Trip to Detroit | Urban Farming

I recently wrote about the urban farm that Sam (Kathy’s son) and his fiancée are putting together in Hamtramck, Michigan (pronounced Ham-TRAM-ick). I’ve been interested Detroit’s urban farm scene for a while now; it’s fascinating to see the great ideas and unexpected conflicts that come up when a city is forced to re-imagine itself. What’s the plan when you are down to 900,000 people living in a city built for 2,000,000? That’s what Detroit is trying to figure out, and the 1,000 or so urban farmers in the area seem to have some of the best ideas.

Last Friday, Martin (another of Kathy’s sons) and I went to Hamtramck with a door for a tool shed that Sam’s building. Since my previous trip to Detroit happened was when I was six, I was excited for the opportunity to see things as they are now and where they might be heading.

Sam and Katelyn purchased four abandoned lots for about $1,000. In a typical practice for modern-day Detroit, they’ve also claimed two adjacent empty lots as their own. The owners of those lots haven’t responded to any attempts to contact them, and they’re years behind in property taxes. As such, the plan is just to use the land until they hear otherwise.

For the most part, it seems like Detroit’s residents are happy for anything positive to be done with abandoned land. We went with Sam and his intern, Michael, to a nearby lot to pick up a few tree stumps to serve as a base for the water cachement tanks. As we were trying to lift the stumps into the pickup truck, a man drove up and asked what we were doing. Once he learned that we were trying to remove something from the lot instead of dumping there, he told us to help ourselves to whatever we wanted.

shed and gardens

Scavenging is a common occurrence for urban farmers in Detroit. There are so many abandoned homes, factories, lots, and neighborhoods that you can find nearly anything but scrap metal (which is quickly snatched up to be sold). Sam and Katelyn are building their shed out of shipping pallets and cinder blocks, have placed the aforementioned tree trunks for a water tank foundation, and are sodding their growing beds with used grass and sprout squares that a local company donates. Even the wood chips for the walkways come from folks looking to offload them. One person’s waste is a farmer’s treasure.

You can read a more about how Sam and Katelyn reuse Detroit’s waste on their blog, Grace and Peas.

One of the challenges in building an urban farm in Detroit is trying to stay below the government’s radar. As many people trying to improve the environment can attest, the government can often be more of a hassle than a help. The leaders in those positions simply are not able to keep pace with the rapid changes in culture that are happening. Urban farming is as foreign to them as it is to most people, but they are in a position to make laws that can directly affect how successful it can be.

The city recently sent a letter to Sam stating that he needed a permit to build his pallet shed. This would require bringing in a property assessor to determine the value of their land. An earlier assessment already increased the value of their property well beyond what they paid for it, causing their yearly property tax bill to be half of what they initially paid for the land.

There are conflicting laws about urban farming on the state and local level. The state of Michigan passed a right-to-farm act that allows for urban farming, but Hamtramck will occasionally try to pass ordinances limiting those same rights to farm. All in all, it can seem like there are frequent efforts to stymie the attempts of these farmers to improve their own city.

grass mats and compost bins

Still, there’s ultimately a lot of hope and excitement in Detroit about the future. The urban farming movement is growing at such a rate that it’s only a matter of time before things fall into place. Sam and Katelyn showed us a documentary called Urban Roots that provides a fantastic mix of perspectives on what’s happening in the city right now.

Before to long I’ll be off to Hamtramck again to deliver some kale and tomato plants to the farm. I can’t wait. Many thanks to Katelyn and Sam for their great hospitality. The homemade pizzas and growlers of Atwater beer were perfect.

Santa Rosa | Grandpa

Here are some thoughts on a visit to my grandfather in Santa Rosa, California, from February 7-13. As mentioned in an earlier post, I had no cell phone during this visit, so there aren’t any pictures. Sorry.

When I visited my grandfather in Santa Rosa, he was on the cusp of turning 90. He seemed to take this information three times harder than my friends who’ve reached 30. Each day during my visit, he would express disbelief at having managed to live that long.

