Wednesday, February 9, 2011


In truth, reality had been trying to get my attention those first few months in the valley, but I determinedly ignored it. Like the time Bill carried me over the threshold of our old log cabin after we first arrived and I burst into tears. “Oh my god,” I thought. “What have I done?! Did I actually leave my cute sunny home in Seattle for this?” The cabin was dark and dirty and smelled like wood smoke. But I quickly recovered, pulled out the ten gallon can of specialty-mixed teal-green paint I bought at a trendy home store in Seattle, and began to paint. And paint. And paint.

The new color made a difference, but I could not escape the dark rooms and tiny windows of the old cabin. My solution? Stay outside! It was nice out there; so natural. So countryish! And between noon and one, you could even see the sun through the thick forest of pine trees that covered our property and hovered over our home. Wasn’t that nice? But if it was this dark in the summer, what would it be like in the fall, or worse, the winter….? Best not to think about it. So I didn’t.

Reality check #2 came in the form of the fabulous fishing phantom, otherwise known as my husband. Somehow it had escaped my notice that my husband was a hopeless fishing addict. He had gone fishing on occasion when we lived in Seattle, but it wasn’t easy to get to a good fishing spot. Not so in the valley with its many rivers and lakes full of fish. No sooner had we arrived in the valley and unloaded our boxes into our new home then Bill grabbed his fishing rod and vanished. “Hold it.” I thought. “Didn’t I have a husband around here somewhere?” And sure enough, eventually he would rematerialize like a ghost, grab a snack and vanish again in search of the next big bite. “Just an anomaly” I assured myself, as I slapped more paint on the walls. “He’ll be back and life will be everything I dreamed of. And isn’t it cute that he likes to fish? How countryish!” Reality refused to set in.

It did, however, successfully intrude on a day in late August when the temperature in the Methow dropped 50-degrees overnight leaving new snow on the high hills. Bill had mentioned getting wood for the winter, days ago, but I had only laughed. It was 100 degrees! Who wanted to think about wood? But I wasn’t laughing now. In fact, I was on the verge of tears.

Our cabin had a fire place, two wood stoves and no wood. Our propane tank had no fuel. It was raining and 50 degrees outside. By the time Bill got home from work that evening, the girls and I were freezing. As I started to complain about the lack of heat and how cold we had been all day, and what were we suppose to do, Bill took one look at us in our shorts and tee shirts and said, “Well you could start by putting on more clothes.”

I lost it. “I don’t want to put on more clothes!” I yelled. “I want heat in my home! I want switches that turn on lights and make rooms warm! I want a normal house!” Bill was looking at me like the alien I had become when my 9-year-old, Emily, quietly spoke up. “Um, mom? We have a fireplace and I saw a little wood in the shed. Maybe we could make a fire?” I looked at her and put my head in my hands. This city girl was in way over her head. A life of convenience had not prepared me for this. “Great honey,” I said, trying to sound like the adult I was not. “Let’s build a fire.”

From then on I decided to make peace with my heating system and learn how to use it. Necessity is the mother of invention, and I was the mother of girls that needed heat. So I committed to becoming the new “country me” and learn to make fires and chop wood. Bill had gone out to the forest and brought back nearly three cords of wood; an enormous amount to my eyes, and it all needed chopping. Which sounds easy enough, and, in fact, I did a pretty good job, up until the point I nearly cut off my right foot.

“How about if you cut the wood honey?” I sheepishly asked Bill given that I was supposed to help with this job. “We don’t both need to do everything and there are lots of other things I can do around here instead,” I offered. “Like what?” he asked, looking me over in my city shoes and nice slacks. “Um…” I’ll have to get back to you on that,” I replied, as I began to realize that I did not have the skills for my new life.

