The Call to Exit Brooklyn
I've always tried my best to follow my intuition. My inner compass has pulled me onto different career paths and has led me to settle on both American coasts where I found my life partner, raised two children and tried to make decisions that best benefited my family collective. In 2004, after I finished my graduate degree, we drove from Seattle to New York and started building careers. We moved into a neighborhood known for having good public schools, I found a stable job in my new field of clinical psychology and we took a bite out of The Big Apple. We planned on staying 5 years purely for career development but ended up staying 8, simply because every time we attempted to devise a plan to leave, something great happened or an opportunity presented itself to keep us connected. There is an energy to that city that either expels or magnetizes its immigrants. We were magnetized and so thoroughly blended into the habitrail existence that we frequently wondered if we would ever be able to leave.
Everyday, I commuted 90 round trip minutes on the subway, traveling a total of 24 miles, to and from work. I listened to music on my iphone and read voraciously. My library mostly consisted of books on gardening, climate change, permaculture and raising livestock. Periodically, I'd throw in a fictional novel as a mental escape. I dreamed of land and stars and fresh vegetables and sunflowers. I wanted my dog to be able to walk unleashed out the door and bark at the moon. Both my husband and I became preoccupied by the fact that our main purposes seemed to be as wage earners so we could pay other people to sustain us, such as trucking in our food, managing our electric grid and maintaining our transportation system. We weren't complaining, we liked what we did for work and were thankful for the monetary support, but our consciousness was changing. When the MTA went on strike in 2005, shutting down the public transportation system for 3 days, and I literally had to hitchhike to Manhattan for my daily wage, intuition's light bulb turned on. We were vulnerable. Our choices, which seemed safe at the time, put our fate into the hands of others. The chaos that ensued in the city for those 3 days made me reflect on all kinds of crises, human or natural, that can emanate from a large number of people packed into a small space. Although we weren't living in the City when 911 happened, we constantly lived amongst its memory, still fresh, and the fear of terrorism. One night, over a good bottle of red wine, my husband and I had a long talk and decided it was time to devise a long-term plan towards becoming, and training our daughters to become, as self-sustaining as possible.
The fact that both my husband and I share this dream and figured out a way to make it happen, still amazes me. Literally, we started to plan our dream one year after moving to New York while we were focused on raising our daughters and developing careers. If we were going to buy a chunk of land, minimally 10 acres, for a house, barn, gardens and a pond, we needed a chunk of money. The New York real estate market was in a slump so we tightened our belts and lived as minimally as possible and decided to buy a co-op under market value so we could renovate and flip it. We talked to our parents who agreed to lend us some money for the deposit and closing costs and started our search. We started this process in 2006, before the stock market crashed, when banks were giving away mortgages like candy and we were pre-approved for much more than we could afford. We limited our search to neighborhoods that were 'up and coming' but had not yet arrived on the Brooklyn hipster radar. We had been living in Kensington so we extended our reach to neighborhoods to its south, which still seemed to have some deals. After a couple of weeks sorting through scams and figuring out the catch words like 'cozy,' I finally ran across a craigslist ad for 2 bedroom co-op in Kensington. The co-op that was advertised was tiny, on the first floor, looked to be approximately 800 square feet, and overlooked a black rooftop (which I learned later was the garage). A tree could not be seen anywhere out of the 4 windows. My body language must have spoke volumes, but, undeterred, the agent told me there was another apartment on the 2nd floor that may be in contract but also may not be. Her 5'0", heavyset frame ran up the stairs with me following and she knocked loudly on the door. I asked if she was the agent for the listing and she said 'No' but he won't mind. The co-op owner answered the door tentatively, but, swayed by the agent's sheer will, let us take a quick walk around the living room.
The place was a mess, with furniture everywhere, but the square footage made it huge by the standards of a middle class New Yorker. The living room had 4 large windows, which framed exterior oak trees in plain view. It was a corner unit, so I imagined another five or six windows in the bedrooms and bathrooms (it had 2 of each, which is another big deal in NYC). I told the agent I was interested and asked her to figure out its availability and when I could get back in with my husband. A few days later, she called with the news that the previous offer fell through and we could take a closer look. At first, Sean had a hard time seeing the diamond inside of the rough1500 square feet of un-renovated space but the fact that it was 100K under market value got his attention. To make a long story short, we purchased it at a steal of a deal, then renovated it over a 2-year timeframe. We bought building materials at local auctions and at our local Lowe's, lived in a construction zone and did most of the work ourselves. In 2008, after the renovation was nearly complete (one bathroom still needed grout work and a new vanity), we found an aggressive agent and put it up for sale, just as the financial markets crashed.
