Why I'm Moving Back to Rural Maine After a Decade as a Travel Writer

"Maine's greatest export is its youth." - My Dad1

I've spent most of my life saying I'll never move back to Maine. I loathed my home state so much I took night classes at community college to graduate high school a year early (Ellsworth High School banned the loophole the following year). Now, after nearly two decades, I'm returning to a stretch of rural coastline about an hour from that thrumming bilious cesspool.

Of my Milbridge Elementary School class of 15, two kids graduated high school. Oxycontin was flooding Downeast Maine. All of the girls in my class had at least one kid before age 18. The poverty in Maine is real. The fact the government doesn't give a shit is blatant. By the time I was a teenager, I was suffocating. I needed an alternative to manual labor and drugs. I needed culture, concerts, art shows, alternative lifestyles. I needed to meet poets, rock stars, winemakers, revolutionaries.

After college I began waiting tables and dedicated my life to writing poetry.2 Because a buddy was headed there, I moved to San Francisco, and soon, I was hanging out at City Lights Bookstore and knew bartenders in every neighborhood. I interned at ZYZZYVA Literary Journal and The Believer Magazine. I chilled with amazing artists no one will ever know and read poems accompanied by the scorching horns and beats of jazz musicians every Tuesday night at Club Deluxe. All that mattered was how much soul you could fit into your shit.

Then I met a girl3—and fellow writer—and, after two months, we hatched a gonzo plan: We'd backpack through Italy, knock on every door4 with an apartment-for-rent sign on it, and write in squalor. I did not have an inheritance or trust fund to fall back on. I used my savings from waiting tables. This was my second calculated risk that paid off. We stumbled upon a historic palazzo for €600/month, and I started making money as a travel writer. But it wasn't sustainable.5

Still searching for a place to be ourselves (or find ourselves [or both]), we moved to Portland, Oregon. It had the untamed forests, rivers, mountains, and grasslands I craved, and a community that valued art, nature, and alternative living. But still, even after a lot of success as a culinary travel writer, I have to admit my quality of life isn't what I want it to be. The problem isn't Portland. It's cities in general.

I rent a cheap duplex located behind another duplex6 in Southeast Portland. My front yard is basically a bunch of other people's backyards. The walls are thin and my upstairs neighbors are heavy drinkers, yelling out their window and throwing food scraps onto the roof of the house next door. I consider myself lucky, watching the crows fight over the buffalo-wing bones out my window: my rent is insanely cheap in a city of rising rents. But I am convinced that in cities, there is not enough of a return on my investment. There is nowhere else in Portland I could move to and expect lower rent and a better environment. Earning enough money to afford a more expensive rent would require participating in the conventional American lifestyle that preys upon America's—and the World's—impoverished communities.

Like my parents before me, I believe American culture is broken. We lack nourishing cultural practices, like the nightly passeggiata in Italy, when the entire community comes out to stroll the streets, catch up, and eat gelato. Where do Americans hang out? It used to be malls... now what? Nextdoor.com?

In place of nourishing culture, we are inundated with lousy job opportunities and chintz—an endless rotation of twerking pop stars, food that does not provide nutrients, products that break after one year. To me, it is obvious that American corporations and their admen have worn us down, having continually stolen our wisdom and strength and taken away our freedom of self-expression, teaching us to forget what we already know in the process. The modern American is no longer self-sufficient and must rely upon products and services designed to keep them customers for life.

The divide between the rich and the poor is unacceptable, and proof that America's overall wealth is a mirage. I have been paying rent every month, and I haven't been adding value to my life so much as paying it off. This is the very nature of American society. Instead of having a direct relationship with the earth and the efforts of your labor, you have a direct relationship with your landlord and your pay stubs. The whole center, the whole reason for being alive, has been cut out of the equation.

It stops here. I will no longer be a part of the problem. After 18 years of trying to find common sense in American society, I am moving to back to Maine, to rural America, to see whether I can live a sustainable lifestyle that will support, not harm, the people and environment around me. I cannot expect a sustainable, intentional world if I am not living sustainably.

As the radical economist, writer, and farmer Scott Nearing said one month before he died at the age of 100:

“Do one thing you believe in. Do it with all your might. Keep at it no matter what. The life we have been living is so far away from the really worthwhile goals of life that we’ve got to stop fooling around and move toward a new way of living.”

