Archive for ‘idealism’

February 22, 2014

Heike Noller: Grounded, but not for long

Heike, Vee, Me and Hannah, about a year ago.

Heike, Vee, Me and Hannah, about a year ago.

Fate has an odd sense of humor.

Last winter, Hannah and I rode our bikes from Oregon down to the tip of California, took a left and headed into the deserts of the Southwest. In all those weeks, we saw maybe a dozen touring cyclists, most of them male. Then, in the remote mountains of west Texas about 200 miles east of El Paso, we happened to stay with a host in an unlikely community comprised of employees and researchers at McDonald Observatory. You know you’re in the middle of nowhere when you come across one of the world’s largest telescopes – it’s so far from city lights that you can see just about any star you care to aim it at. An hour after we rolled in, Vee, a lady cyclist traveling solo from the East coast, joined us.

Our host, John – a bit of a mad scientist – was an engineer up at the ‘scope. He and his family took us on a tour of the observatory before the sun slipped behind the horizon. The tour was interrupted two or three times by John’s cell phone – the calls came from a German woman none of us had met yet. She was another cyclist, coming here from the opposite direction, and apparently she had very spotty reception. John was hilariously indifferent to the whole situation.

“Why does everyone have to call ahead? Just come if you need to, and if you don’t – don’t!” His frizzy mop of curls shook for emphasis.

We all gave up on Heike at about 10 at night and Hannah and I settled into our sleeping bags in John’s living room. Glad to be out of reach of javelinas and coyotes, we let the wind lull us to sleep.

As I recall it, Heike blew in the door with a gust of wild night air. She stepped inside with one word:

“Wow!” The first “w” came out as a “v”.

We mumbled a greeting and rolled over, aware that she had ridden at least 80 miles that day, the last dozen or so uphill, in a headwind. In her situation, I would have been glad to sneak in quietly, consume a jar of peanut butter, and pass out on the floor for twelve hours.

But Heike, it turned out, is made of sturdier stuff than you or I. The next morning, she was up before Vee, Hannah and me, drinking coffee in the kitchen with John and his wife. In the light of day, she was tall, blonde, tan and completely easygoing. We swapped stories, the currency of cycle tourists – about the pavement and the wind, locals and other wildlife, saddle sores. Heike told us about Key West, (“Vest”), her favorite place in all of America, from where she’d cycled across the South to Big Bend National Park, Texas. From the way she described the entire thing, it was all one big party. In Big Bend, she’d waded across the river to Mexico – apparently they don’t bother with border controls down there, not in the middle of a desert so vast and uninhabited.

The conversation turned to footwear. Heike had on a pair of Keens, sport sandals that can be purchased with clips to hook into your bicycle pedals. She gushed about how she could wear them anywhere, from the bike to town to hiking trails.

“Sometimes rocks get in zem,” she said. “I say, free foot massage, ja?” We all laughed. She was serious.

We parted ways with Heike and Vee that morning but kept their bold energy, their trust in the fates that guided them, with us. We adopted a new motto, too. When I complained of the insects bombarding my face in Florida, Hannah said “free protein, ja!” When we got rained out of our tent, I reminded Hannah – “free shower, ja!” It wasn’t just Heike speaking through us – my mother, who is also German, often reminds me that any given hardship will serve to put hair on my chest. How about an unexpected ride on the freeway with large trucks traveling inches from you at eight times the speed: “Free chest hair?” Ja!

Hannah and I made our way home to Oregon this spring. Heike wrapped up her tour and settled in Denver, where she earned her EMT license, became a ski instructor and a caregiver, and got into rock climbing. I watched her life unfold as she told it though Facebook, inspired by each new adventure.

Then, this November, I logged in to see some very disturbing news. Heike had fallen from 250 feet up a rock face while climbing, free falling the last 40 feet. She’d broken twelve ribs, her sternum, her back, and both feet. Her left foot was so damaged that the hospital decided to amputate just below her left knee several days later.

Heike fell out of the sky in West Texas and brightened our journey; she fell from a cliff in Denver and paid a high cost for her life of adventure. Watching her recovery take place through the photos and updates she posts, I have been torn between gratitude that she survived (I’m starting to feel as though nothing could kill her) and wishing that there was something I could do. I didn’t realize it until now, but this woman I had become something of a hero to me. Her positivity had carried me through that long bike ride and in the trying months that followed.

The only time I saw Heike’s good spirits waver was when she learned that she would be discharged from rehabilitation at the end of January with nowhere to go from there. Her healing is not completed and it will be another two months until she gets a prosthetic for her leg thanks to some insurance complications.