One thing I’ve noticed from visiting him over the years is that death is a frequent topic of conversation. While most of us are reluctant to talk of either our own deaths or those of others, this isn’t the case with many elderly people.

“Everyone in this movie is dead.”

These words were spoken by my grandfather while watching White Christmas on TV about ten years ago. In the middle of the movie, à propos of nothing, he gave a long sigh and lamented the fact that every actor in the film had passed away.

For many of the elderly, death is one of their few remaining companions. Imagine outliving all of your friends, high school classmates, colleagues, and spouses. Add to that all of the politicians you’ve voted for, musicians you’ve enjoyed, and film stars you’ve admired. What else is left to talk about other than stories of the past and the inevitable end of your own life?

Those of us with living friends, family, and lovers struggle to speak of or countenance death. With so much living to do, it’s tough to believe that death can come at any time. For the elderly, who have seen everyone in their lives die before them, the only question is when their own time will come.

Predicting the Future

This lack of a filter when dealing with death also applies to most other subjects, at least where my grandfather is concerned. We went out for lunch and dinner each night of my visit, and every meal was full of life stories. I’d already heard most of them, but I’ve come to expect this when I visit him. My enjoyment comes from detecting the subtle nuances of each retelling, much like listening to a familiar symphony being performed again.

If you know a symphony well enough, you can anticipate the challenging moments in a new performance. With my grandpa, I felt like the parent of a young child waiting for the moment when he would say something horribly offensive in public. That mix of terror and adrenaline is much of the fun of spending time with Grandpa

One story he tells involves eating soup in a San Francisco restaurant in the 1950s. This restaurant wanted to be a men-only joint, so if a woman walked in, the bartender would turn on a red swearing light. This cued the restaurant patrons to be as crude as possible until the woman decided to leave.

As my grandpa told this story, we were sitting in a fish and chips shop right next to a young girl and her parents. My grandpa spoke loud enough that they could hear the whole story, and they laughed when he mentioned the swearing light.

At this point, my grandpa usually goes on to describe the bartender of the restaurant — the same man who operated the swearing light. Whenever my grandpa would eat at the restaurant, he would ask the bartender what kind of soup they were serving that day.

The bartender’s reply was always, “Good fuckin’ soup.”

When my grandpa started in on this part of the story within easy earshot of the child, I panicked. I did everything I could to steer him away from the plot and ask questions of redirection. To my great relief, he diverged at the last second.

There were other instances where he didn’t.

The Great Airport in the Sky

With death being such a frequent subject, I’ve heard a few interesting euphemisms for it. My grandfather worked for United Airlines from 1946 until he retired; he jokes that his career began before they had planes. When referencing his own death, he speaks of going off to the “great airport in the sky.” It’s a way to make dying seem like natural step to take — a continuation of his life on this planet.

A distant Irish relative gave me another euphemism during my trip. A Christmas card she had sent my grandpa had been returned to her; the address she had wasn’t current. While I was in the room, he got a phone call from her wondering if he had “gone on to his great reward.” Especially coming from an Irish relative, this seemed to be a very positive look at what death might be.

Accepting Death

I can only take away the idea that a healthy attitude about death is critical to living well. This seems even more true in agriculture. Death is frequent in farm life. Plants are harvested and die each year. Animals are butchered. Hens are taken by hawks and foxes. When they can no longer lay eggs, they’re turned into soup.

This life cycle is what keeps the world moving forward. Birth leads to aging, which leads to death. To complete the cycle, death must lead to something: rebirth, both physically and spiritually. It’s the energy that produces new life. This is as true in farming as it is in all of nature.

Death is not the only food for new life. Stories, too, can live on and power a new generation. Without new sources of energy, neither life nor stories can sustain. By repeating their stories time and again, the elderly are able to keep their knowledge and memories alive until they can be retold by someone else. If I know all of my grandfather’s stories front to back, then his perspective on life becomes energy for my own. This is the life cycle coming full circle.

