The (Temporary) Rural Life

Montana, Flathead Valley, Rocky MountainsWhile I’m staying at my sister’s house for almost a month, it’s my job to empty and clean out my mom’s old apartment, since she’s recently moved to a wonderful assisted living home. Driving the eight miles to the apartment in approximately ten minutes seems like both a great distance and a very fast trip – because there’s only one stop light in the first seven of those miles (and it favors my direction) and the speed limit is 55mph. It was only a slightly shorter drive from my Portland apartment to my part-time job in Sellwood,  and it involved no less than a dozen stop lights, at least half of which I was guaranteed to be stopping for and never got over 45mph (and if I drove to the downtown job? Two miles, one draw bridge and even more stop lights).

In addition, the time of day has very little effect on how long it takes to get anywhere. There are significantly more cars – well, mostly trucks – around five-six pm, to be sure. But that just means you might have to go slower than 55mph, and you might not be the first one at any stop light you might get caught at. It does NOT mean that you’ll ever have to wait through more than one cycle of that light, or that your destination will be crowded when you get there.

This is wide open spaces. This is what rural looks like. I’ve only been visiting in the last 28 years or so, never trying to get things done like a resident.  It’s got a lot to recommend it, but I’m not sure I would go back to it on a full-time basis.

I have started paying attention to my gas gauge again. My car has mud on it. And I have remembered what a washboard is.

An approximate percentage of cars to trucks on the road in this area.
An approximate percentage of cars to trucks on the road in this area.

The POS status of my car is MUCH less noteworthy here than in Portland. I hardly lived in the ritzy area of town, but as close to downtown as I was, neighbors who were short funds often skipped owning a car altogether – fewer places to park them and fantastic biking and public transit options. I’ve seen half-dozen Escorts of a similar 20-year old style as mine in just the one week I’ve been here, and vehicles of all shapes and sizes older and less-well-preserved than mine make up a significant percentage of those on the road.

Of course, average household income is much lower here, and available land to park that marginally useful vehicle is cheap and abundant. But every tenth yard seems to have some kind of earth-moving equipment, whether it be for farming or construction or things I can’t even identify. Lots of snow machines and ATV, and every driveway with at least one pickup.

The air regularly smells of wood smoke. True darkness is easy to find. And those mountains everywhere I look feel like home.

A Walk to the River

Flathead river, Montana

Planted and still for the first time in what seems like a very long time. Because it has been, I suppose.  Two months and 19 days since I left my apartment. I stayed in six different places in the Portland area in that time (several for only a few days, one place twice). I wouldn’t say I moved eight times, because to ‘move’ is to have first ‘stopped moving,’ and I don’t much feel like I stopped moving during that time. I’ve only been here for a week, but I’ve allowed myself to settle in. Take the clothes out of the suitcase and leave my things all over the bathroom.

The place where the south fork of the Flathead River flows under Highway 2 is about ten blocks from where I’m temporary planted here in NW Montana. Though blocks is probably not how anyone around here thinks of it. It’s about half a mile, or just a ways down the road. A mix of gravel and asphalt, and a bit of trail through the woods on the way back.

Montana, Flathead river, Highway 2

Not the same kind of walk I’ve been taking lately. Different river, different bridge. Different sounds and smells. I passed people in their yards, but hardly anyone walking in that mile – one group of girls walking a few blocks away, and a woman looking for her dog. Smells of wood smoke and dust kicked up by the vehicles passing me. More bicycles and fewer skateboards than I’m used to. The only sidewalk is right along the highway – where I avoid walking, since it’s noisier and less likely to give me interesting things to photograph.

Not only natural beauty abounds

Having been living in downtown Portland for three years, the spaces between things seem strange and new. Three of the places I’ve stayed recently were within six blocks of a grocery store – good ones, that either focused on organic food or had huge sections for it. From my apartment, I could walk out my front door and acquire a dozen different types of dinner within six blocks – plus coffee, donuts, macaroons, used cds and dvds, dry cleaning, specialty pet food, exercise equipment, skateboard gear, comic books, vinyl records, bicycles, go to yoga class or work out with free weights, or drink at a dozen different establishments. Density, that’s what I had.

Here, the theme is wide open spaces. I can walk to a small grocery, to be sure, as well as several drinking establishments and tourist shops (most not open for the season yet) – but for options, I’ll be driving. Cluster of buildings, then a river, a canyon, then another small cluster of buildings. Rinse, repeat.

