Footloose and fancy-free in the country

Footloose and fancy-free
in the country

By Claire Wolfe


Issue #106 • July/August 2007

Green slime in the crankcase. I frowned down at my Toyota’s dipstick 10 days before Christmas last year and knew that Santa had added something to those traditional items he leaves for bad little girls: sticks, lumps of coal, and blown head gaskets.

With 16 years and nearly a quarter of a million miles on its faithful engine, I had known my truck could be due for The Big One. I’d saved money for that. But last year was one of those years. You know Those Years. Where every time you turn around, the plumbing or junior or one of the dogs fractures something. Doesn’t much matter what breaks. But you can be sure it’s something expensive.

So my emergency fund had foundered. And snowflakes began to drift down upon the cold hood of my Toyota.

There’s an irony about living in the country. We move out here to be independent. But the farther we move, the more dependent we become on certain things: motor vehicles, fossil fuels, good tires, engine maintenance—and all the licenses, insurance, registrations, and taxes that go with them.

When you live in a city, you can hop a bus and forget it all. In the suburbs, think rideshare. But if you live 20 miles from the nearest solid pavement, or even just 30 miles from the nearest Wal-Mart, a good truck is your lifeline—even if its demands and expenses sometimes threaten to pull you under.

But I’m fortunate. Getting to my Cabin Sweet Cabin doesn’t require the fortitude of a Roald Amundsen or the resourcefulness of a MacGyver. True, I enjoy splendid, hilltop isolation. Yet, at the bottom of that hill lies a grocery store, post office, and a library—darned near everything a writer needs to sustain life. Even the hardware store (that essential of country living) is a mere four mile round trip.

And I don’t commute. Going to work means traipsing over to a hand-made pine desk in a corner and dreaming up excuses not to write (a task we writers perform with dazzling expertise and without the slightest vehicular assistance).

So. I looked at the road winding up the hill. It was long. It was steep. It would be backbreaking with a week’s groceries or a backpack full of library books.

Then I looked at the dead Toyota. I thought of gasoline at $3.00 per gallon (too much of that going right into Dick Cheney’s pocket). I toted up the cost of repairs (over $700, when adding in the cracked exhaust pipe I’d been meaning to take care of). I added up the regular monthly truck expenses ($225 including gas, insurance, registration, and $75 a month into a maintenance fund).

Sure, I could borrow the money to fix the truck. Isn’t that the New American Way? I could sell something. I could take on extra projects. I could dip into the deepest, darkest of my reserves, those saved for truly dire needs. But what the heck. Why not embrace opportunity?

I set out on foot.

Months later and 14 pounds lighter, I’m here to tell you this has been a great experience. Has it been hard at times? Just ask me that when I’m 100 steep yards from home with 20 pounds of groceries slung over my back. Inconvenient? Inconvenience R Us. Do we have lousy weather here in the Western hills? I’ll match your soggy socks and raise you a pair of earmuffs.

But from day one, I’ve been loving it. Let me count the ways.

1. The 14-pound reduction isn’t just from walking. You become very selective, very fast about the foods you eat when you have to carry them on your back. Nutrient-dense fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and lean meats make the cut. Heavy cans, sweet stuff, and McMeals do not. Our notorious “national epidemic of obesity” wouldn’t last a month if more of us led such inconvenient lives.

2. The world—especially the woodsy part of it—is a very interesting place. It has aromas, textures, and sights you miss when whizzing by encased in the cab of a truck. Brooks babble with serious intensity. Skunk cabbage rises in the ditches in sun-yellow beauty and … um, well, its very own distinct miasma. Sometime, somehow, a laurel tree appeared among the native evergreens bordering my road, and all these years I never passed it and never noticed.

3. People are good. I’ve lived in this community on and off for 15 years. Always knew the people were nice. Never knew how nice. Sometimes I have to tell them, “No, no, no! Honestly, I really want to walk home.” Other times, I’m more than grateful to accept offered rides.

4. I’m learning to accept favors—something I’ve always hated to do. Part of accepting favors is repaying favors. I may not be able to drive. But in exchange for rides during the worst weathers or the heaviest-burdened times I can ply you with homemade oatmeal cookies or help you plant your potatoes. I’m reminded daily of what “community” used to mean before we all got too independent to have deep daily need of our friends and neighbors.

5. The world moves more slowly. You become aware that there’s no need to run errands according to some internal stopwatch. While in town, why not poke in and visit to the kind lady who runs the art gallery? See the latest artworks by the newest artists in town. Or stop and chat with the fearlessly charming Jack Russell terrier who’s appointed himself chief greeter for the residential block by the library.

Life is very, very good.

Drawbacks? Oh my, we got ’em. My biggest worry is that one of my dogs will suffer a life-threatening emergency and I won’t be able to get to the vet in time. But for anything non-urgent, my dear vet makes house calls. Other challenges include trips to the landfill and expeditions for 40-pound sacks of dog food or building materials. So far, every challenge has been overcome with a little good timing, neighborly goodwill, and some horse-trading.