Sitting in San Francisco

On February 13, I had an afternoon in San Francisco to go exploring before I had to catch the train to Portland. I took BART into downtown and sat on the step of Union Square. It was 4:30pm, and the sun had just dipped below the skyline to my right.

I watched a woman in her 60s walk with a woman in her 80s. The older woman held onto the back of her wheelchair for support, and the younger woman held her arm. When the two of them reached one end of the plaza, they turned around and started back. Their slow pace belied the intense focus that went into every single step.

Nearby, a young father walked with his one-year-old son. The boy’s father held him by the arms, and they took their time crossing back and forth across the square. It was easy to see the focus of the young boy as he tried to keep one foot in front of the other.

It struck me that old age is, in many ways, a second childhood. Aging then becomes a process of transition between a child who can make mistakes without consequences into someone whose accumulated wisdom prevents most mistakes. When a young child falls down, nothing bad happens. His extra padding and physical structure are designed to withstand his mistakes. The older you get, the wiser you become — and the less you can afford to make errors.

I’ve watched my friend Andrew as he helps his 18-month-old son put on shoes, get strapped into the car, clean himself, and eat dinner. I spent my week with my grandfather helping him put on his shoes, get into his wheelchair, slide from the wheelchair into the car, and get to the dinner table. It can be hard to tell the difference between the things Andrew and I do for those we love. What differentiates my grandfather from Andrew’s son, however, are the stories I receive from my grandpa. What he’s done in his life can now inform the things that I do in mine.

When your physical and mental skills begin to diminish at a certain age, you might think that you’ve lost all that you’ve gained since you were a child. In many ways, that’s just part of the cycle. You start and end with nothing. With a healthy understanding of death, you can see how your life’s experiences are contained in their own unending life cycle. Even though your body may become food for the planet, your life can become food for those who follow.

New Bike, First Ride

After consulting with Ezra at Green Machine Cycles for months about concepts and parts, I finally purchased my touring bicycle last week. It’s a beautiful piece of work, and it’ll be my primary mode of transportation for the next phase of my life.

Here are a few pictures taken in snowy Chicago by Andrew at Andrew Seaman Photography:

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If you want to see a few more shots (particularly some close-ups of specific parts), check out this post about the new bike on Andrew’s photography blog.

My very first trip was to be a three-day trek from Chicago to Indianapolis to see my family. Last Wednesday I spent 11 hours on my bike, heading from the north side of Chicago to my friend’s house in Valparaiso. According to the Google instructions I wrote down, this trip should have taken only 5.5 hours.

Chicago to Valpo

Although the bike itself ran perfectly and handled all the mini-potholes, mystery puddles, and snow with a stiff upper lip, there were a couple of factors, mostly my fault, that contributed to this first journey being less than a complete success:

  1. I spent the last month traveling out west, which left me with little time for doing any exercise or bike training. It’s also been a long and cold winter, so there hasn’t been too much other exercise to speak of. Like any expert can tell you, it’s not that smart to attempt a strenuous activity without much training. Biking 75 miles in a day (with the plan of repeating that two more times on consecutive days), it turns out, falls into that category. It’s probably not a surprise to anyone else but me.
  2. I had no working phone. While I’ve gotten used to being out of touch, the ability to navigate on the fly is something that can be very helpful when biking in unfamiliar territory. I wrote out directions and got a general sense of where I was heading, but I forgot to consider that some of the bike trails I planned on taking in Indiana had not been plowed. At least 13 of the miles I biked were wasted ones spent improvising and guessing at which roads would take me to Valparaiso without sticking me on a major highway.

The end result of the day was that I arrived to my friend’s place in Valparaiso at 10:45 at night. I was glad I invested in a front generator hub on my bicycle, as I had plenty of light to guide me as I moved through the dark back roads of Northern Indiana. I woke up the next day with my right knee unable to bend without excruciating pain. The left knee was a milder version of the right. It was obvious that it was not going to be a biking day.