Flathead River, Montana, fir trees

This is not a discussion of good vs. bad, merely a study in contrast. I grew up with the wide open spaces, but chose ever more urban environments as an adult. I’m feeling that difference more than I expected.


“You’re Going to Do… What?”

happy shit

Changes to life = changes to blog.

16 months ago I paid off my last debt. 25 years of credit card payments and 12.5 years of student loan payments… and then nothing. And some kind of bomb went off in my head.

I’d been working towards that moment for years – actively managing my spending so I could make large payments on my credit cards, and when those were gone to make HUGE payments on my student loan. But it wasn’t until my last debt was down to $1000 or so that I could FEEL IT. I was making more than twice what I needed to maintain my life without any debt to service.


This is the bolt of lightning that struck me in the shower (where all the best thinking happens). It’s not even very well constructed, as sentences go. What it means is that I could live the rest of my life and never again submit to the daily grind that passes as normal in America today. I’ve been rebelling against that grind for years now – quitting when I get bored, part-time jobs, etc. But this would be escape. Could be. If I wanted it to be. If I put half the energy in to making it so that I’ve been putting into trying to be content with 9-5 and living to work.

I could spend my days traveling, or sleeping, or reading, or writing. I could go visit my friend at the beach and stay an extra day if the sun made its first appearance the day I was supposed to leave. I could drive to my sister’s house and STAY THERE for weeks instead of spending 20 of my 96 hours off driving alone through beautiful country I can’t stop and enjoy because I’ve got to get back to work. I could travel the US visiting all those people I know that now live in places I’ve never been. I could work those travel-hacking tips I’ve been reading about and finally leave North America. I could stop being jealous of Frances Mayes and live a life that belongs in a travel memoir.

I struggled against that epiphany for months. Tried to go back to school instead – but that meant borrowing more money (a thing I believe I’m now genetically programmed to self-destruct rather than endure) or add another wheel to the rat race I was trying to escape. It flat-out just did not feel like any fun, and I could not make myself believe I wanted it.

This bolt, this bomb, this epiphany, this revelation – it would not be negotiated with. I could say yes or I could say no, but I could not say ‘well, maybe, but how about I hedge that bet with two more years of school and work and keep all this supposed-security I’ve got going right now?’ It would not be convinced that the way to freedom was to ADD MORE WORK, even if that work would be more interesting than regular work.

I don’t have the words to describe this feeling in my chest. Not in my chest  in every cell in my body. I call it a bolt because it was fast and overwhelming. I call it a bomb because it destroyed what was there before. I call it an epiphany because it took those pieces I’d always had and rearranged them into something new and amazing. I call it a revelation because it seemed so obvious once it arrived. But these are words about thinking and analyzing. This was not only thought, this was feeling.

This was JOY. THUNDERING, 5-ALARM, EARTH-SHATTERING JOY that took over my head and my body and invited me to consider a life where this kind of joy was not just possible, but likely to stick around.

And so I did. Consider it, that is. And I considered going back to school, and cutting my hours, and some other things I don’t even remember because IT WAS ALL BULLSHIT. How does ‘only working three days a week instead of four’ or ‘spending $20k on a MA in Literature’ compare to SOUL-QUAKING JOY?! Yeah, it doesn’t. So I quit considering and just said fuck it – I’m doing this.

I spent 2014 saving money (almost) as diligently as I was paying on my loans in 2013. Decided to work until the beginning of April (and, yes, many people made April Fool’s jokes!) and then STOP. I saved $12k in 14 months. I have a part-time job that doesn’t require my physical presence. I gave up my (wonderful) apartment Feb 1 to save more money, staying with friends in Portland until my final work day. I quit the best job I ever had, telling everyone that I was taking time off to travel until I couldn’t afford to do it anymore (because the long answer is way too much to explain in one go).  I culled my possessions down to a pick-up-truck’s worth (stored at my sister’s house in Montana) and drove out of Portland in the rain April 11.

My car and my stuff in my sister's truck - this photo contains all my material possessions.
My car and my stuff in my sister’s truck – this photo contains all my material possessions.

I woke up April 13, my 46th birthday, in Montana on Day One of Life Post-J.O.B.

Now what?