What I learned by giving up my dreams

I thought I wanted a homesteader's life. I was wrong.

Staring down the sleek barrel of the Glock my husband pointed in my direction, the first thing I thought was: I guess he didn't get my voicemail. The second thing I thought was: Dreams are overrated.

In that moment, making a living from the land and crafting a DIY kind of lifestyle seemed like the stupidest ideas I had ever concocted. Two days later, my husband and I packed up our city car — its tires and chassis wrecked from months spent traversing dirt roads — and gave up on our dreams.

Let me back up a bit.

Years ago, I nursed an escape fantasy about the kind of person I could be if I only traded my Washington, D.C., lifestyle — and its accompanying commutes and hassles — for life in northern Colorado, home to the bluest sky I'd ever seen. I would become more patient, I thought. I'd be a better mother. I'd be hardworking, hardy, determined, no longer status-obsessed. I'd definitely be more spiritual. Armed with dozens of back-issues of Mother Earth News, I imagined the plentiful gardens and orchards I would soon tend, and the goats and cows from whose milk I would craft kefir, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream. I saw my fields bordered by berry bushes and mushroom caps. The new me, homesteader extraordinaire, took shape in my mind. She hummed softly and wore curiously clean overalls with a flower tucked behind her ear. She liked canning, fermenting, fixing, darning, and knitting. She kept bees and homeschooled her children.

Sure, I had never so much as grown a tomato on the balcony. But I believed that the ancestral knowledge of how to make a living from the land must reside somewhere within me; the challenge of calling it forward quickened my pulse. How hard can the simple life really be? I asked myself while staring out the window of our D.C. condo overlooking a chain grocery store. I conveniently answered my own question: Why — not hard at all! See, I was already adopting the speech of a country dweller, instead of someone who had grown up in suburban Honolulu and whose previous idea of roughing it had been renting a vacation cabin out of pizza delivery range.

So, we bought a cabin on 36 acres of Colorado wilderness and made a plan to head west. Our 2-year-old son would come with us, of course. Also, I was expecting another baby, so we'd soon have another little one on the homestead. What could possibly go wrong?

As it turns out, a lot.

When we arrived in our new home, the first thing we discovered is that April is not spring in the mountains. Yes, the state had the bluest sky I'd ever seen, but it also had inches of snow as late as June and as early as September. Also, hail in July. We found the growing season at 7,000 feet worryingly truncated.

Nevertheless, I woke daily at dawn and sowed, watered, mulched, weeded, and composted. Lacking any practical knowledge, I found the ancestral intuition about living off the land I had previously assumed I possessed curiously lacking, so I was often consulting our sporadic and slow satellite internet for answers to gardening quandaries. I brought home three dozen day-old meat chickens and tended them under heat lamps. I became a relentlessly driven, fanatical homesteader who always felt cold or hot, unwashed, and hyper-aware of spiders, snakes, bobcats, coyotes, and bears, each of which we actually caught sight of at one point or another. I didn't wear makeup or a dress. For months, I hardly so much as looked in a mirror.

Despite these labors, the better version of myself I came seeking failed to materialize. If anything, I felt worse, ill-tempered with my son and perpetually short on time. My to-do list was longer as a homesteader, not shorter, everyday life inexplicably complicated by soil amendments and barn floorplans. Relationships with neighbors eluded us, in part because there were none within any reasonable distance; to see the closest house you had to stand at the right spot in our front meadow in the right light. Binoculars helped. I desperately craved takeout and a spa day. Once my crops failed, and after the fifth or sixth uncomfortably close forest fire and too many tales of bear break-ins, my commitment to the homesteading life began to waver.

And then my husband greeted me with the Glock — the one we had started carrying from room to room as if it were a prop of daily life, as ordinary as a toothbrush or a frying pan.

"Were you going to shoot?!" I demanded.

"I thought you were a bear," he said.

"You didn't get my voicemail?"


"I left you a message," I said. "I'm too tired to pick up the goats today. I probably will be tomorrow, too. In fact, to hell with this. Let's move in with your parents."

You could call my in-laws' home in the plasticized suburbs of Orange County, California, the anti-homestead. Before our Colorado misadventure, I had long mocked the place for its upscale chains and flashy SUVs that power down flat, identical streets in a reproducible, geometric grid. But now, I prayed for sameness, for blandness, for predictability.

My proposal hardly needed discussion. My husband and I both knew we had failed. We wanted to love our Colorado life, but hated it. Nearly all of our savings and hopes for the future lay buried on the homestead.

We had lasted a whole three and a half months.

While living with my in-laws' was vastly easier than the homestead, it still sucked. We felt rootless, unsure, and broke. During late nights spent nursing my daughter, I would curse myself for ditching my career as a yoga and wellness business owner, and sacrificing the financial stability I had worked hard for in D.C. In my eagerness to shed the old, familiar life for some imaginary better version of me, I had screwed up royally.

Just before all our savings ran out, my husband landed a job in San Diego, home to many quasi-hippy parents like myself. I love our life here. I'm still me, but closer to the version of myself I've always aspired to be. The master bedroom of our small house overlooks a canyon, and the morning sunlight streams in through palms and pines. Here, people are shaking off the stupor of the mass-produced and the oft-consumed to fix, make, barter, and give. I adore the home food gardens and the backyard chickens. I love that I can keep two nanny goats if I choose and walk my kids to school in a neighborhood where Spanish and English are both heard. And I'm thankful every day that I gave up on my homesteading dream.

But honestly, if I hadn't done it, I would have always wondered, what if? And my current life would not have been possible without my perpetual need to seek, to try, and inevitably, to fail. Even now, when my routine starts to feel stale and I get that familiar itch to grow and change, I still throw myself headlong out of my comfort zone. I could fall, but who knows, I might just wing it to freedom.


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