Luckily, some friends seem to have found Heike a place to stay in Denver, and they’ve started a fundraising campaign to support her until she’s able to function as a whole person again. Needless to say, Hannah and I are chipping in what we can. I want to see Heike strap on her Keens, hop on her bike and do a victory lap around the world. I know that when she’s better she’ll find the “free foot massage” even in this situation. Who knows how many lives she’ll touch, how many perspectives will be altered, when she does.

Heike’s supporters are just $530 away from raising the $3000 she needs. Let’s make it happen! Here’s the link to the fundraiser:¬†

December 1, 2013

Buying the Farm

My windowsill garden

I didn’t know it at the time, but I’ve wanted to have my own farm since I was a little girl. I planted a peach pit in our back yard near a big Doug fir and dug it up nearly every day to see if it was turning into a tree yet. I baked my own bread and painted my face with blackberry juice.
I didn’t really know about farms then, or where my food came from, really, but eventually I would figure it out. Where I started was with an insatiable love of the outdoors, of things that grow. Although I had no idea what was actually edible out there – and neither did my city-born parents – I pretended it all was anyway. When I grew up to learn that humans were expected to spend most of their lives indoors, I followed along with the plan briefly but soon found myself joyously yanking weeds in the mud of the University of Oregon’s Urban Farm.

I’m 27 years old now. Recently, I received an email from a young woman named Erin. She’s about to graduate from engineering school and was seeking advice on entering the field of sustainable agriculture. She felt that she could make a positive contribution.
I sent a couple of links to apprenticeship programs but she pressed for more information: What path had I taken, she wanted to know. What mistakes had I made, and what experiences were invaluable?
I think what she really wanted to know was, is this really possible? Can an idealistic young person really go into the crusty world of tractors, almanacs, fruit fly breeding cycles, pressure canning, agricultural zoning rules and Carharts and make it as sexy as designing green buildings or a more fuel-efficient car?
There is a huge chasm in agriculture today, but maybe it’s always been there. It’s the difference between our romantic view of cuddling baby lambs, and hosting potlucks in our rustic farmhouses and the reality of growing enough food for the planet’s 7.5 billion people and making it as cheap as possible. Today, the romantic view of farm life has grown to include an expectation that changing the way we grow, distribute and consume food can actually save the planet. So, can it?

I have to admit that I lied a bit in my responses to Erin. I didn’t tell her that no farmer I’ve ever met has actually recommended that I follow in their footsteps, go into debt for a large piece of land, and spend the rest of my life tied down to it. I didn’t tell her that most of the early 20-somethings I met just out of college who, like me, worked a variety of low-paying but highly satisfying farm-related jobs, are now settling down to earn real money and buy their food from the grocery store like everyone else. I failed to mention how incredibly thankless it is to be a farmer, that no matter how much people in your community seem to embrace the idea of buying locally and building regional food security, you will still meet people at the farmer’s market who will fail to understand why your apples are more expensive than those at Safeway. That’s when you smile and try to be nice, and you don’t try to explain that the old expression “he bought the farm” means he died, because when you try to live off the land that’s the only way you do live.

I left these things out because I still believe that the baby goats are worth it, and that, as Alice Waters said, we really do vote for the kind of world we want every time we choose what we eat. Maybe this is why there are still farmers in the world, why there continue to be young farmers even though the average age of a farmer in America is now upwards of 60 years old. The trend of college grads going back to the land may have hit its peak at the height of the recession in 2009, when I graduated from college, but there are still Erins out there, and there are still people like me and Hannah, who just can’t seem to settle for a nine-to-five job under the protective roof of a building in town. There’s a smidgen of boldness and a bit of stupidity there, too – no matter how many farmers we’ve met who barely scrape by, we seem to think we can do better. Maybe, just maybe, we can have it all.

Now that we’ve settled in Southern Oregon, we’re taking a look around, feeling the soil and watching the weather. We have friends who want to invest here, too, noting the influx of Californians and the popularity of local vineyards. Land isn’t cheap, but it is only getting more expensive. The farmer’s market is a busy place here. Perhaps there’s room for one more pair of crazy young people with a table full of the ripened labors of their love. Once we get it going, I fantasize, we’ll let the local college know that we’re seeking interns. We won’t pay much, but they’ll never be the same once they go for a walk through the fields in the early morning, taste the first ripe tomato of summer, and see a baby goat take its first shaky steps into life.