One of the greatest things I’ve learned from all of my traveling is that I’m fortunate to have some truly great friends. My Valparaiso contact happened to be heading to Indianapolis the next day, so she drove me and my bicycle right to my parents’ place. I couldn’t be more fortunate. As much as I dislike having my friends compensate for my own poor judgement, I’m very grateful that they’re willing to do so.

So, I’ve learned a lot about myself and about how to handle bicycle touring. Training turns out to be important. So does planning a route and having maps. A cell phone with GPS is helpful. The part of the trip that went the best was the bicycle itself, and that was something I’d spent months preparing for.

There’s more biking in the future, and I can’t wait to get back to riding on some healthy legs. For now, I’ll spend a few days letting my knees recuperate from the biking and my mind recuperate from the whirlwind that was the past month before getting ready to head to the farm.

No Phone. No Photos. No Clue.

The remainder of my entries on my experiences out west won’t have as many photos as my post about Denver. This is because I haven’t had a working camera for the past two weeks. Like most modern travelers, my cell phone serves as my camera. When its battery failed two days into my time in California, I was left without a way to take pictures. Or make phone calls. Or receive text messages. Or look up directions on the fly.

In other words, I’ve reverted to an older method of traveling. I have to contact my friends and hosts in advance to confirm our plans, write down directions on paper, and trust that my friends will be at a certain place at a certain time. There’s a thrill to traveling like this. I feel more present, more aware, and more in control.

I may be a modern traveler, but I’m now feeling justified in always carrying a physical address/phone book full of contact information for my friends. Whether it’s looking up my grandfather’s phone number to get his Safeway discount or sending postcards to friends (more on that in a second), I’m glad I have all my important information stored in something that doesn’t rely on satellites and shoddy workmanship.

Still, it would be nice to talk to my family on the phone. So, on February 12, I bought a cell phone battery online and had it shipped via USPS to my temporary Portland address. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of tracking my package as it’s bounced back and forth between Sacramento and Portland — three times so far.

Phone Battery Tracking

It’s now 6pm on Monday, February 24th, and I’m on an Amtrak train three hours north of Los Angeles. If the battery ever arrives at its Portland destination, my friend will have to forward it to wherever I might be.

I’ve complained earlier about my postcard stamp problems with the USPS. Those issues have continued out west. I was charged 35 cents for a postcard stamp at the Denver Airport, 34 cents for a stamp at a post office inside a San Francisco Macy’s, and 49 cents by a Portland postal worker who measured my postcard on a chart and somehow deemed it first class mail.

To put a cherry on all of this, a postal carrier friend of mine told me that he wasn’t even aware that postcards had a unique postage rate. I love you, US Postal Service, but there ain’t much more than ideology sustaining that love at the moment.

*Update: The post office in Los Angeles charged me 34 cents for postcard stamps today. However, they had to use their old 33-cent stamps with another 1-cent stamp added on. Crazy.

A Grand Adventure

Here’s the second post in a continuing series on why I’ve decided to hop on a bike and learn to be a farmer.

Ever since I was young, I’ve had an urge to head out on a grand adventure. Many ideas have jumped around in my brain, but none have made the jump from imagination to reality until now. Here’s a look at how my ambitions have developed from the beginning up to this point.

Appalachian Trail

When I was 12 years old, I decided I wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail. My mother’s friend planted the idea in my head, and I soon talked with her frequently about making the trek. The simplicity of carrying everything you need in a backpack struck a nerve in me. It brought life into a sharper focus and made human existence somehow more comprehensible.

property of Appalachian Trail Conservancy

Although we never did hike the Trail, my love for wandering only grew. In high school I would sometimes walk four miles to school with my friend (although, since I was his ride, he may have been obligated to join me). I also took day-long hikes around the agricultural areas of my county. Even now, I will frequently walk somewhere rather than take a bike or a train.