No doubt, if we had waited and put the property on the market after the economy settled down we probably would have made more money. But after expending all of our resources on the renovation, we needed to turn it over and get out of debt so we could make plans to get out of dodge. We sold it within 9 months for a profit of 104K. After we paid back our loans and wiped out the balances on our credit cards, we were left with 65K. Not bad for amateurs. We found a dark (only 3 windows) but comfortable 2 bedroom apartment in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn (which is one of the most amazing sections of the City), went about the activities of our daily lives and started taking road trips throughout the Northeast.
At first, our road trips were somewhat rambling. We'd board the dog then pack the family into our 1996 Nissan Maxima, drive to a small city, find a hotel with a pool, unload our stuff then drive around. We picked up local newspapers, visited local businesses and co-ops and got a general sense of the people and the land. The girls were bribed with ice cream and promised time at the hotel's pool for their patience. We researched politics and school systems. We learned about property taxes and tree species. We decided to look at rural areas that were within 30 minutes access to a large town or small city both for transportation (Sean decided he needed access to an airport within a 2 hour drive from home) and job opportunities for me as we 'built' our new self-reliant life. We had narrowed our search down to Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont but quickly focused our attention on Southern Vermont. While accessible to both Boston and New York, Southern Vermont had a balanced political system, access to great schools and beautiful land. We eventually found a young and eager real estate agent and started our search for what we were told was an unusual request, a mostly flat, 10+acre parcel with a good-sized meadow and an existing camp or cabin somewhere in the foothills of the Southern Green Mountains.
During our road trips, we fell in love with the back roads of Vermont; winding, dirt-packed, tree-lined veins that led the 'the middle of nowhere' in multiple directions. We could drive endlessly with the windows all the way down, listening to the sounds of the mountains, always curious about what was beyond every ridge and turn. Our agent, Vicky, did her research and brought us to a handful of parcels that seemed to fit our needs, at least by the clever writing in their MLS descriptions. We ended up scaling sides of mountains with imagined driveways, that would make any plow truck driver smirk with condescension. We quickly learned that most of the flat parcels blanketed the valleys and, although they existed in the mountains, they were generally parts of larger parcels that were used for livestock grazing. We found one or two of our requirements on the parcels, but never all three.
Did we have to give up the meadow, the camp/cabin or the flat landscape? We decided to keep looking, stay true to our needs and trust the universe. The main reason we wanted a flat parcel at a higher elevation is practical. Based on observations of recent storms and weather patterns, we predict that global warming will create serious havoc with our water collection and run off systems. On a regular basis, water will collect much too quickly or much too slowly. The devastation in Vermont inflicted by Hurricane Irene's intensity will be repeated. Towns, homes and bridges along the drainage rivers will be flood zones. People and business owners will be forced to leave riverfront properties due to exorbitant flood insurance costs. We will experience droughts during the summer that will damage food sources.
To build a self-sustaining lifestyle that can withstand climate change, we first had to find a nest to protect it against the elements. A flat parcel at a higher elevation can be manipulated to channel water run off (rainstorms and snow melt) and is ideal for natural water control methods such as ponding and streaming. In hindsight, we should have asked to see 'plateaus,' because that's what we eventually found. Our parcel has two small streams that channel water run off away from our home site. With a little ingenuity and a large backhoe, we plan to dig an 18 foot deep pond in a swampy section where water naturally collects, put in a hydrant to be used in a fire emergency and dig out the streams so that more water can flow away from the house into the forest. Eventually we'll dig a second pond in the forest that can be stocked with trout and can support wild edibles such as cattails, rainbow parsley, Lebanese stonecress, Taro, Water Parsnip, Chinese Water Chestnut and Watercress. Luckily, our parcel also has an existing camp (where we housed ourselves during home construction) and a fully cleared, 3-acre hay field where our livestock will eventually graze. Our piece of heaven.