As summer turned to fall, the reality of what our move to the country meant began more and more to collide with my country living fantasy. Back-to-school shopping was a real eye opener, as our valley has few places to shop. School clothes had to be purchased in the nearest large town, which, for us, was four hours away by car, round trip. Shopping for school clothes and supplies took an entire day, from early morning to late at night, despite the fact that both my girls and I hate to shop. It was hell. In addition, Emily started third grade in her new school, and came home furious after the first day. “These kids are rude,” she announced as she threw her backpack onto the floor. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“They pick their noses and wipe it on their pants, put gum on their chairs and spit,” she announced.

“They spit?” I asked, truly shocked as I thought about the well-groomed, high-tech, children of professional parents that attended Emily’s north end school in Seattle - where children did not spit. “Give it a little time,” I said, reassuringly, even as my own concerns rose. Emily had gone to the best public elementary school in Seattle; one parents clamored to get their kids into. We had visited the local school district before moving out to the Methow, and the teachers had all seemed great. The district was tiny, less than 700 kids, and the classes were wonderfully small. But I didn’t think about the kids. What if they really were a bunch of rude country yahoos and Emily ended up hating it here? “The kids will just take some time to get used to. They’re fine. You’ll see,” I said to my dubious child. I just hoped in my heart I was right.

There was another big reality check I experienced that first fall: Hunting Season. You can always tell when deer hunting season hits because all of a sudden you can’t find a can of beer, loaf of white bread, or package of wienies in the local grocery store. You also start to notice large numbers of men in camouflage gear along your road, scoping the deer in your front yard. And who knew that for approximately two weeks in October, local people tend to wear red so they won’t get shot when they walk on trails. Some local ranchers actually take to writing HORSE and COW in bold letters on the sides of their livestock so that hunters, using long range rifles from a mile away, won’t shoot them by mistake.

One morning that first fall, I woke up to the sound of bullets whizzing past my bedroom widow. Someone had shot a deer in my driveway. I went tearing out of the house in my bathrobe with my husband yelling after me, “Stop! You’ll get shot!” The site of a crazed urban chick in a red robe swearing like a sailor, all wild hair and eyes, must have been sufficiently terrifying because those guys took off fast. But they left the deer carcass for my kids to walk past on their way to the school bus that morning. The local fish and game guy finally hauled it away. If that same thing happened now I would probably have Bill haul the deer to the local butcher. I’ve learned not to waste food in the country. But back then I was just mad. What a waste of good meat.

Then, as fall turned to winter that first year in the valley, another harsh reality struck. Snow. I love snow but that’s an easy thing to do when you don’t have to live in it. And this valley gets a lot of snow. We measure it in feet, not inches. This was actually an attraction to me as I love to cross-country ski, and our valley has over 180 kilometers of groomed cross-country ski trails – the second largest cross-country ski trail system in the nation. But that was little consolation as I white-knuckled my car and my two children through yet another blizzard and two mountain passes in the winter so they could see their dad. Our new parenting plan required that we make this trip at least once a month, rain or snow. On good days in the winter, it’s at least a five hour trip to Seattle from here one way. It can take hours, or even days more, if the passes close and you are stuck up on top of a mountain until: a) an avalanche is cleared; b) a fatal car accident is investigated; c) a storm passes and the roads are plowed..

I learn to pack supplies for the trip: Chains, flashlights, sleeping bags and blankets, extra food and water; picks and shovels. I feel like I’m heading out to climb Mount Everest every time I take my kids to see their dad.

I learn to watch the weather and how to read weather maps. I have never been so impacted by the weather in my life. In the city, I could go days and not even know what was happening outside, or care. Here, not being prepared can cost you your property or even your life.

Reality also hit in more minor ways. Unlike Ti, we have garbage collection service, and I note what a privilege it is to have someone else haul away my trash. The same was not true for recycling when we first arrived. But after a decade of saving and sorting my paper, glass, and plastics in Seattle, I just didn’t have the heart to send them to the landfill. However the nearest recycling center was over an hour away. So we put the stuff in piles in our three-bay shed, just waiting to be hauled to the recycling center. Nine months later it’s still waiting, and our pile of plastic, paper, and glass has grown to fill two of the three bays of our enormous wood shed.