Kayaking to New Orleans

Another trip I’ve talked about for years stemmed from a canoe trip. My California grandfather bought a canoe when I was 15 or 16 years old. On our visits, we’d often take the canoe out on a lake or the Russian River.

View Larger Map

On one particular visit, my grandpa suggested that my brother and I canoe down the Russian River from Monte Rio to Jenner, which sits right where the river meets the Pacific Ocean. I don’t know why he suggested this; maybe he’d noticed my fascination with the fact that all water eventually flows to the ocean.

Whatever the reason, my brother and I hopped in the canoe and headed down river. The water was usually less than three feet deep, and the wind seemed to be blowing up the river. Taken together, this meant that our canoe had much less help from the current than I’d expected. We ended up taking five hours to reach Jenner instead of the planned two or three.

Despite the challenge, I loved the experience (my brother, not so much). This led to me planning to paddle a kayak from the creek in my friend’s backyard in Greenwood, Indiana, down the various small creeks and tributaries, into the White River and the Wabash, then the Ohio River, then the Mississippi, all the way south until I reached New Orleans.

Indianapolis to New Orleans

This trip, too, hasn’t happened yet. It’s still something I talk about regularly, and I still would like to do it.

Heading Into the Wild

Come junior year of high school, we were assigned Jon Krakauer’s book on Christopher McCandless, Into the Wild. Up to that point, I hadn’t enjoyed most of the books for that class (I didn’t have a good attitude that year), so I wasn’t expecting much from the book.


To my surprise, the tale of Alexander Supertramp (a.k.a. McCandless) completely blew open a new way of thinking about my life. Here was a young man just out of college who gave up everything in order to test himself against the world. He abandoned all contact with his family or friends, ditched his car and his money, and hitch-hiked across the country for a few years.

There are a number of literary touchstones that seem to impact generation after generation of vaguely disaffected young people. Thoreau’s Walden, Hesse’s Siddhartha, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and Kerouac’s On the Road have all influenced generation after generation of teenagers. It’s clear that Into the Wild has become a recent induction into this canon of individualist freedom.

At the time, I was 17 and frustrated with the direction of my life. I felt that school had nothing to offer me anymore, and the thought of leaving everything I knew to go exploring seemed like a perfect solution to my angst. That McCandless finally starved to death in an abandoned school bus in Alaska didn’t affect my thinking. What 17-year-old understands mortality?

To my mother’s relief, nothing came of this dream other than longer walks around the county and a new direction in my reading. Based on this reading, I soon drafted my personal vision of the ideal society: the system of laws and economics that would bring happiness to everyone. It wasn’t long before I discovered that my ideal society was essentially communism, which had already been attempted (disastrously).

Run the Camp Store

After graduating high school, my friends created traditions in order see each other throughout the year. One of the things we’ve continued to do is take a yearly camping trip at the end of the summer.

One of our early trips was a beautiful campground at Yellowwood State Forest, in Southern Indiana. There was sign posted seeking someone to serve as camp store manager. I loved the idea of spending the summer camping in the woods and running the little store, but it was not to be. A lack of nerve, coupled with commitments to various music groups, kept me from going through with the idea.

Hopping Trains

Once I moved to Chicago and started realizing the freedom that came with my new job, I began booking train trips all over the country. While these trips were a great opportunity to visit friends who lived elsewhere, I also enjoyed the exhilarating feeling of stepping off a train with no place I needed to be.

A year of this style of traveling culminated in a month-long train trip out west in February of 2013. It was easily the longest trip I’d ever taken, and it made me realize that everything I need fits into a duffel bag. Being able to carry all of my necessities meant that I had no reason not be traveling constantly.

Finally Making a Move

I’m a cautious person by nature. The idea of making an irreversible move usually leads me to inaction, whether it’s in relationships, careers, or adventures. After that month out west, it became much harder to remain inert in the face of what I had learned. I now knew for a fact that I could stay mobile and keep moving. I may have progressed through a number of different adventure ideas, but I ultimately found the perfect one for me.