Here are the reasons I'm returning to my home state of Maine

  • Nature: Maine will reconnect me to nature. I have never found anything comparable to the volume of reality nature provides while living in cities. For me, the manmade world will never rival the natural world. 
  • Family: My wife's and my families mostly live in New England and New York.
  • The Property Chooses You: Our new home stuck us like a skewer through a chicken heart. It was just what we wanted. We are a 10-minute walk from Maine's crenulated coastline. We have 10 acres full of birds, bees, deer, a groundhog—maybe even a moose from time to time. The house was built in 1998 and had a new roof put on in 2017. How could we say no?
  • Caretaking: In buying property, we become caretakers. I intend to practice the art of caretaking as described by Wendell Berry and leave the land better off than when we found it. This will add real value to the people and environment around me. Right now, I believe this ancient life philosophy—practiced by cultures being systematically destroyed all over the world—is at odds with modern society.
  • Tradition: The radical back-to-the-land values I was raised on have only gained meaning over my life. It's time to put my money where my heart is. Additionally, I learned a lot of lessons growing up in this movement, and I want to share an updated homesteading model for the 21st century. 
  • Food: With land, we can grow our food. This is our main experiment. I want to find out if we can balance the cost of buying groceries with maintaining a garden. The quality of our produce will obviously be higher than anything we could purchase at Whole Foods, New Seasons, etc. If we're lucky, our orchard may have enough apples for hard apple cider.
  • Writing: Some are calling it Maine's Back-to-the-Land Movement 2.0. I will continue to publish articles on delicious and sustainable food businesses, now with a greater focus on the areas around Belfast and Brooksville, Maine.
  • Health: Having the forest outside my door promotes a healthier lifestyle, and working at a computer has wreaked havoc on my spine. Only after six years am I getting a handle on it. Since working at a desk feels unnatural, I hope to dedicate more time to maintaining our home, gardening, and outdoor activities in the surrounding lakes, islands, and mountains.
  • Price: Land is cheaper in rural Maine, the value staggering. I'll go into more detail in subsequent posts.
  • Aesthetics: Maine barely has billboards. When I went to college in New York, I remember being sucker punched by American consumerism. The non-stop advertising, the brand worship, the need to define ourselves by what we own. Advertisers manipulate taste, and, every day, it seems the five senses are losing out to clever slogans. 
  • Maine Culture: Maine has a thriving culture. It may lack a diversity of cultures, but the culture it has is distinct and offers an alternative to the homogenization sweeping the globe. 
  • Giving Back: Similar to Caretaking, I need to give back to my home state. Specifically, I want to inspire kids struggling with the same challenges my friends and I had growing up. I want to share a specific message: Even if you travel the world, you may find Maine is still the best place to live on earth. 
  • Familiarity: As the world continues to change ever more quickly, I find the familiarity of my home state comforting.
  • Talent Over Opinion: In rural Maine, depending on your neighbors is pretty much mandatory. As a result, opinions aren't worth much, but capable hands are. I think people get along more easily when we're focused on practical things. I find the endless in-fighting in cities is a waste of energy.
  • Privacy = Freedom: Rural Maine provides the luxury of privacy. People deserve space to be themselves. Literal space. I find cities inherently constricting both physically and mentally. 
  • Intentional Living: Purchasing land has immediately filled my life with meaning. It is a place where I can live intentionally and make decisions that directly impact the world around me, such as whether to farm organically or use chemical fertilizers. It is as simple as picking up a shovel.
  • Environmentalism: My wife and I will cut down on household waste while improving the health of the environment on our 10 acres. We will hopefully reduce the overall pollution we produce, too.
  • Harming Fewer Animals: I would like to reduce the number of animals I am responsible for killing annually. My wife and I plan on buying a half pig and quarter cow a year from a local rancher to have more control over where our meat comes from. We could never fit a freezer in our current apartment. 
  • Civil Disobedience: Ever penny we pay in taxes funds the actions of the U.S. government. I do not agree with the way the government spends money and will continue to find new ways to support myself that supplant earning an income. A rudimentary example: Cutting down a tree with a handsaw and using it to heat our home does not require exchanging funds and does keep us warm.
  • Darkness: One of the world's greatest luxuries is the night sky untouched by artificial light.
  • Silence: Likewise, listening without manmade sound opens new worlds.

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1 United States Senator Angus King said this first.

2 Boycotting the 9-5 job was a very intentional act of civil disobedience. Even as the editor of Eater PDX (which was a part-time job), I woke up at 6 am every day to write poetry for two hours before starting work.

3 Now wife.

4 Airbnb.com didn't exist back then.

5 Living so far away, I started to miss home, and, by moving so far away from America, I discovered our country's strongest strength: the American Dream. I'm not fawning over a tired idea. I truly believe in the American Dream. The Italians I met living in Southern Italy told me point-blank they could never get ahead—no matter how hard they worked. In Italy, you need to know the right people. The country seems rooted in a sort of family-based tribalism, whether or not it's labeled "mafia." I am the enemy of silver-spoon privilege, and this type of favoritism makes me want to puke ragu all over the Sistine Chapel.

6 Our building was actually attached to the front building at one point. With a door leading to nowhere on the top floor, I like to think our landlord cut the home in two using a chainsaw so he could collect double the rent.


Unknown said…
That's an exciting new life you're building for yourself. I appreciated reading this with the madness of holidays approaching. Gives a shift in perspective that's needed.
Thanks! That's just the response I like to hear. Have a great Turkey Day.

Danielle Joy said…
I enjoyed reading your lifestyle-purpose-essay, or dare I say manifesto. I think along same lines. I'm not sure how rural I could go. We have property in rural Okalhoma (we live in Oregon now), but I'd prefer rural Maine. I crave the New England coast I grew up on. All the best to you. I look forward to reading the Ravenous Farmer and learning from your experiences.

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