“But what about alternative transportation?” I hear you asking. “Surely all this walking uphill under burdens of carrots and cauliflower is just so much drama queening. Heck, woman, why don’t you get yourself a motor-scooter with a basket on it and save some shoe-leather?”

Actually, I’d been thinking about transportation alternatives long before the Toyota did its “green gunk” thing. I’d gotten intriguing advice from friends, which covered territory from goat-carts to ATVs. Even the notion of a rickshaw rose up, somewhere along the line.

The complication lies in trying to keep the transport simple. One of my aims in choosing this life has been, as Thoreau said, to “simplify, simplify, simplify.” In the case of transportation, my notion of simplicity involves a few special requirements.

First requirement: No permits, licenses, government registrations, or bureaucratic involvement at all. I know it’s naive in this super-governed age, but I’m foolish enough to hold fast to the belief that in a truly free country people travel peaceably on the roads without being stopped and hassled by “the authorities” and without asking the permission from the king (or the president, or the governor, or the Bureau of Lawn Mowers, Motorbikes, and Small Radio-Controlled Widgets). Motor vehicles are not only expensive and prone to breakdowns (anything but simple), but with driver’s licenses becoming national ID cards, unconstitutional highway “checkpoints” everywhere, and our every move being tracked through our licenses, registrations, and purchases, those vehicles we rely on are being deliberately used by government as the vehicles of our unfreedom.

So. No gasoline motors. My state—and it’s pretty typical—says once you put a gas motor on anything, it’s either under bureaucratic control or doesn’t belong on the street at all. The sole exception—farm vehicles—are out on grounds of expense and high maintenance.

That leaves animal-power, pedal-power, or the recently exercised shoe-leather.

Animal power is intriguing. But I don’t keep goats or horses. My vet, who used to race sled dogs, offered me her old musher’s harnesses. My pack of assorted mutts took one look and informed me that they were not—most emphatically not—huskies.

So until I persuade the dogs to change breed (or attitude) there’s pedal power. Pedaling up that hill? Oh my. Nevertheless, when considering all the truly simple options, various forms of pedal power stand out. Fortunately, most states—including mine—allow pedal powered vehicles to have electric-assist motors. As long as electric motor is incapable of driving the vehicle above 20 miles per hour, no state license or registration is required, either for vehicle or driver.

Among pedal-powered vehicles, three choices stand out:

1. The Rhoades Car—a four-wheeled multi-passenger vehicle that can be configured with canopies, cargo beds, and a variety of gearing levels, steering options, and cushioned seats. I like the idea of the Rhoades car and know several people who own and enjoy them. But new ones are pricey and used ones are scarce in my area.

2. Electric-assist bicycle with a cargo trailer. This is a good choice. And a convenient one. There are dozens of electric-bike kits, ready-made electric bikes, and cargo trailers to select from, in a wide array of prices. There are even trailer models designed specifically for transporting dogs—which would help with those emergency vet visits. But I’ve never been a fan of two-wheel transport.

3. Electric-assist recumbent trike. When considering a substitute for a pickup truck (one of God’s most perfect creations), a “bent trike” struck me as a pretty good one. ‘Bent trikes offer the relative stability of three wheels, a comfortable “lean-back” seat, and room between the dual wheels for cargo. ‘Bents come in two configurations: deltas, with the dual wheels in the rear; and tadpoles, with a single wheel in the back and dual wheels in the front. The delta has better potential for being truck-like.

I went for a delta-model ‘bent, hand-built by a local bike-loving mechanic. (His price was about half that of online vendors of comparable trikes.) So why, you might ask, am I still burning shoe-leather while alternative transport sits in my garden shed?

Hm. How to explain simply? Well, the terms “plummet,” “careening out of control”, and “shrieking in terror” come to mind. As does the question of how long, exactly, my corpse could spend decomposing at the bottom of a ravine before anybody noticed. In short, I received a great deal of good advice before choosing a ‘bent trike—then ignored every bit of it for the lure of a bargain price. The result: the trike is extremely heavy, has too high a center of gravity (think instability on curves), and may not have enough braking power to get me repeatedly to the bottom of the hill. Should I manage by some miracle to reach town intact, the bargain-price battery pack I purchased is sufficient (even accompanied by heavy pedaling) to get me half-way up the worst part of the hill before I have to get off and push.

Ah well. Didn’t somebody say something about the virtue of learning from experience? I’m learning. A lot.

By the time you read this, I’ll have gotten a bigger battery pack. Summer weather will have enabled me to do more experimenting with speeds, gears, braking techniques, and brake quality. I may have upgraded the brakes. Possibly, the word “plummet” will no longer be part of my pedal-power vocabulary.

Before Santa strikes again, I’ll probably also get the Toyota running. But I’m in no hurry. For now I remain footloose—and truly, quite fancy-free as I foot it between town and country.


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