that the garden beds themselves seem for the most part neglected.
Upon entering the Hygee House I am met by an energetic couple. They seem excited to have new company at the village and fill me in on all the projects they have upcoming and show me around. They also inform me that things are pretty unkept here; the owner of the property didn’t even remember I was coming to start my sustainability internship today. They tell me that I’ll be staying in the upper village and encourage me to take a hike up there and take a look around. They warn me to pace myself as it’s a steep hill. I take no heed from their warning as I hike all the time and instantly regret rushing up the hill as I stand half-hyperventilating at the top feeling very grateful for the fact that the clubhouse has finally come into view. I enter the second floor and feel a wave of excitement rush over me. This property is the coolest place I have ever been, and it seems like the people are really laid back.
I peer over the wooden railing to see a vintage style kitchen attached to a room filled with banjo drums and a pool table. A few steps down leads to a smaller area with a round bench wrapping around a hand-laid mosaic floor depicting the tree of life slightly covered up by a small wood burning stove. I climb up to the third floor to find a small bedroom completely encased by windows. One window is open allowing me to climb out onto the roof to gain an aerial view of the property. From here I can see the neighboring home adorned in fairy decorations with small bells and lights strung in the shrubs. The structures are separated by a small pond of water being fed from the stream. Joined by a pack of excited pups, I head back down the hill to meet my new roommates for the next two weeks.
Hannah and Andy are a quiet couple in general, but we couldn’t have gotten along better. Hannah and I share similar interests and personalities and were able to relate over many hours of chit-chatting. She is from Finland and had met Andy on a previous visit to the states. They plan to start a small farm off-grid in Finland soon and are visiting farms and communities around the world in order to learn everything they would need to know to be successful. Together they taught me about the many things I had wanted to learn from my internship.
The next morning began with a meeting. The WWOOFERs I was rooming with and myself joined the rest of the community members: Dan (the owner), Kim, Dustin, Julia, and Andrew. We went around the circle ringing a singing bowl before listing what we were grateful for, what was on our minds, and a concern we had going into this next week. The conversation was followed with a game. We then sipped on tea and ate ‘hippie crack porridge’ while going over the work to be done for the week. It is during this meeting that I realize I am going to be treated as a WWOOFER instead of an intern but I reason I will still learn plenty and have a great experience.
The chores of the week begin as insightful and interesting: trimming fruit trees, planning the resurrection of the garden space, and splitting firewood. My favorite workday is my day to care for the goats. This consists of bringing over wheelbarrows of barley and hay to feed them, running fresh water, raking the shit-filled hay on the bottom of the pen to the corner and using a rake to toss it up over the fence into the compost pile, and straddling the goats while trying to clean and trim their hooves as they fight like hell to get away. I learn to milk on Rudy, a small red goat. She has the most personality of them all. She is small, but she is near the top of the hierarchy. You can tell by the look in her eye that she is quite a bit more aware of what we humans are up to than we’d initially assume. It is hard to get her going, and just when I am getting ready to quit I finally get the milk to start squirting from her utters. I struggle but I get the bucket full of fresh, raw, goat milk. She then jumps up and lands both feet in the bucket knocking it over and spilling milk all over the floor of the pen. I spend the next few hours walking the herd of goats through the mountains being joined now and again by the dogs.
I have to say, you don’t know what a great day at work is until you’ve spent a work day on a mountain top munching on clover with a herd of friendly goats. These few hours confirmed my belief that animals and humans share the same soul. Every goat had a unique personality. From clumsy Daphne to stubborn Athena, I found myself relating to each and every one of them.
I have always believed that living off grid, growing my own food, and caring for animals was my dream life. It just seemed obvious to me that this is how people should be living and that this is how I would be happiest. However until I arrived at the village, it had never really dawned on me that I had never ACTUALLY done ANYTHING like this at all. Sure, I had been living outside for almost a year at this point. However the amount of work I was doing to sustain that was next to nothing. After a day of pushing wheelbarrows of barley, tossing hay up and over my head, hiking through the mountains, picking vegetables, cooking, cleaning, and splitting wood I found myself struggling to get up the steep hill only to spend the next hour freezing trying to get a fire started to add an insubstantial amount of heat to the clubhouse. The cat and I slept cuddled up completely underneath the seven covers. I ran as quickly as I could every few hours during the night to add wood to the fire hurrying to get back into the shelter of the covers. I woke up exhausted to start again.
Hannah and I quickly began to feel run down by the cold and lack of solid sleep. This was exasperated by the complete lack of fulfillment of our expectations. The owner was never around to teach us how to do anything and the members of the community were pretty unwilling to be of any assistance. The younger female living there quickly ran out of patience for our questions as she, understandably, did not feel it was her responsibility to train the guests. When Dan was around, he was an energy vampire. . He was a fountain of negativity and everyone seemed to walk on tip-toes around him. We began to ponder if he was a total quack as well. Not only did he not live up to the values he claimed for the village, but he also seemed to possess none of the knowledge he claimed to be able to impart in exchange for our work.
He ran the community with reckless abandon. He built a garden before learning the basics of how to grow food. He planted trees two years before researching how to maintain them. He even went as far as raising a herd of goats before even learning how to do so. The poor buck could not even have his hooves maintained as they had no way to hobble him. Months after it was time to separate the pregnant goats from the steer, he finally decided to Google when and how to do so…. Yes, he googled who to take care of living beings instead of getting accredited information. When I inquired about what they do with the male offspring, he showed a gleaming disregard to where the poor babies being ripped away from the mother were being taken. It was disgusting to see someone who claims to have so much care and respect for his animals take no responsibility in their health and happiness and show no remorse or lesson learned in his lack of preparation. After witnessing this, I finally took the step I had been pondering for some time now and went vegan.
After many days of no meaningful work at all, myself and some of the others had lost all hope in Dan’s ability to run a sustainable village. The cake-topper, however, was in how he took advantage of the three young individuals living and working for free for him. Dan makes a hefty profit on the property by renting out the structures on Airbnb. The three young individuals do all of the chores, farm work, cooking, cleaning, scheduling, and care for the guests and their accommodations. During this time, Dan is in town working at his chiropractor practice, the cake-topper to his hypocrisy in claiming a successful life lived off grid in a cooperative village. He keeps these young hopefuls on the hook by telling them that they can live full time for free, run future projects, have a say in how things go at the village, and even one day take a cut of the Airbnb rentals. However, whenever they would stress a value or want at a meeting (most times all three were on the same page with each other) he would shut them down, begin to talk over them, and start his long exhausting rant on how he wanted to do things and how that was what was going to happen. Of course, these things typically consisted of the exact opposite of the value these guys were pushing. It was really a shame to see.
The community itself had a lot of potential. The property was the perfect foundation and the members who lived there full time seemed to work well together to maintain the land. Had Dustin, Austin, and Julia taken over… I believe homesteaders would flow in and the community would take off and be a really rad place to live and learn.
I left the community feeling really bummed about the letdown of an experience. However, in retrospect, I think I really gained more out of the community visit than any of my previous experiences. For one, I learned what doesn’t work for me and what I should look out for in the future when finding a good fit for myself in a community. I also learned of a lot of great communities I can visit in the future from Dustin who has been living in communes on and off for the past ten years. I learned a great pool of knowledge from Hannah and Andy on gardening, mushroom foraging, soil biology, cultural issues, and so much more. I had some great conversations and spent an evening lying out in the middle of the silent woods watching a meteor shower with new friends. And I was able to experience living off grid and animal husbandry for the first time where I was actively participating in the work load.
Not to mention, I got some truly appreciated quality time with an awesome herd of goats. Now who else can say that?