“This is not recycling,” I complain to Bill. “This is storage. God forbid anyone should light a match anywhere near all this dried up junk or it might all go up in smoke and take our cabin with it.” Which, as I started thinking about it, suddenly didn’t sound like such a bad idea…

Fortunately for our cabin, a local group established a recycle center some years ago. I’m thankful every time I only have to haul my recycle one mile instead of sixty. But the real lesson here has taken me ten years to learn: Use less stuff. That’s not a lesson people are forced to learn much in the city where someone else takes responsibility for your trash and hauls it to a place you never see. That’s less of the case in my world, and not the case at all in Ti’s. Your trash is, well, your trash. If you don’t want to deal with it then make less in the first place.

But this is a small inconvenience compared to the biggest reality check I’ve dealt with since moving to the country which is…..drum roll please…. Health Insurance!

Big surprise that; at least I know it was for me. Who knew the biggest stress of moving to the country was wondering if I could afford to take myself or my kids to the doctor? They never mention this stuff in those simple living guides, but for many of us out here, it’s the truth.

Like most Americans, I lost my health insurance when I left my job. I had always been insured through either my parents or my work, and just assumed we could buy health insurance somewhere when we moved. Since I never actually had to purchase health insurance before, I had no idea what it was like. But my shock at the system (or lack there of) grew rapidly after making our move.

When we first moved out to the valley in 1999, for example, we couldn’t even purchase health insurance on the open market. All the major insurers had pulled out of our side of the state because the population base was too small to profit from, and there was no private health insurance to be had. I was dumfounded. “I have money to buy a product and I’m being told I can’t have it? That’s just un-American,” I thought.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) our income at the time qualified us for Basic Health, the state sponsored medical insurance “for the poor.” That was us. But being poor and accepting charity did not mesh with my vision of moving to the country, though it appears to be the reality for many. The fact is there are very few jobs where we live that offer health insurance or any kind of benefits at all. Not only do most of us not get health or dental insurance through our work, we don’t get paid vacations, retirement, or even a single paid day off. If we’re lucky, we make a living wage – but many of us don’t even get that.

The exception to the rule is government work: Town, county, state, federal, teaching, law enforcement, whatever. Those folks usually get good bennies. Or if you’re one of the many people who work (or spouse works) at a good job outside the area and commutes back to Shangri-La on the weekends. That happens too. But if your thinking of moving to the country and want to keep some semblance of a safety net around yourself, either look for government work, figure out a way to make A LOT of money, preferably online, or do what local families do – give up your notion of a safety net. That’s what community is for.

My mistake was to start consulting and make too much money to qualify for Basic Health anymore. Not a lot of money, mind you. Just enough to get booted from the program. Fortunately, we got kicked out just as the insurance market moved back into our area. Unfortunately, the private insurance available was, and still is, expensive and poor quality coverage. Every year for the past ten years we’ve seen double digits increases in premiums, an increase in deductable and a decline in services covered. We were finally priced out of the health insurance market all together, and, for the first time in my life, I am uninsured. Fortunately, the girls qualify for SCHIP – the federal health insurance program for kids. But it’s back to that being poor/charity issue again. This is not what I thought my life would be.

The final reality check on moving to the country happened a year after we moved when I had to give up my kids so they could spend the summer with their dad. That was part of the agreement when I moved, but it felt like someone had ripped out my heart. The first day they were gone I could hardly breathe. Much of my identity had been tied up in being a mom. With my girls gone, I didn’t know who I was anymore. I missed my colleagues at KCTS and my old career. My house was still dark and smelled like smoke. Between his work, his fishing, his music jam sessions and his friends, my husband was hardly around. And I was having a hard time making friends; something I couldn’t figure out. Did I smell bad? Suddenly grow two heads? Wear the wrong kind of shoes? I had never had this problem before. But all of a sudden, it felt like one problem too many and I began to seriously question what I was doing with my life. This was not what I had planned when I decided to move to the country. This was not my wonderful life.

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